Saturday, July 28, 2007

The Tribe Reloads

Here's what I expected the Cleveland Front Office to do before the trade deadline: Ship out Lee for bullpen help and a AAA prospect, put Stanford or Sowers in the starting rotation, and continue with Gutz, Nixon, J-Mike, and Francisco in the outfield corners.

It's good to be wrong about these things sometimes.

Lofton Returns, Fans Notice

Now batting: Kenny Lofton

The crowd of 37, 292 at Jacobs Field had begun to stir several minutes before the announcement was made as former Indian and fan-favorite Kenny Lofton stepped out of the dugout.

The crowd exploded once Lofton stepped out of the on-deck circle. They were on their feet for a full two minutes as Lofton went through his final motions before stepping into the batter's box. Lofton doffed his cap to the crowd to finalize the introduction for his third stint with the Cleveland Indians; he could not have received a warmer welcome.

Kenny received a standing ovation for each of his three hits Friday against the Twins.

Watching Lofton and Sizemore trot back to the dugout together during the first inning was beyond awesome, but I don't see Lofton as a way to bring back the teams from the 90's (it hurts me to hear people lament the loss of those teams, with such a great team right in front of them now). I do see him as a significant upgrade to the outfield and a crucial source of playoff experience on the youngest of the top contenders.

The Indians gave up single-A catcher Max Ramirez to get Kenny from Texas. Ramirez is having a great season with Kinston, but probably wouldn't contribute to the major league club for at least three more years. Ramirez has a lot of upside offensively, but a lot can happen to a minor league player's development before he reaches the majors. Another way to look at it is that Cleveland essentially traded Bob Wickman for Kenny Lofton; not a bad trade given their needs this season (although Wickman would have qualified as the extra late-inning reliever we need...ok, bad example).

The Lofton acquisition was made to bolster the outfield, but its effects reach well beyond the field. Lofton has what it takes to capture the attention of the average fan again. The 2007 Indians are in a sad situation as far as fan support at the Jake this year, despite fielding one of the best teams in baseball. As cautious as I am of comparing the 2007 club to one from the 1990's, Lofton represents a tangible link to that era. If a link to past teams is what it takes for the average fan to wake up and see just how great today's team is then so be it. Lofton could provide this spark for a dormant fanbase.

I'll go into detail on how Lofton fits into the Tribe's lineup in my next post.

Sleepy Kitten Gets Demoted

Cliff Lee as Sleepy Kitten; image courtesy of CarnegieAndOntario at

Cliff Lee was optioned to AAA Buffalo on Friday, less than a year removed from signing a major contract extension. As I said in my last post, Lee has been horrible this year and does not deserve a spot in the rotation of a major league contender. Despite Lee's performance on the mound, the last straw was drawn from his attitude. Lee has never shown much emotional investment in his career or the fate of his team. His apparent refusal to address issues with his pitch selection and execution (despite having the physical ability to do so) have placed him on the wrong side of his catcher and coaches. A five run inning elicits nothing more than an "aw shucks" and a sigh before he heads back into the dugout as if nothing happened. Lee's final act in an Indians uniform was to lift his cap in a mock acknowledgement of the booing Cleveland fans as he exited following his third straight game giving up 7 runs in less than 7 IP.

So how's that humble pie taste Cliffy?

In recounting the options the Tribe had in dealing with Lee, I overlooked the final minor league option he had left on his contract. The system behind it is a little complicated, but the bottom line is that Lee has not been on the 25-man roster long enough to eliminate all of his option years, allowing Cleveland to demote him this year.

Now, if you're the general manager, you obviously don't want a malcontent, $2.75 million pitcher hanging around your AAA staff too long. I'm still resolute in my thinking that Lee will never pitch for Cleveland again and will likely be traded to bolster the bullpen.

In an interview in the STO booth on Friday, Shapiro said "we're gonna get you [the team] that set up guy and then we're done; we're gonna sit back and watch." Lee could certainly be a part of that deal, but the minor league system is also loaded with excess parts in the outfield and firstbase.

If a deal can't get done before the July 31st deadline, any players involved would have to make it through waivers before the deal is finalized. Many post-deadline trades are struck down before they make it through the wire though, putting extra pressure on Shapiro to get a deal done by Tuesday night.

If Shapiro can convince another team that Lee still retains any semblance of a replacement level pitcher, his extremely desirable contract should weigh heavily on the minds of opposing GMs. Lee will be making $3.75 million in 2008, $5.75 million in 2009, and $8 million if his 2010 club option is picked up. That's a very tempting deal for a club looking to fill the fifth slot in their rotation (if they think they can get Lee to pull his head out of the sand, of course).

The most surprising part of the Lee situation is Aaron Laffey being called up to replace him. The Indians General Manager confirmed the decision on STO last night by saying, "in all likelihood, that [Lee's former rotation spot] will go to Aaron Laffey." Shapiro has a history of being very patient with young prospects (especially pitchers), which is why I did not expect him to make such a bold move. Shapiro traveled to Buffalo to see Laffey pitch in-person this week, so whatever Shap sees in this kid must be pretty darn good.

I think Laffey has the stuff to succeed at the next level. He is a groundball pitcher who has never given up many homers and has gradually increased his Ks and (significantly) decreased his BB totals each year. While I'm not particularly comfortable with giving a rotation slot to such an inexperienced pitcher, the fact that Shapiro has so much faith in the kid has caused me to soften my stance on the subject.

The following are two stat lines from two stud pitchers in the Tribe's minor league system:

Name League Age GS W-L IP ERA H/9 HR/9 BB/9 K/9 WHIP
Pitcher A
A+ 20 10 3-2 56 3.54 7.71 0.64 3.86 11.09 1.29

AA 20 17 3-7 90.1 3.59 7.47 0.6 4.78 8.97 1.36

Name League Age GS W-L IP ERA H/9 HR/9 BB/9 K/9 WHIP
Pitcher B AA 22 6 4-1 35 2.31 7.46 0.51 1.8 6.17 1.03

AAA 22 12 7-3 78.1 3.22 8.62 0.46 2.07 7.01 1.19

Pitcher A is C.C. Sabathia circa 2000 and Pitcher B is Aaron Laffey during the 2007 season. I'm not going to make too big a deal out of these stats, but it's an intriguing comparison. Another note is that Shapiro was Assistant GM to John Hart in 2001, Sabathia's rookie season. Just something to think about as Laffey's promotion approaches.

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