Wednesday, September 24, 2008


A lot of things have gone wrong for the Tribe this season. The heart of the order has spent most of the season on the disabled list. Injuries to the starting rotation have given way to open tryouts. Many of these blips you just can't build into the off-season shopping list. Every time I go through the long list of things that have gone haywire though, I keep getting hung up on the bullpen.

The bullpen is tricky because on one hand it appeared strong in the off-season and you can only dump so much money into what would likely amount to insurance policies. On the other hand, it should have been obvious to the experts in the Front Office (not so much to me as I'm obviously not an expert on anything) that some of the pillars holding up the relief corps were baring a few cracks.

Cleveland's bullpen was one of the best in the Majors last year and boasted a 3.75 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, and 49 saves. Betancourt had a career year and was the undisputed king of the 8th inning. Rookies Rafael Perez and Jensen Lewis made an impact in the late innings and seemed primed to contribute in 2008. I personally hyped up the arrival of Masahide Kobayashi as a key addition for 2008 based on his experience as a closer in Japan. The Front Office was very familiar with the volatility of relief pitching, but the pros appeared to outweigh the cons with the Tribe's bullpen core heading into 2008.

Like every off-season, risk assessment is a big part of deciding how heavily to lean on certain players and how much money to spend. Cleveland took a gamble with Joe Borowski's arm and it backfired; there's not much else to it. The team certainly didn't go in without a backup plan though, far from it. In fact, I advocated making Kobayashi the closer once Borowski went down (oops). Masa was added as depth for the pen and I feel that the Tribe got him as a backup in case a late inning role became vacant. Masa's backup role (speculation on my part) was never officially stated by the team, not that anyone expected them to say something like that with Borowski's name still at the top of the depth chart.

Borowski went down with a triceps strain in May and never regained his lost velocity (the velocity was down before, but the injury didn't help). Borowski saw three more save opportunities in June before being released July 1 (he ended up on a minor league contract with Boston, but has not contributed in the Majors again).

Cleveland's first line of defense in case of a Borowski implosion was Rafael Betancourt. Betancourt was the interim closer from late April to the end of May. Raffy didn't take well to the closer's role, but I think that was more reflective of his struggles in the entire first half than anything else. Betancourt posted a 6.38 ERA, 1.48 WHIP, 4.33 K/BB ratio, and converted 4/6 saves over 14.1 IP during his initial foray into closing from April 24 to May 28.

I still think Betancourt has what it takes to be an effective closer, but it was a matter of the wrong guy at the wrong time in 2008. Betancourt's 6.00 ERA before the All Star break made it clear that he was not pitching at 100% and really wasn't a viable option for closer at the time. Granted, the team was desperate and probably just following their plan; somebody had to pitch the final inning with Borowski hurt.

Kobayashi was the primary closer from mid May to late July, but it soon became clear that the transition to the Majors and, more importantly, the career high in innings was taking its toll. Kobayashi posted a solid 3.05 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 2.54 K/BB ratio, and converted 5/7 save opportunities in 44.1 IP before the All Star break. Kobayashi has only exceeded 50 IP in his career three times in nine Pro Yakyu seasons ('01, '04, '06). It may be coincidental, but Masa's two highest season ERA's in Japan occurred when he pitched 52 (4.33 ERA) and 57 innings (3.90 ERA), respectively. I think these ERA spikes are notable in that Kobayashi owns a career ERA of 2.79 in the Pro Yakyu League.

As the 34 year old Kobayashi crept toward the 50 IP mark in his rookie season his pitches began to lose some of their effectiveness, resulting in more multi-run innings. Cleveland opted to cut Masa's innings in the second half from an average of 12.12 per month from April to July, to just 3 each in August and September.

It appears that Cleveland may have been banking too much on Betancourt and Kobayashi (assuming they viewed him as a major cog for 2008). I don't think it's a matter of hindsight either, since certain information was available during the off-season. One point that I had alluded to in a previous post was Betancourt's innings load last season.

After shattering his career high in IP of 67.7 (2005) by 21.6 (includes post season) and throwing so many high leverage, stressful innings in 2007, common sense would dictate that something had to give.

I'm not talking about a typical regression (that was already obvious given Raffy's god-like numbers), I'm talking about a more drastic change be it a tired arm or more serious injury. Raffy's performance clearly shows something went wrong between 2007 and 2008. My theory is that he's had a nagging injury all season that was precipitated by his being the bullpen's workhorse last year. This would match up with reports of back stiffness and an obvious loss of control (career worst 2.52 K/BB ratio in 2008). I don't know how much concern Betancourt's 2007 work load caused the team, but it seems like Betancourt was supposed to be the key to the bullpen a second straight year.

Besides the announced back issue, I still can't pinpoint what may be bothering Betancourt. Considering the team signed him to a three year deal last winter, you'd think they'd have shut him down at this point in a lost season if he had a truly serious injury. Maybe he's not hurt and the best thing is for him to work out whatever control issues he's having, I honestly don't know.

There was risk in signing Kobayashi, although I'd be short-changing the team's scouts to suggest they didn't do their homework on the guy. Still the question of whether Masa would make a smooth transition to the Major Leagues must have been hanging over Cleveland's head as they finalized the bullpen for Opening Day. I feel that Masa made a successful adjustment to the Majors, but his season was derailed by fatigue in the end. Either way, Kobayashi did not fit the profile of an impact pitcher heading into 2008.

All these issues lead back to the need for a contingency plan at closer. With the team's two veteran setup men reeling, the team was left without enough quality arms to fill in for the 8th and 9th. Unfortunately, the team couldn't have Perez toss a two inning save every time (although old-school closers like Goose Gossage often did), since he was already being heavily utilized everywhere but the 9th. The bullpen ended up being spread too thin, despite apparent fail-safes meant to prevent such a severe collapse in the hierarchy.

So lesson one, the team really can't afford to leave the closer job up to anyone less than a proven, healthy pitcher for 2009. No closer by committee, no wait-and-see on a guy held together by duct tape, but a full time, established closer. This is easier said than done because truly reliable closers tend to be hard to come by.

It's been said before, but the closer role really is the anchor for the entire bullpen. Cleveland has to go into 2009 with that anchor or they'll encounter the same problems they've had this year.

The basic bullpen structure seems to revolve around five "core" pitchers who handle the bulk of the innings. Besides the closer and setup man, there tends to be a second, reliable reliever who covers the 7th-8th, a strong middle reliever who comes in to protect the lead, and a weaker middle reliever who comes in to eat innings and contain the damage when the team is behind. This is just the impression I got from checking out how other teams tend to structure their bullpen (more detail on this later).

With the army of relievers the Tribe has marched out this year, it may not seem like the bullpen really fits into this mold. Cleveland does have a potentially strong core of relievers who fit this archetype for 2009 though (yes, I realize my use of the word "potentially" is hypocritical to a degree, since I just got done preaching about how the team left too much to chance this year. I wasn't saying you can eliminate risk, but felt the team didn't place as much weight on certain factors as they should have in the past. Hopefully they are better prepared in 2009, even though financial and depth restraints are never easy to navigate).

Player Role
Free Agent Closer
R. Perez Setup
R. Betancourt 7th-8th; top tier
J. Lewis 6th-8th; top tier
M. Kobayashi 7th-8th; mid tier
E. Mujica Cleanup

This roster currently has a few assumptions built into it:

1.) Perez's numbers level out from his modest 2007 decline and he doesn't suffer any ill effects from an 80 inning season.

2.) Betancourt is 100% healthy again and reverts back to his career average performance. Raffy hasn't been dominant at all this season, but he has shown signs of progress with a 3.71 ERA in his last 26.2 IP compared to a 6.00 ERA in his previous 42.

3.) Lewis holds steady in his second full season. He may have struggled in June and July with a 6.87 ERA, but has an excellent 2.90 ERA in his last 31 IP. Lewis has also made a strong case for himself by going 12 for 12 in save opportunities during that stretch.

4.) Kobayashi significantly improves his endurance (this may be tough, given his age).

Those four players give Cleveland some good pieces to work with heading into the off-season, but there are still a few mines to traverse in that list, even with the optimistic outlook I have for 2009. I think in addition to the acquisition of a closer, a big boost for next season's bullpen will come out of the minor leagues.

A major strength of the pen in 2007 was the depth available in the minors, but outside of Mujica there just wasn't much available in 2008. I think that will change next season.

The bullpen absolutely has to be retooled for 2009 or this team isn't going anywhere. A team that goes into the playoffs, let alone the regular season, with a weak bullpen is just shooting itself in the foot before they even leave the starting line. Cleveland may have paid the price for having too much confidence in and/or overtaxing their relievers in 2007, but they will not be making the same mistakes twice.

In Part II, I'll break down some interesting minor league pitchers that may be ready to contribute to Cleveland's bullpen in 2009. I'll also take a look at the projected free agent market for closers.

Fun Fact

Jhonny Peralta became the first Indians shortstop to ever hit 20 homeruns and 40 doubles in a single season. - courtesy of STO

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Tribe Signs Collegiate Standout from Taiwan

Cleveland finalized negotiations with right handed pitching prospect Chen-Chang Lee earlier this week. The 21 year old Lee is a native of Taiwan and started for his national team in the Beijing Olympics.

According to Cleveland's Assistant General Manager of Scouting, John Mirabelli, the team has scouted Lee since he was 16 years old. Cleveland reportedly offered Lee a contract in the past, but was turned down. Lee chose to attend Taipei Ti Wu college before going pro, the same school that produced Chien Ming Wang.

A Chinese news source translated by the blog Taiwan Baseball reports Lee "received a $350K signing bonus + a possible $90K for tuition if he performs well in the fall instructional league. Aside from the high six figure offer from a NPB team, Lee received interest from the Indians and 4 other ML teams. The other clubs' offers were all rumored to have been less than $150K (with the Twins offering less than $100K). The article also goes on to say that the reason for some of the scout's apprehension with not offering/or the lower offer for Lee, was because of Lee's limited upside (will probably be a middle reliever) and that he was over utilized in Taiwan."

Apparently, Lee and other Taiwanese pitchers were viewed by multiple Major League scouts at the Olympics. Lee may have boosted his value recently with a strong performance in Beijing. Lee surrendered just 3 H, 2 BB, and 1 ER with 7 SO over 6.2 IP against the Cuban national team. He followed that strong outing up with 2.1 IP, 1 ER, and 4 SO against the United States. Lee has participated in various collegiate and amateur leagues during his career, as well and is highly regarded in Taiwan.

On his blog, Castronvince writes that Lee "reportedly throws a sinker, slider and split-finger. His fastball is said to max out at 94 mph." Lee also features a side-arm delivery, which is one reason scouts view him as a reliever if he ever makes the Majors. In a 2007 article, Keith Law described Lee as a "fast return on investment" and "the top college pitcher" in Taiwanese baseball. According to previous reports cited by Taiwan Baseball, Lee has encountered some shoulder injuries in the past. Given the extent to which Lee has been scouted and a successful physical, his shoulder does not appear to be a major concern at this point.

Lee is expected to report to Class-A Kinston for the 2009 season.

On Pacific Rim Baseball

Even if Lee does not make an impact in the Major Leagues, his signing may serve as another stepping stone for Cleveland baseball in East Asia. Cleveland has been very active throughout the region for several years and all signs point to Asia as an emerging hot bed for baseball prospects. Taiwan, South Korea, and China have joined Japan in producing Major League caliber players and MLB has started to aggressively promote the sport in these emerging regions. Lee is one of Taiwan's best known players and his career with the Tribe should draw a fair amount of interest there. His signing may encourage prospects to take a closer look at Cleveland's system in the future.

The Dodgers have had a strong presence in China since the 1980s when they teamed up with the China Baseball Association. The partnership led to visits by Dodgers coaches and scouts, field construction, baseball clinics, and youth leagues in China. The Dodgers and Padres played two exhibition games in China last Spring, marking the first meeting of two MLB teams in the country.

MLB has had a flurry of activity the past two years, establishing grass roots programs to promote the sport, signing an agreement with Chinese television to air the World Series, and hosting the Chinese National team at this year's Arizona Fall League.

The Yankees began collaborating with the Chinese Baseball Association last year on ways to develop and promote baseball in China. New York became the first MLB team to sign Chinese players in pitcher Kai Liu and catcher Zhenwang Zhang, both 19 years old. Further utilizing their well-known name, the Yankees also became the first MLB team to sign a sponsorship deal with a Chinese company.

Seattle signed two more Chinese players later on in 2007, catcher Wei Wang and infielder/outfielder Yu Bingjia.

Taiwan was represented in the Majors well before 2007. Yankees ace Chien-Ming Wang is by far the most famous and had an outstanding sophomore season in 2006 (19-6, 218 IP, 3.63 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 1.46 K/BB). The Dodgers have had four Taiwanese players in their system since 2002 (Chin-Feng Chen, Chin-Lung Hu, Hong-Chih Kuo, Chin-hui Tsao), while Colorado (Chin-hui Tsao) and Cleveland have each signed one.

Cleveland's prospect, relief pitcher Sung-Wei Tseng, split the 2008 season in Kinston (5.27 ERA, 54.2 IP) and Akron (8.80 ERA, 15.1 IP), where he has apparently been struggling.

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.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Road Trip

I'll be visiting the North Coast this week, but unfortunately I didn't have much time to prepare any content for while I'm gone. So as always, thanks for visiting and check back next week for the latest post.

Go Tribe