Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Cleveland May Skip Weak Free Agent Market

With the annual GM Winter Meetings starting on Monday in Indianapolis, there will be a flurry of activity surrounding the free agent market. Obviously, the rebuilding Indians aren’t going to be spending much money on free agents this off-season, but that didn’t stop new manager Manny Acta from dropping a few hints about what he wants for Christmas.

According to an interview on Castrovince’s blog, Acta was open to the possibility of bringing in a veteran starting pitcher (because “you can never go into Spring Training short on pitching”), a right-handed utility infielder to cover first base (in case LaPorta is still ailing in April), and possibly a veteran starting catcher (in case the rookie backstops are overwhelmed in managing the pitching staff). I’m not sure I agree with Acta’s assessment, but to be fair this was meant as an “ideal” scenario as far as what holes he would fill to bolster his young team in the short-term.

Representing the front office’s point of view heading to Indy, Shapiro gave the impression that he won’t even be shopping for his usual bargain bin signings this year:

"We don't have a defined need. We want to get better and improve and offset the volatility that goes with young players, but we don't have the pressure of having to complete a trade or sign a free agent."

That “volatility” associated with the team’s young players is basically another way of saying “we’re not totally sold on these guys to carry the team next season.” The level of confidence the front office has in players like Andy Marte, Jordan Brown, and Carlos Carrasco will be a key point in dictating how aggressive Cleveland is on the free agent market (the pitching staff seems to be garnering the most buzz in this regard). Jake Westbrook’s performance with Ponce of the Puerto Rican winter league may also influence how inclined the team is to pursue a veteran starting pitcher to help stabilize a comparatively inexperienced rotation.

It may seem odd to hear Acta casually mention adding a veteran starter when the team already has a healthy Westbrook on track for Spring Training. I’m pretty confident that Cleveland will be shopping Westbrook this season though, which would leave a significant void in the rotation. Westbrook is owed $11 million in 2010, so there will probably be some pressure from ownership to move his contract. Right now, it’s a matter of timing.

Cleveland may know Westbrook is healthy, but it would be wise to showcase him against major league competition to further boost his trade value. Barring any setbacks, I’d place Westbrook’s return value maybe a notch or two above Pavano (which yielded pitcher Yohan Pino from the Twins). The fact that Pavano was due only about $1.5 million and Westbrook will be guaranteed significantly more than that could make him less appealing as a stop-gap acquisition for a contender. Then again, Westbrook is a better pitcher than Pavano to begin with and has been known to go on ridiculous hot streaks, so concerns over his price tag may be dampened heading into the mid-season trade deadline.

Either way, it’s doubtful Westbrook is moved this winter due to his recent health issues and lack of major league innings. Interest in Jake will probably start to gain steam as the season matures and contenders start to contemplate holes in their rotations.

Even if Cleveland decides to pursue a pitcher, are there even any veteran hurlers on the market worth signing? Guys like Jarrod Washburn, Rich Harden, Vicente Padilla, Justin Duchscherer, and Jon Garland are beyond the Tribe’s price range. John Smoltz and Pedro Martinez are interesting options, but it would be to their advantage to stay in the National League and their endurance makes them a poor fit for a team that would be looking for innings to lessen the workload of their developing arms. Plus, Pedro may command a decent raise with his performance in the playoffs for Philly last year.

As intriguing as it would be to have a veteran like Smoltz or Martinez mentoring the pitchers, isn’t that what the coaching staff is for? If they sign a free agent who is only available to pitch half the time (or less) because of durability issues, they’d essentially be paying $2-5 million for a part-time player and an extra coach. This doesn’t seem like an especially wise use of a roster spot or what limited funds are available to improve the team.

Granted, there is a different dynamic involved when comparing a player-coach and player-player relationship. There could certainly be some aspects to the latter teaching arrangement that I am undervaluing or are non-occurring between a player and a formal coach. Still, now doesn’t seem like an appropriate time to bring in that type of player given the team’s financial struggles and abundance of available arms.

Also, it’s not as if the rotation would consist of a bunch of fresh-faced rookies right out of the gate. Laffey (264.2 IP) and Masterson (217.2 IP) have been up long enough to understand the game and what’s expected of them at this level, even making an appearance in the postseason. Huff spent much of 2009 in Cleveland and appears to be ML ready. With 395 and 498 innings logged in the Majors over four seasons, Sowers and Carmona are well-seasoned, despite their individual struggles (I’m carrying over my prediction from last year: if Carmona doesn’t get it together the pitching staff is in big trouble regardless). Carlos Carrasco and Hector Rondon are another story, but again, their development track ultimately falls to the coaching staff.

The team will have some juggling to do in managing their starters. Carmona is a lock for the rotation, although Sowers’ role is less certain; both are out of minor league options. Masterson offers some flexibility in that he can move back to the bullpen, but I think the organization has a strong desire to test him as a starter for now. If that’s the case, Sowers may be used as a long-reliever. This could yield more work than you’d think, especially if Carmona or others have trouble going deep into games or the team wants to manage the workload of certain pitchers.

Carrasco will likely start the season in Columbus as an emergency starter or whenever Westbrook’s rotation spot opens up via trade. Due to a lack of experience in the upper minors and service time considerations, I’d be surprised if Rondon was called up before the second half of the season.

And in case you were wondering, Anthony Reyes will likely miss the entire 2010 season as he recovers from ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction surgery, so he’s a non-factor. Scott Lewis (remember him?) spent most of 2009 trying to get healthy in the minors, but could contribute at some point in 2010 (no idea when or in what capacity though).

Below is how I see the Indians’ rotation shaking out to start the season:

1.) Westbrook

2.) Carmona

3.) Laffey*

4.) Masterson

5.) Huff*

6.) Sowers* (bullpen/emergency starter)

7.) Carrasco (Triple-A)

* Left-hander

There are always a few surprises when it comes to distributing starts over a season, which means players in Columbus like Chuck Lofgren, Yohan Pino, or Zach Jackson could enter the fray at some point. For an example of this unpredictability, see Tomo Ohka’s six starts with the Tribe in 2009.

Returning to the question of a free agent signing, does Cleveland have enough starting pitching depth to make it through the season without over-exposing their prospects? This is literally the (multi) million dollar question for Cleveland. It’s not an easy question to answer, especially if you factor in the possible departure of Westbrook. On the one hand, there just aren’t many quality, affordable starters on the market. On the other, the team will only need that additional starter in the event of an unlikely string of injuries or a drastic failure in performance by multiple pitchers, paired with a trade that may or may not occur (plus there always seems to be a journeyman available on waivers to eat innings).

Assuming Cleveland has around $5 million to work with (based on what I’ve heard, this could be a generous guess), wants a veteran presence, and doesn’t want to commit to more than a one year deal, who’s available this off-season?

Bartolo Colon

Colon fell off the radar following his 2005 CY-winning season with Anaheim. He suffered a torn rotator cuff in the 2005 postseason and was limited by shoulder soreness and trips to the DL for much of the ’06 and ’07 seasons. Colon found some success in 2008 on a minor league deal with Boston, averaging 5.57 innings over 7 starts with a 118 ERA+, 1.38 WHIP, and 2.70 K/BB ratio. He signed a $1 million contract with the White Sox in 2009, making 12 starts over 62.1 IP (5.17 IP/GS) with a 111 ERA+, 1.44 WHIP, and 1.81 K/BB. It’s unclear how much injury hindered his 2009 season, but Colon’s decision to withhold an inflamed elbow from the team contributed to his release in September.

Assuming he hasn’t held a grudge about being traded to Montreal and still has a strong desire to pitch, a return to Cleveland could do wonders for his focus. Cleveland’s training staff is also among the best in the league and may keep him healthier than he’s been in the past. His endurance is questionable, but when healthy the 36-year-old has been able to provide quality innings and appears to have enough left in the tank to be a serviceable fifth starter. Colon could be worth taking a flyer on as there would be minimal risk involved in a minor league deal. I’d consider him more of a depth signing than a true starter though.

Livan Hernandez

You want an innings eater, this is the guy (just don’t expect anything special). Livan Hernandez has been adding to his journeyman status the last four seasons, bouncing between Washington, Arizona, Minnesota, Colorado, the Mets, and back to Washington. During that time, the 34-year-old righty has averaged nearly 200 innings per season, which is sort of remarkable considering what he’s tossing out there on a given night.

Considering the Mets and Nationals ranked near the bottom of the league on defense last year, Hernandez really wasn’t that bad. Over 31 starts he posted a 4.44 FIP, 1.56 WHIP, 1.52 K/BB, and 1.10 GB/FB over 183.2 IP. Ok, so he does allow a ton of baserunners and the 22.3% line drive rate is a bit steep, but hey: that’s 180 fewer innings you don’t have to worry about distributing amongst the youthful rotation or an assuredly busy bullpen (quantity over quality in this case).

Unless the Indians can come away with some sort of coup elsewhere, Hernandez is probably my favorite candidate to play the role of veteran starter/innings eater/insurance policy for the rotation. The Mets picked him up on a minor league deal last February with a base salary of $1 million, plus some modest performance incentives. It seems reasonable for Hernandez to look for a similar deal this year, although he may not be thrilled at the prospect of another minor league stint.

I think Cleveland holds an advantage over most teams in this case, since they could essentially guarantee Hernandez the type of playing time others can’t (although other non-contenders could also provide ample innings, so this may not be that strong of a bargaining chip). If the organization feels this is the best safety net for the rotation in 2010, it would be realistic for them to flip Westbrook’s salary at some point while bringing in Hernandez on a one-year, $1-2.5 million deal.

Kelvim Escobar

Escobar had to have his right shoulder surgically repaired prior to the 2008 season and he’s been trying to get healthy ever since. Escobar’s comeback trail has been littered with various aches and pains, forcing him into a prolonged rehab period that stretched into the entire 2009 season. After sitting out all of 2008, he made his only major league appearance of 2009 in a June 6th start, but simply didn’t have enough strength in his shoulder to continue pitching. As he approaches the two year mark since his surgery, Escobar plans on showcasing his arm in the Venezuelan Winter League this winter and may work out for individual teams in January (according to Jerry Crasnick at ESPN).

The fact that Escobar is advertising his participation in winter ball indicates that he is fairly confident in his health this time around. However, it is unclear if he can still be an effective starting pitcher, as his velocity and endurance have likely taken a significant hit due to the severity of his injury. It may also take time for him to re-adjust to pitching in the majors and become comfortable working in the strike zone again. This re-adjustment could be difficult if he suddenly finds himself without his 94 mph fastball (I’m not sure if he’s been able to further integrate and improve his off-speed pitches in the meantime).

Escobar may ultimately end up as a reliever to help preserve his fragile shoulder. Angels manager Mike Scioscia entertained the idea of shifting Escobar to the pen before having to shut him down completely in 2009. It would make sense for both parties to have Escobar spend a large portion of 2010 as a reliever. This would reduce the risk involved for whoever signs him, since he would be cheaper and easier to replace if he were to land on the DL. It would also benefit Escobar, since a back-end bullpen gig would provide a low-pressure environment against major league competition in which to test his shoulder and get acclimated.

The Red Sox, Rays, Orioles, Yankees, Mets, Mariners, and Brewers have all been connected to Escobar through the rumor mill, so there would be plenty of competition for his services if Cleveland decided to enter the mix. All of those teams, minus the Rays, could probably offer a more lucrative contract than Cleveland, not to mention a chance to play for a contender (Orioles excluded).

Cleveland could certainly offer an incentivized minor league deal, but the salary ceiling for those incentives would fall short of the field. The Tribe’s lack of disposable funds should keep them on the sidelines, but Escobar isn’t exactly worth pursuing anyway as he does not meet the team’s needs at this stage of his career.

Ben Sheets

I had been casually mulling the idea of Cleveland bringing in Ben Sheets on a Pavano-Plus type of contract: a low base salary of $1.5-3 million, but with a higher salary ceiling and better incentives contingent on innings pitched and time spent on the DL. Even if the only way Sheets would sign is if he had the chance to make $6-8 million after incentives, Cleveland could still ship him to a contender for a prospect or cash at the trade deadline if he stays healthy and pitches like the Ben Sheets of old. It sounded like a good idea, until I heard how much Sheets is looking for in his next contract.

$12 million guaranteed, if the report is to be believed. I understand his agent is trying to get a good deal for his client, but considering Sheets had surgery on a torn flexor tendon in his right elbow last February it’s sort of amusing to see that kind of figure suggested. The only way Sheets is going to come close to that amount is if he signs a heavily incentivized contract and stays healthy enough to meet all his performance goals. No team is going to give him $12 million up front; something had to have gotten lost in translation here.

At any rate, the 31-year-old Louisiana native has not made a major league start since September of 2008 before the elbow injury cost him a chance to make his first career post-season start. Sheets was fairly impressive en route to a 3.38 FIP, 1.15 WHIP, and 3.36 K/BB over 198.1 IP (31 GS). If he can replicate those numbers, he’d certainly be worth $12 million on the market, but given his injury history (past and present) that’s a big “if.” Word on the street is that several teams are interested in his services, with the Rangers appearing to be the front runners (they made an attempt to sign him in 2008 before the seriousness of his injury came out). The Yankees, Mets, and Orioles have also been connected to the right-hander.

Obviously, the anticipated price tag alone (incentives or not) will discourage Cleveland from getting too involved with Sheets, but he presents an intriguing risk/reward value for teams better equipped to absorb the salary hit if he ends up collecting a large chunk of his contract before succumbing to injury and becoming untradeable (assuming he makes it out of the starting gate). If Cleveland had a legitimate chance to contend, I’d advocate pursuing Sheets on a team-friendly contract given his potential upside when healthy. Heck, even if they weren’t going to contend, but still had the cash, I wouldn’t mind seeing them take a chance on turning Sheets into a prime trade chip.

A weak free agent class and Cleveland’s lack of financial muscle makes it seem unlikely that they will be signing any free agents to major league contracts this winter. Fortunately, the organization’s revamped farm system contains enough depth to make free agents a luxury, as they arguably have enough pieces on their current roster to field a decent team in 2010 while they further develop their key prospects. While it is unusual for a team to completely forego the free agent market, the money saved on a weak talent pool could yield a better value in the future.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

More on Manny and His D.C. Rep

Manny Acta was introduced as Cleveland’s new manager at a press conference with Mark Shapiro on Monday. The conference started off with the usual Shapiro Speak™ before Acta donned the ceremonial press conference jersey and took some questions. Nothing ground breaking of course, but there were a few interesting items to chew on.

One of the first things I noticed about Acta was how passionate he sounds when talking about baseball and his new team. He’s either one of the best PR men Cleveland has seen in a while, or he really does take tremendous pride in his profession (I’d say a combination of both, particularly the latter). I’m probably over-hyping the man at this point, but even if he is still just drawing from his interview playbook, the fact that he cared enough about joining the team to completely immerse himself in the organization’s structure, players, achievements, and failures from top-to-bottom means a lot. And remember, he chose Cleveland over Houston, an organization he has an amicable history with.

This seems like more than just a second chance to prove himself as a manager, Acta seems like he truly wants to be here and see these players (most of whom he’s probably never even met) succeed and develop. That’s a very cool vibe to get from a manager’s second press conference.

Early on, Acta implied that he at least has a basic understanding of the dynamic behind the fan base in Cleveland, contrasting the 455 straight sellouts of the last Golden Age of Baseball on the North Coast with the absence of a championship. Having spent time in Montreal and Washington, he probably knows it’s going to be an uphill battle to win back the fan base, which is indirectly part of his job. The sooner he can start fielding a contender again, the sooner the fans will (hopefully) start showing the support they used to and rally around the team.

Apparently, Acta had come to respect and know the Indians organization through a few atypical channels. As a NL manager, Acta only had the chance to meet the Tribe on the field once during interleague play in 2007. However, he did become quite familiar with the organization during his time coaching and managing in the minors. As an opposing manager, Acta said he “battled [the Indians] organization for years in the minor leagues.” That was sort of an interesting anecdote for him to bring up now, considering he hasn’t even been in the minors since 2000.

He also described how he watched the Indians on television after he was fired from the Nationals, knowing an opportunity may emerge within the struggling franchise. "[Cleveland] is a place where a lot of people want to be,” said Acta. “In 2007, I worked as an analyst during the playoffs [for FOX Sports en Español (FSE)] and fell in love with the Indians back then."

Acta went on to show his familiarity with the players he’ll be taking on, briefly mentioning how his staff will need to get Carmona back on track in 2010 and how David Huff turned out a successful rookie season (probably not a stretch to pencil Huff into Acta’s starting rotation next year). He even dropped Hector Rondon’s name into the conversation (foreshadowing a mid-season call-up perhaps?).

The main piece of news to come out of the press conference was that some of the coaches Acta is interested in hiring to fill out his staff are still under contract with other teams, meaning he couldn’t discuss any specific names just yet. My take-away from that would be that Acta has been given the lead in assembling his coaching staff, rather than having to work off a pre-determined list of candidates provided by the front office (although obviously Shapiro and Dolan will have to sign off on any final decisions).

The new coaches will probably be announced soon after the World Series, assuming the team is already beginning to contact potential hires.

For the second time, Acta cited Joe Torre as an example of how even the most respected managers in baseball were challenged early in their career. “If you give people the opportunity to choose between, say, Joe Torre after his first three years with the Mets or the Joe Torre now, I believe everyone would pick the one from now," Acta said. "I think we have to look back and know that not everybody who is a big shot now was a big shot when they started. I think big shots are just little shots who keep shooting, and I'm not willing to quit shooting until I become a big shot."

This statement was directed towards the skeptics who have expressed concern over his tenure with the Washington Nationals. Over two and half seasons with the Nationals, Acta compiled a .385 win percentage. Considering what he had to work with in D.C. though, is it really fair to pin those losing seasons on Acta? Below are the first four managerial seasons for three of the league’s current “big shots:”

Name Age Team Season Record W-L% Finish
B. Cox 37 Braves 1978 69-93 .426 6

38
1979 66-94 .413 6

39
1980 81-80 .503 4

40
1981 50-56 .463 5







J. Torre 37 Mets 1977 49-68 .419 6

38
1978 66-96 .407 6

39
1979 63-99 .389 6

40
1980 67-95 .414 5







T. Francona 38 Phillies 1997 68-94 .420 5

39
1998 75-87 .463 3

40
1999 77-85 .475 3

41
2000 65-97 .401 5

This is only a small sample of three successful managers, but I think it gets the point across. With the exception of Bobby Cox in 1980, none of the three compiled a winning season in their first four years on the job. Only Torre lasted longer than four seasons with his first team, leaving the Mets in 1981. Also of note is the fact that all three managers started their careers relatively young and did not field a contending team until after their 40th birthday.

Obviously, I didn’t account for the quality of the teams each manager inherited when hired, which leaves the question of whether bad teams are more inclined to take a chance on a young, rookie manger or if 40-years old and four completed seasons are viable benchmarks in the development of a major league skipper. I may investigate this idea in more detail in the future, but for now, this snapshot seems to highlight a few encouraging trends for the 40-year old Acta’s second tour as manager.

While none of the above managers lasted particularly long with their first team, Acta’s time with Washington was cut especially short. Two and half seasons is nowhere near enough time for a manger to establish his system, develop players, and place his signature upon a team. Acta was fired before he could make any real headway in Washington.

I doubt anybody outside of the Nationals organization expected those teams to come anywhere near a winning record with the players they ran out on the field, it would have been nothing short of a miracle. Combine that with a long list of injuries, instability in the front office, and just a general lack of talented or committed players (remember, they actually traded for Austin Kearns and Felipe Lopez) and the whole situation was a mess. Acta shouldn’t be receiving criticism after the fact for what was just a flat-out, terrible team.

On the other hand, if he failed to hold the attention and respect of his players during his time as manager, that’s certainly cause for concern, but I have yet to hear any reports along those lines. As far as I can tell, Acta tends to be highly regarded and respected by both his players and the rest of the baseball community.

I don’t see this hiring as a gamble for the Indians at all. They seem extremely confident in Acta’s abilities and have a good sense of what to expect from him and I tend to agree with their evaluation thus far. I’m not suggesting Acta is going to vault the Indians back into contention next season, as they’re still in the midst of rebuilding, but I think he’ll surprise a lot of people with his passion, knowledge of the game, and ability to advance the team’s burgeoning young talent.

Quotable Acta

This is by far my favorite quote from Acta that I've discovered. It comes from a June 2008 interview he conducted in Washington with a group of local bloggers (which is pretty cool on its own). The full transcript can be found at Nats320 and provides some additional insight into how he approached certain situations that year. Anyway, here's Manny on base running:

There are 27 outs (in each game) and they are precious. I know that you guys (bloggers) being involved in doing what you do, you do a lot of research and stuff. But the average guy at home still doesn’t go out of his way to understand that just running into outs is not good. You don’t run to run. You don’t bunt to bunt. You run and you bunt when it makes sense. And that’s the way I do things.

Manny-Lantern image courtesy of Mr. Irrelevant

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Cleveland Names Acta New Skipper

In an aggressive move, Cleveland decided to appoint their choice for manager on Sunday, rather than waiting until after the World Series as expected. Former Nationals skipper Manny Acta was the first candidate to interview with the Tribe, but must have left quite an impression over his two interviews with ownership and front office personnel.

Former Mets and Rangers manager Bobby Valentine, Torey Lovullo of the Columbus Clippers, and Dodgers hitting coach Don Mattingly were also interviewed. Angels bench coach Ron Roenicke was scheduled to interview with Cleveland at some point, but the team appeared to make a decision before those talks could further develop.

Besides standing out amongst the other candidates, Acta was also being courted by the Houston Astros to fill their managerial vacancy. This may have pushed Cleveland to make an offer to their top choice earlier than anticipated. Acta also has a history with the Astros franchise, as they drafted him in 1986 and later gave him his first management opportunity in the minors in 1993.

Acta broke into the majors as a third base coach with Montreal from 2002 to 2004 under former Cleveland player/manager Frank Robinson before manning the same post with the Mets from 2005 to 2006 under Willie Randolph. He took over in Washington after his former boss, Robinson, was fired after the 2006 season. Acta also managed the Dominican Republic in the 2004 World Baseball Classic and led the prestigious Tigres del Licey to a Caribbean Series title that same year.

It’s unclear who made the first move, but Acta reportedly turned down Houston’s two-year guaranteed offer and chose Cleveland instead. In his post-interview press conference, Acta seemed intrigued by Cleveland’s core of “exciting young players,” stating that the “Indians have a lot more in place…pretty much a whole lineup” to build upon right away.

Acta’s contract is for three years guaranteed (2010-2012), with a club option for a fourth year in 2013. The specific salary details of the contract have not yet been released yet.

There were a few factors attached to each of the other candidates that may have worked against them:

Bobby Valentine’s 14 years of major league managerial experience (plus five more in Japan) puts him well ahead in that particular category, but all that experience would have come at a price. Valentine made about $4 million in his final year with the Chiba Lotte Marines and would have likely requested a comparable salary with Cleveland.

Shapiro has gone on record saying funds would not prevent them from hiring their choice for manager, despite owing Eric Wedge at least $1 million for the final year of his contract. While I do believe money was not an absolute limitation, I bet it factored into the discussion about Valentine. It’s doubtful a team that just slashed their payroll doesn’t place significant weight on how much they’ll be paying their next manager.

Valentine also gave out a very unusual vibe during his sit-down with the local press. From his body language to the cryptic quotes he threw out, he gave the impression that he had just finished an interview with an employee he was thinking about hiring, instead of the other way around. Bottom-line, he sounded more like an old hand amused by the whole process instead of seriously considering joining a young, rebuilding ball club (it’s difficult to describe, I just didn’t like the impression he gave at all). Valentine’s self-described “lousy loser” mentality would have been a poor fit for a club that needs patience and guidance for its young players over the next two seasons in order to mold the team into a contender once again.

Torey Lovullo has been a manager in the Tribe’s farm system for eight years, with the last four spent in Triple-A. Despite his track record with the team and relationship with many of its upper level prospects, I’m not sure Lovullo was ever under real consideration for the position. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was actually interviewing for a coaching position with Cleveland, even if it was touted as an interview for manager. Lovullo has spent twice as long managing in the minors as Wedge did, so it would make sense for the team to offer him a promotion if he is regarded highly enough to be publicly nominated for manager.

The team hinted that they wanted to move in a new direction with their next manager. With the rebuilding process in full-swing and the departure of Wedge and his entire coaching staff, now seems like a suitable time to look abroad for a truly fresh approach. Every manager since John McNamara (dismissed part-way through the 1991 season) has been an internal hire, including Mike Hargrove (1991-1999), Charlie Manuel (2000-2002), and Eric Wedge (2003-2009).

Don Mattingly was probably my least favorite candidate. First, he was already passed over for a managerial position in favor of Joe Girardi in New York, leaving him with no professional managing experience (not even in the minors). I’m not a big fan of Joe Torre’s management style either (Mattingly has worked under Torre his entire coaching career), although obviously he has had great success in New York, albeit with a ridiculous amount of rostered talent every year.

Second, Mattingly has never been around a small-market environment like Cleveland. Los Angeles and New York are basically the complete opposites of Cleveland, right down to the payroll, media presence, and fan relations. As Terry Pluto pointed out, “it would be a major shock [for Mattingly] to be under the budget limitations that will come with [the Cleveland] job.”

Personally, I am very excited about bringing Manny Acta on board as manager. He seems to be an above-average communicator with both the players and staff and has the proper mindset and experience to develop Cleveland’s core of young players. As a native of the Dominican Republic, Acta has an advantage in communicating directly with the team’s Latino players, especially those newer to the league who may not yet be fluent in English. Combine his communication skills with a positive, upbeat approach to the game and I think he will have an easy time engaging and motivating the team.

Even though he’s coming from a losing franchise in Washington, that experience should make his first season in Cleveland seem much easier by comparison. Breaking in as a major league manager is difficult enough, but the fact that he did it with the worst team in the league had to have been a nightmare at times. Hopefully, by applying the lessons he learned while managing an extreme version of a team in transition, Acta will be that much more effective during his second tour of duty as a result (if you think the Indians have it rough, they don’t even come close to the Nats’ situation).

Acta also has a reputation as an excellent evaluator of talent and is a student of sabermetrics, which should fit in well with the team’s front office culture. Unlike some old-school managers, Acta embraces new types of baseball research. Saber-oriented thinking has become common-place in major league front offices, but is still a novel idea in the dugout, so I’m eager to see how Acta applies these emerging viewpoints into his day-to-day managerial decisions.

I’ll have more on Acta’s managerial style, his tenure in D.C., and the press conference introducing him as manager later this week.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Garko Headed to San Francisco

Cleveland appears to be laying the groundwork for the next wave of young talent to take the reins in 2010 after trading another veteran player this week. Ryan Garko was officially traded to San Francisco hours before the Tribe's Monday night game at Anaheim. Like Mark DeRosa and Rafael Betancourt before him, Garko was shipped out to bolster an area of need in the organization's farm system. With little starting pitching depth left in the system behind Hector Rondon and a bullpen corp that has struggled to sustain its past success over consecutive seasons, acquiring as many young, quality arms as possible seems like a good use of the team's tradeable assets.


Cleveland will receive 21 year-old Scott Barnes from San Francisco in exchange for Garko. Barnes was originally taken by the Nationals in the 43rd round of the 2005 draft, but opted to attend St. John's University in New York instead. He was later chosen by the Giants in the eighth-round of the 2008 draft. The southpaw has a career 2.60 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, and 3.95 K/BB ratio over 141.2 IP over his minor league career. He spent 2008 progressing through rookie-ball before settling in at Single-A San Jose for the entirety of the 2009 season, amassing a 2.85 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 2.7 BB/9, and a strong 9.1 K/9 over 98.0 IP (18 starts). According to Anthony Castrovince, Barnes will report to Class-A Kinston.

Baseball America describes Barnes as having "surprising control of a 88-91 mph fastball that touches higher. He also throws a tight slider, average changeup and show-me curveball from a deceptive delivery." He may not have a blazing fastball in his arsenal, but it will be interesting to see how his off-speed and breaking pitches develop as he progresses through the minors. BA also projects Barnes as "a solid piece but at his best fits a mid-rotation starter profile."

If Barnes turns out to be a quality third or fourth starter for the Tribe, that seems like a very good return for Garko considering Cleveland was dealing from a position of depth at first base (likely the ultimate destination for Matt LaPorta and current part-time residence of Victor Martinez). Regardless of whether or not Martinez is traded, Garko was never destined to be the Indians' starter of the future at first base.

Another incentive for Cleveland to deal Garko was that he will be eligible for arbitration after this season, meaning he will become much more expensive for the 2010 season and beyond. Players are allowed to submit a new contract proposal through arbitration after they've been at the Major League level for three full seasons (an arbitration panel weighs the player's and team's proposals and decides what the final contract will be).

For example, Diamondbacks first baseman/outfielder Conor Jackson averaged an .822 OPS in his first three seasons in the Majors and made $419,500 in 2008. Meanwhile, Garko averaged an .806 OPS in his first three full seasons and is making $455,000 in 2009. After entering arbitration before the 2009 season, Jackson received a one-year deal worth $3.05 million (a 627% raise). It seems reasonable to expect Garko to receive a similar ruling to Jackson in arbitration next year.

At 28 years-old, there is a strong chance that Garko has either reached or is very near his ceiling as a hitter. His best overall season with the Tribe came in 2007 when he posted a .289/.359/.483 line with 21 HR, 29 doubles, and a 117 OPS+. Despite seeing his numbers drop across the board in 2008, Garko managed to tie Grady Sizemore for a team-leading 90 RBI. The 90 RBI season, an .899 OPS in nine 2007 playoff games, and a .292 career batting average with RISP have lent Garko a bit of a reputation as a clutch hitter.

Garko's trade value was probably about as high as it was going to get, so the Indians were wise to trade him now, along with their other veterans, to jump-start the rebuilding process. He may still have a couple career years in him offensively, but I'd be surprised if he saw any kind of significant, sustainable jump in his overall numbers at this point. He's a solid hitter with slightly above average on-base skills and decent power. While Garko did provide some versatility by playing the corner outfield positions and first base, he still has a below average glove overall.

I'm not sure what made San Francisco give up one of their best pitching prospects for a league average first baseman in line for a substantial raise, but I guess the Giants preferred Garko to incumbent Travis Ishikawa. Below is a comparison of the two players:

Player Period PA BA OBP SLG OPS+ UZR/150 (Inn. 1B) WAR
R. Garko 2009 273 .285 .362 .464 114 12.1 (415.0) 1.2

Career 1591 .282 .354 .449 108 -4.0 (2936.0) 3.9
T. Ishikawa 2009 239 .268 .319 .409 90 19.8 (544.0) 0.9

Career 368 .271 .324 .422 94 10.0 (812.1) 0.9


Garko is a modest upgrade offensively, while Ishikawa is the better defender. Garko also holds an edge batting against lefties, with a .906 career OPS versus Ishikawa's .697 (there's only a .014 difference between them against righties, despite batting from opposite sides of the plate).

Even after looking at the numbers, I'm really struggling to figure out why the Giants made this trade. As far as I can tell, only Brian Sabean truly knows and I'm not about to blow a fuse trying to figure out that guy's logic (interestingly enough, he seems to have outdone himself in the same week). Sure, Ishikawa was having a down year at the plate, but this trade seems like Sabean was starting to get desperate to upgrade San Francisco's punch-less offense and overpaid for Garko. Looking at each player's wins above replacement (WAR), this trade probably won't even make much of an impact on the Giants final record, as there's only been a .3 win difference between them so far this season.

Based on the potential for Barnes to develop into a solid mid-rotation starter in a few years, Cleveland definitely came out ahead in this trade.

As a Garko fan, it was pretty tough seeing him head for his parent's waiting car (they were in attendance for the Anaheim game) in the stadium parking lot, luggage in tow, as an STO cameraman followed him out prior to Monday's broadcast. Ryan seemed pretty downtrodden about the whole thing and I can't blame him since Cleveland is the only organization he's ever been with in the Majors. Besides leaving behind the familiarity and routine of playing for the Tribe, Garko is also leaving many players who had come up alongside him through the minors. That has to be a difficult transition for a player who's never been traded before.

Personally, Garko was a lot of fun to watch at the plate. He seemed to have a knack for digging in and making the pitcher work thanks to a quick swing that shortened up even more when he was down in the count. It was also entertaining to see him always chatting up whoever happened to be standing at first base. Regardless of who it was, it seemed like Garko would still try and hold a conversation with them (probably telling them about how he went to Stanford).

My favorite thing about Garko may have been his Thome-esque home run swing. It's no secret that Jim Thome was Garko's idol growing up (hence the number 25 on his uniform) and it shows in how he finishes his swing after crushing a ball (I'm a bit of a baseball nerd, so I thought that was kinda cool). Not that he was bereft of opportunity in Cleveland, but hopefully Garko will get to see more playing time now that he's part of a less-crowded infield. Best of luck in San Francisco, Ryan.










Monday, July 6, 2009

The Forgotten Pioneer

Sunday marked the 62nd anniversary of Larry Doby's Major League debut with the Cleveland Indians. On July 5, 1947, a 23-year old Doby stepped up to the plate against the Washington Senators as a pinch hitter. Doby struck out in the first of 32 at-bats on the season, but would kick off his Hall of Fame worthy career by establishing himself as a key member of the 1948 World Series champs. Over a six game series against the Boston Braves, Doby batted second in front of Lou Boudreau and Joe Gordon, posting a .318/.375/.500 line with 7 H, 1 R, and 2 RBI in 24 PA. He also hit the first home run by an African-American in World Series history.

In his eight full seasons with Cleveland, Doby was selected to the All Star team seven straight times and led the league in runs, homers, RBI, OBP, SLG, and OPS at least once over that span. In a career spanning 13 seasons, Doby finished with 1,515 hits, 253 homers, 960 runs, 970 RBI, a slash line of .283/.386/.490, and an OPS+ of 136 while making most of his starts in centerfield for the Indians.

While Larry Doby's performance on the diamond is enough to elevate him as one of baseball's all-time greats, he also has the distinction of being the first player to break the color barrier in the American League. Doby was signed by Indians owner Bill Veeck and made his big-league debut just eleven weeks after Jackie Robinson of the National League. Robinson had spent the 1946 season playing with the Dodgers' Triple-A affiliate, unlike Doby who was thrust straight into the Majors after playing the previous season with the Newark Eagles in the Negro National League. Doby quickly realized the magnitude of his presence in the Majors, recalling a conversation he had with Veeck soon after signing with Cleveland:

''Mr. Veeck told me: 'No arguing with umpires, don't even turn around at a bad call at the plate, and no dissertations with opposing players; either of those might start a race riot. No associating with female Caucasians' -- not that I was going to. And he said remember to act in a way that you know people are watching you. And this was something that both Jack and I took seriously. We knew that if we didn't succeed, it might hinder opportunities for other Afro-Americans.''

Despite being separated by a mere eleven weeks, history tends to remember Larry Doby and Jackie Robinson very differently. Robinson is praised as a ground-breaking pioneer in not only baseball, but the civil rights movement. As an African-American player in a previously segregated sport, Robinson had to contend with ugly, racist behavior, segregation, vicious insults, and even threats of violence or death on a daily basis (as did the majority of blacks in 1940's America), all on a public stage. Even some of Robinson's own teammates were wary of interacting with him due to the public opinion at the time and often acted cold or hostile towards him.

The truth is, Larry Doby faced the exact same humiliation, insults, and dangers as Robinson. After being introduced to his new teammates by Veeck, Doby described the tension present in the clubhouse at the time: "Some of the players shook my hand,'' Doby recalled in a 1997 interview, ''but most of them didn't. It was one of the most embarrassing moments of my life." Doby would go on to earn the respect and friendship of many of his teammates and remembered the city of Cleveland warmly in his Hall of Fame induction speech, but it was an uphill battle to garner even the basic courtesies and respect afforded to his white teammates by the baseball community and society as a whole.

Even after winning the World Series in 1948, Doby's fondest memory from his career was when teammate Steve Gromek embraced Doby in a moment of spontaneous celebration. Said Doby, "I would always relate back to that whenever I was insulted, or rejected by hotels. I'd always think back to that picture of Gromek and me. It would take away all the negatives."

Those eleven weeks where Robinson was the only black man in Major League baseball did not soften the blow from the swarm of racial epithets hurled at Doby in the field, nor the sting of an opposing player's tobacco juice as he spit into a sliding Doby's eyes. Both men displayed extraordinary courage just by showing up for work every day when so many people in the stands and the opposing dugout wanted nothing more than to see them fail, or worse. Not because they played for a rival team, but because of the color of their skin.

Eleven weeks are all that separated the debut of the two players most responsible for knocking down baseball's long-standing color barrier and paving the way for a future generation of ballplayers who may not have otherwise had the opportunity.

Why has Larry Doby never been able to step out from under the shadow of Jackie Robinson? Are their accomplishments not equal in the eyes of historians, fans, and the media? Sadly, no. History has always had a pre-occupation with those who came first. Even in the example of Larry Doby who followed so closely in Jackie Robinson's footsteps and made such a lasting impact, the second person through the door is never remembered as fondly as the first.

Robinson arrived on the scene as a burgeoning civil rights movement was making its way to the forefront and he soon transcended his role as a pro athlete to became a representative of something greater than baseball. As is often the case in history, there is only room for one icon in the national consciousness and Jackie Robinson was the player who captured the attention and imagination of the country during this turbulent period.

The media was keen to take advantage of Robinson's status as the first black player in the Majors. Robinson was not one to shy away from the spotlight either. His thrilling style of play and charismatic personality only added to his admiration by the press as a hot ticket. Doby recognized the media's infatuation with Robinson, while he was only mentioned in the boxscores. "[The discrimination] was every bit as bad as Jackie went through," said Doby, "but Jackie had already gone through it, so I had no publicity."

Doby was often viewed as aloof by fans and the media, but this was just a mis-interpretation of his reserved personality and utmost professionalism. Remembering the foundation he was expected to set for future players Doby "always tried to act in a dignified manner. When I was in the major leagues, some people thought I was a loner. But, well, when Joe DiMaggio was off by himself, they said he just wanted his privacy." Doby's outstanding performance on the field and his struggles with racism often went overlooked by the national media as a result. Robinson may have also held an edge in being the premier player for the Brooklyn Dodgers, a franchise that has become almost synonymous with the Golden Age of baseball for multiple generations of fans.

Today, Jackie Robinson is more celebrated than ever, especially within Major League Baseball. April 15, the anniversary of Robinson's debut, was declared Jackie Robinson Day within the Majors. Since 2007, the occasion has been marked by allowing all players the choice of wearing Robinson's number 42 for the day. Robinson's number was retired league-wide in 1997 and has since been hanging in every Major League ballpark alongside the franchise's own retired numbers. In addition, the annual Civil Rights Game (originally held in Memphis in 2007 between St. Louis and Cleveland) tends to focus on Robinson's first step rather than highlighting the impact of immediate predecessors such as Larry Doby and other early pioneers in the 40's and 50's who gradually chipped away at the looming remains of baseball's color barrier.

The Cleveland Indians have made efforts to bring Larry Doby's accomplishments to the attention of modern fans, holding Larry Doby Day on August 10, 2007. Every member of the Indians wore Doby's number 14 in tribute during the game, with the game-used jerseys later being auctioned for charity (while this is a great tribute, I'm curious as to why it wasn't held the week of July 5 instead). Yet, most baseball fans outside of Cleveland still have no sense of who Larry Doby was and that's a shame. "Jackie's number is hung in every ballpark in the country," said former Cleveland DH Ellis Burks in 2003, "but Larry Doby never did get enough recognition for what he did."

Not to take anything away from Jackie Robinson, but how long will baseball continue to relegate Larry Doby's legacy to the fringes of history? While they may have just been ballplayers on the surface, Larry Doby and Jackie Robinson were ultimately striving for equality in the sport of baseball and beyond. It's too bad Major League Baseball has honored their memories with anything but.

Sources:

Berkow, Ira. "He Crossed the Color Barrier, but in Another's Shadow." The New York Times 23 February 1997.

Bechtel, Mark. "The Next One." Sports Illustrated 30 June 2003.

Jackson, Scoop. "Eleven Weeks to Irrelevance." ESPN.com 13 July 2007.

Schneider, Russell. The Boys of the Summer of '48. Champaign, Illinois: Sports Publishing, Inc., 1998.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Pavano's Adjustments Pay Off in KC

Based on how poorly Carl Pavano pitched in his last start (1.0 IP, 6 H, 3 BB, 9 ER), I said it would take a miracle for him to come up with a quality start against Kansas City. Well, Pavano must have gotten whatever was ailing him out of his system because he looked like a completely different pitcher in his second start with Cleveland. Pavano finished with 4 ER, 8 H, 0 BB, and 8 K over six strong innings. That may not seem like much, but if he can provide those kinds of starts on a regular basis I think Cleveland will be very pleased with him. Plus, Pavano proved that he's not just damaged goods and actually has some gas left in the tank.


The guy's arm seemingly came back from the dead in the span of a week, although I'm still not sure where on this spectrum of extremes Pavano will eventually settle. Maybe all he needed was a wake-up call after a gruelingly long spring, but whatever the case Pavano bought himself a "get out of jail free card" by bouncing back against Kansas City.

I was curious as to what type of adjustments Pavano made between his first and second starts. To do this required more than just the typical box score stats. I wanted to track any changes in velocity, movement, and location on Pavano's pitches between starts. Fortunately, MLB.com archives the results from its Gameday application over the course of a season, allowing fans to access Pitch f/x data for every batter a pitcher faces.

I've ventured into more detailed Pitch f/x analysis on occasion, but I'd like to take a new approach today and try to glean some insight from only a small sampling of individual at-bats. I decided to keep the number of batters from each start down to three this time in order to keep the presentation and workload simple. I did review the data from the entire start before drawing any conclusions, so any analysis tends to be within a broader context. The idea is to key-in on specific pitches and see how their velocity and break may have changed, in addition to how effective they were (like if a certain pitch was thrown for a strike more consistently than before). If you haven't seen MLB's Gameday application before, this link offers a basic explanation of what's displayed in the images below.

4/9/2009 at Texas: TEX 12 - CLE 8

Michael Young - 1st Inning








Batter Inning No. SPD (MPH) BRK PFX PITCH RESULT
M. Young 1st 1 87 3" 17" FB Called K


2 88 5" 14" FB Foul


3 88 3" 16" FB 2B


Pavano's approach to Michael Young is pretty typical of his pitch selection to the 12 batters he faced. With the exception of an occasional changeup or slider, Pavano rarely went to anything other than an 86-88 MPH fastball. This allowed Texas to get comfortable early and just sit on the same type of pitch the entire time Pavano was on the mound. Five of Pavano's six hits came off that bland 86-88 MPH fastball. Pavano also did a poor job of locating his pitches. He took an overly cautious approach throughout the game, nibbling around the edges of the strike zone (this trend appears in all three featured at-bats). It didn't take long for Texas to realize that Pavano wasn't going to challenge them, so they started hacking away at anything that crossed into the zone.

Marlon Byrd - 1st Inning











Batter Inning No. SPD (MPH) BRK PFX PITCH RESULT
M. Byrd 1st 1 79 8" 8" CHG Ball


2 87 3" 13" FB Ball


3 87 4" 13" FB HR


Pavano continues to skirt the strike zone against Marlon Byrd due to either a lack of control or a lack of confidence in his pitches. Here, Pavano fails to establish himself in the count by getting behind 2-0. When he does manage to find the zone, it's with a nearly identical, flat, 87 MPH fastball which Byrd launches into the stands for a two-run homer.

Ian Kinsler - 2nd Inning










Batter Inning No. SPD (MPH) BRK PFX PITCH RESULT
I. Kinsler 2nd 1 86 3" 17" FB Ball


2 88 5" 14" FB Ball


3 86 5" 16" FB HR


At this point, Pavano had already given up five runs and just walked Omar Vizquel to start the second inning. He's really got nothing to lose in being more aggressive and trying to throw something other than a fastball (although honestly, I'm not sure how big a role Shoppach played in the terrible pitch selection). Instead, he goes to the exact same type of pitch that got him hammered in the first and gives up another two-run homer after falling behind 2-0.

There's really no excuse for going to the exact same type of pitch and watching it get hit every time. I knew Pavano had to realize what was going on, yet he made little to no adjustment in his approach even after heading to the dugout for half an inning.

4/14/2009 at Kansas City: KC 9 - CLE 3

Coco Crisp - 1st Inning







Batter Inning No. SPD (MPH) BRK PFX PITCH RESULT
C. Crisp 1st 1 88 5" 12" FB Ball


2 88 7" 13" SNK Foul


3 82 9" 6" CHG Ball


4 82 6" 13" CHG Ball


5 79 14" 10" CRV Pop-up (out)


You can see a difference in Pavano's approach against Kansas City from the very first batter. Note the variety of pitches that he uses against Coco Crisp here. Pavano starts out with a nice combination of fastballs and off-speed pitches. The subtle difference between his sinker and standard fastball (both are thrown at similar speeds, but the sinker has more bite to it) fools Crisp and causes him to foul off a pitch that probably looked like another outside fastball before breaking.

Pavano also does a good job of using the entire plate, giving Crisp multiple locations to worry about in the at-bat rather than clustering all his pitches in one quadrant like he did against Texas. I really like the way Pavano started out Crisp with the fastball before gradually decreasing his velocity and ramping up the break of each consecutive pitch. He eventually gets Crisp to pop-out on a 79 MPH curveball.

He may not be pounding the strike zone in this particular example (there was plenty of that later on), but he gives the batter a reason to protect the plate and actually swing at a few pitches outside the zone as opposed to just giving them the exact same look every time.

Alex Gordon - 2nd Inning








Batter Inning No. SPD (MPH) BRK PFX PITCH RESULT
A. Gordon 2nd 1 92 5" 17" FB Swinging K


2 81 8" 11" CHG Ball


3 91 6" 15" SNK Swinging K


4 83 8" 13" CHG Swinging K


Pavano is very aggressive against Alex Gordon, striking him out on four pitches. This approach resulted in Pavano throwing 70% of his pitches for strikes against the Royals, which is excellent given the stuff he had on display that night. Check out the two 91-92 MPH fastballs Pavano serves to Gordon (he hit 90 MPH on a regular basis throughout the start). I didn't even know Pavano could still throw that fast, let alone nail the inside corner with it. Pavano gives Gordon a tempting look inside with a legit heater, inducing a swinging strike. He then moves down and away with another heater before cutting 8 MPH off the previous pitch with a breaking changeup for the strikeout (this time he would have struck out Gordon whether he swung or not).

It was clear early on that Pavano wasn't going to give the Royals batters any room to breathe.

Mike Jacobs - 6th Inning











Batter Inning No. SPD (MPH) BRK PFX PITCH RESULT
M. Jacobs 6th 1 90 6" 15" FB Called K


2 89 5" 13" FB Foul


3 82 8" 5" CHG Called K


Jumping ahead to the sixth inning, Pavano is faced with home run-threat, Mike Jacobs. The set-up for this at-bat is similar to what Pavano faced in Texas. He knows Jacobs can easily take him out if he makes a mistake and there are already two runners on base ahead of him. Unlike with Texas, Pavano chooses to go right after Jacobs with a called strike up and in on the hands. Pavano doesn't allow Jacobs to get his arms extended on the swing and tries to jam him up and in for a second time. This does a great job of setting up the changeup which completely catches Jacobs off-guard after fighting off the last pitch inside. The changeup is located right along the border of the strikezone, but away from the barrel of the bat as Jacobs takes the bait for the strikeout.

This is another example of Pavano setting up his pitches and effectively changing speeds, something sorely lacking in Texas.

Conclusion

Normally, I wouldn't be so interested in a 6.0 inning, 8 H, 4 ER day by the team's third starter. However, Pavano's outing against Kansas City is significant because it answers the question of what Pavano is still capable of in a Major League game. The fact that he racked up 8 strikeouts while walking none leads me to believe that he has the potential to be even better in the future. He displayed the ability to command multiple pitches for strikes, change speeds, set-up his pitches, and get out of jams. Pavano could have easily gone seven innings in this game (he only threw 80 pitches), but Wedge probably decided to sit Pavano in case trouble found him again (a similar approach was taken with Paul Byrd, who was notorious for his late inning breakdowns, although this isn't necessarily the case with Pavano).

Granted, this was all against a struggling KC offense, but a start like this could really boost Pavano's confidence and encourage him to continue this aggressive, varied approach. He may have even validated some mechanical adjustments between starts, as evidenced by the additional 2-4 MPH on his fastball the second time out.

With the pitching staff still sorting itself out, any quality starts from Pavano will give Cleveland some much needed stability in the starting rotation as they struggle to get their season back on track following a 2-7 start. I still have no idea which Pavano will show up in New York on Sunday, but the flash of potential in KC is reason enough to be at least a little more optimistic about his future with the Tribe.

All Pitch f/x images were generated by MLB's Gameday application.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Tribe Pitching Falls Flat in Opening Week

Cleveland's pitching staff hasn't done much to disprove the idea that they could be the team's Achilles heel this season. In fact, the blame for three of the team's last four losses sits squarely on the shoulders of the pitchers. Simply losing five in a row to start the season was unnerving enough, but to see the team's biggest potential weakness establish itself so early is not a good sign. Even the supposedly sturdy bullpen has had its share of blowups, with Rafael Perez, Jensen Lewis, and Kerry Wood all getting roughed up fresh out of Spring Training.


The shortcomings of the pitching staff puts the team's leadership in a difficult position. Obviously, it's far too early to be taking any drastic measures, but Wedge and Shapiro are no doubt thinking ahead as to what they'll do if this trend continues. Unfortunately, I don't think their contingency plan is meant to cover the entire pitching staff, so some of these guys have no choice but to suck it up and do their job next time out.

The real question is at what point should the team start to really worry if the pitching continues to be this inconsistent? I know it's only the first week of a long season and that everything is magnified since all eyes are on the small number of games that have actually been played. That doesn't make it any easier to watch. I can't fault the front office either, since I was cautiously optimistic about the rotation during Spring Training as well (perhaps more so than Shapiro himself).

The only player that I would be willing to pull the trigger on this early is Pavano, but even that isn't as simple as it seems. David Huff (5.0 IP, 4 ER, 5 H, 2 HR, 3 BB), Aaron Laffey (3.1 IP, 5 ER, 6 H, 1 HR, 2 BB), and Kirk Saarloos (6.0 IP, 5 ER, 7 H, 2 HR, 1 BB) all came up short in their Columbus debuts, which leaves me guessing as to who could get called up as a replacement. Regardless of how bad it looked, Cleveland isn't going to cut a starter after just one game. Pavano was supposed to be part of a multi-pitcher attack to provide some (hopefully) quality innings until Westbrook returned, but it looks like that plan will backfire unless the "second wave" of arms is brought up sooner than anticipated. And don't think I'm going easy on Cliff Lee just because I hadn't mentioned him yet, he's got a lot of work to do to silence concerns that his terrible Spring Training was anything more than a meaningless blip on the radar.

The bottom line is that until the team has a larger body of work to go on, all they can do is continue to be prudent in how much slack they cut their pitchers and hope that Carl Willis and his coaching staff can find a solution to the individual struggles holding the rest of the team back.

Cleveland can't afford to get off to such a slow start in what should be a tightly contested division (not to mention the AL East, which will probably be fighting tooth-and-nail for the Wild Card spot all year). The franchise hasn't gotten off to an 0-5 start since 1985 and now join Washington (0-5) as the only teams in the Majors who are still win-less.

Today I wanted to characterize the first five outings from the starting pitching. Despite the end result, there were actually a few positive signs.

Cliff Lee

4/6 @ TX: 5.0 IP, 10 H, 7 ER, 1 BB, 5 SO, 1 HR, 79-53 pitches-strikes, 3-7 GB-FB

I was willing to chalk this start up as an anomaly at first glance. Combine a sore forearm from a deflected linedrive, Opening Day pressure, a very strong Texas lineup, and a career 9.19 ERA over 6 career starts at Arlington and the odds seemed to be stacked against Lee that day. Lee retired the first four batters he faced until being struck in the left forearm by a liner. After being inspected by the training staff, Lee continued to pitch, but allowed five more base runners on four hits and a walk before getting out of the inning. My guess is that the soreness in Lee's arm temporarily broke his concentration or mechanics because he seemed fine in the third and fourth innings. Lee gave up just two hits while striking out four in the middle innings before surrendering a three-run homer in the fifth.

4/11 vs. TOR: 5.0 IP, 7 H, 4 ER, 4 BB, 5 SO, 0 HR, 102-57 pitches-strikes, 3-7 GB-FB

The match-up between last year's Cy Young winner and runner-up was supposed to be where Lee redeemed himself after a poor showing on Opening Day. Instead, Lee struggled, but no longer had the benefit of the doubt since he was pitching at home against a tamer Toronto lineup. Lee failed to go beyond five innings for the second straight start after averaging 7.19 IP per start in 2008. In the post-game wrap, Wedge thought his ace was "a little erratic with his fastball. There were times when he was throwing where he wanted to, but he was also missing by quite a bit at times." Lee didn't throw a curveball until the 9th batter he faced (resulting in a K) and relied heavily on his fastball throughout the start.

One of Lee's keys to success last season was how his fastball and curveball complimented each other. 2008 saw Lee utilize the curveball about 9.6% of the time (a career high) and his heater 70.1%. It's also worth noting that in going to his fastball so often, Lee possessed excellent command of it (something he lacked in his last start). In two starts, Lee has stuck mostly with his fastball (57.0%), cutter (11.4%), and changeup (24.1%), using the curve only 7.6% of the time. It will be interesting to see how Lee's pitch selection evolves after a few more starts and if he finds success by going back to last year's strategy of mixing in the curveball more often.

Fausto Carmona

4/8 @ TX: 5.0 IP, 7 H, 6 ER, 2 BB, 4 SO, 1 HR, 95-59 pitches-strikes, 6-5 GB-FB

I thought Carmona looked better than what the boxscore indicates in this case. He displayed a good range of velocity (84-94 MPH) and had decent action on his sinking fastball. Carmona's undoing against Texas was that he just made too many mistakes. Many of the balls Carmona left up in the zone were punished by the Rangers. Others, like the ball Kinsler golfed from his ankles for a double, seemed a bit unlucky. I think Carmona is the most likely to bounce-back immediately because many of his runs seemed to come from a lack of concentration or a few bad pitches. Overall, Carmona seemed to have decent stuff and was able to find the strike zone 62% of the time, but Texas seemed especially patient at times, making it difficult for Fausto to set-up his go-to pitches.

Look for Carmona to get his confidence and focus back and enjoy much better results in his next outing.

Carl Pavano

4/9 @ TX: 1.0 IP, 6 H, 9 ER, 3 BB, 1 SO, 2 HR, 39-21 pitches-strikes, 1-1 GB-FB

The only way Pavano's debut as an Indian could have been any worse was if Wedge had left him in for more than one inning. If Pavano fails to significantly improve on this first start, there's no justification for keeping him on the team. If Shapiro needs more time to evaluate his options in Columbus he might as well stretch out Zach Jackson to make a couple of starts in lieu of Pavano (the downside of this is that they could realistically need Jackson to fill in the gaps for another struggling starter). The stark contrast between Pavano and Jackson's 4 innings of 4 hit, 2 run ball was laughable. Jackson came out of the bullpen and basically schooled Pavano in how to deal with the Texas lineup, striking out six and walking none. The only good to come out of Pavano's start was that it gave Jackson a chance to confirm he can be an effective long-man or emergency starter in a pinch. I was impressed with the way Jackson attacked hitters (70% of his pitches were strikes) and mixed up his location and velocity to keep hitters off-balance, especially after being called in on short-notice like that.

I wasn't expecting Pavano to have great velocity; at this point in his career that's not his game. But where was the pitch location that's supposed to be his bread and butter? Pavano either couldn't locate his pitches or he had so little confidence in his stuff that he was afraid to throw strikes. Most of his pitches were either elevated or too far outside the zone to even be borderline calls. It felt like Pavano had a very weak presence on the mound and had absolutely no answer for the loaded Texas lineup. At one point, it looked like Pavano was just avoiding the hitters zone as much as possible, going through the motions, waiting to be pulled. I can't blame Wedge for leaving him in even after the seven runs, since calling on the bullpen to pitch almost an entire game would have its own adverse consequences.

Short of a miraculous turn-around, I wouldn't be surprised if Pavano was cut after two more starts.

Scott Lewis

4/10 vs. TOR: 4.1 IP, 7 H, 4 ER, 1 B, 3 SO, 2 HR, 94-61 pitches-strikes, 3-6 GB-FB

Lewis looked extremely sharp out of the gate, nailing Martinez's glove and locating the ball well. The 25-year old southpaw showcased his ability to paint both corners of the plate and use his fastball and changeup in tandem effectively. He also didn't seem to get rattled when faced with a lead-off double in the third inning. Toronto's hitters seemed to make the necessary adjustments to Lewis' strategy the second time through the lineup, resulting in a three-run fourth inning. Lewis gave up four consecutive hits in the fourth: two singles, a double, and a two-run homer. He was pulled in the fifth after coughing up a home run to Marco Scutaro on an obvious mistake pitch right down the middle of the plate at the letters (the rain had picked up to a steady downpour at that point, so that didn't help matters). The key to Lewis improving will be if he can counter his opponent's adjustments the second and third time through the lineup. While it's great that he can locate his fastball inside, Jays' hitters were starting to catch up to balls trailing in on them and making contact for hits.

Lewis no longer has the benefit of being an unknown rookie to Major League hitters, so he'll have to adapt to remain effective at this level.