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Tribe Happenings: Indians are battling the injury bug

May 22, 2011
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How many more injuries can the Indians
withstand? (Photo: AP)
Some news, notes, and thoughts from my Indians notebook…

Injuries starting to pile up

Just when it appeared the Indians were starting to get healthy again with the return of right-handed pitcher Carlos Carrasco last week and right-handed pitcher Mitch Talbot about ready to be activated in the next day or so, the Indians catch the injury bug once again.

First to go down was outfielder Grady Sizemore with a right knee contusion last week. He was placed on the 15-day disabled list on Monday retroactive to May 11th, and the Indians called up outfielder Travis Buck from Triple-A Columbus to replace him on the roster.

Then both designated hitter Travis Hafner and Buck went down on Wednesday. Hafner hurt his right oblique and Buck suffered a toe injury. Hafner was put on the 15-day disabled list on Friday, and the Indians called up outfielder Ezequiel Carrera to replace him on the roster. Buck has not been put on the disabled list as his injury is not considered serious and is just day to day.

Finally, on Friday night right-handed pitcher Alex White injured the middle finger of this pitching hand. The severity of the injury is still kind of unknown at this time, but the Indians placed him on the 15-day disabled list on Saturday for right middle finger soreness. With Talbot ready to come back, the Indians can afford to take a precautionary approach with White and shut him down a few weeks to ensure the finger does not get any worse.

The injuries have really hurt the offense as the loss of Sizemore and Hafner is huge to a lineup lacking much punch offensively. The Indians have loads of depth in the pitching department both with starting pitching and relief pitching where they can withstand a good amount of injuries, but offensively they do not have nearly as much firepower and depth to recover from the loss of two of the more important players in the lineup.

With Sizemore and Hafner out, the Indians have been forced to use the likes of Shelley Duncan and Austin Kearns a lot more, and it is plain as day that both of them are big steps down and really weaken the lineup.

Thankfully the Indians pitching staff continues to plug away and remain consistent as they are really going to need to rely on them for the next few weeks while they get healthy in the lineup and await reinforcements from Columbus. Infielder Cord Phelps is ready for a callup and has impact potential, and could be exactly what the offense needs to inject some life into it while Sizemore and Hafner get healthy.

This is all part of what is the 162-game marathon that is the Major League Baseball season. Teams get bumps and bruises throughout the year. It is the significance of those injuries and how clubs stay afloat while they manage them that can have a great affect on a season. The Indians’ depth is being tested right now, and how they overcome the injuries of late will go a long way at determining their fate in the standings the rest of the way.

Lefty vs. Righty

When Sizemore comes back from the disabled list the Indians will need to make a decision as to who to keep around as the fourth outfielder. Both Carrera and Buck are left-handed hitters and Austin Kearns is a right-handed hitter, and with the entire starting outfield of Sizemore, Michael Brantley and Shin-Soo Choo all hitting left-handed conventional wisdom says you need the fourth outfielder to hit from the right side.

Not exactly.

With Sizemore, Brantley and Choo, the Indians have three outfielders who are going to play an extreme majority of the time, and thus there is less need to matchup one of the outfield positions with a right-handed bat in some sort of platoon. Also with the rest of the bench all being right-handed with outfielder/first baseman Shelley Duncan, infielder Adam Everett, and even catcher Lou Marson, there are right-handed bats to use there as well.

Plus there is no need for a right-handed pinching hitting option in the outfield as manager Manny Acta will never pinch hit for Sizemore, Brantley or Choo. Clearly the fourth outfielder just needs to be the best fit for the team and be a player that when you do decide to sit one of Sizemore, Brantley or Choo is not going to be such a big drop off in production.

Right now Kearns is not the right fit. As a scout recently told me very matter-of-factly, “he’s done.” He may hit from the right side which is a natural fit for an all left-handed hitting outfield, but if everything else he does is in such rapid decline why bother?

At the moment, Buck presents the best option as a fourth outfielder. Even as a lefty he is a much better option offensively than Kearns when facing left-handed pitching. Also defensively he is better and more versatile, though Kearns still has some value as a defender.

Carrera is also an excellent option as the fourth outfielder, a role he likely fills on a yearly basis for the Indians in the near future. He may be left-handed, but he would be very valuable late in games as a pinch runner with his very good speed and is an excellent defensive outfielder.

If there is a concern for a right-handed option, it should be to upgrade Duncan. There are options in Columbus with outfielder/first baseman Chad Huffman or outfielder/infielder Jerad Head, and down the road the Indians may even go the trade route to fill the need there. But as far as the fourth outfielder goes when Sizemore is activated, it is time to say good-bye to Kearns and say hello for good to one of Buck or Carrera.

Buck gets another shot

With Sizemore going on the disabled list, it presents another opportunity for Buck. After a sizzling hot spring training which helped him force his way onto the team, he only played with the team for a few weeks before he had to be optioned out to Columbus because Sizemore was activated from the disabled list in the middle of April.

Buck took the assignment to Columbus in stride and played very well hitting .333 with three homers, 21 RBI and a 1.016 OPS in 18 games. When Sizemore went back on the disabled list this past week, the Indians turned once again to Buck to fill a need in the outfield.

Buck has the potential to be an everyday player in the big leagues. He is a former top-rated prospect in the Oakland Athletics organization where after several injury plagued seasons with the Athletics is getting a new opportunity with the Indians. He is still only 27 years old and has the ability at the plate and in the outfield to be a key contributor going forward for the Indians. In a few years he may prove to be one of the best pickups the Indians have made on the free agent front in awhile.

The Indians signed Buck to a minor league contract in the offseason with an invite to spring training. Now that he is on the Major League roster the Indians control his rights through the 2014 season since he will just be entering his first arbitration eligible season next year. With his potential to go along with Sizemore’s pending free agency after next season and the lack of much Major League starting caliber outfield depth in the system, Buck may have found a home in Cleveland for a long time.

Buck has been given another chance. Not it is up to him to make good on it.

Roster shenanigans

There were some puzzled looks on the faces of Indians fans on Thursday when the Indians designated right-handed pitcher Justin Germano for assignment and called up infielder Luis Valbuena. Not because Germano was let go, but because the Indians called up Valbuena and not someone like Phelps.

The reasoning behind the move was simple really. With Hafner and Buck out of the lineup with their injuries but still on the active roster, and with second baseman Orlando Cabrera in South Carolina for his U.S. citizenship ceremony, the Indians were extremely short on the bench. They needed a short term option for the infield and outfield until they could hash out the roster when they got home on Friday, so they recalled Valbuena to fill that need.

The fact they called up Valbuena and did not bring up Phelps was a clear indication it was a short term move, and in the end it was as Valbuena was sent right back out to Columbus the next day. As previously mentioned, Phelps is ready, but the Indians are not going to shuttle a potential core player like him up and down the I-71 corridor. When he comes up the intention will be to keep him here, and with the offense in need of a bat with Hafner out do not be surprised if he is here very soon.

Breath of fresh air

What a huge breath of fresh air the Indians offensive explosion on Monday night was out in Kansas City. The Indians erupted for 19 runs and 20 hits in a much needed night off for the not only the nerves of the players but also the fans as well.

Up until that game the Indians went through a stretch 13 straight games where they faced some extraordinary pitching which led to some intense late inning moments almost every night. That is the fun of playing meaningful baseball games though and why baseball can be such a grueling sport to not only play but also watch from the stands. NFL games are played once a week, and NBA and NHL games are usually played every other or every third day. Baseball is always every day, and when you go through a two-plus week stretch of intense games like the Indians did going into Monday it can wear out everyone involved.

So when you get a game like the Indians had on Monday when you breeze to a win, you sit back and enjoy it. They do not come around often.

Parting shots

This past week manager Manny Acta was named as one of the coaches to the American League team for the All-Star Game on July 12th in Phoenix, Arizona. Congrats to him, and a sure sign of respect for him from AL All-Star manager Ron Washington. … Talbot had a strong rehab outing for Triple-A Columbus on Thursday in a game suspended in the fifth because of rain. He went 4.0 innings and allowed one run on four hits, one walk, and had five strikeouts. He is expected to be activated in the next few days. … Second baseman Orlando Cabrera was in South Carolina on Thursday for a ceremony where he officially became a citizen of the United States. … Left-handed pitcher Nick Hagadone was promoted from Double-A Akron to Columbus on Friday. He is a big, hard-throwing lefty with tons of ability and could be an option for the bullpen in Cleveland later in the year.

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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