June 2012

“I’m just average, common too”

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

Chris Perez said something the other day during the Tribe’s short-lived stint in the national media (a product, naturally, of their annual visit to the Bronx) that rightly caught the attention of one of the astute writers over at Let’s Go Tribe.

And no, it had nothing to do with LeBron, the Browns or attendance.

This is what Perez told Tyler Kepner of the New York Times, when pressed to explain the Indians’ ability to stay in the AL Central race despite what is currently a minus-51 run differential (second-worst in the league):

“It’s been kind of weird, honestly,” Perez said. “If we’re ahead after five, we win. And even if we’re down by one or two, it seems big. It’s just one of those anomalies.”

With all due respect to Perez, who remains this clubhouse’s go-to guy for catch-all (and sometimes controversial) quotes, there’s nothing weird or anomalous going on here. As easy as it is to be negative at a time when the Tribe has just been handed its hat by basically the worst (Astros) and the best (Yankees) baseball has to offer, roughly 46 percent of the season has been played, and certain conclusions can be drawn.

Here’s one conclusion I’m willing to reach at this juncture: The Indians are a very average team in a very awful division.

Now, keep in mind, this is not necessarily a deal-breaker. Baseball, after all, is set up in such a manner that all you have to do is set your foot in the door in October and anything can happen. This year, there will be added value to a division win, in that it will grant you a first-round best-of-five with a Wild Card entry that just exhausted its best available pitcher in a one-game play-in. The winner of what is currently a sluggish Central (where a .533 winning percentage currently gives you a 2 1/2-game edge and four of five teams have a negative run differential) will have a distinct advantage over the runner-up in, say, the vastly superior AL East (where a .533 winning percentage places you 6 ½ back and four of five teams have a positive differential).

Unfortunately, the division in which they reside is the best thing these Indians have going for them these days, because these are the facts — the excruciating minutiae, to use one of our old favorite phrases here — staring them in the face:

  • Dating back to May 1, Indians pitching has a 4.83 ERA, worst in the American League and better only than the 5.80 mark posted by the Rockies. (You know, the guys who regularly pitch in Colorado.)
  • Tribe starters, in that timeframe, have a 4.85 ERA, fifth-worst in the game.
  • Ubaldo Jimenez has been better – much better – in June, going 2-2 with a 2.78 ERA in five starts. Likewise, Justin Masterson, who has a 2-3 record and 2.06 ERA in five starts. But this has been countered, in a big way, by the drastic steps back taken by Derek Lowe (6.44 June ERA), Josh Tomlin (6.75) and the newly demoted Jeanmar Gomez. Really, at any given point this season, the Indians have basically been two-deep in the rotation, in terms of reliability. Combine that with the pedestrian assemblage in Columbus, and it’s going to be awfully difficult to be counted as a contender without a rotation upgrade from the outside.
  • Indians relievers not named Chris Perez, Vinnie Pestano or Joe Smith have a 5.54 ERA.
  • To borrow a line from Rick Pitino, Grady Sizemore is not walking through that door. Not anytime real soon, anyway. At last check, he’s still not even running.
  • Carlos Santana has nine extra-base hits in his last 177 plate appearances. He’s hitting .177 on the road. The Indians have so much of their future wrapped into Santana’s development that his continual decline is jarring and unacceptable, particularly considering he’s one of only two switch-hitters in an otherwise left-leaning lineup.
  • Oh, and that lineup, you probably noticed, has a collective .624 OPS against lefties. It’s hard to put together any kind of sustained winning streak when 33 percent of the league pitches with its left hand. The Indians are, famously, 5-16 when the opponent uses a left-handed starter — even when that left-handed starter breaks his ankle midway through the game.
  • The Tribe’s depth (or lack thereof) is such that Aaron Cunningham (.484 OPS) has survived on the roster all year. It’s apples and oranges, sure (and I’m not trying to pick on Aaron Cunningham, just the lack of depth), but I’m compelled to randomly point out that Cliff Lee has a .542 OPS.

There are other negatives, and there are certainly positives not being mentioned here. But the Indians are 16th among MLB’s 30 teams in runs per game and 28th in ERA. They are not a bad baseball team, but they are not a very good one, either. They are exceedingly average. And in the AL Central, to date, that’s been enough. I’m not sure how long that will be the case.


The search for the Ohio Cup

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

Contrary to popular belief, this is NOT the actual Ohio Cup.

The quest began innocently enough. Who knew it would lead me through a seemingly endless web of hushed insiders and secret sources, deep into the bowels of the basement of Progressive Field?

It began, you see, in Dusty Baker’s office before Monday’s installment of the Ohio Cup — the annual Interleague series between Baker’s Cincinnati Reds and the Cleveland Indians.

Wait, why am I explaining the Ohio Cup to you? Surely, you are well aware of the history and the pageantry associated with this series of stratospheric import. Now, I’m not going to suggest that the Ohio Cup is somehow commensurate with the Stanley Cup or the World Cup. Those trophies naturally have the benefit of time on their side — something the Ohio Cup, officially instituted in 2008, does not yet possess.

But if you’re compiling your Cup rankings, I’d go ahead and slot the Ohio Cup somewhere in between the Stanley and, say, badmitton’s coveted Ibrahim Rahimatillah Challenger Cup.

Long story short: It’s a big deal.

Anyway, back to Baker’s office. He was asked if this Reds-Indians series can be classified as a rivalry.

“Anytime they give a trophy away,” Baker said with a smile, “it’s automatically a rivalry.”

That was cute. It made for a good notebook-filling quote. But it got me thinking:

Where, exactly, is the Ohio Cup, anyway?

Understand, I am, perhaps a bit begrudgingly, an Ohio Cup expert. Having covered both the Indians and Reds, I’ve seen it in all iterations (the “Showdown of Ohio” and the “Battle of Ohio” were forebears to the “Ohio Cup” classification). I’ve voted for the annual Ohio Cup MVP. I’ve been there when, tongue planted in cheek or otherwise, players have discussed the Cup’s importance. I even once missed one of my best friend’s bachelor parties to attend the Ohio Cup. My dedication to the Cup is not in question.

The thought dawned on me, however: I’ve never actually seen the Ohio Cup. Not in person, anyway.

I knew it existed. Or at least, once existed. I remembered, vaguely, a photo of the great Reds PR man Rob Butcher and Adam Dunn standing by the Cup, gazing in admiration at its wild wonder. Well, either that, or just smiling for the camera.

Yes, a Google search quickly confirmed, that photo was not a figment of my imagination. Here it is:

All right, so the Cup exists. But that picture dates back to 2008. Has anybody seen the Cup since?

“We don’t use it anymore,” a reliable Tribe front-office source informed me.

The Ohio Lottery, this source informed me, is no longer a sponsor of the Cup, and so it was placed into retirement on that great mantle in the sky.

No, no. This could not be. Next you’ll tell me there’s no Santa Claus. Surely, the Cup must exist.

Undaunted, I pressed for more info.

“That’s news to me,” an equally reliable Reds source said when told of this supposed sponsorship situation. “I was under the assumption that the Indians have it.”

The Indians, you see, took five of six games from the Reds last season. The Cup is rightly theirs, for the time being. And according to this Reds source, it was delivered to the Indians this spring in Goodyear, Ariz., where the two clubs share a Spring Training home.

Now we’re getting somewhere. The Cup has been spotted in Arizona. And suddenly I feel like Robert Langdon, uncovering each pivotal puzzle piece en route to uncovering the Holy Grail.

A flight to Phoenix is contemplated. Even if I can’t find the Cup, I figure, I can grab dinner at Raul and Theresa’s.

But just when it appears a long-distance commute will be necessary to find the Cup and assess its many mysteries (for the life of me, I can’t seem to remember who won the 2009 season series), another Progressive Field insider drops the biggest bombshell of all.

“The Cup,” this source says matter-of-factly, “is here!”

Allegedly, it arrived rather recently, shipped in a large metal trunk from Goodyear. It has been documented in the Indians’ incoming deliveries log — the one Major League Baseball began monitoring after the Mitchell Report was released to ensure that no performance-enhancing drugs are shipped to clubhouses. (I suppose you could make the argument that the Ohio Cup is a performance-enhancer, given the competitive fire it certainly fuels… but I digress.)

My source points me toward another member of Progressive Field operations, who also must remain anonymous, for security reasons.

“I’ve always wanted to be an anonymous source,” the anonymous source says.

He takes me to a hidden chamber of the facility (well, actually, it’s not all that hidden… it’s right behind the left-field wall). There, through a locked gate, I see the case, framed by a small sign with the unmistakable Ohio Cup logo, recognized worldwide.

Now, in order to protect my source, this part of the tale must remain a bit murky. Maybe I merely got a look at the case without unprecedented access to its contents, and the above photo is as close as I — or any mere pedestrian peasant — will come to holding it in my hands.

Or maybe, unconvinced that the Cup was actually inside the case and therefore unfulfilled in my quest, I prompted my secret source to let me in the delivery room. Maybe we pried open the case, which weighs about as much as, well, three Adam Dunns. Maybe we hoisted the Cup out of the case and gasped in awe at the remarkable craftsmanship that went into its production (noting, however, that the season-by-season results haven’t been updated since 2010).

Unfortunately, I can’t reveal which scenario is, in fact, reality. As my source, fearful of retribution from the baseball gods, said, “They tried to take the Holy Grail out of temple in ‘Indiana Jones’ and look what happened.”

Fair enough.

But suffice to say that if I had seen, touched and smelled the rich mahogany of the Ohio Cup for myself, this would be my artist’s rendering:

Perhaps now the Reds and Indians have a better appreciation of what they’re playing for.


UPDATE (June 21):

“Sometimes you gotta look yourself in the mirror and say, ‘When in Rome.'”

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

We were out to dinner in the heart of Rome. We were mere steps from the Italian Parliament, where legislators allegedly work to turn around the country’s sagging economy in the midst of the euro debt crisis. We were mere miles from the Vatican, where scandal has erupted from leaked papal documents and the ousting of the Holy See’s bank president. We were there in a city with two and a half thousand years’ worth of history, one of the world’s most-cherished, most-visited, most culturally important communes.

So naturally, we were talking about the Cleveland Indians.

But the Italians at my table – Carlo and Perry, residents of the nearby Tuscan city of Grosseto– were well-equipped for this conversation. After all, they are among the presumably few souls birthed in the Boot who not only appreciate the sport of baseball but follow it obsessively. Carlo is an Indians fan, and so Tribe games on MLB.TV are his nightly – make that late-nightly, as they usually don’t start until 1 a.m. on the Italian clock – viewing. He became a Tribe fan in the mid-90s, playing an MLB video game in which the Tribe boasted the likes of Belle and Baerga and Lofton and Thome.

Perry? He’s a Padres fan. “I picked them because they had never won,” he tells me, “so I wanted to be a part of it when they won for the first time… It hasn’t happened.” Their West Coast games don’t start until 5 a.m., so Perry’s wife will often wake to find her husband off in another room, watching baseball on his computer.

I met these guys, both of whom are right around my age, initially through the world-connecting wonder of e-mail and then, in-person, when they visited Progressive Field a few summers back. And so it is that we were able to get together (when my wife and I cashed in some United miles to follow a certain Jersey-born rocker on his Italian tour) in the land of their birth and my ancestors, with the topic of the Indians on the table, somewhere alongside the al dente fusilli and magnificent margherita pizza.

“Do you think the Indians should trade for Carlos Quentin?” Perry asks.

“He’s exactly what they need,” I say, knowing the Indians are always in the market for an oft-injured player with upside, provided, of course, that the price tag is palatable.

We turn to Carlo, off at the other end of the table. His English, unlike Perry’s, is not impeccable, but it is improving. But in this case, the conversation merely consists of two words.

“Carlos Quentin?” we ask.

Carlo nods aggressively.

“All right,” I say. “Done deal.”

I relay this story for three reasons:

1. I am absolutely bragging, to those who appreciate rock royalty and the inherent energy and enthusiasm of European audiences, that I saw Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band in Italy (and this particular show might have been the best of the 30-some I’ve witnessed).

2. The pull of professional sports and the power of technology never ceases to amaze me, for this conversation and these friendships would not have been possible without either.

3. Trade season — or, at the least, the often-mindless chatter about trade season — is upon us, and the Indians, for the second straight year, are on the right side of the conversation. There will be no Cy Young winners or homegrown superstars shipped out of Cleveland this summer, as far as I can tell.

Now, Carlos Quentin? That’s a tough one. If the Padres do dangle him, they’ll be able to command steep prospect prices in a market starved for power, and for the Indians to fork over anything of substance for a short-term fix like Quentin, a free-agent-to-be, would be a major shift in organizational attitude, unless they truly believed they could negotiate an extension with him at season’s end.

But if the Indians remain in the race, the temptation is to assume they have to aggressively target any right-handed bats that present themselves. Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but the Indians are batting a Major League-worst .219 off left-handed pitching, with a .633 OPS that bests only that of the Cubs. So basically, roughly 35 percent of the time, this is an absolutely horrendous offensive team.

Unfortunately, the trade market alone isn’t likely to fix that, but it could present some options. Quentin is the obvious one, and he’ll have no shortage of suitors if he keeps hitting like he has since coming off the DL and the Padres make him available. Alfonso Soriano, amazingly, would be a major upgrade over what the Indians are currently running out there in left, and if the Cubs are willing to eat most of the $36 million they have invested in him for 2013 and 2014 to get a deal done, well, now we’re talking.

The best option, though, might be the one the Indians targeted this winter, only to fall short when they wouldn’t go to a third guaranteed year — Josh Willingham. Hindsight is any sports fan’s specialty, but, seriously, how good would Willingham have looked in this lineup in this first half? He has a .980 OPS and a 1.100 mark against left-handed pitchers.

When the Indians backed off of matching or exceeding the Twins’ three-year, $21 million offer for Willingham, it wasn’t hard to understand their reasoning. He’s a 33-year-old who was coming off a career year in which he notched just two wins above replacement. But teams and situations evolve, and, mere months later, the Indians once again find themselves in the throes of what seems a winnable division, with a glaring need for power from left field and Grady Sizemore’s timetable for a return to the field as murky, if not murkier, than ever. And the Twins? Well, they probably had no business bringing in a “top-flight” (hey, it was a weak market) free-agent like Willingham in the first place, and they have every reason to embrace the reality that it’s time to blow it all up and start from scratch. Besides, Willingham’s stock, it seems, will never be higher.

Then again, maybe the Indians’ best option is not to address their most-obvious, most-discussed need. As Paul Cousineau of The DiaTribe points out in this piece, it would be completely understandable to see the Tribe instead attempt to augment what has largely been a wobbly rotation — one that, as of this writing, has a 4.52 ERA while averaging less than six innings per outing. Paul’s whole post (which brings up the idea of the Indians targeting a certain stem cell-assisted prodigal son) is worth a read, but here’s the central idea:

“If the Indians (or at least Shapiro) rightly think that the rotation holds the key to the season, if their young pitchers underwhelm, and if “Fausto” isn’t coming back anytime soon, wouldn’t it stand to reason that they may be active in looking to augment the roster, but maybe not with the “bat” that everyone seems to assume?”

Of course, the rotation is the most expensive area to augment, as last summer’s Ubaldo Jimenez swap demonstrated.

Ultimately, the Indians are only to be taken seriously if the recent improved control shown by Justin Masterson and Jimenez becomes the norm and those two top-end starters perform to their potential. Eventually, if not immediately, it will take more than a 4.52 starters’ ERA to remain relevant, even in the lowly AL Central, and the Indians can only go so far as those two take them.

But that still won’t stop us from discussing and debating the ancillary subplots, and trade season is always an intriguing topic — even in Italy.