Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Frisco Kid Rides Again

In an uncharacteristic personnel move, Jason Michaels was given the team’s standard issue severance package this week: a one-way ticket to a mediocre NL team (i.e. Pittsburgh). Michaels had been decent as a platoon option against left-handed pitching the past two seasons with David Dellucci as his wingman. Michaels averaged a .248 AVG, .301 OBP, .353 SLG line in 250 games (820 AB) with Cleveland since 2006. He was off to a horrible start this season, batting just .208 with a miserable .254 OBP. Being the weakest link during a team-wide slump on a team with as much outfield depth as Cleveland certainly didn’t help Michaels’ job security.

As a result, Ben Francisco has been released from his purgatory in Buffalo earlier than expected. Francisco was batting just .228 in Buffalo this year, possibly suffering from a lack focus at the prospect of another long year in AAA (a.k.a. Andy Marte Syndrome). Ben was obviously happy to be back in Cleveland though, racking up 7 hits, 3 doubles, and 4 runs in his first five games. The guy deserves a shot this season; there’s nothing left for him to prove in Buffalo, especially after winning the International League MVP at age 25.

Judging by how quickly Michaels was shipped out, Francisco was one of the players on Shapiro’s speed dial this season. The offense has had such a rough start this season that the team really couldn’t afford to hang onto any dead weight for too long (at least as far as the “role players” go). The motivation behind Francisco’s promotion was addressed during a teleconference with Shapiro after Michaels was released: “This one guy, this one transaction is not going to solve our offensive woes. The answers to our offensive issues lie within.” Like Laffey earlier, depth from within continues to bolster the team.

Francisco is an instant upgrade on offense over Michaels and didn’t really cost the Tribe anything. It’s not as if Cleveland gave up much to get Michaels in the first place (Arthur Rhodes) and the $1,681,148 the team still owes him is no big deal since Francisco will only be paid league minimum this season. Michaels was in the last year of his contract anyway and would have certainly been allowed to walk. Replacing Michaels with a better, younger, cheaper player instead of watching him struggle to hit league average numbers again was a smart move.

So how will Francisco impact the Tribe’s outfield situation? Wedge said earlier that Ben will see playing time against righties to rest Dellucci and Gutz, adding "[Francisco is] versatile enough to play every outfield spot well.” It’s still early, but Wedge has used an inclusive rotation for his outfielders so far. In the five games since Francisco was called up, Dellucci and Francisco have started four games each, while Gutz has started three. The odd man out has received a late inning at-bat in each game to play the bullpen match-ups.

I doubt the playing time will continue to be this evenly distributed, especially since Francisco and Dellucci are both strongest against right-handed pitching. My guess is Wedge will have Francisco play once or twice a week in left field, maybe more if he has a hot bat to play. Francisco will likely spot Gutierrez in right, but not as a platoon situation. The interesting part is that Gutz has historically struggled against righties, batting just .232 in 198 PA last season. Normally, this would provide a second option to play Francisco who has a more robust .300, .333, .529 line against righties during his time in the majors, but Gutz has reversed his splits from 2007. Due to the small sample size (30 PA), I doubt Gutz's .698 OPS against lefties will stay that bad, but it does provide a minor issue for Wedge to ponder.

If I were Wedge, I’d just tough out Gutierrez’s current slump and play to his past strengths against left-handed pitching. Francisco can fill in the gaps against righties (or lefties as the case may be) if Gutz starts to look truly overwhelmed at the plate. I think having Gutierrez’s defensive expertise in right field (anyone who’s seen that cannon attached to his shoulder knows what I’m talking about) is a major plus and could offset his short-term offensive struggles. Francisco should continue to receive the occasional start in right, but Gutz has a pretty strong hold on the position right now.

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