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