Thursday, May 29, 2008

Reluctant Optimism

It’s difficult to tell if this team has hit rock bottom yet. A seven game losing streak seems like a pretty good benchmark for how bad things will get this season, but the Tribe continues to crash and burn every chance they get. The lack of offense continues to negate an excellent pitching staff and above average defense and it looks like Eric Wedge is starting to feel the pressure. Wedge has reverted to shuffling the lineup every night in an effort to bust the team’s slump. When nearly everyone on the roster has been dragging at the plate, I’m not sure swapping one .220 batting average for another will make much difference, but you can’t blame a guy for trying.

The aspect of Wedge’s job that I’m most curious about is how he has been working with individual players to stay motivated and work through the losing streak. This aspect of managing isn’t revealed in the box score, but is still a big part of a manager’s job performance. I suppose I’m making a borderline argument for Wedge’s “intangibles” in dealing with the problem at-hand, but there’s a reason he has had success in developing and coaching this group of players over the years. Fans are quick to forget this team won 96 games last year; in-game decisions aside, how much are you willing to blame Wedge for the current trends?

Wedge and his core players have been through tough times before and I have yet to hear anything negative about the clubhouse atmosphere or Wedge’s relationship with the team. Sure 2006 was disappointing, but if you blame the coaching staff for that failure you have to also give them credit for the ALCS appearance the following year. The situation Cleveland is in right now reminds me most of the 2005 season where the team caught fire in the second half and nearly stole the division title from Chicago. One could argue that the 2005 team was playing without pressure and ended up folding in the final week when it really mattered anyway.

While the 2008 squad is under pressure to win, they also have a substantial amount of experience in handling a pennant race compared to 2005. In addition to being more experienced, the pitching staff is at least as good as it was back then (Millwood won the ERA title and Wickman had 45 saves), while half the starting lineup consisted of such luminaries as Broussard, Belliard, Boone, and Crisp. Granted, Hafner was a beast back then, but considering we had a mediocre Nixon, Barfield, and a mediocre Hafner last year, you get the idea. Neither of the recent offenses has really been stacked with All-Stars, but have produced enough to hit 90+ wins.

Who’s to say this team won’t storm out of the gates after the All-Star Break and catch Chicago (if Chicago somehow stays in first place). I think if the Tribe can manage to tread water while they work through their slump and get a few games over .500 by July, they will still be in a strong position to win the division. My point in comparing Cleveland’s 2005 season to 2008 is to try and put the team’s struggles in perspective; this is nothing new. At the break in 2005, Cleveland sat 11 games back with a 47-41 record. They went 46-28 the rest of the season and finished with 93 wins.

This season, Chicago and to a greater extent Detroit, have both shown serious flaws and would be hard-pressed to withstand a strong run by Cleveland in the second-half. Team’s come back from the dead all the time and the Tribe still has 41 games before they even reach the All-Star Break. The 121 games played after July 15 make up nearly 75% of the season. Keep that number in mind next time you think Cleveland is toast already. Any one who thinks the offense will be this miserable for much longer is jumping the gun, in my opinion. I’ll go into more detail on a future post, but it appears highly unlikely that the core players have all been vastly over performing up to this point in their careers. The offense will snap out of it eventually because there is just no way the majority of the players will post a career-worst year, that’s nuts.

They may be just 2-4 in their last six games, but the offense has shown signs of progress lately. Against a weak Texas staff and Chicago's strong pitching, Cleveland averaged 5.16 runs per game. Better yet, they reached base about 13.5 times per game during that stretch. The trick is getting more of those runners to cross the plate, but the fact they're reaching base at all is encouraging. Hang in there Tribe fans, I think the team will move on from this mess soon enough.

Hafner Hurting

Apparently, Travis Hafner has been experiencing pain in his right shoulder since Spring Training. I knew Hafner had to sit out a game early in April because of the injury, but it sounds like his shoulder has been bothering him all season. Hafner received his second cortisone shot of the season to relieve the inflammation in his shoulder joint. Head Trainer Lonnie Soloff diagnosed the issue as an “irritated joint,” but said there was no structural damage to the shoulder.

This may explain why Hafner has had trouble keeping his approach at the plate consistent this year. Hafner bats left-handed, so the right shoulder would be the one closest to the pitcher. As someone with no medical training, the first impression I get is that the injury may be causing Hafner to compensate for the limited motion or pain in other aspects of his swing. Hafner said he has been trying to correct flaws in his swing lately, but I have no idea how many of those “flaws” have been injury related. Obviously, Hafner refused to acknowledge the shoulder as the reason for his poor performance, but I think this may be one piece of the puzzle behind the disappearance of Pronk. Any injury serious enough to warrant a trip to the disabled list must be hindering a player’s performance somehow. Hafner will likely see regular off-days until his shoulder is back to 100%.

Marte Sighting

In an effort to find a lineup with some chemistry, Wedge has finally acknowledged the existence of Andy Marte. It took a catastrophic failure on offense, but it looks like Marte will finally see some playing time as a starter. Despite hitting just .216 with a .642 OPS, third baseman Casey Blake has held an iron grip on the starting job to this point. A recent Castrovince article cites the team-wide slump and Hafner’s injury as the reasons for Marte’s opportunity. I guess having a young, high-ceiling third baseman on the bench and an aging starter batting .216 isn’t reason enough, but I don’t call the shots. Marte has appeared in just 13 games this season, compared to Blake’s 46 appearances. It’s kind of sad, but Marte has received so little playing time since Opening Day that Michael Aubrey (called up on May 17) already has 8 appearances to Marte’s 13.

The ideal scenario would see Marte getting regular playing time for the next several weeks, as Blake is not getting any better here. Heck, with the way the entire lineup is going right now, I’d even be happy with Marte starting the majority of games next month. It certainly can’t hurt at this point. At best, Andy gets into a groove and provides an offensive spark akin to Ben Francisco. At worst, Cleveland displaces a crappy bat from the lineup a few times a week with another, slightly better bat who may develop into a superior, full-time starter by the end of the season. Any experimentation with the lineups (I’d say four different DHs in as many games counts as an “experiment”) should definitely include Marte for the foreseeable future.

Pitching Shuffle

Cleveland made several changes to their pitching staff in response to players coming off the disabled list. Joe Borowski returned from the DL on 5/23, causing relief pitcher Craig Breslow to be designated for assignment. Breslow had been the pen’s lefty specialist, posting a 3.24 ERA and 1.4 K/BB rate over 8.3 IP. I was surprised that Breslow was cut outright, but if the team feels it has a better option there’s no point fussing over a waiver wire pickup.

The next day saw Jensen Lewis headed to Buffalo, Carmona to the DL, and Scott Elarton and Ed Mujica called to Cleveland. The team was concerned with a sudden drop in Lewis’ velocity and sent him down to rest up and work out any tweaks in his delivery. Lewis had thrown the most innings of any reliever at 27.7, so fatigue or prevention thereof may have factored into the decision. Elarton posted a 2.45 ERA and 2.5 K/BB rate in 25.2 IP as a reliever in Buffalo this season. Elarton may fill in for Breslow’s duties as a spot and long reliever. I don’t expect Mujica to appear in many high-leverage situations, as his numbers in Buffalo (4.15 ERA, 26 IP) and past experience don’t inspire much confidence. Shapiro must have seen some improvement in Mujica to call him up though, so he’s kind of a wait-and-see player right now.

Finally, Jake Westbrook’s return to the rotation saw Jorge Julio DFA’d. With the offense needing all the help it can get, it appears Michael Aubrey’s spot is safe for now (personally, I think he could be trade bait later on). Julio was pretty much a non-factor this season, except when he was busy blowing leads. In his short stint with the Tribe he gave up 11 ER over 17.7 IP, so adiós Jorge.

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