Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Scott Lewis Sets Tribe Rotation

I'm still not sure what to make of Scott Lewis. With a grand total of eight starts between Buffalo and Cleveland last season, it's difficult to get a true bearing on how the 25-year old lefty will perform over an extended period in the Majors. Apparently, Tribe management has enough confidence in Lewis to grant him the final spot in the starting rotation in the closing weeks of Spring Training.

Lewis came into camp as a dark horse of sorts, forced to state his case against the experience of Aaron Laffey and Jeremy Sowers and the momentum of a then-healthy David Huff. My prediction at the beginning of camp was for Laffey to tighten his grip on a fifth rotation slot that was essentially his to lose with Huff settling in as the emergency starter in Columbus. I was excited about the prospect of either pitcher making it into the Tribe's rotation this season. Each southpaw features a different set of strengths, with Laffey relying heavily on groundball outs and Huff utilizing precise location and a diverse arsenal of pitches to fool batters.

I thought Laffey held an edge this time because his 143 innings in the Majors alone outpaced that of Huff's entire pro career (214 minor league innings). In a rotation with a rebounding Carmona, a rehabbing Pavano, and the occasionally fragile Reyes, Laffey's unique combination of experience and talent made him a stand-out amongst the youthful rotation candidates. With so much uncertainty in the rotation, Cleveland felt fairly confident in what to expect from Laffey at the highest level of competition. While Laffey has already made his debut, all signs point to Huff being Major League-ready as well.

The only real set-back Huff has experienced since college was an elbow injury that cost him part of the 2007 season. After showing no residual effects from the injury in 2008, Huff continued to tear through opposing batters as he made a smooth transition from Akron to Buffalo in his age 23 season. Huff finished 2008 with a 2.53 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, and 4.93 K/BB over a healthy 145.4 IP, punching his VIP ticket to Goodyear in the process. Clearly, Huff was ready for a new challenge in 2009. Unfortunately, Huff made it through just four innings in exhibition games before being shut down due to tendinitis in his left bicep. With flashbacks to the 2007 elbow issue resurfacing, Cleveland took the cautious route and shut-down the prized lefty for much of camp.

Huff may have missed out on an opportunity to impact the race for the fifth rotation spot, but Terry Pluto reports that Huff was back in action at minor league camp after a quick rebound from the bicep injury. According to Pluto, Huff has been totally locked in at camp, preventing any base runners from to advancing past first base over 12 IP until a Beau Mills tater left the park on Monday.

With Huff making an early exit, the competition came down to Laffey and Scott Lewis. Management was on-board with Laffey from the beginning and made it clear that the job was his to lose. Laffey reflected this sentiment, stating "I have that confidence that it's going to be my spot" entering the second week of March. Laffey had plenty of motivation heading into camp after being demoted to AAA in late July and struggling to regain his footing for the remainder of the 2008 season. He was outstanding in May, tossing 34 innings over five starts with a 0.79 ERA and 1.02 WHIP, but fell apart in June and July with a 6.24 ERA and 1.78 WHIP over 53.3 IP in 10 starts. Elbow tightness supposedly affected Laffey's control, leading to the inconsistent season.

The team tends to focus on many factors when evaluating a pitcher during the pre-season. Given how uneven the whole Spring Training experience is, from the lack of innings to the uneven quality of opposing lineups to the lingering effects of a long off-season, the usual performance stats are given minimal consideration in camp (Wedge claims he doesn't even look at stats during Spring Training). This amplifies the importance of a pitcher's current physical condition, preparation prior to each start, adjustments made on the fly, and composure under pressure along with pitch velocity and movement, control, and a consistent delivery. Even if a pitcher has a poor outing in the box score, the bottom line is the impression made on the coaching staff and general manager.

The lack of substantial innings makes a consistent execution of these things crucial to a pitcher trying to win a spot out of camp. A bad week by one player can provide enough of an opening for the competition to pull ahead. I think a lack of consistency was what cost Laffey the job that he had been favored to win. Even though the overall numbers between Laffey and Lewis are similar, Laffey was more erratic on the mound over those 13 innings. Here's how they compared through March 20:

S. Lewis 13.1 4.12 1.45 2.00 1.72
A. Laffey 13.0 6.92 1.46 2.25 2.50

In the team's opinion, Lewis looked more prepared for the start of the season than Laffey. Maybe Laffey was a little too relaxed in his approach and let a few of his exhibition starts get away from him or maybe a few of his bad habits from last season carried over into camp. Whatever the reason, Lewis out-pitched Laffey in what appears to be a minor upset as far as Spring Training competitions go.

Having Lewis start the season in Cleveland feels more like an extended tryout to me though. It's not so much that Lewis looks better right now, rather the team wants to gain some clarity on how big a role Lewis may play in the future. I haven't seen much to indicate the team is very confident in what to expect out of Lewis over an extended period. This could be their way of filling in some of the gaps on the depth chart by getting a better read on what they have in their rookie pitcher.

A similar scenario has played out in the past with Sowers in 2006. Sowers made his Major League debut against Cincinnati after a late June call-up. While he didn't blow away opposing batters, the then 23-year old was steady over his first 14 starts, compiling a 3.57 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, and 1.75 K/BB in 88.3 IP. Back-to-back complete game shutouts on the road on July 22 and 28 solidified his role in the starting rotation for the remainder of the season. Sowers started the 2007 season with Cleveland, but fell short of his previous effort with a 6.42 ERA over 13 starts (67.3 IP). He has struggled to secure a permanent starting job with Cleveland ever since.

Like Sowers, Scott Lewis made a splash in his debut, tossing 14 consecutive scoreless innings and winning all four of his starts. Lewis had a bit of a rough go in his final two starts against hard-hitting Detroit and Chicago (10 IP, 14 H, 4 HR, 7 ER), but finished with a 2.62 ERA and 2.50 K/BB ratio. Lewis' September stint in Cleveland no doubt aided his audition in February and March.

There are two key differences between the duel southpaw's debuts (besides a disparate number of starts). First, this isn't 2006 where the Tribe finished in fourth place with a 78-84 record (Todd Hollandsworth started in Sowers' debut, if that tells you anything). This squad is a playoff contender and doesn't have the luxury of testing rookie pitchers in uncharted waters purely for evaluation purposes. If the rookie is the best option on the roster, fine, but most of the starting rotation will already be on a short leash and Lewis should be no exception. Second, this team is loaded with starting pitching depth. If Lewis shows signs of being overwhelmed, fatigued, or unable to make the necessary adjustments Cleveland should make that call to Columbus without hesitation.

I expect Laffey to snap out of whatever mysterious funk he's been in lately and judging by what I've heard thus far, Huff could turn out to be the impact rookie for Cleveland this season (LaPorta or Brantley would have earned this designation if it weren't for the fact that the offense is the least of this team's problems). I still consider Sowers more of a secondary option behind Laffey and Huff, but given his quasi-veteran status and modest improvements from last season he may be higher up on Shapiro's speed-dial than I realize. My point is, Lewis will need to carry that Spring Training mentality into the regular season, since he'll be fighting to keep his job from Day 1.

Decisions made regarding the starting rotation in March may ultimately prove meaningless come June or July. I have a feeling the state of the rotation will remain fluid during the first half of the season as the health and effectiveness of Pavano, Reyes, and Lewis are tested in meaningful games. This could prove to be a blessing or a curse, depending on how the organization's vaunted depth handles the opportunity (think Juan Gonzalez's hammy in 2005). I have no idea what we'll see out of Scott Lewis, but I also know we haven't seen the last of Laffey and Huff this season.

Weather or Worry?

Terry Pluto provided an interesting quote from veteran pitcher Kerry Wood in a recent article addressing the troublesome weather conditions at Goodyear:

Not long after Cliff Lee was spanked for seven runs in five innings Wednesday, Tribe closer Kerry Wood said there are real reasons why pitchers complain it's hard to grip and throw the baseball in Arizona's dry, desert air.

"It sometimes feels like baby powder [is on the ball]," said Wood.

Those words came just after Wood threw a 1-2-3 sixth inning, whiffing two.

Pluto points out that "not every Tribe pitcher has been hit hard this spring," citing the success of Fausto Carmona, Carl Pavano, Anthony Reyes, and Jensen Lewis in the desert environment (although Fausto could probably pitch in a snowstorm and still manage to find the the strike zone). Personally, I'm not buying the lack of humidity as a real excuse. The same issue pops up at many West Coast locales and during frigid night games early and late in the season. If a pitcher doesn't know how to deal with the ambient air conditions by now, they're going to run into trouble at some point.

Cliff Lee brushed off the "dry ball" issue as just another excuse, but Scott Lewis...not so much. I'm probably being a bit harsh, but an athlete at that level really needs to be aware of how the environment can affect his performance on the field. High winds blowing the ball towards the fence are one thing; no way to control that. But blaming a wild start on the lack of humidity?

Lewis got jacked up in his last two tune-ups (6.2 IP, 21 H, 15 ER, 6 HR), so hopefully he was able to learn something from those beat-downs beyond "use more rosin." Otherwise, he's going to have a tough time pitching in the cold, dry months of the season.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

No Masa?

Spring Training numbers typically don't mean much for veteran players. For reliever Masahide Kobayashi, an exceptionally poor showing this spring has placed his future with Cleveland in a precarious position. Kobayashi has been rocked just about every time he's taken the mound this offseason, surrendering 8 earned runs on 11 hits in only five innings of work. Masa's 14.40 ERA is by far one of the worst among the Tribe's returning relief pitchers and is only a few tenths of a point better than Tomo Ohka's (he was cut last week). In fact, the only reliever with a worse Spring ERA and at least four IP is Eddie Mujica and I don't like his chances of making the team despite being out of minor league options.

ERA isn't everything in March though, just ask team ace Cliff Lee, proud owner of a freshly minted Cy Young award and an 18.89 ERA in his 6.2 innings so far. What's put Kobayashi in Wedge's doghouse is how ineffective he has looked during camp. Some pitchers get rocked because they're trying to practice a certain pitch against live batters, like Lee and his intentionally fastball-heavy outing against Texas. Others display good velocity or action on their pitches, but don't quite have the complete package ready for Opening Day. Those pitchers typically don't have to deal with much additional pressure from the coaching staff.

I haven't had a chance to see Masa throw this offseason, but the few reports I've heard mention some minor inconsistencies with his delivery and a difficulty in keeping the ball down in the zone. With so many pitchers vying for work in the exhibition games, Kobayashi hasn't had much of an opportunity to act on what pitching coach Carl Willis and company are telling him. Even if Masa's five innings were ugly, they're still only five innings.

Fortunately for Kobayashi, he still has a lot of time to make adjustments during this year's extended Spring Training. As the Major League roster continues to get trimmed there should also be more opportunities for Masa as well. A strong rebound over the final 12 Cactus League games against increasingly more difficult lineups (starters will begin to see more at-bats as the season approaches) will go a long way in regaining some semblance of confidence in Kobayashi from Wedge.

It's still too early to decide Kobayashi's fate, but all he has to do is work out the kinks in his delivery over the next three weeks. He was guaranteed a roster spot heading in and I'd be surprised if Cleveland cut him from the team unless his pitching totally fell off a cliff. Even then, I think a more likely destination would be the disabled list to start the season.

Assuming Kobayashi is healthy (I have my doubts, but Masa says he's fine) his struggles in March are a legitimate concern. The whole point of Cleveland limiting him to six innings in the last two months of the 2008 season was so he'd be ready for 2009. Well, the 2009 season is almost here and Masa is still throwing like the same guy who posted a 10.32 ERA and 2.47 WHIP over 11.1 IP after the All Star break (small sample size, I know, but those numbers are still pretty representative of how bad he actually was). I still believe that Masa just ran out of steam in the second half of last season. I don't even think there was a serious injury involved, Kobayashi just seemed fatigued half-way through his first Major League season.

Regular readers are probably familiar with my take on Kobayashi by now and I'm still very confident that the transition between NPB and MLB is at the root of Kobayashi's struggles. The NPB regular season has only 144 games compared to the 162 for MLB. Combine the longer season with more stressful outings because of the superior hitters and tougher lineups and you can see how the workload can pile up quickly on a 34 year old rookie.

It's possible Cleveland underestimated the toll this transition would take on Kobayashi over the course of an entire season given his age. I'm not sure there was any way Cleveland could have predicted Kobayashi's struggles though; he is the exception rather than the rule. Most Japanese pitchers who cross the pond do so late in their career, especially relievers. Hideo Nomo and Daisuke Matsuzaka are rare cases in that they began their Major League careers at a relatively young age (both were 26). Below are four Japanese pitchers who experienced at least modest success in the Majors.

PitcherTeamSeason (Year)AgeIP (GS)SVK/BBERAWHIPERA+
S. HasegawaANARookie (1997)28116.7 (7)01.803.931.40119

SEABest (2003)3473.0161.771.481.09291

Career --720.3331.683.711.32124

PitcherTeamSeason (Year)AgeIP (GS)SVK/BBERAWHIPERA+
K. SasakiSEARookie (2000)3262.7372.513.161.16145

SEABest (2002)3460.7373.652.521.05168

Career --223.31293.143.141.084138

PitcherTeamSeason (Year)AgeIP (GS)SVK/BBERAWHIPERA+
H. OkajimaBOSRookie (2007)3169.053.702.220.971214

BOSBest (2007)3262.012.602.611.16177

Career --

PitcherTeamSeason (Year)AgeIP (GS)SVK/BBERAWHIPERA+
T. SaitoLADRookie (2006)3678.3244.652.070.906217

LADBest (2007)3764.3396.001.400.715327

LADCareer --189.7814.711.951.19229

Note that Shigetoshi Hasegawa was the only one to break into the Majors before the age of 30. Interestingly enough, Hasegawa went on to post his best overall season at the age of 34 resulting in an appearance in the All Star game and an ERA+ of 291. Kaz Sasaki and Takashi Saito debuted at ages 32 and 36 respectively and have multiple seasons as top-shelf closers on their resumes. Hideki Okajima developed into an elite setup man for Boston in his rookie season and boasts a 2.14 postseason ERA over 16 games. There is certainly a precedent for Japanese relievers achieving success at the Major League level after the age of 30.

The reason I was so excited about Masa's rookie season was because I thought Cleveland had landed an Okajima or a Sasaki; a veteran reliever whose dominance in the Nippon Pro league would translate well in the Majors. Kobayashi's 227 saves are the most all-time by a Japanese player (Sasaki has the second-most) and he finished with a career 2.79 ERA over nine seasons. Kobayashi's career in Japan was every bit as good or better than the other relievers listed above. But unlike his fellow Japanese All Stars, Masa was merely average with the Tribe. Why did Masa struggle where similar Japanese rookies thrived?

M. Kobayashi3455.762.504.531.4198

Even though each Japanese rookie had to deal with a similar increase in innings, Masa was the only one who failed to reach at least 60 innings, having only been effective for about 50 innings. It's difficult to say how much of this can be corrected the second time around through better conditioning and an improved knowledge of how the full season tends to play out. This is why Kobayashi's lackluster spring is such a concern. The team gave shut him down last season with the expectation that he would be ready to go for 2009, but this has not been the case. Instead, Kobayashi is still exhibiting some of the symptoms he suffered from before, although minor improvements have supposedly been made as of late.

According to Manager Eric Wedge, "this is a time when you need to see some performance to have an idea of what you can count on." Wedge is expecting to see significant improvement out of Masa heading into April or he may have to start drawing up a contingency plan. Eating Kobayashi's $3 million, guaranteed contract is certainly a possibility for Cleveland.

Aaron Fultz was owed $1.5 million entering the 2008 season, but was cut from the team in mid-March. Fultz surrendered 11 ER, 16 H, and 3 BB in 8 1/3 IP during Spring Training and looked so bad the team decided to pay him not to pitch for them. Given that Kobayashi's contract is worth twice as much and there is still a lot of time for evaluation before the season starts, I don't think the team has seriously considered cutting him yet.

I think the best approach would be to give Masa as much time as possible to improve and leave him on the 25-man roster to start the season. If he gets shelled in April and May with little hope of improvement, then the team should set him loose. They're on the hook for the $3 mil either way, so they might as well see what they have by testing him in meaningful innings first. While seeing the $3 million get flushed away would be disappointing, Masa's replacement would likely be playing for a minimum salary.

With all the talented relievers waiting in the minors, Cleveland could receive a significant upgrade to their bullpen and only have to pay another $400,000. Some of these prospects have a real shot at sticking in the Majors right now.

My pick for an early call-up to replace Kobayashi is Tony Sipp. Sipp appears to be fully recovered from Tommy John surgery and had a stellar showing in camp. The 24 year-old southpaw gave up only 3 H and 1 ER with 5 K and no walks over 4 IP, earning loads of praise from the coaching staff. Sipp has long been a highly touted prospect in the Tribe's system and word on the street is that he could make a positive impact in Cleveland. Kobayashi wasn't going to see any high-leverage innings anyway, so slotting in a rookie instead would leave the bullpen hierarchy intact.

I tend to view Sipp in a similar lens to Adam Miller in that they're both high-ceiling flamethrowers who have been derailed by injuries. Miller was a lock for the final spot in the bullpen, but complications with a finger ligament in his throwing hand have put his entire career in doubt. If Miller were healthy, now would have been the time to test him in the Majors. Now that Sipp is healthy, should the team afford him a similar opportunity? Maybe not, since Sipp was reassigned to the minors in the last round of cuts. I think he proved that he is healthy though and impressed enough people to be on the short list in case an extra reliever is suddenly needed.

Assuming the team breaks camp with seven relievers, Zach Jackson appears to be the leading candidate for the final spot as a long man, rounding out a pen that includes Kerry Wood, Rafael Perez, Jensen Lewis, Joe Smith, Rafael Betancourt, and Kobayashi.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Thoughts on the WBC

I started writing this the other night with an eye towards the MLB scoreboard as the Netherlands continued to give the Dominican Republic more than they could handle. Unfortunately, I didn't have MLB.tv or ESPN Deportes (the only available broadcasts), so I was limited to the basic numbers detailing the scoreless duel playing out in San Juan. Normally, this sort of attentiveness to a slowly updated boxscore is reserved for Indians games, at which point I realized just how compelling the World Baseball Classic has become.

The inaugural Classic in 2006 may have benefited from the novelty of seeing the first global tournament featuring professional players. The 2009 tournament lacks that newness, but it still feels just as fresh and engaging as before. Granted, I'm probably not representative of the average fan in terms of my interest in baseball (exhibit A: this blog). However, I'd rather watch a competitive international match than a random regular season game between two neutral teams. Why is that?

As an American baseball fan with television coverage limited to NCAA and MLB, the WBC is as close to the international game as I can get. International competition was practically non-existent to the majority of U.S. fans before the WBC. Unless you subscribe to a special sports television package, chances are you won't be seeing much of the Caribbean or Asia Series. Both tournaments boast Major League talent playing for their respective countries but only feature Latin American or East Asian ball clubs. Until recently, the United States, Canada, and other countries did not have a tournament that allowed their professional players to participate. Of the two major venues open to the U.S. and Canada, neither accommodates professional talent.

Baseball has been played in the Pan American games since 1951, but the event fell out of favor with the U.S. media and fans long ago. Plus, Cuba's ability to field professional-caliber players against an amateur field isn't exactly fair. The Cubans have taken 12 of the 15 gold medals awarded for baseball.

Olympic baseball is in danger of disappearing altogether. In what appeared to be a purely political move, the IOC voted to drop softball and baseball from the 2016 Olympics. Part of this decision may lie in the IOC's desire for MLB to suspend its season to provide Pro players the opportunity to attend the Olympics. Obviously, MLB declined. I can't say I blame MLB for snubbing the IOC, it's not like baseball has ever gotten much respect from them in the first place. Unlike hockey, baseball has only been a medal sport since 1992, so the working relationship is not as strong. Also, the consequences of a ML player getting injured away from his team in mid-season would have been too severe for the Commissioner to justify.

Unlike hockey or basketball, the Olympic version of baseball is (was) a hollow representation of the sport and is not a true representation of a country's talent. Sure, the sense of national pride is there anytime Team USA takes the field, but the competition itself is not anywhere near the level of other venues.

The international flavor of the WBC also differs from that of Major League baseball itself. On the one hand, baseball has become so diverse that the 25-man roster of any ML team can have up to five or six-plus countries represented. From Colombia to Taiwan, 18 countries currently boast a player at the Major League level. Baseball has grown from America's national past-time to a truly global sport. The abundance of cultures, nationalities, and playing styles that that have left their mark in the Majors only serves to enrich the sport further.

On the other hand, Pro ball is a business and often lacks the outright commitment and passion evident when national pride is on the line. Instead of playing for a paycheck, players are in it for their country. How often do you see multi-millionaire athletes standing on the dugout steps, clapping and shouting at the top of their lungs like a bunch little leaguers cheering on their teammates? Players tend to wear their competitive spirits on their sleeves in these tournaments. It may be an old cliche, but international play is the ultimate example of playing for the name on the front of the jersey rather than just the one on the back.

Think about it. Do you really think a young pitcher from Latin America cares as much about the Mid-Western city stitched onto his jersey as the fans do? Probably not, though I certainly wouldn't fault him for it. I'm not talking about the commitment and comradery gained from playing for one's teammates or organization, those are two entities that every athlete should feel some attachment to. My point is, most players probably don't have a particularly strong bond with the region their current team happens to play for (this applies to every player, not just those born outside the U.S.). It's not uncommon to hear a free agent heap praise on his old team's hometown, only to bolt for a bigger payday regardless of whatever feigned loyalty he professed.

When that same pitcher wears República Dominicana across his chest, you better believe he feels what the fans feel, only amplified. It's a different level of motivation when your fellow countrymen are the fans cheering in the stands and at home. When that flag is on the sleeve the competitive drive in every player kicks into top gear be it a minor leaguer, journeyman, or All-Star. This is why a match between Japan and Korea rivals a Yanks-Sox game in intensity, why the prized piece of Jake Peavy's memorabilia collection is his Team USA jersey, why the Venezuelan team has endured the disappointment of a nation for three years, and why even an anonymous Dutch team can topple a seasoned Dominican roster that would rival any All-Star team.

None of the events named earlier boast all the elements that give the WBC so much potential. The WBC is the highest quality baseball ever played in a global tournament, combining the drama and skill of the regular season with a determination and enthusiasm normally reserved for October, all on an international stage. In addition to providing fans everywhere with a united rooting interest every four years, the WBC serves as the flagship for MLB's attempt to grow the game in non-traditional locales. The Classic is both a proving ground and spotlight for countries still trying to define their own baseball programs.

This year's games point to significant improvements out of Italy, Australia, and the Netherlands. Italy now has multiple prospects in the low minors and knocked out a Canadian team that almost took down the United States. Australia hung tough with Cuba in a 5-4 loss and beat-down a talented Mexican team in a 17-7, eight inning rout. Of course, the Netherlands stole the show by upsetting the Dominican Republic not once, but twice in the same round. Even if they get knocked out in the next round, those wins will go down as two of the biggest upsets in the history of international play.

The players on the Dominican squad will feel the sting of their elimination for a long, long time. The so-called "Republic of Baseball" is not used to losing, especially to a team with only two active Major League players on its roster compared to 23 for the Dominicans. Manager Felipe Alou meant business following his team's first loss of the tournament: "That was a team that we should've shut out. It was a hard-fought game, but now they are going to brag about having beaten the Dominican Republic."

Shortstop Jose Reyes dismissed the Dutch altogether stating "we're way better than them" following his team's 3-2 loss on Saturday. I doubt anyone would argue with Reyes on this point (even the Dutch players admitted as much), which makes the loss even more shocking. One of the best teams in the tournament simply got out-played and out-hustled by a club with far less raw talent. With a bit of luck, a timely error from the Dominicans, and the simple fact that they wanted it more, the Netherlands pulled off the win.

The real impact will be on public interest in baseball in the Netherlands. The sport itself has been played on the European mainland and the Caribbean islands for some time, but has never experienced a win of this magnitude. According to pitching coach Bert Blyleven (one of four Dutch-born pitchers to reach the Majors) the 11th inning, come-from-behind victory was "as exciting as winning a World Series." The success of the national team should cause a wave of interest among kids looking to pick up the sport, especially in the Caribbean territories where most of the Dutch players are from. With a solid foundation in place, the Netherlands could see a surge in baseball talent in the near future as a direct result of the WBC.

The WBC still has its share of problems to address before it can really take flight. Many of the game's top players declined to participate due to a lack of interest or a legitimate fear of injury prior to Opening Day. MLB will have to tread carefully in how it encourages players to participate in the future. The event will need the draw of players like Pujols, Sizemore, and Sabathia meaning a balance will need to be struck at some point. A better product on the field leads to higher quality games which should continue to attract more fans and ensure the WBC's viability.

The highest priority must still be given to protecting the participants, since no one involved wants to see a team's ace get hurt in an exhibition game, no matter how meaningful it may be.

The timing of the WBC makes it tricky to protect pitchers from injury without significantly handicapping the games themselves. Coaches and pitchers alike haven't exactly been thrilled with the idea of front-loading innings to an already grueling season either. Stricter pitch counts were implemented in 2009 to protect pitchers still making the transition from the offseason to the starting rotation. Moving the event to after the World Series does not seem to be a viable option since there is a heavy risk in overloading an already tired arm at the end of the season. In terms of generating buzz for the sport, holding the WBC as a lead-in to the regular season seems to make the most sense.

Hopefully, the four-year lapse between each WBC will help keep the event fresh and satisfy some of the critics who say it's too disruptive to the regular season.

Finally, fan interest in the U.S. market has to be sustained for MLB to continue running the WBC.

The WBC fills a sort of niche market for American baseball fans; the reality of a professionally staffed "Dream Team" competing against other countries is new to USA baseball. This niche has already been filled in other countries by events like the Asian Series, Caribbean Series, and domestic leagues in Japan, Korea, Puerto Rico, Mexico, and elsewhere. Other countries have a league to call their own, populated by native players and cited as a measuring stick and source of pride for a nation's baseball talent. U.S. fans have always had a different perspective on baseball, since the primary league people follow here consists not just of the best players from the United States, but around the world.

I think the WBC has the potential to evolve into the premier championship in baseball, second only to the MLB playoffs. If an event like this can produce great games with a playoff atmosphere in March (the Canada - U.S. match on Saturday was epic) and inspire more people around the world to play or follow baseball, I think that's more than enough reason to keep it alive. The WBC may not be perfect, but if this year's surprises are any indication, baseball fans have a lot to look forward to down the road.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Hafner's Return Could Propel Offense to Elite Level

Is it possible that Cleveland is a sleeper team in 2009? The Tribe is coming off a forgettable season where the only thing they clinched in the last week of the season was a .500 record. A terrible bullpen, injuries, trades, and on and on (you know the story, I'm not going to dredge through it again). Last season, Cleveland was viewed as a serious World Series contender with every key player from the ALCS championship squad returning. This season, Cleveland has managed to stay under the radar. Even Baseball Prospectus' projections have set the bar low for 2009, awarding Cleveland and their 84-78 record the AL Central by default after handing every other team a losing record.

Many analysts have passed off Cleveland as a flawed team in a weak division, ceding the AL Pennant to one of three teams in the East. The main hang-up for most people seems to be the starting pitching. Personally, I'm liking the possibility of Lee, Carmona, Huff, Laffey, and Westbrook more and more (how long it takes that rotation to shape up is another matter). So what if we didn't re-sign Sabathia? How many Cy Youngs has the rest of the American League won the last two years? It's Carmona's turn to win the CY this year anyway.

As long as the Tribe can get solid innings out of their top three starters, I think the array of young arms will fall into place to fill out the rest of the rotation. While there may be risk in riding the bullpen too heavily, this relief corps has the potential to dominate the final three innings. The depth and strength of the bullpen could go a long way in smoothing the anticipated speed bumps in carrying so many young hurlers in the rotation. Taken as a whole, the team's pitching is shaping up to be good enough to contend. I certainly wouldn't view it as a liability, not with Lee, Carmona, and Wood leading the charge.

If Cleveland can get any kind of quality pitching this season, I feel that they are primed to do much more than just stumble into the playoffs. Cleveland has its flaws and risks, but they also have the tools to cover any potential holes effectively. In this case, the offense may be a secret weapon of sorts.

In 2007, the Tribe posted a team wOBA of .335 and finished 6th in the AL in runs scored with 811. The following year, Cleveland nearly matched this effort with a .334 wOBA and a 6th best 805 runs scored, despite missing the production of a healthy Hafner and Martinez for the entire season. I was surprised to see such a narrow gap in overall offensive production between 2007 when the offense seemed to fire on all cylinders, and 2008 when it felt like the lineup just couldn't be trusted on any given day. Amazingly, Wedge was able to squeeze some sort of production from the 110 different lineups utilized in 2008 (compared to a more stable 81 in 2007). At some point, out of the 166 at-bats given to Dellucci at DH (second only to a limited Hafner), a nasty sophomore slump from Asdrubal, a .753 OPS out of the starting first baseman, and the fact that the backup catcher had more home runs than the third baseman and two primary DH's combined, Cleveland was only six runs off the pace from a year ago.

Cleveland Team Offense: 2006-2008

Year OBP SLG OPS wOBA Team RS (AL Rank) Team RA Run Diff.
2006 .349 .457 .806 .346 870 (2nd) 782 88
2007 .343 .428 .771 .335 811 (6th) 704 107
2008 .339 .424 .763 .334 805 (6th) 761 44

Obviously nothing's for certain, but I think Cleveland has a shot at cracking the top three in runs scored again. Cleveland didn't have to sign any big names to improve their offense, all they needed was to get healthy and watch the capabilities of their in-house players continue to grow. Peralta had his best season since 2005, finishing second among AL shortstops in wOBA and first in HR (or 4th among third basemen, depending on how you view him). I'm fairly confident that 2008 was no fluke for Peralta and he will continue to be one of the team's best hitters.

A renewed Victor Martinez will anchor the middle of the order once again, relegating Garko's disappointing bat to the bench. If Sizemore is the sparkplug for the offense, Martinez represents the pistons (I'm not very good with analogies). Getting back the captain and team batting champ for three of the past four seasons will obviously provide a huge boost to the offense and give Wedge one less unknown to deal with when structuring the lineup.

This may finally be the year we see Martinez shift into more of a platoon, or even backup role in catching. Shoppach has earned the right to be an everyday starter and with Martinez at first base most of the time, Shoppach will have the opportunity to build on his AL-leading .517 slugging percentage among catchers. A healthy Martinez at first base improves the team on both offense (fewer AB's for Garko, more for Shoppach) and defense (Shoppach is above average behind the dish).

Shin-Soo Choo is a bit of a wild card in that he's never been healthy and had a starting gig at the same time. Choo played out of his mind last season, posting 28 doubles, 14 homers, and an elite .946 OPS over 370 PA. I'm being cautiously optimistic about Choo, since there's a slim chance he'll produce those types of numbers over a full season without a big dose of luck. It's difficult to determine what Choo will actually do as a starter, since his only two Major League stints with at least 150 PA had deceiving BABIP's attached to them. In 2006, Choo had an .812 OPS in 179 PA with a .394 BABIP, while his 2008 BABIP was .373. That's an awfully high occurrence of balls falling in for hits. For comparison, Manny Ramirez had a .373 BABIP to go with his 1.031 OPS last season.

Then again, one thing I've heard multiple times about Choo is how good he is at driving the ball to the gap. It'd be great if I was wrong, but I doubt Choo is capable of posting Manny numbers consistently. With the exception of his SLG, Choo's Major (.291/.377/.493) and Minor (.301/.388/.460) league lines match up nicely. A more reasonable expectation could be for Choo to land somewhere around an .870 OPS (CHONE only has him at .800, but this seems low). Even if he experiences a steep regression, Choo will still be wielding a very strong bat.

Combine the above with Mark DeRosa's OBP in the two-hole, an anticipated rebound from Cabrera, and LaPorta and Brantley in reserve (I'm counting down the days until we cut Dellucci and one of these guys gets the call) and the pieces for a potent offense start to fall into place. Besides Tampa Bay, does any other AL team stand to improve on offense as much as Cleveland? Boston got slightly worse after Manny left, New York added Texiera while the rest of the team continues to age (although they've compensated for this by buying a new pitching staff), and no one in the Central has made any major changes. On paper, Cleveland's offense is flat-out dangerous.

In order to reach their full potential as a truly elite offense, the Tribe will need a come-back season from Travis Hafner. Cleveland was unable to find a suitable replacement for the ailing Hafner last season, finishing with the third worst DH production in the AL. The offense was able to tread water because of unexpected contributions from the likes of Choo and Shoppach, but the lack of an effective DH will only cause more grief for Cleveland. Production from the DH spot has declined steadily right along with the health of Hafner's shoulder.

Cleveland DH Production

Year HR OBP SLG OPS wOBA (Rank) wRC (Rank)
2006 45 .409 .600 1.009 .418 (1st) 136 (2nd)
2007 25 .384 .453 .837 .359 (5th) 102 (5th)
2008 17 .325 .390 .715 .311 (12th) 72 (12th)

It's no coincidence that the team scored 870 runs (second only to New York's 930) the last time Hafner was truly healthy in 2006. Hafner had a career year in '06, slugging 42 HR with a 179 OPS+. The 2007 season saw a steep decline across the board for Hafner and while he was still effective at driving in runs from the three-hole, the apparent discomfort and lack of pop in Hafner's swing foreshadowed the elbow and shoulder injuries that would plague him throughout 2008.

Even with a sub-par 2007 season compared to his 2005-2006 run, Hafner provided quality production and was still among the top five DH's in the league. Hafner's erratic performance turned out to be more than just a slump though and the pain in his shoulder only grew more pronounced once he returned to action in April 2008. In an interview with Anthony Castrovince, Hafner admitted that "[he'd] go out to have a meal and [the] shoulder would burn just from eating, it would wear [the] shoulder out." Even a simple weight lifting routine became an epic undertaking.

After three months on the disabled list trying to strengthen his right shoulder, Hafner returned to Major League action in September only to have the pain and limited mobility return. Hafner had arthroscopic surgery as soon as the season ended to clean out the shoulder joint. To make sure the effects of the surgery stuck, Hafner took up a new training regimen this offseason. He reportedly lost 10 pounds and developed a leaner upper-body in an effort to boost his bat speed to its former level.

When dealing with an injury this severe (he must have been really hurting if he couldn't even lift a fork without pain), odds are the effects were present well before the start of the 2008 season. Only time will tell how much of Hafner's 2007 season was connected to the lingering effects of his slowly weakening shoulder, but there had to have been some serious issues that were either chalked up to a slump, annual wear and tear, or were misdiagnosed in some way. I'm encouraged by the fact that the main problem turned out to be the shoulder and not the chronic right elbow that has troubled Hafner in the past. Hopefully this is the first and last time Hafner has a problem with the shoulder now that it's been surgically repaired.

I'm not ignoring the fact that Hafner's doctor was unable to point to a specific source for the shoulder issues. However, since I wouldn't know how to interpret a more detailed medical report even if I had one, the best I can do is to trust the team's judgement here. Hafner was well into his 2007 slump before the team offered him a long-term contract extension. Why would Cleveland do that if they knew Hafner had even a hint of something that could render him ineffective down the road? It's one thing to have leverage over a slumping player, it's another to take such a significant risk purely for the sake of said leverage. Given how cautious the franchise is about committing salary and how thorough team physicals supposedly are, it doesn't make any sense for Cleveland to willingly give $57 million to a guy with a potentially chronic, debilitating injury.

I think we've heard the last of Hafner's shoulder issues. Hafner isn't the type of player content with just collecting a paycheck on the DL, he's extremely competitive and seems to take it personally when he can't contribute to the team. How often do you hear of a designated hitter committing to a new offseason conditioning program? The dedication and work ethic are there, but Cleveland had better hope they were correct about Hafner's health when they signed him to that extension. The financial repercussions from a $47 million, lame-duck DH would be severe for a small-market team like Cleveland.

Reports out of Goodyear have Hafner making steady progress with his hitting program. Hafner's surgery rehab schedule caused him to come into Spring Training a week or two behind his teammates, relegating him to the indoor batting cages until he became comfortable swinging a bat again. After passing the test with several successful outings at regular batting practice Hafner may get the green light to play in Friday's exhibition game against Milwaukee. In the meantime, he sparred with Cliff Lee in a simulated game, marking the first time Hafner has faced live pitching at camp.

Tribe skipper Eric Wedge indicated modest expectations for the lefty slugger. Unlike in the past, Hafner won't be expected to lead the offense. It's crucial that the coaching staff keeps Hafner on an even keel (to borrow another Wedgism) so that he doesn't press and start to dig himself a hole early on. Being healthy will go a long way in boosting his confidence, but the biggest obstacle to overcome in getting back on track could actually be Hafner himself if he tries to do too much right away.

If the re-acclimation process goes slowly for Hafner, Cleveland will have plenty of backup until he can adjust. A likely scenario is that Wedge starts Hafner out lower in the order and allows him to work his way up as he (hopefully) continues to get stronger. Plan B would be to have Garko platoon at DH temporarily. Look for Choo and Peralta to pick up the slack in the fourth and fifth spots behind Martinez. Actually, here's what I would expect to be the Opening Day lineup:

1.) Sizemore (L)

2.) DeRosa (R)

3.) Martinez (S)

4.) Choo (L)

5.) Peralta (R)

6.) Hafner (L)

7.) Shoppach (R)

8.) Francisco (R)

9.) Cabrera (S)

I've always been a fan of Wedge's "one through nine" approach to running the offense and I think this mantra will be more prevalent than ever. If all (or even most) goes according to plan, there will be few easy outs from top to bottom. The offense still doesn't have much speed (although Choo, Francisco, and Cabrera at least provide options for the occasional steal, hit & run, etc. beyond just Sizemore), but much of the lineup can still rake the ball. Cleveland finished second in the AL in doubles last year with 339 and has had at least seven players in double-digit homer figures the past two seasons. They could have easily had a second straight year with at least five 20-homer players if Choo and Martinez had played a full season.

The fact that the Tribe's power numbers tend to come from unorthodox positions (like catcher and center field) and are more evenly distributed throughout the lineup will help siphon more pressure away from the former team leader in homers. Doubles and walks should be the basis of Hafner's attack. If he can regain his patience at the plate and make solid contact the home runs should come naturally with that punishing left-handed swing.

Again, perhaps the best news for both Hafner and Cleveland is that he doesn't have to have a monster season for it to be considered a success (yes, I know how much he's getting paid, but I think the team is more concerned with him using this season to fully re-establish himself for the remainder of his contract). Likewise, the team doesn't need to rely on him producing a .300 average with 40 taters to achieve a potent offense. Both Bill James and CHONE project Hafner a bit worse than I expect him to be, but it's possible I'm being overly optimistic in the first place. Based on my imaginary projection system I could see Hafner finishing with 29 HR, 90 BB, .288 AVG, .400 OBP, .490 SLG, and an .890 OPS. Since I basically just estimated that from his 2005 and 2007 seasons off the top of my head, I wouldn't take that prediction to your fantasy draft. Still, I don't think an .890 OPS is out of the question for 2009.

The bottom-line for Hafner this season will be how he fits into the offense as a whole. If he is able to drive in 100 runners and draw 80-100+ walks like he has in the past I would consider that a very strong season coming off a serious injury. Who knows, maybe he'll surprise everyone and this will be the year Pronk returns.