May 2012

Waiting for Grady

By Anthony Castrovince/MLB.com
On Twitter: @Castrovince

Grady Sizemore is your classic Low Talker. When you have a conversation with him, you fear you might accidentally agree to wear the Puffy Shirt.

Why, when Sizemore talked to a handful of reporters in the Indians’ clubhouse on Tuesday, teammate Jason Kipnis, whose locker is nearby, even found himself leaning in, playfully miming his utter inability to hear anything Grady was saying from just a couple feet away.

But one thing Sizemore said spoke volumes about the decline and disappearance of a once-mesmerizing player. He was asked if he had seen Michael Brantley’s over-the-wall catch in Chicago over the weekend.

“Great catch,” Sizemore said. “It’s one of those things I used to be able to do.”

Seriously, how sad a statement is that?

What’s more, neither Sizemore nor the Indians seem to have any exact idea of when he’ll actually be back on the field, trying to make such magic happen. Sizemore’s total body rehab and conditioning has allowed him to take some batting practice, but he’s not yet at the point of running bases or anything along those lines. His timetable for getting into Minor League rehab games also appears murky.

“It changes every day,” he said. “I think, regardless of when I’m ready, I’m still going to need a couple weeks [in the Minors] just to build games up. When we get to that point, I’ll have a better idea of when I can get back.”

And just what will Sizemore be getting back to? That’s the $5 million question.

I’ve written before about that 18-game burst of brilliance when Sizemore returned last season from one knee injury and before he suffered another. What a tease that must have been for the Indians, who watched him hit .282 with a .974 OPS from the leadoff spot, flirting with his impact of old.

“Everything he hit,” said teammate Shin-Soo Choo, “was an extra-base hit.”

Well, not quite. But close. Sixteen of his 22 hits in that span went for extra bases. The stretch didn’t earn him back into the graces of All-Star or Silver Slugger status, but it did earn him another pay day, another opportunity with the Indians.

You wonder what will become of that opportunity. You listen to a man who once played 382 consecutive games talk about the agonizing dullness of rehab work, and you can’t help feeling sorry for him.

“We haven’t had very good success with just getting one injury healed and then another part is still a little cranky,” Sizemore said. “So we’re trying to put together a program where everything is healed and in the right place but also strong. Instead of rushing back in six or seven weeks, we tried to get everything else aligned.”

How long does this alignment take? If the Indians know, they’re not saying. All their latest medical update notes is that he “continues to make progress,” but it’s already obvious that he won’t anywhere near a return when he’s eligible to come off the 60-day disabled list on June 3, and who knows if we’ll see him at all in the first half?

“It’ll drive anyone crazy,” Sizemore said. “You almost feel like a part of you is missing, like you’re on hold. You do whatever you can to get through that day and get healthy. I know the goal is close, but there’s nothing you can do to make things easier.”

It’s a sad state of affairs for a true talent and a guy these upstart Indians, quite obviously, could really use, given the current condition of their left-field output. When will Sizemore return, and at what level? These questions can’t be answered. All we can do is lean in close, listen and wait.

~AC

“Just another roll of the dice”

By Anthony Castrovince/MLB.com
On Twitter: @Castrovince

ImageCleveland has its casino now, and lines have snaked around the Horseshoe for much of the past week. The allure is obvious, for even if you’re not entranced by the spinning wheels and rolled dice and flipped cards and all the monetary magic they promote, there’s always the appeal of the all-you-can-eat buffet.

Of course, over time, the long lines and $25 minimums will die down, the hotels that were sold out this past weekend will be amply available. But the casino, it is expected, will still draw a fair number of folks looking for a little luck. Odds of winning big at a casino are probably somewhere in the 100,000-to-1 range, and the Horseshoe, if in-house estimates are to be believed, is expecting to generate around $800,000 in daily revenues. But these facts won’t stop people from giving it a go.

A small-market ballclub such as the Indians offers the consumer similar opportunity to have his or her heart broken. Well, not on such a scale, of course. As much as you might think the Indians have the deck stacked against them, with regard to winning the World Series, I’d say their odds are still much greater than 100,000-to-1 (and I’d also venture to guess that they’re not pulling in $800,000 in daily revenues).

But there’s no denying that to build a winner on a budget is difficult and to sustain one is incredibly complex. To realize and then retain relevance, so much has to go right in drafts and trades and personnel evaluations and injury rehabilitation and just good, old-fashioned luck.

That’s why sports fans in these parts ought to enjoy and appreciate every minute of what’s taking place at Progressive Field these days, no matter how long it lasts or how tenuous it might be. The Indians crumbled after a 30-15 start last year because of injuries and a glaring lack of depth to account for those injuries. The same could very well happen this season.

Or it could very well not. Baseball Prospectus’ Playoff Odds Report, which always seemed to read as rather distrusting of the Tribe’s strong start in 2011, is a little more bullish on the boys right now, giving the Indians a 61.8 percent chance to reach the postseason and a 48 percent chance of winning the AL Central. (Detroit is given a 41.7 percent chance in the division… and nobody else comes close to the Tribe and Tigers.)

This division is inordinately weak, even by AL Central standards. The Tigers have been betrayed by their bullpen, and Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello have been unreliable in the rotation. The White Sox are mediocre, nothing more. The Royals’ youth movement hasn’t reaped the expected results, and the Twins are an abomination… again.

So while this is an Indians team that really doesn’t wow you in any one particular area and isn’t any deeper than it was a year ago, none of us is smart enough to know if the walls are due to crumble, as they did in ’11, or if the past seven weeks have been the start of something special. What we do know is that, with Memorial Day approaching, the Indians remain relevant and still have plenty of areas of internal upside.

I’m reminded, then, of a line from a Springsteen spiel in the midst of a live version of “Light of Day” — “I can’t promise you life everlasting, but I can promise you life right now.”

And hey, that’s all anybody can reasonably ask.

This is not another take on attendance.

This is not a deep discussion about socioeconomics or baseball’s lack of payroll parity or the oft-overrated impact of free-agent “buzz” signings.

Suffice to say those are all complicated conversations.

ImageBut what Chris Perez said over the weekend was honest, biting and, on the whole, correct. And while we can fault a millionaire athlete for whining about getting booed and we can debate whether he did the right thing going public with what has, for some time, been a matter of internal clubhouse griping among several players, his basic premise is spot-on:

“I understand the economy is bad around here,” he said. “I understand that people can’t afford to come to the game. But there doesn’t need to be the negativity. I don’t understand the negativity. Enjoy what we have.”

What they have is a team five games above .500 despite ERAs over 5.00 from each of its purported top two starters, Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jimenez. Despite a slow start from Shin-Soo Choo, the absence of Grady Sizemore and abysmal production from first base and left field.

Maybe each of the above is the start of a troublesome trend. Maybe Masterson was a one-year wonder and Jimenez is an eternal head-scratcher. Maybe Choo never regains his 2008-2010 production. Maybe the over/under on games played for Grady is 35. Maybe Casey Kotchman and Johnny Damon/Shelley Duncan never provide league-average production from pivotal spots.

Or maybe all or some of those areas round into form, and the Indians are all the better for it.

Of course, this runs the other way, too. There are areas that are positives now (like Derek Lowe’s success sans strikeouts) that could implode over time. And we never know what injury is lurking on the horizon; we just know it’s coming for somebody, perhaps of prominence.

So, yeah, when you emotionally invest in a baseball season, you emotionally invest in all sorts of shifting scenarios and wayward paths. There is a narrative to 162 games, and there’s no skipping ahead to the final chapters. The Tigers were as heavily favored to win their division as any team in recent memory, and their fans are running through all kinds of “ifs” and “maybes” right now, too. That’s baseball.

If you can’t predict it, if you can’t alter or arrange it to your whims or likings, you might as well just sit back and enjoy it. Because the fact of the matter is that for the better part of the last 14 months, the Indians have fielded a competitive and, on the whole, entertaining product.

And it’s a little like that casino up the street. Maybe the odds are stacked against you, but it can still be fun to pull the lever and watch the wheels spin.

~AC

“Stand up and be counted”

By Anthony Castrovince/MLB.com
On Twitter: @Castrovince

ImageI’m sitting here at Progressive Field, where the gates are open and a day-night doubleheader against the White Sox is already in delay mode prior to the first pitch. There are maybe a couple hundred people in the stands at the moment — maybe — and this is not at all unexpected, given that it’s a Monday in early May and it’s raining.

But the low attendance total for this specific situation is a small part of the bigger picture that is the lowly attendance trend taking place with the Tribe. The Indians entered Monday in first place in the AL Central but dead last in the Majors in average attendance (15,355).

“They will come,” manager Manny Acta said when the topic was broached this morning. And, sure, he’s correct. Indians attendance figures tend to be late-blooming, no matter the weather or how well the team plays in the early going. We saw that last year, and we saw that in 2007, when a Tribe team that eventually reached the ALCS housed ho-hum crowds until at least August.

I did a couple radio interviews over the weekend where the hosts asked me about the attendance issue, asked if it’s a surprise. I must admit that Friday night’s crowd (16,147) was a bit of a head-scratcher, given that a fellow first-place club was in town, it was a fireworks night, a student ID night and the weather was wonderful.

But really, when it comes to the Tribe and attendance, not much surprises me.

The Indians, even with the 30-15 start last year, finished with the seventh-lowest attendance mark in the Majors, were dead last in 2010, were fifth-lowest in 2009 and were 22nd out of 30 a year after reaching the ALCS.

This is what’s called a trend, and it’s part of the package here in a town that’s endured declining population and economic downturn and really doesn’t have baseball on the brain. It should surprise absolutely nobody that the city that ranked first nationally in TV ratings for the NFL Draft is the same city that ranks 30 out of 30 in MLB attendance, because this is a Browns town, through and through, and the once-in-a-lifetime Indians sellout streak of the 1990s was the product of a combination of unique factors (no Browns, strong economy, new ballpark, great team, downtown renaissance, etc.) that will never combine again.

I hear from fans all the time who say they’ll support the team when it spends more money. And Indians ownership has made it clear that it will spend in accordance with revenues. And so around and ‘round we go.

In the end, the simple fact is that among Cleveland’s three major professional franchises, none has delivered on its promise to field a competitive club as frequently over the last two decades as the Indians have (this, in spite of the obvious advantages payroll limits provide for small markets in the NFL and NBA). And yet we saw in 2008, in the aftermath of the ALCS, that the wait-and-see mentality is very much in effect with the public in these parts. And we saw it again this April. For while the Indians were pushing their way to the forefront of the AL Central standings, the NFL Draft utterly dominated the conversation on the airwaves and among the populace, as reflected in those Nielsen ratings and in those Progressive Field attendance totals.

This is not meant to come across as preachy or accusatory. People can spend their money and their time however they see fit. The point, however, is that none of us should really be shocked or amazed by the attendance tallies, to this point.

Acta’s ultimately right. If the Indians keep playing at this level, the fans will come out in greater numbers. And even regardless of how the Indians play, it’s only natural that the numbers will pick up as the weather continues to warm and kids get out of school.

But in the grand scheme, the Indians are still going to finish in the lower-third in the Major League attendance tally. Because that’s the reality of baseball in Cleveland, and it has been for some time.

~AC

All about April

By Anthony Castrovince/MLB.com
On Twitter: @Castrovince

For just the fourth time in the last decade, the Indians exited April with a winning record. And they exited it in sole possession of first place in the AL Central, despite a minus-1 run differential.

So for all their faults – and undoubtedly some faults were flashed in the season’s first 20 games – the Indians can consider April to be a successful month, on the whole.

But which elements of April were illusions, and which were illustrative of what to expect in 2012? Let’s take a look at some of the most noteworthy developments and try to find out, shall we?

THE RETURN OF PRONK: Travis Hafner hit a home run to the Area Formerly Known as “Pronkville” (and now known as the “Subway Extreme Fan Zone”) on April 11 — a standout moment in a standout month for Hafner, who has a .295/.450/.459 slash line.

Hafner continues to struggle against lefties (.176/.318/.412), and so the Indians would be wise to continue to limit his opportunities when southpaws are on the mound. The idea is to stick to his strengths, and right now his greatest strength is a 1.89 walk-to-strikeout ratio that is the best in baseball and worlds better than the 0.63 career mark he had coming into the year.

Doubtful the walk rate is sustainable, and Hafner was 3-for-19 in his last six games of the month. The return of Pronk? We’ll stay in wait-and-see mode on this one.

I CHOO CHOO CHOOSE YOU: With Grady Sizemore still out of the picture, the Indians’ greatest area of upside from their 2011 offensive performance rests in a return to form for Shin-Soo Choo.

It hasn’t happened yet, and that’s a credit to the early success opposing pitchers had in jamming Choo on the inside part of the plate. Just as he began to cheat a little bit in his swing to account for that attack, he hurt his hamstring last week, and so Choo ended the month with a .697 OPS, still seeking his first home run.

Dating back to the beginning of 2011, Choo has a disappointing .379 slugging percentage. Right now, the plummet in power is his established trend (his isolated power mark of .085 ranks 28th-worst among all qualifying hitters this season), but there is enough track record prior to 2011 to lead one to believe it will return.

CORNERSTONES AT PREMIER SPOTS: My friend Paul Cousineau did a fine job expounding upon the notion that the Indians have established star talents at shortstop and catcher in Asdrubal Cabrera and Carlos Santana, so I’ll turn you to him for full context.

But the quick and dirty analysis is that Cabrera (.808) ranks fourth among all Major League shortstops in OPS, while Santana (.863) ranks sixth among catchers. Their 2011 track records back this up as more than an April illusion, and so the Indians continue to get elite production from two positions not always known for it.

ACES IN THE HOLE: Want to hear a depressing stat? Two of the top four walk rates among Major League starters, entering Tuesday night, belong to the Indians’ top two starters — Justin Masterson (12.7 percent) and Ubaldo Jimenez (13.3).

Personally, I’m inclined to give Masterson the benefit of the doubt. He was dominant on Opening Day against the Blue Jays, and 35 percent of the earned runs against him came in a single inning in Seattle.

Ubaldo? Well, I’m not as confident, simply because his complicated delivery has proven so difficult to repeat over the years. He has a 4.50 ERA with 5.3 walks per nine innings. If we were to somehow remove his magical first half of 2010 from the equation (a 2.20 ERA in 18 starts), he has a 4.02 ERA and 4.05 walks per nine in his career (135 starts). So I would expect some improvement from Jimenez over the long haul of the season, but I wouldn’t hold out hope for a major surge into elite status, based on the bulk of his career.

THE LOWE-DOWN: The Indians have survived the slow starts of Masterson and Jimenez in large order because of the exploits of 39-year-old Derek Lowe, who is 4-1 with a 2.27 ERA.

The Indians targeted Lowe because they saw some flaws in his mechanics from his brutal year with the Braves and felt they could fix him. And what’s encouraging about Lowe’s early success is that many of the numbers he’s posting (9.9 hits per nine, 0.6 homers per nine, 2.8 walks per nine and a 1.30 groundball-to-flyball ratio) are right about in line with his career norm and therefore don’t appear fluky. Even his .289 batting average on balls in play is only slightly below his career norm of .299.

But Lowe’s success has come in spite of a ridiculously low strikeouts per nine tally of 2.6 (career average is 5.9) that will likely have to rise in order for him to keep this up.

HOT-HITTING HANNAHAN: Jack Hannahan had a .976 OPS through April 24 (when he had a game-winning hit against the Royals), prompting me to pen this column on his surprising success. That OPS has fallen 198 points in the five games since, and, well, that’s not wholly unexpected when you look at Hannahan’s track record.

The line on Hannahan is that you sign up for the defense and take anything you get offensively as a bonus. He reversed that notion by committing four errors while logging some big hits in April. Over the course of a full season, however, I think that notion will hold up.

THE BLACK HOLE: American League hitters with a lower OPS than Casey Kotchman’s .494 mark? There are two. Brent Morel of the White Sox (.426) and Mark Reynolds of the Orioles (.467).

So suffice to say that Kotchman has been one of the worst-performing regulars in the big leagues thus far this season. And while he’ll almost undoubtedly improve by default, remember that his OPS+ of 91 (or nine points below league average) from 2004-2010 is his norm and his 128 mark (28 points above league average) from 2011 is the outlier.

Kotchman’s poor performance is juxtaposed against the 1.210 OPS Matt LaPorta is logging in Triple-A Columbus right now. But it’s best not to get too caught up in that for the moment, given the early juncture in the calendar and the fact that LaPorta has a .994 career OPS at the Triple-A level and we’ve seen how well that’s translated to the big-league stage.

The other obvious areas for concern are left and center fields. Shelley Duncan is 5-for-his-last 34 with 16 strikeouts, and so it would appear Johnny Damon — whatever he has to contribute at this point in time — is arriving on time. But Damon or no Damon, we knew all along that left field would be a spot where the Indians could likely count on below-average production.

Another ho-hum start for Michael Brantley, who has a .321 OBP, is the bigger disappointment, but he finished the month strong, going 8-for-20 in his last five games.

ABOUT THE BULLPEN: The bullpen’s 4.35 ERA ranks ninth among the AL’s 14 teams, and so it has not been the team strength it was considered to be entering the year. But Chris Perez has a 1.08 ERA and .406 OPS against since Opening Day, Joe Smith was solid all month, Vinnie Pestano and Tony Sipp appeared to find their footing their last few times out and an extended look at Nick Hagadone is, in my view, a good thing.

The concern with the ‘pen is obviously in the middle innings, and that leads to the greater concern that is innings provided by the starters. Tribe starters worked just 5.83 innings per outing in April. Among AL teams, only the Royals, Twins, Tigers and Yankees rotations worked less. Sure, that puts the Indians in good shape with regard to what has, so far, been a weak division, but this is one area that must improve in order for the Tribe to maintain its position atop the AL Central.

~AC

PS: For a look at some interesting April stats from around MLB, click here.

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