Friday, July 4, 2008

Raising the White Flag

It's pretty obvious. If you're looking for an announcement that we're going to start trading guys, you won't get that until we make our first trade. But I think it's fairly obvious at this point.
-Cleveland GM Mark Shapiro, 7/2/08

The white flag was officially raised by Cleveland this week with 77 games remaining in the season. The decline of this year’s squad has been one long, painful slump after another. If it wasn’t the offense, it was the bullpen. If it wasn’t the bullpen (though it usually was), it was the starting pitching. As the injuries stacked up, it became more and more apparent that this team would not have the talent needed to contend.

There was certainly some risks and elevated expectations going into the 2008 season. Even if the team was completely healthy, they would have had a tough time improving on their ALCS appearance last year. Half the analysts from Bristol to Minneapolis were picking the Indians to make the playoffs again, maybe even go all the way. How much that pressure weighed on the players and the coaching staff, nobody knows except the people in the dugout. After all the seasoning this team has gone through since 2005, I doubt few players gave the pressure of making the playoffs again a second thought. Besides, hanging a season with this many speed bumps on mental hiccups just doesn’t make any sense.

The risk I was referring to is going into a season with out making any major upgrades or additions to the team. This is about the biggest hindsight criticism one can make, but it’s true; there was a degree of risk involved. Shapiro placed a lot of faith in young players like Garko, Gutierrez, and Cabrera to take the next step and they stumbled. Veterans who were charged with carrying left field, third base, and the closer role failed miserably. Even the vaunted core of Sizemore, Martinez, Peralta, and Hafner couldn’t save the season, as the catcher and DH succumbed to injuries for a crucial stretch of the season. The starting pitching was the one bright spot this season, until two of the most consistent starters found themselves on the DL as well.

Despite the hindsight argument that Shapiro failed to bolster the offense as teams like Boston and Detroit got stronger, we’ll never know the true potential of this group of players because two of the three main offensive cogs were never healthy to begin with. There is no way anyone could have predicted such a handicap, thus there was no way to prepare for it in the offseason (how much he knew about Hafner’s shoulder is arguable, but that would be pure speculation here). An offense does not fluctuate like a bullpen; these players had a history of success offensively and Shapiro made a perfectly defensible decision to stick with them.

Obviously this season was disappointing, but when you get down to it anything short of a Word Series win would have been a disappointment in the end. 2007 was one of the greatest seasons I’ve ever experienced as an Indians fan, yet it was all a mere stepping stone toward a long awaited goal. It’s not uncommon for a strong contender to take a step back the season after. Whether players leave, get injured, regress, age, or have the wear of a playoff run catch up to them, it’s extremely difficult to sustain.

Granted, some teams are the exception to this rule (Oakland, New York, Boston, Atlanta are the most recent….the list gets much shorter after that).

I believe Cleveland may have fallen victim to its own success in a way. Were Shapiro and Wedge overconfident because of the team’s past accomplishments?


Did pitchers like Carmona, Westbrook, and Betancourt over-work their arms by throwing so many strenuous innings?


Fluctuations like these are part of the game; you just have to hope your team can stay ahead of the curve.

In a way, it’s beneficial that Cleveland tanked this year. The team’s struggles were a quick (albeit painful) way of weeding out holes in the lineup and who should be shipped out. With any luck and a little less stubbornness from Wedge, the team will finally have a no-risk opportunity to evaluate Andy Marte in the Majors. Cleveland can also convert the value Sabathia may have offered in the playoffs into a young, cornerstone player for 2009 or 2010.

Falling out of contention may be a blessing in disguise if the return for Sabathia fills in one of those offensive holes that have plagued the team lately. There’s no way this team would trade Sabathia if it were still gunning for a playoff spot.

Below is my list of things I’d like to see happen now that Cleveland has raised the white flag and started taking entries for the C.C. Sweepstakes. I’ll go into more detail on a few of these later this week:

1.) Trade Sabathia

The trade winds blowing through Cleveland are practically a hurricane now. The two most convincing reports I’ve heard so far come out of Milwaukee and Los Angeles. Milwaukee appears to be the front runner out of the many teams supposedly scouting Sabathia this month. It sounds like the Tribe may get a stud prospect or two after all. I’m going to wait and see how the rumors play out, but look for a possible announcement from the team next week.

2.) Play Andy Marte for the rest of the season

I don’t care if it’s at DH or third base, Wedge needs to play Marte NOW. If Shapiro has to twist Wedge’s arm to make this happen, that’s just fine with me. Marte has no minor league options left and has accumulated a grand total of 164, 57, and 55 at-bats with Cleveland over the 2006-2008 seasons.

This is not a fair means of evaluation for any player, let alone a 24 year old that was considered one of the best prospects in the game not too long ago. Blake is not the future, but there’s a strong possibility Marte is. If the poor kid doesn’t get called off the bench soon, he may just go all Shawn Chacon on Wedgie.

3.) Get rid of Borowski

Borowski was designated for assignment today, since the team doesn’t have to pretend it needs him closing out games anymore. I appreciate the solid 45 save season he gave us last year, but his time with Cleveland should have ended well before now.

4.) Dump Dellucci


5.) Trade Casey Blake

Again, I appreciate the past contributions, but we’re not talking about Todd Helton or Ken Griffey here, this is the type of player that you trade when you’re out of contention. Consider Casey’s $6.1 mil expiring contract, age, and the fact that we have Andy Marte rotting on the bench and that’s reason enough to trade him in my opinion.

There are plenty of contending teams that could use a super-utility man like Blake and his value has likely peaked for this season. Blake posted an OPS of .670 and .691 for April and May, respectively. Unless you think he can sustain a .954 OPS on a .420 BAbip beyond the month of June (he can’t) I say trade him while might be of value.

6.) Hold tryouts for the 2009 closer position

I’ve said before that I think Jensen Lewis and Masahide Kobayashi are the strongest contenders for closer next year. This may be a bit tricky though, as both pitchers are having trouble adapting to their recent increase in innings and will need to be handled carefully.

Lewis pitched 81 innings between AA, AAA, and the Majors in 2007. The last time he threw that many innings in a season was 2006 when he was still a starter at Kinston. Kobayashi averaged just 48 IP over the last three years in the shortened, 144 game Pro Yakyu season. Kobayashi has already logged 41 innings for Cleveland so far.

7.) Give Hafner and Martinez as much time as they need to heal

It's pretty much a lock that we won't see these two suit up again until they're 100% healthy. As I've said before, I think having Hafner sit out this season to fix his weakened shoulder and any holes in his swing will greatly benefit the team in the long run. Ditto for Martinez, whose choice to play through intense pain was admirable, but it's time to get that elbow permanently healthy.

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