Thursday, July 26, 2007

Rotation Roulette

Cleveland faces a tough situation in deciding what to do with Cliff Lee. He has always been a serviceable starter in the rotation, even with the flaws and frustrations attached. This year has been pretty brutal for the Tribe when Lee toes the rubber. Lee has been horrible in his last three starts with an ERA of 11.17. In addition to his performance on the mound, Lee has eroded the trust of his teammates.

In his last start, July 21 at Texas, Lee and catcher Victor Martinez got into a serious argument during a meeting on the mound. The argument carried over into the dugout after the inning ended. No negative comments have been made public by either player and no punches were thrown during the altercation. A 27 minute, closed-door, players only meeting followed the game. There have been several rumors as to what set off the original argument.

Lee’s lack of empathy after beaning Sammy Sosa in the head (on the night Texas honored his 600th HR) was one. My theory is that Lee refused to cooperate with Martinez and follow his pitch signals. Lee hit very few of Victor’s targets and seemed resolute in not throwing his curveball (a very effective pitch in previous starts). Martinez made multiple visits to the mound, especially during the first inning where Lee gave up five runs. The miscommunication culminated in what seemed like a refusal to block an errant pitch by Martinez.

I’m not going to go too deeply into the psychology of the situation, but it’s well known that Martinez takes great pride in how he manages the pitching staff. I can see how a pitcher ignoring his advice or not putting forth his best effort could upset or anger Martinez. I can not see Victor getting into an argument on a first offense though; the tension between the two players is cumulative and whatever Lee said must have been extremely provocative. Martinez has shown nothing but professional conduct over his career, so it’s safe to say Lee (with his often listless attitude) was the instigator here.

Hopefully, whatever happened that game has been resolved because the Indian’s clubhouse already has enough pressure from their pennant race; it doesn’t need any tension between its own players.

What’s the Alternative?

Let’s pretend Lee hasn’t gotten on the bad side of the team’s leadership and goes back to being just a crappy pitcher. What are the team’s options in this situation? There are a few, but none of them are particularly appealing given the team’s place in the standings this season. First, let’s take a look at Lee’s stats for 2007:

All stats are current as of July 25, 2007 and are cited from THT and the Baseball Cube.

C. Lee 15 5-7 87.2 5.95 3.7 3.1 5.8 1.47 1.46

The pitches per plate appearance (P/PA), BB/G, and K/G tend to stand out. I was surprised to see Lee’s K/G rate close to 6, especially since he’s not really a power pitcher. Another surprising note is that his P/PA of 3.7 is identical to Sabathia’s. His BB/G of 3.1 could be better, but combine those walks with a HR/G rate of 1.47 and you really run into trouble.

If Lee could start using his curveball (a big if) to induce more groundballs, he may cut down his HR/G and avoid some of those trademark big innings. The curve may also deter batters from sitting on his fastball all the time. As I said, I think Lee’s stubborn (yet obviously flawed) approach to pitching has begun to wear on certain members of the team.

[Update: As I wrap up this post, Lee has given up 7 ER in 4 IP against Boston. Lee did not seem particularly upset, even though his job is on the line and he is the main reason his team is losing.

As he left the field, Lee tipped his cap to the booing Cleveland fans, which is a despicable act in my eyes; he might as well have flipped everyone the bird. I really can’t remember the last time I was this angry with a player on my own team.

Lee is done in Cleveland, his appalling attitude and performance tonight was the final nail in the coffin. Look for Lee to be part of a trade to reinforce the bullpen by the July 31st deadline.]

So, Lee’s pitched pretty poorly, but how difficult would it be to replace him outright if he were traded? Here are the in-house options:

Adam Miller

The Tribe’s top pitching prospect would have been called up a while ago if it weren’t for some nagging injuries this season. According to an article on the team’s website circa July 24, “an examination by team physician Dr. Mark Schickendantz revealed inflammation in Miller's right elbow joint, forcing him to be shut down for the next 10 to 14 days. He will receive treatment in Cleveland during that period.” A healthy Miller would make this a no-brainer for Shapiro, but baseball’s funny that way. On to the next contestant…

Jeremy Sowers

Player Team GS
ERA ('05-
Sowers Cle 21 4.97 12 1-6 62.1 6.93 2.74 2.74 1.57

Buff 23 2.46 7 1-4 47.2 4.72 2.27 5.29 1.45

Sowers has the most major league experience by far, but has had mixed results. Jeremy got called up during the second half of the 2006 season and was among the best pitchers in baseball for that span. His 2007 efforts were a complete reversal and earned him a demotion to AAA Buffalo. Sowers continued to struggle in Buffalo, but not nearly as bad as in Cleveland (4.72 ERA vs. 6.93). He has shown signs of improvement in his last two starts, but wasn’t too hot in the previous three. One unusual stat for Sowers in Buffalo has been his K/9 rate shooting up to 5.64. Given Sowers’ lack of power and precision pitching style, the AAA opposition can probably take most of the credit.

Sowers has almost no shot at pitching in Cleveland again this year. Even if his AAA numbers are elevated because he’s trying new things to smooth out his delivery, the bottom-line is that he never returned to his 2006 form and is not ready to contribute in the majors this season.

Jason Stanford

Player Team GS ('05-
ERA ('05-
Stanford Cle 2 4.13 2 1-1 24 4.13 2.63 5.63 1.42

Buff 33 3.7 11 4-1 68.2 3.41 3.28 5.64 1.27

After battling a series of elbow injuries and getting healthy in Buffalo, Stanford made his first major league start since 2004 after getting called up in mid-June. Stanford has a grand total of 4 major league starts since 2004 and has spent the majority of his career against AAA pitchers. Stanford was unable to continue the success of his first start and has made only five appearances since his last start. He has been a useful, if mediocre, option for long relief, but has only appeared in blowouts or when the Tribe is down by several runs.

If Wedge and Willis trusted Stanford to get the job done, we would have seen him at least get a shot in some tighter games by now. He’s an emergency starter at best and I think he’s a long shot to be the fifth starter. His positive attitude alone gives him a step up over Lee, but I think he will help the team the most as the long-man in the bullpen.

Aaron Laffey

Player Team GS ('05-
ERA ('05-
Laffey Cle N/A - - - - - - - -

Buff 11 3.24 11 7-3 72.1 3.24 1.87 7.22 1.2

Laffey is an intriguing option. He’s been on the fast track through the Tribe’s minor league system with outstanding numbers over his career. The biggest risk with Laffey is obviously the lack of experience. He is 22 years old and only has 11 starts under his belt at Buffalo. Could he be what Jeremy Sowers was to the Indians last year? Maybe, but he could also be last year’s Fausto Carmona. Laffey has gradually lowered his BB/9 rate and maintained a solid K/9 rate over his career. He doesn’t give up many homeruns and gets a lot of outs from groundballs.

There is an outside shot that Laffey could be successful in the majors this year given his style of pitching and steady success through the minors. His glaring lack of experience is a huge liability though and I’m not sure how he would react to the pressure with the major league club. Given Shapiro’s history in dealing with young players, I would be shocked if he moved a 22 year old with 11 AAA starts to Cleveland this year.

Unless Shapiro can swing a trade for a fifth starter involving some of Cleveland’s excess prospects, Cleveland is in trouble. Lee can not continue to pitch with Cleveland, he has essentially run himself out of town with his foul attitude, but his potential replacements are far from a sure thing. The best scenario I can think of is move Stanford into the rotation and use either Cabrera or Sowers in long relief. And that’s not pretty.

Good luck Shapiro.

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