Mailbag: The fifth rotation spot, Wedge's security, Hall of Fame chatter and more
I really don't know what you're doing reading this blog, when you should be somewhere mentally preparing for tomorrow's release of "Working on a Dream," the new Bruce Springsteen album.*
*About that disc... Thanks to some -- ahem -- alternative measures, I've had a copy of it for a week or so, and it is indeed an interesting collection of musical experiences. The Boss gets experimental on this one. Sometimes it works ("Good Eye" is proof positive that he needs to do a blues-rock album before all is said and done), sometimes it doesn't (unlike Bruce, I am not in love with the "Queen of the Supermarket"). It's not his best work. But the Pizza Rule applies to Springsteen music -- even when it's at it's worst, it's still quite good.
But because you're here and I'm here, we might as well tackle some Mailbag questions, right? So let's get to it...
You reported that Aaron Laffey was your “personal pick” to fill out the rotation. Could you expand on that? What criteria did you base that on? Has the club told you something?
— Jay S., St. Clairsville, Ohio
I think what Laffey showed us in May of last year, when he went 3-2 with a 0.79 ERA, was real. And he’s been in Cleveland and working out all winter, putting particular emphasis on his core — much like Cliff Lee did a year ago — to maintain strength and balance over the course of a long season. The elbow soreness that ended his season appears to be behind him.
More than anything, I think Laffey is about as competitive and confident a pitcher as the Indians have in their upper levels, and I think that will pay dividends in the Spring Training battle for the fifth spot. As Mark Shapiro said, “He’s a bad guy to bet against.”
But as we’ve seen in the past, the Opening Day rotation rarely sticks. I also think Dave Huff will impact this rotation in a meaningful way this season, given the reports I’ve heard on him. If I’m ranking the candidates for the fifth spot, I put Laffey and Huff on top.
Do you think Ben Francisco will have great year from start to finish? He looked tough last year and he has a lot of upside.
— Mark H., Kokomo, Ind.
As you know, Francisco didn’t have a great year from start to finish in ’08. He batted .294 with eight homers and 35 RBIs before the break, and .236 with seven homers and 19 homers after the break, including a .165 average with one homer and four RBIs in his last 23 games.
Though Francisco spent the better part of the season’s first month in Buffalo, we can essentially label ’08 as his first full year in the big leagues, and it’s natural for young players to wear down over the course of their first exposure to that grind. Francisco’s life was also made more difficult when he was slotted in the No. 3 spot of the lineup in the wake of the injuries to Travis Hafner and Victor Martinez. The Indians like to say that wasn’t “fair” to Francisco, and it’s hard to dispute that claim.
But Francisco’s streakiness is a concern that must be taken into account going forward. I don’t see him in a straight platoon with David Dellucci in left field, mainly because Eric Wedge is so confident in the right-handed Francisco’s ability against right-handed pitching (and for good reason: Francisco has hit .266 off right-handers and .270 off left-handers thus far in his career).
Francisco will be the Opening Day left fielder. If he (or Shin-Soo Choo) struggles, the Indians hope to be able to choose between Michael Brantley, Matt LaPorta and Trevor Crowe to fill in.
Is Eric Wedge’s job in jeopardy this year? I know people love Wedge (myself included), but let’s be realistic. This offseason has changed things for him. The organization spent a lot more money than people expected. The team expectations have to be higher than ever. If the team underperforms or struggles for the first few months, then change has to be at least considered, right?
— Kevin H., Athens, Ohio
The general feeling among the Indians’ higher-ups is that last season might have been Wedge’s best as a manager. Wedge’s club was socked with an onslaught of injuries, an awful bullpen and the trades of CC Sabathia, Casey Blake and Paul Byrd, yet came out with an 81-81 record. The Indians were 16 games back of .500 on July 9 but played with passion until the very last day of the season.
I know that sounds like a P.R. rap, but it’s simply what I saw last year. And while Wedge certainly makes his share of in-game decisions that make you scratch your head, I’m a big believer in the mentality that a manager’s chief job is to manage the various personalities in his clubhouse and get everybody working on the same page. That’s what Wedge has done here in Cleveland, and the club is pleased with his efforts.
Of course, an abysmal season has the potential to change those good feelings in a hurry. We see it all the time in professional sports. But there doesn’t appear to be any undue scrutiny on Wedge, at present.
Everyone says Ryan Garko’s job is in danger if he doesn’t improve at the plate. Other than being benched for not running out that ground ball, I thought he had a solid year, hitting .273 with 14 homers and 90 RBIs. The Indians committed a lot more money to guys who put up far worse numbers than Garko did! Why is the co-leader in RBI under such criticism?
— Adam G., Akron, Ohio
I’m as big a Garko supporter as anybody, but the fact is the guy hit .224 in April and .232 in May last year. He had a stretch from May 18 to July 9 in which he had just three extra-base hits. You can’t get by as a first baseman with those numbers.
Garko’s obviously not a dazzling defender, so he’s counted on for his bat. And in the first half last year, he didn’t deliver. But the Indians have to like the way he rebounded in the second half to come out with some respectable numbers for the season — the 90 RBIs total included. I personally think he’s going to get off to a much stronger start this year. The simple fact of the matter is that he has to, if he wants to keep his job.
Reading your article on Manny made me realize it is still a realistic possibility that he could go in the Hall of Fame as an Indian. Can you give me a rundown on the other big three — Omar Vizquel, Jim Thome and Kenny Lofton? I would say it is clear that if they go to the Hall they’ll wear the Wahoo, but what are their chances, realistically, when the time comes?
— Cody S., Scranton, Pa.
You can make a case for Vizquel and Thome. Lofton? Not so much.
It will be really interesting to see if Vizquel gets in. Personally, I think he’s worthy of strong consideration, having played more games than anybody else at, perhaps, the game’s most demanding position and won 11 Gold Gloves in the process. Throw in 2,657 career hits (to this point), and you have a pretty strong case. But Vizquel has never had anything resembling an MVP season. He’s generally been a superior defender with a dependable, but hardly game-changing, bat. Suffice to say he’s not first-ballot material, but I think he might get in eventually.
Really, the only case you can make for Thome is his home run total, and the 500-homer plateau simply ain’t what it used to be. He has finished among the top 10 in MVP voting four times, but never higher than fourth. I point out MVP ballots, because the people who vote for the MVP are the same people voting for the Hall of Fame. If they’re showing Thome no love while he’s playing, it’s hard to imagine him getting more appreciation when his playing days are done. If he’s able to reach 600 homers, then it’s probably a different story.
If either of those guys goes into the Hall, they’ll do so as an Indian. It’s hard to imagine Ramirez going in as a member of the Tribe. People will identify him as a member of the Red Sox.
I feel the Indians need to clean house and rid themselves of inflated salaries for guys who just aren’t worth the expense and dump some others who just haven’t performed. So I suggest to Shapiro and company to wrap up a package consisting of Garko, Dellucci, Jeremy Sowers, Josh Barfield, Andy Marte and Michael Aubrey and trade them for a top-flight pitcher or two. Your thoughts, pisan?
— Mark F., Allentown, Pa.
Excellent idea, Mark. Say, I’ve got 10 pennies here. Do you mind giving me a dollar for them?
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