Don’t call it a comeback

Nobody expected the Cleveland Indians to do much in 2011. Before the beginning of the season, I think most Indians fans were cautiously optimistic about the offense, assuming the offense stayed healthy, Travis Hafner produced more, Grady Sizemore came back at 100% from his microfracture, and a hitting fairy paid a visit to Matt LaPorta (or really, any right-handed batter in the Indians organization). I think Indians fans were cautiously optimistic about the bullpen, assuming everyone stayed healthy, Chris Perez continued his strong showing as Indians closer, and a couple of veterans like Joe Smith were able to guide the young Indians ‘pen. But I think Indians fans were decidedly lukewarm about the Indians starting pitching, even if everyone stayed healthy, Fausto Carmona kept his mind, and Justin Masterson grew some hair.

In short, there were a lot of things that could have gone wrong. As Indians fans, we’re accustomed to everything that can go wrong going wrong, so no one predicted the Indians riding a 9-game winning streak and a 14-game home winning streak to a 30-15 start. No one predicted them hanging on to first place for much of the summer, and then staying competitive until early September. The Indians fell short of the postseason this year, but there’s no doubt there was tremendous improvement. My year-end grades for the Indians, plus playoff predictions, after the break.

Haters gonna hate

Despite Carlos Santana's struggles, the Indians have surprised many this season. Next season, star Triple-A prospect Jimi Hendrix should be ready for the Majors. You can't stop this team.

It’s kind of a dirty little secret, but I haven’t written much on this blog this summer. Normally by this point, I’m not struggling for material because the baseball season is in full swing and I can write about the Indians. But this summer, while the Indians are giving me plenty of writing material, until now, I’ve avoided writing about them… because I don’t want to jinx it. Rest assured that I had posts planned, and I was ready to roll, except the Indians had to get off to a good start, and when you’re winning in baseball, even if you’re a fan, you don’t change anything. Anything. Seriously, I wore the same hat to work for about thirty days in a row.

But lately, the Indians have been slumping a bit so I’ve convinced myself that whatever I write here won’t affect the Indians (as I type this, they’re up 4-3 in the bottom of the eighth. If I cut this post off suddenly, you know why). And with the slump, some fans who jumped on the bandwagon just weeks ago when the Indians were rolling are ready to write the team off, even though it’s June 22nd and the team is in first place. After the break, I’ll go over what’s gone right, what’s gone wrong, and what needs to happen for the Indians improbable run to continue.

We’re building for a better tomorrow…today!

It’s often said that you can tell how good a baseball team will be by the quarter mark of the season, or after 40 games have been played. The Cleveland Indians are now 43 games into the season, and I already declared the season over on May 18th, when they were 15-21; as of the time of this writing (Tuesday night), they’re 16-27 (although, on a happier note, they’re winning tonight). (Note: as of Thursday night, they’re 17-28.)

It’s not like the Indians were off to a promising start and the recent six game losing streak killed their hope. But the fact is, the Indians being 15-21 was, all things considered, pretty good, and maybe better than we expected. But after losing their rising star shortstop and established center fielder, the Indians lack experience both on the field and in management.

Sounds like a great time for a quarter season report card, right? Read on, after the jump.

Don’t say “it ain’t so”, you know the time is now

It’s just not their year.

The Indians lost a game to the Rays tonight in 11 innings, but worse and more importantly, they lost their starting shortstop to a broken right left forearm. My guess is, best case, Cabrera comes back around the All-Star Break.

What ended up ending Cabera’s night, week, month and half of the season was kind of a freak play. The Indians had the shift on for Hank Blalock, who hit a ground ball up the middle. As Cabrera, diving from the first base side of second base, and Peralta, diving from the third base side, the two collided. Peralta was shaken up but stayed in the game, while Cabrera had to be carted off the field.

A lot of fans are blaming Peralta for running into Cabrera. The problem is that fans also blame Peralta when he doesn’t dive for the ball. Ever since Aaron Boone left the Indians, Peralta has become the designated scapegoat for the Indians (unless you’re talking to those weirdos who think it was Casey Blake). But let’s look at the facts: over the last three years (since Boone left), Peralta’s numbers are .264/57/258. Granted, those aren’t exactly Pujolsian numbers, but Peralta hasn’t been the real problem, especially when you compare his numbers to Sizemore’s over that same time period: .262/75/245. Peralta hasn’t spent any time on the DL, and he went through a position change last season. Give the guy a break.

Despite that injury the Indians were able to take the lead thanks to some clutch hitting by Jhonny Peralta (see? SEE?), Luis Valbuena and Trevor Crowe. This is all ironic because the three scapegoats in this game are also the three Indians who managed to produce runs. Crowe’s moment came in the 8th, when a 2-out sinking line drive was hit his way in center field. Crowe came in, dove, caught the ball…and then dropped it. The tying run scored, opening the door for extra innings. Can’t really do much about that. While I don’t doubt Sizemore makes that play, there aren’t many starting center fielders besides Sizemore who DO make that play and Crowe made a solid effort, particularly indoors.

After Cabrera left, Luis Valbuena played shortstop the rest of the game. While he’s a defensive wizard at second base, he leaves a lot to be desired at shortstop and his continued play there is only hurting his already fragile confidence. The play of the game came in the eleventh, with the Rays batting in their last at-bat with one out. John Jaso hit a slow chopper to in the hole towards short. Valbuena took an awkward route to the ball, looking initially like he wasn’t hustling but really he just didn’t get a very good jump on it. After gloving it, he double clutched before unloading a seed to first. Jaso was called safe. While he was actually out by a hair, the play was closer than it should have been, closer than it would have been had Cabrera or even Peralta been playing short.

Two batters later, the Rays squeezed home the run when Jamey Wright was able to glove the bunt but chucked it over the head of Marson on a do-or-die play. Game over.

Look, I want the Indians to win just as bad as anyone. And losing hurts. But this isn’t the Indians of 1995. It’s not even the Indians of 2005 or 2007. These guys are learning every game (with the exception of Valbuena at short, I guess) and there’s no question that they’re trying. And there have been some bright spots on this season so far, including the return of Jake Westbrook and Fausto Carmona.

But for the Indians to win this year, everything had to go right. Injuries couldn’t hurt the Indians much (no pun intended), the starting pitching had to be good, the defense had to be lockdown and the offense had to be as good as or better than last year. So far, only the starting pitching has been good. The defense, while making among the fewest errors in the league, have given up more unearned runs than most other teams in the league. And the offense…well, let’s just say that when Russell Branyan teed off for the first time against Kansas City the other night, it was the Indians’ first home run by a first baseman, catcher or left fielder. Between them.

The 2010 Indians are young and inexperienced and it shows almost nightly. And really, what other options do the Indians have? Sure, there’s Lonnie Chisenhall knocking the cover off at AAA Columbus, but as we’ve seen particularly in the last couple years, AAA success does not translate into major league success. Sure, there’s high-priced or medium-priced veterans, but the Indians are on pace to draw less fans this year than any season in the Jacobs/Progressive Field era. Baseball is a business; something has to pay the bills.

I love baseball enough that despite the karma not falling the Indians’ way this season (I blame the Cavs for that Z trade – karma like that can cross the street), I’ll keep watching. But it’s not their year.

Maybe next year.

Leaving behind that empty feeling inside

Man, it’s good to have baseball back.

We’re three games into the season and I’m already addicted again. I originally planned on going to bed around ten tonight, but ten turned into “after the seventh”. In the seventh inning, the White Sox took the lead on a two-run homer by Carlos Quentin, and I was disgusted that the Indians bullpen gave up a lead (a sign, I was sure, of things to come). This added to my disgust at the home plate umpiring throughout the rest of the game (one particular call cost the Indians a White Sox run), and I prepared to go to bed.

As I got in bed, I grabbed my iPod and started surfing around the web, catching up on the important news and not-so-important news of the day. And like an addict, I checked ESPN, and I was sure that the Indians were still losing.

The game was tied at 3-3.

I retrieved my laptop from my backpack and resumed watching the game and watched ’til the end, when Asdrubal Cabrera drove in Luis Valbuena on a go-ahead single, Grady Sizemore added an RBI double, and Chris Perez recorded his second consecutive save in routine fashion. And now, here I am, blogging about it, knowing that I’ll pay for it in the morning.

I just watched my team take two of three from the Chicago White Sox. It wasn’t the World Series; it wasn’t the Yankees; it wasn’t even a division rival that’s considered a front-runner. It was the first series of the year, an insignificant three-game stretch in a 162 game season. And yet, I’m excited.

It wasn’t that the Indians won two games; it was how they won those two games. They scrapped. They clawed. They played flawless and sometimes spectacular defense. And they recovered fully from the goose egg on Opening Day.

Asdrubal Cabrera is making me wonder why he hasn’t always batted leadoff. Grady Sizemore’s displacement to the number two spot is already paying off (5 RBI in three games). Michael Brantley doesn’t look intimidated, Matt LaPorta looks worlds ahead of where he was last year, Lou Marson is holding his own behind the plate. Jhonny Peralta looks more comfortable at third and has made some nice plays, and had the clutch game-tying hit tonight. Travis Hafner has a couple hits and has put some good swings on the ball. And I’m not worried about Shin Soo Choo’s slow start.

Justin Masterson’s outing tonight was, at times, dominant, and could have been better if not for the aforementioned umpiring. Fausto Carmona’s performance last night was just downright gutty. Even the bullpen looks decent, with Chris Perez anchoring the back end.

This might be the only series the Indians win all year. But I’m reminded that the last time the Indians were above .500, it was 2008 and C.C. Sabathia was still an Indian. So rather than focusing on how this start in no way proves anything, I’m going to focus on the fact that this start is certainly better than last year, and is certainly better than a lot of people expected. This team is going to surprise people.

This weekend the Indians go into Detroit, where the competition will be far stronger, and will give us a better idea of where the Indians are.

You never know. Maybe. Welcome back, baseball.

Six years gone

Eric Wedge

2009 wasn’t supposed to go like this for the Cleveland Indians. After getting off to a terrible start in 2008, the Indians rallied to finish the year 81-81, with the help of some promising young talent from Buffalo. The 2009 Indians brought back Cy Young winner Cliff Lee, added free agents Mark DeRosa, Kerry Wood and Joe Smith, and were poised to compete in the weak AL Central division.

It didn’t work out that way. Whether it was injuries, ineffectiveness, or just plain bad luck, the 2009 Indians had their worst season in almost 20 years. When you assess a season like this, where do you begin? My review of the 2009 Indians is after the jump.

Back to normal in Arizona


Now that Japan has beat South Korea in the final game of the World Baseball Classic, the rest of Major League Baseball can go back to preparing for the upcoming season. It seems like we’ve been in Spring Training forever, and we still have almost two weeks left (well, thirteen days). Nonetheless, it’s been a while since talking about our favorite baseball team, so here we go.

  • The pitching rotation, while inconsistent, seems to be taking shape. Cliff Lee, after a couple rocky outings, pitched a solid five innings the other day, and he seems like he’s getting into form in time for his first Opening Day start ever (which, incidentally, will be the Indians’ first Opening Day since 2001 that C.C. Sabathia didn’t start). Fausto Carmona had an injury scare, but it seems like he’ll be alright and he has had a good spring so far. Anthony Reyes, who figures to be the #3 starter, pitched well on Saturday and has had a strong spring.

    The other two slots are less certain, but my guess is that you’ll see Carl Pavano and Aaron Laffey rounding out the Indians rotation at the outset of the season, with Scott Lewis as the Indians’ #6 starter at AAA Columbus. Jeremy Sowers hasn’t been bad, but he hasn’t been good enough to merit a try in the rotation yet either.

    The good news for the Indians is that really, only one of those two starters needs to be good for the whole year: the Indians will get some reinforcements hopefully by the All-Star Break when Jake Westbrook comes back from Tommy John surgery (he threw off of a mound the other day, which is major progress, although he’s still at least two months away from being ready).

  • The Indians are convinced that Travis Hafner is on his way back, but it’s hard not to be worried as he posts a .143 average with no home runs. The Indians say he is driving the ball well in batting practice, and hope that will translate to the field soon. Realistically, I don’t know how much we can expect from Hafner this season, but I’d be happy thrilled with about 80-90 RBIs, 20 HR and a reasonable on-base percentage (think Kelly Shoppach numbers).
  • Mark DeRosa and Shin Soo Choo made it back from the World Baseball Classic without any injuries. This is the best news the Indians could hope for, as both of them were in it for a very long time. Rafael Perez was in the WBC as well, but he was part of the Dominican Republic team that was eliminated very early on.
  • The Indians’ bullpen hasn’t been all great. Kerry Wood has been excellent when he’s pitched (3 IP, 2 SO, 0.00 ERA), as has Rafael Perez (5 IP, 4 SO, 1.80 ERA) and Jensen Lewis (6 IP, 6 SO, 0.00 ERA). Beyond that, the numbers don’t look as good for Rafael Betancourt (5 IP, 7.20 ERA) and Masahide Kobayashi (5 IP, 14.4 ERA). I think Betancourt will be okay: he’s a pitcher that relies on spotting his fastball incredibly well, and he’s still tuning that. Kobayashi I’m a little bit more worried about, as he’s had a miserable spring the year after pitching a career high in innings. I think it’ll be up to guys like Tony Sipp, Greg Aquino, and Joe Smith to shoulder more of the load.
  • Josh Barfield’s not having the best spring at the plate, but he’s proven that he can be a good replacement to Sizemore in the outfield and can play other positions around the infield as well. If he can ever figure out how to hit consistently, Barfield will be an excellent and valuable player.
  • Indians’ outfielders Grady Sizemore, Matt LaPorta, Ben Francisco and Michael Brantley are having excellent springs at the plate. I’d be very surprised if we don’t see LaPorta sometime in July, with Dellucci being designated for assignment at some point.
  • Jhonny Peralta is killing it at the plate, with Asdrubal Cabrera having a solid spring as well. It’ll be interesting to see what happens should Josh Barfield earn more playing time.
  • Victor Martinez looks fully healthy and is swinging the bat well, with a couple of homers already this spring.

All I can say is, I’m ready for Opening Day. Hopefully opening the season in Texas this year will let the Indians get off to a hotter start offensively without any injuries (take it slow, Victor, take it slow) and the bullpen and rotation will come around. As far as the inaugural Goodyear Spring Training is going, you can’t hope for much more (except for maybe Travis Hafner starting to hit. Please).

The swagger is back

There haven’t been many times this year where I’ve said, “this feels like the 2007 Indians.”

The 2007 Cleveland Indians were a team that never gave up. Especially near the end of the season, the game was never over until the last strike was recorded or the last out was made. I remember a couple games specifically where, with two outs in the ninth, Asdrubal Cabrera doubled (once off Joe Nathan, coincidentally, and once off of Joakim Soria) and the next batter, Travis Hafner, homered to tie the game and singled to tie the game, respectively.

And that was just scratching the surface. There was the legendary David Dellucci single up the middle off Todd Jones on June 1, 2007, giving the Indians a dramatic win against the Tigers. There was Jhonny Peralta, defiantly slamming a home run to right field off of the “toughest” reliever in the game, Joel Zumaya, in a crucial September game against the Tigers (actually, one year ago today: September 17, 2007). Who could forget Ben Francisco’s walk-off in his first major league start? What about Kelly Shoppach’s sprint-off? Or Casey Blake’s two walk-offs in the span of a week?

The 2007 Indians found a way to win. Games that looked over were always just one clutch hit away from being back in contention. This year, although the Indians won on Opening Day in similar fashion, the 2008 Indians seemed to find ways to lose.

Until July and August, this seemed to be the trend. In August, the Indians won ten in a row and built up some major confidence. And tonight, two of the Indians’ MVPs gave the Indians their swagger back:


I’d be lying if I said I was extremely confident about next season, but what’s happening now parallels what happened at the end of 2006: the Indians, rid of their aging veterans, made a late charge and posted a respectable second-half record.

And oh by the way, if the rest of the night wasn’t enough like 2007…

If that doesn’t start your Wednesday off with a smile, I’m not sure what will.

The dog days of August

I remember around the All-Star break, I posted a midseason review. At that point, the Indians had thrown in the towel on 2008 and traded CC Sabathia to Milwaukee, where he has yet to lose and has already hit two home runs. This came on the heels (actually, the trade was in the midst of) a ten-game losing streak that effectively ended the Indians’ hopes at making a postseason run.

And yet, as I write today, the Indians have won their tenth game in a row.

Stranger things have happened, right?

A few encouraging things I’ve seen in the midst of this streak (apart from the fact that the Indians are now a fun team to watch again):

  • Kelly Shoppach is giving the Indians a very real reason to think about making him more than a backup catcher. He homered again last night (a monster shot, too), and is hitting .263 with 17 home runs this season. After his miserable start, .263 is a drastic improvement. Realistically, Shoppach may never be the caliber hitter Martinez is, but I think you could pencil him in to hit about .280, maybe hit 25 home runs and drive in 80-90 runs in a year where he plays every day. Those kind of numbers are good enough to start on most teams, and depending on how Martinez comes back from this injury, may merit searching for a solution that gets Martinez and Shoppach in the lineup every day.
  • Who doesn’t like watching Jhonny Peralta hit? Ever since getting thrown into that cleanup spot (sort of by default, because no one else besides Grady had any experience whatsoever), he’s been an RBI machine. He’s got 73 RBI this year – an outside shot at getting 100 with 30 games left. But it’s how he’s getting those RBI lately that is more impressive. Yesterday, he swung at a first pitch from Justin Verlander in the first and simply served it into left field. He broke his bat, and he didn’t hit it especially hard, but he got the RBI with two out. It’s really been a remarkable turnaround for Peralta: before he started batting cleanup in June, I think he had something like 11 home runs and 20 RBI. Today, he has 21 homers and 73 RBI.
  • Franklin Gutierrez is finally starting to hit. And he’s hitting in the clutch too, driving in go-ahead and winning runs in three of the Indians wins over the streak. I don’t want the Indians to give up on this guy. We all see what he can do defensively, and if he can ever figure out the offense he’ll be a premier outfielder.
  • Shin-Soo Choo is showing no ill-effects after his surgery. He’s making strong throws from the outfield and yesterday he hit an absolute bomb to the second deck in right. He’s another guy I’d hate to see them give up on – what about platooning him with Francisco and Gutierrez next year? All three guys can play both corners. Francisco is showing he can hit everyone, and the other two are, shall we say, “improving” at hitting same-handed pitchers. Why not keep a loose platoon for part of the year and then if two of those players start to stand out move to a strict starting lineup?
  • Asdrubal Cabrera looks like the Asdrubal Cabrera who gave the Indians a spark in 2007. He still plays phenomenal defense, and now he’s starting to hit too. He’s more patient at the plate, he lays down a good bunt if needed, and last night he stole a base. I think it goes without saying that the Indians shouldn’t give up on this guy; he might be the shortstop of the future.
  • Ben Francisco is putting up Rookie of the Year-like numbers. After last night, Francisco is hitting .284 with 14 HR and 50 RBI in “limited” playing time (he now has the fourth most AB of any Indian on the roster, behind Sizemore, Peralta, and Garko). If he can continue his pace, he might edge out Longoria (of Tampa Bay) for Rookie of the Year simply because Longoria has been hurt.
  • Ever since getting benched, Garko is back to his 2006 form. Part of what was so frustrating with Garko most of this year is that he has shown he can be a great hitter with two strikes, he has shown that he can get RBIs even without hitting the ball well…he just wasn’t doing that. It seems like now he’s choking up on the bat with two strikes like he used to, and he’s playing smarter: just trying to make solid contact and get base hits without worrying about hammering the ball all over the ballpark.
  • I like what I’m seeing out of Anthony Reyes and Zach Jackson. Both have pitched pretty well, particularly Reyes, who is now 2-1 with the Indians. I’m anxious to see what both can become the rest of the year – are these guys we want in the rotation next year?
  • “And now into close for the Indians…Jensen Lewis?” He’s 7 for 7 in save situations this year, and finally overtook Joe Borowski as the Indians saves leader. I don’t think he’s our closer of the future, but he’s doing a better job than I thought he would.

Look, the playoffs are probably still out of the question for the Indians at this point (win 10 more, then we’ll talk). But .500 is definitely reachable. There’s still a chance for Grady to hit 40 home runs this season and drive in 100. Cliff Lee never loses. So even though this team probably won’t be playing in October, keep watching – things are getting interesting.

The halfway point

So here I am, sitting down to watch the Home Run Derby on the night before the 2008 All-Star game. Just 4 months ago, on March 14, I thought I had a few things figured out. By the All-Star Break, the Indians would be in first place, the Tigers in a close second, the White Sox and Twins not in contention, and the Royals starting to surprise some people.

Well, I’ve been wrong before.

As I write this, Chicago leads Minnesota by 1.5 games, Detroit by 7.0 games, Kansas City by 12.0 games, and the Indians by a whopping 13.0 games. A week ago, in fact, the Indians management decided to throw in the towel on the 2008 season and traded CC Sabathia to the Milwaukee Brewers for the new mayor of Akron, Matt LaPorta.

And yet we’ve seen some weird stuff this season: an unassisted triple play, a week where the Indians starters did not give up a run, the emergence of Cliff Lee and Aaron Laffey, and the sudden power outage in the middle of the lineup. Anyone else know that the Indians have a +6 run differential? The Royals, the team ahead of the Indians, have a -61 run differential. When those numbers disagree so much, it’s tough not to see that it’s just not the Indians year.

That said, the Indians have seen their fair share of good baseball in the first half. What follows are my suggestions for how to make the second half of the Indians season better than the first.

  1. Release, trade, or intentionally injure David Dellucci. This guy shouldn’t have been with the team from the get-go. It’s a rebuilding year now, time to let that huge large (he gets how much? He’s still overpaid.) contract go.
  2. Call up Asdrubal Cabrera. He’s too good to have in the minors much longer.
  3. After the inevitable trade of Casey Blake, make Andy Marte the starting third baseman and Jhonny Peralta his backup. I’m now an Andy Marte fan, because it seems like if he gets enough playing time, he’ll finally start to play well. And as for Peralta, if it’s not Marte, I think he’s your third baseman of the future.
  4. Trade Jamey Carroll. He’s of no use to us once we get Barfield back, but he may be of use to a contender who’s willing to part with a relief pitching prospect… and we need a closer.
  5. You guys will hate me for this one, but…what about moving Grady Sizemore to left field occasionally? Gutierrez is an absolute phenom in center field, and he has a cannon. Why not put Sizemore’s weak arm in left, Gutierrez in center, and Francisco in right? That’d be one of the fastest outfields around.
  6. If you get a good offer for Garko, trade him. We have LaPorta coming up as well as Mike Aubrey down in AAA. Garko is a decent first baseman, but he doesn’t hit for the power that LaPorta apparently can.

That’s what I got. Anyone have any other suggestions? Feel free to comment!