Monday, May 19, 2008

Fear of Commitment

Tribe fans have become accustomed to Manager Eric Wedge’s hard-nosed managing style over the years; once he gets an idea in his head, he tends to stick with it. Many of these ideas tend to work out fairly well, while others just leave fans scratching their heads. In a recent article on the team website titled Tribe Moves to Closer by Committee, the manager had this to say:
I look at it like we have four guys I feel comfortable using in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings," Wedge said. "Depending on matchup and availability, that's how we're going to play it out. I explained to Betancourt what I'm seeing and where he's at.

According to Wedge, Borowski will still be the team’s closer when he completes his two rehab assignments this month. The article reconfirmed Borowski’s role and that the closer rotation would only last until his return. Even though it’s only a short-term situation, I don’t understand why Wedge would use situational matchups to dictate who will close a game. This implies that none of the four candidates (Betancourt, Masa, Lewis, Perez) can be trusted to close out a game on their own. This type of attitude has occasionally left the better option (or higher ceiling) on the bench, while Wedge’s “favorite” gets the bulk of the playing time. Closer should be a more concrete role; a pitcher can either handle it or he can’t and this team has at least two viable, experienced candidates in-house.

At the outset, Betancourt was a lock for interim closer, leaving Masa to take over the primary set-up role. Betancourt has not been his usual, dominant self this season and showed some inconsistency when handed the closer role. In 10 innings, including his first two save opportunities, Betancourt gave up 4 earned runs (3.60 ERA). Since then, he has surrendered 9 earned runs over 5 innings, including three appearances where he was chased early (16.20 ERA). Raffy converted two consecutive save opportunities before giving up three earned runs in a non-save situation, followed by a blown save. The same scenario played out again: two saves, a 3 run meltdown, and a (technically) blown save. Betancourt had loaded the bases with one out in the ninth against Oakland. Wedge had seen enough at that point and pulled Betancourt for Kobayashi. Obviously, Betancourt was in trouble that night and Wedge didn’t want to lose the game just because Raffy was off his game. When was the last time Wedge pulled Borowski when he was in a rough spot though?

I think Betancourt’s sampling of poor performances has made Wedge more cautious with how he uses him. Another possibility is that Wedge is just trying to take some of the pressure off Betancourt while he works through his slump. Whatever the reasoning, I doubt Betancourt will be asked to close again any time soon. The Oakland game on April 15 was Betancourt’s last appearance. It’s a bit harsh, but moving Betancourt back to the 8th inning seems like a good move; he either doesn’t have his best stuff right now or just doesn’t have the mentality to close (probably a little of both).

This brings us to Kobayashi, who has been outstanding so far. Kobayashi has posted a 3.20 ERA (it was 1.86 before the Dunn HR at Cincy), 1.16 WHIP, and 6.5 K/BB ratio. He is a veteran pitcher who has more practical experience as a closer than anyone else on the team (227 saves in Japan) and recorded two consecutive saves in lieu of Betancourt. Kobayashi is perfectly qualified to be the interim closer for a couple weeks, right? Then why does Wedge not trust Kobayashi enough to handle the duties on his own? That’s the impression I get when the phrase “closer by committee” is tossed out there; no single pitcher in the bullpen is good enough to close full-time.

With Betancourt essentially removed from closing and Kobayashi having to compete with a pitching platoon for the ninth inning, who will take over if Borowski goes down again? Borowski re-injuring his arm or continuing to be ineffective once healthy is a very real possibility. Cleveland does not seem to know who it will use to close if either of these scenarios plays out. Borowski at least deserves a shot to close again; the Tribe really doesn’t know what he’s capable of this season.

In the meantime, I think Kobayashi should be allowed to show what he’s capable of. As mentioned, Kobayashi is off to a solid start in transitioning to MLB. The next step should involve shifting him back into his former job as closer. Cleveland has other options for the future in Jensen Lewis and possibly Betancourt or Perez. Betancourt’s potential closer issues have been prominent lately, while Perez and Lewis are unknowns in the 9th (granted, you have to find out sometime with young players, but these guys already see a lot of high leverage situations in the 7th and 8th, thus making significant contributions elsewhere). I feel the strongest and most logical candidate for closing in 2009 is Kobayashi though.

My theory from earlier was that Cleveland may have offered Kobayashi a chance to close at some point as a way to lure him to the team (pure speculation on my part). For now, that all depends on how he responds as interim closer and how many more opportunities he has this month. There's no need to work under a cloud of mystery in the bullpen, the decision should come down to either Borowski (health permitting) or Kobayashi (Borowski and performance permitting). It’s unclear how Wedge is going to manage the 9th inning, but hopefully he does so with some foresight to the team’s needs.

Former Indian Sighting

I was pleasantly surprised to see Jody Gerut starting in center field for San Diego. Gerut was called up from the Triple-A affiliate in Portland in early May to replace Jim Edmonds. Jody’s off to a modest start, batting .216 with a .704 OPS, a homer, and a stolen base in 37 at-bats. I had no idea Gerut was still in baseball, let alone healthy again. Good for him though, I always liked Gerut, so hopefully he settles in with San Diego.

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