Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Lofton in Left

There hasn’t been much news out of Cleveland since the Lofton trade. Shapiro made it clear in a recent interview that the front office is still pursuing a final late-inning reliever. As usual, no details have leaked as to which pitcher the Tribe is pursuing. All teams have until 4pm Tuesday (7/31) to finalize any waiver-free trades, so fans will know soon enough if we got any help for Borowski and the Raffys.

The Indians have been repeatedly linked with Troy Percival of St. Louis. Percival has been effective in his comeback effort and may have become expendable as the Cards continue to struggle this year. It’s no secret that Eric Gagne is being dangled by Texas, but Cleveland is rumored to be out of the running for the former ace closer as the Yankees, Mets, and Red Sox move in on the hefty price tag. Other relievers on the market include Joaquin Benoit of Texas and Al Reyes of Tampa. Percival, Benoit, and Reyes would be well suited to 8th inning duties, although it is unclear what Reyes’ feelings on closing are. Percival appears to be the cheapest of the three, given the (omnipresent) holes in Tampa’s roster and Texas going into full-blown rebuilding mode.

Lofton’s Role

Here’s an update of how the outfield platoon is performing for the 2007 season:

Lofton - Bats: L

vs. L 42 69 .217 .300 .261 .561
vs. R 87 258 .329 .402 .485 .887

Gutierrez - Bats R

vs. L 24 53 .340 .364 .604 .967
vs. R 41 55 .255 .311 .455 .766

Michaels - Bats R

vs. L 45 99 .293 .363 .455 .817
vs. R 63 96 .250 .280 .375 .655

Nixon - Bats L

vs. L 34 46 .217 .283 .283 .566
vs. R 81 215 .260 .363 .363 .725

Lofton fits in nicely with the existing platoon situation in the outfield corners. Lofton could technically platoon with either Gutierrez or Michaels, but will likely patrol left field with J-Mike. Gutierrez and Michaels each have a near even split between at-bats versus lefties and righties this season. Both bat right handed and perform significantly better against left handed pitchers as a result (there’s a shocker). Gutz has a cannon for an arm and is well-suited to right. He can continue to be spotted by Nixon, who has played all of his games in right field this year.

Michaels is forecast to lose some playing time, but should still start every game against left handed pitching; Lofton has been brutal against lefties this year, batting .217 with a .561 OPS (69 AB is a borderline sample size, but his OPS against lefties in 2006 was .549 in 89 ABs).

Given the way the platoon has gone thus far, Lofton and his left handed bat should take the majority of at-bats away from Nixon (also a lefty). It may seem a bit harsh, but there’s not much logic in playing Nixon outside of the rare situation where his career splits standout against a pitcher or someone needs a day off.

Gutierrez's numbers drop off significantly when facing righties, but they are still better than Nixon's, even though Nixon's primary role is to hit righties. Despite the dropoff, Gutz has kept certain aspects of his production consistent against all types of pitchers with only four hits and a homer the deficit between his splits (he also has 3 more walks versus righties).

In trading for Lofton, the team officially admitted to Nixon’s deficiencies as the left handed bat in the platoon. Wedge needs to field the best team possible for the rest of the season and Nixon is currently the worst outfielder on the roster. Do I seriously think Wedge will bench Nixon the majority of the season? No, but Lofton gives him every opportunity to do so from here on.

Adding Lofton gives the team’s overall speed a boost. Despite being 40 years old, Lofton has stolen 21 bases with Texas this year with an 84% success rate. Even if Wedge isn’t aggressive with Lofton on the bases, his ability will put extra pressure on pitchers as they face the heart of the order. Sizemore (.386 OBP) and Lofton (.380) gives Cleveland two excellent table setters for Martinez and Hafner. Blake has done an admirable job in the two spot, but can now be used to bolster the weaker end of the lineup (i.e. Nixon’s old spot). Here’s the projected lineup with Lofton included:

Player - BA / OBP / SLG

Sizemore - .275 / .386 / .469

Lofton - .306 / .380 / .437

Martinez - .309 / .379 / .525

Hafner - .258 / .386 / .442

Garko - .312 / .380 / .514

Peralta - .281 / .354 / .459

Gutierrez - .296 / .336 / .528

Blake - .267 / .347 / .456

Barfield - .251 / .278 / .328

It’s no Muderer’s Row, but a pretty impressive lineup just the same. The ability to get on base consistently has been a trademark of this team, wearing down pitchers with each at-bat. A prime example of this was the last start against Johan Santana. Despite a lack of baserunners, the Tribe was able to make the Twin’s ace work hard for his outs, throwing 114 pitches over 7 IP until he finally made a mistake in his final inning to tie the game at 2 all.

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