Sunday, August 05, 2012

A Lazy Sunday When A Plan Goes Awry

And just like that, it was gone…
In the course of about 10 days, the Indians’ 2012 season has not only flown off of the tracks – it has now exploded into a fiery mess, leaving scorched earth all around it, threatening to burn anything remotely close to it, with everyone running for safety or attempting to explain how this could have possibly happened so profoundly and so quickly.

The descent has been meteoric and horrifying and in the course of those 10 days, the thought of contending in 2012 became regrettable, then laughable, with the entire team, organization, Front Office, and ownership so acutely in the crosshairs of a fanbase and a city that it’s jarring to think about the fact that the Indians were 2 ½ games back in the AL Central after beating Verlander and the Tigers.  As a result, the usual chorus of naysayers has been joined by a much more concerning anthem of doubt from even the staunchest of defenders of the teardown of 2008/2009 and the build-up to today.

Because what happened after that “Verlander Game” was the bottom falling out (in Minnesota, then KC…no less) with the inactivity at the Trading Deadline thrown in for good measure as every fan watching ESPN’s Bottom Line became depressed, then enraged, at watching the Indians stand pat as 4PM on Tuesday came…then went.  Because the Trading Deadline sat right in the middle of those two series in Minnesota and Kansas City (ones that I used to point out not that long ago to assert – laughably so in hindsight – that maybe the season wasn’t lost just yet), the Indians’ worst week on the field in recent memory coincided with their worst week off the field since Vic and CP Lee packed up their things and headed out of town.

If you think I’m being hyperbolic about how quickly things changed, realize that this was the intro to John Perrotto’s always terrific “On the Beat” at B-Pro earlier this week:
The Indians, if for a fleeting moment last Thursday night, seemed to have seized the type of momentum that might vault them to the top of the American League Central standings. Trailing the visiting Tigers and Justin Verlander, 3-1, in the seventh inning, the Indians struck for four runs, including back-to-back home runs from catcher Carlos Santana and designated hitter Travis Hafner, two players Indians manager Manny Acta said needed to increase their production during his pre-game meeting with the media, and went on to a stunning 5-3 victory.

“Our best win of the season,” Indians second baseman Jason Kipnis said, and it was hard to argue. The win drew the Indians within 2.5 games of both the Tigers and White Sox, who were tied for the AL Central lead.

Yet Acta warned not to get too excited about one victory. “With the way we’ve played this season,” Acta said, “we’re fortunate to be in the position we are in. We’re going to have to play better the rest of the season if we’re going to win this division.”

The Indians didn’t exactly heed Acta’s word. They followed their stirring victory with five consecutive losses, getting swept in a three-game series by the Twins in Minneapolis, then losing twice to the Royals in Kansas City.

The Indians now find themselves seven games behind the White Sox and four games behind the Tigers in the division, and also six games out in the AL wild-card standings. While the Indians didn’t tear apart their club by dealing players like closer Chris Perez and right fielder Shin-Soo Choo at Tuesday’s non-waiver trading deadline, they also did not make any roster upgrades.

The lack of movement was not surprising. In days leading up to the deadline, general manager Chris Antonetti said, “Any moves we make will be designed to help us in both 2012 and 2013.” So with it beginning to look like it is “wait until next year” for the Indians, the White Sox hold a three-game lead over the Tigers in what figures to be a two-team race in the AL Central.

Read that opening again (and read the whole piece really, as he has some great quotes from scouts on Maholm, Vargas, Headley, and Lowe that are fascinating with the benefit of hindsight) and think back to that night a couple of Thursdays ago – Hafner and Santana hitting HR against Verlander, “our best win of the season”, and so on and so on – and realize that just a week later, the Indians were starting Corey Kluber against the cellar-dwelling Royals, with the worst record in the AL, and getting outlasted by a team that is so grossly mismanaged by Ned Yost and is painfully short on pitching…yet somehow doesn’t look that much worse than the current Tribe team.

And because of the precipitous fall off of the cliff, everything came into question – and justifiably so – in the course of just over a week, from the off-season that looks painfully regrettable, to (again) questioning what exactly ownership and the Front Office are doing in terms of a plan, and ultimately where this team is going in the short and the long term.  After last season’s trade for Ubaldo that seemed to signal a newfound aggressiveness at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario, the Indians slinked back into an all-too-familiar mode of preaching patience in a “plan” and getting through a seemingly open “window of contention” when all visible signs pointed to skepticism…or worse.

Suddenly, in just over a week, all of the rhetoric that had been spoken since CC was sent off to the Cream City and since Vic and Lee headed off towards the East Coast – that a group of similarly-aged and similarly-controlled players of talent would head the next contention group – looked ill-conceived because the players that the Indians looked to be leaning on looked bright in some spots and dull in others and largely average on the whole.  After nearly “boasting” a .500 team last year, the 2012 team looked to be similarly aged and similarly talented…but just “averagely” talented, something pointed out over a month ago.

As this realization crept in, the terror of being just “average” for this “window” descended upon the region as the rotation continued to blow up and the offense scuffled, looking like it needed more than just “one big RH bat”.  And while it’s worth a major analysis of what has happened since that fateful day in late July of 2009, when El Capitan sat in front of his locker, crying for the place he was leaving, the constant mention of that “one big RH bat” sticks with me and it’s something that has stuck with me, particularly this season.  It sticks with me because as people continue to bemoan what’s happening in LF or (wrongly) cast their frustration upon Casey Kotchman, the Indians DID have that “big RH bat” in their long-term plans for this team when the rebuild started in earnest, it’s just one that never arrived…in fact, it’s still sitting in Columbus more than 4 years after arriving.  And because Matt LaPorta never arrived as that middle-of-the-order RH presence to play either LF or 1B (and this indecision became part of the problem), the current team was left incomplete and, lacking a secondary plan, exposed.  Because once they put all of their “big RH bat” eggs into LaPorta’s basket, once all those eggs were strewn about, broken and a mess, they had no other direction to go towards.

While I realize that this is a topic that I’ve beaten to death (then took a couple of more kicks at) over the years, when the Indians made their moves to trade CC, Vic, and Lee, they attempted to find answers for 1B/LF (LaPorta), LF/CF (Brantley), SP (Carrasco, Masterson), while building bench depth (Marson, Donald) and taking some fliers on some young arms (Bryson, Hagadone, Price, Knapp).  Certainly, I’m not going to sit here and analyze those deals on the whole again today, but it is worth noting that the failure of Carrasco and LaPorta to be on this 2012 team is what ultimately sunk this team…because the Indians cast their lot with those two as highly-regarded youngsters to front their rotation and anchor their lineup and what this 2012 team needs is…wait for it…someone at the top of their rotation and in the middle of their lineup.

Though I’m not sure many people remember this, Carrasco was LIGHTS-OUT last June and his importance on the team going forward was no great secret as this was written in this space last June:
That said, it all starts – and has started – with Masterson and Carrasco starting to show the potential as legitimate pillars of a rotation and (this is important) seeing that “potential” actually turn into production, something that has started to materialize this year…How the right arms perform in the coming weeks and months will play a role in whether the Tribe is able to pull themselves out of this tailspin and whether they can assert themselves once again as an AL Central contender. 

Of course, we all know by now that Jimenez was added to that cadre of “arms” about a month later, but everyone realizes that Carlos Carrasco’s last start as an Indian came 3 days after the Indians added Ubaldo, right?

With Carrasco’s personal catcher (Marson) in tow, he had the look of a blossoming front-of-the-rotation starter but – as young pitchers often do – Carrasco went down and the Indians were stuck with the likes of Tomlin, Huff, and Talbot to carry them down the stretch last year and, short of any compelling options in the upper minors, going with a similarly uninspiring middle-to-back-end-of-the-rotation in 2012 because once Carrasco’s elbow went “SPROING”, the Indians simply didn’t have another arm that matched his potential sitting there, something made more pronounced with White and Pomz dealt less than a week earlier.

But even more than Carrasco’s injury and absence in 2012 hurting the team, the fact that the Indians are playing Kotchman and Damon/Duncan/Cunningham/Rottino/Zeke in their everyday lineup while the lineup aches for a RH presence in the middle, the stalled development of Matt LaPorta is so glaring in hindsight as he was supposed to be either the 1B or the LF (and again, that indecision may have played a role in his stalled development) that it’s worth taking a look back to a time when this rebuild/reload/whatever started some 4+ years ago.

Because with the Trade Deadline deals of 2012 now consummated and being analyzed, it’s worth revisiting where LaPorta sat in the mid-season prospect rankings in 2008, at least according to Matthew Pouliat (now of Hardball Talk) as Pouliat wrote this of the Indians’ newest acquisition:
5. Matt LaPorta - OF Indians - DOB: 01/08/85 - ETA: Sept. 2008
Previous rankings: 2008 #14
.288/.402/.576, 20 HR, 66 RBI, 63/45 K/BB in 302 AB (AA Huntsville)
.375/.375/.563, 1 HR, 4 RBI, 4/0 K/BB in 16 AB (AA Akron)

Baseball teams still aren’t allowed to trade draft picks, but the Brewers certainly had their eyes open to the possibility of dealing LaPorta from the moment they made him the seventh overall selection last season. David Price, Matt Wieters and perhaps Rick Porcello have to be the only other 2007 first-rounders Cleveland would have looked at as a fair return for CC Sabathia, and all three of them cost much more than LaPorta in the form of a signing bonus. The Indians have left LaPorta in the outfield since picking him up, but he’s likely to overtake Ryan Garko next year and establish himself as the team’s long-term first baseman. He gives it his all, but he just doesn’t have the range to be of much use in left or right. His bat could make him an All-Star in his best years. Besides the obvious 30- to 35-homer power, he possesses a fine eye at the plate that could lead to OBPs in the .380-.400 range. 

That was written 4 years ago and I admittedly bolded that last sentence just to evoke a long sigh, which I’m sure you’re letting loose right now…

Regardless, go back to that mid-season ranking in 2008 and realize that ahead of LaPorta on that list were Price, Kershaw, Rasmus, and Wieters with Scherzer, Andrus, Maybin, Heyward, and Porcello rounding out the Top 10. 

Independent of the names around him, what’s most interesting in this write-up to me is the idea that the Tribe was using him in LF when he arrived, but there was an assumption that he would likely end up at 1B…which is a point with LaPorta’s stalled development that I don’t think gets enough attention.  Forget those Votto-esque projections that are up there (and you have to remember that this was a widely accepted outlook for LaPorta’s offensive future…even if there were unquestionably critics and skeptics) and remember that the Indians put most/all of their eggs in LaPorta’s basket.  And now, getting nothing from 1B AND LF when they were banking on from LaPorta to produce from one of those positions and in the middle-of-the-lineup, you start to see how much this “miss” hurt the Tribe (present tense) and how their indecision on WHERE to play him may have cost them dearly. 

Because lost in the disappointment of Matt LaPorta (present tense) is the fact that he crushed AAA pitching in 2009 in AAA (.299 BA / .388 OBP / .530 SLG / .917 OPS) as a 24-year-old in Columbus and while you may already be rolling your eyes with “Quad-A” in your head, remember that he came up and played in 52 games for the 2009 Tribe.  During that 2009 season, he experienced some success, posting a .750 OPS (he would not post a season with a higher OPS in coming seasons) and hitting 20 XBH in less than 200 PA.

But, as usual with the Cleveland Indians, as they finished up a largely inconsequential 2009 season, something was about to go horribly for LaPorta and for the Tribe.  In case you don’t know what I’m referring to – or have forgotten (and I did) – here’s the write-up of LaPorta’s injuries as the 2009 season drew to a close:
Matt LaPorta limped his way through the final weeks of the 2009 season because of a lingering left hip issue. And hyperextending his left big toe while running into the wall at Fenway Park on the last day of the season didn’t exactly help his health.
LaPorta, slated to be a regular in the Indians’ lineup at first base and/or the corner outfield positions next season, had two surgical procedures performed in Vail, Colo., on Tuesday to address both matters. As a result, LaPorta, who will need four to six months to recover from the surgeries, will likely be behind in Spring Training camp and perhaps at the start of the 2010 regular season.

A key acquisition in the 2008 trade that sent CC Sabathia to the Brewers, LaPorta had a left arthroscopic hip surgery performed by Dr. Marc Philippon, and he also had his left big toe joint stabilized with sutures by Dr. Thomas Clanton.

“There is a real possibility that Matt will be behind at the start of Spring Training and potentially the start of the year,” head athletic trainer Lonnie Soloff said. “But he shoudn’t miss a great amount of time, if he misses any at all.”

Soloff said the big toe injury, which is commonly referred to as “turf toe,” was the more serious of the two. LaPorta was chasing down a home run ball when his foot slammed into the wall, causing the injury and ending his season a few innings earlier than expected.  The great toe is the last body part to contact the ground with running activities,” Soloff said. “That being said, the success rate of surgery with the effective rehab is higher when the injury is addressed acutely. So, in Matt’s case, it was. It was handled approximately eight days after the injury occurred.”

Now, it should be noted that LaPorta suffered that toe injury in the last game of the season, when he was inexplicably in LF in Fenway (Andy Marte was the 1B that day) and it seems that the toe injury isn’t the only one that occurred from LaPorta being bounced around the field…and I don’t just mean him playing LF on the final day of the 2009 season.  Because this is how Eric Wedge explained LaPorta’s lingering hip issue on September 24, 2009…or a little less than 2 weeks before Wedge put him in LF in Fenway, where LaPorta suffered the toe injury:
“I’ll tell you what happened. I guarantee you it’s from him moving from the outfield to the infield. It’s happened before. You’re using different muscles at first base. You’re doing a lot more squatting, a lot more bending. I’m sure that had something to do with it.”

When LaPorta was called up from Class AAA Columbus, he played 21 of 23 games in left field (17 games) or right field (four). He didn’t make the move to first base until Sept. 14 when the Indians were in Minneapolis.

“There’s no way to do it any differently,” Wedge said. “There’s no transition to it.”

In case you can’t tell, there is an onus of blame that belongs on somebody’s shoulders for the indecision in his position and ultimately in putting him in the OF that day in Boston (again, Andy Marte was playing 1B) on the last day of 2009, with an injured hip no less, when he broke his toe running into the wall.  And while I’m not going to sit here and say that LaPorta was destined for greatness and was done in by positional uncertainty or from doing “a lot more squatting, a lot more bending” when they moved him to 1B, he actually had a decent 2009, and I have this sneaking suspicion that toe injury (and the hip injury) changed the way he swung and changed the course of his career, to the point that he’s an afterthought for the Tribe’s future plans today.  Maybe pitch recognition had as much to do with his stalled development as anything else, but the “headliner” in the CC deal didn’t thrive in MLB the way that most predicted that he would and he finds himself among a glut of older “prospects” in AAA looking for a chance that probably isn’t going to come to them, or at least for longer than a few weeks down the stretch here.

But while teeth are gnashed and wails are heard throughout the North Coast as to why the Indians found themselves where they did in the off-season, gambling on Grady staying healthy, picking up Fauxberto’s option, trading for Lowe, and signing Kotchman then Damon, what gets lost is that the best-laid plans were there for LaPorta and Carrasco to be on this team by now and the Indians simply lacked – largely as a result of the extended poor drafting planning or other “constraints” – suitable back-up plans that led them to add the players that we saw them add this past off-season.  Because for every Kipnis and Perez/Pestano that arrives and thrives and for every Brantley and Masterson that takes those necessary steps towards effectiveness, there are an equal amount of players that “stall” or get injured or simply don’t meet expectations.

For the Indians, two of the three big trades that they made in 13 months were supposed to address the glaring issues in the future of their starting rotation and for their organizational crevasses at OF and 1B…glaring issues that still exist as Carrasco eyes a rehab start (hopefully soon) with a 2013 return as the target and as LaPorta wails away in Huntington Park, and nowhere else…with some awful July numbers to boot.  While “everyone” plots out the path to success for the Indians as “building with young players and locking them up as they’re able”, when those players that are assumed to be a cog in either the lineup or the rotation fail to come through on expectations – be it via talent or injury – the Indians are stuck grasping at straws…“straws” that this year were named Lowe and Damon.

The other option to fill those voids created by injury or disappointment is to attempt to find useful players to fill out the rotation and/or lineup from unexpected places and that’s what we’re about to see for the remainder of the season as Zach McAllister will look to establish himself in the way another former Yankee prospect (Jake Westbrook) did with the last incarnation of the “winning” Tribe and the pitcher acquired for the aforementioned Westbrook (Corey Kluber) attempts to make enough of an impression where he asserts himself into the rotation going forward in a manner that hasn’t happened consistently enough since that dark day in July of 2009.  Similarly, we’ll see Zeke Carrerra and maybe Tim Fedroff get a chance in LF and some amalgamation of Canzler/LaPorta/Anderson/etc. get some time in the LF/1B/DH role as the Indians try to see if one of their long-standing organizational “holes” can be filled by a surprising player the way that Coco Crisp did back in the 2004 season.

But short of having those points of “interest”, it certainly feels like the string will be played out in a Tribe season that not too long ago looked like one in which they could have contended.  And while that was only “visible” by squinting awfully hard and ignoring the obvious holes on the team, to know why those holes existed is not simply attributable to an off-season in which opportunities were missed (though they were) and during which long-shot gambles were placed on admittedly flawed players.   

Rather those holes were created by players that the Indians were counting on simply not staying healthy and/or effective enough to arrive with the rest of the assembled talent currently in place and the Indians’ lack of a back-up plan (and poor drafting that created the massive holes that needed to be filled when they made the CC/Vic/Lee deals with the onus of blame for the situation squarely on the organization) for those possibilities and their inability to find that “lightning in a bottle” that they all too frequently seem to be chasing.  With very little about to ascend to the parent club – outside of the players you’re about to see – and with no obvious answers to some very hard questions, it’s going to be an interesting time to see how the Indians approach the final months of the season and their off-season.

Because after the last 10 days or so, everything seems to lead to a question with the organization – from the team, to the Front Office, and to ownership – and answers are unfortunately what seem to be in short supply.


Cleveland Fan said...

Great stuff as usual. What do you think would have happened if the "team" woke up the morning after the win against Verlander and
the front office had added a real player to the mix. Weather this was a decent pitcher or the "bat"
we have all been waiting and praying for? The players are only human and they have to know that the team really is not good enough to compete the way it is now. Of course they will all say the right things, and never admit this. But they are only human, and it seems to me that they have gone into a funk and basically given up. They seem to feel that weather it be ownership, who won't spend the money, or the front office who won't pull the trigger on a trade, the season is over. This is what it looks like to the fans who won't and will continue to not show up. I wonder if making a move at the deadline might have changed both the players attitude and the fans also.

Adam Van Arsdale said...

I don't know. Last season the Indians made the big move, acquiring Ubaldo on July 30th, and proceeded to go 3-5 over the next 10 days, and played essentially .500 ball throughout August.

Paul Cousineau said...

Right, it's hard to predict what might have happened because they made that move last year and it didn't force a big change in momentum. Maybe some of that is on Ubaldo (or the fact that Carrasco went down so soon after the move), but it didn't have the desired effect last year, on the team or the fans.

Bearcatbob said...

What this team has gotten from LF this year is worse than what we have previously gotten from the supposed horid LaPorta. It is very hard to understand.

Hyde said...

It's going to be a long, long time--think decades--before the Indians ever make another prospects-for-star trade like the Jimenez trade. Never mind that what we traded for Jimenez has yet to accomplish anything at the major league level, or that this team's history offers ample proof that going the other way and trading veterans for prospects is no sure thing (case in point: Alex Escobar is STILL just 33 years old, while Andy Marte is only 28). For that segment of the fanbase that seems to care as much about not "overspending" as it does about winning, last year's trade is considered a cautionary tale on what not to do; and this front office, always eager to find excuses not to do things, will no doubt take it the same way.

Despite how disappointing as LaPorta has been, I don't know why he wouldn't be in the DH mix for next season. He's a better hitter than last winter's "big acquisition" (Kotchman), so it stands to reason he will also be better than anyone we would conceivably sign this coming offseason to replace Hafner.

My hope now is that this season ends so badly that it will force even the glacial likes of the Dolans to finally clean house, by which I mean everyone from Shapiro on down (it would be long overdue in his case). I don't blame all this on Manny Acta, but this looks like a textbook case of a team that has quit on its manager.

MTF said...

I'm not leaping to "fire everyone!", but I do believe the winter player additions need to be reviewed. While no one contract was big enough to constitute a big gamble in and of itself, the percentage of payroll eventually devoted to useless players has been significant (especially when Hafners numbers are included). Those decisions are arguably worse than the trade decisions.

Halifax said...

This season is eerily similar to 2011. I'd like to see some key dates and standings that correlate.

LaPorta should have been up here since he was here earlier this season. As bad as he has been, it is still better than what is here hitting .220 with little pop.

Dolan needs to sell and housecleaning does need to happen. When you look at money spent on Grady, Lowe and Damon it would easily would have paid for Josh Willingham's 2012, which the Tribe failed to lure because they wouldn't commit to a third year. If you can't give a guy who fills your most glaring need a third year in a critical window of opportunity because of financial restraints, why bother playing at all?

Adam said...

I hate to be bleak, but its times like this that make me think that we will never get as close as we were in 2007 again. We truly had the best team that year it was magical. Everything from the return of Lofton to Fausto/Roberto's awesome playoff run, to Peralta's awesome postseason. If only Skinner had not stopped Lofton. One can only reflect on what might have been...

Cy Slapnicka said...

funny, as soon as i started reading your comment i immediately thought of skinner and the stop sign...