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.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Fear of Commitment

Tribe fans have become accustomed to Manager Eric Wedge’s hard-nosed managing style over the years; once he gets an idea in his head, he tends to stick with it. Many of these ideas tend to work out fairly well, while others just leave fans scratching their heads. In a recent article on the team website titled Tribe Moves to Closer by Committee, the manager had this to say:
I look at it like we have four guys I feel comfortable using in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings," Wedge said. "Depending on matchup and availability, that's how we're going to play it out. I explained to Betancourt what I'm seeing and where he's at.

According to Wedge, Borowski will still be the team’s closer when he completes his two rehab assignments this month. The article reconfirmed Borowski’s role and that the closer rotation would only last until his return. Even though it’s only a short-term situation, I don’t understand why Wedge would use situational matchups to dictate who will close a game. This implies that none of the four candidates (Betancourt, Masa, Lewis, Perez) can be trusted to close out a game on their own. This type of attitude has occasionally left the better option (or higher ceiling) on the bench, while Wedge’s “favorite” gets the bulk of the playing time. Closer should be a more concrete role; a pitcher can either handle it or he can’t and this team has at least two viable, experienced candidates in-house.

At the outset, Betancourt was a lock for interim closer, leaving Masa to take over the primary set-up role. Betancourt has not been his usual, dominant self this season and showed some inconsistency when handed the closer role. In 10 innings, including his first two save opportunities, Betancourt gave up 4 earned runs (3.60 ERA). Since then, he has surrendered 9 earned runs over 5 innings, including three appearances where he was chased early (16.20 ERA). Raffy converted two consecutive save opportunities before giving up three earned runs in a non-save situation, followed by a blown save. The same scenario played out again: two saves, a 3 run meltdown, and a (technically) blown save. Betancourt had loaded the bases with one out in the ninth against Oakland. Wedge had seen enough at that point and pulled Betancourt for Kobayashi. Obviously, Betancourt was in trouble that night and Wedge didn’t want to lose the game just because Raffy was off his game. When was the last time Wedge pulled Borowski when he was in a rough spot though?

I think Betancourt’s sampling of poor performances has made Wedge more cautious with how he uses him. Another possibility is that Wedge is just trying to take some of the pressure off Betancourt while he works through his slump. Whatever the reasoning, I doubt Betancourt will be asked to close again any time soon. The Oakland game on April 15 was Betancourt’s last appearance. It’s a bit harsh, but moving Betancourt back to the 8th inning seems like a good move; he either doesn’t have his best stuff right now or just doesn’t have the mentality to close (probably a little of both).

This brings us to Kobayashi, who has been outstanding so far. Kobayashi has posted a 3.20 ERA (it was 1.86 before the Dunn HR at Cincy), 1.16 WHIP, and 6.5 K/BB ratio. He is a veteran pitcher who has more practical experience as a closer than anyone else on the team (227 saves in Japan) and recorded two consecutive saves in lieu of Betancourt. Kobayashi is perfectly qualified to be the interim closer for a couple weeks, right? Then why does Wedge not trust Kobayashi enough to handle the duties on his own? That’s the impression I get when the phrase “closer by committee” is tossed out there; no single pitcher in the bullpen is good enough to close full-time.

With Betancourt essentially removed from closing and Kobayashi having to compete with a pitching platoon for the ninth inning, who will take over if Borowski goes down again? Borowski re-injuring his arm or continuing to be ineffective once healthy is a very real possibility. Cleveland does not seem to know who it will use to close if either of these scenarios plays out. Borowski at least deserves a shot to close again; the Tribe really doesn’t know what he’s capable of this season.

In the meantime, I think Kobayashi should be allowed to show what he’s capable of. As mentioned, Kobayashi is off to a solid start in transitioning to MLB. The next step should involve shifting him back into his former job as closer. Cleveland has other options for the future in Jensen Lewis and possibly Betancourt or Perez. Betancourt’s potential closer issues have been prominent lately, while Perez and Lewis are unknowns in the 9th (granted, you have to find out sometime with young players, but these guys already see a lot of high leverage situations in the 7th and 8th, thus making significant contributions elsewhere). I feel the strongest and most logical candidate for closing in 2009 is Kobayashi though.

My theory from earlier was that Cleveland may have offered Kobayashi a chance to close at some point as a way to lure him to the team (pure speculation on my part). For now, that all depends on how he responds as interim closer and how many more opportunities he has this month. There's no need to work under a cloud of mystery in the bullpen, the decision should come down to either Borowski (health permitting) or Kobayashi (Borowski and performance permitting). It’s unclear how Wedge is going to manage the 9th inning, but hopefully he does so with some foresight to the team’s needs.

Former Indian Sighting

I was pleasantly surprised to see Jody Gerut starting in center field for San Diego. Gerut was called up from the Triple-A affiliate in Portland in early May to replace Jim Edmonds. Jody’s off to a modest start, batting .216 with a .704 OPS, a homer, and a stolen base in 37 at-bats. I had no idea Gerut was still in baseball, let alone healthy again. Good for him though, I always liked Gerut, so hopefully he settles in with San Diego.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Iron Men: Tribe Starters Make History

There are two ways to approach a rampant offensive slump like the Tribe has been experiencing lately. The first option is to continue to be patient, rethink your approach as a hitter, and wait for the hits to come. The second option is to have your pitching staff mow down opposing batters like a game of RBI Baseball. Seriously, does anyone want to throw in a no-hitter while they’re at it?

Cleveland’s starting pitchers had tallied 44 1/3 scoreless innings before Aaron Laffey’s throwing error in the second inning against Oakland allowed a run to cross the plate (no discredit to Aaron, since the streak could have ended any moment and he's been outstanding in his last two starts). The streak began in the top of the sixth inning of Friday’s game against Toronto where Sabathia gave up a run in seven innings pitched. From there, all five starting pitchers threw a shut-out in regulation. These weren’t cheap wins either. These were dominant, K happy, complete game monstrosities against two contending teams. The fact that Paul Byrd struck out seven in a game to keep the streak alive should deserve some sort of trophy all by itself. The Tribe’s only loss came against Shawn Marcum, who matched Cliff Lee and forced extra innings. Here are the Tribe’s pitching performances over the last seven games:

Pitcher Team Result IP H ER K BB Bullpen
C. Sabathia W, 6-1 7.0 6 1 9 2 2 IP, 1 H, 1 BB, 1 K
A. Laffey W, 12-0 7.0 6 0 2 1 2 IP, 3 H, 0 BB, 3 K
F. Carmona W, 3-0 9.0 5 0 3 4 DNP
C. Lee L, 0-3 (10) 9.0 7 0 5 2 1 IP, 3 H, 3 ER, 1 BB
P. Byrd W, 4-0 7.1 5 0 7 0 1.2 IP, 1 H, 0 ER, 0 BB, 1 K, 1 SV
C. Sabathia W, 2-0 9.0 5 0 11 2 DNP
A. Laffey W, 4-2 7.0 5 0 6 1 3 IP, 3 H, 1 ER, 1 BB, 3 K, 1 SV

That’s 50 1/3 innings with a 0.16 ERA for the starters and a 0.00 ERA for the bullpen excluding Betancourt over that span. This type of streak has occurred only a handful of times in the modern era, with the most recent example and all-time record credited to the 1974 Baltimore Orioles. The O’s starters threw 54 shutout innings from September 1-7, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Baltimore’s staff featured Jim Palmer, Mike Cuellar, Ross Grimsley, and Dave McNally.

The last Cleveland staff to do it belonged to the 1948 World Championship team, which finished the season with just 568 runs against. From August 15-20, Bob Lemon, Gene Bearden, Sam Zoldak, and Satchel Paige tossed 47 scoreless innings over four complete game shut-outs.

Someone needs to buy Carl Willis and Luis Issac a couple beers. Congratulations to the Indian’s pitching staff, as they have joined some truly rare company over the last seven games.

The defense also deserves some recognition, particularly AstroCab, Sizemore, and Gutz for making some ridiculous plays in support of their pitchers. As of May 15, Cleveland’s .833 RZR, 99 OOZ, and .988 FPCT rank 3rd, 11th, and 2nd in the American League, respectively (ok, so the defense doesn’t have the best range, but at least they don’t make many mistakes once they get there).

Just a couple weeks ago, Cleveland was struggling to reach .500 and the White Sox were in first place. Cleveland now holds sole possession of first place, while Detroit sits six games back. Baseball’s funny that way.

Well, There's Your Problem...

My main concern before the pitching decided to go all Field of Dreams on everyone was the offense. How much did they contribute during the recent winning streak? Here’s a profile of the team’s last three series (10 games) and the quality of pitching they faced:

Opposition Combined Starters' ERA RPGA Starters Team Bullpen ERA RPGA Bullpen CLE Total RPG
NYY (Pettitte, Wang, Mussina) 3.76 2.67 3.30 1 3.67
TOR (Halladay, McGowan, Burnett Marcum) 3.78 4 3.35 1.25 5.25
OAK (Duchscherer, Blanton, Smith) 2.96 2 2.96 1.33 3.33

While the Tribe didn’t exactly rough up the other teams pitchers, look at who they had to deal with on the mound. Toronto and Oakland have two of the strongest pitching staffs in the league right now and all they got from New York were an ace and two tough veterans. Not the likeliest time for an offensive surge, is it? I feel like a broken record whining about the offense this season, but it'll be interesting to see if the offense got a boost in confidence from the winning streak. I did read an article here that pointed to a possible downward trend throughout the AL. Below is an excerpt from the Baseball Prospectus article:

The AL's figure is highly unusual -- the AL hasn't seen run levels like this in 16 seasons. What's down in the AL?

Rates through May 10, 2008, AL only


2008 .257 .328 .392

2007 .258 .330 .407

2006 .269 .337 .432

2005 .261 .334 .415

You should immediately notice the drop in slugging. From 2007 to '08 batting average has dropped by one point, but slugging has dropped by 15. This is in an environment with no new ballparks, and no radical changes to the existing ones. Over two years slugging is off by 40 points, isolated power by 28 points. At least OBP is moving in line with changes to batting average, which indicates that walk rates aren't the culprit for this cold spell at the plate. They've actually risen slightly, from 8.1 percent of PA in 2005 to 8.9 percent this year.

A few percentage points between 2007 and 2008 might not seem like much, but the impact can be significant when applied to the entire league. The article goes into more detail on possible explanations for the trend and is a worthy read.

Is Cleveland’s offense really that bad compared to rival AL teams? No, since every other AL team has seen a significant drop in runs per game this season.

Rank 2007 Team 2007 RPG* 2008 Team 2008 RPG^
1 NYY 5.98 BOS 5.02
2 DET 5.48 TEX 4.76
3 BOS 5.35 LAA 4.56
4 LAA 5.07 OAK 4.55
5 TEX 5.04 DET 4.55
6 CLE 5.01 TB 4.53
7 SEA 4.90 CWS 4.53
8 TB 4.83 MINN 4.44
9 BAL 4.67 CLE 4.25
10 TOR 4.65 NYY 4.17
*For entire 2007 season

^As of May 15, 2008

The decline has been so sharp, that the only 2008 teams that would crack the top ten in RPG for 2007 are Boston and Texas. Perennial offensive juggernaut, New York, has lost a full 1.81 runs off its average. Boston has lost .33 runs, while Detroit and Anaheim have lost .93 and .51 runs, respectively. Compared to those teams, Cleveland’s loss of .76 runs per game during an uncharacteristic slump doesn’t seem as bad.

If this trend continues and the AL is turning into a more pitching oriented league, that’s great news for the Tribe and their top-flight pitching staff. As long as the rest of the league struggles to score right along with them, Cleveland shouldn’t experience too many adverse effects in the standings from their current slump.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Borowski Back Soon; Masa for 2009?

I have good news and bad news. The good news is that Joe Borowski should be ready to go by the end of next week. The bad news is…well, Joe Borowski will be the closer again. Before you start stocking up on antacids, keep in mind that this is not the same Borowski as earlier in the season. Whether or not he was ever completely healthy to start the season is unclear, but the Tribe believes Borowski’s loss of pitch velocity was a direct symptom of his injury. The injury had apparently been nagging the Indian’s closer since Spring Training, but was not considered serious at the time.

Joe was sent to the disabled list with a forearm strain once the injury started to hinder his velocity and control. Borowski had only had four save opportunities this season and his two blown saves can now be attributed to the injury. After spending almost a month on the DL, Borowski has noticed “a huge difference” and that “[his] arm speed, compared with the way it was before, was decidedly better." This is good news for the Tribe, as you can never have too much depth in the bullpen. I know I give Borowski a hard time because of his Wickmanesque pitching style, but there’s little reason to think Joe won’t revert to his 2007 form when healthy.

Borowski’s track record as closer and mental toughness (not a term I use often, but if you can post a 5.07 ERA and 45 saves you must have pretty tough skin) in 2007 cemented his spot in the bullpen. The day Borowski hit the DL, Wedge made it clear that he would have his closer job waiting for him upon return. Part of this is just Wedge being his usual stubborn self, but there’s really no reason to bench a healthy Borowski. Where is he going to pitch out of if he’s not closing? Joe posted a solid 3.75 ERA in save situations and a frightening 11.07 ERA in non-save situations last season. Do you really want to unleash Borowski anywhere except the ninth inning? I suppose that’s a unique way of maintaining one’s job security; just be horrible at everything else.

Betancourt has done fairly well as interim closer, going 4 for 5 in save opportunities with a 1.80 ERA. He’s has taken some flak for two blow-ups where he gave up three earned runs each, even though these were in non-save situations. Unlike Borowski, the large majority of Raffy’s appearances are in non-save situations, so don’t think this is indicative of a trend. By the end of the season, I’m sure Betancourt’s numbers will be back to normal. Either way, that 6.89 ERA is being blown way out of proportion by some analysts.

The bullpen hierarchy now reverts back to Borowski, Betancourt, Kobayashi, and Lewis for late inning situations. With how hot the Tribe’s starters have been lately, the bullpen has been almost a non-issue. Cleveland’s pitching staff has given up just four runs in its last five games, including three shut-outs. The team went 4-1 in those games, losing in extra innings on Monday to complete a double-header with Toronto.

Looking Ahead

Cleveland could have an interesting situation at closer for 2009 with the (assumed) departure of Borowski once his contract expires. In a recent interview, Kobayashi stated: "Closing would be my highest goal. To have that responsibility would be nice. But I'm not thinking about that right now. I'm just concentrating on the job I have." This is total speculation on my part, but it sounds like Cleveland may have guaranteed him the closer’s role once Borowski departs. It may be a stretch, but it makes sense. There were a lot of teams scouting him in Japan and knowing what his role with the team would be could have tilted him in Cleveland’s favor.

Kobayashi has had no problem adjusting to Major League hitters and has been the best pitcher out of the pen so far. After earning his first save Tuesday against Oakland (Betancourt was resting), Masa’s ERA dropped to 1.93 with a 1.15 WHIP and a 5.5 K/BB ratio. A late inning combo of Kobayashi and Betancourt would be pretty filthy, although I’m not sure how much Betancourt really cares about closing. He’s been setting up for so long, you’d think he would be more comfortable in the 8th inning. Raffy’s save percentage of 47% (16 of 34 over his career) suggests he may be better suited to setting up, but he also had a breakout role as an elite reliever last season, so who knows what his thoughts are on that.

If Betancourt agrees to waive his veteran status with Cleveland and defer to Kobayashi’s substantial closing experience (227 saves in Japan), then Kobayashi will likely be the closer for 2009. It all depends on how Wedge and Betancourt feel about his future role though.

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.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Stuck in Neutral

Hey, did I miss anything?

I’ve been missing from the blog-o-sphere lately, as I had to meet some major deadlines so I could graduate on time. I’ve been fairly perplexed by the Tribe’s 14-17 start, although it’s nice to see Detroit (14-18) has been keeping us company in the basement. The first sign that it’s too early to panic is that Minnesota is currently in first place. Yeah…good luck with that. Today, I’ll sort through the Tribe’s first month and try to figure out why the offense has fallen flat so far. First,

What’s Up With Detroit?

The Tiger’s were struggling early on, but the offense seems to have gathered itself of late. Detroit’s offense has gone on a tear in its last ten games, averaging 6 runs per game compared to 4.38 in their first 21 contests. Considering their offseason additions and the fact Detroit averaged 5.47 runs per game in 2007, it’s not unreasonable to think the Tigers could sustain their current offensive production, albeit unlikely. I’ve said before that several of Detroit’s players had career years in 2007 and are due for some regression (Ordonez and Polanco come to mind), which would dull the impact Cabrera and Renteria might make on the lineup. Not to discount the addition of these two players, but I just don’t buy into the hype that Detroit garnered in the offseason. Their offense will still be very good, but I’d be surprised if they finish the season with more runs scored than they had last year.

The real reason Detroit has failed to capitalize on Cleveland’s slow start is their pitching. The Tiger’s starters have posted a pedestrian 5.39 ERA in 31 games, while their relief corps has just a 4.32 ERA. For a team with such a powerful offense, having a run differential of -15 points to some serious pitching issues. Verlander has gotten off to an improbably rough start (6.28 ERA, 1.44 WHIP), but like Sabathia nobody sees this as a long term trend. Fatigue shouldn’t be an issue considering the 25 year old Verlander averaged 193.8 innings the last two seasons with no ill effects. It seems the Tiger’s ace is just in a rough stretch right now. As bad as Detroit’s pitching has been, there’s no way it will continue to be this bad. Six starts is still too soon to panic and Robertson and Rogers have been so bad they are bound to bounce back. Willis had only 5 innings logged before hyper-extending his knee and has had a more than adequate replacement in Armando Galarraga.

It’s unclear just how far Robertson and Rogers may fall before recovering and Willis has yet to prove himself in the AL. Detroit’s pitching will recover, but they won’t be particularly scary this season. A slew of health issues in the bullpen only compounds the struggles of the starters. Unfortunately for the Tribe, the Tiger’s pitching can get away with being mediocre as the team’s offense should pick up the slack more often than not.

I think it’s important to remember that Detroit has played just as poorly as Cleveland so far, but is still an extremely dangerous team. Detroit’s struggles can be good or bad, depending on your point of view. Cleveland certainly caught a break with Detroit’s pitching slump, as they could easily be down by five or eight games right now. Then again, so could Detroit. It’s almost as if Detroit and Cleveland are trying to recreate their stalemate from late last season where neither team could win a game, even with the division on the line. It’s far too early to make a prediction, but the team that shifts out of neutral first could create a buffer that ends up deciding the division later on.

On the Offense

The biggest factor behind Cleveland’s current rut is its inconsistent offense. Sound familiar? For whatever reason, this particular group of players goes through the occasional team-wide slump, leading to some streaky offensive production. As of Monday, Cleveland ranks 13th in BA (.242), 9th in OBP (.325), 12th in SLG (.362), and 10th in runs scored (132) in the American League. This is the same core of players that finished 6th (811) and 2nd (870) in runs scored the last two seasons. The Tribe is currently averaging 4.25 runs per game, nearly an entire run off their pace last season.

Is this trend any different from last April though? I expected to see much better offensive numbers for April of 2007, but this was not the case. Below is a comparison of Cleveland’s last two Aprils:

Month W L RS RA Run Diff. WP Team BA Team OPS Team ERA
April 2007 14 8 115 104 11 .636 .246 .752 4.21
March/April 2008 13 15 127 120 7 .464 .250 .708 4.06

The biggest difference between this April and last is the win percentage. Granted, the team OPS is down some this season, but the pitching staff is also giving up fewer runs. Otherwise, the overall offensive numbers are just as bad as they were this time last season. The deciding factor is how those runs were spread out. Last April, the Tribe scored three runs or less only five times in their first 22 games (22%). This April, they have scored three runs or less in 16 of their 31 games (51%) and are 3-13 in those games. In fact, 41% of Cleveland’s total runs scored have come from just five games.

So what’s causing the offense to be so erratic?

Outside of some serious slumps by Peralta, Blake, and Cabrera the first thing that caught my attention was the second spot in the lineup. At first glance the two-hole appears to be a crucial one, providing a bat to drive the leadoff man home and providing RBI opportunities for the cleanup hitters in the third and fourth spots. Tribe fans are familiar with the merry-go-round that Wedge likes to deploy for the second spot. So far this season, Wedge has used six different starters here with mixed results.

My theory is that if Wedge could find a reliable bat to plug into this spot it would go a long way to solidifying the offense and making it more consistent. This is easier said than done, as the team seems to be missing that extra bat right now to balance out the offense. Below is the collection of players Wedge has used behind Sizemore so far:

A. Cabrera 10 46 0 5 4 3 7 .541
J. Carroll 7 34 0 3 6 4 2 .574
D. Dellucci* 8 31 3 8 3 1 4 1.044
J. Michaels^ 3 17 0 0 1 1 5 .059
F. Gutierrez 2 8 0 0 0 0 0 .000
C. Blake 1 5 0 0 0 0 4 .600

*Platoons against RHP
^Platoons against LHP

I realize Michaels, Gutz, and Blake have not had a true opportunity in the two-hole, but I wanted to reinforce just how much it has varied between games. Carroll should not be batting that high in the lineup period, although I realize he was subbing for Cabrera on many occasions. AstroCab has played himself out of the top half of the lineup for the foreseeable future. It’s unfortunate that the Tribe’s second baseman has had a sophomore slump for two years in a row, but there really aren’t any alternatives this time. The bottom of the order is fine for Cabrera to take some of the immediate pressure off, although it’s far too early to even think about a demotion (Barfield’s .256 BA in Buffalo isn’t really promotion material anyway).

The most productive player in this position has been Dellucci, but he will definitely cool off at some point (he only has a .793 OPS in 83 PA overall) and is not an option to play every day. Francisco’s production will probably fall close to Dellucci’s, maybe a little better. It may be more beneficial to start the platoon squad behind Sizemore, rather than Gutz. Gutz’s struggles with righties would reduce his value at the top of the lineup and would lack the flexibility available with Francisco-Dellucci in bullpen match-ups.

The point is, there is no silver bullet for the Tribe’s lack of production in the two-hole. Each player or set of players has their share of weaknesses. I can understand, to an extent, why Wedge prefers these types of players between Sizemore and Victor. My guess is he is trying to infuse some extra speed at the top of the order before the clunkers in Victor, Hafner, and Garko come up to the plate. Top-to-bottom, this team is not built for speed. Still, wouldn’t having a guy who can get on base more often out weigh the benefit of having a speedier guy on less often? Not to confuse speedy with a base stealing threat; I was referring more to their pace around the bases.

Here’s the lineup I would propose:

Player Bats EQA OBP
G. Sizemore L .316 .393
R. Garko R .277 .361
V. Martinez S .293 .380
D. Dellucci / L .294 .349
B. Francisco R .295 .333
T. Hafner L .243 .305
J. Peralta R .249 .279
F. Gutierrez R .249 .295
C. Blake R .237 .286
A. Cabrera S .204 .284

I agree with Wedge dropping Hafner down to sixth recently, so that isn’t much of a stretch. The main difference in my version of the lineup is moving Peralta down, Garko up, and dropping the platoon in the middle. With the exception of four at-bats in third, Garko has not had the opportunity to bat this high in the lineup before. One plus to moving Garko up is his OBP; his .351 OBP the last two years is consistently better than the rest of the lineup (excluding Grady, Vic, and Hafner). What Garko lacks in speed, he makes up for in plate discipline and some decent power. At the very least, Garko will reduce the number of outs generated by the two-hole and move Sizemore into scoring position more often. This opens the door for Martinez to rack up those RBI again.

It may sound like I’m putting a lot of faith in Sizemore to set the table, but he really is the crux of the offense. If Sizemore doesn’t score, Cleveland is going to struggle. Sizemore has had only four games this season where he has failed to reach base at least once. In 11 of those games where he reached base, he never crossed the plate (the team went 2-9 in those games). Therefore, Wedge needs to start bypassing what his gut tells him and start plugging his best hitters in at the top of the order. At the moment, Dellucci is one of the better hitters on the team, but I am very comfortable in saying Garko will significantly outperform him once he breaks out of his mini-slump.

To finish off the discussion on offense, I’ll examine Hafner’s slow start and the departure of Jason Michaels in my next post.

Series number two against New York opens up tomorrow, here’s hoping the bats wake up before then.