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.

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 LetsGoTribe.com

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.

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.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

This One's For the Pessimists

I'm back from my trip to the Motherland, aka Lyndhurst, Ohio. I was fortunate enough to go to the Cleveland-Chicago game on July 17 and see Garko slay the Sox in extra innings. Two of the three games I've been to this year (D.C., Texas @ Cle.) have ended in walk off wins; kind of a strange stroke of luck (although we lost each series in the end, hmmm). A lot's gone down while I've been away, so on to the latest from the Tribe....

Cleveland has played 97 games in the 2007 season with 65 remaining. The second half of the season is where things tend to get interesting, as the true fight for a playoff berth really takes off. Under manager Eric Wedge, Cleveland has arguably played their best baseball in the second half. Going into the All Star break with 52 wins (just a game behind Detroit) is unprecedented for a Wedgie team. Below is a breakdown of the team under Wedge’s tenure, from 2004 to 2006:

Year Split
2004 1st Half
42 45 474 482 .483

2nd Half
38 37 384 375 .507
2005 1st Half
47 41 406 364 .534

2nd Half
46 28 384 278 .622
2006 1st Half
40 47 488 443 .460

2nd Half
38 37 382 339 .507
2007 1st Half
52 36 471 414 .591

I excluded the 2003 season under Wedge because the team was still in full rebuilding mode and would only skew the data for the teams who had a realistic chance of contending, playoffs or otherwise.

It may be a stretch to compare these teams directly, but the basic structure and core players have been very similar from 2004 to 2007, so I think it’s fair for just a rough comparison. Despite changes around the core, this particular team of players under Wedge has a distinct pattern of performing better in the second half of the season.

Every Wedgie team has finished with a better win percentage in the second half than in the first half. A rough calculation has Cleveland finishing around 95 wins if they continue to win games at their current pace. They are already playing 3 games above their projected record, according to THT, and are only 1.5 games behind Detroit as I write this. Combine that with the 3rd best record in the majors and Tribe fans have reason to be optimistic. Here are the AL Central standings as of July 22:

Team W L PCT GB vs Cent.
Detroit 58 38 .604
Cleveland 57 40 .588 1.5 21-12
Minnesota 51 47 .520 8 14-20
Chicago 43 54 .443 15.5 17-16
Kansas City 43 54 .443 15.5 13-21

Cleveland also boasts one of the best intra-division records in the AL at 21-12. I posted a theory earlier in the season that the rest of the Central would beat up on each other, allowing the Tribe to move ahead of the pack. Looking at the standings, the theory seems to be holding up, although Detroit has recently closed the gap due to the Tribe’s poor play in the last Detroit and Chicago series’. A key difference so far has been how Cleveland (9-9) and Detroit (14-4) performed in interleague games this year.

Some fans may point out Detroit is only positioned to become stronger in the second half and Cleveland has yet to distance themselves from their division rival. This is true; Detroit has already gotten Kenny Rogers back and Zumaya and Rodney should be back later in the season to bolster their bullpen.

Cleveland has gotten some extra pitching help since the All Star break, though.

Westbrook is healthy again and while he hasn’t been particularly dominant, he has performed close to his career numbers. Jake has gone at least 6 innings in his five post DL starts, with an era of 4.50 and no wins. Remove his start against Detroit (career 6.59 era in 15 starts) where he gave up 5 runs over 7 IP and Jake’s era drops to 3.81 in his last five games. He’s really been a victim of poor run support in some of his better starts, but should start collecting wins as the law of averages takes over (the offense can’t go cold for every start).

Perez has pitched 29 innings this season and posted a 1.86 era, 34 Ks, and a .86 whip. The front office is currently pursuing another reliever to share the load with bullpen ace Betancourt, but Perez may be the answer they were looking for (he started the season in AAA). Perez was used primarily as a long reliever until he became a late inning regular in late June. He is currently the Tribe’s go-to pitcher for close games and is arguably the best pitcher in the bullpen right now.

Factor in a rebounding Hafner and the possible production from Gutierrez and Francisco in the outfield and the offense should be even better in the second half.

This is obviously a very simplistic evaluation of the team's performance, but it's encouraging nontheless.

In Other News

I'll be the first to admit that I've been drinking the Kansas City Kool Aid this year, proclaiming them contenders in 2 years, but they have been a team to be recokoned with lately. After taking two of three from Boston, K.C. has moved into a 3rd place tie with Chicago in the AL Central with a 43-54 record. While I hadn't printed it on this site, I had a strong feeling that the Royals would challenge Chicago for 3rd place this year. Given how much I despise Chicago, it would be great to see Buddy Bell and the Royals shove them into the basement.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Optimus Pronk

Travis Hafner and the Cleveland Indians have agreed to a four year contract extension, according to the team’s website. According to the press release, exact financial details were not immediately available, though Foxsports.com reported the value of the extension at $57 million. The deal reportedly includes a club option for 2013.

The last year (2008) of Hafner’s old contract was reportedly reworked to give him a raise for that year. The new deal kicks in at the beginning of the 2009 season and ends in 2012 but, the club option for 2013 would actually add a fifth and final year onto the contract.

Given the previous contract talks already in place and Hafner’s struggles to meet expectations in the first half this season, I had a strong feeling a deal would be announced during the All Star break. It’s not yet clear who was calling the shots on getting a contract done so early: Shapiro, Scott Parker (the agent), or Hafner.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Hafner decided to take more of an active role in finishing the deal. There has been speculation that the pressure to perform leading up to his walk year has been a key factor in Hafner’s slump this season. It’ll be interesting to hear what’s on Pronk’s mind, assuming he gets interviewed at the press conference.

Like Shapiro’s previous contract negotiations, details were kept in-house until the deal was finalized and announced by Shap himself. I’m sure the players and their agents appreciate the privacy they are afforded during negotiations. The added pressure and speculation from the media in the bigger markets can often result in chaos and tends to complicate or even slow a transaction.

The best comparison for Hafner’s new contract was the extension David Ortiz signed in 2006 with Boston (contract terms taken from Cot’s Baseball Contracts)

Ortiz has a 4 year, $52 million contract (2007-2010), plus a $12.5 million club option for 2011.

Hafner has a 4 year, $57 million contract (2009-2012), plus an unknown salary for the club option in 2013.

Given the recent insanity on the free agent market, Hafner’s contract has the potential to be a blockbuster deal for the Tribe. Hafner will be 34 at the end of his core contract, offering the team crucial flexibility (payroll restrictions or otherwise; /knocks on wood) when the time comes for the fifth year team option. So essentially, Shapiro prevented the current market from bullying negotiations, locked up yet another core player and fan favorite, and possibly relieved one of his best offensive players of a significant mental burden. Excellent job, no matter what angle you look at it.

It seems Cleveland fans are somewhat divided over whether Hafner or Sabathia should be signed first. Outside of a major payroll hike, there will not be enough money to sign both to long-term contracts without crippling the general manager’s flexibility. I won’t go into detail on the debate for this post, but I’ve always been in the party that losing Hafner would make the biggest long-term impact. At the moment, the Indians do not have a way of replacing Hafner’s production in the lineup and there aren’t any AAA prospects that project to have that kind of presence either. Sabathia on the other hand, has über-prospect Adam Miller joining the rotation next season. Miller has a much better chance of developing into an ace than Cleveland does in finding another Hafner in the next two years.

Even if Sabathia walks, Shapiro has already locked up the rest of the team’s core player through 2010. Again, all contract information is taken from Cot’s Baseball Contracts:

Sizemore: 6 years/$23.45M (2006-11), plus $8.5M 2012 club option

Peralta: 5 years/$13M (2006-2010), plus $7M 2011 club option

Westbrook: 3 years/$33M (2008-10)

Martinez: 5 years/$15.5M (2005-09), plus $7M 2010 club option

Lee: 4 years/$15M (2006-09), plus 2010 club option

I wouldn’t consider Lee to be a “core” player, but given the outrageous contracts pitchers have been getting lately, the fact that we have him on the cheap is reassuring. That doesn’t even include Barfield, Carmona, Raffy Perez, Shoppach or Garko, who are under team control for multiple years as well.

If Cleveland played in a weaker division, they would have a chance to follow in Atlanta’s footsteps: maintaining a core, signing veteran role-players, and reloading every few years with the next crop of blue chip prospects. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple this time around, but Shapiro has positioned the Tribe to contend for quite a while.

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Grit Fest 2007

Well, it looks like every sports writer on the planet beat me to the annual All-Star Game snub list. I normally cringe at the All-Star selections, but I really can't find much fault with the selections this year. Hanley Ramirez should have at least been picked as a reserve and Kevin Youkilis is an arguable snub. Carlos Beltran in the starting outfield ahead of Matt Holliday is an obvious case of ballot stuffing. My biggest issue is Ivan Rodriguez (his defense doesn't even save him this year; worst in 4 seasons) starting ahead of Victor Martinez.

With the exception of Beltran, the NL starters look solid, especially Prince Fielder and Russell Martin; great first-time selections there. Vlad and Ichiro were the only non-Yankee/Sox/Tiger players who cracked the AL starting roster, but it's hard to argue against the players selected (except Pudge, of course). Overall, the fans didn't embarass themselves this year, which is nice.

Like most baseball fans, I enjoy the All-Star Game quite a bit, despite my frequent criticism. There are few times so many great players are assembled on the same field and it's always fun to see the Cleveland representative in action (three this year, woo-hoo!). You can tell the players and their families get a kick out of attending the game too. The baselines during the Homerun Derby often look like a family reunion amongst the players; many are close friends, but have little off-time during the busy season. Not to mention the amount of publicity and revenue MLB and the host city rake in from the festivities.

So if the industry, fans, and players all love the All-Star Game, what's there to complain about? Nothing, actually. I have no problem with the game itself, it's the outdated connotations associated with an All-Star selection that I disagree with.

The All-Star Game is voted on by the fans, for the fans. A large majority of fans who vote for the starting rosters do so with their favorite players in mind, not who has the best OPS or strikeout to walk ratio. Given the recent trends in the voting, stats and pure performance play a complementary role, at best. If sportswriters, historians, and Hall of Fame voters insist on using a popularity contest as a measure of a players legacy or skill, they are kidding themselves. It's obvious being voted in as an All-Star has lost much of its significance at this point and should be taken with a grain of salt.

Obviously, the most popular players tend to be some of the best, but they are not always deserving. The fans often ignore outstanding and deserving players, sending players who are not the best at their position that season to the exhibition. Isn't the point of selecting All-Stars to honor the players who are playing the best baseball at that point? There are far too many questionable or flat out bad selections each year to continue to justify the significance currently associated with a selection.

Now, the core of my argument is only applicable to the starting fielders, as the pitchers and reserves are selected by a combination of major league players, managers, and the Commissioner's Office. There is certainly something to be said for being recognized by one's peers as a premier player and these selections tend to carry more clout than the fans' selections.

According to Baseball Almanac, "All-Star teams were originally selected by the managers and the fans for the 1933 and 1934 games. From 1935 through 1946, managers selected the entire team for each league. From 1947 to 1957, fans chose the team's starters and the manager chose the pitchers and the remaining players. From 1958 through 1969, managers, players, and coaches made the All-Star Team selections. In 1970, the vote again returned to the fans for the selection of the starters for each team and remains there today."

Out of all the combinations stated above, having the managers, players, and coaches select the team is the one with the least potential for bias. The more diverse and knowledgeable the selection committee, the better the final representation. While a single manager will certainly be looking for the best roster possible, it's not a stretch to say selections are still made partly on reputation and familiarity (i.e. their own players).

A strong bias has existed in All-Star Game selections since the exhibition's inception 74 years ago. Yet, sportswriters have been using the selections as a measure of a players worth for just as long. All-Star selections are even written on a player's Hall of Fame plaque. What is it that causes supposed experts on the sport to ignore the inherent flaws in being chosen as an All-Star?

Well, my theory is that it provides a definitive link between a player's career and the fans. The fans' interest is stirred when they know they have a say in how a player's career may play out; seeing recognition of their vote on a Hall of Fame plaque is just an added thrill. This link is used in recounting a players performance in sports articles because it is an easy point of reference for the casual fan. The fact that a selection is often a misleading way to compare players' careers is poor journalism. I could cite many examples, but to start:

Dmitri Young - 2 time All-Star
Omar Vizquel - 3 time All-Star

Shown a difference of one selection, which player do you think has had a better career?

One area where All-Star selections may be viewed as a measure of a player's career can be derived from the Hall of Fame's voting criteria: "voting shall be based upon the player's record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played." As much as I hate citing intangibles as a measure of a player's career, they are stated right there in the selection requirements. A player's character could certainly be reflected in the number of All-Star appearances, since it shows good standing with his fans and peers. However, this does not excuse the lack of All-Star selections for overlooked and deserving players. Just how many genuinely bad guys are there in the sport anyway? I can see (hypothetically) choosing Fred McGriff over Albert Belle because one is an upstanding guy and the other is uh, rude, but how often does a scenario like that come up?

The Mid-Summer Classic exists for the fans, but would you let the fans vote on who gets into the Hall of Fame, too? Of course not. So let the fans have their fun with the exhibition games and leave the true measure of a players career to the players pure performance. The great thing about baseball is that every major award except a series title can be measured by statistics. The All-Star Game isn't based on statistics and that's fine; just don't act like it is.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Remembering Larry Doby

July 5th marks the 60th anniversary of Larry Doby's entrance into the American League. Doby was signed by the Cleveland Indians in 1947 by general manager and owner Bill Veeck. Doby had played for the Newark Eagles of the Negro League for five years. The 22-year old Doby was sent straight to Cleveland in his first year of major league baseball.

Doby was only the second black player in the majors, following Jackie Robinson's debut by 11 weeks. Sadly, Doby's pioneering role in integrating professional sports is often overshadowed by Robinson. Doby faced extreme hardship throughout his career, but did not receive the national spotlight Robinson did in New York because he played in the Mid-West.

To this day, Major League Baseball fails to acknowledge Larry Doby the way it acknowledges Jackie Robinson. Not to take a thing away from Robinson, but are one man's accomplishments really so much different from the other? The Cleveland Indians, Doby's team of 10 years, remains the sole professional organization to pay tribute to a great ballplayer and his historic accomplishments.

Larry Doby played centerfield for the Cleveland Indians from 1947-1955, and again in 1958. He was an integral member of Cleveland's 1948 World Championship team, posting a .318 AVG, .375 OBP, and .500 SLG in the six game series. Doby also hit the game winning, walk-off homer in Game 4. Doby posted an OPS+ of at least 126 from 1947-1958, finished 1st or 2nd in OPS from 1950-1952, led the league in HR twice (1952, 1954), SLG (1952), RBI (1954), and Runs (1952). He was a 7-time All Star and finished in the top 25 in MVP voting three times, despite facing heavy opposition because of his skin color. After back injuries shortened his career, Doby turned to coaching and became the second black manager in baseball (after Cleveland's Frank Robinson) with the 1978 White Sox.

Larry Doby was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1998, five years before his death. Doby's number 14 was retired by Cleveland in 1994 and will be worn by the team in August 2007 to honor the 60th anniversary of his major league debut.

Larry Doby's life reaches far beyond his achievements as a ballplayer and continue to resonate in sports and American society today.

Below are a selection of articles looking back on Doby's struggles, career, and impact. I'd recommend checking out at least one, if only to learn more about an important player in the Civil Rights Movement and baseball history.

Doby: the Forgotten Trailblazer, 7/5/07

Larry's Legacy, 7/5/07

Doby's Numbers, Attitude Speak Volumes, 7/5/07

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Detroit Rocked

Is there anyone on this Cleveland squad who hasn't hit a walk-off homer yet? Casey Blake was the latest hero in a tight game in Detroit Tuesday night, launching one in the 11th inning to put his team ahead for good. Ben Francisco gets an assist with his game-tying homer in the 8th.

The Tribe got off to a good start, scoring a run in the first off aggressive baserunning from Sizemore. Grady bunted the first pitch of the game down the firstbase line for a single. Blake would single and a hustling Sizemore would dive headfirst into third. Peralta wrapped up the scoring sequence with a sac fly. The Tribe's offense pieced together just enough hits to keep it close against a locked-in Mike Maroth. Two of Cleveland's four regular inning runs came on sacrafice flies.

The Tribe had a difficult time keeping up with Maroth's adjustments. Maroth started out with a by attacking the inside part of the plate. Once the Indians caught on and started pulling the ball more, Maroth fought back with a mix of breaking and off-speed pitches. Maroth caught multiple batters staring at a ball down the middle because he fooled them so badly. Even though he would finish with 8 K's, Maroth would surrender 6 hits and 3 BB over just 5 IP.

They may have been fooled a lot, but the Tribe did a great job of making Robertson work (108 pitches). Taking advantage of the weakest starter they will face and making the bullpen work overtime was crucial in this first game. This will be especially helpful later on since the Tigers' bullpen is already depleted with Zumaya and Rodney on the DL.

On the Cobra

The Cobra officially broke out of his earlier funk, drawing on his experience and precise control to keep the Tigers in check. Byrd got into a couple jams, but found a way to control the damage. He gave up two runs on a few hits early in the 2nd inning, but didn't panic. Instead, he mowed down the bottom of the Detroit lineup after giving it up to the top half.

Byrd faced another looming disaster in the 5th, loading the bases on a Magglio Ordonez walk with two outs. Facing Carlos Guillen, who has a .407 avg. with the bases juiced, Byrd gave up a bloop single. Michaels and Shoppach bailed out their pitcher and combined for a great play
to nail the clunky Sheffield at home. Shoppach did a nice job of blocking the plate and forcing Sheffield into a difficult slide. That was the last run a Cleveland pitcher would give up in 11 innings.

A tight game like this is a good example of why veteran pitchers are vital to a staff; they share their experience with the younger pitchers and mentor them on how to get out of jams and approach different batters and scenarios. As much as the pitching coach works with the young pitchers, it's good to hear advice or encouragement from a teammate who's been there. It gives the young guys confidence to watch the vet keep the team in the game and not give up the big inning.

The Cobra maintained his focus and needed only 104 pitches, 68 for strikes, over 7 innings. You know when Byrd can pound the strike zone like that and still top out at only 88 mph with his fastball that his location and pitch movement are solid. Since his start in Atlanta, Byrd has posted three straight quality starts with Cleveland winning all three.

On the Pen

With all the game winning homers flying around lately, it feels like the Tribe bullpen is getting overlooked at times. Betancourt, Mastny, and Borowski combined to pitch 4 innings, holding the Tigers to an outstanding 2 hits, 1 walk, and no runs. They walked a tightrope, but shut down a tough Tigers offense in front of a raucous crowd.

Apparently Betancourt is the slowest pitcher in the league, forcing the umps to enforce a rule I've never even heard of. If a pitcher doesn't throw the ball 20 seconds after the batter steps into the box, he is charged with a ball. I was wondering what the second base ump was doing with a stopwatch until he raises his hand and calls this obscure rule on Raffy (happened twice actually). I've never seen Wedge so livid over a call, but he must have kept the profanity to a minimum because he didn't get tossed. Seriously though, you don't need to touch your cap three times before you throw it Raffy.

This was an intense game, showing a playoff atmosphere in July. It could have gone either way, with near misses on homers by Ordonez and Granderson late in the game. There is a definite rivarly between these two teams and the fans can sense the urgency of their meetings this season. Cleveland has taken 6 of 8 from the Tigers this year.


I usually watch the games on MLB TV, so I get the away announcers, as well. The Detroit team was actually one of the better ones I've heard, but they had a few fun quotes during the game:

*Following the Francisco game-tying tater:

"You gotta be kiddin' me." (twice)

*Detroit has the bases loaded with one out in the tenth:

Announcer #1: "You know they're gonna win this game right?"
Announcer #2: "Well they have to now."

Happy Independence Day Everyone!

Sunday, July 1, 2007

Grover Resigns

Seattle manager Mike Hargrove announced his resignation before Sunday's contest with Toronto. Hargrove held a post-game news conference to explain his decision, citing a lack of focus and an inability to uphold his personal standards. When discussing his role as manager this season Hargrove states:

I have never had to work at getting that level myself -- ever -- until recently. I've found that I've had to work harder in making that same commitment to my bosses, to my players and to my coaches. And that's not right.

He goes on to say that his "passion [for the game] has begun to fade," after 37 years in professional baseball.

Hargrove gradually improved a troubled Mariners franchise from a .426 win % in 2005, to .481 in 2006, and .571 this season. The Mariners were in the middle of an 8 game win streak and were only 4 games behind the elite Anaheim Angels at the end of June.

Why would he step down during his most successful season since 1999? Grover cites his lack of passion and a desire to spend more time with his family as the primary reasons for leaving. The explanation Grover provides would sound perfectly reasonable if it came at the end of a season, but not right before the All-Star break.

Given Hargrove's well-publicized friction with GM Bill Bavasi, it's easy to suggest his departure was due to a series of arguments over the season, but I don't think this is the case with Hargrove. I'm obviously speculating at this point, but unless something leaks out the only person who will be able to cast a clarifying light on the situation is Hargrove himself. Given his hard-nosed personality and occasionally tense relationship with former Cleveland GM John Hart, I doubt Hargrove would allow an obnoxious general manager push him out of the job he loves.

I don't agree with the decision to abandon Seattle in the middle of the season, but I understand where Hargrove is coming from. Something caused Hargrove to realign his priority in life from the rigorous schedule of an MLB manager to being a full-time family man again. When a trigger that urgent goes off, it makes it nearly impossible to focus on one's job. Refusing to perform below his own high standards as a manager, Grover chose to address the source of his anxiety and step down. I wouldn't be surprised if the lack of family time had been weighing on his mind for the last couple seasons, but his sudden loss of focus and passion caused him to finalize his decision.

Hargrove is reportedly staying on with the Mariner's front office as a special advisor for the remainder of the season. It is unlikely that he will be offered a job to manage in the majors again after leaving his team mid-season like this.

Hargrove managed in Cleveland for 9 years (1991-1999), Baltimore for 4 (2000-2004), and Seattle for 2 1/2 (2005-2007). In addition to two World Series appearances with Cleveland (1995, 1997), Grover is currently 36th on the all-time wins list for a manager and has a career .503 win percentage. The Human Rain Delay played for Texas, San Diego, and Cleveland over 12 major league seasons as a firstbaseman and designated hitter.

Good luck with your next project, Grover.