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Tribe Happenings: Indians have big outfield problems

Tribe Happenings: Indians have big outfield problems
April 29, 2012
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Some news, notes, and thoughts from my Indians notebook…

A dire outfield situation

When you look at the Indians starting lineup and see Shelley Duncan and Michael Brantley out there in left field and center field on a nightly basis, you know the Indians have problems in the outfield. On top of that, with Shin-Soo Choo banged up and Aaron Cunningham forced into action along with those other two, then you really have a problem.

But the Indians dire outfield situation goes well beyond that.

At the moment they have absolutely nothing in their farm system that can come up and be a legitimate everyday outfielder this season or, really, in the next two to three years. Sure, they have lots of role player options at their disposal in Triple-A or Double-A with Trevor Crowe, Ezequiel Carrera, Russ Canzler, Chad Huffman, Thomas Neal and even Tim Fedroff, but they lack anything that can help stabilize their outfield which is one of the worst in the league.

Choo is off to a so-so start this season and is coming off a poor 2011 campaign. With him not performing to the elite level he was at in 2009 and 2010, it really brings out the warts in his game as he is not a good defender, makes too many mental mistakes on the field, and is getting eaten up on the inner half of the plate as pitchers know he dislikes when they throw inside to him.

On top of this, Choo is eligible for free agency after next season, so even if he turns things around it is going to be hard to keep him beyond next season.  With the holes in the outfield and not much on the horizon in the farm system, it could make it imperative that he is signed to a long term contract extension. Even with his warts, he is still a solid, productive player and the hope is he will get things going again.

Brantley is a solid player and I have always viewed him as a solid third outfielder in a good three-man outfield, but I am starting to wonder if he is just a fourth outfielder on a contending team. His defense is unspectacular, his arm is poor, he runs nowhere close to what was expected when the Indians acquired him, and his bat has been inconsistent.

Duncan is proving to be the role player that most everyone knew he already was before this season. He will always be fighting for a job year to year. Johnny Damon will soon join the team, but he is but a band aid to the problem as he probably will not be with the team beyond this season. Grady Sizemore may come back in June, but even if he does his career is in serious decline and he is unsigned after this season and probably will not be back next season.

Simply put, the Indians have issues in the outfield not only now, but in the near future as well. At this point it is vital that Brantley kicks it into gear and solidifies his hold on left or center field, and that Matt LaPorta finds himself and fills left field.  LaPorta could still end up at first base, but considering his issues defensively at the position I think long term he fits better in left field.

All of the Indians’ outfield talent in their minor league system is in Single-A, which means they are a good three years or away from impacting the team and being counted on as regulars. That’s if they even make it.

What this means is the Indians are going to have to find an everyday outfielder in a trade or in free agency.

This is why the Indians inability to close the deal on free agents Carlos Beltran and Josh Willingham hurt this offseason. Not only would their bats be a perfect fit for this lineup right now, but they would also help solidify the position the next two to three years while they work on developing an outfielder in their system or take a high profile one in the draft this year or next year.

The Indians could have had Willingham, but they would not give him that third year. Their reasoning was sound in that he has an injury history and is a defensive liability in left field, but then again, have you looked at the Indians outfield of late? That entire outfield is a defensive liability, especially Damon and Duncan in left. This may have been the case where they just should have taken the risk.

The fans were really upset the Indians did not sign Willingham when he ultimately decided to sign with the Twins for three years $21 million, a contract that was very affordable for the Indians. I have to say, even with hindsight being 20/20, at this point the fans look to be right on that one. Not only would his right-handed bat and numbers (.333 AVG, 5 HR, 13 RBI, 1.114 OPS) look great in the Indians lineup, but it could help solidify the outfield for a few years.

In any case, the Indians biggest hole on this team right now is in the outfield. It is not just a hole, but two, maybe three holes.  The outfield is going to be a position they look to continue to upgrade this season before the July trade deadline not only for this season, but beyond.

LaPorta vs. Kotchman

It is still very early. The Indians have not even played 20 games yet and the calendar has not flipped to May.  But Casey Kotchman is hitting .143 with 2 HR, 4 RBI, and .483 OPS in 16 games for the Indians, and LaPorta is hitting .371 with 6 HR, 15 RBI, and 1.130 OPS in 18 games at Triple-A Columbus.

This leaves one simple two-part question: how long can the Indians stick with Kotchman and when does LaPorta come to Cleveland?

Kotchman, 29, was brought in by the Indians in the offseason on a one year $3 million deal to be a stop gap solution at first base while LaPorta or another solution presented itself at first base. Kotchman brings impressive defense to first base and his glove has had a hand in several key plays in Indians’ wins this season. At some point you have to figure Kotchman will turn it around and get his numbers more in line with his career .265 batting average and .728 OPS, which would be acceptable if he is playing such excellent defense at first base.

But how long can the Indians stick with Kotchman if he continues to struggle?

I don’t think the Indians have come anywhere close to looking at making a move, but they have always used the 40-game mark as the time when they re-evaluate the roster because by then the sample size with numbers from players is more true. If that is the case, then if Kotchman continues his poor play well into late May or early June - good defense and $3 million or not - his job could be in jeopardy.

Especially if LaPorta continues to rake at Columbus.

It is too early to consider bringing up LaPorta as he still needs more time in Columbus. A stretch of 18 games at Triple-A Columbus has not fixed the holes in his swing. He is still working on being better balance at the plate, hitting breaking balls in the strike zone, and just laying off low and away breaking balls. His performance at Triple-A is not surprising as he has dominated there in the past, so the only way to truly know if he has made fundamental changes to his approach and swing will only come when he gets that call to the big leagues again.

At this point, barring an injury in the outfield, LaPorta will probably remain in Columbus until at least late May or early June. But no matter what, he will get another chance with the Indians at some point this season. He is important to the team’s first base or outfield picture in the immediate future, and they could sure use his power and right-handed bat in the lineup.

Ubaldo is….Carmona

When the Indians traded four prospects, including their top two pitching prospects, for right-handed starter Ubaldo Jimenez last July, they thought they were getting an ace. A top of the rotation pitcher that could be a good number one or two starter to team up with right-handed starter Justin Masterson and make a formidable one-two punch at the top of their rotation.

Well, based on Jimenez’s performance with the Rockies prior to last year’s trade (6-9, 4.46 ERA, 21 starts), his performance with the Indians after the trade (4-4, 5.10 ERA, 11 starts), and his performance so far this season (2-1, 4.50 ERA, 4 starts), he has been anything but a front line starting pitcher.

In fact, the Indians may have simply traded for another version of right-hander starter Fausto Carmona. A guy who at times dazzled with great stuff and had unbelievable untapped talent, but often had erratic command and a lack of mental focus that led to high pitch counts and a roller coaster ride from outing to outing.  Carmona turned out to be Roberto Hernandez, but who is Jimenez?

At this point Jimenez has underwhelmed so far while with the Indians, and there are no signs that he is starting to put things together. He simply may be what he is at this point, a number three or number four starter in the rotation.  He actually would be good in that role, but the problem is considering the expectations put on him with what the Indians and fans were expecting out of him and also the cost to acquire him, that is not good enough.

Jimenez is under control through the 2014 season, though his $8 million option for that season is a player option. Even with the way he is pitching, he can probably make more as middle of the rotation starters still get $10 million or more a season in free agency. With that in mind, he may only have the rest of this season and all of next season for him to turn it around with the Indians and make the trade worthwhile.

Perez goes on the DL

On Friday the Cleveland Indians announced that they placed left-handed reliever Rafael Perez on the 15-day disabled list, retroactive to April 26th, with a strained left latissimus. He suffered the injury during his scoreless inning of work on Wednesday night against Kansas City.

Perez, 29, had some left shoulder soreness this spring which sidelined him for some time during spring training, so this appears to be a recurrence of that issue.  His fastball velocity was noticeably down on Wednesday night as he was sitting at 85 MPH, and he had trouble throwing the ball in the zone as just four of his 16 pitches were strikes.

In eight relief appearances this season Perez is 1-0 with a 3.52 ERA, and in 7.2 innings has allowed five hits, four walks, and has four strikeouts.  This is the first time he has been placed on the disabled list in his seven year Major League career.  He is eligible to come off the disabled list on May 11th.

To fill his spot in the bullpen and on the 25-man roster the Indians recalled left-handed reliever Nick Hagadone from Triple-A Columbus.  He was called back after being optioned back to Columbus on Monday when shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera was activated from the bereavement list.

In four appearances with the Indians Hagadone is 0-0 with a 2.08 ERA (4.1 IP, 2 H, 1 BB, 5 K, .125 AVG), and with Triple-A Columbus this season he has thrown 7.1 shutout innings and held opposing batters to a .167 batting average.

Is Hagadone up for good?

The Indians made what I felt was a surprising decision when they optioned out Hagadone on Monday when Cabrera was activated off the bereavement list. He is ready for the big leagues and has the arm and stuff to dominate and really pull the bullpen together and make it a dominating unit.

The Indians simply optioned him out since they were not yet ready to pull the plug on other decisions they made for the bullpen to start the season - namely right-handers Jairo Asencio and Dan Wheeler.  Also, as much as left-hander Tony Sipp has struggled, he is starting to come around and he has almost three years of experience in the Indians' bullpen, so the Indians are going to give him a much longer leash before making a move on him (he has one option remaining).

When Hagadone was optioned out it was felt he would be right back up when a need presented itself, which is exactly what happened when Perez went on the disabled list on Friday.  With Perez out for at least a month, Hagadone now gets a chance to shine. If Perez comes back and Hagadone is pitching well and has settled in as expected into the back of the Indians’ bullpen, then at that time one of Asencio or Wheeler could be designated for assignment or Sipp optioned to the minors.

Parting shots

Damon is still working out and playing games in extended spring training out in Arizona. The Indians have not made their plan with him public, but he is expected to join Double-A Akron or Triple-A Columbus sometime this week. … Left-handed pitcher David Huff has been activated off the 15-day disabled list (hamstring) and been optioned to Triple-A Columbus. In his first start for Columbus on Wednesday he went 4.0 innings and allowed five runs (four earned) on seven hits, one walk, and had two strikeouts. … Going into Saturday’s home game, the Indians are dead last in attendance in Major League Baseball averaging 14,734 fans a game. That is almost 6,000 less than the next lowest team in all of baseball (Mariners - 20,654).

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

April 30, 2012 - 9:12 AM EDT
I do think that you are right on Ubaldo he may be hurt however he also may be too stubborn for his own good. Tom Hamilton said it best the other day Ubaldo throws virtually everything. That makes it difficult to get into his coconut and on top of that he is very intellegent and i think a tad bit of a know it all. tough to coach. I noticed yesterday the derek lowe might be the best thing that ever happened to rob hernandez if he comes back while lowe is still an indian he doesnt throw every pitch known to man so studying lowe and picking his brain may be the untapped potential of 2007 will manifest itself if somehow lowe can get hernandez to focus on what he throws well and essentuate the positive without getting his mechanics messed. As for the outfield hopefully early june it may fix itself. I know dont hold my breath on grady being grady but stranger things have happened.
April 30, 2012 - 1:19 AM EDT
Nice stuff Tony. I think they might move a little slower with only Damon coming along in another week. Who is dfa may depend on Acta's assessment of the liability of Donald as a replacement/platoon in CF/LF. It is real early to go for big changes but if LaPorta and Chisenhall can keep it together for the next month or two, both might be helpful as replacements to improve power and offense. Big IF, but let's hope.
April 30, 2012 - 12:00 AM EDT
Seth, I agree on Ubaldo. I myself believe he is hiding an injury to his arm, and may have been hiding it all last season. I still can't believe no one has done an MRI on his arm. But, ultimately, if the player does not want one done and he says he is healthy, the team can't force him to have one. I am scared to think what they eventually find when he does have an MRI at some point though. I think they acquired damaged goods.

As for LaPorta....I still think the plan is to give him until June in Columbus. Unless an one of Kotchman, Choo, Damon, Duncan go on the DL, I don't see him coming up yet. But I agree, I think at some point here, they are going to have to see what he can do. His power and RH bat could be useful in this lineup, and as I mentioned with the dire OF setup, he is vital with getting straightened out so he could at worst be the LF next season.
April 29, 2012 - 9:17 PM EDT
I don't know, it could be mechanics, but, usually when a pitcher drops that much velocity, it's usually physical. Everyone makes the Carmona comparison, but Carmona never lost significant velocity. Ubaldo seems more like he's nibbling because when he throws it over the plate, it's hit hard. I'm more concerned about the 5.4% swinging strike rate than anything--he's not fooling anyone. He's definitely an enigma, but injury would make the most sense ... perhaps because us Indians fans have seen things like Hafner for 1.3 years saying "nothing's wrong", then it changes to his shoulder was hurting so much he could barely lift a fork. And Rafael Perez, it was just a holdover from spring training causing him to throw everything at 85 mph. Of course it's all speculation ... I'm just waiting for some similar complaint from Ubaldo.

In any of his starts I've seen, the only time I saw something like the old Ubaldo was the last couple innings of his first start against KC. He was hitting 96-97mph, and got Butler in particular with some wicked fastballs. Only time I've really seen him consistently bring that kind of speed, with good location and movement.
April 29, 2012 - 7:11 PM EDT
Interesting enough Seth, LaPorta's crap offense is A LOT better than Kotchman's, which says more about how cruddy Kotchman is than anything else. In all honesty, if you put up Cunningham, Duncan, Lopez or LaPorta, I probably choose LaPorta every time, and not because I like him, or think he's going to figure it out. Bottom line is, he's no worse offensively, if not better...and crap defensively...but other than Kotchman, not likely a noticeable drop. I totally agree, at this point, about LaPorta's offense, which is what I'm talking about in my new column tomorrow. He is what he is, and it's time to let him succeed...or likely fail.

Healthwise, I don't think there's anything wrong with Ubaldo. Perhaps it's mental, or mechanics...but that's the thing...with so many moving parts, how could you tell? He's just a mess, and there doesn't appear to be any fixing to be know...because you can't mess with his delivery...yada...yada...yada...
April 29, 2012 - 1:01 PM EDT
I'm not crazy about Laporta, I think it's time to call him up, and probably drop Lopez. They could use Laporta in the outfield and to spell Kotchman. Even his poor offense the last couple years is probably as good as we can expect from Kotchman, and obviously so far Kotchman's been much, much worse. Laporta can't do much worse than Cunningham/Kotchman/ Duncan, and the positions Laporta plays are thinner than the positions Lopez plays.

You can say Laporta needs to be in the minors longer, but, does playing against AAA pitchers really benefit him at all? Is getting a longer look at AAA pitching going to make any difference? I don't see it. It would seem he must be able to lay off breaking balls: if they're thrown by AAA pitchers.

Don't you think there's something physically wrong with Ubaldo? Pitchers don't usually lose 3-4 mph on their fastball in their prime. That's the whole reason this trade was so suspect at the time. I don't see it as untapped talent. There's something wrong with him, either mechanical or physical. He's getting by like Rafael Perez was getting by. He's not trusting his fastball because it's 91 mph, straight and very hittable. He's also throwing his changeup a lot more, at the expense of his slider ... again, makes me wonder if his arm is bothering him, since he's not giving the fastball everything and he's avoiding the pitch that puts the most stress on his arm.

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