Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Breaking Down the Mitchell Report

I wasn’t quite sure what to make of the Mitchell Report leading up to its release. I didn’t know much about George Mitchell (other than he was a former senator with ties to the Red Sox), but I knew plenty about our good friend Bud Selig. Mr. Selig’s track record in dealing with steroids has been less than stellar in the past, so my expectations for the report were fairly low. I don’t think many people were expecting a lot of new information or any big names to end up in the final draft; who had Mitchell been talking to with that kind of information? The inclusion of Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, Miguel Tejada, and others seemed to catch everyone off-guard and has been the main attraction thus far (more on that later).

On the New Drug Policy


I watched Mitchell’s press conference live and came away impressed with what was outlined by the lead author of the report. In his speech, Mitchell presented the keystones of the new drug policy he created for Major League Baseball. I’ve highlighted the ideas behind the proposed drug policy found in the report:

1.) The Commissioner’s Office should place a higher priority on investigations based on “non-testing” evidence. This means following up on those warning signs and rumors of use that were ignored by baseball executives, staff, and players in the past. These investigations could be discreet and anonymous, but the knowledge that a player could be reported by his peers for cheating may act as a strong deterrent to many would-be dopers. At the very least, illegal substances would be pushed out of Major League clubhouses, which is a positive step in preventing their use from spreading amongst players.

Mitchell suggested a Department of Investigations within MLB, the formation of an anonymous tip hotline, increased cooperation with law enforcement officials investigating illegal drug use, and an improvement of the communication of each MLB club’s drug policy to its players.

2.) MLB should improve their anti-doping educational programs. A better educational program on the damaging effects and risks of doping to a player’s health and career could prevent players on the brink from making a poor decision. Many players are tempted to cheat, but could also choose to forgo illegal substances if they were properly informed. The educational program would be expanded to reach young athletes outside of MLB, as well.

It is suggested that clubs present the risks of doping to their players during spring training through testimonials. MLB currently uses player and expert testimonials to discourage gambling by its players and could use a similar program for doping. In the report, Dr. Jay Hoffman (PED expert) proposes a program that provides players with effective alternatives to PED use through safe and legal supplements, nutrition, and training. Players may not always respond to the negative health warnings, since they may not know anyone who has experienced these effects first-hand. This stubborn attitude makes knowledge of other options important for young players. Ethical and moral consequences should also be paired with the potentially devastating effects PEDs may have on a player's reputation and career.

3.) MLB’s drug testing policy should be executed by an independent testing agency. The best way enforce a world-class drug testing policy is to hand over the administrative work and actual testing to a professional organization. Independent testing would also add an efficiency, legitimacy, and parity to the results that MLB has not had before. The program should also be transparent to the public in the form of reports and audits, while maintaining the players’ privacy.

It is recommended that the new policy be active year round and employ “best practices as they develop” to keep up with the constantly evolving market for illegal performance enhancing substances.

The above information can be found under the Recommendations section starting on page 285 of the Mitchell Report (pg. 333 of the PDF file).

As I said, I came away satisfied with the new drug policy Mitchell proposed. The primary elements of the policy are based on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s (WADA) current code. WADA oversees the anti-doping policy administered for the Olympic Games and is viewed as the international standard for monitoring and preventing illegal substance use among athletes.

If the Commissioner’s Office and the Players’ Association can find a way to embrace Mitchell’s recommendations, baseball will have one of the premier anti-doping policies in professional sports. That would be quite a legacy for Bud Selig to leave behind and I think he is aware of how such a policy could dull his current public image as the Commissioner of the Steroid Era. The proposed policy would also place a definitive barrier in baseball history between the past era and the future.

I think the significance of the Mitchell Report has been understated thus far; people seem to forget who ordered the investigation in the first place. I know the release of the report is only the first step, but the fact that Selig has officially endorsed the report and stated on the public record that there is/was significant steroid use in baseball is a big deal. Selig may have been prodded by Congress and he still runs for cover every time a question about asterisks is tossed his way, but you can’t fix a problem without admitting it exists first. If you can buy the comparison, consider the Mitchell Report that first step towards baseball’s rehab.

On the Players Named

Just to be clear, I do not feel any pity for the large majority of players named in the report (Brian Roberts is one of the few that causes me to question his inclusion; ed. until he admitted to actually using steroids on Tuesday). What they (allegedly) did was wrong and often illegal and they knew better going in. Every player named in the report also had the opportunity to talk with Mitchell and his people well before any information was publicly released; most declined. Therefore, I don’t really give a damn what Roger Clemens and his lawyer have to say. With allegations this serious, why didn’t he discuss the matter with Mitchell beforehand? Did he think he would never get caught? Clemens is certainly entitled to try and clear his name, but I’d like to know where he was during the investigation. Other players have also attempted to backtrack on past statements or actions to counter their inclusion in the Mitchell Report.

That said, I think the media has been irresponsible in their handling of the players named in the report. During his initial press conference, Mitchell emphasized (perhaps more than any other point) that the players named in the report should not be the focus of his work. Mitchell pleaded with the public and the press to keep the names in context and focus on the most important part of the report: the new anti-doping policies. The amount of coverage devoted to the policy recommendations has made up just a fraction of the overall coverage surrounding the Mitchell Report (and that’s being generous).

It’s unfortunate no one is heeding Mitchell’s advice to move forward and stop dredging the past. I understand the public’s fascination with the players named, but I feel like they’re missing the point. Mitchell included the names to achieve full disclosure with his report. He stated one of his early goals was to be as open and honest as possible with the information presented to him and he would have fallen short by withholding the player’s names. The names also act as evidence to reinforce the purported activities of the Steroid Era. Attaching actual names to these acts gives leverage to those who must negotiate with the Player’s Association in the future and provides a degree of closure to the investigation.

There’s a good chance that the media would have dug up the names anyway, so at least this way Mitchell was able to offer the players involved a chance to set the record straight before publication. I can’t emphasize this fact enough; every player involved had a chance to speak with Mitchell well before the report was published. They declined.

If the number of players using PEDs was actually in the 50-70% range, it would have been impossible to name even half of those players. Does it make any difference who was named? Would certain people still be outraged if super-stars like Clemens and Pettitte were excluded from the list? They may be the whipping boys right now, but someone had to take the fall. The risk of getting caught was there for everyone; some guys just got unlucky.

The fact that they were discovered and named in the report does not change the fact that what they did was wrong. The circumstances of discovery do not change the crime. I almost feel like the individual names listed are irrelevant; they would have served the same purpose no matter what players happened to be caught at the end of the day. PED use was rampant in baseball, from elite players like Clemens and Tejada to bench players that no one has given a second thought to. It’s interesting to think what the report’s impact may have been if it just listed mediocre, no-name players.

Mitchell encouraged the Commissioner to forego discipline of players who used PEDs before baseball had a punishable drug policy in place. Mitchell placed a stern emphasis on baseball moving forward by heeding his policy recommendations. Even the law states an employer can not discipline an employee for past infractions if the rule did not exist at the time.

Selig chose to ignore Mitchell’s advice as soon as he took the podium. Selig made it very clear that he would be taking action against active players who were named in the report. I feel the best way for baseball to respond to the Mitchell Report would be to embrace the anti-doping policy outlined and continue to distance itself from the past. The damage has already been done to the players’ reputations; dragging out the process through disciplinary action would be a poor choice at this point.

Finally...

Tribe pitcher Paul Byrd met with MLB officials on Monday to discuss his HGH use. Byrd's use of HGH was apparently under a prescription for a pre-existing medical condition and was known to the Indians before they activated Byrd's contract option for 2008. MLB has given Byrd a chance to talk before an official decision is made, due to his openness on the issue and medical records. Tribe fans should know the final decision on Byrd soon.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Memphis Blues

The annual GM meetings have come and gone, but not before altering the balance of power in the AL Central. Detroit sold the farm (literally) to acquire two guaranteed years each of Miguel Cabrera, Edgar Renteria and Dontrelle Willis. This deal has been analyzed to death by now, but I guess I should throw my hat in the ring for you, the esteemed reader.

First of all, this is a pretty obvious "win now" approach by Detroit. In one offseason, Detroit shipped out Jair Jurrjens, Andrew Miller, Cameron Maybin and a mess of other lesser prospects. I'm not sure what the Tiger's front office thought of Jurrjens, but I know Atlanta must have thought pretty highly of him to trade Renteria with two years left on his contract. Tribe fans may remember Jurrjens from his 2-1 win against Carmona in late August; a game where I came away very frustrated (read, impressed) with the rookie. Miller and Maybin were the undisputed crown jewels of Detroit's farm system for the immediate future. The Tigers sacrificed long-term organizational depth for short-term dividends.

Many fans have been quick to point out Detroit's aging roster as motivation to make the blockbuster trade now and I agree with this point. Miguel Cabrera (24) and Curtis Granderson (26) are the only starters on Detroit's roster below the age of 30. In that regard, I at least understand where Detroit is coming from, although I don't entirely agree with the move from a philosophical standpoint. Such a sweeping trade is better suited to an aging team like Detroit than a youthful contender like Cleveland, so maybe that's where my bias lies. Some of their key players, like Rodriguez and Sheffield, have already shown a decline in performance or an increasing risk of injury. They may stink in a few years, but the Tigers are going for the throat the next few seasons.

The interesting thing is that even if Detroit suddenly emerges as this Divisional monster and blocks Cleveland from the playoffs (/knocks on wood), they'll still have to contend with Boston (who may have Santana in a year) and New York (who may just purchase the Dominican Republic at some point), in addition to the Tribe. Not exactly a guaranteed Series appearance, is it ESPN? Meanwhile, Cleveland has a much younger team with their core players under contract longer than Cabrera, Renteria, or those other geezers will be (productive) in the Motor City. That's all too far down the road to predict, but it's something to think about in terms of Detroit's much ballyhooed "win now" approach.

Second, just how much will Cabrera and Renteria actually help Detroit next season? Let's take a look at the production from the positions they will be replacing (stats cited from Baseball Reference and Baseball Prospectus):

Player Position EQA OPS+ WARP2
C. Guillen SS (old) .282 123 7.0
E. Renteria SS (new) .298 125 7.4





B. Inge 3B (old) .238 80 6.0
M. Cabrera 3B (new) .319 150 11.2





S. Casey 1B (old) .254 96 2.4
C. Guillen 1B (new) .282 123 7.0

With Guillen moving from SS to 1B in 2008, Detroit essentially traded for Renteria to upgrade 1B. In that sense, the Tigers made a significant upgrade, but only at one position. Guillen and Renteria were similar players in 2007. Renteria may be overrated going into next season though, since he has posted an OPS+ over 115 only one other time in his career (2003). I don't think it's realistic to expect him to do nearly as well as he did in '07, given the disparity between the NL West and AL Central.

Now before you start stressing out about how ridiculous Cabrera's numbers are, put them in context. Several key members of the Tigers' offense will not be as hot as they were last season. I would be shocked if Ordonez is able to duplicate his MVP caliber season next year. Sheffield has health and age issues, while Renteria's been discussed above. Even Placido Polanco had a career year in 2007, so fat chance of him repeating a performance he's done only once before in his career (notice the trend yet?). Granted, it's not a stretch for several of these guys to perform at a high level in 2008, but it's not as bad as it sounds for the rest of the Central (except for the White Sox because they are going to be horrible. Don't choke Ozzie!).

I think the problem is people are acting like Cabrera will be plugged into Detroit's lineup circa 2007, which just isn't true. Baseball rarely works in a linear fashion like that; player and team performance evolves annually. Granted, offensive production is not as volatile as bullpen pitching for example, but I still don't feel too far off the mark given the makeup of the Tiger's lineup. Cabrera will bring some heavy-duty offense to Detroit, but at the same time, many aspects of Detroit's lineup should regress back to their normal numbers.

Now, as far as Dontrelle Willis goes, Tribe fans have nothing to worry about. Show me that beautiful table:

Year GS IP ERA SLGA HR/9 WHIP K/BB
2005 34 236.3 2.63 .352 .42 1.13 3.09
2006 34 223.3 3.87 .397 .85 1.42 1.92
2007 35 205.3 5.17 .477 1.27 1.60 1.67

Willis has been in free fall the past two seasons. Not only has his strikeout to walk ratio crashed, but he's been getting hit hard. Poor control and an opposition slugging .477 against is a dangerous combination. Willis' decline wasn't particularly gradual either; a 22 win ace in 2005 and a 5.17 ERA two years later?

Part of the D-Train's decline can be attributed to his change in mechanics over the years; the reasons behind these changes are less clear. Carlos Gomez breaks down Willis' mechanics in a great article at THT here. Whatever the problem, Detroit is going to have to fix it if Willis is going to survive pitching in the American League. I'm guessing the Tigers are confident in their ability to resuscitate Willis' past performance as an ace because right now he doesn't appear to be much of an upgrade over the potential stud they gave up in Andrew Miller, or even the promising Jurrjens.

I may be in the minority on this, but I just don't see Detroit surpassing Cleveland in overall talent with this trade. They certainly pulled a lot closer, but I can't believe people are calling the division already, give me a break.

The worst thing Cleveland could have done was to make a knee-jerk reaction to Detroit's trades. Jason Bay? Really? I was against the idea of trading for Bay. I don't see him bouncing back from such a huge decline in performance and I think he is done as an elite hitter. If Bay's reported knee issues are the root of the problem, that's just another reason not to invest a boatload of talent in him via trade. It seems someone's not telling the whole truth here because 28 year old athletes don't usually crash and burn for an entire season like that. No one seems to know the reason why he appears to have suddenly hit a wall, which is suspicious in its own right. I'm not going to go there though, since it would be pure speculation. The fact is, Cleveland avoided a foolish reactionary trade and they are better off for it.

The best thing Cleveland could do to "respond" to Detroit is to extend Sabathia this offseason. As much as I would like to see left field upgraded, Sabathia is still the Tribe's priority at the negotiating table right now.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Heir to the Bench

John McDonald. Lou Merloni. Joe Inglett. Mike Rouse. The Tribe has had a long line of distinguished, yet fleeting, utility infielders over the years. Who will be honored with the title of Defensive Specialist this season?

Apparently, it's former Colorado second baseman Jamey Carroll. Cleveland traded for Carroll on Saturday in exchange for a minor league player to be named. Carroll is 33 and saw the majority of his time at second and third base over 109 appearances, with 55 starts in 2007. According to Cot's, he will be paid $2.15 million in 2008 and has a $2.5 million club option for 2009 with a $.15 million buyout. Carroll will be replacing Chris Gomez, who was picked up off waivers from Baltimore last season. Gomez signed with Pittsburgh for $1 million this offseason.

Gomez's offense was never anything to write home about, even for a utility guy (.325 OBP, 83 OPS+ in 240 PA for 2007). In that sense, Carroll's poor numbers at the plate should not be a burden, since what he's replacing isn't significant and he won't be asked to start many games anyway. Carroll's best season came in 2006 when he posted a .377 OBP and 94 OPS+ in 534 PA (he was Colorado's starting second baseman in '06). 2007 saw a precipitous drop-off in offense for Carroll, with a .317 OBP and 56 OPS+ in 268 PA. Considering he played in an extreme hitters park (Coors Field) and the National League, this is a pretty dramatic trend. Again, don't expect any production offensively; we didn't pick this guy up for his splits.

Below is a comparison between Carroll and a league average second baseman in 2007 (RFg = range factor):

Carroll: .992 FP -- 4.08 RFg
AL Avg.: .986 FP -- 4.54 RFg
NL Avg.: .984 FP -- 4.23 RFg

Carroll's defense seems solid enough and he has a reputation for good range at his natural position. I don't anticipate any problems out of second this season (Cabrera is rumored to be the starter with Barfield in AAA), which is good because I don't have any faith in Carroll as a starter for any stretch due to his offense. The Tribe's depth/insurance at second base consists of Cabrera and Barfield. Carroll's just a part-time infielder and possible pinch runner.

Trading for Carroll sounded like an odd thing to do. It just seemed excessive to give up a player and pay over $2 mil for a bench player on an already crowded roster. He probably makes about a million dollars more than your average utility guy and has a rapidly declining offense. I guess there's not much point in nitpicking though, since Carroll is adequate for the role he'll be given. There aren't any players in Buffalo that I'd be campaigning to fill out the bench either (not including Marte and Cabrera, who I hope to see with Cleveland regardless).

Carroll does have one thing going for him though. Before the trade was even made official he had already picked up the nickname of "Gritty Jesus," due to his very public religious preferences. I wish I could take credit, but the fine folks at LGT are responsible for that one. Best. Nickname. Ever.

Finally...

The Cavs have lost 6 in a row, with their latest defeat coming at the hands of the Bobcats. LeBron hasn't played since November 28 because of a sprained left index finger. Coincidentally, Cleveland hasn't won since James left the lineup. The King, and Cleveland's only hope to ever win again, had this to say in Saturday's Plain Dealer:
Teams better get their wins now against us. They're talking trash against us now because we have guys out. But when we get our guys back, it's going to be a different story.
Hang in there Cavs fans.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

LeBron's Finger, Varejao's "Surprise," and Kidd's Man-Crush

The Cavs have been an elusive team thus far. Every time they give the fans something to get excited about (like an OT win over Boston), the injury bug finds a way to stifle their cheers. LeBron injured his left index finger against Detroit on Wednesday. The finger was sprained on an innocent looking foul in the second quarter, with James sitting out the second half. According to an ESPN article, “the team says James is day to day, [but] the Cavaliers likely will be overly cautious with the injury so he doesn't make it worse.”

Resting James is a no-brainer at this point in the season. Sprains have a tendency to get worse if you don’t give them enough time to heal, so the injury itself is frustrating. Given James’ aggressive playing style, even if he was able to favor his right hand in shooting and dribbling, his mobility and passing ability would be far from 100%. His aggressive playing style would just lead to a re-injury anyway.

The Cavaliers were coming off a four game winning streak before falling to Detroit and Toronto. Their next game is against Boston on Sunday and James is going to be game-time decision. If his finger isn’t close to a full recovery, I don’t think he should play yet. It’s good that the Cavs think they can beat Boston for the second time in a week, but the outlook doesn’t look good, even with James. Live to fight another day, I say.

On James’ Hot Start

Everybody knows LeBron has been at the top of his game this season. He leads the league in points per game with 30.7 (Kobe is second with 27.6) and is seventh in assists with 8.1. Just how impressive is that? James is currently the only player to be in the top 10 in the league in scoring and assists. Like Kobe Bryant in L.A., James has had to carry his team on his shoulders this season, but unlike Kobe, he has displayed a balanced attack that makes him even scarier to deal with.

Columnist Marc Stein on James:

A trip to the NBA Finals and a Team USA summer spent alongside the maniacally driven Kobe Bryant and Jason Kidd appear to have tweaked James' approach. Throw out an Opening Night no-show against Dallas -- "It looked like he didn't want to play that night," one Mavs foe suggested, surmising that James still was upset Cleveland was starting the season with Anderson Varejao and Sasha Pavlovic unsigned -- and he has played at the highest possible level.

How high? With four triple-doubles (and two near-misses with nine assists) in a span of 12 games for a depth-challenged team that got no deeper in the offseason, James has put himself on pace to possibly join Michael Jordan and Oscar Robertson as the only players in history to average 30 points, eight rebounds and eight assists in a season.

After witnessing the King of Akron decimate Detroit in the Conference Finals, it’s easy to see how James’ maturity and experience have helped him elevate his game lately. It’s almost crazy to think LeBron can get even better at this point, but he seems to be on the brink, if he’s not there already.

I was curious how James’ outstanding start to ’07 compared to past seasons. Below are the splits for the first month of James’ first five NBA seasons:

Year G Min FG% 3PT% FT% R Ast PPG
2003 17 41:00 40.0 22.6 65.6 7 6.4 17.5
2004 14 41:00 51.5 35.7 77.1 7.8 6.1 26.3
2005 14 39:53 48.9 35.1 81.8 6 4.5 28.4
2006 15 40:36 47.0 36.1 71.2 6.8 6.7 27.5
2007 16 39:47 48.6 32.9 70.6 7.6 8.1 30.7


The numbers indicate LeBron really has gotten off to the best start of his career. His overall production in points per game, assists, and rebounds have all taken significant jumps, while his field goal and three point percentages are slightly better than his career averages. Whether James can sustain such outstanding production has yet to be determined with less than a quarter of the season under wraps. I don’t think many people would be surprised if he did post Oscar Robertson numbers though.

It’s interesting that such a spike in production has come this season, on one of the weaker teams James has played on. Has he just been getting more opportunities because some of his teammates (especially the bench) have been doing so poorly? Has the coaching staff reconfigured the offense to allow James more control over the court? Or has his game moved to the next level, as indicated above? It’s too early to tell, but at least the King is giving Cavs fans something to cheer about in what has the makings of a long winter.

On Varejao

Quite frankly, this situation got stupid a long time ago. And then this little gem came out on ESPN:

"I wanted to come back," [Varejao] said. "I love the fans and I really love my teammates. But there are others there that have made it very difficult. It's gotten to the point that I don't want to play there anymore. I'm just hoping for a sign-and-trade at this point."

Really? You don’t want to play in Cleveland anymore? Gee, I never would have guessed.

Based on the information presented, both sides screwed up royally during the negotiating period; trouble is, no one wants to admit they screwed up. The trouble started when the Cavs refused to offer Varejao a midlevel (starting at $5.356 million per season) salary. Varejao proceeded to reject the team’s five year, $32 million offer. That’s $6.4 million per year, which should have been more than enough (the language indicates the first contract year would have been below the requested midlevel salary). That’s just what the article says, I never said it made any sense. To make matters worse, Danny Ferry flew out to Brazil to try and spring a surprise negotiation on Varejao without his agent present. Terrible, terrible idea.

The Cavs can probably swing a sign-and-trade now that the teams that were scared off by Cleveland’s threat to match any offer for their restricted free agent are void. I’d be satisfied if the Cavs picked up a draft pick and a decent bench player. My expectations aren’t very optimistic though, as the whole situation stinks.

On Kidd

SI.com had an interesting article on Jason Kidd the other day. Apparently, he would be very open to playing in Cleveland with LeBron:

Kidd admits that he and James daydream about contending for championships together in Cleveland.

While Kidd maintained that he won't involve himself in publicly asking for a trade, he had no problem in spelling out his admiration for LeBron.

The article is basically one big love-fest between Kidd and James. Hanging out with a premier veteran player is great for a young superstar like LeBron. Especially if that player churns out points and assists like butter. Hmmm... One would hope the Cavs’ GM at least inquired about Kidd in the offseason. If not, it might not be a bad idea to give New Jersey a call.

There are some obvious problems in trying to trade for Kidd. First off, he’s 34 years old and has a fair share of nagging injuries to worry about. Second, his contract would be difficult to fit under the salary cap. Kidd is owed $19.7 million this year and $21.4 million next season before his current contract is up. He’d be worth the money, in my opinion, but I don’t see how the Cavs make the economics work without moving Larry Hughes first (please?). Finally, what do the Cavs have to offer to the Nets? Well, there’s Varejao. And….draft picks? The article surmises as much, but putting together a package for Jason Kidd would require some tough sacrifices by the Cavs that may not be in the best interests of the team.

The Cavs seem to be constantly walking the fine line between improving the team (and keeping LeBron happy) without crippling the franchise down the road (missing the draft for the second year in a row might not help in that department). The inability of the GM to deal with pressure from both ends of this spectrum may have cost the Cavs some opportunities lately. By the time the Cavs decide to make a move to acquire some heavy-duty help, it may end up as more of a band-aid than anything else.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Browns and Cavs Kickin' It Up a Notch

I'll take a look at LeBron James' blazing start later this week (school permitting), along with my thoughts on those lovable Browns. For now, just take a moment to soak in the performance of Cleveland's teams right now:

Browns

7-4 overall
Won 5 of their last 6
1 game out of first
Winslow and Edwards are awesome

Cavaliers

9-6 overall
4 game win streak
Tied for first
LeBron is ridiculous


Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Uno Masa

The signing of free agent pitcher Masahide Kobayashi was announced by the Tribe on Tuesday. Kobayashi is a 33 year old, right handed reliever who has pitched for the Chiba Lotte Marines in Japan the past nine seasons. In typical Shapiro fashion, negotitations were kept under wraps until the last minute and came as a surprise to Cleveland fans. Kobayashi received a 2-year, $6 million guaranteed contract with a $3.25 million club option or $250,000 buyout for 2010.

Kobayashi owns a 2.79 career ERA and is one of Japan's all-time best closers. Masa has saved 227 games in his career and has at least 20 saves for seven straight seasons and has over 30 saves in four of them. Only Kazuhiro Sasaki and Shingo Takatsu have saved more than 200 games in the Pro Yakyu league. Kobayashi posted a K/BB ratio of 4.0, giving up just .095 HR/IP the past three seasons. His ERA jumped from 2.68 to 3.61 between 2006 and 2007, but the Tribe are confident Kobayashi will revert to the mean (see career ERA above).

Kobayashi is a step up from the Tribe's recent bullpen depth signings. He has a proven track record as a closer, making him a solid backup for incumbent closer Borowski. Masa's role has not been clearly defined yet, but look for him to bolster Raffy Betancourt in the setup slot. In addition to providing insurance for JoeBo, the Tribe finally has a veteran reliever to backup Betancourt and allow him to rest. Betancourt threw a career 79.3 regular season innings in 2007 and could use the extra help.

Depending on his effectiveness, Kobayashi, Rafael Perez, and Jensen Lewis may end up in a game of musical chairs for the 6th and 7th innings. No matter what the order, Cleveland projects to have an effective late inning relief corps, once again.

This is all contingent on Kobayashi making a successful transition to the Majors. There are a few question marks surrounding Kobayashi, but his track record and scouting report indicate a solid addition to the pen. The article on the team's website provided a brief scouting report:

Nate Minchey, an international scout for the Tribe, saw Kobayashi pitch six or seven times this past season, and club scouting director John Mirabelli saw him live twice, as well. What they saw was a confident strike-thrower with a three-pitch mix that includes a fastball that maxes out in the mid-90s, a two-seam fastball that cuts in on right-handers and a mid-80s slider with a hard, downward break. Kobayashi also has a deceptive delivery.
Mirabelli described Masa's slider as his "out pitch" and noted his durability. Here is a highlight video of Masa from MLB.com.

The Tribe did not have to deal with a posting fee and drafted a reasonable contract with low risk and a high reward. The primary risk is how well Kobayashi's pitches will translate to the majors. Given the track record of top-shelf Japanese releivers like Sasaki, Saito, and Okajima, this could end up as a steal compared to pricey free agents like Francisco Cordero and Scott Linebrink. Signing Kobayashi helps to further distribute the load on the bullpen and the Tribe should be better as a result.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Name That Injured Cavalier!

I'm starting to feel like a broken record talking about the Cavaliers, but yet another player has succumbed to injury. Larry Hughes will be sidelined four to six weeks with a deep bone bruise in his left knee, according to the Plain Dealer. Hughes sustained the injury from a collision with Phoenix's Leandro Barbosa on November 4.

Hughes was averaging 27.3 minutes, 6.8 points, and 2.3 assists per game with a miserable .293 FG% on the season. I'm torn in my opinion on Larry Hughes right now. On one hand, he's been a major disappointment; on the other, he's almost been set up to fail expectations with that ridiculous contract he was given. Everybody knew Hughes' body was fragile before he signed a 5 year, $60 million contract with Cleveland in 2005. Ferry had to have realized this guy had some serious health risks involved, but he overpaid for him anyway. After Hughes missed 46 games in '05-'06, 12 games (including Games 3 and 4 of the Finals) in '06-'07, and now up to 13 games to kick off this season, I'm beginning to sense a pattern. I didn't include Hughes' time away for family reasons, as those events were beyond anyone's control and don't belong in this argument.

I know it's a little hypocritical of me, since I took a soft stance on Ferry's lack of off-season acquisitions this year, but what are the Cavs going to do now? Well, not much except tough it out and hope for the best. There's no Plan C; even if Hughes was healthy, he was a non-factor so far this season. Cleveland needs help in multiple areas right now, some of which could have been fixed only in hindsight, but Ferry's fragile investment at point guard took a bad time to make its presence known again.

Terry Pluto suggested the Cavs talk to guard Earl Boykins about a one year deal (before Hughes went down). Boykins played 33 Min/G for Milwaukee last season, averaging 14 points with a .427 FG%. Pluto said Boykins did not fit well into Coach Brown's defensive big-man scheme, so Cleveland passed on him before. A player that may not be a good fit for the team shouldn't be forced on the head coach, but I hope Cleveland is at least exploring their options.

Sasha Pavlovic will be the one to pick up Hughes' minutes, starting alongside Daniel Gibson in the backcourt. Gibson has been one of Cleveland's best players so far, averaging 32.3 Min/G and posting a .567 FG%, .585 3P%, and a .833 FT%. I don't think anyone's worrying about Gibson (except for opposing teams).

Pavlovic on the other hand, has struggled since returning to the team after his holdout. Since signing his new contract, Sasha has sunk only 28% of his field goals and made minimal contributions off the bench. He's actually averaging more turnovers (1.50) per game than assists (1.3). It seems unlikely that Sasha is still trying to get back into playing form after jumping into the season sans-training camp (could he really be that out of shape?). The culprit for his poor play is, at least in part, an injured back. Pavlovic has been having back spasms and had to sit out the November 12 game against Denver. If he's playing with a cold shot and a bad back, don't expect any major contributions from Sasha on offense until he's healthy again.

Despite the team's injury woes, it's still fairly early in the season. If the team had been playing better than it had before Hughes went down and Pavlovic's back started acting up, I wouldn't be nearly as concerned about the current situation. There is still a lot of basketball to be played, but the Cavs are going to need to step up as a team to make it through such a rough start.

It's curious that the Cavs have endured all this negative press and analysis, but have yet to field a team at full strength. They're currently own a 5-5 record and sit 1.5 games below Detroit and hold the seventh best record in the East above 4-5 Washington. If all the injured players return and the team is still playing poorly, then there's obviously a bigger problem, but that time hasn't come yet. How can this team not improve once the injuries heal (the injury to Varejao's brain not withstanding)? The trick is holding on long enough until they do.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Scouting Fukudome

A recent article reminded me that outfielder Kosuke Fukudome was eligible for free agency this year. Fukudome is one of Japan's biggest stars right now and currently plays for the Chunichi Dragons of the Pro Yakyu League.

Coincidentally, Chunichi was in the same boat as Cleveland until they ended their 53-year championship drought this season. I used to go see Chunichi play spring training games during my time in Japan and still try to keep up with the team.

At any rate, I'm familiar with Fukudome in name only; most fans have only seen his few at-bats in the World Baseball Classic. Scouting reports and comprehensive stats on Pro Yakyu players are hard to come by, but I was able to find some good info via JapaneseBaseball.com (if you're interested in learning more about the league and its culture, that's a great place to start).


By the Numbers

Fukudome has followed in the footsteps of Ichiro and Matsui as one of the premier super-stars in Japan and his performance on the field backs up this assertion. Fukudome’s breakout season was in 2002 when he posted a .343 Avg, .537 Slg, and .406 OBP at age 25. 2002 was also the same year Chunichi moved him from the infield to center field (his infield defense was a liability once he reached the Majors, hence the move).

Year PA R H 2B HR BB SB K OBP SLG OPS
2002 608 85 186 42 19 56 4 96 .406 .537 .943
2003 617 107 165 30 34 78 10 118 .401 .604 1.005
2004* 404 97 97 19 23 48 8 93 .367 .569 .936
2005 612 102 169 39 28 93 13 128 .430 .590 1.020
2006 578 117 174 47 31 76 11 94 .438 .653 1.091
2007 348 64 79 22 13 69 5 66 .443 .520 .963

*Represented Japan in the 2004 Sydney Olympics

Fukudome continued to improve offensively, hitting 34 HR the following season. He reached the 30 HR mark in 2006 and just missed it in 2005 with 28. Fukudome has a tendency to draw walks and a reputation as a doubles machine (he set a league doubles record with 47 in 2006). His usual approach seems to sacrifice power for more control. There seems to be a rough correlation between his K rate and HR totals, but this pattern can be found in many players. Fukudome has good pop in his lefty bat and should still pose a solid power threat in the Majors.

Even if Fukudome’s power totals were to slip after he crosses the Pacific, he still has a superb OBP to fall back on. Fukudome has posted at least a .400 OBP five of the past six seasons, with 2005-2007 resulting in career highs in OBP. He has decent speed on the base paths, legging out all those doubles, but is not a major base stealing threat. Fukudome’s plate discipline, doubles production, and power potential would make him a good fit at either the top or heart of the lineup.

Scouting Report

Mike Plugh of Baseball Prospectus provides a scouting report on Fukudome’s game:

Most important among his skills is his batting approach, which relies on patience and a level left-handed swing. At roughly 6'0" and 190 pounds, Fukudome isn't a classic slugger. There is power in his bat, but it's of the line-drive variety. His hands are quick and he handles the inside pitch very well.

As I've watched Kosuke over the years, the few weaknesses I've noticed come against soft throwers, who like to go away, or down and away, against Fukudome. He'll chase high and inside on occasion, but looks worst when flailing at an offspeed pitch tailing low and outside.

On defense, Fukudome is a very good right fielder. His right arm is a gun, and has helped him to earn four Gold Gloves in Japan. Japanese baserunners, even of the speediest variety, have learned to run conservatively against the Dragons.

Where his lack of lateral quickness hurt him as an infielder, Kosuke's good athletic ability and fast legs are assets to him in tracking down balls. Generally, he gets good reads off the bat and reacts quickly to get into solid, fundamental position to make a catch and throw.

Below is a video of a Fukudome at-bat. You can see a slow motion of his swing and follow through at the 55 second mark.




Is There a Need?

What would Fukudome be replacing if he came to Cleveland? The Tribe’s left field platoon was among the worst in the majors as far as overall offensive production. Below are the splits for an average American League left fielder and Cleveland’s total production in left for 2007:

Left Field Production PA R H HR BB BA OBP SLG OPS
AL Avg. 2007* 650 N/A 147 15 49 .275 .335 .426 .760
CLE 2007 (Platoon) 673 N/A 156 15 51 .259 .315 .404 .719

*Adjusted per 162 games or 650 PA

One could argue that upgrading a slot in Cleveland’s lineup is a luxury, not a need, but that doesn’t mean the Tribe shouldn’t shop around. Cleveland’s left field was significantly below league average in OBP and Slg last season, so I think the need for an upgrade exists. The defense was also a bit shaky with Dellucci and Lofton manning the corner, so a strong arm with some range in left would make an already solid defense even better. Lofton may already be gone and Dellucci and Michaels can be moved via trade. If Cleveland were to acquire a potential All Star like Fukudome, it would be easy enough to accommodate him on the roster.

What’s the Contract Situation?

Fukudome has been relatively healthy over his career, but suffered from pain in his right elbow in July of 2007. He played in just 81 games this season because of the injury and underwent arthroscopic surgery in August. I have not heard any reports regarding the surgery aftermath or his recovery timetable. The elbow is more of a question mark than a risk, given his healthy track record. Fukudome will be 30 when he signs his next contract, but his recent numbers show no signs of decline.

Judging by the strong interest he has already received from other teams, his health is not a major concern and should be set for 2008. The Cubs and Red Sox are rumored to be the front runners for Fukudome’s services, which is already bad news for smaller market teams. The Red Sox do not have as strong a need for an outfielder as Chicago, although Coco Crisp could be on the move. Chicago recently dumped outfielders Jacque Jones and Craig Monroe, making a free agent signing seem even more likely for them. With Torii Hunter and Andruw Jones leading the pack, many teams may turn to Fukudome as a cheaper alternative. Fukudome has yet to make his team preferences known.

Fukudome is said to be looking for a three year deal with an anti-arbitration clause allowing him to hit free agency at 33. For comparison, Hideki Matsui received a 3 year, $21 million contract from the Yankees, with an escalating payroll scale. Cleveland paid $5.75 million for Michaels and Delluci in 2007, so $7-9 million per year may be viewed by some as a reasonable contract for Fukudome. It depends on how much you want to gamble on Fukudome making a good transition to the majors. If big-payroll teams like Chicago and Boston become aggressive though, you can bet Shapiro won’t hang around long in a bidding war over Fukudome.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Shapiro Named Exec of the Year

General Manager Mark Shapiro was named the 2007 Baseball Executive of the Year by the Sporting News. Shapiro was awarded the honor during the GM winter meetings in Orlando on Monday. Rockies GM Dan O’Dowd (another Cleveland protégé) trailed Shapiro in votes, 13 to 11. The award is Shapiro’s second in three years. What makes Shapiro’s win all the more impressive is the fact it was voted on by his peers. Forty seven baseball executives were eligible to vote this year.

How awesome is the Tribe’s front office and coaching staff? In addition to fielding one of the best major league clubs, Cleveland boasts an outstanding farm system and some of the best minds in MLB right now. The organization’s success and numerous job offers flying at Tribe employees are evidence enough. John Farrell, former Director of Player Development, was hired as Boston’s pitching coach last season. Joel Skinner was apparently in the running for Pittsburgh’s next managing gig, while Neal Huntington moved up from special assistant to Shapiro to Pittsburgh’s GM.

Assistant GM Chris Antonetti fielded not one, but two GM job offers from other teams this season, but turned down both so he could stay in Cleveland. Now, one of those offers was from Pittsburgh, but the other was from the St. Louis Pujols’. That’s a serious statement about the respect Cleveland commands. According to a persistent rumor, owner Paul Dolan was willing to guarantee Antonetti the GM job down the road, making him the heir to Shapiro. Shapiro would become the Club President, but the time table for all this is still unknown. Like I said, it was just a rumor. Either way, it looks like Cleveland’s Dynamic Duo isn’t going anywhere, which is great news.

Plus, we have Louis Issac, who might as well be the team’s mascot at this point. Analyze that, Billy Beane.

Maintaining an elite front office team like Shapiro and Antonetti is as significant as keeping the one-two punch of Vic and Pronk together, or extending Wedge’s contract. All three provide a stable foundation for the team to continue to build on, rather than having to take a big step back every time key personnel leave. Keeping the front office intact from the top-down ensures the outstanding pattern of player development and acquisition Jon Hart created will go unbroken for years to come. Hart, Shapiro, Antonetti: all have played key roles in the franchise’s success from the 90’s to the present, with Shapiro working as Hart’s Assistant GM.

Hopefully I can get a handle on the Tribe's Hot Stove ventures this week. I hear Jason Bay is available....

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Cavs Stumble in Utah

Cleveland lost on the final shot of the game, 103-101, in Utah on Wednesday. Cleveland could have won the game, but 18 (!) turnovers, excessive fouls, and missed free throws kept them from surpassing an equally sloppy Utah squad. The Cavs were 37-85 (43.5%) from the field and made just 65.5% of their free throws (19-29). They edged Utah on the boards with 47 rebounds and 7 blocks. Utah shot slightly better (45.9 FG%), but crushed the Cavs from the free throw line. The Jazz collected 1/3 of their total points from free throws, going 34-40 (85%) from the line.

It's always frustrating when the difference in the game comes down to free throws and this game was no exception. Utah was crashing the boards all night and seemed to collect many of their penalties in the second half. Cleveland looked lost trying to slow down the league's highest scoring offense, racking up quick fouls. Cleveland's inability to stop Utah in the paint was an issue all night. The Cavs would have brief spurts where it looked like they executed their defense properly, but struggled to keep up at other times.

Utah's aggressive approach really derailed the Cavs' comeback attempts, since they struggled to make clean defensive stops for long stretches. All five Cleveland starters finished with at least four fouls, with Gibson fouling out late. It may not have affected Coach Brown's game plan much, but his best sniper was on the bench with Cleveland down by three in the last few plays of the game.

I could go on all night about the little mistakes and apparent confusion the Cavs had on both ends of the floor, but I'll just chalk it up to an ugly game.

Cleveland had a few hot-streaks though, trailing by just 4 to end the first half and tying the game late in the third quarter. The Cavs sped up the pace of play on both ends of the floor in the third, allowing them to climb back in the game. Cleveland ran the ball more on offense and devastated Utah on the boards during their run. The defense swarmed the paint, preventing the Jazz from finishing plays or collecting many second chance shots. The game was tied at 101 with 6 seconds left in the fourth, but the Cavs earlier mistakes caught up to them as it came down to the last possession for Utah.

LeBron James was outstanding, finishing with 32 Pts, 15 Reb, and 13 Ast for his 11th career triple-double. Gooden had a bad night (2-11), while the bench contributed just 4 points. I don't think Coach Brown has much confidence in his bench right now. Ilgauskas (18 Pts, 14 Reb, 4 Blk) and Gibson (3-4 3PM, 4 Stl) were bright spots. Pavlovic still looks rusty, exhibiting a few mental lapses with bad turnovers (not entirely fair; the whole team turned it over tonight). He doesn't seem to have his shooting touch back either, despite his 17 points tonight. It's hard to say the team had a bad night judging from the box score, but the 101 points smooth over flaws in the team's overall play. Also, I don't like picking on LeBron, but he really needs to get his free throws straight. The King went a very mediocre 7-15 from the line on a night where fouls played a crucial role in the final score.

Utah never dominated the game; it was more like Cleveland just kept shooting itself in the foot with stupid mistakes. The Cavs certainly showed signs of life, but I got the sense this team is unable to operate as smoothly as it used to. The absence of two key bench players in Marshall and Varejao is hurting the Cavs depth off the bench and making consistent, quality play more difficult to maintain. The absence of Snow and Hughes to help run the floor puts most of the burden on LeBron to set up plays. I've discussed the Cavs' many injuries before, but after watching them live, I think injuries are the primary contributor to the team's poor play right now.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Varejao Still on Vacation; Shannon Out in '08

What exactly is going on with the Cavs right now? First, they make no significant free agent signings and no trades. To be honest, I was busy watching the Tribe’s playoff run to monitor the NBA free agent market too closely, but I don’t think the Cavs necessarily failed in the acquisition department. Granted, I have no idea how close they came to getting Garnett (rumor alert), but who did people expect Ferry to go out and get? Mike Bibby? Wow, another aging, over the hill, guard. No, thanks. My beef is how the team’s two restricted free agents were handled.

Again, it’s tough to tell who’s been more unreasonable: Ferry or the players (or the agents). Fortunately Pavlovic is coming back, but not before missing two games. Pavlovic is said to have received a 3 year deal around $4 million per year.

Varejao still seems to think he’s worth a heck of a lot more than he really is. I’m not sure who’s done the bulk of the negotiating on behalf of Varejao to this point, but they should be fired. Varejao is pretty good at what he does, but there are very few teams where he would be starting. Whether Varejao is asking for too much or the Cavs are offering too little is difficult to decipher. Cleveland certainly wants to bring Varejao back, so it’s probably safe to say they’re offering him fair market value. The issue seems to be Varejao’s unrealistic expectation of what his market value really is.

Pavlovic played twice as many minutes per game than Varejao last season and seems to have a higher developmental ceiling. Varejao is valuable to the team from a depth perspective, given his versatility and rebounding ability, but he is not a critical piece of the puzzle for the long-term. Since Gooden and Ilgauskas are still with the team, it doesn’t seem like Varejao will see a significant increase in minutes either. So why is a role player rumored to be demanding a king’s ransom? Hopefully, details of these negotiations will be released soon after a deal is reached. The Plain Dealer reports that little progress has been made in negotiations.

The Cavs are looking pretty ragged already and the season’s just started. The roster has not been at full strength because of injuries and holdouts. Eric Snow has a left knee tear dating back to early October; he won’t be back for at least another week. Donyell Marshall will miss several games with a wrist injury. Forward Cedric Simmons has been battling an ankle injury, but may be called on to play now that Marshall is out. Varejao has apparently lost his mind. I suppose the good news is, the team can only get better from here on out.

It wouldn’t surprise me if the Cavs locker room is a little tense right now. My concern is a combination of discontent and injuries will put the Cavs in a funk, followed by a drop in the standings. Cleveland lost to Phoenix on Sunday and faces Golden State, Utah, the Clippers, Sacramento, and Denver on their six game road trip. You would hope the Cavs could handle the likes of Sacramento and LA, but there’s something about those West Coast swings that always seem give Cleveland trouble.

On Shannon Brown

I wasn’t too thrilled about this move. Cleveland has never had a real chance to evaluate Brown in the NBA, since a serious leg injury derailed his rookie season for 2006-2007. Now, with a grand total of 6 minutes playing time in his sophomore season, Cleveland has announced they won’t be exercising his third year option. The Cavs must have seen something good in Brown to draft him, so why the sudden turn around?

Brian Windhorst provided a scouting report of Brown on his blog:

Brown did not play well in summer league in my opinion, even though his scoring stats looked good. He scored a bunch of points in the preseason but did not handle the ball well, shoot the ball well or make good decisions.

Isn’t that like judging a baseball player on his Spring Training performance?

In addition to his poor showing in the preseason, Cleveland had until midnight, October 31 to make a decision on Brown’s third year option. I understand the timing of it, but I’m curious if the decision was discussed with Brown beforehand. I doubt carrying that kind of uncertainty into the season is going to do Brown’s game any favors. Cleveland may look to use Brown as trade bait, but wouldn’t he have been more attractive if he didn’t become an unrestricted free agent at season’s end?

This move would make some sense if Cleveland had a replacement lined up, but I haven’t heard any rumors on player movement. I suppose Cedric Simmons would qualify, but he hasn’t proven anything either and could easily be a non-factor. Not only did Cleveland waste a valuable draft pick, but they never gave him the proper time to mature. Brown may not be a perfect fit on the roster right now, but what makes Ferry so positive he won’t improve? Drafting a player is a long term investment, not a movie rental; you don’t get your money back if you make a poor choice. Plus, it’s not like the Cavs are in a position to be releasing players this season; not after failing to acquire any outside talent.

Even if Brown makes positive strides this season, he’ll likely feel snubbed by Ferry and walk. If Brown does leave, the Cavaliers will have made two draft picks in two years and retained only one in Daniel Gibson.

Don’t Look Now…

…but here come the Browns. No really, stop laughing. Your Cleveland Browns are 5-3 after beating Seattle 33-30 in overtime on Sunday. How about that? If Baltimore beats Pittsburgh on Monday, all three teams will sit with 5 wins going into Week 10. Even I’m a little excited about that, and I’m not even a big football fan. Actually, I’m more of a cautious (i.e. fair-weather) Browns’ fan, as it took a long time for me to come back to the team even after the despised Butch Davis skipped town.

The way the team has been drafting and acquiring players the last couple years piqued my interest though and I’m very pleased to see the team doing well again. The Browns are 2-1 in their division and 2-2 against teams with a winning record. Are the Browns truly contenders this season? I think so, but their next game against Pitt will go a long way in measuring their progress. Cleveland has built a three game win streak and a fourth may propel them into the playoff hunt. You never know…

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Super-Delayed Shapiro Conference Impressions

The press conference may be over a week old, but whenever Shapiro addresses the media it’s worth discussing. Here’s what I got out of his State of the Tribe conference:

Trot and Kenny are Gone

The language Shapiro used while discussing Trot Nixon and Kenny Lofton made it sound like neither player would be returning for 2008. Shapiro cited Nixon’s leadership role as his greatest contribution to the Tribe. Fans have been hearing about Nixon’s mentoring all season, not to mention the rally pies. Obviously Nixon struggled in the field this season, but I think his off-the-field contributions made a bigger impact than fans truly realize.

Listening to Shapiro and Wedge discuss Nixon’s role so prominently only reinforces my assumption. Referring to Nixon, Shapiro said "whether he's here or not, [he’s] going to make a lasting impact on this team." In other words, Shapiro knew (roughly) what he was getting as far as Nixon’s potential contributions and it sounds like he was satisfied with the team’s “investment.” Shapiro also compared Nixon’s influence to that of Kevin Millwood on a young pitching staff in 2005.

Now that the Tribe is battle-tested in the playoffs and more youngsters are scheduled to arrive from Buffalo, Nixon’s imminent release shouldn't come as a surprise. Lofton’s release may have been disheartening to many fans, though. I’m a big Lofton fan, but I think the decision to let him walk is the correct one. Lofton’s endurance and possible decline in performance are legitimate questions, even though Lofton had a successful campaign at age 40. The Tribe has too many young outfielders who either deserve a shot or are at least as good as a healthy Lofton would be. Lofton filed for free agency on Tuesday; he made $6 million last year.

Roster Stability

Cleveland is in a rare and enviable position this off-season. Every player on the roster is potentially under team control for 2008, excluding free agents Nixon, Lofton, and Chris Gomez.

Shapiro made a strong suggestion that Cleveland would pick up Joe Borowski’s $4 million option, but still left the door open for other options. Those other options are a near lock to come from within the organization, as the closer options through a trade or signing are bleak. If Borowski stays on for a role other than closer, Betancourt is the obvious choice to succeed him. Chances are Wedge would be pitching Raffy and Joe in the 8th and 9th no matter what the order, so why make any change at all? Despite each pitcher's ability, disrupting the comfort they have in their respective roles could backfire. Perez and Lewis have an outside shot at closer, but I honestly don’t see Borowski losing the closer job if brought back.

Aaron Fultz will likely be brought back as well, providing extra depth and a veteran alternative to any rookies in the bullpen for 2008.

Shapiro’s stated "free agen[cy] by nature is so inefficient,” dropping yet another hint that he will be ultra-conservative over the winter. My guess is the biggest splash Shapiro makes in free agency is picking up a Fultzian reliever to add another layer of security to the bullpen. The team has certainly learned its lesson in gambling with the bullpen; the more options available, the better.

Interestingly enough, Shapiro cited Lewis and Perez as “on the radar” in 2007. I think it’s safe to say few fans were expecting those guys to make such an impact, but apparently Shapiro had them listed as legit options. With all the pitching depth in the minors, look for a couple other guys to come out of nowhere in the bullpen again next season.

Position Battles

Spring Training 2008 will feature three major position battles; much more exciting than the Inglett-Luna-Rouse free-for-all featured in 2007. Secondbase is the most significant, in my opinion, as it could indirectly determine the future of Marte and Barfield with the Tribe. I see both guys making the roster, but their roles and subsequent evaluations are unclear.

Shapiro explicitly mentioned upstart Asdrubal Cabrera as having a “prominent role” on the team in ’08. He wouldn’t explain what that role was yet, laying the foundation for a whole winter’s worth of fan speculation and analysis....thanks, Mark! I’ll be going into greater detail on the Tribe’s infield in a later article.

Left field and the fifth rotation slot are also a logjam this off-season. Choo was explicitly mentioned during the conference, with Ben Francisco, Jason Michaels, and David Dellucci rounding out left. This is assuming Gutz starts in right full-time, of course. Aaron Laffey, Jeremy Sowers, and Adam Miller are the main competitors in the rotation. I purposely left off Lee because I’m convinced he’ll be traded soon (and he stinks).

Sabathia’s Contract

Shapiro’s comments on Sabathia were one of the few concrete answers given. He indicated the goal was to have Sabathia's contract situation settled by the start of spring training. Shapiro made it clear he doesn't like to set specific timetables (see the surprise, mid-season contract extensions this year as proof), leaving the option open for a longer negotiating window. I think it will be difficult for Shapiro to negotiate with Sabathia once the season starts, unless the two sides are close to a deal. Sabathia has stated in the past that he doesn’t like to negotiate during the season.

With a short shopping list and few contracts to wrangle, Sabathia will benefit from the full attention of the front office this winter. If Sabathia truly wants to stay with Cleveland, I think we’ll hear a deal announced before April. The ownership has shown a strong commitment to increasing payroll and extending core players (Hafner and Westbrook), so C.C. should be no exception. Shapiro will likely have the green light and funding from Dolan to be aggressive, but if Sabathia wants too many years or just doesn’t feel the desire to stay, the California native will likely head to the West Coast.

Alex Rodriguez may play a minor role in Sabathia’s plans for ’09. The Dodgers and Angels are both rumored to be front runners for Rodriguez’s services this year. Signing Rodriguez could potentially make a serious dent in either team’s free agent coffer, making an already expensive Sabathia less attractive in a stacked ’09 pitching market.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Aces Wild

I haven’t posted much lately, as the last week or so has been pretty rough. To be honest, I still don’t have much of a taste for baseball right now, which is an extremely rare occurrence for me. I can’t even watch the World Series, it’s just too painful. Plus, it already looks like the Colorado Flameouts are going to roll over for the Boston Yankees anyway, so it’s not like I’m missing anything special. My initial reaction after Cleveland played its final game of the season certainly included anger, sadness, and all the like. The most prominent feeling was that of loss; as if something had been taken from me. It was a hollow feeling.

Despite all the pain left over from last week, the sting has subsided considerably. First off, my expectations going in were realistic, at best. I viewed the ALCS as a near even match up, hinging on the performance of a few select players. It’s hard to swallow a loss that could have easily swung to either team, but it doesn’t make any sense to dwell on a proverbial coin flip.

Boston was every bit as good as Cleveland going in, maybe a little better. The fact that Cleveland was such a large underdog was pure media hype; both teams featured similar traits and achieved near equal success before their meeting. The series went seven games for a reason. Yes, Cleveland won three in a row, pushing Boston to the brink. But just as Cleveland proved it could win three, so did Boston. There was nothing magical about Boston’s comeback. The timing was the thing. What if the roles were reversed and Cleveland came back from three down to win it? Would that be considered “clutch” play by Cleveland or a “choke” by Boston? It depends on who you ask. As I said, this series was a coin flip.

You may be wondering when I’m going to cut the philosophical, intangible slant. Well, that was just for a bit of perspective. One of the key factors that shifted the balance of power came down to two players: Sabathia and Carmona. Sabathia had been far from his usual self in Game 1 of the Division Series, while Carmona was absolutely brilliant. Fans took the optimistic view that Sabathia would bounce back and Carmona would carry his dominance into the ALCS; both fair assumptions. Obviously, neither came true and it killed the Tribe’s chances. Below are the ALCS stats for the two pitchers:

Game Player Team Result IP H ER BB SO HR Pitches-Strikes GB-FB Outs
ALCS Game 1 Sabathia Loss 4.1 7 8 5 3 0 85-44 4-3
ALCS Game 5
Loss 6 10 4 2 6 1 112-70 7-2

Game Player Team Result IP H ER BB SO HR Pitches-Strikes GB-FB Outs
ALCS Game 2 Carmona Win 4 4 4 5 5 2 100-51 4-2
ALCS Game 6
Loss 2 6 7 4 2 1 63-33 2-1

Cleveland
went 1-3 with their two best starting pitchers on the mound. Carmona did not factor into the decision for the single win, since his one run lead evaporated shortly after his departure in the 4th inning. The sole fact that Cleveland lost three of the four is not the overarching issue. Beckett and Schilling faced off against Sabathia and Carmona twice respectively, so it’s not as if the Tribe folded to a couple of patsies in those games.

The issue is the individual performance of Sabathia and Carmona in the series. Cleveland’s chances of winning Games 1 and 6 were slim to none after the mess (to put it politely) C.C. and Fausto left behind. Granted, the offense had its share of struggles, but the fact that the offense never had a shot to win Games 1 and 6 is obvious. I believe momentum and a team’s confidence are factors in the playoffs and Sabathia and Carmona made every start an uphill battle for the rest of the team.

By failing to adapt to Boston’s lineup (or contain Ramirez and Ortiz), C.C. and Fausto set themselves up for failure. If their plan of attack wasn’t failing them, their lack of command and dominant pitches were. The two pitchers gave up nearly a walk per inning pitched, combined. Allowing so many batters to reach base gave each start a tension that had to have worn on the pitchers. Even when Carmona and Sabathia gave up only four runs, Games 2 and 5 felt like they were just a bloop single away from disaster; the two were that shaky.

The inability go at least six (or even five, I’m not picky) innings placed all four games in the hands of the bullpen. The Cleveland bullpen is great, but Sabathia and Carmona placed a daunting task before the bullpen each night. The bullpen should not be expected to take on the job of the starting pitcher in four, high pressure games like that. Actually, scratch that, two of the games were blowouts, so I guess that relieves some of the pressure. Still, the bullpen was overworked. When a team’s setup man comes out for two innings in the middle of the game, someone didn’t do their job.

Cleveland led only once (in Game 2), allowing Boston’s pitchers to be more aggressive and take more chances. The pressure was always on the offense to catch up, as if facing Beckett and Schilling weren’t difficult enough already. The offense certainly missed some opportunities to break out against Boston’s pitching in these games, but Sabathia and Carmona did not provide the contributions Cleveland needed to keep up with Boston.

In such an even match up, Cleveland needed every advantage it could get. Sabathia and Carmona were supposed to be the advantage, outside of the Tribe’s bullpen, but they came up well short of what was required to win.

This does not change the fact that Sabathia and Carmona were as good a reason as any that Cleveland made the playoffs in the first place. It also doesn’t change the fact that Carmona owns one of the all-time great postseason pitching performances by an Indians pitcher, single-handedly winning a pivotal Game 2 against New York. When Tribe fans debate the 2007 ALCS though, Sabathia and Carmona should shoulder a significant part of the burden.

I don’t plan on fuming about the playoffs any more this season, so in my next post I’ll finally get around to Shap’s press conference and look back on some of the highlights from a great season.