Sunday, September 18, 2011

Learning Lessons on A Lazy Sunday

As the weather has now unquestionably turned to Fall on the North Coast as most eyes turn (once again) to the seemingly (once again) moribund Browns and I attempt to discern which craft brewery puts out the best Oktoberfest beer (GLBC is in the lead, over Thirsty Dog and Brooklyn Brewery, with Bell’s in the queue) as the seasons are made for adapting your drinking, the Indians’ season marches on, if largely ignored. While the Oktoberfest tastings may be done with some sort of numbing effect in mind, given that the Tigers have now not only won the division, but are a mere 3 GB behind the Yankees for the best record in the AL as the Indians’ slide down the W-L record seems to be greased, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t things to be watching as the Tribe plays out the string here as they are hanging on in 2nd place (who had that in the pool) and are threatening to finish the season with a record over .500.

Those “things to be watching” don’t involve making major decisions for 2012 on the basis of a couple of weeks in September (Karim Garcia is somewhere with fond memories of his time as an Indian), but rather to see how the Indians can balance protecting some of the principal pieces, while giving those pieces some confidence going into next year and watching some of their young players down the stretch. Certainly, there seems to be some logic in just shutting some of these “veterans” down as there is absolutely no reason to risk further injury (ahem…The BLC) or watch inning counts mount unnecessarily (for Masterson for example as Clecago Joe suggested in the comments) in games that aren’t that important in the grand scheme of things. Of course, news broke late this week that the Indians do, in fact, plan on bringing Josh Tomlin back to likely start one of the games in an upcoming doubleheader. Maybe there is some level of credence to this whole “prove to oneself that they can be healthy going into the off-season”, but have we learned nothing this season?

If something can go wrong, health-wise, for this team, it will…then it will again. Do the Indians REALLY have to bring Josh Tomlin back, even just for a couple of innings, after what we saw time after time this season, with players being cleared to play because they passed all of the “tests” in place, only to see them struggle and eventually end up on the DL again?

Given the rotational depth (or lack thereof), I’m all for shutting Tomlin down, giving Masterson maybe one more start and resting Cabrera and Santana A LOT more than they’re being rested right now. Maybe that means that we’re watching a baseball team that looks more like the Clippers than the Indians for the final two weeks, but isn’t that how it’s been for a while? Give the guys that need continued reps in MLB (Chisenhall, Kipnis, Marson, Huff, Gomez, McAllister) the opportunity to play these final two weeks and stop worrying about giving a guy like Tomlin a chance to feel like he CAN come back to play again in 2011. As we found out with The BLC, the wishes of these guys to finish the season “on the field, not on the DL” are potentially counterproductive.

That being said, and with that as just the appetizer, let’s get off into a Lazy Sunday as we take a look at some of the young players that significantly figure into 2012. For some of those players, answers have presented themselves in 2011 and some that may be coming in 2012.. Seeing as how the 1B “issue” figures to evolve – with Jayson Stark identifying the Marlins as one of the probably “surprise” spenders this off-season…and where have I heard that before – throughout the off-season (so don’t just go ordering that Indians’ Gaby Sanchez jersey yet), and with plenty of time to talk about the options of Sizemore and Carmona that exist, 2011 saw a number of young players attempt to assert themselves in MLB. While the health of the walking wounded Wahoos may be more important for success in 2012, forget attempting to answer the questions of health (Brantley, Choo, Sizemore, Hafner) as I’m not going to attempt to wade into that muck of MRI’s and put-off surgeries. Rather, let’s get into the young players that saw their first major action in 2011 and what can be gleaned (if anything) from their performances as we get off on a Lazy One…

Starting off, remember that idea a few months ago, that there were a number of players in the lineup that entered 2011 with very few MLB plate appearances?
In case you forgot, as the team attempted to keep pace in the AL Central, they were doing so with a cast of characters full of guys still cutting their teeth in MLB:
Cabrera – 1,610 MLB plate appearances entering 2011 season
Brantley – 446 MLB plate appearances entering 2011 season
Hafner – 3,852 MLB plate appearances entering 2011 season
Santana – 192 MLB plate appearances entering 2011 season
LaPorta – 623 MLB plate appearances entering 2011 season
Chisenhall – 0 MLB plate appearances entering 2011 season
Carrera – 0 MLB plate appearances entering 2011 season
Kearns – 3,799 MLB plate appearances entering 2011 season
Kipnis – 0 MLB plate appearances entering 2011 season
Marson – 400 MLB plate appearances entering 2011 season

There are six guys on that list that had fewer than 450 MLB PA going into the season (Brantley, Santana, Chisenhall, Carrerra, Kipnis, and Marson) and since Carrerra and Marson figure to serve on the bench next year and since Brantley logged nearly 500 PA this year and has almost reached 1,000 career plate appearances (with a career OBP of .316…but that’s a topic for another day), let’s focus on the presumed starters going into next season that had fewer than 200 MLB PA coming into 2011 – The Axe Man, Kipnis, and The Chiz.

Despite a slow start (a couple of weeks, at least) and some defensive…um, transgressions, Santana has shown himself to be the potentially impactful bat that he was purported to be as he rose through the ranks of the Indians’ farm system. With his 25th HR yesterday, Santana tied the Indians’ record for HR by a switch-hitter (held by Victor) in his first full season in MLB. From April 28th through Friday night, Santana has a .836 OPS with 22 HR in 121 games, which projects out to a 30 HR season. While projections are just that, Santana is 4th in BB rate in the AL and while his K rate is concerning (in that it represents a stark departure from his MiLB numbers), there are 12 players in the AL with a K/BB rate better than that of Santana with an OPS over .800. They are Miggy Cabrera, Joey Bats, Ian Kinsler, Dustin PEDroia, David Ortiz, Paul Konerko, Victor Martinez, Nick Swisher, Casey Kotchman, and Evan Longoria.

The BB rate may not be all that impressive to some, but that list should be, particularly if you remember (again) that Santana is in his first full MLB season and that he’s likely to finish the season with the highest OPS on the team. Yes…I know Jason Kipnis has a higher OPS as does Shelley Duncan’s (in 1/3 of the plate appearances) but it could be argued (pretty easily) that The Axe Man was the Indians’ best hitter this year. Yes, his BA has been low, but as Joe Posnanski points out, the likely MVP of the AL has a BA of .264 and nobody’s made a peep about that, so maybe this antiquated idea that BA is even worth mentioning in the worth of a hitter is passing. Someday that notion will make its way to the pages of the PD, but even if you want to give some weight to BA, given that Santana has the 7th lowest BABIP in the AL, doesn’t it stand to reason that the still-25-year-old Santana has arrived as a hitting machine for the Tribe?

The Indians have had a lot go wrong this season and have a lot of questions that remain in their lineup, but Santana’s placement in the middle of that lineup (and it being justified by his 2011 performance) is not one of them as Santana is ready to anchor a lineup, something he’s really been doing since the beginning of May.

Heading down the 3B line from where The Axe Man dons his tools of ignorance (and will continue to), the question becomes whether another highly-touted Tribe prospect, Lonnie Chisenhall, is ready to consistently contribute in 2012. That answer is a little murkier as The Chiz has looked overwhelmed at times as he’s actually walking LESS than Orlando Cabrera did as an Indian…and that’s no small feat. In fact his BB/PA is the 2nd lowest in the AL, with only the notoriously free-swinging Vlad Guerrero “besting” The Chiz in that department. The reason that his low BB rate is a cause for concern is that Chisenhall had a respectable BB rate in MiLB and has struggled to have that translate to MLB.

It is worth noting that Chisenhall had a .779 OPS when he got in the face on July 8th, and had a sub-.600 OPS in the 40 games after he took a fastball off his cheekbone. After his recent hot streak (he has 5 XBH, 4 of which have been HR in his last 9 games), his OPS has crept back over the .700 mark. Certainly, more may have been expected from Chisenhall, given all of the hype that surrounded his Spring Training in particular, but The Chiz has looked like a 22-year-old who struggled to make the transition to MLB pitching, as so many young, talented players have done before him. What is interesting for Chisenhall is that there was some (deserved) concern over whether he would be able to handle LHP in MLB, as he had struggled against LHP in the Minors. Oddly enough, The Chiz has crushed LHP this year (.910 OPS vs. LHP) while struggling against RHP (.623 OPS vs. RHP) when the opposite was true throughout his MiLB career as Lonnie always struggled against LHP and thrived against RHP before arriving to the parent club.

Whether anything can truly be gleaned from that is unlikely as the small sample siren blares, but it would seem that Chisenhall could benefit from more “seasoning” at AAA at some point, perhaps to begin 2012. Whether he would start the season in Columbus next year remains to be seen, but the performance of Jack Hannahan (whose career and year is looked at in great detail by the always-terrific Ryan Richards here) in 2011 gives some comfort that the Indians may have a serviceable bridge in place to allow Chisenhall to develop at his own pace. The Chiz may not be completely ready to contribute at a high level to the Indians, but the signs (18 XBH in 182 PA) are there to allow the optimism to remain regarding Chisenhall’s impact, even if that impact is not in the immediate future.

Unlike Chisenhall, the one rookie who made an immediate impact on the Tribe was Lonnie’s infield-mate, Jason Kipnis, whose ranks in the AL (rookie or not) provide some perspective as to the level at which Kipnis performed once he was promoted. Now, it should be noted that Kipnis will be 25 years old next April, so he is a much older “young” player than Chisenhall, but unlike at 3B, the Indians do not have a veteran player (any more) that would prevent the team from giving Kipnis the 2B job from here on out. Yes, Donald and Phelps still exist in the 2B mix, but those two seem to be competing to become a Utility IF for this team going forward as Kipnis asserted himself in a manner in which it’s not hard to picture him at the top of the order for the foreseeable future.

Kipnis’ skill at the plate, his hustle, and his talent were obvious from the time that he arrived in Cleveland and, much like the performance of Santana, his 2011 seasonprovides a glimpse of what should be a productive career for Kipnis as an Indian. With the revolving door that 2B has been spinning since Robbie Alomar made his way to the Big Apple, Kipnis may actually finally settle the position for the Indians and provide some production from 2B that Indians’ fans haven’t been accustomed to in quite some time. Kipnis, like Santana, is likely to sit at the top-to-middle-of-the-lineup from the next few years and figures to be a major cog in the offense going forward, which is more than most would have wished for when the season started.

Speaking of expectations when the season started, how many people would have assumed that Josh Tomlin would have a guaranteed spot in the 2012 rotation, with another spot likely to be filled by Huff, Gomez, or McAllister?

With White and Pomz in the system when the 2011 season started, it was assumed that those arms would have been leapfrogged with perhaps ONE of the Tomlin/Huff/Gomez/ McAllister pile factoring in past 2011, but with the Ubaldo deal, it would seem that the rotation figures to be filled by two of the aforementioned names. Maybe Mitch Talbot reappears at some point, but if Tomlin figures to have one rotation spot locked down (assuming nothing goes SPROING in his elbow…and this is me knocking on wood) with the hope that the April and May Tomlin is going to eventually win over the July and August Tomlin, the Indians will have one spot to fill in their rotation internally, with the likely candidates of Gomez, Huff, and McAllister all making their cases down the stretch in 2011.

Certainly, the most impressive (in MLB) this season has been Jeanmar Gomez, but is Gomez really ready to capture a rotational spot and not relinquish it because of his underwhelming “stuff”?
It is true that he has a sub-4.00 ERA over 47 2/3 IP and he posted a 2.55 ERA in Columbus this year and though it’s fairly obvious that he will never be a big K guy and a high WHIP guy that lives dangerously, it’s easy to forget that he’s 23 years old. Right now, he’s about average (his ERA+ this year is 100), under club-control for a while (meaning he can ride the I-71 Shuttle if necessary) and if the idea is that he can fill out the back-end-of-a-rotation adequately exists, he is likely to be given the first shot at a 2012 spot in the rotation. Assuming his leg injury from Saturday is a minor one (and he’s reportedly not expected to miss a start), Gomez can attempt to build upon the momentum that he’s finishing September with to see if that can translate into a spot in the rotation in 2012.

It is worth noting that Gomez has gone through these periods of effectiveness before (he had a 3.07 ERA through his first 8 starts in 2010, only to see the wheels come off) and his last four starts (in which he’s excelled) have come against Oakland, Chicago, Kansas City, and Minnesota, but Gomez is positioning himself for a spot in the rotation next year. Remembering that he is still just 23 and realizing that his AAA were as good as any in the International League this year (although another 23-year-old Clipper was impressive too), it’s not impossible to see Gomez fitting into the back-end-of-the-rotation for the Tribe. If he falters, he gets sent down to Columbus for the next “hot hand”, but if he excels, the Indians could perhaps get some production from their 5th spot in the rotation without having to spend millions of dollars to do so, saving that money for more pressing needs.

In terms of that other “23-year-old Clipper that was impressive too”, there was an interesting comment from Ross Atkins at IPI as Atkins had this to say about Zach McAllister:
Zach is much more than just a contributing piece to this puzzle for us. I think he is going to be in the middle of a rotation for a long time and there are a lot of people who think that. I know Zach thinks that and that is probably the most important person. He has things not everyone has. He has a three pitch mix, sometimes four. He is durable, he is very strong, he is very intelligent, and he has the work ethic and the passion which are the standards that are elevating. When you look back at Fausto Carmona when he was 20 years old or Jake Westbrook when he was 22-23 years old and breaking into the Major Leagues, they were not exactly seamless transitions.

Now, Atkins is usually good for plotting out the best-case scenario for these guys, but Westbrook is an interesting comp here if you look at what each did in their age-appropriate seasons, both in AAA:
Jake – 2001 AAA (Age 23)
3.20 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 6.3 K/9, 3.2 BB/9, 1.96 K/BB in 64 2/3 IP

McAllister – 2011 AAA (Age 23)
3.28 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 7.4 K/9, 1.8 BB/9, 4.13 K/BB in 154 2/3 IP

Remember, the “light” didn’t really go off for Westbrook until 2003 as he was still the long man/swing starter for those Indians’ teams of the early 2000s before he took off in the middle of 2003. In fact, in Westbrook’s first 3 seasons in MLB (113 IP), he had a 6.43 ERA and a 1.61 WHIP as he struggled to find success in MLB. Don’t take that to mean that McAllister is going to eventually have the career that Westbrook has, but both are groundball pitchers and McAllister’s size (he’s 6’6”, 240 lbs.) is intriguing in his ability to throw on a downward plane.

That’s not to say that McAllister will be ready to contribute from Day 1 in 2012 as he certainly has looked completely overwhelmed in his first two starts for the Indians (he allowed 19 baserunners while tallying 22 outs), but McAllister is interesting because of his youth and the numbers that he put forth in Columbus this year, which compare favorably among starters in AAA. Perhaps he takes as long as Westbrook did to put it all together (although if he follows the same path, he won’t contribute in the rotation until 2013), but McAllister’s numbers in AAA this year (put up at age 23) show that there is talent there. Whether that talent translates may find an answer in 2012.

In terms of talent translating, will the David Huff that some (OK…me) saw back in 2008 ever arrive in Cleveland and consistently contribute?
Too many words and too much thought has been spent on Dave Huff in this space (and others) without a real clear idea of whether Huff has figured it out or if he’s ever going to figure it out and become – at the very least – a viable back-end-of-the-rotation starter. There are starts in which you see his fastball command, his new shortened wind-up, and his aggressiveness all lead to his effectiveness, making it easy to envision him as a player that should be handed the ball every 5th day. Then, there are starts in which you see him nibbling, missing off the plate, getting hammered, and looking like he will never stick in the Tribe’s rotation.

What’s disconcerting about that is that, for players like Gomez and McAllister – still adjusting to MLB and still young – those growing pains are to be expected, but with Huff (now 27 and with more than 250 MLB IP), you have to wonder if this is just who he is. Certainly, the hope is there that LHP take a little longer to develop and the cautionary tale of giving up on a highly-touted LHP is there in the form of CP Lee (though Lee in 2007 and Huff of today are nowhere near to equal footing, in terms of accomplishments or expectations), but it certainly feels like Huff will continue to tease us of what “could be” for a while, instead of asserting himself as “being” as most hope he will.

What does the performance of those three in 2011 mean for 2012?
That’s hard to say, and it becomes a question of whether any of these guys going to perform better than Mitch Talbot has in the last couple of years. One would certainly hope so, but there isn’t one pitcher in that troika that elicits a lot of confidence to step into the rotation in 2012 and succeed (even at a level commensurate with that of a 5th starter) on a consistent basis. With Cookie out with TJ, with Carmona being Carmona and with Tomlin…um, stumbling down the stretch (5.28 ERA, .778 OPS against since May 27th), that’s kind of a terrifying idea going into next season, given that the advantage that a team like the Indians needs to exploit is with their pitching.

Is there another Josh Tomlin on the periphery to surprise us?
Though I think that the question of whether Josh Tomlin is even able to hold down a rotational spot throughout 2012, could a guy like Paolo Espino who, according to Ross Atkins via IPI, is a similar pitcher to Tomlin, come on and surprise the organization in the way that Tomlin did?

There may be some hope for LHP Scott Barnes (and his 107 K in 99 IP), but there’s some major concern past Masterson and Ubaldo (not to mention concern for Ubaldo that lingers) in the rotation. Does that mean that the Indians add another arm to the rotational mix?

At this point, I’d say maybe if you figure that the starting five is Masterson, Ubaldo, Carmona, Tomlin, and some amalgamation of Gomez/Huff/McAllister/Some Guy. After seeing Tomlin’s ERA since the end of May and with the knowledge that Fausto (whose option they almost have to pick up) is…well, Fausto, the Indians’ rotation (past the top two) merits a long look this off-season and the answers that the Indians need on their young pitchers aren’t going to come in a couple of weeks in September. With starting pitchers, answers reveal themselves over months and seasons, not individual starts or weeks. Thus, the questions that are being asked now about the Indians’ young starters are likely going to persist well into 2012.

As for the bullpen arms that figure to populate the September box scores, I’m not about to draw conclusions, as I don’t know a lot about Judy or Hagadone, much less Putnam. From the eye test (the sample sizes are painfully small), Judy has failed to impress and Hagadone’s talent is obvious, as are his strike-throwing issues. Perhaps the Indians can find another Pestano from that group for 2011 with the hope that Pestano (and Sipp and Joe Smith) can replicate their 2011 success for another year. In the world of bullpens – where success is fleeting and nothing is guaranteed from one year to the next – a guy like CC Lee can emerge from nowhere to play a role in a 2012 bullpen or he could go the way of Fernando Cabrera and Jensen Lewis…as could Vinnie Pestano.

As has been stated many times, the pieces that we’ve seen shuffling towards Cleveland have essentially arrived (or are getting their first cup of coffee this September) in the lineup, the rotation, and the bullpen. There were some major steps taken by important players in 2011 and 2012 needs to be filled with more of the same pleasant developmental surprises if the Indians are going to contend (again) next year. Though this is preaching to the choir, the Indians don’t have the luxury of just filling holes by writing checks (without possible complications down the road), as other teams may and though it looks like the chess pieces have been lined up on the board for the Indians, the Tribe needs the players that have now arrived to perform at a level that has been predicted for them.

Success won’t be universal for these young players that have arrived or that figure to arrive, but internal augmentation is still going to have to play a factor here if the Indians are going to be able to use the 2011 season as the jumping-off point for contention in 2012.

As the 2011 winds to a slow finish, it is obvious that on some days, that 2012 contention next year is easy to see. Other days, not so much…


Red Right 88 said...

If you can find it, Left Hand Brewing's Oktoberfest is highly recommended.

Paul Cousineau said...

I haven't seen the Left Hand one yet, but the Heninen's by me is REALLY coming correct in their collection of Oktoberfests this fall, so I'll look for the Left Hand one this week.

Their Pilsner is great, and the Sawtoooth is pretty good, so I'd love to find that Oktoberfest.

Adam said...

Great column as usual Paul. In my opinion, the emergence of Tomlin this year is the best story line (and there are many to choose from) of the year. Setting aside the obvious faltering down the stretch it was truly a joy to watch him pitch this year. True, his stuff is underwhelming, but the guy simply flat-out knows how to pitch. He is a strike throwing machine, and at times was able to demonstrate sensational command and accuracy, specifically the game he pitched against the Yankees that Kearns ending up winning with the homer. Not only did he not back down or get intimidated by the Yankees, he throttled them, relentlessly pounding the strike zone with his arsenal of pitches. What simply stands out to me watching Tomlin is that “he gets it”. I specifically remember the article you linked to on your site analyzing Tomlin and drawing the “poor man’s Greg Maddux” analogy. And I don’t think this comparsion is absurd. When you look around the MLB landscape there are not many pitchers that really know how to pitch. There certainly are plenty of guys with blazing fastballs and huge sweeping sliders and terrific stuff, but not many pitchers out there who understand that you have to throw strikes and get ahead to be successful. Or maybe they all understand this concept but are a long way from putting the rubber to the road.

At any rate, I thoroughly enjoyed watching Tomlin pitch in let’s not forget his FIRST full year in MLB. I look forward to seeing the guy in the rotation for years to come.

Halifax said...

The pitching was a strength, but with Carrasco going down it concerns me.

Tomlin attacks hitters, that's good.

Huff...I'm not sure what to think.

Carmona -- I would've said deal him in the off-season for a hitter, but now I think they need to keep him.

Masterson -- Truly great this year, but with high innings load, can he do it again?

Jimenez -- scary deal, especially when watching Pomz shine in his first two starts, but Drew has far to go as an established pitcher. Ubaldo is 3-1 with a 2.78 ERA in his last five starts. That's an encouraging sign.

They need to either restructure Grady or let him go, you can't sink 8.5 M into his fragile body now. Take 8M and go get a really good RH bat.