June 2011

“A mind with a heart of its own”

By Anthony Castrovince/MLB.com

The perk of a hot start (if it can really be called a perk… and come to think of it, I don’t think it can) is that your schedule begins to get rearranged for the benefit of ESPN. So it is with the Indians’ game Sunday in San Francisco, which was bumped to an 8:05 p.m. ET start to accommodate the Worldwide Leader.

A little national attention never hurt anybody, but the potential pitfall, where the Indians are concerned, is that Fausto Carmona happens to be starting Sunday’s game against the Giants, thereby giving a bigger audience the chance to watch the Tribe’s biggest enigma in action.

These statistics are yanked from the always excellent DiaTribe blog, headed up by my friend and fellow Bombshell Blonde backer Paul Cousineau, but they are simply so stunning that I can’t resist passing them along here:

Carmona this season with the bases empty: .623 OPS against in 248 plate appearances
Carmona with runners on: 1.057 OPS in 176 plate appearances.

Wait, it gets worse. As Paul notes, seven of the 12 times Carmona has faced a hitter with the bases loaded this season, he’s given up a hit, and four of those seven hits have been doubles.

No bueno.

Look, I have no doubt that there are certain mechanical issues at play here that can potentially provide more separation between Carmona’s fastball and changeup and, therefore, lead to more success against <i>all</i> hitters, regardless of whether anybody is on base. But the company line (one articulated well in Jordan Bastian’s latest Inbox) that Carmona is not the mental mess he was two years ago looks, to me, to be wishful thinking.

Fact is, this guy has demonstrated countless times since his 2006 debut that he is a meltdown waiting to happen when things go wrong on the mound. The supreme focus he showed amidst the swarm of midges (or the “midgets,” if you’re the Akron Beacon Journal… but that’s another story for another time) in Game 2 of the 2007 ALDS and at various points last year, looks more and more like the exception rather than the rule.

The Indians already took the bold step of sending Carmona to the lowest of the low Minors two years ago this month. They are bereft of such an option this time around. Carmona, as you know, is out of Minor League options, and, for all his faults, would undoubtedly get claimed if the Indians tried to sneak him through. Show me a former 19-game winner who has fallen on hard times, and I’ll show you a pitching coach who believes he can fix him.

In light of that contractual quirk, Paul Hoynes of the Plain Dealer wrote the other day that the Indians are considering moving Fausto to the bullpen if he doesn’t get straightened out in his next few starts. Manny Acta immediately dismissed the report, but, in fairness, Hoynes’ piece had noted that Acta was firmly in Fausto’s corner. It could very well be that such an idea is gaining traction in the minds of the front office brass. If so, who could blame them? It is getting increasingly difficult to take the Indians seriously as a contender when their supposed “ace” is getting bruised this badly.

Of course, a move to the ‘pen would only help Carmona inasmuch as it would remove him from the glare of the starting five and allow him to work on those aforementioned mechanical and mental issues behind the scenes. As the above numbers indicate, this is not a guy who can be trusted in tight situations, so it would appear doubtful that moving him to the ‘pen would provide much of a boost to an already able relief corps (thankfully, nobody’s talking about making Carmona a closer again).

But if this keeps up, something’s got to give… assuming, of course, that the Indians remain serious about remaining in contention (and last week’s dismissal of Jon Nunnally was certainly serious). Carmona has an 8.87 ERA in his last 44 2/3 innings over eight starts. You can’t keep running this guy out there every fifth day if you’re going to hold off the Tigers, White Sox and (new to the party) the Twins in what has become a legitimate four-team race as we reach the midway point. Given their ample issues in the lineup, the Indians are a fragile club with little wiggle room. They need a strong effort from their starters, night in and night out.

Perhaps Carmona does, indeed, right himself in the near-term. Tim Belcher has told Acta that he’s pinpointed some delivery issues that Carmona might be able to iron out. But those numbers with runners on indicate that the Indians once again have a head case on their hands. And if Carmona doesn’t get straight soon, the Indians simply have to pursue the ‘pen possibility. Because it’s not as if they’re lacking in attractive starting options down below.

According to the Indians, there is no prescribed pecking order among these four arms at Columbus, but Zach McAllister (8-2, 2.82 ERA in 13 starts), Jeanmar Gomez (7-2, 2.30 in 11 starts), David Huff (6-2, 3.64 in 12 starts) and Scott Barnes (6-1, 3.53 in 12 outings) have all proven worthy of the radar. Gomez, of course, has been north before and shown flashes, and he and McAllister have been the most consistent arms in the Clippers’ rotation. Barnes, who came over in the Ryan Garko trade with the Giants two years ago, has a four-pitch arsenal that could play well up here, and our old pal Huff, I’m told, made some major delivery tweaks with pitching coach Ruben Niebla at the end of May that has resulted in a 3-0 record and 1.73 ERA thus far in June.

Any of those guys might be worth a look if this Carmona conundrum continues.

Carmona is making $6.1 million this season, and the Indians will have to decide at season’s end whether to pick up his $7 million option for 2012. So there are certainly major business issues at play here, too. But if the Indians are not, as Acta insists, already considering the bullpen possibility as a means to skip Carmona for at least a few starts, well, it might be time to start doing so.

I suppose we’ll know more when we see how Carmona handles Sunday’s national glare. Somebody send some midges to San Fran.

~AC

PS: Be sure to check out today’s MLB.com column on Shin-Soo Choo, who has dealt with his own share of mental issues this season.

And while you’re at it, check out my column on Jim Riggleman walking out on the Nats.

All the little pretties waved goodbye…

By Anthony Castrovince

My dad and I were walking through the Strip District in Pittsburgh one time when we happened upon a bar advertising an upcoming appearance by Clarence Clemons. I don’t recall why he was coming there or what he was promoting. All I remember was that black-and-white sign with his Xeroxed image staring back at us and the bold-faced print urging the reader to “Come see the Big Guy!”

The Big Guy.

Clearly, not everybody had a full understanding or appreciation for the light and love that Clemons, known affectionately as the Big Man, brought to the world. When he suffered a stroke last weekend, the MTV.com headline blaring the news described him as a saxophonist “for Lady Gaga, Bruce Springsteen.” Just as Bruce once wrote, “everywhere you look, life ain’t got no soul.”

Those of us who view the E Street Band not just as the standard by which all other rock bands are judged but also as the greatest representation of music’s ability to heal what ails, inspire what’s absent and celebrate what’s alive know a man as big as the Big Man cannot be summed up with such a headline. Nor can his death at the age of 69 to us be properly labeled as the celebrity death du jour and trending Twitter topic of the moment.

Something even bigger than the Big Man died Saturday. Because while the E Street Band carried on after the loss of organist Danny Federici in 2008 and will, I’m sure, carry on in some capacity without Clemons, the absence of the man who stood to Springsteen’s right and represented so much about faith and friendship and even race relations is a hole that simply cannot be plugged by any ordinary sideman.

The story of how Clarence and Bruce first joined forces has been told many times over the years and ad nauseam in the past 24 hours, so I won’t bother to retell it here. All I’ll say is that when those two stood side by side night after night after night — most prominently following their respective solos in the middle of “Badlands” or at the apex of the band introductions in “Tenth Avenue Freezeout” — it was an image that felt so natural, so real, so right.

That image lives only in memory now, and, so, too, sadly, does the heart of the E Street Band. Steve Van Zandt is the band’s funky soul, Roy Bittan its intricate intellect, Max Weinberg its driving momentum, Garry Tallent its steady hand, Nils Lofgren its artistic flair, Patti Scialfa its romantic grace and Springsteen, of course, its unstoppable, unquenchable passion. But Clemons, who emanated a magnetic mystique that made him look to those of us in the audience like some sort of superhero who jumped off the comic book pages, was the beating thump in the chest.

The E Street Band provided the kind of aura, the kind of chemistry, the kind of attention to detail and respect for history (and, for that matter, for their own legacy) that, frankly, is all too absent in the modern day. And perhaps in saying that, I am overly romanticizing an ending era. But those who saw this band at the peak of its powers (which is to say… every time they took the stage) know the feeling. You come for the music and stay for the magic. Three hours with the E Street Band could inspire emotions you didn’t know you had… or perhaps forgot you had.

It almost seems silly to cry for a man I never met, but Clemons’ death struck me in a deep and profound way, because I saw first-hand how much pure joy he got from making that music and those memories with his blood brothers in the E Street Band. His death is the end of something special, for while those of us who flock to see Springsteen’s every endeavor will continue to support whatever the next chapter happens to be for him and/or his band, we all know it will never be quite the same without “the Big Guy.”

~AC

“Drifting like a ghost amongst the trees”

By Anthony Castrovince/MLB.com

A first-place team can’t afford to be waiting for Jack Hannahan, of all people, to hit a game-tying home run with two out in the bottom of the ninth.

When Hannahan did just that Wednesday afternoon at Progressive Field, it looked, momentarily, like the latest magic moment for a Tribe team that has been full of them in the first half.

Reality, though, followed soon thereafter, when closer Chris Perez coughed up a run in the top of the 10th and Shin-Soo Choo grounded out with the tying run at second in the bottom half to put the finishing touch on a 3-2 loss to the Twins.

Magic only takes you so far in the Majors. At some point, you have to have something a little more solid to back it up. The Indians are a first-place team now clinging tenuously to that title, as the Tigers are bearing down on them and the White Sox, for all their faults, are not far behind. There are only so many rabbits this injury riddled Indians lineup can pull out of the hat. It’s going to take more substance to stick.

To be a viable contender, the Indians needed three things to happen this season. They needed to stay healthy, first and foremost, they needed their young pitchers to take that next step forward in their development, and they needed what few experienced players they have to play to the full extent of their capabilities.

The first of those necessities went out the window. The short-term loss of Mitch Talbot and Carlos Carrasco could be endured, but the starting pitching depth took a major hit when Alex White went down with a case of Adam Milleritis. And now the lineup is a shell of its former self. Where Travis Hafner’s presence has, in recent years, helped weigh the offense down, his absence now looms large.

The second of those necessities has gone a bit better than you could have expected. Yes, the starting pitching went through a two-week lull in which the collective ERA was over 6, but before the season the Indians would have surely signed up for the cumulative numbers of Justin Masterson (5-4, 3.18 ERA) and Josh Tomlin (7-3, 3.71), and Carlos Carrasco (5-3, 4.52) has shown flashes, most notably Tuesday night.

It’s the third necessity that is really weighing the Indians down during this stretch in which they’ve dropped 11 of 15 and squandered what was, just 16 days ago, a seven-game lead in the Central. Besides Michael Brantley, Asdrubal Cabrera and, to a limited extent, Grady Sizemore, you can’t name a single position player on this club living up to his expectations.

Go around the diamond. I’m as much a proponent of OPS over batting average as anybody, but Carlos Santana’s hitting .228. Matt LaPorta’s a mistake hitter who has eight homers but just a .754 OPS. We thought Orlando Cabrera’s .657 OPS with the Reds last year was ugly, but he’s at .454 over the past month. That’s why the Indians finally had to turn to Cord Phelps. Hannahan is Hannahan. You play him for his glove and take his offensive contributions as a bonus.

But the most confounding, confusing, concerning problem of all is, of course, Choo. His struggles were overshadowed by the team’s success early on, but they’ve become a focal point now that his bat is actually needed. Choo’s hitting .240 with a .316 on-base percentage a year after batting .301 with a .401 OBP. He hit a double in Wednesday’s game that was his first extra-base hit in 17 games. He hasn’t driven in a run since May 22.

Acta had to have a long talk (you could call it a therapy session) with Choo last weekend because Choo has become a mental mess. Choo feels he’s carrying the weight of Korea on his shoulders because he is the only current Major Leaguer from his home country. He has been vilified in the Korean press because of his DUI, to the point where some over there have suggested that he should have his military exemption revoked. Choo has read every word and let it get the best of him. He told me he’s now trying to distance himself from all those negative distractions, but that’s obviously easier said than done. And the added weight of a sagging lineup that is counting on him probably doesn’t help matters all that much.

The other day, Choo experimented with the possibility of using a helmet with just one ear flap for the first time in his career. But his problem is entirely between the flaps. You could see just how far gone Choo is in that last at-bat against Phil Dumatrait. Santana was on second after a two-out double, and here was Choo up with the game on the line. He looked more like a guy trying not to strike out than he did a guy ready to pounce.

The numbers are available elsewhere but bear repeating. The Indians averaged 5.3 runs per game in the 39 games before Hafner got hurt. They’re averaging 3.2 runs per game since. Hafner is at least another week to 10 days out, and even then the Indians will be getting ready for a nine-day NL road trip.

This team had a lot of magic working in its favor in the season’s first two months. That’s not to say there wasn’t substance, for the team played crisp defense and pounded the strike zone. But you can’t always count on those clutch hits in tight situations.

Baseball Prospectus’ playoff odds report is predicting the Indians to finish in third place, with a .500 record. BP gives them just an 18.3 percent chance of reaching the playoffs. The only way that’s going to change and this trend is going to be reversed is if the two missing necessities of this team show themselves. Getting Hafner healthy would help. But without a bopping “Big League” Choo, it’s going to take a heck of a lot of magic for this thing to last.

~AC

“His whole life revolves around Superman and cereal”

By Anthony Castrovince/MLB.com

Not that you asked, but…

THE TEN BEST CEREALS. EVER.*

10. Raisin Bran Crunch
9. Honey Nut Cheerio’s
8. Frosted Flakes
7. Cocoa Krispies
6. Peanut Butter Crunch
5. Life
4. Cinnamon Life
3. Life and Cinnamon Life combined in the same bowl
2. Special K Fruit and Yogurt
1. Cinnamon Toast Crunch

*I reserve the right to completely change this list on any particular morning.

Glad I got that off my chest.

EXCRUCIATING MINUTIAE OF THE DAY…

  • A few weeks back, it was notable that the Indians could play .500 ball the rest of the way and still win 87 games, possibly enough to tackle this tame division. Well, on that front, we might as well note that the Indians are 13-13 over their last 26. I didn’t know they would take this notion quite so literally.
  • The problem, of course, is that six of those 13 losses have come in the last nine games, and this has led to a reasonable amount of worry among the fragile members of the fan base. The truth is that every team in baseball goes through these kinds of stretches (particularly when you’re running up against the type of tough pitching the Tribe saw from the likes of the Red Sox and Rays last week), but when you emerge from nowhere, as this Indians team did, people wonder when cold, cruel reality will set in.
  • The biggest issue, as I see it, is right here: In the last 14 days, Indians starters are 5-6 with a 6.17 ERA. The area of this club that was the greatest concern going into the season quickly emerged as the greatest pleasant surprise. The Indians can’t afford it to trend back in the other direction. The defense has also gotten sloppy, and, again, it’s a fact that no team goes through 162 games without its share of defensive faux pas. But whereas the Indians started hot because of stellar starting backed by deft defense, the last couple weeks have been another story. It can’t become the new norm.
  • There is lots of Cord Phelps talk out there in the blogosphere lately, and for good reason. Orlando Cabrera’s lost 41 points on his batting average in the last four weeks, batting .205 with a … gulp … .483 OPS in his last 87 plate appearances. Yowzas. Phelps, on the other hand, is batting .309 with a .913 OPS at Columbus this year. The Indians are pleased with his approach at the plate from both sides, and they feel he’s handled the adjustment to shortstop about as well as could be expected.
  • The Draft has been the front office’s primary focus this week, and, after it is completed next week, all teams will begin to take the trade market more seriously. In the meantime, the Indians are weighing their internal options for improvement, and Phelps is a guy most certainly being discussed. But the old balance exists between shaking things up for the sake of something new and respecting the veterans who have helped get the Tribe to this point. By that, of course, I mean that Cabrera’s contributions can’t and won’t be discounted. But just as important, the Indians have also gauged the impact Adam Everett has made in the clubhouse and in the utility role. To add Phelps is to limit or even erase the role of at least one or maybe both of those guys, depending on how the playing time would be divvied. The Indians do not, at this juncture, sound at all willing to go down that road… at least, not yet. They still don’t view the particularly shaky play that’s transpired the last week and a half as a prolonged period.
  • Stay tuned, though, as the next two weeks will see the Indians play 10 games against the AL West-leading Rangers, the AL East-leading Yankees and the second-place Tigers.
  • The guy who might be even closer than Phelps to coming north (and isn’t it nice that since the Indians moved their Triple-A affiliate from Buffalo to Columbus, we can actually use that expression literally?) might be Nick Hagadone. He’s got filthy stuff and dominated the Double-A level before a promotion to Columbus a couple weeks back. He’s got a 3.86 ERA with nine strikeouts and two walks in seven innings for the Clippers. Rafael Perez’s recent command woes have been a cause for concern in the back end of the bullpen. If they continue, perhaps Hagadone will get a look.
  • Travis Hafner might begin a rehab assignment in two weeks. He might be ready just in time for the Indians to play nine straight games in National League cities at the end of the month. Interleague scheduling at its best, yet again.
  • So, is it reasonable to expect the Indians to upgrade their roster before the Trade Deadline? It’s early speculation at this point, but I just don’t see a move of any major significance happening here. The Indians don’t have the financial means to take on a major salary, and they’d be reluctant to part with any prospects viewed as pivotal to their long-term sustenance. The one area where the Indians could most benefit from an outside import, rather than an in-house option down on the farm, is in the rotation, and we all know what a competitive (and, therefore, costly) market that can be in July. I could be wrong, but I really think, in the grand scheme, what you see is what you get with this Tribe roster.
  • It will be interesting to see how the rest of the division shakes out in that regard. It’s well-documented that the White Sox overextended themselves over the offseason to finance this magnificent club they’ve assembled, so I’m not sure how active they would be, if at all. In the past, we’ve seen them go for broke (a la Manny last year) and we’ve also seen them pack it in perhaps prematurely. The Tigers are the biggest threat to the Tribe. Their farm system is pretty barren, but they might have the financial means to take on some salary. And with or without a trade upgrade, they’re a streaky team capable of going on a nice run at precisely the point the Indians go on a losing skid.
  • This isn’t quite up to the standard of the “This is the baseball” quote from Carlos Santana that became the tag line to this blog, but it’s still pretty good. Shin-Soo Choo, expressing some frustration over how difficult this game can be, said: “Man, what a baseball.”
  • Hey, did you know Braid Paisley’s H2O tour is hitting Progressive Field next week? Not sure if that’s been advertised anywhere.
  • Lots of buzz over the Cavs winning the NBA draft lottery. Slightly less buzz over the Indians having the eighth pick in next week’s Draft.
  • Finally, I put this photo to the right on Twitter earlier, but worth posting here for posterity. My favorite Cleveland scalper, still loyal to Hector Luna after all this time.

~AC

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