January 2012

“Is that you, baby, or just a brilliant disguise?”

By Anthony Castrovince/MLB.com

On Twitter: @Castrovince

ImageSo Khloe reportedly isn’t really a Kardashian, Mitt Romney reportedly isn’t really the Iowa caucus winner and Fausto Carmona reportedly isn’t really Fausto Carmona.

Talk about a jarring news cycle.

I’ve known The Pitcher Formerly Known as Carmona, who was arrested in the Dominican Republic for falsifying his identity, since he was 22 years old.

No, wait, scratch that. I’ve known him since he was 25 years old, if Thursday’s Associated Press report about his age actually being 31, not 28, is accurate.

Either way, the news that “Carmona,” whose real name is reportedly Roberto Hernandez Heredia, might have been duping us and the Indians all this time is both surprising and, well, not.

Latin America has long been a “buyer beware” environment, a place where things are not always as they appear. It is not at all uncommon for players to assume a new identity and age in order to increase their attractiveness to Major League clubs, and if Carmona is found guilty, he, like “Leo Nunez” before him, will stand as an extreme example of one of the game’s more troubling trends.

Three years ago, the Indians learned “Jose Ozoria,” the 16-year-old Dominican shortstop they had signed to a $570,000 bonus, was actually a 19-year-old named Wally Bryan. They decided to keep him in the organization, but his actual age greatly diminished his prospect potential, and he was out of professional ball by year’s end. Burned by the Bryan case, the club instituted a policy of subjecting their targets in foreign markets to DNA testing to confirm their identities.

Of course, that policy was put in place long after Carmona came aboard.

When the Tribe found Carmona in 2000, he was a dirt-poor prospect from the village of Naranjo Atta Viejo Yamasa, the son of a farmer who taught him the value of hard work. His teeth were so bad that the Indians feared he wouldn’t be able to properly nourish himself, so they doled out the dollars for his dental work. He ascended to the big leagues by 2006 and had a stint in the closer’s role that season that was as brief as it was disastrous, but he was so unflustered by the experience that he turned in 19 victories the following year, his first full season as a starter.

A picture of Carmona peering in for the sign, not at all fazed by the swarm of midges flying around his head, during a masterful performance against the Yankees in the ’07 AL Division Series hangs in a hallway in the Indians’ Player Development Complex — an example to all the Minor Leaguers who pass by of the mental toughness it takes to succeed at the game’s highest level.

And when Carmona had completed that rise from rags, the riches rolled in. The Indians signed him to a contract extension at the start of the ’08 season that guaranteed him $15 million over four years.

His first order of business was to build his parents a home.

Now, we could spend paragraph after paragraph explaining and evaluating all that’s happened since. Carmona’s humbling demotion to the lowest level of the Minors to sort out the mental and mechanical issues that turned him into a walk-prone washout. The incredible inconsistency that has made him a source of wonder to the club’s coaching staff and fans the last couple years.

But when you think of Carmona — or whatever his name is — in the wake of this news, remember how desperate he must have felt a dozen years ago. He could spend his life in poverty, working on the family farm, or he could explore the value of his blessed right arm.

And what if, in order to get the maximum value out of that arm, his best option was to tell a lie?

A lie that he’s allegedly carried with him all this time.

“I’m very proud of what I’ve accomplished,” Carmona told me the day he signed that extension, and pride is precisely what prompted him to respond to any inquiry about a poor performance with a shake of the head and a proclamation that he had made “a good pitch” that the opposition happened to hit. Pride is the reason Carmona has always wanted to handle his own interviews with the American media, even though his English is dreadful.

If these allegations and reports are true, Carmona, of course, has nothing to be proud of with regard to the way he deceived his employers all this time. But if he did tell this lie, he did it feeling it was the right thing to do for his family. And once you make a decision like that, there’s simply no going back.

Not until the Dominican police intervene, anyway.

Of more concern to the Indians than the past (no matter the pitcher’s age, they’ve gotten decent bang for their buck out of him) is the future. With the rotation battered by the Tommy John surgery that removed Carlos Carrasco from the picture, the Tribe rightly exercised Carmona’s $7 million 2012 option last fall.

Now, much like the Marlins placed Nunez, whose identity was revealed to be that of Juan Carlos Oviedo, on the restricted list, the Indians can halt any payments to Carmona until his legal situation is settled back home. Oviedo agreed to a $6 million contract with the Fish on Tuesday, but that money is contingent on his ability to return to the U.S. His legal battle began in September and is still ongoing, so it remains to be seen how long Carmona’s case will drag on. We can’t rule out the possibility that we’ve not only seen the last of Carmona but might never see the first of Heredia.

ImageAll of which is to say the Indians might be in a bind here. Because as jarring as the news is and as much as the actual age of Carmona/Heredia obviously impacts his perceived value, the ugly truth is that the Indians’ depth rotation options — David Huff, Jeanmar Gomez, Scott Barnes, Zach McAllister and Corey Kluber — are large in number but thin in upside, and they need this particular pitcher for the third slot in their rotation. Perhaps this will prompt the club to consider outside options.

What I would doubt, knowing how the Indians operate, is a clean cut with Carmona, no matter how much that $7 million might help them fill their glaring need for a bat at first base. But I’ve been wrong before.

If Carmona/Heredia is guilty, was he wrong to tell this lie?

Well, from our first cognizant moments, we’re all taught not to lie. But having bettered his own life and the lives of his loved ones, I doubt this lie – a lie told by countless players in his position — is one he’d regret, if he did indeed tell it.

What he’d regret, I’m sure, is getting caught.

~AC

“I peg you as a ‘glass is half-empty’ kinda guy, am I right?”

By Anthony Castrovince/MLB.com

It’s all about outlook, whether you approach your daily existence with a grin or a glower.

Some embrace the New Year as an opportunity for refreshment or advancement or the continuation of all the joy and beauty that life on earth entails. “Another year!” they shriek. Others bemoan it as the extension and continuation of their miserable existence, another opportunity to stub their toe on the bedpost of life. “Another year,” they sigh.

Here at CastroTurf, we cater to both sides, and that’s due, no doubt, to my Cleveland upbringing. This is either the most optimistic sports town you’ve ever encountered or the most miserable. And some of us waver by the day.

So let’s look at 2012, as it pertains to the Cleveland Indians, from both perspectives. We’ll get into where the Indians stand relative to their division peers after the remainder of the offseason plays out. For now, let’s examine this club for what it is and where it is and point out some positives and negatives as we embark upon the year ahead.

I think, in these situations, it’s always best to get the bad out of the way and then go with the good, so let’s do just that.

THE GLASS IS HALF-EMPTY…

  • The Indians went 30-15 to start 2011, then 50-67 the rest of the way. They did not have the depth to overcome injuries and remain a contender, even as a winnable division remained there for the taking late in the summer. And because of poor player development and a lack of luck in the injury department, they’ll struggle in the depth department again in 2012.
  • The Ubaldo Jimenez trade. The Indians don’t make this trade if they don’t have two years of control of Jimenez beyond 2011. That said, part of the incentive for making the deal when they did was to have Jimenez for the home stretch of the AL Central race, and that simply could not have gone worse (6.35 ERA in five starts against the Tigers).
  • It makes you wonder. Had he not dealt for Jimenez in late July, would Chris Antonetti make that same exact trade today? No one is smart enough to know how Jimenez would have performed in the season’s final two months, had he remained in Colorado. The culture shock of switching teams and leagues undoubtedly played a part in his decidedly suspect August and September. By the same token, no one knows if Alex White (12 homers allowed in 36 1/3 innings with the Rox) would have performed with the Tribe with a less-aggressive return-to-the-rotation timetable. Nor do we know what to make of Drew Pomeranz’s 2.6 strikeout-to-walk ratio in the tiny sample size that is 18 1/3 innings at the big-league level (I’m guessing he disturbs the peace in Mississippi, trade or no trade). All we know is that one pretty sizable function of the Ubaldo trade — contending in 2011 — fell flat, and now the Indians enter 2012 with an even more sizable question mark near the top of their rotation. And with Pomeranz and White, unproven as they might be, out of the mix, the rotation depth is very much a question mark. And that’s also due to…
  • Carlos Carrasco out for the year. Or, best-case scenario, most of the year, thanks to Tommy John surgery. And then you have the ongoing Hector Rondon debacle, extended another five to seven months because of another elbow surgery. Rondon might have been relegated to relief work this year, anyway, but he’s another promising arm gone awry. And Carrasco had just begun to look like the real deal. All of this has served to decimate the rotation depth, which currently consists of David Huff, Jeanmar Gomez, Scott Barnes (whose innings will be limited after a 2011 injury) and Zach McAllister.
  • Fausto Carmona. I just don’t have the energy to write anything more than that.
  • The veteran presence so sorely needed in the rotation has arrived. But it’s a 38-year-old Derek Lowe, coming off a 9-17 season in which he helped choke away the Braves’ Wild Card lead.
  • Wherefore art thou, CC trade returns? The Indians have, publicly and rightly, distanced themselves from any convincing hope of Matt LaPorta becoming the right-handed force they once envisioned him to be. He has 1,008 plate appearances in his Major League career and only a .397 slugging percentage to show for it. He simply hasn’t shown an ability to make adjustments at the big-league level.
  • And while Michael Brantley has undoubtedly had more promising moments in the Majors (and is only 24), all we know for now is that the Indians don’t yet see him as an everyday center fielder and his offensive numbers don’t yet live up to the demands of left field (or, for that matter, first base, where he might see some time in 2012). Brantley had a .388 career on-base percentage in the Minors, but it’s just .316 in 942 Major League plate appearances. He has a .572 career OPS against lefties. He hasn’t established himself as a legit stolen-base threat, and that could be tied to the fact that he’s been hampered throughout his big-league career by a variety of injuries.
  • As far as the veterans in the lineup go, Asdrubal Cabrera wore down in the second half (.244/.310/.419 vs. .293/.347/.489 in the first half), Shin-Soo Choo was a “frog” that took a big leap backward, Grady Sizemore’s always hurt (and hernia surgeries can rob a player of his explosiveness up to a year after the fact) and Travis Hafner’s always hurt. And the worst part? There is no high-upside position player talent looming in the upper levels of the farm system. Last year, the Indians could call on reinforcements like Jason Kipnis and Lonnie Chisenhall from Triple-A when they needed a boost. This year? Not so much.
  • The search for a power bat has been flat. Carlos Beltran turned down the opportunity to come to Cleveland twice in five months, first at the Trade Deadline and then at the free-agent bargaining table. And this speaks to the larger truth with the Indians. As if TV market size and payroll capabilities weren’t already stacked against them, it’s long been a challenge to woo top-flight players to come here (even if it’s just for two freaking months). At best, the Indians have to overpay. And at worst, they have to drastically overpay. That can only change if a winning culture and robust fan base — a la the one enjoyed in St. Louis — is created.

THE GLASS IS HALF-FULL…

  • A 30-15 start proved we can speculate all we want, but we know absolutely nothing about how the season itself will shake out. And had the Indians not been utterly decimated by injuries (Hafner, Choo, Sizemore and Cabrera were only in the same lineup 17 times all year), there is every reason to believe they would have hung around the division race into September.
  • There is a valid argument for upside at every position on the field, with the exception of first base (unless the Indians wisely make Carlos Santana a full-time first baseman). Kipnis and Chisenhall will continue to develop as full-time Major Leaguers, Cabrera will, hopefully, be in better condition for the grind of the six-month season, Choo will be healthy and, hopefully, not distracted, Sizemore will be a year further removed from microfracture surgery and will be recovered from the arthroscopy, and, as I mentioned, Brantley is only 24.
  • After taking a pay cut for 2012, Sizemore has to know how much he has riding on a successful comeback this year. (And hey, he’ll soon have a wife to support… although I think she does pretty well on her own.) He was hitting .283 with a .911 OPS when he injured his right knee for the second time in 2011. We’ll never know what kind of season he would have had with a healthy right knee and a rehabilitating left one. But we do know that if Sizemore can remain healthy, he can still be an impact player. And he has all the financial incentive in the world to become one again this year. Don’t ever underestimate the pull that incentive can have on a player.
  • Hafner, by the way, is also entering a contract year. So if he has absolutely anything resembling a full season in him, this is the year for him to show it.
  • Santana had a .351 on-base percentage and 27 homers in his first full season (Prince Fielder, Joey Votto and Miguel Cabrera were the only other players with 25 homers, 35 doubles and 90 walks… good company). Kipnis was hitting .279 with a .950 OPS before an oblique injury marred his big-league break-in, but he quickly demonstrated some leadership qualities in only his third professional season. Chisenhall hit .290 with six doubles, four homers and 15 RBIs in 29 games from Aug. 22 through the end of the season. These are legit pieces, and they’re all on the rise in their own way.
  • Justin Masterson learned how to take advantage of his size and stuff and become a frontline starter in 2011. He ranked 12th in the AL in ERA (3.21), 13th in innings pitched (216), 20th in strikeouts (158) and seventh in slugging percentage allowed (.349), all while allowing the second-fewest homers per nine innings in the AL. He was still much better against right-handers (.210) than lefties (.291) and that will remain a strategic point of reference for the opposition when constructing lineups. But the Indians needed somebody – anybody – to step into that No. 1 spot of the rotation, and Masterson did just that.
  • Ubaldo is still not far removed from being a truly elite arm. And the Indians will do everything in their power to get him back to that point. That began by allowing him to pitch winter ball. He didn’t do so a year ago, and he felt that contributed to his inconsistent season with the Rockies and Tribe. Jimenez has a quirky delivery that is difficult to repeat and, I’d imagine, even more difficult to diagnose if you haven’t worked with him long. Perhaps now that the acclimation process is out of the way, Acta and Co. will be more able to pinpoint the problems that contributed to Jimenez’s command woes. Speaking of which…
  • Scott Radinsky is a highly capable replacement for Tim Belcher. And thank goodness for that, because Belcher’s departure from the role for family reasons was a big blow. I’ve written before about what an asset Belcher has been in developing the young arms on this club, but Radinsky was the right-hand man in all of that, both as the pitching coach at Triple-A Columbus and then as the bullpen coach in Cleveland. There were quite a few members of this club who felt Radinsky should have been Acta’s pitching coach from the get-go, so he is well-deserving of this opportunity.
  • You can’t win without a dependable bullpen, and the Indians established a consistent (and largely homegrown) unit in 2011. They had the fifth-best relief ERA in the AL (3.71) and left-right balance in the setup role. Does this hold up from one year to the next? No clue. Chris Perez undoubtedly had his share of acrobatic saves, and we’ve only seen Vinnie Pestano for one full season. But there’s depth and differentiation in looks here, and that’s what you look for when you build a ‘pen.
  • Fan interest has picked up a notch or two in the past year, with attendance rising from 1.39 million in 2010 to 1.84 million in 2011 (at 32.7 percent, the highest increase in the Majors). The Indians are still a long, long way from where they want to be, but that 30-15 start came at a time when the Indians were bracing themselves for a truly dismal attendance total. It was a welcomed development, to say the least. And when you look at their postseason hopes relative to the current concoction of Cavaliers and Browns, well, the Indians are in the pole position of this one-legged race.

~AC

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