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Corner of Carnegie and Ontario: Summer Solstice edition

Corner of Carnegie and Ontario: Summer Solstice edition
June 23, 2012
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The Indians enter the first days of summer viewing the rest of the A.L. Central from the balcony of the first place suite after sweeping the first-place Cincinnati Reds. The Indians have somehow managed to claw and scrape their way back into first with smoke, mirrors, Lonnie Chisenhall’s porn mustache, Aaron Cunningham and a clean-up hitting Jose Lopez. Yeah, I can’t quite figure it all out either, as I stand here at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario.

The Indians clearly have glaring holes in their 25-man active roster that will need to be addressed going forward, but it’s hard to put a finger on who or what this team really is as the All-Star break approaches. Are they a playoff team not playing to full capacity, or are they a middling band of blue-collar players that are simply over-achieving against a weak schedule? The fact that both are legitimate questions for a first-place ball-club in late-June is certainly a cause for concern heading into perhaps the most difficult portion of their schedule this season.

The Indians’ start their summer stretch with a ten-game road trip. After the Indians finish up their three-game set with the Astros this weekend, they head to the Bronx to face off against the surging New York Yankees, who have grabbed first place in the A.L. East. They follow that with a four-game set against the A.L. East’s second place (!?!) Baltimore Orioles for what could be a strangely important series heading into July. The Indians return home to face off against the Angels, who have won seven of their last ten ballgames, find themselves back near the top of the A.L. West, and playing outstanding baseball. This isn’t the team the Tribe took two-of-three from in April by any stretch.

In other words, it’s time for the identity crisis to end.

The starting rotation, the bullpen and the starting lineup have all been consistently inconsistent, leaving this team without many clear-cut producers. The cup-half-full side of this is that this team is built upon an “ebb-and-flow” mentality that I’ve been talking about from the start of the season. From week-to-week, it seems as though a different group of players hoist the team on their shoulders. It’s more of a gang-mentality approach for a team that can’t afford a massive star like Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder.

The cup-half-empty side of this is that this team doesn’t have a true star or two that can continue to carry the team on a consistent basis when the well eventually dries up. There isn’t that right-handed power bat or two that can keep the lefties at bay, and this team will eventually face much better pitching. While Asdrubal Cabrera continues to be the straw that stirs the drink, he tapered off as the season and stress of the 2011 season continued through the dog days of summer. Jason Kipnis is more or less a rookie. Carlos Santana can’t find his bat to save his life. And what of Travis Hafner? Well, he’s on the D.L., and that’s all I’m going to say about that.

Everybody loves a blue-collar team that has a group of guys that can all produce enough when it counts, but the team will need to play much more consistently as a whole to have any chance of playing meaningful games in August, September, and dare-I-say-it, October.

How “ebb-and-flow” has the starting rotation been in 2012? Are you kidding me? Every month there has been a different guy pitching well. Who am I kidding. From start-to-start, most of these guys have taken on baseball’s version of Jeckyl and Hyde. How many times has a guy in this rotation gotten belted around for four or five runs one game, then come back with a fantastic start the next? While Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jimenez have found their inner chi recently, this rotation has been one of the most dysfunctional units in recent memory. There have been moments when each starter, including Zach McAllister, could lay claim to an ace-like stretch of performance. Okay, maybe not ace-like, but more like “ace-like for this rotation.”

Just look at the first three months:

April

Starter

Starts

ERA

Derek Lowe

5 (4-1)

2.27

Jeanmar Gomez

3 (1-1)

2.35

Ubaldo Jimenez

4 (2-1)

4.50

Justin Masterson

5 (0-2)

5.40

Josh Tomlin

3 (1-2)

5.48

Lowe was clearly the star, going 4-1 with an incredible 2.27 ERA. Lowe earned his money in that month, and balanced the struggles from Jimenez (2-1, but only one good start in the month) and Masterson (0-2). Jeanmar Gomez, while only winning one game in April, was another guy that more-or-less came out of nowhere with his performance, looking like a potential Fausto Carmona circa’ 2007 candidate. While Tomlin brought up the back-end of that rotation with a bloated ERA and a 1-2 record, it’s not like it was a surprise.

The nearly reverse-pyramid approach of this rotation, with the aces of the staff in Jimenez and Masterson rolling out a near 5 ERA combined, while balanced out by Lowe and Gomez was a bit alarming. Clearly Lowe and Gomez couldn’t be counted on to carry a rotation, and it’s not like Masterson and Jimenez were sure-things to return to previous ace-like form. Jimenez hadn’t pitched like an ace since 2010, and while Masterson was outstanding last year in becoming an ace, it wasn’t long ago he was being questioned as even being a starter.

May

Starter

Starts

ERA

Zach McAllister

4 (1-1)

3.96

Derek Lowe

5 (2-2)

4.30

Josh Tomlin

3 (1-0)

4.42

Justin Masterson

6 (2-2)

4.93

Jeanmar Gomez

6 (2-3)

5.26

Ubaldo Jimenez

6 (3-3)

6.75

If April was alarming, then May was downright scary. The Indians best starter may have been a call-up, and Masterson and Jimenez continued to struggle overall. Masterson did have some good starts mixed in with some bad ones, but headed into June having given up seven runs in a six-inning start against Kansas City. Jimenez had one nice start against Texas, but looked like a #5 starter in the rest, struggling to even find the strike zone from start-to-start. Lowe continued to dominate through much of the month, but had an alarming eight-run implosion against the White Sox in his last start of the month that had many wondering if Cinderella’s season was about to turn into a pumpkin.

Josh Tomlin looked good in his first two starts of the month, but ended up on the DL, allowing Zach McAllister to get a chance, and ironically enough, look better than the established guys in his four starts. No, he wasn’t exactly electric, but he certainly looked like he could fill a role at the back-end of the rotation if he was ever needed. Of course, compared to the rest of the rotation, he looked like the second coming of Greg Maddux. Jeanmar Gomez had two outstanding starts in the month in which he went back-to-back games without giving up an earned run, but bookended those two starts by giving up eight runs in his prior start, and 11 runs in his two post starts.

June

Starter

Starts

ERA

Justin Masterson

4 (2-2)

1.24

Ubaldo Jimenez

4 (2-1)

2.05

Josh Tomlin

4 (1-2)

5.32

Jeanmar Gomez

3 (1-2)

6.91

Derek Lowe

4 (1-2)

7.15

What can you say about June. You go from absolutely giddy with excitement (MASTERSON AND JIMENEZ), to profanity-indulgent screaming (Tomlin, GOMEZ, LOWE).  While the pyramid has seemingly righted itself in June with Masterson and Jimenez reclaiming their roles at the top of the rotation, Tomlin, Gomez and Lowe have seemingly fallen off the cliff.

I could rant and rave about Lowe returning to his 2011 form in which he was not-even-arguably the worst pitcher in baseball in August and September, but the truth of the matter is that Lowe shouldn’t be anything more than a #4 or #5 starter at this point. He’s already provided the Tribe with a dominating month, and while he’s looked every bit the washed up pitcher in June, there’s still hope that he can continue to give the Indians a solid six innings at the bottom of the rotation.

Unfortunately, it appears as though Jeanmar Gomez has been figured out. He did have a decent start against the Reds in Cincinnati, but he’s now given up four-plus runs in four of his last five ballgames. I’m not saying the book is closed on Gomez, but you have to believe that Saturday’s start against Houston may be an important one if he wants to remain on this club. With McAllister near-dominating in Columbus (5-2, 2.98 ERA, 19 BB, 49 K, 57 1/3 IP) after performing well for the Indians in May, it may be time for a change.

Tomlin is Tomlin, and generally gives you six good innings. While he’s struggled here-and-there this season, he’s put together some really nice ballgames, and has rubber-banded this month, alternating two pretty bad starts (11 ER in 10 IP) with two pretty good starts (3 ER in 13 2/3 IP). He’s not an ace, nor will he ever be one, but if you have Masterson and Jimenez right, he’s a good guy to have in that #3, or preferably, #4 slot.

The rotation, as it stands, is solid if Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jimenez continue to pitch like aces. I think we all can assume that Masterson is the most likely of the two to replicate his performances. He’s really been locked in since mid-May, minus one start.

DATE

OPP

W

L

ERA

IP

H

ER

BB

SO

5/18/2012

MIA

0

0

2.57

7

6

2

3

5

5/24/2012

DET

1

0

1.29

7

5

1

5

4

5/29/2012

KC

0

1

10.50

6

9

7

0

8

6/3/2012

MIN

0

1

4.50

6

7

3

3

3

6/9/2012

@STL

0

1

1.29

7

5

1

0

6

6/15/2012

PIT

1

0

0.00

7

4

0

3

9

6/20/2012

CIN

1

0

0.00

9

3

0

0

9

TOTALS

 

3

3

2.57

49

39

14

14

44

If you take away his one bad start against Kansas City (if only it were so easy), his stats improve to 3-2, with a 1.47 ERA, with 14 walks and 36 K’s. He’s clearly his old, nasty self.

Jimenez hasn’t been nearly as good, but not too shabby compared to his old self. During the same stretch, his overall performance has been greatly improved. Perhaps not to the ace status overall (although his last three outings are making a case that he’s recovered some of that luster), but definitely a change in the right direction. He’s been locked in as well, minus one start.

DATE

OPP

W

L

ERA

IP

H

ER

BB

SO

5/16/2012

SEA

1

0

4.50

6

5

3

2

4

5/22/2012

DET

1

0

4.50

6

5

3

6

2

5/27/2012

@CWS

0

1

15.75

4

7

7

4

3

6/5/2012

@DET

1

0

1.35

6.667

5

1

1

4

6/10/2012

@STL

0

0

1.29

7

5

1

0

7

6/16/2012

PIT

0

1

6.00

6

7

4

2

6

6/22/2012

@HOU

1

0

0.00

6.667

4

0

4

8

Totals

 

4

2

4.04

42.334

38

19

19

34

If you take away HIS one bad start against the White Sox, and his line improves to 4-1, with a 2.82 ERA, with 15 walks and 31 K’s. While he’s still not at 2010 standards, he’s definitely trending upwards.

If those two can continue at that rate, they should carry the rotation. The question now stops being about them, and starts to refocus on the fringe guys. While this is the preferable option to have, the bottom three have really been pitching at an alarmingly bad rate. Is any combination of Gomez, Lowe, Tomlin, McAllister, Kevin Slowey, or Corey Kluber good enough to carry this team throughout the season? That’s doubtful. So, what could the Indians do?

They could wait on word of the return of Roberto Hernandez. Hernandez is still waiting out news on his visa, but all signs point to his return around the all-star break. There’s a lot of interesting discussion about what he’ll be this season, and how long it will take them to get here. What kind of shape will he be in? Will his mind be right? Will he be in the rotation by August, if at all? I’m not sure that the Tribe front office is even counting on Hernandez at this point, or, they could be putting all their eggs into that basket.

The Tribe could also look at making a splash by making a deal for a pitcher who’s out there. Some guys mentioned a lot are Ryan Dempster (on the DL), Matt Garza, Cole Hamels, Brandon McCarthy and Zack Greinke. Clearly, the Indians have other holes to fill that may be more important, but as they showed last season, they won’t pass on a starter, particularly if they can get years out of him. There are certainly many others that are likely on the Indians radar, so don’t be surprised if the Tribe finds themselves in the hunt for a starter if one peaks their interest.

The bullpen is outstanding at the back-end, but the front-end hasn’t been all that good. Vinnie Pestano has been lights out with a 3-0 record and a 1.86 ERA. Chris Perez has been equally awesome, with 23 saves and a 2.54 ERA. Past that, it’s been a mixed hat. Jeremy Accardo has a 3.06 ERA, and he isn’t exactly someone that you’d necessarily count on. Joe Smith is next with a 5-1 record and a 3.56 ERA. He’s given up at least a run in three of his last five ball games.

Nick Hagadone has a 4.91 ERA, and has really looked shaky in June. He’s gone 5 2/3 innings, and given up eight earned runs in three of his seven appearances. Hagadone will be fine, but he’s young, and even if his ship was right, young relievers in playoff stretches aren’t necessarily the way to go.

Tony Sipp has been utterly terrible, and has now give up runs in five of his last seven appearances. His overall ERA is almost at 7, and his ERA over those last seven games is 10.29. Something has to give here.

Scott Barnes is a nice lefty option in Columbus, but we’re talking about a rookie who’s just started learning the bullpen mentality. Sure, he’s likely a better option than a guy like Sipp right now, but I’m not sure that I’d be knocking too hard on that door as of yet. I’m also not a big fan of a guy like Cody Allen coming up. While he’s electric, and has been pitching well, I still would look to some veteran leadership.

Relievers can be had at the deadline much cheaper than starters and/or big time position players. Again, I wouldn’t be making this my priority, but if one was available, I’d throw a mid-level prospect out there. Of course, that really depends on who is available. Maybe you can go out and get a guy like Grant Balfour or Jose Mijares or Jonathan Broxton or Jared Burton or my personal favorite Luke Gregerson. Could they nab one of these guys? Sure, and while a name or two may require a better prospect, I think most wouldn’t.

I’m saving the offense for next week…;)…that oughta be fun…

It’s a beautiful weekend for baseball…everybody…

Jim is currently the senior editor and Columnist, as well as  the host of IBI's weekly online radio shows, Smoke Signals and Cleveland Sports Insiders. You can follow Jim on Twitter @Jim_IBI, or contact him via e-mail at jpete@indiansprospectinsider.com.

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