Sunday, March 30, 2008

Happy Opening Day Tribe Fans!

Your Starting Lineups

Grady shows Mark Buehrle what he thinks of his pitching.

Yeah that's totally not interference, Hawk.

Breaking through in the bottom of the eighth.
Hero of the Day (really).
Go Tribe!

Opening Day: the Sequel and Fun with Rosters

It's Opening Day! Again.

It seems Major League Baseball decided to expand the (much deserved) hype of Opening Day for as long as possible. Technically, the season started last Tuesday when the Tokyo Red Sox faced off against the Oakland A's for two games. Was anyone else frightened by the sight of 50,000 Japanese Sox fans crammed into the Tokyo Dome? I guess if you put down $100 mil for a pitcher, it doesn't seem so bad knowing you just gained an entire country as a fan base. Either way, more Red Sox fans is not what this world needs. I'm curious how Boston's obvious lack of enthusiasm to represent MLB abroad by playing in Japan went over with the fans there. Yeah, real classy to publicly hold out for more monetary compensation Boston, it's not like you couldn't handle that in private. But I digress....

Opening Day Part II is on Sunday, but only features one game. I know it's a historic event, with the Nats kicking off the season in their brand-new, uber-cool stadium, but the schedule makers couldn't find room for the rest of the teams to play? I wish the regular season would start all at once or at least split the games over a couple days, preferably on the weekend. Many fans treat Opening Day with such reverence that it might as well be a national holiday. Just think of all the marketing and media coverage that goes into the early rounds of the NCAA Tournament; now imagine that same frenzy over two full days of baseball games. I doubt anything like that is going to happen, but there's plenty of money to be made if MLB were to play its cards right.

The Tribe starts their defense of the Central Division crown on Monday against Chicago. Unfortunately, we didn't make the national broadcast that day, but that doesn't mean Tribe fans can't enjoy the first of 50 games ESPN has set for the Yankees this season! That Steinbrenner kid is such a character, I can't wait to hear what he'll say next. I bet A-Rod hits for the cycle twice in that game. Hello? Where'd everybody go?

Marte In

Andy Marte became one of the final players to make the Tribe's 25-man roster earlier this week. He will join Jamey Carroll, David Dellucci, and Kelly Shoppach on the bench. According to Manager Eric Wedge:
We'll see Andy mixed in at third base when we give Casey a day off. I think we'd be comfortable putting him [at first] if we needed him over there.
Backup third baseman is obviously the best fit for Marte this season, but how much playing time can he expect behind Blake? Last season, Blake had 145 appearances at 3b, 12 at 1b, 7 in RF, and 1 as DH. It's doubtful Blake will see any significant time in the outfield with Gutz, Dellucci, and Michaels already on the roster and Francisco and Choo waiting in the wings. Assuming Blake remains relatively healthy, that would mean Marte would get just 17 appearances at third; not a realistic number. If Marte were to start once a week at third (similar to the rotation of Martinez and Shoppach at catcher), that would translate to roughly 30 starts, or 120 at-bats.

I agree that the starting third base job is Blake's to lose and he has done nothing to merit a demotion. This puts Wedge in a tricky situation when dealing with Marte though. The Indians really need to find creative ways to get Marte up to the plate on a regular basis. Marte has had several cups of coffee at the major league level, but never a large sample of at-bats in a single season. Below are Marte's previous appearances in the majors:

2005 21 ATL 66 8 0 0 7 13 .227 .211
2006 22 CLE 178 37 5 0 13 38 .287 .421
2007 23 CLE 60 11 1 0 2 9 .233 .316

There are two things that stand out in Marte's old stat lines. The first is how few plate appearances he's had. Marte was supposed to start 2007 on the roster, but an injury and the steady play of Blake left him stranded in Buffalo. Considering Blake had 662 PA in 156 games last season, Marte has not been given a legitimate chance to prove himself yet. The second item of interest is Marte's age. He may have been an elite prospect in Atlanta, but how many 22 year olds are capable of making an immediately successful transition from the minors? Not many. Marte also has a reputation as a slow starter. It seems every time he starts to settle in somewhere, he gets moved, resetting his progress.

There is some uncertainty with Marte, like his inconsistent defense and what he'll really do at the plate if given the chance. Marte helped his cause by posting a .333 OBP, .519 SLG, and 5 HR in 54 AB in spring training. Unfortunately, he also committed 6 errors at third. If Cleveland sees any substantial value in Marte for the future they will have to perform their final evaluation on the fly this season. With no minor league options left, Marte may be off the team by 2009 if the Tribe doesn't like what it sees in 2008.

Francisco and Barfield Out

Josh Barfield and Ben Francisco will be starting the season in AAA. I agree with the Barfield move, but Francisco really should be in Cleveland this year. If there was a better platoon alternative than Dellucci in left field I could understand, but sending Ben back to Buffalo is a waste of everyone's time. Francisco had 12 HR, 22 SB, a .382 OBP, and a .496 SLG and won the International League MVP in Buffalo last season. There's nothing left for him to prove in the minors, especially at 25 years old. Lets take a quick look at stats for Michaels, Dellucci, and Francisco for 2007:

J. Michaels 295 72 7 20 3 50 .324 .397 87
D. Dellucci 199 41 4 17 2 40 .296 .382 76
B. Francisco 66 17 3 3 0 19 .303 .500 105

Not to jump to conclusions due to the small sample size, but Francisco clearly outplayed Dellucci during his stint in Cleveland. Francisco's .814 career OPS against righties also fits in nicely with Michaels' career OPS of .842 against lefties. Dellucci may not even be 100% healthy this season (he had surgery last year to repair a torn hamstring). His salary would be easy to dump and after putting up with the Trot Nixon experiment last year, I'm not sure Dellucci has really earned a spot on the roster. If his veteran status and $3.75 million contract are the main reasons for him making the roster, that hardly seems fair. Not giving Dellucci a chance to defend his job after an injury-filled season is no way to treat a player either, so maybe I'm being a bit harsh. Regardless of salary, I can't see Dellucci getting much leeway this season with two viable alternatives in Francisco and (later on) Choo. I predict a mid-season call up for one of the two young outfielders.

There's really not much to say about Barfield. I had a hunch he would at least start the season in Buffalo, which is good because his offense has been terrible since arriving in Cleveland. Josh had a .270 OBP and .324 SLG in 444 PA for 2007 (no, that OBP isn't a typo). The good news is, Barfield still has an above average glove and has just two full years of major league experience. If he can find his swing again in AAA, Josh will certainly be in the running for the 2009 starting infield. The bad news is, it will take a mammoth effort in AAA from Barfield and an abysmal start from Asdrubal to dislodge him from second base. I'm rooting for him, but don't expect to see much of Barfield this season.


I haven't had much time to investigate Fultz's replacement, Craig Breslow, but that's what the internet is for. Jay over at LGT has a nice breakdown of Fultz's departure, while the community chimes in on Breslow. Good stuff.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Contenders

I’ve been on a brief hiatus from blogging this month, but will do my best to keep the site updated. My work load has been a little crazy with graduation on the horizon and the last few weeks I haven’t had much time to read up on baseball, let alone write about it. As a result, the next few topics have probably already been written about by a classier, more intelligent website, but since Ontario Street is neither of these things I’ll be happy to fill the void.

There hasn’t been a lot of drama for the Tribe this offseason, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s unusual for a team to appear in the ALCS one year and have every starter return for round two, yet that’s the enviable position Cleveland is in this season. Due to the lack of roster turnover, there aren’t any major newcomers to scrutinize (except Masa, who has no MLB experience), but there are question marks above third base and the fifth slot in the rotation. There is even room for speculation about the corner outfield spots and second base, although those positions are less likely to be set in stone during the spring.

According to the Plain Dealer, the race for the fifth rotation slot is still closely contested. Manager Eric Wedge said his staff is “going to have to take it as long as we can. We want to give them all a very good look and utilize as much of camp as we can." It’s likely that a final decision won’t be made before the Tribe breaks camp on March 27. I normally don’t give Spring Training performances much thought, but since spring stats may play a key role in who wins the fifth slot out of camp, let’s take a look at where each pitcher stands:

Pitcher IP ERA WHIP K/BB Last Appearance
C. Lee 8.2 8.31 2.56 1.25 4 IP, 11 H, 6 ER, 2 SO, 1 BB
A. Laffey 8.0 7.62 2.00 .72 5 IP, 5 H, 1 ER, 1 SO, 1 BB
J. Sowers 8.0 9.00 2.00 1.33 3 IP, 3 H, 1 ER, 2 SO, 0 BB

I didn’t realize just how few innings each starting pitcher logs in camp, so there’s not much to work with in terms of stats (that and these guys are essentially facing a AAAA team that hasn’t quite found its bat speed yet). Unfortunately, what makes these stats even more one-dimensional are the things like pitch movement, velocity, inherited runners, quality of opposition, etc. that are not included. Wedge and company will be paying much closer attention to how each candidate actually pitches rather than what they post in the box score. For example, is Cliff Lee using a smarter pitch selection than last year? If yes, that’ll earn him a feather in the cap.

It’s safe to assume none of the players are ready for opening day just yet, but that doesn’t mean pitchers can’t show improvement in their mechanics or strategy. Unfortunately I’ve only seen the one ESPN game against the Mets, so I can’t really give a fair assessment on how Sowers, Laffey, and Lee have looked this spring.

The Darkhorse: Jeremy Sowers

I’m really rooting for Sowers to make it in the majors, but he probably carries the most uncertainty of the three candidates. After coming out of nowhere with back-to-back complete game shutouts in July and a 2.78 ERA in five August starts, Sowers appeared to be a prospect on the rise. Despite lacking dominant stuff, Sowers tripped up batters with his precise location and high pitching IQ. The trouble started in 2007 when the incumbent Sowers seemed to hit a wall. Batters appeared to have figured out his smoke and mirrors routine and his ERA jumped from 3.57 in 2006 to 6.42 in 2007 with nearly the same number of starts.

J. Sowers 2006 14 88.3 3.57 127 1.18 4.65 1.75

2007 13 67.3 6.42 72 1.55 5.62 1.14

One explanation is that Sowers may have been riding luck in 2006. His .256 BABIP and 76.3% LOB% suggest that luck may have indeed been a factor in Sowers’ first 14 appearances. According to Baseball Prospectus, a typical BABIP is .290, so some regression by Sowers would be expected. The high amount of runners stranded only adds to the impression that Sowers may have been walking a tightrope early on. In 2007, Sowers’ BABIP jumped to .308, while his LOB% dropped to 63.2%. More balls finding the gaps meant Sowers’ other peripherals suffered as well, including a .106 jump in his SLG against (.392 to .498). For a more in-depth breakdown on Sowers’ 2006 season, check out this link (there are three parts to the article). It’s to a Tribe blog that I’ve never heard of before, but the writer has some great stuff, particularly in retrospect.

Another issue with Sowers was that he began to lose some velocity on his fastball, which originally hovered in the high 80s to low 90s. A mix of lost confidence and mechanical issues plagued Sowers and resulted in an early demotion in 2007. Since then, Sowers has reportedly regained his pitch velocity and showed signs of improvement during his stint in Buffalo last season. Sowers posted some of his best numbers in Buffalo since 2005 with a 5.68 K/9 and .56 HR/9. Two of Sowers biggest issues were with his low strikeout rate and tendency to give up the long ball. Obviously, the trick is translating these improvements to the majors (if he even gets the opportunity). Unfortunately, I don’t see Sowers beating out Laffey or Lee for the fifth rotation spot, but the departure of Paul Byrd after 2008 leaves a better opportunity for Sowers next season.

The Challenger: Aaron Laffey

Laffey stormed through the minors last season, ending up as the Tribe’s fifth starter during their march towards the postseason. Laffey began 2007 with 6 starts in Akron and 16 in Buffalo before replacing the demoted Cliff Lee in early August. While he didn’t blow the doors off in his debut, Aaron proved he could handle pitching in the majors and was more than adequate in the fifth slot.

Over 49.3 IP, Laffey posted a 101 ERA+, 1.33 WHIP, and a 2.08 K/BB ratio. He only averaged 5.3 innings per start, but was held to a tight pitch count to ease his adjustment to the longer season. Aaron’s previous career high in innings pitched was 153.2 in the minors; he logged a combined 180.2 IP in the 2008 regular season for Akron, Buffalo, and Cleveland. Cleveland didn’t have to rely on their rookie starter to carry a game with such a strong relief corps available. The Tribe’s pitching depth also removed the need for Laffey to start in the postseason, but he did pitch 4.2 innings of one-hit ball in relief in Game 6 of the ALCS.

If Laffey is able to pick up where he left off in 2007, signs indicate he could be an upgrade for Cleveland at the back end of the rotation. Laffey tends to rely on the groundball, but still has the stuff to strike guys out. In 145.2 IP (24 starts) between Buffalo and Cleveland, he had a 2.85 K/BB ratio with a 59% groundball percentage in the majors. For comparison, Westbrook had a 1.69 K/BB ratio and a 55% groundball percentage in 152 IP for 2007. Depending on how Laffey’s pitches develop and how he performs over a larger sample, he could end up as a souped-up version of Westbrook. Aaron’s solid response to being promoted in the middle of a playoff run and pitching in the postseason suggest he is, at the very least, mentally mature enough to handle the majors.

Like we learned with Sowers in 2006 though, it’s wise not to lean too heavily on young, inexperienced pitching if you can help it. Given Aaron’s grand total of 49.1 major league innings, I would not be surprised if he begins the season in Buffalo as the Tribe’s sixth starter. I think Laffey can succeed in the majors now, but such a move would not be without risk. Demoting Lee to Buffalo again could cause some serious resentment by a guy who may end up as the team’s best option if Laffey doesn’t work out for some reason. Even worse, if Lee is traded and both Laffey and Sowers fail to make the cut, Cleveland ends up worse off than they started. The odds of both Laffey and Sowers performing worse than Lee are very small in my opinion, but these are risks the Front Office must consider nonetheless. Shapiro and Wedge’s track records indicate the more experienced pitcher will win out here (even if the potential payoff is not as great), meaning the 22 year old Laffey may have to wait for his next shot at the majors.

The Frontrunner: Cliff Lee

Despite my best efforts (i.e. complaining on the internet), Cliff Lee is still employed by the Cleveland Indians. I had predicted an imminent departure for Mr. Lee after he mockingly doffed his cap to a booing Jacobs Field crowd following a 4 IP, 8 R performance against Boston last July. While the Boston game did earn Lee a trip to Buffalo, Shapiro was unable to rid the Tribe of the Sleepy Kitten altogether. It’s unclear how aggressively Lee was being shopped, but Anthony Reyes was a rumored return at one point. Cleveland would have been hard pressed to find a logical trade for dumping Lee. Trading one mediocre pitcher for another may have gotten rid of Lee’s bad attitude, but the same rotation logjam would probably still be present (options and salary being the main factors for any newcomer).

Lee is back with a vengeance for 2008, bringing the same boneheaded approach to pitching that caused him to fall off a cliff and get demoted last season. Lee struggled in 2007 for two reasons: an abdominal strain that caused him to miss spring training and a dangerous reliance on a weakened fastball. Pitching coach Carl Willis saw Lee “trying to make some adjustments he needed to make when it counted, as opposed to during spring training.”

Normally, I would give a pitcher some leeway (I swear, this guy’s whole name is a pun) when he’s injured, like Westbrook was last season. The difference between Westbrook and Lee is that Westbrook gradually returned to form, while Lee never showed consistent signs of improvement after the injury. Lee posted monthly ERAs of 5.86, 4.76, and 8.68 from May to July, with at least five starts per month. Lee was supposedly healthy for most of this period. Unless the abdominal injury influenced Lee’s delivery far beyond his return from the DL, a less obvious factor may have been at work.

I believe the problem with Lee was mental, which may be even harder to fix than a pitcher’s mechanics. This brings us to issue number two: Lee’s pitch selection. Lee’s stubbornness in mixing up his pitches has been well documented. Despite guidance from his pitching coach and catcher, Lee can’t seem to get comfortable with anything other than his fastball. He is perfectly capable of throwing a solid curveball (arguably his best pitch), but still seems to think he can blow it by guys when he’s behind in the count. Ah…no. No he can’t. In interviews, Lee has acknowledged the need to mix up his pitches more so he’s less predictable, but a consistent approach has stayed out of reach for Clifford.

Last season, a combination of crappy pitching and an increasingly bad attitude resulted in a few awkward exchanges between Cliff and catcher Victor Martinez on the mound, followed by some harsh looking discussions in the dugout. If you get Victor mad at you, you must have really screwed up, since he’s probably one of the friendliest guys in the clubhouse. Part of the friction between Cliff and his catcher is that Victor takes pride in how he calls a game and views a pitcher’s failures as his own. Victor has a reputation of going the extra mile to help struggling pitchers. Rumors suggest Lee had frequently gone against advice given to him by teammates. If I were manager, I wouldn’t want a guy like that on the team if I had a better option (like Laffey).

Attitude aside, if a player can back up his behavior with his skills on the field, they usually earn a free pass (see Belle, Albert). Lee has gotten progressively worse ever since his career year in 2005:

C. Lee 2005 32 202.0 3.79 111 1.21 3.80 2.75

2006 33 200.7 4.40 103 1.40 4.80 2.22

2007 16 97.3 6.29 73 1.52 5.59 1.83

Cliff’s performance has significantly declined in every category except innings pitched. To be blunt, he’s just giving up more of everything in dramatic fashion. His K/BB ratio is Exhibit A in showing how Lee’s lack of quality stuff and poor pitch selection has affected his stats. As a flyball pitcher, Lee is less susceptible to poor infield defense, but his FIP makes it safe to rule that out as a major factor.

I’m hesitant to beat up on Cliff Lee over his ERA in this case. Assuming 2005 is as good as it gets for Lee and 2007 was hampered by injury, his 2006 ERA of 4.40 is actually well above average for a fifth starter in the AL. Whaaaa? Yep, according to Jeff Sackmann at The Hardball Times, the top half of AL starting rotations averaged a 5.74 ERA for their fifth starter. AL playoff teams weren’t much better, sporting a 5.65 ERA in the fifth slot. I love this article because most fans (myself included) tend to forget just how mediocre a team’s bottom half of the rotation can be, even for a playoff contender. By that logic, if the front office can safely project an ERA in the neighborhood of 5.00 for Lee, that’s a comparable option to what the competition will be fielding.

My issue with Lee is that I’m not sure he can even achieve a league average ERA for a fifth starter anymore. Secondly, I take issue with his approach to pitching and how he’s treated his teammates and the fans. Guys like Laffey and Sowers have a greater upside in my opinion, albeit, the ceiling on those two is still unclear.

So why did I name him the front-runner to win the job out of spring training? Early reports out of camp indicated that the rotation spot was Lee’s to lose and given Wedge’s tendencies, I could realistically see him go with Lee. Cliff has more innings logged in the majors than Laffey and Sowers combined and as ridiculous as it may sound, does have some semblance of success at this level. Experience will be a huge factor in who Wedge selects and Lee has a significant edge in this department. Finally, Cleveland would be foolish to pay Lee $3.75 million to toil away in the minors another year; the only options are to play him or trade him. As much as I’d like Laffey to start in Cleveland this season, all signs indicate Lee will be there instead.