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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.
All 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.
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 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.
- 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.
And please, please understand that these are not fully fleshed out ideas (far from it, in fact) but merely the meanderings of a mind that has spent the last three days wandering the Hilton Anatole lobby at the Winter Meetings waiting on Albert Pujols developments. If you spread word that I’ve reported any of what follows as fact, you’re dead to me.
What If? … This Carlos Santana-to-first base stuff that I’ve brought up before has some teeth to it. After all, Manny Acta certainly didn’t shoot the idea down when it came up in his manager session a little bit ago.
“Ideally,” Acta said, “you don’t want guys bouncing back and forth that much. He had a big split there (40 starts at catcher, 63 at first). But because of the fact of our inconsistency at first base and also because of all the injuries that we had, we had to keep him in the lineup as much as possible. And he led our team in at-bats and games played coming back from a knee surgery.
“We value him as a catcher, but to tell you the truth, he’s a very good middle of the order hitter. Wherever you put him, he’s going to be able to produce. And it all depends what we can accomplish right now, during the off season. What can you acquire?”
Doesn’t sound so inconceivable, does it?
I’m admittedly all about this idea. I think Santana, unlike Victor Martinez, has the power to be a prototypical first baseman. I think his body will respond well to being removed from the wear and tear of catching, and that will only aid his power potential. And I don’t think he’s nearly enough of a defensive whiz or game-changer behind the plate to place too much emphasis on his need to catch.
I know Lou Marson is an easy out, at present. I’m not entirely convinced there’s not more in the tank for him with more consistent playing time. But more than anything, I know he has the attributes behind the plate to have a tangible impact on what the Indians do defensively. I also know that there’s something to be said for having a veteran backup catcher in the mix (the Indians, obviously, would have to go out and acquire one, somehow), especially with such a young staff.
Carlos Santana to first, full-time. I like it, in the context of how difficult it’s going to be for the Indians to find any sort of power presence at that particular position on such a limited budget.
What If? … The “surprise” trade proposal to which Chris Antonetti alluded involves Asdrubal Cabrera?
OK, let’s get one thing straight. This supposed trade might not happen. Let’s not kid ourselves. General managers talk about tons of proposals over the course of the winter and at these meetings. The only caveat with this one is that Antonetti happened to mention it to reporters. Maybe he did so just to break up the monotony or just to make a point that it’s the deals nobody sees coming (Sergio Santos to the Blue Jays, for instance) that quite often get accomplished. I certainly don’t think he did it to stir up the rumor mill or get people back home talking about a potential “blockbuster” in the works.
And once again, to be clear, I’m not looking to stir it up either. We’re just talking here as friends, OK? OK.
So here’s the thing: Antonetti said we could take 50 guesses as to what the trade is, and we wouldn’t get it. He’s probably right, but that adds intrigue. That would lead one to believe the Indians have discussed a player on their roster that one wouldn’t expect to get dealt. We all know they have bullpen depth, so it would be no shock to assume they’ve listened to possibilities involving arbitration guys like Chris Perez and even Raffy Perez. We all know Travis Hafner eats up a ton of payroll space. We all know Fausto Carmona is overpaid (but nonetheless needed in this rotation).
One would assume the Indians wouldn’t move any pre-arbitration “core” guys like Lonnie Chisenhall or Jason Kipnis or even Vinnie Pestano. One would assume Ubaldo Jimenez is unmovable and Justin Masterson untouchable. One would assume Shin-Soo Choo’s value is at its lowest point, given his bum year.
Or maybe these assumptions are all incorrect and that’s the surprise.
But I look at the roster, and I see one guy whose value is, arguably, as high as it’s ever going to get after an All-Star season in which he broke out at the plate. I see one guy who is in his second year of arbitration and due for a huge raise from the $2 million and change he made last year. I see one guy who the Indians have been understandably loathe to give a long-term contract to in the past because of concerns about his body and consistency.
I think Asdrubal is a terrific ballplayer and he’s certainly exceeded all expectations the Indians had for him when they acquired him from Seattle way back when. But I somehow don’t trust that 25 homers and 92 RBIs is his new norm. Maybe I’m turned off by his second-half slide and lingering concern over his conditioning. It’s quite likely I’m reading too much into that second half. But I think the goal of the trading season, for a team like the Tribe, ought to be to move guys at the peak of their powers, before their price tags drastically outpace their performance. I fear, for the Indians’ sake, that Cabrera could be headed in that direction.
Now, granted, I have absolutely no idea what the Indians would do to replace Cabrera at short if they moved him. That’s why this is a half-baked blog entry and nothing more. But you have at least two teams in the Cardinals and Brewers who are in need of a starting shortstop and have the resources to afford his rising price. Maybe there’s interest there.
Ask yourself this. Wouldn’t five years of contractual control of Allen “The Wrench” Craig look good in that Indians’ lineup? You could plug him into that first-base hole, leave Santana behind the plate (thereby nullifying everything I wrote earlier) and let him rake.
What’s that? Craig just had knee surgery and is out four to six months? Oh, be quiet. You’re killing the mood.
The point is, sometimes it makes sense to sell high. Maybe this is the time for Indians and Asdrubal. Maybe not.
What If? … I just wasted 20 minutes of my life typing out a bunch of stuff that won’t happen? I don’t know. Wouldn’t be the first time, though, and it sure beats wandering the lobby.
I wrote recently about what a difficult time the Indians will have replacing Grady Sizemore.
Not Grady Sizemore circa 2011, mind you. But the idea of Grady Sizemore. Someone with anywhere near his athleticism and upside simply doesn’t exist in the Indians’ system, and the thought of finding something resembling that kind of talent on the free-agent or trade markets seemed bleak, at best.
So the Indians went in an entirely different direction — one nobody, from what was being said of Sizemore behind the scenes at least, saw coming before last week’s news leak.
They’re replacing Grady Sizemore with Grady Sizemore.
Of course, that important clarifier about the idea of Sizemore belongs here, too. The Indians are banking on a notion, not a sure thing… but, of course, you already knew that from the 210 games Grady has played over the last three seasons.
Just as $5 million is an adequate investment into a back-end innings eater like Derek Lowe, so, too, is $5 million a suitable guarantee for a player who dangles on that thin line between risk and reward. And the $4 million in incentives (which, I’m told, actually max out with fewer plate appearances than Grady had in any season from 2005-08), as well as a reported $500,000 bonus if Sizemore wins Comeback Player of the Year honors, ensures that Grady can earn just as much with this deal as he would have with his option, provided he holds up his end of the bargain. This appeases those who wanted the Indians to re-negotiate the option with Sizemore in the first place — something that always seemed unlikely, given the assumption that players are always going to be prone toward feeling out their market before committing to a pay cut.
Keep in mind, of course, that the Indians already dished out $500,000 when they bought out Sizemore’s option earlier this month. As of this writing, I’m not sure if that was factored into the package or if it stands as a separate transaction entirely (if so, good for Grady).
Sizemore likely would have had to work out for other clubs to land this kind of a commitment, and his current knee condition wouldn’t have allowed such a workout until the new year. So the Indians capitalized with an aggressive approach, which, come to think of it, is the theme of their offseason at this point. They are not going to be beaten to the “diamonds in the rough” department.
Nobody knows Sizemore like this team and this medical staff, so there is clearly confidence in Sizemore’s condition. By the time Opening Day rolls around, he’ll be nearly two years removed from microfracture surgery on his left knee, and he’ll be six months removed from the decidedly more tame arthroscopic procedure performed on his right. But don’t forget that second sports hernia surgery Sizemore had performed last summer (his first came near the end of the ’09 season). I remember Torii Hunter telling me this year that it took him a full year to get back to full speed after he had a similar procedure performed at the end of ’09.
You can see Sizemore and his agent working here, as Grady’s comfort level with Cleveland and the Lonnie Soloff-led medical team will put him in the best possible position to have a comeback season and get a big payday a year from now. And you can see the Indians working. Beyond that glaring hole they’re currently filling in the outfield, there is also the distinct possibility of flipping Sizemore at the July Trade Deadline. Such a thing is always a possibility in these parts, as you well know.
But with some hefty arbitration cases coming their way in Asdrubal Cabrera, Shin-Soo Choo, Chris Perez, Raffy Perez, Justin Masterson and Joe Smith, a limited payroll is about to get crunched, so the Indians’ ability to further augment the outfield with a right-handed bat (so clearly needed to not only balance out the bats but also stand as insurance in the event of another Sizemore setback) is in question. Sizemore has been brutal against lefties for the better part of his career, so that further clouds the picture.
The way things stand, the right-handed-hitting Shelley Duncan would again be counted on quite a bit, though his lefty splits (.245/.316/.363) are uninspiring. Perhaps you’ve seen the speculation about putting Jason Donald in the outfield against lefty pitchers because of his .886 OPS against southpaws in his decidedly brief career, to this point. That’s definitely spaghetti-tossing territory.
This team’s need for more power and run-production is evident, and going into the season with Matt LaPorta as the penciled-in option at first base would be unacceptable, considering all we’ve seen. But given the available options out there, the Tribe might be best-suited to just make Carlos Santana primarily a first baseman and add catching depth. That’s a move they were always reluctant to make with Victor Martinez, because his offensive numbers were more valuable behind the plate, but Santana, who hit 27 homers in his first full season, has the power to suit the position, with potentially more in store. Something to consider.
The Sizemore move was surprising, and it’s largely predicated on the kind of nightmare scenario that keeps Clevelanders up at night — a star talent leaving town and flourishing elsewhere. The Indians spent at least $5 million to make sure that doesn’t happen.
For now, it’s brilliant. It could very well backfire. But you can make a strong argument that the idea of Grady Sizemore is better than the reality of a lot of other options out there right now.
PS: More Wild Cards are coming to baseball. Some people are complaining about this. This column explains why they shouldn’t.
What was once deemed in the industry to be the most team-friendly contract in the sport was cut a year short when the Indians opted not to exercise their $9 million option on Sizemore. That decision was met, predictably, with a shrug, soon washed over by the collective discourse over the Browns’ latest loss and the preparation for their next one.
Once the face of a franchise, Sizemore became an injured afterthought. A would-be weapon in the stash, perhaps, if he could ever stay on the field long enough to make a sustained impact, but few realistically planned on that plot.
Heck, even the online message board where the smitten women known as Grady’s Ladies once discussed his dimples and fawned over his physique had become overrun with spam ads — the Internet’s answer to urban blight.
It was a shame, too, because there was a time, not long ago, when Sizemore represented endless possibility for the Indians. He was the final and, it seemed, most meaningful piece of the Bartolo Colon prospect haul. A 30-30 guy and perennial Gold Glover, with marketable looks, to boot.
His coming-out party had come just three days after his first callup, in 2004. In the ninth inning of a Saturday nightcap of a doubleheader with the Royals, Grady came to the plate as a pinch-hitter in the ninth and lined the game-winning single into center.
“It was an exciting time for me,” he said after that big hit, and he said this with all the enthusiasm you might muster when you get tube socks for Christmas.
That was — is — Grady, though. The man was baseball’s most boring interview off the field, yet one of its brightest lights on it. And it was, for those of us who trekked the country to track the Tribe, a true pleasure to watch him play at his peak. An exciting time, indeed.
Sizemore’s still in what are considered to be his prime years, and there is the very real possibility that the team that signs him (don’t count on it being the Indians) will get a steal of a deal. But so clouded has that possibility become, in the wake of yet another knee surgery and the admirably reckless disregard for his personal health with which Sizemore plays, that a thin-walleted team such as the Tribe can’t afford to throw big bucks at that particular wheel of chance. Barring a shock in which the Indians are the highest bidder, Grady will be somebody else’s project, somebody else’s if-come.
But what of that great, gaping hole in the Indians’ outfield?
That’s where the mystery lies, and that’s the topic gaining traction on the corner of Carnegie and Ontario.
The Indians’ primary outfield options, at present, are Shin-Soo Choo, a five-tool talent coming off a one-star season, and Michael Brantley, a bud who still has yet to bloom. In a season smeared by a DUI arrest, broken thumb and, finally, injured oblique, Choo regressed from a .300 average/.400 on-base percentage star-in-the-making to a .259-hitting question mark, just as his arbitration price tag is rising. Brantley, meanwhile, has not shown anywhere near the on-base ability in the big leagues that he did in the Minors, and he’s coming off surgery to repair a broken hamate bone in his hand. Both have big upside, if healthy, and the Indians are going to need every bit of that upside in this outfield.
Beyond that pair, the Indians have Shelley Duncan, a terrific teammate who was a valuable contributor down the stretch in 2011. But at present, they seem likely to relegate him to some sort of left field/first base/backup DH concoction, especially with Travis Hafner disabled list stints now in the realm of annual tradition. And lastly, they have Ezequiel Carrera, your typical light-hitting speed-and-defense type, with the important caveat that he made some puzzling defensive gaffes last season. He’s not an everyday player. Not yet, anyway.
This is what the Indians have in the wake of the Sizemore era, and it’s probably not nearly enough power and run-production for a team that had the fifth-lowest slugging percentage in the league — and the third-lowest among AL outfields — last season.
If only they had another Sizemore looming in the Columbus cupboard with a bold bat, fresh legs and stale quotes. If only.
What the Indians have, instead, is an almost barren Triple-A outfield. Trevor Crowe, a former No. 1 pick, was banished back there after missing almost the entire season following shoulder surgery. Nick Weglarz was once this organization’s great red-headed hope, ever since he hammered second-deck blasts at a pro workout at Progressive Field before the 2005 Draft. But he’s spent the better part of the past two seasons on the shelf. The only other appealing possibility in the upper levels of the farm is Thomas Neal, acquired when Orlando Cabrera was sent to the Giants this summer, but his numbers from Double-A upward leave quite a bit to be desired.
So the struggle to stock the system has caught up with the Indians, and they’ll have to search outside.
No easy task. It’s dark out there. And $5 million of the money saved on Sizemore has already been allocated to Derek Lowe.
Every indication is that the Indians don’t envision Brantley as a regular center fielder, perhaps not trusting his arm or instincts. Sizemore, of course, never had much of an arm, either, even in those dazzling days before his knees gave out. So perhaps the Indians could deem Brantley’s D to be livable, if it comes down to it. For now, though, their plan appears to be Brantley in left and a player to be named in center.
Trying to fill either position in free agency is a challenge. The last time the Indians went outside the system to fill an everyday outfield spot, it was a bum-backed Trot Nixon. Before that, it was a two-headed monster known, unaffectionately in these parts, as “Dellichaels” — David Dellucci and Jason Michaels.
Remember that the Dellichaels platoon was brought in to replace Coco Crisp when he was shipped to Boston. And now Crisp is viewed as the top center fielder on the open market (which says a lot about the market). This was the first year Crisp managed to stay healthy since ’07, but he had a .314 OBP. Endy Chavez and Cody Ross are also both available, but Chavez hasn’t played regularly since 2008 and Ross hasn’t played center a great deal.
The Tribe’s best option, clearly, is to look for a trade or wait for the non-tender situations to settle. If defense is the primary concern, the Rays’ B.J. Upton was a rumored target of the Tribe over the summer, but he’s going to make $7.6 million this year.
Two options that might make a lot of sense for the Indians are Andres Torres and Angel Pagan. Both regressed in 2011 after a strong 2010. With their arbitration costs rising, Torres and Pagan could be released by the Giants (who just acquired Melky Cabrera) and Mets, respectively. If so, the Indians ought to investigate.
Another option is trying to lure back Kosuke Fukudome, who was a nice piece post-Trade Deadline. But right field is his natural spot, and he’ll likely be looking for a multi-year deal.
If the Indians decide to stick Brantley in center, their options for left field aren’t much better. There is power available in Josh Willingham and Ryan Ludwick. The downside is that Willingham is in line for a multi-year deal as the top option on the market, and Ludwick, another Tribe target in July, had a drastic decline in slugging percentage the last three seasons, from .591 in ’08 all the way down to .363 in ‘11.
One possibility, however slight, could be Delmon Young, as the Tigers might seek to address their leadoff needs with a left fielder and cut him loose, despite his impressive output for them down the stretch. It’s doubtful they’d deal him in the division, though.
When you run through the gamut of possibilities, you see why the Sizemore decision was a tough and tricky one for this team. When you look at their system, you see why the Indians are taking a hard look at Cuban defector Yoenis Cespedes, even if their chances of outbidding everybody for what has become a hot commodity seem slim.
The Sizemore era is over, and it ended with a whimper. But the hardest part is not saying goodbye to Grady.
The hardest part is replacing him.
The Indians’ hope, with the $5 million investment known as Derek Lowe, is that the 38-year-old right-hander will keep them grounded.
Grounded in the symbolic sense, certainly, as those who have been around the block a time or 10 have a way of keeping the youngins surrounding them focused, humble and hungry. And that’s a particularly pertinent point on this pitching staff, as nary a veteran soul exists outside of Lowe. He is the only member of this staff who was in the bigs prior to 2006.
But Lowe, late of the Braves, can also keep the Tribe grounded in a physical sense.
As in, groundballs.
As in, the overwhelming object of the Indians’ affection when constructing a starting staff.
The 38-year-old Lowe has proven he can get grounders, even in the shakiest of seasons. The 2011 season, in which he went 9-17 with a 5.05 ERA, was easily the worst of Lowe’s 10 as a Major League starter, and yet he still had the second-highest groundball rate (59 percent) of anybody in the bigs. He trailed only Jake Westbrook (59.3) in that regard, and Indians fans know all about Westbrook’s grounding influence.
When he comes to Cleveland in search of a comeback campaign next spring, Lowe will have plenty of company in the groundball department. Staff ace Justin Masterson (55.1) and Fausto Carmona (54.8) ranked seventh and eighth in the bigs in groundball percentage last season. And though not nearly up to that level, Ubaldo Jimenez also created groundballs at a rate (47.2) slightly above the average (44.4).
“You want groundball pitchers, for so many obvious reasons, and we have them,” Lowe said. “I look forward to it. A lot of people didn’t give us credit or give us a chance when I was in L.A. (from 2005-08), but we found a way, because we could pitch. I think that’s how it can be in Cleveland. Any time you can put the ball on the ground, you have a better chance.”
Lowe has a chance here to reclaim his career after a frustrating 2011 that culminated in a September spiral of epic proportions for both he and his team. The Braves famously tanked despite holding a 10 ½-game Wild Card lead on the Cardinals as late as Aug. 25, and Lowe, who went 0-5 with an 8.75 ERA in five September starts, did nothing to stop it.
“I don’t want to call it laziness,” he said, “but I think we lost that edge we had all year. We felt we had such a big lead… We lost that edge we had all year of just trying to win that game, as simple as that sounds. Maybe we didn’t have the same urgency we should have had. It just snowballed out of control.”
Lowe could say the same about his own numbers. He said he and Atlanta pitching coach Roger McDowell identified a major mechanical flaw in Lowe’s delivery, but they couldn’t find a way to fix it.
“I knew what I was doing, I just couldn’t stop it,” Lowe said. “When I got in the game, my pitching was non-competitive. I was bending over so much, every pitch was flat. It’s something we would have liked to change and tried to change in a short period of time, and it didn’t happen. You learn from it, and make sure you don’t do it again.”
Lowe has already begun the process of addressing the flaw. He’s begun his offseason workout program with his trainer in Fort Myers, Fla., trying, as he put it, to get his “muscle memory” back in order.
“I’ve really done a lot of self-evaluation,” he said. “I’ve become a breaking ball pitcher. For me to have success, that’s not the best way to go. I have to command the fastball down and away. That’s something I lacked last year.”
Of course, two obvious issues are staring Lowe in the face.
One is age, and Lowe’s is not insignificant.
And the other is the transition to the AL, and that’s proven in the past not to be insignificant, either.
Lowe hasn’t pitched in the AL since the 2004 season with the Red Sox. So while he might be the veteran of this staff, he’ll nonetheless have to lean on those around him for some perspective on his opponents.
But one thing it would appear the Indians can count on with Lowe – beyond groundballs – is durability. Even as his overall numbers have sagged a bit the last three seasons, he’s averaged 192 innings pitched in that span. Ever since he became a full-time starter in 2002, he’s never made less than 32 starts in a season, never amassed less than 182 2/3 innings pitched.
What’s the secret?
“Some luck,” he admitted. “I’ll be the first to tell you. But hard work, too. I think it’s something that I’ve always believed in. You may not be able to outwork the next guy, but that’s what you try to do. I enjoy putting in the time. For me, it’s more mental. I know if you put the work in every five days, game day is the easiest day. It’s putting in the time and effort to make every start.”
The Indians didn’t waste any time grabbing Lowe this offseason. The Braves had a rotation surplus and were looking to unload Lowe and as much of his $15 million salary as possible. They ate $10 million of that total, and all they got back was a low-level Minor Leaguer named Chris Jones, who has spent all of his five professional seasons in A-ball.
So for the Tribe, Lowe is a relatively low-risk, back-end option, given the costs that can accrue in searching for a free-agent starter. And for $5 million, they hope he’ll keep them grounded in every sense.
On Twitter: @Castrovince
Jim Thome is going to be a Cleveland Indian once again. The prodigal son is returning home to the city he spurned in 2002, when wooed by wealth, pressured by the players union and unswayed by Jacobs Field statue specifications.
That he’s joining a pennant chase gasping for breath, with the Indians 6 1/2 back of the Tigers and suffering what seems to be a key injury a day (even on an off day, it was revealed Josh Tomlin will miss his next start with an undisclosed ailment), hardly seems to matter. The fact is, Thome is on the last leg, if not the last pinky toe, of what is likely (read: had better be) a Hall of Fame career, and this would be the most suitable place to cap it.
Should the Tribe be rejuvenated by his presence and get back into the thick of the AL Central standings, well, then, all the better.
Obviously, this transaction — that rare August waiver-wire claim that amounted to actual prominent player movement — is about improving a sagging lineup, one that might be bereft of Travis Hafner’s bat for the remainder of the stretch run.
But it’s also about something else. That word so many use after failed relationships, be they of the reality TV or the actual reality type.
I despise that word. I hate to use it here. The way the circle twists and turns in life, “closure” is often more impermanent than we intend it to be.
Thome, though, is 41, has hit his 600th homer, likely locked down his Cooperstown credentials and has a family waiting at home. If this is, indeed, closure to his career, then I can think of no better place for it to come. It’s going to be a Chief Wahoo cap atop his head on his Hall of Fame plaque, so it might as well be the same cap (well, on days the Indians aren’t wearing the blah block “C,” of course) on his dome for the stretch run.
If you’ve been following along this week, you know that the Twins could have potentially orchestrated their waiver workings to get Thome back in Philadelphia. They could have, as a favor to Thome, withdrawn him from waivers and placed him on release waivers, thereby making him a free agent eligible to sign with any team. He could have then returned to the Phillies and his mashing mentor, Charlie Manuel. Undoubtedly, given the Phillies’ place in the standings and their robust rotation, this would have been the best available option for him to reach the World Series, no matter the role.
Let’s ignore the obvious fact that this scenario would have been universally derided, scrutinized and pooh-poohed in the baseball industry and was very much unlikely. It makes for better drama if we just pretend that Thome, who had a full no-trade clause with the Twins, essentially had to choose between the Indians and the Phillies once again. And this time, he went with his roots.
(Isn’t that a terrific story? OK, good, let’s just run with it.)
Thome agonized over his free-agent decision in 2002, and he would eat his words after claiming they’d have to “rip the jersey” off his back before he’d leave the Indians. Some fans here still have not forgiven him, because hell hath no fury like a sports fan spurned.
But players always leave for the money. No, wait, correction… players always leave Cleveland for the money, and Thome proved no different. And I think on some level — well, many levels — he always regretted that decision. He built strong relationships in Philly and Chicago and Minnesota and even Los Angeles in the years that followed, because a man of Thome’s presence and personality builds strong relationships wherever he goes. But behind the scenes, he made it clear to the Cleveland higher-ups (who never held any grudges over his decision, because of that aforementioned personality and because, frankly, they were in a better position to rebuild without Thome eating up a significant chunk of the player payroll) that he wanted to come back.
Of course, that was never possible, because as Thome aged and found his first-base days to be done, the Indians signed Travis Hafner to the type of gargantuan contract (the largest in club history) they once envisioned for Thome, sans a few million and a statue clause.
Now, Hafner is hurt, but that’s nothing new. What’s new is that the Indians are in contention (but barely), Thome, the franchise home run leader, was readily available at an affordable rate and the stars aligned.
Unlike many emotional moves, however, this one actually makes strategic sense. Thome is coming to a place where he’ll get more than just pinch-hit playing time, and he’s been productive. He’s hit .278 with a .910 OPS, six homers, eight doubles and 21 RBIs in 30 games since the All-Star break. Hafner, by comparison, has hit just .220 with a .642 OPS, three homers, five doubles and 14 RBIs in 31 games since the break.
This is an improvement for the Indians. And it doubles, for those above the bitterness, as a happy homecoming. With so many bodies on the injury report, with Ubaldo Jimenez slinging slop and with so much ground to make up in the midst of a strained and stressful schedule, it’s possible — maybe even likely — that this move is much too little, much too late.
But it feels right. It feels like closure. And hopefully Jim Thome has heard his last boo in that ballpark.
On Twitter: @Castrovince
The Indians already have 18 games scheduled in the season’s final 16 days, but general manager Chris Antonetti is not opposed to taking an already extreme scenario even further.
“We’re actually planning on just postponing all of our games until the last two weeks, when we have everybody healthy,” Antonetti joked Monday. “Forty games in the last two weeks. That’s our new strategy.”
Hey, stranger things have happened for the Tribe in 2011. That the final two weeks might matter at all is strange enough in and of itself, given the expectations surrounding this club going into the year and, more to the point, the rampant injuries endured along the way.
Sure, every team encounters the bumps and bruises of the 162-game schedule. But teams with $48 million Opening Day payrolls aren’t supposed to lose their leadoff man for all but 61 games of the season’s first five months, their No. 3 hitter for seven weeks and their cleanup hitter for a month and still be a factor in the division race.
It’s the absurdity of the division in question — the AL Central — that has allowed the Indians to live off the fumes of their 30-15 start and remain in contention. But a three-game sweep at the hands of the first-place Tigers over the weekend, combined with the losses of aforementioned cleanup hitter Travis Hafner, who is back on the DL with a foot strain, and hot-hitting rookie Jason Kipnis, who is out with a pulled hamstring, raised new questions over whether The Little Payroll That Could, well, can’t. The town that came out on the wrong end of The Fumble, The Shot, The Decision and whatever other debacles people see fit to give the “The” treatment can be forgiven if it’s waiting for the other shoe to drop.
That it hasn’t already fallen is a credit to this club’s resilience and, yes, the Central itself. And given that both of those trends have managed to hold up for three-quarters of a campaign and the Indians still have six games left against the Tigers, it’s best not to write them off just yet.
That said, keep the pen handy, just in case.
While not intended merely for short-term satisfaction, the Ubaldo Jimenez deal has undoubtedly been a dud so far. Add to that the fact that a supposedly sanctifying homestand against sub-.500 clubs (the Mariners, Royals and A’s) began with a 3-2 loss to the M’s on Monday — a night when closer Chris Perez was all over the place in a non-save situation in the top half of the ninth and the last at-bat magic that has carried the Indians so often this season fell flat in the bottom half.
Before the game, Perez himself had said that these games against second-division clubs can be dangerous – as the Indians themselves have proved in the past.
“We’ve been on the other side where we were supposed to get beat later in the year and didn’t,” Perez said. “Teams like this have got guys playing for next year, young guys getting called up and showing what they’ve got for the first time. I guarantee they don’t care what their record is.”
The Indians have increasing reason to care about their record. The Tigers just swept them without using Justin Verlander, and Verlander’s 19th win of the year on Monday night gave the Tigers a 5 ½-game lead on the Tribe and White Sox, who are now in a tie for second place. It’s the largest deficit the Indians have faced this season — an amazing feat, given that they were just a game and a half back just four days ago.
Mum was the word on a timetable for Hafner’s return, but when questions arose about the possibility of season-ending surgery for the man known as Pronk, Antonetti and manager Manny Acta both deferred to head athletic trainer Lonnie Soloff, who was to talk to the media on Tuesday. That’s rarely a good sign. Hence, the rampant rumors about a possible waiver claim of Jim Thome, assuming the Indians even have the opportunity.
Grady Sizemore, recovering from both a knee injury and abdominal surgery, should be back in mid-September. Likewise, Kipnis. But will they be returning to a pennant race or a humbled home stretch? The Indians were able to make do without Shin-Soo Choo for seven weeks and not lose significant ground, but how much can a team reasonably take?
“In a way,” Acta said, “I feel good, because I never anticipated our team to be able to survive injuries to those guys. We didn’t last year, and I wasn’t anticipating to do it this year. I never anticipated us surviving this long without Choo or Grady or Hafner. It is a trying time for me, but I’m excited about the progress our pitching staff has made. They have kept us afloat.”
Well, uh, sometimes.
Jimenez has allowed 21 runs in 21 innings as a member of the Indians. The Tribe traded its two top pitching prospects for a project, as Jimenez has dealt with command issues and diminished velocity (the latter possibly related to the former). He has some of the more complicated mechanics in the game, so it is all too easy for him to get out of whack, and Antonetti said he’s utilizing his pitches “a little bit differently” than he had in Colorado. Oh, and the AL lineups probably aren’t helping his cause, either.
The rationale behind Antonetti’s bold strike to land Ubaldo made sense from the standpoint that the contractual control the Indians hold on him through 2013 meshes well with the “window of opportunity” the Indians hold during the arbitration years of Choo, Asdrubal Cabrera, Perez and Justin Masterson, among others. But that rationale is largely built upon the single, faulty premise that Jimenez is a proven ace. He is not that. Not yet, anyway. And certainly not in the AL.
So these are the issues impacting the Indians with less than 40 games to go and a surprising season in danger of suffocation.
It’s certainly not the first time they’ve been tested.
“We’ve had a lot of periods of adversity throughout the course of the year, whether it’s injuries or tough losses throughout,” Antonetti said. “But each time, the team has rebounded and come back and responded to the adversity.”
Now’s the time to respond again. Barring any postponements, of course.
On Twitter: @Castrovince
Just shy of 600 home runs, Thome is due to join Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez in one of Major League Baseball’s more select and storied clubs. Of course, the steroid era’s influence on the influx of members to that club has caused it to lose some of its luster in the public eye. You can read my thoughts on how that applies to Thome.
As far as what Thome feels about the impending achievement, well, you can read that below.
Do you get reflective at all when you approach a milestone like this?
You do, you do. In a good way, of course. Any time you reach a milestone, it’s a journey. It’s a long process. You think back to your time here in Cleveland, in Philly, in Chicago. You look at all the good times and the good people and the great teammates you were able to be with. Like Sandy [Alomar], you know, coming here and seeing him. If it was to happen here, to be able to share that moment with my teammates but also with him would be special. Each stop brings back good memories all the way through, for sure.
Your accomplishments get overlooked, in some ways, by the era in which you played. Does that disappoint you at all?
I think everyone knows that [performance-enhancing drugs] was in our era. It was a part of it. And I’ve said this — I’ve been very open about this — not everybody in that era did it. You can’t punish everybody. I think there are still people that are hurt that guys did that. It’s not about me paying the price or anybody else paying the price. It’s just that people have the right to choose what they want to say or do. I think that’s basically how it is.
Four guys have joined the 600 Club in the last decade, but there are still only eight guys who have done it, overall. Beyond Albert Pujols, it’s hard to pinpoint anybody active who has a good shot to do it. Does that make it more special for you?
It does, it does. And you know, like we talked about earlier, it’s a journey. I mean, how do you ever imagine 600 home runs? When I signed here in Cleveland, you wanted to get to the big leagues, you wanted to stay in the big leagues. Then once you see success, you want to obviously be healthy enough to continue that for a long time. And you have to be blessed. Playing with guys like Eddie Murray and Dave Winfield and getting that opportunity to watch them go through their career and see as they got through the latter stages of it, watching them work, watching them prepare and wondering if that could ever be you. Then you get to live the reality of it, and it’s pretty special. It really is. If you’d ever asked me if I’d be sitting where I am at 40 and still playing, you’d have to be pinched. It’s really neat. It’s cool. And being a fan of the history of the game, I’ve tried not to think about it, because the task at hand is to perform and go out and do the best you can. But you can get caught up in the history of it very easy. Very easy.
First of all, you want to be a good teammate. Having guys come up to you and approach you and ask you questions as a veteran, you want that. I always say I wish I would have asked this or I wish I would have asked that when I was younger. But I was fortunate to have that here. We had Eddie Murray, we had Dave Winfield, Orel Hershiser, Dennis Martinez. I think I’ve learned from a lot of good players in the past. Hopefully guys feel comfortable that they can come up to me and ask me anything about the game.
Does it feel like you’ve been in the big leagues for 20 years?
It does. It does. But it’s gone by so quick. I think the physical end of it has taken its toll at times. Learning, as you get into your 40s, you’re not the same player you were at 25 or 30 — physically, I mean. It doesn’t mean you can’t do the things, but day in and day out, it’s tougher.
Every time you come back here, there are a decent number of people who still boo you for leaving as a free agent. That has to hurt on some level, doesn’t it?
It does, it does. I think the tough part is I just want people to know how much I do care about Cleveland. To watch them as an organization today and see the success they’re having is great. Obviously, as an opponent, we want to win the division. But to watch them doing what they’re doing, there’s a part of me that’s genuinely happy for the fans here. I’ve always said that as a free agent, when you leave, you have to understand that there may be people who boo you. That’s part of what we do as professional athletes. But it doesn’t erase the memories, it doesn’t erase the special times and obviously the respect towards them. It is tough, because, again, that’s part of the business. You understand it. Sometimes it can be hurtful. But as an athlete, you have to respect and look at the big picture of why it’s happening.
No, to be honest. I try not to get ahead of where I’m at right now. And I said that a year ago. And I feel that if I’m healthy, I can still play. I can still perform and do some things. Maybe not what I could at 25 or 30, but I can still do some things to help a ballclub win. What I’ll do at the end of the year is sit back and see where I’m at physically, see where you’re at just from the whole perspective of your career and see where we’re at. I do love the game. I do still love to play the game. But there is a day that I do look forward to going home and being with my kids. As much as this has given me so much, it’s also very important to know when the time is right to go home to your kids and your family, you know? And they’re getting to that age where it’s getting close. It’s getting close.
Last offseason, how long did it take you to make the decision to come back this year?
It took me about a month. I think a lot of the big decision for me was that I was healthy. I left [the 2010 season] pretty healthy. I think the role the Twins have put me in has been great. Gardy [Ron Gardenhire] has done a good job about communicating to me and asking when I want a day off. I was able to show I could still do this at the age I’m at. And that felt good.
On Twitter: @Castrovince
It was there when Chad Durbin shook off a season ERA over 6.00 to turn in three of the more important innings of the season Tuesday night, after the rain rushed Justin Masterson the scene.
It was there when Jason Kipnis ran around the bases like a mad man in a five-hit night to back Ubaldo Jimenez’s home debut Wednesday.
It was there in Asdrubal Cabrera calling out Carlos Santana after the latter’s error led to a run Thursday, a brief dugout skirmish ensuing between teammates in a moment of competitive fire that received the managerial seal of approval.
It was there in the Tribe faithful hoisting “We Are All Kipnises” signs or waving their souvenir white T-shirts in the air like rally towels, trying to drown out the cries of the Detroit fans who made the trek on the turnpike.
A playoff series was played at Progressive Field this week, whether or not the calendar confirms it.
For the Tigers, the three-game set was an opportunity to build on a four-game lead that somehow felt like bounteous breathing room, given the claustrophobic tendencies the American League Central had shown.
For the Indians, though, this was about as must-win as a series can be in early August, and the urgency was apparent.
“We’re the ones trailing,” manager Manny Acta had said before it began. “We’re the ones that have to close the gap and not allow them to get too far away.”
The gap is now three games, in the wake of Justin Verlander doing what Justin Verlander does best. The Cy Young favorite prevented a sweep and snapped a skid, for the Tigers’ losing streak in this ballpark had reached a baker’s dozen before he took the mound Thursday night.
Yet even with Verlander on the hill, the Indians did force the issue in a one-run loss. Give Verlander the win and Austin Jackson the assist for his game-saving catch of Santana’s fly ball to the wall in straightaway center in the sixth, preserving the 4-3 lead.
What we have here, folks, is a division battle still very much on in earnest. Had the Indians been swept, with their dual aces aligned Tuesday and Wednesday nights, it would have been all-too-easy to figure it a finale to their fairy tale.
Instead, with the Tribe trailing by just two in the loss column and these two clubs set to face each other another nine times, including the season-ending series Sept. 26-28 in Detroit, it’s even easier to see this thing taken to the limit.
“Definitely,” Tigers manager Jim Leyland said. “No question. I don’t think anybody’s going to go away.”
And in case you didn’t notice, that includes the White Sox, who took care of business against the lowly O’s and have won six of seven overall to pull within four games of the Tigers.
So three teams are alive in the Central showdown right now, and, really, this is the only division in which that can still be said. The White Sox have been considered a sleeping giant all season, and perhaps they’ve been yanked out of their slumber just in time.
For now, though, let’s focus on the Rust Belters.
The Tribe was teetering when this series began, having endured what Acta called a “bittersweet” road swing through Boston and Texas. Bitter because late leads were blown in four losses, and sweet because the Indians were in a position to win all seven games against, arguably, the AL’s best.
So when Tuesday’s tussle with the Tigers reached the early morning hours and the extra, extra innings, the threat of dropping another heartbreaker loomed. But the Tribe survived on the might of its bullish bullpen, which turned in 12 scoreless after Mother Nature yanked Masterson.
“After that road trip, just finishing a couple of games is what we wanted to do,” Masterson said. “And doing it against Detroit is even bigger.”
They did it sans drama the following night, with “The Big U,” as Acta calls Jimenez, coming through as advertised and working with ample run support.
The Masterson-Jimenez pairing has the possibility of October intrigue, should the Indians advance. But for now, the task at hand is putting together a healthy and productive outfield.
Shin-Soo Choo returns from a broken left thumb tonight, but he’ll be trying to shake off rust and his first-half slump. Grady Sizemore, a few weeks removed from another sports hernia surgery and a year removed from microfracture knee surgery, likely won’t be at 100 percent when he comes back in September… if, in fact, he comes back at all. And word of Michael Brantley seeing a specialist about his sore right wrist is at least enough to raise an eyebrow.
Here’s something else to raise a brow: The Indians still have doubleheaders looming Aug. 23 against the Mariners and Sept. 20 against the White Sox. More to the point, that latter twin bill is part of a stretch of 17 games in the final 16 days of the season. This young club’s endurance will undoubtedly be tested.
The Tigers, meanwhile, operate on the assumption that Verlander will pick up the pieces in any rough patch. They’ve now won 69.2 percent of the games he starts, and they’re a sub-.500 team when he doesn’t. That’s not quite a one-man show, but it’s about as close as a contender can reasonably come, which is why the Doug Fister trade was so necessary.
Alas, Fister was also lost to the elements Tuesday. That was just part a less-than-inspiring turn through the rotation, with Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello taking a slight step back against the Royals and Indians, respectively, after such a great leap forward in July. Brad Penny was skipped in the midst of a second-half skid so that Verlander would get his turn against the Tribe.
Verlander, of course, can’t face everybody, and in a race as tight as this one, the Tigers will go as far as Fister, Porcello and Scherzer take them. And stop us if you’ve heard this one, but second base is still an issue, as Carlos Guillen’s return from knee surgery has not yet revealed him to be a reflection of his younger self.
With exactly two-thirds (30 of 45) of their remaining schedule coming against Central opponents, including six September games against Chicago, the Tigers do, indeed, hold the keys to their own destiny. And even though this series didn’t go quite as hoped, they’re still in an enviable position, with their manager urging calm.
“It’s Aug. 10,” he said the other day. “That means it’s a month until Sept. 10. And then you still have another 20 days to go after that. So you’ve got to be careful.”
This week, the Tigers could afford that attitude. The Indians? Not quite as much. This was, for them, a playoff-type series, and they treated it as such.
“The Indians aren’t going away,” Leyland said.
Neither are the White Sox. And neither is this division race.