Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Checking In with the Late Additions

In keeping with the Spring Training theme for the second half of the season, Cleveland’s roster went through some major changes in September. A few players finally returned from injuries, but most are just in town for a hard earned cup-of-coffee. With so many players vying for work, it can be hard to keep track of who’s done what, so I thought I’d take a brief look at how some of the rookies and returning veterans have fared since joining the club (I intentionally left the relief pitchers out, but will get to the bullpen as a whole in my next post).

Michael Aubrey

Aubrey actually started six games at first base and one as a DH with Cleveland way back in May (.674 OPS, 2 HR, 30 PA). In 72 games with Buffalo this year, Aubrey compiled a .281 AVG, .328 OBP, .418 SLG line along with 18 doubles and 7 homeruns. Despite average production at the plate, his 97 minor league games are by far the most he’s played in a season since 2004 (98 games), making Aubrey’s health a bright spot for 2008.

The 26 year old has been slow to advance through the minors and 2008 marks his first appearance in Cleveland. The main reason Aubrey hasn’t been able to string together a lights out season in the high minors is a disheartening series of back and lower body injuries. So to be fair, Aubrey may well possess the ability to succeed, but his body has failed him over his career.

According to minor league guru Tony Lastoria, Aubrey is also out of minor league options after this season and the logjam at first base does not bode well for the oft injured infielder. Cleveland really needs all the help it can get at first though, so a fresh face is certainly welcome.

Aubrey has only appeared in five games so far, but seems to be getting a start in roughly every other game. In a miniscule 17 PA, Aubrey has collected four hits, two walks, and an RBI. It’s way too late in the season to get a real bead on whether Aubrey can handle Major League pitching, but he’ll likely glean a few starts from the mix of Garko and Martinez.

I’m not sure if the presence of Martinez and Aubrey (kind of hard to ignore) has provided Garko with some extra motivation lately, but his offense has picked up considerably. Unfortunately, even with a (relatively) hot August Garko still isn’t making a strong case for retaining his starting gig next season.

Even with the current issues at first, I have a feeling Aubrey may be traded or let go this off-season since he’s out of options, injury prone, and is facing competition at first base from incumbents and other minor leaguers.

Josh Barfield

Barfield has run into a disappointing combination of bad luck and poor performance this year. In what was supposed to be a bounce back season, Barfield struggled to gain any traction in Buffalo. Over 73 games in AAA, Barfield managed a weak .251, .292, .368 line in 320 PA. There’s barely been any improvement between his 444 Major League PA’s in 2007 (.243, .270, .324) and his time in the minors now. That’s bad news no matter how you slice it.

I’ve always wanted to take a closer look at Barfield’s decline, but at first glance his career is just puzzling to me. How does a player who posted consecutive OPS’ of .922, .728, and .820 through Class A+, AA, and AAA take such a drastic nosedive just when he’s supposed to be entering his prime? Barfield was only 23 years old when he hit .280 with 13 HR and 32 doubles with the Padres. At age 25, he seems destined to be a total bust as a major leaguer.

Cleveland promoted him as a more experienced alternative to Asdrubal Cabrera back in early June. The very next game, Barfield was hit by a ball that resulted in surgery on a tendon in his middle finger. I don’t think anybody was expecting Josh to tear the cover off the ball, but I still feel sorry for the guy. While Barfield rehabbed the finger, Cabrera essentially locked up second base and threw away the key (bad for Barfield, good for the team and Cabrera).

Barfield has started a game in the last two series (@BAL, KC), but that’s it since he was rehabbing before that. I wouldn’t be surprised if Barfield gets a few more token starts, but he’s basically out of a job with the sudden emergence of Cabrera (I doubt he factored into the team’s plans this early, otherwise why trade for Barfield later that year?).

Victor Martinez

Victor may have made his final minor league rehab start the last week of August, but as far as I’m concerned he’s still rehabbing. The team planned on bringing Martinez along very slowly in his return from elbow surgery. Martinez has actually seen more playing time than I expected in the past two weeks, rotating between first, catcher, and DH over 11 starts.

The fact that Martinez has appeared comfortable behind the plate (even playing consecutive games there) tells me that he’s close to 100% health-wise. I doubt the timing on his swing is quite up to speed yet based on how long he couldn’t swing a bat and that he hadn’t faced ML pitching for quite a while (think of it as a player who missed spring training and had to start the season cold). Even so, Martinez has looked pretty good over the past two weeks, posting a solid .290, .378, .452 line with 9 H, 8 RBI, and 6 R in 8 starts. He’s hardly been dead-weight in the lineup, which is exactly what Cleveland wanted to see before the season ended.

The main thing missing from Martinez’s season thus far was his ability to drive the ball. Over 130 PA’s in May and June (I excluded April because I don’t think the elbow was seriously hindering him yet), Victor’s SLG was a paltry .267. Considering his career SLG is .463, it’s fairly obvious injuries were sapping Martinez’s power. Since the surgery, Martinez has a .466 SLG and hit his first two taters of the season. It’s been like night and day since Martinez had elbow surgery, so I wouldn’t worry about him for 2009.

Travis Hafner

Hafner was just activated off the 60-day DL on September 9, so there’s not a lot to report here in terms of in-game action. Wedge has been using Hafner about every other day (that seems to be the trend with such a crowded bench) in the middle of the lineup as DH.

In case you missed it earlier, Hafner’s right shoulder was the reason he was out all season. Anthony Castrovince quoted Head Trainer Lonnie Soloff on the injury:

“Hafner was able to build up the muscles surrounding his clavicle, and that had the effect of masking what was going on in the scapula (shoulder blade) area. Beneath the surface, the muscles around Pronk's scapula were wasting away, unbeknownst to the player and the team. Both parties insist Hafner wasn't bothered by the shoulder in 2007.”

Last I heard, Hafner was still working his way back and continuing to strengthen his shoulder. The shoulder was strong enough to ruin the Bowie Baysox playoff run though. Batting behind human wrecking ball Matt La Porta (.462 AVG, 5 R, 5 RBI vs. Bowie), Hafner went 2-6 with 2 bombs and 7 RBI in two games.

Hafner is in a similar situation to Martinez in that he is basically starting his season over again ice cold. I’ve only seen Hafner bat in a couple games, but he’s definitely not in any kind of groove right now. His timing is off and he seems to have a hard time squaring up the fastball. One positive is that Hafner isn’t swinging at balls out of the zone very often, so he is showing some patience at the plate.

Oddly enough, Baltimore’s manager still respected Hafner’s bat enough to issue an intentional walk to him with men in scoring position. Hafner has three hits and four strikeouts in four September starts with Cleveland.

Asdrubal Cabrera

Since returning from Buffalo on July 18 AstroCab has racked up a .307, .390, .464 line, 11 2B, 5 HR, 25 R, 26 RBI and 3 SB in 50 starts and 201 PA.

Yeah, that’s pretty awesome. Next….

Zach Jackson

Jackson may have played his way out the conversation for sixth starter in 2009. The young left-hander got crushed by the Twins on Tuesday, surrendering 7 ER on 9 hits and a walk over 5.1 IP. Jackson has been a bit of a wild card in his brief stay with the Tribe, averaging 5.88 innings per start with a 6.48 ERA and 1.46 WHIP.

His tendency to attack the strike zone (63% of his pitches are strikes) and 3.66 K/BB ratio aren’t bad, but Jackson has a tendency to give up runs in bunches. Over 19% of Jackson’s innings have ended with multiple runs scoring. When he gets hit, he gets hit hard.

Jackson’s last two starts are on the road against Boston and Chicago, so he still has a chance to reassert himself versus the field.

Scott Lewis

No disrespect to Lewis, but I’m not sure I’d heard of him before he was called up last week. The 24 year old Ohio State alum has been tearing up Class AA hitters this season. Lewis boasts a 2.33 ERA, .97 WHIP, and 6.77 K/BB ratio over 73.1 IP (5.62 per start) with Akron. He also made a smooth transition to Buffalo, posting a 2.63 ERA, .96 WHIP, and 5.25 K/BB ratio in his first four starts.

Lewis went on to pitch eight shutout innings at Baltimore in his debut. He followed it up with a six inning, three hit, five strikeout shutout against Minnesota, which definitely turned some heads. Like I said, I don’t know much about Lewis, but fortunately Tony Lastoria provides a detailed scouting report on his blog:

“To the casual observer, Lewis' high strikeout rate would seem to indicate he throws some serious heat; however, this is not the case. Lewis has a fastball that consistently sits around 87-89 MPH and tops out at 91 MPH, but his tremendous command of his secondary pitches along with good arm action and deception throughout his delivery makes his fastball play up and look faster. He also throws a curveball and changeup, and the power and depth he has added to his nasty 12-6 curveball has made it one of the best in the system. His changeup has developed into a plus pitch, and he gets a lot of action on his pitches in the strike zone.”

The array of tools and an impressive minor league track record makes Lewis an interesting player to watch going forward. The thing I was most impressed with was Lewis’ focus in his first two Major League starts. How many guys can jump from Class AA to the Majors and show no sign of nerves in their performance? I’ll be sure to catch Lewis’ remaining starts this season.

Anthony Reyes

I’ve talked about Reyes in depth before, so this is more of a minor update. Reyes left his September 5 start after the third inning because of soreness in his throwing elbow. It turns out the elbow inflammation has been slow to heal, so the team opted to shut down Reyes for the final weeks of the season.

According to Anthony Castrovince, “St. Louis had bounced [Reyes] between starting and relief work, and the Indians think that might have contributed to his elbow trouble.”

Reyes has looked like a steal early on, compiling a 1.83 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, and 1.25 K/BB ratio over 6 starts (5.71 IP per start). Tribe Manager Eric Wedge feels confident about Reyes despite the minor setback with his elbow:

"He did a great job with his fastball. His changeup is a plus pitch, and I saw more of a breaking ball than was advertised. He's stoic. Nothing fazed him. Obviously, there's going to be strong competition, but he's pitched as well as anybody in that group."

Barring any free agent signings, I have a hunch Reyes will be a frontrunner for fifth starter at the outset of the 2009 season.

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