March 2011

“If you think it’s your time, then step to the line”

By Anthony Castrovince/MLB.com

I think those of you who have frequented this blog (even as its entries have become much less frequent) know that if I had my way, every player would use a Bruce Springsteen song as his at-bat music at the ballpark. (Also, every fan would keep score, nets would be extended down the lines and organists would be brought back, but those are all separate arguments.)

That’s why my buddy Paul Cousineau, esteemed purveyor of the excellent DiaTribe blog, challenged me last year to come up with a Bruce tune for each member of the Tribe lineup, and that’s why I responded with this CastroTurf classic.

And because Paul, who has made at-bat offerings an annual part of his preseason posts, challenged me again (and I’m a sucker for tradition), it is time once again to mesh those two great American sons — the Boss and baseball — to come up with a list that is Opening Day appropriate for the corner of Carnegie and E … err… Ontario.

Like Bruce in “Bobby Jean,” sending a long-distance shout-out to a friend who hit the bricks, the Indians have bid “good luck, goodbye” to many a prominent player the last few years. What we have now is a hodgepodge of baby faced ballplayers that the Tribe is counting on to provide “Living Proof” that the trades, drafts and developments all have this club pointed in the right direction.

With that in mind, last year’s theme in this entry was “Working on a Dream,” and, uh, yeah… they’re still working on it. But after finishing dead last in attendance last season, I think a particularly appropriate theme for 2011, as the Indians pull out all the marketing stops, to try to win back a fan base that no longer has a playoff-bound Cavs team and might not have the Browns to distract them, is this one:

With that in mind, here’s the likely Opening Day lineup and the Bruce tunes to go with it, along with a few bonus selections — none of which, sadly, were ever mentioned by Manny Acta as a “song of the day” in his spring Twitter feed.

1. CF Michael Brantley — “Good Eye”

It was Brantley’s “Good Eye” at the plate in the Minors that led some prominent members of the Indians’ front office to believe he might end up the most impactful player acquired in the CC deal, even though he was merely the player to be named in that swap. Brantley has a career .388 OBP in the Minors, including a .395 mark in 67 games at Columbus last year, thanks to impressive walk rates. But that success hasn’t yet translated to the big leagues, where Brantley has largely turned his “good eye to the dark and his blind eye to the sun.” It’s all part of learning, of course, and the Indians hope Brantley can up his OBP to make better use of his speed on the basepaths this season and become a viable leadoff hitter.

2. SS Asdrubal Cabrera — “Prove It All Night”

“You gotta prove it all night, every night,” is how Bruce used to introduce this song on the ’78 Darkness tour (and this is a particularly scorching version). We’ve been touting Cabrera as a potential superstar ever since he broke into the big leagues in a big way during the 2007 AL Central title run, but health and consistency have simply not been his strong suits in the years since. Last year, he was done in by a broken arm suffered when he collided with teammate Jhonny Peralta (and a couple months later, we all sang “Johnny Bye Bye”). So give Cabrera a mulligan for 2010, I suppose, but this would sure be a fine year for him to prove he can stay on the field and be a force in the lineup.

3. RF Shin-Soo Choo — “All That Heaven Will Allow”

It’s an unfortunate factor of modern sports economics (and a particularly apropos ailment in Cleveland) that fans in small markets often find themselves dreading the day their star players will reach free agency, even if that day is <i>three full seasons away</i>, as is the case with Big League Choo. Obviously, and perhaps undoubtedly, Choo can be expected to take his talents elsewhere (probably not South Beach… or South Korea, for that matter) after the 2013 season, but that’s long enough away that Tribe fans have plenty to appreciate in the here and now. The Indians’ hope is to build a winner around Choo and make the most of the time they have with him. And yes, they want all the time… all that heaven (or Scott Boras) will allow.

4. C Carlos Santana — “Crush On You”

Tribe Fan fell in love with Victor Martinez, and the end of that relationship was painful for both parties. But then along came this other switch-hitting, sweet-swinging Latino catcher that had been dumped by the Dodgers, and Tribe Fan began to feel those old, familiar butterflies in his belly. The first date went really well, then Santana played hard to get and ran away with the athletic trainer for a few months. Now, he’s back, looking “c’est magnifique” and ready to knock Tribe Fan off his feet.

Anybody else as creeped out by that paragraph as I am? OK, good. Let’s move on.

5. DH Travis Hafner — “Missing”

“Tell me baby, where did you go? You were here just a moment ago.” Yep, that pretty much sums it up. Hafner, as is well-documented, pretty much vanished not long after signing an extension that stands as the largest contract the Indians have ever given a player. Besieged by chronic shoulder woes, he became a shell of his former self, and it would be foolish to continue to hold out hope that the Tribe will see a return of the 2006 form of Pronk. That said, “there’s nights I still hear your footsteps fall.” Hafner still has his moments where he’ll rip a double the other way and demonstrate that he’s enough of an offensive weapon to get consideration in the scouting report. He’s still a viable Major League bat on some level. But that other guy? The former MVP candidate? He’s “Missing” and presumed dead.

6. 2B Orlando Cabrera — “The Price You Pay”

The Indians rushed Brandon Phillips to the big leagues, ran out of time developing him within his option years, opted to keep Ramon Vazquez over him on the 2006 roster (Vazquez went on to play just 34 games that season) and shipped him to Cincinnati, where he became a star. They’ve been paying the price at second base ever since. Granted, this isn’t all the Indians’ fault, as the mercurial Phillips, through his play and personality, didn’t do much to inspire the Indians’ confidence in him, but the end result stands. Josh Barfield was a bust, Asdrubal Cabrera was solid but wrongly cast as a second baseman, Luis Valbuena was a one-hit wonder and, if the Indians’ maneuvering is any indication, Jason Donald is a utility man in training. So until Jason Kipnis (a converted outfielder) comes along, it’s Orlando Cabrera plugging a hole. And the price the Indians will pay for this stopgap is $1.3 million.

7. 1B Matt LaPorta — “Blinded By The Light”

The pressures placed upon LaPorta in his young professional career have been slightly extreme. He was a high-profile prospect after the Brewers took him seventh overall in 2007, and his profile was raised all the more when the Indians made him their key acquisition in the 2008 CC Sabathia trade. When he got his first extended exposure to the bigs last season, LaPorta indeed looked “Blinded by the Light,” turning in a .668 OPS that did not portend to him being the middle-of-the-order threat the Indians imagined him to be. LaPorta, though, never seemed to let his struggles affect him on a personal level, and he had all offseason to get in baseball shape after spending the previous winter rehabbing from surgery. So if the song holds true, “he got down but he never got tight. He’s gonna make it all right.” I guess we’ll see.

8. LF Austin Kearns — “All I’m Thinking About Is You”

No disrespect to Kearns. He’s a valuable veteran who is good for the occasional big knock. But his status as a placeholder in the outfield until Grady Sizemore is back from surgery is clear. Tribe fans will appreciate Kearns for what he is, but, as long as he has an everyday role in this outfield, all they’ll be thinking about is, “When’s Grady coming back?”

9. 3B Jack Hannahan — “Wreck on the Highway”

This is not so much a comment on Hannahan as it is on this position, a veritable black hole for the Tribe, until Lonnie Chisenhall makes his move up the ladder. In the second half last year, it was the abominable combo of Jayson Nix, Louie Louie Valbuena Valbuena and Andy Marte forming a three-headed monster at the hot corner. “There was blood and glass all over,” just like Bruce sang. Now, it’s Hannahan holding down the fort, presumably until Jason Donald’s hand heals or the Chiz Kid comes aboard. So Tribe fans will just have to “lay there awake in the middle of the night,” thinking about this wreck and waiting for the future.

SP Fausto Carmona — “Man’s Job”

Carmona might not have reclaimed his 2007 dominance, but at least he reclaimed his command in 2010. Now, he enters 2011 as the undisputed ace of a not-so-sterling starting staff. There’s a responsibility that comes with this role. It is, indeed, a “Man’s Job.” In terms of stuff and stature, Fausto isn’t your typical No. 1, but if he can pound the strike zone, get a ton of groundballs and avoid any major mechanical or mental malfunctions, the Indians will consider it a job well done.

OTHERS:

RP Frank Herrmann — “A Night With The Jersey Devil”

I know Herrmann doesn’t yet hold a prominent role in the ‘pen, but this is a Bruce-themed blog entry and this dude’s from Rutherford, Jersey, right in the heart of Springsteen soil. This song has absolutely nothing to do with Herrmann, who is one of the nicest, most genuine players I’ve had the pleasure of covering and certainly no devil. But it’s probably Bruce’s best video (unless you’re into “Dancing in the Dark” for its comedic value or the “Born to Run” live clip from ’85 for its unending ability to raise your heart rate), so… here you go. It was either this or a clip of Joe Piscopo doing his “Joisey guy” schtick.

SP Carlos Carrasco — “Don’t Look Back”

…and see another home run clearing the fence. If Carrasco can keep it in the yard, he could be in line for a breakout season. If not… yikes.

SP Josh Tomlin — “Surprise, Surprise”

Raise your hand if, one year ago, you predicted Josh Tomlin would be in the 2011 Opening Day rotation. Yeah, that’s what I thought. And hey, that’s what happens when you throw strikes.

(Side note: Bruce doesn’t have a video for “Surprise, Surprise,” so I’m linking this… interesting… take on the tune.)

RP Raffy Perez — “Code of Silence”

If you’ve followed along with this blog, then this one’s self-explanatory. Paul went with “The Sound of Silence” for the media mute Perez, which also works well.

3B Lonnie Chisenhall, RHP Alex White, 2B Jason Kipnis — “Outside Looking In”

But the wait is almost over, boys.

Closer Chris Perez — “I’m a Rocker”

If the Indians are “hanging from a cliff or tied to the tracks,” at least they know they have a reliable closer to parachute in. And he’s got that rocker hair for the role, to boot. Now if only he had a few more save opportunities…

Manager Manny Acta — “Better Days”

An optimistic tune for one of the more optimistic men I know. Acta’s club might be “halfway to heaven and just a mile out of hell,” as the song states. But when you listen to the skipper talk, he always sounds like a guy with a “new suit of clothes and a pretty red rose,” and that’s a good thing for a young club that needs to believe in its abilities.

And finally…

CF Grady Sizemore — “Wrecking Ball”

The way I see it, two outcomes are possible for Sizemore in 2011. Either this is the year he bounces back from a particularly challenging surgical procedure and slowly builds himself back up to being a 30-30 caliber player for 2012 (his contract year, by the way), or this is the year that continuing medical setbacks finally lead us to believe that the Grady Sizemore we once knew is never really coming back. Former Tribe catcher Sandy Alomar Jr. had microfracture surgery twice in his career and compared it to an arthritic condition, in that you simply don’t feel the same every day. He felt his career was never quite the same afterward. Sizemore is facing a similar challenge, but his personality is one that fits the tone of this tune: “Take your best shot, let me see what you’ve got. Bring on your wrecking ball.”

And bring on the 2011 season.

~AC

“Tell me how do we get this thing started?”

By Anthony Castrovince/MLB.com

The Indians announced their starting rotation Friday, and, well, it’s a start.

Fausto Carmona is the de facto ace of what many will label a defective starting five. The rotation is rounded out by Justin Masterson, Carlos Carrasco, Mitch Talbot and Josh Tomlin, in no particular order and receiving no particular ovation from a skeptical fan base.

Even Tomlin sounded skeptical when told he had nailed down the fifth slot.

“I won’t believe it until I’m on that mound in Cleveland,” he said.

Tomlin’s emergence at the Major League level last year was a credit to his ability to throw strikes when so many other ailing arms could not. It was also telling of the state of the upper-level starting pitching situation in the Indians’ system, as Tomlin was completely off the radar one year ago but worked his way up when the usual suspects — injuries, ineffectiveness and the Trade Deadline — left the Tribe scrambling for help.

While the current crop of five starters is not going to do much to inspire immediate optimism in the Tribe’s chances this season, the Indians’ hope is that the scramble can be avoided and a reliable rotation can be formed by year’s end, so that a more earnest effort to contend can be launched in 2012.

For that to happen, these are five keys for the starting five, entering 2011:

1. Carmona’s command: Fausto turned in a 5.22 walks per nine innings rate in 2008 and a 5.03 mark in ’09. Last year, he got that number down to 3.08 (not quite his 2.55 total from ’07, but getting there) and that was, by and large the key to his All-Star season. (Well, the other key is that Shin-Soo Choo got hurt and the Indians didn’t really have any other All-Star candidates, but that’s neither here nor there.)

The tradeoff to get that improved command is that Carmona has had to reinvent himself, sacrificing some velocity on his sinking fastball and using his breaking ball more frequently, thereby getting less groundball outs than he did back in the day. So whereas Carmona was throwing 75 percent fastballs in ’07 (according to FanGraphs.com) and averaging them out at 93.5 mph, he threw the pitch 67.8 percent of the time and at an average velocity of 92.6 mph last year.

Back in ’07, Carmona looked like an ace-in-waiting. Now he looks more like a middle-of-the-rotation guy who, if kept mechanically correct and getting good action on the sinker and slider, can eat up innings and frequently give you a quality start. Of course, on this particular staff, he’s an ace, even if his personality isn’t necessarily a natural fit for the role.

2. Masterson’s modifications: Just when it appeared the time was ripe to give up on the Masterson-as-starter experiment, he went at least six innings and allowed two earned runs or less in five of his last six “starts” (one of which was not really a start but a seven-inning relief outing when Talbot got hurt in the first). So this brings the Indians back to square one in this process of wondering whether Masterson, a successful Red Sox reliever in another life, really can stick as a starter.

Masterson’s big body suggests durability. His heavy fastball suggests groundballs. His .324 batting average on balls in play in 2010 suggests he was the victim of some bad luck. His improvement down the stretch — brought on, he said, by the application of “checkpoints” in his delivery — suggests things are looking up.

Still, all the old warnings still apply to Masterson. The arm angle on his delivery makes him a nightmare for right-handers but a boon to lefties, who hit .290 off him last year. The Indians are right to give Masterson a long leash in this role at this stage in the contention cycle, but if the splits don’t get fixed this year, it might be time to rethink the situation.

3. Talbot’s teammates: Talbot’s pitches never met a bat they didn’t like. Even as he put together a respectable rookie season in 2010, he got swinging strikes on just 5.9 percent of his pitches, well below the league average of 8.5 percent (thanks again, FanGraphs.com). Those swinging at his pitches inside the strike zone made contact 91.6 percent of the time.

With numbers like those, it’s little wonder Talbot came back down to earth after a sizzling start to the season last year. He also battled some back issues in the second half, which didn’t help matters.

Talbot has a four-pitch mix, which allows him to maintain a certain level of unpredictability. Ultimately, though, he might be a pitch-to-contact guy who is only as good as his teammates — those picking him up at the plate and those fetching the ball in the field. The Indians undoubtedly need to be better in the latter category this year.

4. Carrasco’s confines: Let’s be clear about two things. One, Spring Training stats are, by and large, meaningless. Two, the ball notoriously flies off the bat in Arizona.

And now that we’ve said all that, let’s pull back the sheet and look at the gruesome scene in front of us: Carrasco has allowed six homers in 16 2/3 innings this spring.

Potentially meaningless but intriguing all the same, those numbers bring to mind the number one concern about Carrasco, which is his ability (or, rather, inability) to keep the ball within the confines of the park on a consistent basis. If he can locate his pitches well enough to prevent the long ball, then what you have here is a 24-year-old kid with special stuff who could emerge as a viable front-end rotation option. In a solid September callup last year, he went 2-2 with a 3.83 ERA and, most impressively, a 2.82 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

He just can’t get hurt by the homer. Maybe he got it all out of his system in Arizona.

5. Alex’s arrival: As long as he keeps pounding the strike zone, Tomlin is a serviceable placeholder in the rotation, though his stuff doesn’t translate into him being a likely long-term answer. More likely, we’ll see former top Draft pick Alex White in this or one of the other starting slots by year’s end and perhaps by the All-Star break.

Because he arrived as the 15th overall selection in the ’09 Draft, there might be an expectation among some fans that White is an ace-type talent in the making. A more applicable expectation would be for him to emerge as a Jake Westbrook type who can give you a ton of quick innings and routinely deliver double-digit wins. While it’s a little less sexy, there is, obviously, a lot of value in that type of talent.

White proved at the Class A and Double-A levels last year that he’s capable of starting, after some confusion as to whether or not he would be groomed as a reliever. This year, he’ll try to tackle Triple-A, and there is every reason to expect him to make an impact in Cleveland sooner rather than later. And a year from now, the Indians hope to be on a similar timetable with left-hander Drew Pomeranz, the top pick from 2010 who does have more of an ace-type pedigree and made a strong impression in spring camp.

The bad news about all of the above is that the Tribe rotation is, clearly, still very much in the developmental stage, which is why the battle royale with the Royals for fourth place in the AL Central is counted on to continue this season.

But the good news is that some important strides were made last year and more could be on the horizon, particularly if guys like Nick Hagadone and Jason Knapp pan out as starters in the Minor League levels this year.

Perhaps most important, if the Indians get it right, all of the above are under contractual control through at least 2014 and, in most cases, beyond.

So, again, it’s a start.

~AC

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