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Tribe Happenings: Concerns with offense are growing

May 15, 2011
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Austin Kearns is just one of a few problems
with the Indians offense (Photo: AP)
Some news, notes and thoughts from my Tribe notebook…

Indians need more offense

The Indians are now 37 games into the season and are a healthy 24-13, good for the best record in the American League. But with 125 games to go – 77.2% of the schedule – it is still very early in the season and things can still go either way for this team.

There is no doubt that this team has the pitching to sustain their success and win a lot of games this year and beyond. The depth in the starting rotation is unheard of, and they have a solid bullpen with several options with impact ability looming on the horizon in the minors. Also, even though the defense has struggled a little of late, it has been solid all year and is much improved over last season.

The offense is also much improved this season, but it continues to be the biggest question mark and will probably be what determines the fate for the team this season. They were locked in at the plate in April as they ranked first in almost every category offensively as a team, but in May the warts are starting to show. Some of it is the result of facing some very good pitching, but good pitching also helps expose weaknesses that are otherwise overlooked because some hitters take advantage of performing against lesser pitching.

Outfielder Michael Brantley and Grady Sizemore as well as shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera, first baseman Matt LaPorta and designated hitter Travis Hafner have all performed solid to very good this year. But there are a few spots in the lineup in need of a jolt.

Outfielder Shin-Shoo Choo (.222, 5 HR, 19 RBI) and catcher Carlos Santana (.220, 5 HR, 18 RBI) have been disappointing so far this year. Their production totals with the homers and RBI have actually been solid as they both project to about 21 homers and 81 RBI, and both have taken walks to where Choo has a .301 on-base percentage and Santana a solid .345 on-base percentage. The problem though is hitting in the three and four holes in the lineup a lot more is expected, and they are short-circuiting a lot of innings with their poor batting average and so many strikeouts.

Third baseman Jack Hannahan looks to be petering out both offensively and defensively. After a solid month of April where in 22 games he hit .273 with eight extra base hits and 14 RBI, so far in nine May games he is hitting just .172 with no extra base hits and one RBI. He may just be going through a slump, or he may just be leveling out with his overall performance which given his history as a player the latter seems more likely. This may not be a bad thing as if his performance continues to crater then hot hitting third base prospect Lonnie Chisenhall (.285, 3 HR, 22 RBI, .819 OPS) could be promoted from Triple-A Columbus very soon.

Also outfielder Austin Kearns’ career looks to be about over. He is playing a lot since he is the fourth outfielder and a right-handed hitting option, but in 16 games is hitting just .160 with two extra base hits and two RBI. His bat speed has all but evaporated, and if not for his $1.3 million contract for this year and the personal situation he is going through with his son he would probably have already been released. In the short term the Indians need to replace him on the roster with outfielder Chad Huffman or Travis Buck from Triple-A Columbus, but may need to look outside the organization for a long term option for the remainder of this season.

If the problems with the offense continue and they are unable to find solutions from within, then expect the Indians to become heavily involved in the trade market later in June. While they are still assessing the needs of the team, they know where their biggest needs lie, and almost all of them are in the lineup.

A secondary concern

So far this season second baseman Orlando Cabrera has proved to be a solid offseason addition. Signed for $1 million his biggest value has been his veteran leadership and attitude which has positively affected several players on the team. Going into Saturday’s action he is hitting a healthy .273 at the plate with two homers and 21 RBI, which are all solid numbers. But a look deeper into the numbers shows a player starting to show his age as his performance on the field has been on the decline since the first few weeks of the season.

Cabrera may have a healthy batting average, but his .295 on-base percentage is poor (four walks in 36 games). He also has just eight extra base hits for a .360 slugging percentage, and with his on-base and slugging combined has a sub par .655 OPS. That is not good offensive production for anyone in the lineup, especially someone who regularly hits sixth in the lineup. After a hot start to the season, since April 12th he is hitting .243 with a .255 on-base percentage and .320 slugging percentage (.575 OPS).

To be fair, Cabrera’s overall production at second base is about league average, maybe even slightly above league average. Meaning more than half the teams in all of baseball have players at second base performing worse. So the offense from Cabrera may not be the biggest concern, it is the defense. Quantifying defensive performance has always been tough to do, but those watching the games – especially the Rays series this past week – can see that he does not get to a lot of groundballs, or not enough of them. For a groundball pitching staff this can be devastating and extend innings.

It is still early in the season and the numbers still look favorable for Cabrera as at worst a league average offensive and defensive second baseman, but he looks to be in decline. One thing we could see down the road is a reduction in his playing time to maybe help him stay effective. Right now he is playing almost every night, but cutting him back to four to five games a week may be something the Indians consider.

By doing that it could allow the Indians an opportunity to call up infielder Cord Phelps to start two to three games a week at second base. He is hitting .302 with five homers, 20 RBI and a .936 OPS at Triple-A Columbus, and with his versatility to play some third base and shortstop he could also play a game or two a week at one of those positions and essentially upgrade Adam Everett’s roster spot.

The Indians are in no hurry to make any significant roster changes and really do not want to mess with the team chemistry. They have also been pleased with the performance of Cabrera and Everett to date. But as we get into June some changes will need to be made to the lineup and one of those could be a reduction of Cabrera’s playing time and integrating Phelps (or even Jason Kipnis) into the mix as a key lineup cog going forward.

Talbot to the pen?

Right-handed pitcher Mitch Talbot is still recovering from a strained right elbow that put him on the disabled list on April 17th. He has been pitching bullpens in Cleveland and extended spring training out in Arizona, and on Saturday made his first or two scheduled rehab outings for Triple-A Columbus before the Indians consider activating him from the disabled list.

Talbot made his first of two appearances on Saturday for Columbus going  5.0 innings and allowing 2 runs on 6 hits, no walks, and had 2 strikeouts.  At the moment he is pitching in line with right-hander Alex White who started against the Mariners yesterday, and both are set to pitch again on Thursday.  If after that Thursday outing Talbot checks out he would be ready to come off the disabled list and slide into the rotation for White’s next start on Tuesday May 24th against the Red Sox.

Or will he?

As has been mentioned previously, the Indians called up White with the idea he would be up in Cleveland for much more than a handful of starts. He has already impressed with two good outings going into his start yesterday, and if he performs as expected leading up to Talbot’s activation then White should remain in the rotation.

Instead, Talbot may be an option to replace right-handed pitcher Carlos Carrasco if he is struggling, though Carrasco is also a long term option for the team and one they would prefer pitch at the big league level this year. Carrasco will get two more starts before Talbot’s expected activation, and if he gets things back on track then he would likely remain in the rotation.

So if Carrasco and White stay in the rotation and Talbot is healthy and ready to go in ten days, what do the Indians do with Talbot?

One of Fausto Carmona, Justin Masterson or Josh Tomlin could potentially get hurt (hopefully not), but assuming everyone is healthy the only option the Indians may have is to move Talbot to the bullpen. He is out of options and to send him to the minors he would have to clear waivers, something that probably would not happen. To keep him around as starting pitching depth he could temporarily replace right-hander Justin Germano in the long man role until a rotation spot opens up or a trade opportunity arises.

You can never have too much pitching, and right now the Indians have a lot of it. They have some tough decisions to make with the rotation in the near future, but it is a good problem to have.

40-man decisions looming

Infielder Jared Goedert started a 20-day rehab assignment with Double-A Akron this week. He is currently on the 60-day disabled list so does not count on the 40-man roster, but his time on the 60-day list expires at the end of the month.

Goedert, 25, is playing first base and outfield for Akron and in four games is hitting .250 with one homer and four RBI. He should soon move up to Triple-A Columbus to finish his rehab assignment and likely will remain there once he comes off the disabled list. At the conclusion of his 20-day rehab assignment the Indians will need to make a decision on who to remove from the 40-man roster to add him back, or they may just remove him from the 40-man roster by designating him for assignment.

In addition to Goedert, the Indians also have another 40-man decision looming with first baseman Nick Johnson. He is currently rehabbing a wrist injury in Arizona, but is expected to be ready to play in minor league games by the end of the month. He can request his release from the organization if he is not put on the 40-man roster by July 1st, so the Indians have a little less than seven weeks to make a decision on him.

Johnson, 32, was signed in the spring to a minor league deal with a club option for $2.75 million in 2012. Even if he is added to the 40-man roster by July 1st, the Indians have to add him to the 25-man roster at some point this season otherwise his 2012 club option is voided.

Extending Sizemore unlikely

Outfielder Grady Sizemore has made a triumphant return to the Indians lineup this year where in 18 games he is hitting .282 with six homers, 11 RBI and a .974 OPS. The return of his energy and power to the top of the lineup has helped ignite the Tribe’s offense, and his importance to the team and lineup has clearly shown itself when he has been absent from the lineup.

Sizemore is in the last year of the guaranteed portion of his contract and making $7.5 million this season. The Indians hold a club option on him for next season at $9 million which they will surely pick up, but his future with the Indians beyond the 2012 season looks very much in doubt.

At the conclusion of the 2012 season Sizemore will have just turned 30 years old, and if he is healthy and playing as he is currently and to his career norms, he will be one of the hottest commodities in baseball in the 2012 offseason. Some of the big spenders will be more than willing to give him a four to six year deal for anywhere from $15-18 million a season, if not more.

The Indians are just not able to compete with such offers. The dollar amount per year would not be the biggest obstacle; it is the length of the deal as any deal over two years in guaranteed length is really uncomfortable for the team. As the club has seen firsthand with the injuries to right-hander Jake Westbrook, designated hitter Travis Hafner, and Sizemore himself, there is a lot of risk when signing players to big money deals for a long time. Those kinds of deals can be an albatross to a small to mid-market team, and why the Indians have always shied away from deals that are guaranteed for longer than two to three years.

This is why if Sizemore continues to play as he has to date that he probably will not stay with the club past next season as he will easily get four or more years from someone else. So enjoy him now Tribe fans while you still can.

Parting shots

Outfielder Grady Sizemore has a sore right knee after an awkward slide into second base on Tuesday night. As a precautionary measure the Indians had an MRI performed on his knee and the reports came back favorable with no structural damage. The injury is not to the same knee he had microfracture surgery and he is considered day-to-day. … Infielder Jason Donald suffered an MCL sprain to his right knee on Tuesday while playing for Triple-A Columbus when a runner crashed into him while trying to breakup a potential double play. He is expected to be sidelined for three to five weeks. … The Indians traded Triple-A Columbus outfielder Bubba Bell to the New York Mets for cash. Bell was picked up from the Red Sox for cash just before the start of the season as additional outfield depth, but had been inactive because of all the available outfielders in Columbus. In eight games with Columbus he hit .292 with no homers, two RBI, and a .721 OPS.

Follow Tony and the Indians Prospect Insider on Twitter @TonyIPI. Also, his latest book the 2011 Cleveland Indians Top 100 Prospects & More is available for purchase for $20.95 to customers in the US (shipping and handling extra).

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