Corner of Carnegie and Ontario: The 40th Day Edition
The Indians are approaching the first invisible line of the season. For those that pay attention to the Indians and their lore since Mark Shapiro took over, the Tribe is just a few days away from their mysterious and awe-inspiring 40th game. You know, the line in which the Indians like to use as their first evaluation tool.The Indians stand at a more than respectable 22-17, are in first place in the central by three games over the Detroit Tigers, and are playing pretty good baseball.
You still have to wonder if anyone really can gauge this team just yet. While last year’s team was playing even better than this one, most would agree that if anything, the Indians were going to come down to earth. The Tribe was 26-13 at this point last season, in first place, and five games up on the White Sox. Their starting pitching, led by Justin Masterson’s dominance, Josh Tomlin’s emergence, and a rebounding Fausto Carmona, was solid. The offense had been plugging along behind both Asdrubal Cabrera and Travis Hafner, and the bullpen was one of the best in baseball, if not THE best.
One could surmise that the sum of all the parts mentioned above were going to either come back to earth a bit, or completely fall off the radar. Hafner had already gone down to injury the week prior, and there wasn’t anyone to fill in at any high level, which was a sign of things to come for sure. Grady Sizemore had been playing fairly well for the first time in years, but had begun his hopscotch with the DL at the beginning of the season, then followed up with another in mid-May. At the same time, teams like the Tigers were sure to play better. While there was hope that guys like Lonnie Chisenhall and Jason Kipnis could make an impact, there was a strong belief that the Tribe would come back to earth…
…which is exactly what they did.
With all things being equal, the Indians appear to be in a similar situation, but behind last season’s pace…or are they?
Offensively, this team has yet to gel. While they continue to get a massive amount of production from Asdrubal Cabrera, the rest of the line-up has been hit and miss. For those that have followed me with any conviction, you’ve heard me talk about ebbs and flows with the Tribe, and that’s just what it’s been. Throughout this first quarter of the season, Jack Hannahan, Jason Kipnis, Travis Hafner, Michael Brantley, Carlos Santana, Shin-Soo Choo and even Shelley Duncan have led this team here and there with production, but to say that this team has put it all together would be a stretch. They can take pitches, but putting runs on the board hasn’t been easy.
While the bullpen remains one of the best in baseball, there have been dents in the armor, especially with the guys not named Chris Perez, Vinnie Pestano and Nick Hagadone. Even those three have had their moments.
The rotation has been led by Derek Lowe, which pretty much says it all there. You could make a case that Lowe and Jeanmar Gomez have been their #1 and #2 starters, while Masterson and Ubaldo Jimenez have been the #4 and #5 guys. While Tomlin and Masterson fill out the rotation, there’s no doubt that the pitching has been a reverse-pyramid, of sorts, with the top being the bottom, and the bottom being the top.
The point here is that the Indians haven’t played to their potential by any stretch of the imagination. So, the question here at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario is, is this team struggling to find their games, or is this the best that they are?
So let’s take a look at some of the moves that the Indians have already made, as well as a few that are likely coming.
While there were many moves that were made this season, I’m going to start off a bit general, and look at their left field news of note since the start of the season. The Indians started without many left field options. They had acquired a few guys (Ryan Spilbourghs & Aaron Cunningham) to fight for the job, and had Shelley Duncan returning as well, but absolutely nobody took the job. The Indians than tried to make a deal for Bobby Abreu, which fell apart before it happened. Enter Shelley Duncan, who never, ever should be confused as a starting position player in the major leagues. There’s a reason why he’s never stuck as a starter, which should tell you just how drastic the position was/is for Cleveland.
While Duncan started the season off strong, the Indians knew the inevitability was that he would eventually come down to earth, so they signed Johnny Damon to a mysterious contract. While nobody will admit it, the contract clearly stipulated that to sign, Damon had to play right away. So after a couple of weeks in extended spring training in Arizona, Mas Guapo made his first start in left for the Tribe on May 1st. He clearly wasn’t ready.
What does Damon provide in the coming weeks? I just don’t know how long you keep a guy in the lineup that just isn’t playing very well, and he’s not. Granted, he did draw three walks last night, but his bat speed just isn’t there right now, and he looks like an old, old bat. The big question for Damon right now is whether or not he can get it back after missing the entirety of spring training. To keep him, you have to believe that he will work through this as though it were spring training, and sometime around June 1st, you start seeing an uptick of some proportions. As it stands right now, Damon is in the #7 hole, and I am seeing signs that the end may be near, and a long time before Grady Sizemore returns.
As for Duncan? He is what he is, and that’s a player off the bench. Might he have stretches of solid play? Sure, but he just isn’t an everyday player. He’s hitting .216 lifetime against righthanded hitters, which just isn’t good enough. Should they platoon him with Damon? Not unless you want two bad defenders playing left, while they both are struggling to hit even .200 over the past month. I’m not going to even address Aaron Cunningham, other than to say…ugh…
So, what about Matt LaPorta and Jared Goedert, who have both played extremely well in Akron and Columbus? While I certainly don’t think that either one is a long term candidate, or that one will just burst onto the scene having figured things out, it may be time to bring up Laporta for the 2012 version of his attempt to win a full-time starting gig in the majors. I just don’t think it’s in the cards, but I’d like for him to get his chance and get out of the way. Unfortunately, when you look past LaPorta, there really aren’t any candidates in the system to take over any outfield spots at the big league level any time soon, so he won’t be getting out of the way of anybody, other than Goedert, but more on him in second.
LaPorta really seems like the only power-hitting, right-handed stick that has any sort of major league readiness that the Tribe has available. Sure, Goedert is there, but only after going absolutely bat-crazy offensively in Akron, forcing the Indians to move him to Triple A. But realistically, LaPorta is the one guy that possesses the supposed skill-set of power hitting corner infielder or outfielder. Granted, this skill set is still only either a rumor, or a Triple A thing, but it is supposedly a part of his game.
There are just so many ifs when it comes to LaPorta, that you can’t really count on him as a full-time player. The Indians are holding out hope, but I’m not. I know there’s a sentiment that his pedigree alone makes him better than a guy like Shelley Duncan, but at the same time, I’m not sure LaPorta is the sort of stick that works good with long gaps of inactivity. Hell, his stick rarely works all that will at the major league level with NO gaps of inactivity. But, I hope he proves me wrong.
As for Goedert, I really believe he is what he is, a player that’s on an incredible streak. I’d call him up now, and take advantage of it for as long as I could. Perhaps major league pitching would cool him down quickly, but I think you could likely carry the club with some offense for a bit. I just don’t think he’s a long term answer either.
Is there a prominent move about to be made in left field? With Goedert now in Columbus, I just have to believe that LaPorta is about to make the trek to Cleveland. He does deserve it with his play at the Triple A level, but I just don’t think it’s going to translate. I think Damon could be in trouble going forward, because I don’t see another roster move to get LaPorta to the Indians…and ultimately, if Damon isn’t hitting leadoff, what do you do with him when Sizemore returns?
Look for the Indians to live and die with LaPorta, Damon to find himself jobless again, and Goedert playing the LaPorta role in Columbus if LaPorta should fail in Cleveland. All of this is with the mindset that Sizemore will return, and when he does, make the LaPorta/Damon/Duncan conundrum a moot point.
Shin-Soo Choo has turned into a bit of an experiment this season. Choo started off in his customary #3 slot to open the season, but just couldn’t get it going, and found out of the lineup with a hammy issue. When he returned, Acta moved him to the six-hole in the lineup, and it was more of the same. He was hitting .237 at the time of his first game batting sixth, and hitting .235 during his last game batting sixth. So, Manny moved him to the lead-off slot.
While you’d like to hammer on the move as being a bad one, Choo’s OBP had been steadily at or above .350 for much of the season, so the move was a sound, and Choo has not only continued getting on base, but his average has started to improve as well. I’m not saying that Choo should be the permanent lead-off guy, but he is providing the meat of the Indians line-up with runners, which is the point at the end of the day. As long as Choo maintains that plus OBP, I say you keep him there, at least until Sizemore proves to be healthy.
Jason Kipnis was also moved to the #2 hole, where he was for much of last season when he was just destroying the baseball. Kipnis is the perfect #2 guy, and you could make a case that he’s been the best offensive player on this team not named Asdrubal Cabrera. He’ll continue to have stretches of baseball that leave you thinking he’s the best second baseman in the majors, but those will come with stretches of average play. What you rarely get from him is bad baseball. Having a guy like Kipnis in the #2 slot has given the top of the order some solidity, and combine that with Choo leading off, and Cabrera at the #3 slot, and you have some of the best table-setting in the bigs.
Jeremy Accardo was moved into the Indians bullpen, ending the horrendous days of one Dan Wheeler. This could be a bigger move down the road though, as the Indians seem to have an issue with their bullpen past their top three guys in Chris Perez, Vinnie Pestano and now, Nick Hagadone. Everyone else has struggled at times, and their struggles have been big.
Tony Sipp seems to be at the top of the list, as he’s just not looked good at all. The lefty may become redundant if/when Rafael Perez returns, since Hagadone seems to have taken his role away. If Perez can get healthy, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if Sipp was demoted, and truth be told, I’d be happy.
Joe Smith has struggled as well, and while I’m not ready to give up on him, I’ve also never really been a big fan. Could I see a scenario when the Indians move a guy like Ascencio (not a fan of either) or Accardo up the ladder? Absolutely. It just seems to me that Smith’s stuff can become pretty hittable at times. With guys like Cody Allen healthy and getting through his work in Columbus, some of these bullpen guys may become expendable. A guy like Smith doesn’t hold a lot of trade value, but I could see a minor move with Smith or Sipp or both, involved.
I could also see Scott Barnes make the move as well. He’s got a fantastic arm, and when he figures out this bullpen move, he could be extremely effective in a short term role. I still think he needs to get the mindset right for the pen, but once he does, I would immediately prefer him over a guy like Sipp right now. To me, they have similar arms, but Barnes clearly has more upside at this point.
If C.C. Lee and Bryce Stowell could get healthy and consistent, there would be several folks on the bottom end of this pen that I’d like to see disappear during the stretch. Is there anything imminent that’s going to happen though? I doubt it.
As far as the rotation goes, the only change that needs to take place is with the two “aces” on our staff. Both managed to look pretty decent in their last outings, although Masterson looked pretty near the pitcher from 2011. Jimenez looked like, well, Jimenez. He got the win, but threw 107 pitches in six innings. He only walked two though, so that’s something. It was his lowest amount of walks in 2012.
Masterson went seven innings, throwing only 111 pitches. He did have command, for the most part, and looked every bit the guy that was borderline dominating in 2011. There were still some at bats that gave him issue, but there was never a true moment in that game on Friday night that Masterson didn’t look like he was in control. Of course, as I say that, two of his three walks turned into runs that ultimately cost the Indians the game.
Ultimately, this staff will even itself out. The wildcard will be Roberto Hernandez, should he come back at all. I’m still interested in seeing what this guy will do now that this cloud of secrecy has been lifted. At this point, I don’t think we see him until after the break, but when/if he returns, he could be an interesting add to a staff that has Lowe pitching well, Gomez surprising, Masterson returning to form and Ubaldo…well…being Ubaldo.
That said, I just don’t see the Indians doing much after the 40-game mark slips past us on Saturday, or even after Sunday’s game. On Monday, I think you’ll see the LaPorta move, and who goes where after will be the interesting watch. If they want LaPorta to start, Damon will be gone. If they want him to fill, Duncan will be gone. If they don’t want him for either, well, the LaPorta talk will continue, oh joy.
I also wanted to send a special shout out to Bryson Myles for the great interview on Tuesday's Smoke Signals. If every player had your attitude, there'd be a whole lot more stars, and a whole lot less griping.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
and I don't expect lights out performances throughout the year, I've just never been a Joe Smith fan. It's my personal preference, and one I'd gladly stand by. He had a fantastic year last season, and even then, he made my stomach churn whenever he came up to pitch. I like relievers that have out pitches, and I've just never seen Joe Smith as that kind of guy. No, not an electric arm, but someone (like rPerez in his day) that could throw something uncannily wicked to get a guy out. I just have never seen that from Smith, and don't like it. It's a personal preference for sure. Such is life. I'm sure if I were "Manny," I'd probably still have him on the roster too. I'm not...just a fan that writes about my team.
As far as Sipp goes, I've always been a big fan, and thought that there was a time a few years back when closing was in his future. He's not looked all that good this season, and while I don't have the stats in front of me, I do seem to recall two or three games when Sipp has given up some runs in bad outings against Texas and Boston...and both of those are in his last ten. Combine that with his atrocious start, and you have a guy, in my opinion, that shouldn't be on this roster when Perez comes back, unless you think he's better than Perez (and he may be). But Hagadone, in my opinion, is untouchable at this point, unless you are sending him down to control service, which would be idiotic.
this team needs the entire bullpen to be on to succeed...it's the nature of the beast...so when they aren't, and it's because of guys that tweak me anyways...clearly I get bent about it. Truth of the matter is that I'd love for this team to have the money to get bats that could make the bullpen a moot point, but they aren't that team...so be it.
Again, personal preference here...nothing more...nothing less.
The relief corps is a big reason for the Tribe's winning record thus far. Expecting lights out performances throughout the long season is unreasonable.
Sure glad that it is Manny involved in making roster decisions and not short sighted baseball fans.
Check out my second thoughts on my thoughts on Perez...and we have a really good piece going up at 2:00 about that very thing from Adam...