Sunday, August 23, 2009

Found: Tall right-hander, Answers to the name 'Fausto'

Fausto Carmona - missing in action for nearly two years now - has been found.

And he was right where the Tribe left him - on the mound at Progressive Field (though it was Jacobs Field when he was last seen prior to Sunday).

For the past two seasons - we have learned - an impostor has been wearing Fausto's No. 55 and taking the hill for the Tribe.

It is rumored that Tribe manager Eric Wedge, being tied up with his self-challenge to come up with 162 different lineups in one season, didn't realize the impostor had slipped into Fausto's uni beginning in spring training 2008.

It is unclear where the real Fausto has been over the past 23 months.

One thing is clear - the "real" Fausto - or at least what the Tribe hopes is the real Fausto - made the start Sunday at Progressive Field.

This Fausto had a ball that moved, but just far enough out of the zone to entice Seattle hitters to put the ball into play, or in the case of eight Mariners - miss it altogether. He had poise and "stayed within himself," as the players like to say.

It made all the difference in the world.

In all Carmona went seven innings, allowing five hits, one walk and one run. He threw 116 pitches - 76 of them for strikes.

It was - no doubt - Fausto's best outing of the season.

Tony Sipp and Chris Perez finished things off quite easily over the final two innings, lending more credence to the rumor that some semblance of a bullpen has also been found - also after a two-year absence.

The guys who are likely to make up the core of next year's team - Travis Hafner, Jhonny Peralta, Grady Sizemore, Luis Valbuena and Matt LaPorta continued the team's hot hitting, making for a pleasant "family fun" day at the ballpark.

All of which is well and good, but the best piece of news to come down the pike in a while is that the real Fausto apparently has been found.

That, more than any other individual development in recent weeks, is key to the Tribe returning to respectability next season.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Why we still watch

Wow. Wasn't that fun?

Just finished watching the Tribe take it to the Angels tonight.

If you're anything like me you ask yourself nightly, Why am I still watching these guys?

The games mean nothing for this season.

And, as we've learned the hard way time and again in the Wedgie years, what's happening now probably won't mean a heck of a lot for next year either.

But, we keep watching because nights like tonight keep the flicker of hope alive within us.

It's easy to picture Justin Masterson slicing up one of the game's best offenses next year, with a huge assist in a tight spot from Tony Sipp.

Sounds like a formula for a lot of wins in 2010, doesn't it?

And then there was that sixth inning, with everyone contributing - top to bottom.

The vets on the club contributed - with Travis Hafner doubling with two guys on, driving in one of the runs and later scoring on a sacrifice fly. He added an RBI single a couple of innings later.

You can just see Hafner, his shoulder in much better shape, knocking in runs in bunches next year.

Jhonny Peralta had three hits, with Sizemore, Cabrera and Choo each contributing two. Even Andy Marte had two hits, though one was a checked swing roller.

Matt LaPorta 2.0, making his first appearance since being recalled, had a key hit in the heart of the seven-run sixth, knocking in two and adding another ribbie later. And can't you just see LaPorta at the heart of many a rally next year?

It's hardly an every-night occurrence, this team hitting on all cylinders. But it has been happening more lately.

On the surface, Tribe fans - me especially - are curmudgeons and pessimists. But the truth is, with me - and I'm betting with you - way down deep inside we still believe that some day, some way, we will make it to the promised land and it's nights like this that contribute to what some might consider a delusion.

Why else would we be watching and then writing or reading about it when it's over?

(Full disclosure: I did spend an awful lot of time in the hot sun today.)

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

How's Wedgie doin'?

It was the 4th of July weekend when Tribe GM Mark Shapiro went public with his promise that Eric Wedge and his coaches would be around at least until the end of the season, when all would be evaluated.

Since that time the Tribe has played 35 games and put up an 18-17 record. Better than they had been to that point, but hardly an exciting number.

But at the time Shapiro said the post-season evaluation would have less to do with wins and losses than with player development.

Specifically, Shapiro was looking for Wedge to polish off a few prospects to the point where they could be counted on to be a positive presence next season.

So, to borrow of a phrase from former NYC mayor Ed Koch, "How's Wedgie doin'."

Maybe the easiest way to do this is to take each of the youngsters one-by-one and see what type of progress they've made, or in the case of some how much regression there has been this season.

The dismal first half was a collective effort, with all facets of the team underperforming - except possibly for the ground crew and field operations folks who found a quick solution to the seagull problem that cropped up in the late spring.

But it was the pitching - especially the bullpen - that was most responsible for the disaster that the 2009 season quickly became.

So let's start up on the hill.

There are so many failures here a case can be made for many a player, but for argument sake let's just say Fausto Carmona was the biggest disappointment and the biggest drag on the team's success.

As you know, Fausto was sent to Arizona to have his hard-drive cleared and to start the season all over with a clean slate.

Carmona's made four starts since returning from his reprogramming. At first glance, it looks as if some progress has been made in remaking Carmona.

Going into his start Tuesday, Carmona had made 3 starts since his recall, pitching 17 innings and allowing just 5 earned runs - for an ERA of 2.65. But in those 3 starts, Fausto gave up 15 hits and 10 walks in 17 innings. That's a WHIP of 1.47. He'd averaged only 5 2/3 innings in those 3 starts, mostly because he was at or near 100 pitches by that time. He threw three 299 pitches in those three starts, with 172, or 55%, of them being strikes. Not good at all.

Granted tonight's start versus the Angels was against an offense that has averaged about 8 runs per game over the last 6 weeks or so, but it was perhaps Fausto's worst outing since his return. While he gave up just 3 earned runs in 5 innings, the outing was a lot uglier than those numbers indicate. Carmona gave up 10 hits and two walks over those 5 innings, which took him 110 pitches (66 of them, or 54%, strikes) to complete.

So far, Carmona has not shown he's anywhere close to the pitcher who won 19 games just two seasons ago. Better than he was in May, but with still a long way to go.

Aaron Laffey is another story.

Since returning from a mid-season injury, Laffey has made 7 starts and has put up an ERA of 2.93 in 47 innings. In three of those 7 starts Laffey was unscored upon. His 1.38 WHIP has been a little high, but for a groundball pitcher base runners can be easily erased two at a time.

Laffey is looking as polished as any one of the youngsters on the club and should be someone to be counted on next year.

Jeremy Sowers? A string of 3 starts in late July and early August in which Sowers actually survived into the 7th twice and had 3 so-called quality starts seemed to indicate he might be coming around. But in his last outing Sowers folded after 5 again, much as he has done throughout most of the season.

Has Sowers progressed this year under Wedge? I vote no.

Over 17 starts this year, David Huff has put up 6.55 ERA, a 1.65 WHIP and a .319 BA against. Having seen many of his starts on the dish, it seems like those numbers are a bit worse than Huff's actual performance. He has shown flashes at times. But has he developed as he should have this season? Nada.

You could argue that the utter failure of Raffie Perez and Jensen Lewis to perform up to expectations was an even bigger factor in the first half than Carmona's disappearance. I wouldn't give you much of an argument.

Perez has been up and down a few times and Lewis was sent back to Columbus for retooling. Has either been straightened out?

Four of Perez's 5 outings since his latest recall have been scoreless, which is encouraging. But I would hardly say he's been lights out, having allowed 9 base runners in the 5 innings he's pitched over those 5 outings. Still, there's hope Perez can show he's back on track over the next 6 weeks.

Jensen Lewis, like Perez, has had 5 outings since his recall, 4 of which have been scoreless over 7 innings. He too looks to be heading back in the right direction, but lets not forget he put up 13 saves during garbage time with the heat off last August and September as well.

Tony Sipp was most recently recalled in late June. He was horrid in June/July, giving up 7 runs in 7 2/3 innings over 12 outings and allowing 14 base runners in that time frame. August has been another story, as Sipp has allowed only 1 run and 4 base runners in 7 1/3 innings over 8 outings. Another guy who seems to be showing improvement of late.

Chris Perez has been as-advertised since coming over from St. Louis (excepting 2 bad outings in his first 3 appearances with the Tribe).

Jess Todd, the other pitcher obtained from the Cardinals for Mark DeRosa, is still getting his feet wet, but he hasn't looked good doing it - allowing 4 runs in 5 innings over 5 outings. Not much to go on with him yet though.

As far as position players go, there are fewer to be looked at, at least to this point.

Andy Marte continues to be hopelessly lost at the plate and at times (like tonight when he made a costly error and failed to cut off a throw to the plate that cost the Tribe an out) in the field.

Is Marte just lacking the intangibles that separate AAAA players from big-leaguers?

Is he unable to get anything going because Wedge stubbornly refuses to play him every day and he can't get his timing down?

Is he pressing because he knows Wedge won't play him regularly unless he starts to rip it up at the plate?

Who knows. But one thing is clear. When it comes time to look at players Wedge and his staff were charged with developing, this is their biggest failure.

Chris Gimenez? What is Wedge's infatuation here? And is Wedge retarding the development of others by giving Gimenez so much playing time?

Much like with Gimenez, Wedge apparently sees a lot he likes in Luis Valbuena.

In this case I agree with him.

Something about Valbuena's body language on the field, and the attitude he brings makes you feel as though he expects to succeed. And, despite a less-than-stellar .233 BA, he has a nice stroke and rips the ball into the gaps, allowing him to put up an .840 OPS in July and .768 so far this month.

The middle infield appears to be an area of little concern for next season.

We haven't seen enough of Wyatt Toregas to make an assessment yet, and just when it seemed like Trevor Crowe was getting a feel for things he came out of the lineup with an injury.

In September, there are likely to be some new youngsters for Wedge & Co. to work with. Hector Rondon seems like a sure call-up, as does Carlos Carrasco, who is 4-0 with a 3.45 ERA in 4 starts since coming to Columbus in the Cliff Lee deal. Just as important, he's walked only 5 and has struck out 27 in 28 innings at Columbus.

Looking forward to seeing what this duo will do at the big-league level, even if it will be just a September call-up for them.

Which brings us to the other likely call-up next month - Matt LaPorta. I say "likely" because there were three other times this season that I thought he would get recalled, and he remains - mysteriously - in Columbus.

Why LaPorta is not here now - especially since the Tribe has been forced to start Jamey Carroll in the outfield the past few games - is beyond me.

The only thing that makes any sense is that Shapiro was so unhappy with Wedge's indifference to playing LaPorta when he was up briefly earlier this year that he doesn't want to give Wedge another chance to sew seeds of doubt in the youngster's head.

And if that's the case, none of the rest of what I've written will matter. Wedge will be a goner.

And not a moment too soon.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Cleveland Indians - forever riding in coach

So how 'bout that Tomo Ohka?

OK. That's not really what I want to talk about.

It's been a few days since the Dolan family told us all that the hard reality of MLB in the 2000's is that Cleveland, and other towns like it, has to accept second-class status. At least as long as the sport's current economic system is in place, and it isn't likely to change any time soon.

So far, from what I can tell by reading reaction on a variety of online sites, Paul Dolan's comments are not being well received by most.

The comment by Dolan that pretty much said it all to Tribe fans, and brought home to many the distasteful position we are in as fans of a small market team, is the following:

"Every four or five years, if we can have a shot at the World Series like we did in '07 and compete for the playoffs like we did in '05, that's as good as it gets."
So those are the goal posts - one run for a playoff spot, one shot in the playoffs and three seasons of underachievement every five years.

It's a statement that is frank, and a reality that hits Tribe fans right between the eyes.

Dolan is right.

The truth is that under baseball's current system there really is no long-term run to be made by small-market teams.

Instead, they have to get rid of anybody that's worth anything to the big boys (or some other also-ran who happens to be having a hot year), load up with youngsters that will all mature at roughly the same time, and make a one- to three-year run sometime four or five years from now.

As hard as that is to accept. It is reality. And to make matters worse, the small market teams have to hit paydirt on virtually every one of their trades made in the dismantling period, or they will find themselves several players short for a serious run down the road and forced to rip things up yet again.

(See KC Royals, Pittsburgh Pirates, Oakland A's - despite their reputation a few years back as a team that learned to beat the system - and now the Tribe).

The disparities between baseball's haves and have-nots are blatantly obvious at the big league level, but they go all the way down the minor league chain and right to the feeding of the system - the draft.

While most of the headlines from Dolan's presentation were about the projected financial losses for this season and next, and Dolan's assertion that playoff runs will - by design - have to be periodic, one of his points received less attention than I thought it deserved.

It's a point I try to argue with my Yankee-fan friends, neighbors and colleagues when they think they've trumped my argument that the team buys its success. They rattle off the names Posada, Jeter, Pettitte and Rivera and point out that this long-time core of the team was home grown.

But what few people know, or at least recognize, is something that Dolan pointed out this week. The system is skewed toward the big boys when it comes to acquiring young talent too.

While there is no pay cap at the MLB level, there is also no restriction on the amount of money a team can spend on draftee signing bonuses and foreign talent.

Dolan says that plays to the advantage of big-market teams.

"The larger market teams have managed to take their money and, in fact, manipulate the amateur draft situation so that not only are they bringing in the elite talent at the Major League level, but they're bringing in at a disproportionate basis the elite talent at the entry level of Major League Baseball."
While the have-nots typically go first in the draft by virtue of their awful win-loss records at the MLB level, it is not uncommon for teams to take not the best player, but the best player they think they can afford when it's their turn at the draft table.

Or, they can take a chance on the bigger talent and then watch the youngster say "no thanks" and go back to college and hope for a higher payday from a richer team a year later.

Did you know that the Tribe once drafted Tim Lincecum? It was back in 2005, but they couldn't get him to sign and he ended up with the Giants a year later.

It's happened close to home and it happens around the league every year. There's no way to prove that a team has passed on a better talent in favor of an affordable talent on draft day, but that could explain the dismal early-round performance of the Tribe in the past decade.

And then there's the role money plays in bringing in talent from Japan, Korea and Latin America.

Dolan suggested a world-wide draft with a slotting system as a way of helping to balance the disparity of teams at the MLB level by making things a bit more fair at the player-entry level.

The suggestion makes a lot of sense.

In the next round of collective bargaining the players are no more likely to accept a salary cap then they have been for the past 20 or 30 years. But the rank and file of the players union might be willing to throw the young, unknown and as yet undrafted players under the bus as long as they get to keep their unrestrained salaries at the MLB level.

That may be especially true if it starts to look like some of the small-market teams just can't make it work anymore - meaning fewer jobs at the MLB level.

But until something changes in the way MLB does business, as the Dolans have reminded us, we will have to be content to take a once-every-five-or-six-year run at things.

It's been the Florida Marlin way for years, and they've been reasonably successful at it.

The Tribe's first stab at it has been a bust and we now find ourselves in rebuild number two.

The life-insurance actuarial tables say I've only got four or five more rebuilds to go, And given the fact that I don't exercise or eat the way I should, it could be even fewer than that.

So let's hope the Tribe gets it right sooner rather than later.

(To check Top 50 TV markets based on figures provided by Nielsen Media click here and scroll down a bit. The numbers are from 2004 so there may - undoubtedly has been - some reordering of the markets.)


On the field, the Tribe has been looking a lot better lately. They're 11-6 in their last 17 games and over .500 (12-9) since the All-Star break.

We've gotten two decent looks at Justin Masterson - one of the major acquisitions by the Tribe in their recent fire sale - and he's looked quite solid both times out. It'll be fun to see what he does when he is stretched out enough to really take hold in the rotation.

Jhonny Peralta and Kelly Shoppach have started their "keep-me-on-the-team-next-year" hitting binges. Too little too late, but at least it makes the games a bit more fun to watch lately.

Trevor Crowe appears to be a different person in his third go-round with the Tribe.

Chris Perez has, for several appearances now, looked like what he was advertised to be when he was brought over from St. Louis as partial payment for Mark DeRosa. Jess Todd was a little later getting here, but it will be interesting to see what he adds to the pen as well.

Overall - save last night once Masterson left - the team has looked crisper and a lot less disinterested than they did a few weeks back.

All of this, one would think, would be a positive for Tribe fans.

But many fans seem to be worried that a second-half surge (or at least a surge-ette) will bolster the argument for Eric Wedge's return next year - something I feel comfortable in saying the vast majority of fans do not want.

In his chat with the media during the week, Paul Dolan addressed that as well.

It's difficult to say where he stands on the prospect of Wedge returning on 2010.

On the one hand:

"Eric and his staff have achieved a lot in their time here. I think fans tend to forget that. When he took over in '03, he took over what was, in essence, an expansion franchise. In a relatively short period of time, he turned it into a competitive team. He and others deserve a lot of credit for that."
But on the other hand:

"Despite that, we have not been successful the last few years with a team that should have been successful. We have to understand why that is. We also have to understand that sometimes fans want or need to hear a different voice."
My gut tells me that with a fan base as disgusted as Tribe fans are with the recent trades and the team's overall lot in life in MLB, that last point Dolan makes will weigh heavily in the Dolans' decision on Wedge. (It's theoretically Mark Shapiro's call but the Dolans will obviously have a big say in the matter.)

After telling the customers they'll have to eat lots of hamburger before they get even a whiff of steak, it just seems to me that Wedge will be the sacrificial lamb in the offseason. Something to satiate those thirsting for blood.

And that ain't necessarily a bad thing.

One last thought before I go.

Haven't we seen enough of Chris Giminez? The guy is not bad as a catcher, is a stiff at 1B and doesn't appear to be much of a hitter.

Can we PLEASE get Matt LaPorta up here, put him at 1B, and see what he can do? Why is the Tribe so reluctant to bring him topside?

At the very least let's get Andy Marte in there every day. I still think he's a bust, but let's give him an every-day job so he can - once and for all - show what, if anything, he has to contribute.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Is it Rocky Colavito all over again?

The past week or so has been depressing and difficult for Tribe fans. This fan included.

That is especially true coming, as it does, on the heels of last year's forced dumping of CC, and his eventual donning of pinstripes.

Cleveland fans are justifiably angry by the team's performance, and even more so by it's dismantling.

Fans, for whatever reason, become emotionally attached to the guys wearing their city's colors - much more so than the other way around.

But with Victor Martinez, that was clearly not the case. His emo
tional goodbye and just the pride on his face each day as he wore the Tribe colors seem to prove that the fondness the fans had for Victor was felt equally strongly by our now-departed hero.

With the trading of Victor and Cliff Lee, and to a much lesser degree of Ryan Garko, Raffie Betancourt, Ben Francisco and Mark DeRosa, the hue and cry from the fans has been loud and long.

Again, justifiably and understandably so.

I was 3 1/2 years old when Rocky Colavito was traded to the Tigers on the eve of the 1960 season, so I'm not going to pretend to know the level of fan outrage at the time. But as we have all read (and some experienced), it was considerable.

(The PD's online archives go back only to 1991 at this point but the above link is a clip from a paper called the Eugene Register-Guard. I can only assume the paper is from Eugene, Ore. If you double-click on the link to open it, then left-click and hold on the clip itself, you can move the page around and find that even in Eugene, the trade was big news and that one of the articles was about the fan reaction to the deal in Cleveland).

It wasn't until at least the following season, and maybe the one after that, that I was old enough to have any tangible memories of the Tribe or any real understanding of what was going on on the field. But I do remember the bitterness of the fans that pervaded the city for most of my formative years.

In my own family it was tangible.
My grandpa would wear his wishbone-C Tribe cap, but would almost always have a funny, yet sarcastic, comment about the team and those who ran it. My uncle and older cousin would go to several games a year and bring me along with them - but we expected the worst and were rarely disappointed.

Anger at the Indians for the Colavito trade lasted a long time in Cleveland and shaped the attitude of an entire generation of Tribe fans.

We were serious fans, with hope every April, but with the deep-down knowledge that no matter how many game-winning hits Gomer Hodge had in the first two weeks of a season, the bottom half of the standings is where we were heading before the year was out.

Just as with the trades of Lee and Victor, Tribe fans have threatened many times to boycott the team - or at the very least just follow them on the radio, or TV.
But in the early 1960's, these anger-induced declarations turned out to be more than idle threats. And they may or may not play out again in the 2010's.

In 1959, the year Colavito won the HR crown wearing a Tribe uniform, the
Indians drew 1.5 million fans to Municpal Stadium, compared to an American League average of 1.1 million.

In 1960, the year the Colavito deal was made just before opening day, 951,000 fans came to the stadium, compared with a league average of 1.2

By 1961, Tribe attendance was down to 9,000 a game, or 726,000 for the season. The league averaged 1 million fans that year.
Attendance cratered in 1963 at 563,000, or just under 7,000 a game.

(Attendance numbers are rounded for easier reading.)

So, in the year of the trade, attendance at Tribe games dropped 36.5% from 1959. The following year it dropped 52% from Colavito's last year on the team (the first time around). And at it's low ebb - in the fourth Colavito-less season of 1963 - attendance was off 62% from 1959.

During roughly the same period as the Colavito trade, the Indians traded off other eventual stars in the big leagues - among them Stormin' Norm Cash (also to the Tigers for Steve Demeter) and Jim Perry (for Jack Kralick) and Mudcat Grant (for George Banks and Lee Stange) to the Twins in separate deals.

During the years mentioned above, the team's record dropped with the attendance. The team ended 1959 with an 89-65 record, but finished a few games short of .500 every year after that until 1965.

Fans, of course, blamed the trade(s) for the big drop-off and stayed away in droves.

There were rumors of the team being moved because attendance was so low and the fan base so turned off.

The team, run then by Gabe Paul, was so desperate to turn things around with the fans (and resurrect the attendance and revenue levels) that they reacquired Colavito by trading two youngsters - Tommy John and Tommie Agee.

While Colavito (league-leading 108 RBI) and the team (87-75) had a solid season in 1965, it was a hefty price to pay to say the least. John won 288 games and played another 20 seasons (minus the years recouping from the surgery named after him) and Agee was rookie of the year in 1966 and a chief cog on the Mets' 1969 World Series championship team.

Still attendance did increase dramatically that season (43% from the prior season) as the fans came back to see The Rock. The team - for the first time since 1959 - outdrew the league average.

So, while the threats of angry fans who say they aren't coming back, - that "they're done with these bums" or will never again put money in an owners pocket - have often been idle threats, history shows that it has happened here in the past - at least for a long-enough period to be quite damaging.

The question is whether the anger pouring from Indians fans now is deep enough to allow history to repeat itself.

It is certainly understandable that it would be, and I hold at least some fear that this current generation of Tribe fans, like their grandparents, may have been pushed too far too often.