July 2011

“I can’t tell my courage from my desperation”

By Anthony Castrovince/MLB.com

On Twitter: @Castrovince

The most daring trade I ever made came in second grade. This skinny squirt named Mike (I’ll leave out his last name because he eventually ended up in jail and could be out on parole now, for all I know) offered me the opportunity to be in the Cool Kids Club (he had a laminated ID and everything) in exchange for a package of cinnamon-flavored Tic Tacs.

Mike was a wily one, I’ll give him that. He had obviously been in the bedroom I shared with my older brother Joe and seen the gift basket given to Joe by his seventh-grade girlfriend. The Tic Tacs were located therein, and Mike preyed upon my gullibility and hunger for acceptance in order to fulfill his hunger for those tiny, rigid mints.

Well, naturally, I gave in, swiped the Tic Tacs when my brother wasn’t looking and met Mike’s demands. And naturally, my brother noticed their absence, reported it to my mother and all heck broke loose. I would have been grounded, except… I was in second grade… where was I going to go? Instead, I had to apologize to my brother, which was embarrassing enough, and I had to get the Tic Tacs back. What’s worse, I never did my Cool Kids Club membership card, which likely explains future failures in the pursuit of popularity.

The point, I think, is that positive trades are difficult to execute. And all across the baseball land, the 30 Major League GMs all did their darndest to pull one off. Nobody, though, sent quite the shockwave through the system quite like Chris Antonetti, he of the unbelievably brave Ubaldo barter.

What better place to recap the Tribe’s wild weekend than right here in CastroTurf? Go ahead, pop in some Tic Tacs, and let’s talk it through.

EXCRUCIATING TRADE DEADLINE MINUTIAE…

  • The Trade Deadline was at 4 p.m. ET. As of 3:30 p.m., the Indians, who talked about upwards of 75 players over the course of the dealing season, still had six active trade talks on the table, in addition to the finalization of the Jimenez physical. A hectic period, to be sure, though obviously none of those final six discussions bore fruit.
  • Regarding the finalization of that physical, Jimenez was pulled from his start against the Padres after one inning Saturday night and informed of the trade. He then jumped in a car and made the five-hour drive on I-8 to Arizona, where he had a physical exam in Goodyear that began at 7:30 a.m. The Indians didn’t get the final results until 3:30, hence the delay in the announcement that the deal was, indeed, done. Jimenez then headed back to Colorado to pack up his stuff, and he’ll have up to 72 hours to report to the Tribe in Boston. Between the physical stress of this travel schedule and the mental stress of the rumor mill, the Indians decided Jimenez won’t pitch for them until next weekend in Texas.
  • Why didn’t the Indians add an impact bat (with all apologies to Kosuke Fukudome and his family)? By all accounts, the Tribe was pretty far along with the Padres in talks for former farmhand Ryan Ludwick, but the Pirates scooped him up just before the Deadline with an offer of a player to be named or cash. We don’t yet know the value of the list of prospects the Padres will have to choose from, though it would certainly be interesting to see how the offers of the Tribe and the Buccos differed. Personally, I was never a fan of the idea of bringing in Ludwick, perhaps remembering too well what little value he brought to the Padres at the tail end of 2010, but after showing so much aggression in adding Jimenez, it was definitely surprising not to see the Indians bring in some sort of offensive presence, beyond Fukudome’s on-base ability. There is, however, always the chance of a waiver trade before the end of August.
  • So the attention on the rehab processes of Shin-Soo Choo and Grady Sizemore is amplified all the more in the wake of Sunday’s inaction. Choo will be on the road trip and could take batting practice by week’s end, so he’s certainly ahead of his initial timetable. Sizemore has not yet begun any form of baseball activity.
  • The 23-year-old Thomas Neal could be a nice pickup in the Orlando Cabrera trade with the Giants, given the strength of his arm and the potential power in his bat. He was on the disabled list with a hand injury suffered on a slide into second base, but he should be activated by Triple-A Columbus any day now.
  • But what of the cosmic Cabrera karma that has aided so many past playoff teams and seemed to be aiding the Indians? Gone. Cabrera was a hugely impactful presence in this clubhouse and this dugout, and he’ll be missed for those reasons. There is something to be said for experience, and the Indians are now awfully inexperienced at second base with Kipnis and Jason Donald. But Cabrera’s .217 average and .542 OPS since May 5 speak for themselves. I’m also not sure if comments like the ones he made to the Akron Beacon Journal’s Stephanie Storm the other day — “My logic is, if we’re in a pennant race, is it a good time to do this?” he said, talking about the Cord Phelps and Jason Kipnis callups — pair particularly well with the “role model” label. By and large, though, Cabrera was an excellent teammate.
  • All right, a little more about Ubaldo. We all know how much the Indians value the “high-character” component of a player’s makeup, and Jimenez fits the mold wonderfully. Acta knows him fairly well and called him a “Class A human being,” while Antonetti called him “very bright” and a “good, stable person.” When you’re making a trade of this magnitude, you certainly don’t want to inherit any headaches or head cases. If nothing else, the Indians don’t have to worry about that.
  • As you might expect, the Indians place a great deal of value on Jimenez’s home/road splits. Ubaldo was 3-5 with a 5.55 ERA, a .310 average against, an .885 OPS against, 51 strikeouts, 25 walks and nine homers allowed in 61 2/3 innings in Coors Field this season. Elsewhere, he was 3-4 with a 3.38 ERA, a .183 average against, a .561 OPS against, 67 strikeouts, 26 walks and just one homer allowed in 61 1/3 innings. Huge, huge difference, and the Indians think he’ll benefit from leaving the high altitude for the humidity.
  • The Indians also note that Jimenez’s overall numbers this year are tainted by his slow start, which they attribute to the hip flexor/groin issue he took into the season proper. Jimenez skipped winter ball over the offseason to instead take a trip to Europe — a decision he would later claim to regret — and that impacted his preparedness. He’s certainly been a different pitcher since June 1 (6-4 record, 3.03 ERA in the 11 starts that preceded Saturday’s short outing) than he was beforehand (6.75 ERA in April, 5.45 ERA in May).
  • As for Ubaldo’s drop in velocity (Fangraphs.com has his fastball averaging 93.4 mph after a 96.1 mark in 2009 and ’10), the Indians had him clocked up to 98 and hitting 93-94 consistently. They still he feel he has above-average velocity.
  • The move to the American League will undoubtedly affect Ubaldo, though to what degree is anybody’s guess. (How’s that for insight?) He’s only had 12 starts against AL clubs in his career, going 6-4 with a 4.08 ERA and .271 average against, if that matters to you at all… and it probably shouldn’t.
  • For what it’s worth, I asked an AL scout very familiar with the Indians’ system for his take on the Ubaldo trade: “They took on a lot of risk between decreased velocity, questionable delivery, and the two top level prospects they gave up,” he said. “However, Ubaldo has a quality makeup and a great contract, so it’s not hard to see why they took the chance… Probably the kind of deal that hurts a little to pull the trigger on, but in the long run works for both sides. Assuming, of course, that they can win some games now, because there’s a good chance Pomeranz and White are pitching for the Rox for a while.”
  • How long will Ubaldo be pitching with the Indians? Well, they have affordable contractual control through 2013. The 2014 proposition is cloudy. Ubaldo has the option of voiding the $8 million club option for that season. When I asked Antonetti what Jimenez’s deadline is for deciding (can he wait until 2013 to make the call?), Antonetti said the contract language is “ambiguous.” Obviously, if Jimenez has the ability to wait that long and performs anywhere near his capabilities, he’ll be worth way more than $8 million and wouldn’t dare give the Indians that option. Until this is all cleared up, bet on Jimenez remaining with the Tribe through 2013, unless they work out some longer extension along the way or they dangle him on the trade market at some later juncture.
  • I’m still shocked that the Rockies allowed Jimenez to make that start Saturday night. Antonetti said there was a “high level of anxiety” watching him, which likely translates to, “I was not pleased.” The Indians scratched Drew Pomeranz and Alex White well in advance of the final particulars of the deal getting nailed down. It was up to the Rockies to decide what to do with Ubaldo.
  • Hopefully you read my initial take on the trade. I suppose it’s a credit to the strong PR work the Indians have done in promoting their prospects that so many fans (not all, by any means, but definitely more than a few) have moaned about this deal. It really is a hard trade to love, simply because the Indians had so much of their future invested in Alex White and Drew Pomeranz. Yes, I’m quite familiar with the TINSTAPP (There Is No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect) proposition and am obviously quite familiar with the past examples of Jaret Wright and Adam Miller (guys the Indians refused to dangle and later wished they had). But I also know that There Is Such A Thing As CC Sabathia. Sometimes these guys you groom come as advertised. Trading your two most prominent pitching prospects, unproven as they are, for a proven ace? Not a bad notion, in theory. But just how proven is Ubaldo Jimenez? He’s shown he can dominate at this level, but not over a truly sustained stretch. In the final analysis, if I were an Indians fan, I’d be encouraged by the home/road splits, the contractual control and the fact that Jimenez will be placed in Tim Belcher’s capable hands. And I’d be awfully intrigued by this window of opportunity the Indians have expanded for themselves through 2013 and awfully hopeful that they got this one right. It’s high-risk, high-reward at its height.

~AC

“Tonight I’m gonna be playing for all of the stakes”

By Anthony Castrovince/MLB.com

On Twitter: @Castrovince


I keep thinking back to what Chris Antonetti told me just the other day, probably as the Ubaldo Jimenez talks with the Rockies were heating up.

We were talking about that purported “Plan” the Indians were expected to be enslaved to. Nobody realistically expected the Tribe to sell off the long-term to address the short. Nobody expected this small-market club with so little wiggle room to dangle the likes of Drew Pomeranz and Alex White — the consolation prizes for past seasons gone awry — to support a 2011 club that has shocked the baseball world merely by playing somewhere in the neighborhood of .500 baseball.

That’s when Antonetti said something interesting.

“Let’s not be mistaken,” he told me. “’The Plan’ is to win games, get into the postseason and win a championship. Nobody’s smart enough to know when factors will line up to have those opportunities. We have an opportunity in front of us to potentially reach the postseason. We don’t take those opportunities lightly.”

Apparently not.

We can say this much in the wake of the Jimenez blockbuster: Antonetti has officially made his mark on this organization. After nine years spent as Mark Shapiro’s assistant, Antonetti was expected to be the bearer of business as usual at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario when he took over the GM reins last fall. But there is nothing usual about this Trade Deadline stunner.

An Indians club that has long articulated the necessity of stockpiling “waves of arms” down on the farm in order to sustain championship-caliber baseball in a shrinking market has suddenly sold off its two most prominent pitching prospects in Pomeranz and White, as well as right-hander Joe Gardner and first baseman/outfielder Matt McBride, for two years and two months of a guy who was arguably the best pitcher in baseball. Fourteen months ago.

Jimenez, 27, may very well be the proven front-line starter the Indians have lacked since they shipped off consecutive Cy Young winners in CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee in 2008 and ’09. Or he might be damaged goods, a flash that didn’t last. Truth is, nobody knows at this point, because for what amounts to a full season now, Jimenez has provided Fausto Carmona-like confusion in Colorado, brilliant in some spurts, baffling in others.

Antonetti’s betting on brilliance, and it’s a huge gamble. Not just because Jimenez still has plenty to prove, but because this Indians team at large is no sure thing, either. After a 30-15 start that woke up a slumbering and suffering fan base, the Indians have gone 23-36 in the time since, one of the worst records in the game in that stretch. They have seen two of their best hitters, Grady Sizemore and Shin-Soo Choo, hit the disabled list and an overachieving offense catch the bus back to earth. The starting staff has the 11th-best ERA in the 14-team AL, and even that is better than most anticipated going into the year.

Kosuke Fukudome was reeled in from the Cubs to provide some on-base ability to the outfield alignment, and, if rumblings are to be relied upon, Ryan Ludwick might be brought back in the hope he can provide some thump.

But Ubaldo is the big fish, the answer to all those who clamored for this club to make a major move. And no matter how this move shakes out, it’s going to have major implications on the Indians for years to come.

What are the Indians getting in Jimenez? Well, let’s start by saying it’s definitely a question.

Entering his bizarre one-inning outing against the Padres on Saturday night (and for our purposes, we’ll choose to ignore that disaster, given that it came amid the swirling rumors), Jimenez was 6-9 with a 4.20 ERA in 20 starts. His ballpark-adjusted ERA was 107, or just above league average. He had four starts in which he allowed five earned runs or more, 11 in which he allowed two or less.

These are the numbers of a good, not great, asset. The uplifting news is that Ubaldo has been at his best since June 1, going 6-4 with a 3.03 ERA in that stretch, but the bad news is that he’s yet to find the form that made him such an overpowering presence in the first half of 2010.

Remember that first half? Jimenez was literally unhittable one memorable night against the Braves and virtually unhittable every other time he took the mound. He went 15-1 through July 8, posting a 2.20 ERA, a .198 batting average against and .582 OPS against. These were just silly, silly statistics.

From July 19 on? Not so silly. Jimenez went 4-7 with a much-more-pedestrian but still-respectable 3.80 ERA. He also managed to allow just a .223 average and .644 OPS against.

So, to review, what we have here is a guy who absolutely dazzled for a short stretch. A very short stretch, in reality. And in time since – perhaps as a result of the injuries he’s endured (hip flexor, groin and thumb cuticle), the thin Colorado air, the adjustments made against him or some combination of the three – he’s been human as can be. Jimenez’s overall 2011 numbers are tainted by his 6.75 ERA in April, his 5.45 ERA in May and his 5.55 ERA at home (vs. a 2.83 mark elsewhere), but he’s also famously lost a couple ticks on his fastball.

Because of his past glories and his team-friendly contract ($2.8 million this year, $4.2 million in 2012, $5.75 million team option in 2013), it’s obvious why a guy like Jimenez would appeal to a team like the Indians, even though the 2014 option can reportedly be voided by the pitcher as a result of this trade.

But at the same time, the question begs to be asked: Why was he so readily available?

It’s rare for a club to give up on its homegrown ace at such a juncture. Even when the Indians tried to sell high with Cliff Lee, they did so a year and two months ahead of his free-agent alarm going off, not <i>three</i> years and two months.

It’s also amazing to see the Indians so willingly ship away two highly regarded arms in White and Pomeranz. These guys were the future, the reason to believe in better times… before better times showed up slightly ahead of schedule. Tribe fans got a too-brief glimpse of White before he injured his finger, and he was about to make his first rehab appearance when the deal went down. They’re not even a year removed from the Pomeranz hoopla that came when he signed his first professional contract. Speaking of that signing, the Indians gave bonuses totaling nearly $5 million to White and Pomeranz, so that figure must also be taken into account when we talk about how club-friendly Jimenez’s salary is.

Then again, you think about White’s finger. And you remember that another highly touted arm, Adam Miller, was once “untouchable” in trade talks, before his fickle finger resulted in four separate surgeries that have left him a 26-year-old Double-A reliever.

You also remember that best-laid plans often go to waste. The Indians thought they had built something special from within following the 2007 run to the ALCS, but they fell on their face in ’08 and ’09, prompting another rebuild.

So here arrives another postseason opportunity. As Antonetti said, you never know when, or if, the next one is coming around the corner. Jimenez coming on board in time for what might well be a make-or-break stretch against the Red Sox and Rangers could be a game-changer, or he could just provide more sterling starting efforts wasted by an inefficient offense.

Either way, the 2012 Tribe rotation, with Jimenez, Justin Masterson, Josh Tomlin, Fausto Carmona and Carlos Carrasco on board, is slightly more appealing on paper. But its depth has undoubtedly taken a hit. There will be no highly polished hot prospect coming around the corner. What you see is basically what you get.

That’s why this was such a bold move. “The Plan” so many assumed the Indians were operating by is a Deadline casualty, if it even existed at all. Antonetti made it clear he believes in one plan only, and that’s to win while the opportunity is here. And he has a heck of a lot riding on Ubaldo Jimenez being a big part of it.

~AC

On a scratch-off ticket named Fukudome…

By Anthony Castrovince/MLB.com

The Indians fired their first (and at this point, there’s really no telling it if will be their last) bullet of the Trade Deadline dealing season Thursday, when they reeled in Kosuke Fukudome from the Cubs for a couple of fringe prospects in Carlton Smith and Abner Abreu, with very little additional salary being taken on. The Cubs are picking up the vast majority (reportedly, nearly $4 million of $4.7 million) of Fukudome’s remaining salary for 2011, and Fukudome will likely be eligible for free agency in November… assuming, of course, that the Indians don’t offer a 34-year-old outfielder with no power a long-term extension.

(Note that the Indians can offer Fukudome arbitration and reap a supplemental Draft pick if he turns them down and signs with another Major League club. But given that Fukudome is making $14.5 million this year, it would be fairly foolish to offer him arbitration.)

So this is basically the baseball equivalent of passing by one of those lotto vending machines on your way out of Giant Eagle and throwing in $1 for a scratch-off. I’m not even going to compare this to buying a Mega Millions ticket or even a $5 scratch-off, because that would seem to imply the possibility of a major payout. Fukudome panning out to the best of his abilities would be about the equivalent of pocketing a couple hundred bucks from that token investment. It’s not going to speed up your retirement, but at least it’ll pay the electric bill.

After getting no-hit by Ervin Santana, the Indians’ offensive needs are clearly at their height, and Fukudome, who has a .374 on-base percentage that would rank second behind Travis Hafner (.399), is, at minimum, an upgrade over your daily dose of Zeke Carrera, Austin Kearns and the newly DFA’d Travis Buck.

Of course, it should also be noted that Fukudome is a notorious fast-starter (the anti-Jhonny Peralta, in that regard) and quick cooler-offer. That impressive season OBP is amped-up by April, when Fukudome turned in a .383/.486/.400 slash line. In the time since, Fukudome’s line is a much-more-pedestrian .245/.343/.361. He has a .329 OBP in July, for whatever it’s worth.

Speaking of potentially worthless stats, Fukudome has a .217 AVG, .308 OBP and .286 SLG in 53 career games against American League clubs, and, in a related development, the Indians play in the American League. That’s just fun with small samples… or so the Indians hope.

Really, beyond his ability to draw walks (and I’m not dismissing that ability, by any means, because this Indians offense needs all the help it can get) Fukudome is a whole lot of ho-hum. But at least he doesn’t have an abysmal left-right split or a proclivity toward letting fly balls fall at his feet. Essentially, the Indians are upgrading a situation that really wasn’t all that difficult to upgrade.

So while this trade caused the usual talk-radio outbursts, you can’t fault the Indians for taking a shot with Fukudome given their current options, with both Grady Sizemore and Shin-Soo Choo on the shelf, and what they gave up to get him. If Fukudome fails, you can criticize them as much as you might criticize a friend who buys the $1 Cash Explosion ticket and only gets two of the required three matching prize amounts. It truly is no big deal.

Perhaps a bigger deal is in the works. For one, the Indians have been rumored to be in on the Rockies’ Ubaldo Jimenez. If acquired, though, he might not actually do much to help them in this particular playoff chase, as the Indians are already wasting plenty of solid starting efforts as is. But he’s under contractual control on the cheap through 2014, and he was arguably the best pitcher in baseball in the first half of 2010.

The trouble for the Tribe, as we’ve noted ad nauseam, is that their greatest need — a reliable run-producing bat — simply isn’t readily available in this market, even if they were inclined to give up top-end talent to land one. Carlos Beltran was, famously, the best option in that regard, and the Indians never even got to the point of discussing names with the Mets because Beltran was simply never going to come here. Colby Rasmus was made available by the Cardinals (and hauled in by Toronto for a surprisingly small bounty), but getting him for the long-term would have required compromising the current pitching staff in the short-term, and that’s no way to stay in contention.

What’s notable is that, in pursuing Beltran, the Indians did, indeed, show a willingness to dangle what they would consider to be real talent from the upper levels of their farm system, and this tells you a bit about how they view this 2011 opportunity in relation to the purported “Plan” at large.

“Let’s not be mistaken,” GM Chris Antonetti said the other day. “The plan is to win games, get into the postseason and win a championship. Nobody’s smart enough to know when factors will line up to have those opportunities. We have an opportunity in front of us to potentially reach the postseason. We don’t take those opportunities lightly.”

In other words, the Indians remember well what “The Plan” yielded in 2008 and 2009, two years in which injuries and poor performance eroded what had seemed to be realistic expectations in April. The future might very well be grim, for all we know, so you might as well bring your A-Game to a pleasant present.

Reality, though, keeps intervening on the Indians, whether it’s in the form of Alex White, Sizemore and Choo going down with injury (and now we know White won’t be back soon enough for the Indians to consider him a starting rotation factor), Beltran giving them the no-trade treatment or guys like Ryan Ludwick and Josh Willingham being the sexiest “big bats” left in the trade market (remind me… how did that Ludwick acquisition work out for the Padres last year?).

Quick fixes are rarely found at the Deadline (a point I attempted to articulate in this column), and they are certainly not available to these Indians. That’s why you try to look for incremental improvements, and Fukudome, at very little expense, figures to be that.

~AC

“Darling, so it goes. Some things are meant to be.”

By Anthony Castrovince/MLB.com

Our society, for some reason, often falls victim to the “meant to be” mindset. Think about it. How many times in your life have you heard someone say something was “meant to be?” It seems to happen every time one of your friends meets somebody special. The girl tends bar Saturday nights, the guy is a raging alcoholic and… by golly… it was meant to be. Then they break up in three months, and, looking to offer consolation, their friends tell them, “Well, you know, it just wasn’t meant to be.”

“Meant to be” is the ultimate cop-out. Literally anything can be explained as “meant to be” or “not meant to be,” after the fact. The fact that we fall for it so consistently is proof that the search for answers and meaning in our lives that began when Kierkegaard and Nietzsche first got philosophical in the 19th Century hasn’t yielded any actual results after all this time. A result is not/was not meant to be or not meant to be. It just… is. (I’d say “it is what it is” but that will just start me on another rant.)

How many sports teams have been labeled a “team of destiny”? None that have finished in second place, that’s for sure. Sure, the second-place teams had good seasons, but, ultimately, it just “wasn’t meant to be.” And they’ll be sure to point this out in the postgame press conference.

So here we have this 2011 Cleveland Indians team that so often makes you feel like it’s “meant to be” an AL Central winner. They Indians have had so many of those goosebumpy moments that I detailed in the first-half recap. They’ve had too many out-of-nowhere heroics to count. “A doubleheader in 100-degree heat? No problem. We’ll just call up David Huff for seven scoreless, and we’ll get about 900 feet worth of home runs out of Austin Kearns and Lou Marson. No worries.”

But there have also been so many ridiculous roster issues this season that make you feel it’s simply not meant to be. Too many injuries for a $49 million payroll to bear. What if Grady Sizemore is lost for the rest of the season with another knee issue? What if Shin-Soo Choo and/or Alex White have a setback in their recoveries? The depth of this organization is long past the point of being tested. It’s been all but eliminated. With the notable exception of a Jason Kipnis promotion or a Drew Pomeranz desperation jump from Double-A, you’re looking at every last strand of spaghetti the Indians have to throw at the wall. A starting outfield of Luis Valbuena, Ezequiel Carrera and Kearns ought not be allowed by the Commissioner’s Office. There ought to be a clause in the CBA that protects against it.

Yet the Indians carry on in this crazy division, and they have 10 days to decide how serious they want to take this final push. By and large, I’m not a big believer in Trade Deadline acquisitions truly deciding divisions… at least, not in trade markets like this one. There are no CC Sabathias or Cliff Lees to be had here. By and large, the deadline is a pretty overrated avenue for improvement. I wrote some version of it before and I’ll say it again that, with all apologies to the Ryan Ludwicks, Josh Willinghams, Melky Cabreras and Aaron Harangs of the world, getting Choo or White back in the near term will do more wonders for this club than any of the reportedly available options on the market would.

The Sizemore situation changes things. To what degree, we don’t yet know. I was told there was a “sense of urgency” in the front office before Sizemore went down (as there well should be… we all saw what heightened expectations for this club yielded in 2006 and ’08), and I would have to imagine it’s increased in direct proportion to the severity of Sizemore’s knee injury (and though this is not a hard and fast rule, the lack of a public timetable several days after examination doesn’t usually bode well for a quick recovery). Hopefully, for the good of the game, this isn’t another long-term setback for Sizemore. And hopefully, for the good of this town and this team, the Indians have the goods to continue to contend, whether or not they make a move.

But with Sizemore trending dangerously toward the “oft-injured” label, I’d be thinking long and hard about outfield possibilities for more than just the short-term. The Indians are going to exercise Sizemore’s 2012 option unless he suffers a catastrophic injury, and I’m not sure if this latest setback qualifies. But one look at the organizational outfield depth chart (or that Valbuena-Carrera-Kearns concoction) reveals that it wouldn’t kill the Indians to think about adding another option.

I don’t think the Mike Morse idea floated by one of my favorite Tribe scribes, Paul Cousineau (and summarily trumpeted by Terry Pluto), is without merit, but it’s probably not all that realistic, given that Morse is both cheap and under the Nats’ contractual control for two more seasons beyond this one. I get that they might have a glut of outfielders in the near future, but the versatility a guy like Morse provides on the cheap is exactly what GMs crave, and the Indians’ current outfield conundrum is proof of why that’s the case.

What about an aggressive offer for Hunter Pence? I wrote on MLB.com why a Pence trade might make sense from the Astros’ perspective, and my boss, an unabashed Tribe fan, quickly began e-mailing me with Indians lineup scenarios featuring Pence in the cleanup spot and the comment, “Me likey.” Do you likey? Do the Indians likey? Enough to move a prominent prospect like Pomeranz? Doubtful.

There’s the rub, of course. If we’re talking about parting with prospects, I think the only reasonable fix for the Indians at this juncture is a bat that’s not only going to shore them up in the near-term but remain under contractual control in 2012/13, too. But their hesitancy to deal any notable names from the farm is understandable, as the Tribe system, for all its strengths, still is not at a point where it’s overflowing with can’t-miss talent. If, however, we’re talking about Ludwick or Willingham, both of whom make more than $6 million this season, then I’d only do it if it’s largely a salary dump on the part of the Padres or A’s. The Indians claim to have a little bit of financial flexibility right now (thank you, Dollar Dog Night!), so perhaps that’s possible.

It’s also possible that the Tribe will seek an arm to round out the rotation, but that’s hard to imagine. That is, after all, an inefficient market within an inefficient market, and I think the Indians are better off waiting to see if Huff’s cut fastball is for real or if White’s finger heals on time than they are in giving anything up for a Harang or Jeff Francis. But that’s just my own opinion… and come to think of it, I don’t even think I swiped it from the blogosphere.

At this juncture, I couldn’t even rule out the possibility of addition by subtraction. Would it be crazy to explore what the market for Fausto Carmona (on whom the Indians hold club options of $7 million for 2012, $9 million for 2013 and $12 million for 2014) might reap? I know he’s damaged goods, but I also know that for every former 19-game winner in the big leagues, there’s a pitching coach who thinks he can fix him. And Carmona pitched well in his first start back from the DL. Maybe it’s the absolute wrong time to think about moving him, or maybe it’s a truly diabolical thing to do. That’s up for me to suggest and the Indians to ignore or act on (and my money’s on the former).

It amazes me that I could sit here and pound out a heartfelt argument for why the Indians must add a new body if they wish to continue to contend, and I could spend just as much time arguing the fact that they’ve made it this far with the talent in-house, so what’s a couple more months? This thing could go either way, because the division is just that weak unpredictable.

One thing that does strike me about the second half, though, is the schedule itself. I don’t think I’m talking out of turn when I point out that the Indians have been a pretty ho-hum team on the road. They’ve had a ton of late-inning magic at home this season, and that’s hoisted them to a 27-18 record at Progressive Field. But they’re 24-28 elsewhere. And maybe this wouldn’t be such a big deal if it weren’t for the small fact that 16 of their 26 September games (and 13 of their last 19) are on the road. Talk about a true test.

This team’s been tested all year, and its fans — Clevelanders that they are — are either reveling in its relevance or waiting for the wheels to fall off. I don’t see much in-between. The optimistic among you focus on the many improbable moments that pushed this club into contention and say, “It’s meant to be.” The burned-by-the-fire bunch adds up the injuries and says, “It’s not meant to be.”

In the end, of course, whatever will be will be, and it will be interesting to watch it unfold.

~AC

PS: Check out my latest column on the AL Central.

“Halfway to heaven and just a mile out of hell”

By Anthony Castrovince/MLB.com

We’re speeding into the All-Star break, we’ve already hit the mathematical halfway point of the 2011 season, and the Indians are still in first place.

I don’t get stunned easily. I will say I was pretty stunned the first time I had BBQ chicken pizza. I mean, I loved BBQ chicken, and I loved pizza, but I never once thought to combine them. That first bite was just… indescribable. Stunning. Simply stunning.

(Sometimes… and this is absolutely true… I find myself thinking about the guy who invented BBQ chicken pizza. I wonder what his life is like. Did he get rich off the idea, or was it somehow stolen from him? I would have to imagine that even if he didn’t profit off the concept, the excitement he must have experienced the day he came up with that creation and the joy he must have felt the first time he shared it with other human beings had to be worth more than money. I’m not a father, but perhaps that’s what the birth of your first child is like.)

We live in such a pre-processed, cookie-cutter society (“Oh look, they’re opening a Panera up the street!”) that it’s hard to be stunned, in a positive sense. But this Indians team stuns me. As you know, I was subjected to many innings of bad baseball over the last few years. You expected this club to take some positive steps in 2011. There are good, smart people making the decisions and pulling the switches and there are hard-working kids with talent on the roster and in the pipeline. You expected them to put it all together and get it right at some point.

But this soon? Stunning. I’m stunned.

And then, you know, the first couple ecstatic months came and went, the injuries piled up, the June swoon hit, and, yeah, you could see all the storybook elements coming to a close and that cold, cruel reality of life with a low payroll setting in. You remember my “Gold” analogy from April? It looked like we were in that portion of the album where songs like “Nobody Girl,” “Enemy Fire,” “Wild Flowers” and the incredibly dreadful “SYLVIA PLATH” (I guess that song would be the equivalent of the moment when Shin-Soo Choo broke his thumb) come on and you think to yourself, “Well, it was a good run while it lasted.”

But in the last couple weeks, the Indians have strung together a few series wins, they’ve maintained their top spot in the AL Central, and they just had another one of those magic moments that really makes you wonder if this season is the stuff of destiny.

Sure, they’ve benefited from a weak division, and they could tank after the break. We’ll just have to see how it goes. But already, so many memories, wonderful and otherwise, have been created, and they’re worth recapping here in the first-half review.

THE CORY SNYDER MEMORIAL AWARD FOR MOST VALUABLE PLAYER

Quite clearly, it’s Asdrubal Cabrera. From the day he arrived to the big leagues, he’s had a confident swagger, the game seemingly coming natural to him. But this is the first year that swagger has translated to such a consistent showing on the field, and it’s safe to say nobody imagined he’d have 14 home runs before the break. Plus, he’s stayed healthy and, recently, played through pain. The Indians need him, and he knows it.

THE GREG SWINDELL MEMORIAL AWARD FOR MOST VALUABLE PITCHER

Well, this is a tough one. I’m going to look at it this way. If the playoffs started tomorrow, who would you want to start Game 1? And as much as I love the pinpoint precision and stunning success of Josh Tomlin, I think I’d have to go with Justin Masterson. His record doesn’t indicate it, but the guy has given up two earned runs or less in 14 of his 18 starts this season (and gone into the seventh inning in each of those games). He has nasty stuff and has finally figured out how to retire left-handers on a more consistent basis.

The Tomlinator can start Game 2 in this phantom series, and Carlos Carrasco gets Game 3.

THE ANDY MARTE MEMORIAL AWARD FOR MOST PERPLEXING PLAYER

Just as the national media had taken to trumpeting Choo as the game’s most underrated player, he started to put up numbers that were, simply, underwhelming. It certainly wasn’t for lack of effort, as I can honestly say I’ve never known a player who cares so much and puts in so much work behind the scenes. But Choo just never truly got going in April, and then he got arrested. He beat himself up over that for a couple months, got scrutinized back home in South Korea, compared himself to a frog and then broke his thumb. What a miserable first half.

But the optimist in you can’t help but wonder what the return of Choo can mean for this team if they’re still in it when he’s healthy.

THE MASA KOBAYASHI MEMORIAL AWARD FOR MOST PERPLEXING PITCHER

It’s pretty bad when a team loses its supposed “ace” to an injury (on a belly flop over first base, of all things), and you can’t help but wonder if it’s a blessing in disguise. The Indians won’t be sending Carmona out on a rehab stint, as many hoped, but at least they’ll slot him into the back end of their rotation coming out of the break.

COMEBACK PLAYER OF THE HALF

The Indians wanted this to be Grady Sizemore (and that looked to be the case in late April), but they’ll definitely settle for a rousing return from Travis Hafner.

Even before his grand slam heroics against the Blue Jays, this guy has legitimately looked, in doses, like the Pronk we knew and loved in 2006. The travails of Travis in recent years are well-documented. His shoulder injury was so damaging that, at one time, he couldn’t even lift a fork to his face to eat. And when he still couldn’t DH on an everyday basis last season, I was convinced his was a chronic condition that would never allow him to be a premier slugger again. Hafner’s contract was easily one of the worst in the game coming into the year, and when you factor in what a huge percentage of this club’s payroll that contract accounted for, it might very well have qualified as the worst. But aside from oblique issues that landed him on the DL for nearly a month, Hafner has been a steady presence and a persistent threat in the middle of the order this year. And he’s had a flair for the dramatic, too, as we saw Thursday night.

BEST DEFENSIVE PLAY

I’m open to other suggestions (most of them likely involving Asdrubal), but Cabrera’s play on that Omar Vizquel grounder in Chicago on May 19 has to be my top pick. Watch it here.

Honorable mention goes to the triple play Carlos Santana started on April 3.

BEST OFFENSIVE PLAY

Having covered the Eric Wedge era and received literally hundreds of e-mails on this subject over the years, I know what a bunt-hungry fan base the Indians have. So Manny Acta’s decision to have Cabrera put down a suicide squeeze to sneak home the winning run against the Red Sox on April 7 had to win him some love.

But in my mind, nothing tops May 19, when Acta inserted Ezequiel Carrera, on his first day in the big leagues, into the eighth inning of a tie game against the Reds and had him put down a bunt with two outs and the go-ahead run at third. The cojones on that guy. And Carrera played it perfectly, getting the bunt down and then avoiding Joey Votto’s tag to get in safe with the RBI single. Just a gutsy call and a well-executed play on the first pitch the rookie ever saw.

BEST MOMENT THAT WON’T BE ON THE TEAM HIGHLIGHT VIDEO

Former backup catcher Chris Gimenez unwittingly coined the “Pure Rage” nickname for Chris Perez last summer when he used the phrase to describe one of Perez’s saves. But never has Perez shown it quite as much as when he released the frustration of a shaky outing by hurling the ball into the fountains at Kauffman Stadium (sorry, couldn’t find the video)… after a victory over the Royals. Not exactly classy, but… kind of awesome, too.

WORST MOMENT THAT WON’T BE ON THE TEAM HIGHLIGHT VIDEO

Well, you know, I’m thinking it has to be this.

BEST MARKETING SLOGAN THAT, OVER TIME, TOOK ON A MUCH DEEPER MEANING THAN INITIALLY INTENDED… MOST LIKELY

“What If?”

Shortly before Opening Day, you’ll remember, the Indians began rolling out this in-house creation in which they showed some of the great moments in team history and basically asked the viewer, “What if that never happened?” What if Bob Feller signed elsewhere? What if Rick Manning dropped the ball in center field? What if Herb Score had laryngitis? Etc., etc., etc.

And the answer to all these questions, of course, was… well… that would really stink. Still, it was an interesting advertising angle that, based on my conversations with people, seemed to spark questions beyond, “What if?” What were the Indians trying to say? Were they trying to remind people that if you don’t come to the ballpark, the team will leave town? Had the results of the previous three seasons plunged them into some sort of existential crisis in which they questioned their place in the world? Were these ads made by Omnicom or Kierkegaard?

The point, though, if I’m not mistaken, was that many of the Indians’ great moments didn’t necessarily happen in great seasons. Don’t focus on the record, the ad asserted, but rather focus on the memories that are created when you come out to the game.

And then the Indians started winning. And winning. And winning more still. And “What if?” began to look more and more like a sage saying. “Hey, what if the Indians aren’t destined to finish fourth?” “Hey, what if they’re not down 5-0 in the third every night?” And now it’s too the point where it’s a legitimate question… “What if this is their year?”

Great ad. Maybe they didn’t intend for it to be quite this good. But what if they did?

CLOSEST I CAME TO A RAFAEL PEREZ INTERVIEW

That “Bullpen Mafia” segment from the MLB Fan Cave was on a TV in the clubhouse near Perez’s locker, and Raffy, of course, wasn’t involved in the skit (which, by the way, was a heck of a lot funnier than I expected it to be). I asked Perez why that was, and he said something unintelligible, then said clear as day, “Too far from my house.”

Raffy Perez, ladies and gentlemen.

THE ANTI-RAFAEL PEREZ AWARD FOR BEST QUOTE

“It seems like nobody else wants this division, so we’re going to take it.” — Orlando Cabrera, after a late-April win over the Royals.

I don’t know if there’s such a thing as bulletin-board material in April, but this was nonetheless a pretty bold statement to be making about 25 games into a 162-game season. But Cabrera was right. None of the big dogs stepped up early in this division, and the Indians took over and have since kept hanging around. A pretty perfect summation of the attitude that got the Indians to this point.

TOP EIGHT GOOSEBUMP-INDUCING MOMENTS

All right, I took to Twitter for this one, and these were the eight specific moments that got votes. I took the liberty of settling all tie-breakers on my own.

8. Chris Perez strikes out the side for the save in Yankee Stadium, June 13: He needed just 14 pitches to get Nick Swisher and Jorge Posada looking, then Brett Gardner swinging to end it. Indians win, 1-0.

7. Asdrubal Cabrera’s suicide squeeze vs. the Red Sox, April 7: A perfect play to get a big, 1-0 win, finishing off a series sweep of the BoSox and putting a positive finish on a season-opening homestand that had started off on a sour note. Really, this was the series in which you could start taking the Indians seriously as a real baseball team with uniforms and everything.

6. Carlos Santana starts a triple play vs. the White Sox, April 3: His first game at first base. Yeah, I’d say it turned out pretty well.

5. Austin Kearns’ go-ahead homer vs. the Yankees, July 4: I thought this might receive more votes than it did, given that A. it happened just four days ago and B. the element of surprise was off the charts. Kearns hadn’t homered since last August, and he entered the night with a .196 average and .265 slugging percentage. So, yeah, this came out of nowhere.

4. Travis Hafner’s game-winning homer vs. the Mariners, May 13: Pronk hadn’t homered in nearly a month, then he goes deep on All-Star (?) Brandon League with two out and one on in the bottom of the ninth to give the Tribe a 5-4 win. I think what took this to another, goosebumpian level was Tom Hamilton’s call: “The magic is back at Progressive Field!”

3. Ezequiel Carrera’s RBI bunt single vs. the Reds, May 19: Again, the element of surprise goes a long way, which is why I named this the top offensive play of the half.

2. Carlos Santana’s walkoff grand slam vs. the Tigers, April 29: Just a ridiculous game that the Indians had no business winning. They rallied from a 5-2 deficit late to tie it. Then, in the ninth, they loaded the bases, Santana came up with one out, and, as one reader tweeted, it was “oye como gone.” Easily the kind of game the Indians would have lost last year. Goosebumps.

1. Hafner walkoff slam vs. the Blue Jays, July 7: Well, you had to count on this getting the most votes, given that we’re right on the heels of Hafner’s heroics. But I must say all the elements make this a legit choice. The Indians looked helpless and hapless at the plate all night. Out of nowhere, they loaded them up in the ninth, Asdrubal drove home a run with one out and Hafner crushed lefty Luis Perez’s pitch into the right-field stands for the stunning, 5-4 win. The helmet spike at the plate was a nice touch, too. Goosebumps, I tell you, goosebumps.

Every year, certain teams come along that just have that “it” factor. No matter how many injuries or rough stretches come along, they keep finding ways to win… often in dramatic fashion.

Maybe this is the Indians’ year. At the very least, it was their half.

~AC

“So, you think you’re sponge-worthy?”

By Anthony Castrovince/MLB.com

The Indians’ flirtation with a first-place finish has reached its fourth month, so we are definitely at a stage where it’s worth determining just how “sponge-worthy” this season is.

Undoubtedly, the Indians won’t be sellers at this year’s Trade Deadline, as they were in 2008, ’09 and ’10. And understandably, there is curiosity over whether they’ll be buyers for the first time since Kenny Lofton was brought in for his third tour of duty and the infamous third-base stop sign that ensued.

If we’re being honest – and why not? — the Indians are probably a year ahead of schedule on the contention front. A lot had to break right for the Indians to be at this point at this juncture in the rebuild, and the Tigers, White Sox and Twins have all, to varying degrees, done their part to put the Tribe in this position. An abnormally hot start gave the Indians a seven-game cushion in the Central as of May 23. They blew that cushion by going 10-21 from May 24 through June 26, but the fact that this brutal stretch was not a back-breaker either says something about the Indians’ resilience or the division’s repugnance, depending on your perspective.

So now what?

If you’re Chris Antonetti and company, how much faith do you put in this club not only remaining atop the Central standings but advancing in October? How much do you deviate from the long-term plotting in order to provide some short-term sustenance?

Those are questions likely being weighed on the corner of Carnegie and Ontario, though I’m not entirely certain they are questions keeping anybody up at night.

The reason is simple: Even if the Indians were willing to mortgage some chunk of their future in order to augment the ’11 club (unquestionably, the biggest need is another bat in the outfield, with Shin-Soo Choo out until September), it’s a seller’s market and a slow-developing one, at that. At this juncture, it’s hard to imagine the Indians being willing to give up anything of substance to land the likes of Melky Cabrera or Ryan Ludwick or Jeff Francouer.

“We’re open in any way we can to improve the team, whatever that might be,” Antonetti said. “Especially with Choo suffering the injury that he suffered, we’ll probably focus most of our efforts on improving our offense and getting a little more consistency there.”

Had the market more to offer (and again, it’s still too early to get a firm read on it, simply because, as of today, 17 of MLB’s 30 teams are within five games of a division lead), the Indians would have something of a dilemma on their hands. They’d have to calculate how the risks associated with moving a Jason Kipnis, Jason Donald or Nick Hagadone stack up against the potential upside of adding an impact bat for the here and now.

But beyond Carlos Beltran, whose contract is simply out of range for an Indians team always on a budget, none of the names bandied about at this still-early juncture of the in-season trade season strike me as the answer. The truth is, unless it’s a front-line pitcher like CC Sabathia going to the Brewers or Cliff Lee going to the Phillies and Rangers, the July hired hands rarely provide the big boost expected of them…. or at least the kind of boost you’d  expect from the amount of attention this time of year receives.

Grady Sizemore looking more like the guy who came off the DL in April than the one who came off in May? That would be a big boost. Carlos Santana showing more consistency? That would be a big boost. Shin-Soo Choo pulling an Albert Pujols and coming back a month ahead of schedule? That would be a huge boost.

“It’s so hard to put percentages on external acquisitions because there are so many variables in play,” Antonetti said. “The benefit that we have with our internal options is we control those unilaterally, which guys we bring up, provided they’re healthy. Externally, so many things have to come together.”

The Indians might, indeed, make a move before the July 31 deadline. But I don’t expect that move to be of much impact to either their long-term prospect pool or their short-term run-production. What you see is what you get with this injury riddled club, and what you see might very well be enough to keep hanging around in the Central standings.

~AC

PS: Be sure to check out my feature on 10-game winner Josh Tomlin on MLB.com and Indians.com today.

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