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Tribe Happenings: Fixing the bench could be first priority

Tribe Happenings: Fixing the bench could be first priority
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Some news, notes, and thoughts from my Indians notebook…

Bench disappointment

The Indians are 23-17 and in first place. But even with the good start, the Indians are still a very flawed team.

Everyone points to the flaws of the starting rotation, namely the inconsistency of right-hander Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jimenez, or the flaws of the left-handed dominant lineup that can be pitched to late in games. But one of the biggest flaws at the moment is a bench that has been downright awful this season and gives manager Manny Acta very little to turn to for any specific matchups or to fill in and hold their own when they rest a starter.

The four man bench consists of outfielder/first baseman Shelley Duncan (.202 AVG, 3 HR, 10 RBI, .655 OPS), catcher Lou Marson (.077 AVG, 0 HR, 1 RBI, .380 OPS), infielder Jose Lopez (.233 AVG, 2 HR, 6 RBI, .701 OPS), and outfielder Aaron Cunningham (.213 AVG, 0 HR, 2 RBI, .570 OPS). Infielder Jason Donald (.178 AVG, 0 HR, 4 RBI, .365 OPS) was also a large part of the bench, but the Indians sent him down earlier in the week because of his performance and brought Lopez back to the team.

Duncan has interesting power potential, but he is just way too inconsistent of a hitter and has amassed an incredible 31 strikeouts in 89 at bats so far this season.  He is showing why he has never been a regular in the big leagues and why he is considered a fringe Major League player.

Aside from the one swing Lopez had against the Mariners on Thursday where he connected for a big three-run homer, he has not done much of anything offensively. He actually may be a useful player off the bench if used more and given an opportunity, but the Indians need more than just him as a solid bat coming off the bench.

Cunningham should thank his lucky stars that the Indians are without other fourth outfield options at the moment and that he hits right-handed because he is not a Major League player. He offers very little to the team as his defense is not above average, he is an average at best runner, and he offers very little thump from the right side of the plate. You wonder what a better hitting right-handed fourth outfielder would do for this lineup as it is something they really need.

Marson is an absolute train wreck. Sure, he has had limited playing time, but his at bats are poor and when he does make contact it is very weak. As a backup catcher you look for a guy that plays great defense and is a leader for the pitching staff, but that guy also needs to at least put up quality Major League at bats, which is something he is not doing. He has an option remaining, but the Indians lack another option to bring up at catcher, so barring injury he is going to stick in Cleveland all year.

Thankfully, finding bench solutions in the trade market is not usually a tough thing to find and a lot of good options become available before the July trade deadline, if not earlier. I would expect the Indians to explore picking up a right-handed bat for the bench as it is a significant need for this team because they lack options to counter left-handed pitching late in games or anyone to bring off the bench that you have confidence in when sitting a regular.

At the moment Lopez and Marson are probably locked into a bench role, but Duncan and Cunningham are very replaceable. There are plenty of options to replace Duncan, but finding a worthwhile fourth outfielder to replace Cunningham will probably need to come from outside of the organization.

The Indians have some internal options that they may explore using prior to making a trade. Outfielder/first baseman Matt LaPorta is killing the ball at Triple-A Columbus (.328 AVG, 13 HR, 28 RBI, 1.079 OPS) and even if he hits like he did in 2011 (.247 AVG, 11 HR, 53 RBI, .711 OPS) it would be a huge upgrade over what is currently on the bench. He would also give the Indians a suitable right-handed bat to bring off the bench late in games, or to start against left-handed pitching for first baseman Casey Kotchman or left fielder Johnny Damon. He could easily play five days a week between left field, first base and even designated hitter.

If LaPorta does not work out, then perhaps they take a look at the hot hitting Jared Goedert who was recently moved up to Columbus after destroying Double-A pitching while playing with Akron (.395 AVG, 5 HR, 17 RBI, 1.089 OPS). First baseman/outfielder Russ Canzler is another option, though he has underwhelmed so far at Columbus (.265 AVG, 3 HR, 12 RBI, .698 OPS).

Either way, before the Indians look to address some of the black holes in their starting lineup, they need to patch the holes on their bench. With the resources available inside the organization or to acquire outside the organization, it is easier to do that than it is to find starting quality players to fill some holes in the starting lineup.

Where are the pinch-hitters?

The lack of a usable bench or players in reverse roles has limited the opportunities for Acta to bring in a pinch hitter off the bench. You would think with such a left-handed laden lineup that the Indians would have some suitable right-handed bats to counteract the endless parade of left-handed relievers they see on a nightly basis, but apparently not.

Going into Saturday night’s game the Indians have used a pinch hitter just five times this season (0-for-5). That is dead last in all of baseball, and the 29th ranked team, the Los Angeles Angels, have used a pinch-hitter 12 times. Granted, in the American League teams do not pinch hit a lot, but Boston leads the way in the AL with 29 pinch hit at bats and the American League average is 18 at bats and the Major League average is 38 at bats.

Part of the problem is the one guy that Acta would probably pinch hit for, first baseman Casey Kotchman, is hard to take out because of his defense. It just goes to show that 1.) Kotchman’s role on the team is backwards as he should be a late inning defensive replacement or sit against left-handed starters and 2.) the Indians lack much punch on their bench. This is an area that definitely needs addressing, and soon.

During a pennant race a team needs to have effective replacements coming off the bench to not only keep the starter’s fresh but to also give a manager options to use in key spots late in the game. Right now the lack of suitable pinch-hitting options off the bench is like having a bullpen with no left-handed reliever to counterattack a string of lefties late in a game.

Moves coming?

The 40-man mark was reached last night. Why is this so important? In the past it has been an arbitrary date that the Indians front office has set to reach to give them a large enough sample size to begin to make notable moves to the team.

Now that the 40-game mark has been reached the Indians may now consider alternatives at first base and left field, two positions that have been black holes offensively for them. At the moment first baseman Casey Kotchman is only hitting .208 with three homers, 13 RBI and .619 OPS, and the left field combination of Johnny Damon and Shelley Duncan have combined to hit .189 with three homers, 12 RBI and a .551 OPS.

Also, consider for a moment that last season the Indians had Matt LaPorta at first base and at the 40 game mark he was hitting .265 with four homers, 21 RBI and an .818 OPS, and Grady Sizemore was the third outfielder in the lineup and he was hitting .282 with six homers, 11 RBI and .974 OPS.

Coincidentally, the Indians have an off day on Monday before they get set to open a three game series at home with the Tigers. In the past the Indians have often made notable changes to their roster after an off day, so the timing of that off day is interesting in conjunction with the 40-game pole being passed this weekend.

It is a little too early for a trade of any substance to occur, so any major moves would have to be made internally. Such a move could be the promotion of LaPorta to Cleveland just in time for the start of an important series with the Tigers. He is tearing the cover off the ball and he has continued his good play for a good month and a half, so he may be ready for another shot to see what he can do.

If LaPorta is called up it is hard to know who may exit the Cleveland roster. Damon and Duncan have underwhelmed, and Kotchman has struggled at first base though is an asset defensively. Perhaps the Indians have seen enough of Damon and pull the plug on him, or they decide to go in a different direction and replace Duncan with LaPorta.

Either way, whether a move is made or not, the sample size is now large enough to start considering making significant changes to the roster in areas of weakness.

Forbes and the Indians

Every year MLB clubs cringe when Forbes magazine releases its team valuations and revenue numbers.  For the Indians, it is especially difficult because the picture painted by Forbes inaccurately makes it look like they are the most profitable team in baseball.

First off, Major League Baseball is a private company so the financial information of each team is not available to the public and no special consideration is given to Forbes.  Every team in baseball just throws up their hands when this report comes out every year as no one knows where Forbes gets their data and how they determine what that data says.  Forbes is simply making an educated guess on what little information they have, and they even say so in their article every year.

I’m no accounting expert (far from it), but I have a hard time believing the information provided in that report. The report does not take into consideration anything to deal with cash flow, debt service payments that are mandated by MLB, Major League signing bonuses and performance bonuses, minor league bonuses, and facility upkeep.  They simply piece it together with the limited public information made available from revenue sharing information and other places, and in the end it is all mostly based on projection.

As an example of how much their projection can be off, take into consideration their 2012 valuation of the Los Angeles Dodgers that they released in mid-March and said they were worth $1.4 billion, yet just a week after they posted that report they sold for $2 billion. They were off by $600 million, which is a pretty sizable difference. Now, I understand the bidding process can result in teams selling for more than they are worth, but it is interesting to note none the less.

The Forbes research is a tool and a good study to see the breakdown of the financial aspects of the game, but to flat out take it as gospel is a bit too much. The truth of what the Indians actually earn in profit probably lies somewhere in between what Forbes and the Indians themselves say.

Infirmary report

The Indians have some guys dinged up with injuries or players nearing a return. Here is a quick update on how each player is doing.

Outfielder Grady Sizemore is still on the 60-day disabled list recovering from lower back surgery and is not eligible to be added back to the active roster until June 3rd. This past week he was cleared from his leg strengthening program and is now doing some light hitting, throwing and running. On Wednesday he took live batting practice at Progressive Field and is getting closer and closer to being cleared to begin a minor league rehab assignment, though that may still be two to three weeks away.

Right-hander Josh Tomlin is currently on the 15-day disabled list with inflammation in his right wrist. A recent MRI concluded that he has what is being termed as “intersection syndrome” which is inflammation in the wrist where two tendons meet. He played catch at 75 feet on Friday and is expected to throw a bullpen early this week. If all goes well he could be activated soon after he is eligible to come off the disabled list on May 23rd.

Left-hander Rafael Perez is on the 15-day disabled list with a strained left lat. He threw his first bullpen on Wednesday and felt fine afterward so he is scheduled to throw a simulated game. If he continues to progress well he could be in line to be activated off the disabled list, though considering he has not pitched in some time he may be sent on a short minor league rehab assignment before rejoining the team.

Third baseman Jack Hannahan is not on the disabled list, but he has missed the last five games because of some back soreness. He had an MRI and it came back clean, and did some light work and hitting on Friday. He is expected to be back in the lineup any day.

Parting shots

Last Sunday the Indians designated right-handed reliever Dan Wheeler for assignment. He cleared waivers and was outrighted to Triple-A Columbus and joined the team on Friday. In 12 appearances for the Indians he was 0-0 with an 8.76 ERA. … To fill the spot left vacant on the roster with the departure of Wheeler, the Indians added right-handed reliever Jeremy Accardo from Columbus. In 13 appearances for Columbus he was 0-2 with a 2.76 ERA and in two appearances for the Indians so far he has thrown 1.2 perfect innings and has two strikeouts. … The Indians designated Double-A Akron outfielder Nick Weglarz for assignment on Monday, but he cleared waivers and has been outrighted to Akron.

Follow Tony and the Indians Baseball Insider on Twitter @TonyIBI. Also, his new book the 2014 Cleveland Indians Baseball Insider which profiles the Indians' Top 100 Prospects and more is available for sale.

User Comments

League Park
May 21, 2012 - 11:08 PM EDT
I'd rather have Howard "Mr. C" Cunningham in the outfield than Aaron Cunningham.
May 21, 2012 - 9:16 PM EDT
I think Canzler is way off the radar. LaPorta is ahead of him and I believe Goedert has even jumped ahead of him in line. As for Crowe, he has the ability to factor in for sure, though as a low impact bench guy. But I think he has more upside and fits the roster better than Cunningham. But have to get Crowe healthy first.
May 21, 2012 - 4:26 PM EDT
What about Canzler (getting hot) / Crowe (when healthy)?
May 21, 2012 - 9:27 AM EDT
Rich, if Damon is still hitting poorly and not being very productive by the end of June or beginning of July, I see no reason they keep him. Right now, he is still here because they have no other alternative. Same with Kotchman. If other better options become available, they would replace either of those two in a heartbeat. I think for both though will be given more time....but in the meantime it is important to elevate the options off the bench because right now the only bench guy worth a damn is Lopez. I really think that it is time to call up LaPorta and see what he can do. You still play Damon and Kotchman a lot, but you mix in LaPorta a lot and see what happens.
May 21, 2012 - 6:07 AM EDT
Hey Tony, Lopez' numbers now are a bit better than when you wrote the article. I think he has earned more ABs in this lineup but should probably be limited to 1B/3B defensively. Pretty limited range at SS/2B except in emergency.

It's not often we think Matt LaPorta will improve the defense but LF in Cleveland may be one of those times. I believe he will be better production than what we are currently getting at LF/1B but would prefer Lopez defensively at 1B. Not going to hold my breath, but he may outplay the fragile Sizemore as well. Not sure they will trade for a backup who can play CF if they feel Sizemore can play there without embarrassing the team. Hope he can play well enough to at least backup 1B, LF and DH next year when the current occupants are gone.
May 20, 2012 - 4:19 PM EDT
Hafner is in a zone. The Twilight Zone.
May 20, 2012 - 10:27 AM EDT
We all know that what the PD says is absolute law. Besides, you don't think the Indians would release Damon for a better option? While I think Damon's contract is a lot more complicated than Antonetti or the Plain Dealer suggest. They brought him up to the big league club on May 1st, without any time to have his "spring training." You don't think there was more to it than that in the contract, or do you really think that May 1st was an arbitrary number, and that the Indians wanted a 38-year old guy to start without facing pitching above extended spring. I'm sure they signed him for the "season," nudge, nudge...wink, wink...

I do think there's more to Damon than meets they eye though, going forward. I also think there's more to Kotchman, as he's actually provided a decent bat in May. No, not power numbers, but as long as they are getting power from Kipper and Cabrera, you can deal with it.

No way they bring up Sizemore without an extended stay in the minors, and my hinting suspicion is that they'll use the entire 20 days they are allowed to to make sure Sizemore is right. I think we'll see Sizemore either right before the break, or right after...then it will be interesting to see where he plays...
Iron Mike
May 20, 2012 - 9:48 AM EDT
Tony, great article. Fixing the depth would be a positive step.
May 20, 2012 - 8:25 AM EDT
As reported in the PD today, Antonetti said they signed Damon for the season and the only way he's leaving is if he chooses to leave.

LaPorta is hitting .260 in May and not doing much on the road, but he'd still be an improvement over Damon in left field. However, Damon has reached base in 10 of his last 21 at-bats, so maybe he's starting to settle in like Kotchman apparently has done after a horrible start. Also, LaPorta and Duncan are the same player, so what would be the point of adding LaPorta?

A healthy Grady Sizemore in left field would really change the dynamic. My concern is that even if Grady is healthy he has not gone through spring training, so he'd be in the same boat as Damon. He should hit leadoff for Akron and Columbus the first month before they bring him up.

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