The Trade Deadline cometh, and what do the Indians — presumed buyers — need to take the AL Central this season?
They need at least one starting pitcher (not counting Roberto Hernandez), first and foremost.
They need at least one impact right-handed bat.
They need another proven reliever to ease the stress on the back end.
They need better depth and definitely better balance.
These needs are so many, the organizational trade options so few and the available talent in the trade market so hallow that, well, I don’t need to tell you this is complicated.
Because if you’re Chris Antonetti, and your job is to make realistic evaluations of your talent at both the Major League and Minor League levels, you’ve got to be asking yourself what, exactly, is to be gained from a Deadline deal at this juncture?
Even in the midst of understanding the “window of contention” template upon which the Tribe operates, why sell off any more of your already gaunt future stock to prop up a club that needs more than just a few finishing touches? A club that, by virtue of its left-leaning lineup and right-tossing starting staff, was not built to go on sustained stretches of success? A club whose schizophrenic personality (hit but don’t pitch, pitch but don’t hit) appears incurable?
I wrote recently about how exceedingly average this Tribe team (then .500 and now a game under as I type this) is, and how the demands of the division (or lack thereof) made that tolerable for the time being.
But those demands are increasing every day, as the Tigers (winners of 13 of 17 and expected aggressors in Deadline dealing) start to make the most of the fifth-highest payroll in the game, with the White Sox a game and a half back and benefiting from the boost of Kevin Youkilis (they also added Brett Myers over the weekend, for whatever that’s worth).
This is still one of the weakest divisions in the game, but it’s going to take more than a .500 effort to win it.
And the second Wild Card? Sure, that presumably props up the postseason odds for anybody meandering in the realm of .500. But had that second Wild Card existed from the beginning of the Wild Card era, it would have taken 89 wins, on average, to claim it in the full, 162-game seasons (1995 was, of course, shortened by the strike). Maybe it won’t take that many this year, but that’s the neighborhood you’ve got to shoot for.
It’s difficult to see this Indians team going on the kind of second-half run it would take to finish eight games over .500, and it’s difficult to see any of the realistic options (emphasis there on “realistic”) in the trade department drastically altering that bottom line.
Because remember, this Tribe team has not won more than four in a row at any point this year. This team has allowed 47 more run than it has scored. In fact, only three teams in all of MLB — the Rockies, Twins and Astros — have allowed more runs.
This team is still trying to figure out what it has in Ubaldo Jimenez (5.18 ERA in his last 30 starts), still trying to figure out if Carlos Santana will catch fire this year (1.727 OPS the last five games, so that’s certainly a start), still losing to lefties, still watching Derek Lowe wilt, still waiting (with an absence of optimism) for Grady Sizemore to come back, still hoping to stave off another second-half slide from Asdrubal Cabrera.
When asked about the Deadline, Antonetti has generally said something along the lines of, “We need the guys here to play to their potential.” In the starting pitching department, that hasn’t happened. In the run-production department, that hasn’t happened. The Indians have an offense that ranks around league average and a starting staff that sits alongside the sellers. And the absence of sustained winning streaks, to date, has to lead us to wonder if the Tribe is capable of the kind of run it would take to become a postseason team, even in an expanded postseason format.
The Trade Deadline, from the buyer’s perspective, is an opportunity to augment and enhance, not completely reshape and repair. If Antonetti and Co. see opportunities within the Deadline realm to add longer-term options who are going to help the 2013 effort, then have at it. Again, though, the Indians don’t have many valuable chips in the upper levels of their farm system to pull off significant swaps, like the Ubaldo deal last year.
This leads to a potential shift in strategy that’s already being pointed out in the national media — the possibility of the Indians becoming sellers at the Deadline.
In Chris Perez, they have a valuable commodity in a mercurial role who is due another big raise in arbitration. And in Vinnie Pestano, they have a capable replacement. So I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of a trade — provided, of course, that it brings in a Major League return that can help in 2013 and not a prospect haul.
Shin-Soo Choo, as the above FOX Sports link notes, would be the other obvious trade candidate in a sell situation, given that 2013 is the last year in which the Indians have contractual control of him and the possibility of an extension with the Indians was all but removed long ago. But unlike the Perez/Pestano situation, the Indians would be extremely hard-pressed to replace the production provided by Choo, especially given their organizational outfield abyss. I’d imagine it would take a huge haul to prompt them to move him.
Anything viewed within the prism of selling, at this juncture, would be a PR nightmare, so there’s that. Still, the dearth of sellers this season leads me to believe you can make a move with Perez, in particular, that helps the current club while also increasing the earnestness of the 2013 effort.
But as far as buying is concerned? Well, given the propensity toward overpays in a seller’s market, and given the unmistakable mediocrity we’ve witnessed from these Indians in a season now well into its second half, any attempt to augment this 2012 club with a short-term rental would seem to be a deal made for the sake of dealing.
The Indians have many needs, but they definitely don’t need that.
But every year, as he looks over the essays submitted by hopeful students, Acta can’t help but feel impacted himself. What he finds are stories of kids overcoming physical or financial difficulty or kids who simply never fail to put in the extra time and attention necessary to become aces in the classroom.
This year, Acta was blown away by the submissions of two young women — Twanisha Taylor of Maple Heights and Halle Herringshaw of Chardon. Both met the scholarship’s requirements — a grade-point average of at least 3.3, enrollment in a four-year university with a plan to major in the field of science, technology or business — but both had stories of experiences that went above and beyond.
“These girls,” Acta said, “are awesome.”
Taylor and Herringshaw each received a $2,500 scholarship as they prepare for their first year of college. Taylor plans to study biomedical engineering at Ohio Wesleyan University, while Herringshaw is enrolled to study biology at John Carroll University.
In her essay, Taylor, said she has known she wants to study biochemical engineering since her sophomore year at MC2STEM High School, where she became one of the startup school’s first graduating seniors. As part of a school project, Taylor, who finished school with a 4.3 GPA, helped create a survey that tested her school’s obesity rate, a presentation that included the Chinese language and an artificial heart using a motor.
“I have been hooked on a career in engineering ever since,” Taylor wrote.
Herringshaw was a member of the Chardon High School community that grieved in the aftermath of the school’s terrible February tragedy. She’s also endured personal difficulty, having been diagnosed with scoliosis that left her in constant back pain. Herringshaw had to make the decision whether to live with the pain or undergo a difficult and dangerous surgical procedure to repair the curve in her back.
“I knew the risks of the surgery included paralysis, extensive nerve damage and a possible shortened life expectancy,” Herringshaw wrote. “I also knew two eight-inch metal rods and 14 two-inch screws would be new residents to my body. Without the risk, though, there was no room for improvement and plenty of room for regret.”
She went through with the surgery and two months of difficult recovery. Now, Herringshaw, who graduated with a 4.0 GPA, hopes to be an inspiration to others, just as a young woman named Jane, who has muscular dystrophy and is permanently handicapped, was an inspiration to her during her recovery.
“I realize how truly extraordinary life is and that it should never be taken for granted,” Herringshaw wrote. “Life is too short to not be thankful for every single day that I can move with ease, breathe with certainty and love compassionately.”
Words to live by.
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 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:
“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.
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.”
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:
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.
Grady Sizemore is your classic Low Talker. When you have a conversation with him, you fear you might accidentally agree to wear the Puffy Shirt.
Why, when Sizemore talked to a handful of reporters in the Indians’ clubhouse on Tuesday, teammate Jason Kipnis, whose locker is nearby, even found himself leaning in, playfully miming his utter inability to hear anything Grady was saying from just a couple feet away.
But one thing Sizemore said spoke volumes about the decline and disappearance of a once-mesmerizing player. He was asked if he had seen Michael Brantley’s over-the-wall catch in Chicago over the weekend.
“Great catch,” Sizemore said. “It’s one of those things I used to be able to do.”
Seriously, how sad a statement is that?
What’s more, neither Sizemore nor the Indians seem to have any exact idea of when he’ll actually be back on the field, trying to make such magic happen. Sizemore’s total body rehab and conditioning has allowed him to take some batting practice, but he’s not yet at the point of running bases or anything along those lines. His timetable for getting into Minor League rehab games also appears murky.
“It changes every day,” he said. “I think, regardless of when I’m ready, I’m still going to need a couple weeks [in the Minors] just to build games up. When we get to that point, I’ll have a better idea of when I can get back.”
And just what will Sizemore be getting back to? That’s the $5 million question.
I’ve written before about that 18-game burst of brilliance when Sizemore returned last season from one knee injury and before he suffered another. What a tease that must have been for the Indians, who watched him hit .282 with a .974 OPS from the leadoff spot, flirting with his impact of old.
“Everything he hit,” said teammate Shin-Soo Choo, “was an extra-base hit.”
Well, not quite. But close. Sixteen of his 22 hits in that span went for extra bases. The stretch didn’t earn him back into the graces of All-Star or Silver Slugger status, but it did earn him another pay day, another opportunity with the Indians.
You wonder what will become of that opportunity. You listen to a man who once played 382 consecutive games talk about the agonizing dullness of rehab work, and you can’t help feeling sorry for him.
“We haven’t had very good success with just getting one injury healed and then another part is still a little cranky,” Sizemore said. “So we’re trying to put together a program where everything is healed and in the right place but also strong. Instead of rushing back in six or seven weeks, we tried to get everything else aligned.”
How long does this alignment take? If the Indians know, they’re not saying. All their latest medical update notes is that he “continues to make progress,” but it’s already obvious that he won’t anywhere near a return when he’s eligible to come off the 60-day disabled list on June 3, and who knows if we’ll see him at all in the first half?
“It’ll drive anyone crazy,” Sizemore said. “You almost feel like a part of you is missing, like you’re on hold. You do whatever you can to get through that day and get healthy. I know the goal is close, but there’s nothing you can do to make things easier.”
It’s a sad state of affairs for a true talent and a guy these upstart Indians, quite obviously, could really use, given the current condition of their left-field output. When will Sizemore return, and at what level? These questions can’t be answered. All we can do is lean in close, listen and wait.
Cleveland has its casino now, and lines have snaked around the Horseshoe for much of the past week. The allure is obvious, for even if you’re not entranced by the spinning wheels and rolled dice and flipped cards and all the monetary magic they promote, there’s always the appeal of the all-you-can-eat buffet.
Of course, over time, the long lines and $25 minimums will die down, the hotels that were sold out this past weekend will be amply available. But the casino, it is expected, will still draw a fair number of folks looking for a little luck. Odds of winning big at a casino are probably somewhere in the 100,000-to-1 range, and the Horseshoe, if in-house estimates are to be believed, is expecting to generate around $800,000 in daily revenues. But these facts won’t stop people from giving it a go.
A small-market ballclub such as the Indians offers the consumer similar opportunity to have his or her heart broken. Well, not on such a scale, of course. As much as you might think the Indians have the deck stacked against them, with regard to winning the World Series, I’d say their odds are still much greater than 100,000-to-1 (and I’d also venture to guess that they’re not pulling in $800,000 in daily revenues).
But there’s no denying that to build a winner on a budget is difficult and to sustain one is incredibly complex. To realize and then retain relevance, so much has to go right in drafts and trades and personnel evaluations and injury rehabilitation and just good, old-fashioned luck.
That’s why sports fans in these parts ought to enjoy and appreciate every minute of what’s taking place at Progressive Field these days, no matter how long it lasts or how tenuous it might be. The Indians crumbled after a 30-15 start last year because of injuries and a glaring lack of depth to account for those injuries. The same could very well happen this season.
Or it could very well not. Baseball Prospectus’ Playoff Odds Report, which always seemed to read as rather distrusting of the Tribe’s strong start in 2011, is a little more bullish on the boys right now, giving the Indians a 61.8 percent chance to reach the postseason and a 48 percent chance of winning the AL Central. (Detroit is given a 41.7 percent chance in the division… and nobody else comes close to the Tribe and Tigers.)
This division is inordinately weak, even by AL Central standards. The Tigers have been betrayed by their bullpen, and Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello have been unreliable in the rotation. The White Sox are mediocre, nothing more. The Royals’ youth movement hasn’t reaped the expected results, and the Twins are an abomination… again.
So while this is an Indians team that really doesn’t wow you in any one particular area and isn’t any deeper than it was a year ago, none of us is smart enough to know if the walls are due to crumble, as they did in ’11, or if the past seven weeks have been the start of something special. What we do know is that, with Memorial Day approaching, the Indians remain relevant and still have plenty of areas of internal upside.
I’m reminded, then, of a line from a Springsteen spiel in the midst of a live version of “Light of Day” — “I can’t promise you life everlasting, but I can promise you life right now.”
And hey, that’s all anybody can reasonably ask.
This is not another take on attendance.
This is not a deep discussion about socioeconomics or baseball’s lack of payroll parity or the oft-overrated impact of free-agent “buzz” signings.
Suffice to say those are all complicated conversations.
But what Chris Perez said over the weekend was honest, biting and, on the whole, correct. And while we can fault a millionaire athlete for whining about getting booed and we can debate whether he did the right thing going public with what has, for some time, been a matter of internal clubhouse griping among several players, his basic premise is spot-on:
“I understand the economy is bad around here,” he said. “I understand that people can’t afford to come to the game. But there doesn’t need to be the negativity. I don’t understand the negativity. Enjoy what we have.”
What they have is a team five games above .500 despite ERAs over 5.00 from each of its purported top two starters, Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jimenez. Despite a slow start from Shin-Soo Choo, the absence of Grady Sizemore and abysmal production from first base and left field.
Maybe each of the above is the start of a troublesome trend. Maybe Masterson was a one-year wonder and Jimenez is an eternal head-scratcher. Maybe Choo never regains his 2008-2010 production. Maybe the over/under on games played for Grady is 35. Maybe Casey Kotchman and Johnny Damon/Shelley Duncan never provide league-average production from pivotal spots.
Or maybe all or some of those areas round into form, and the Indians are all the better for it.
Of course, this runs the other way, too. There are areas that are positives now (like Derek Lowe’s success sans strikeouts) that could implode over time. And we never know what injury is lurking on the horizon; we just know it’s coming for somebody, perhaps of prominence.
So, yeah, when you emotionally invest in a baseball season, you emotionally invest in all sorts of shifting scenarios and wayward paths. There is a narrative to 162 games, and there’s no skipping ahead to the final chapters. The Tigers were as heavily favored to win their division as any team in recent memory, and their fans are running through all kinds of “ifs” and “maybes” right now, too. That’s baseball.
If you can’t predict it, if you can’t alter or arrange it to your whims or likings, you might as well just sit back and enjoy it. Because the fact of the matter is that for the better part of the last 14 months, the Indians have fielded a competitive and, on the whole, entertaining product.
And it’s a little like that casino up the street. Maybe the odds are stacked against you, but it can still be fun to pull the lever and watch the wheels spin.
I’m sitting here at Progressive Field, where the gates are open and a day-night doubleheader against the White Sox is already in delay mode prior to the first pitch. There are maybe a couple hundred people in the stands at the moment — maybe — and this is not at all unexpected, given that it’s a Monday in early May and it’s raining.
But the low attendance total for this specific situation is a small part of the bigger picture that is the lowly attendance trend taking place with the Tribe. The Indians entered Monday in first place in the AL Central but dead last in the Majors in average attendance (15,355).
“They will come,” manager Manny Acta said when the topic was broached this morning. And, sure, he’s correct. Indians attendance figures tend to be late-blooming, no matter the weather or how well the team plays in the early going. We saw that last year, and we saw that in 2007, when a Tribe team that eventually reached the ALCS housed ho-hum crowds until at least August.
I did a couple radio interviews over the weekend where the hosts asked me about the attendance issue, asked if it’s a surprise. I must admit that Friday night’s crowd (16,147) was a bit of a head-scratcher, given that a fellow first-place club was in town, it was a fireworks night, a student ID night and the weather was wonderful.
But really, when it comes to the Tribe and attendance, not much surprises me.
The Indians, even with the 30-15 start last year, finished with the seventh-lowest attendance mark in the Majors, were dead last in 2010, were fifth-lowest in 2009 and were 22nd out of 30 a year after reaching the ALCS.
This is what’s called a trend, and it’s part of the package here in a town that’s endured declining population and economic downturn and really doesn’t have baseball on the brain. It should surprise absolutely nobody that the city that ranked first nationally in TV ratings for the NFL Draft is the same city that ranks 30 out of 30 in MLB attendance, because this is a Browns town, through and through, and the once-in-a-lifetime Indians sellout streak of the 1990s was the product of a combination of unique factors (no Browns, strong economy, new ballpark, great team, downtown renaissance, etc.) that will never combine again.
I hear from fans all the time who say they’ll support the team when it spends more money. And Indians ownership has made it clear that it will spend in accordance with revenues. And so around and ‘round we go.
In the end, the simple fact is that among Cleveland’s three major professional franchises, none has delivered on its promise to field a competitive club as frequently over the last two decades as the Indians have (this, in spite of the obvious advantages payroll limits provide for small markets in the NFL and NBA). And yet we saw in 2008, in the aftermath of the ALCS, that the wait-and-see mentality is very much in effect with the public in these parts. And we saw it again this April. For while the Indians were pushing their way to the forefront of the AL Central standings, the NFL Draft utterly dominated the conversation on the airwaves and among the populace, as reflected in those Nielsen ratings and in those Progressive Field attendance totals.
This is not meant to come across as preachy or accusatory. People can spend their money and their time however they see fit. The point, however, is that none of us should really be shocked or amazed by the attendance tallies, to this point.
Acta’s ultimately right. If the Indians keep playing at this level, the fans will come out in greater numbers. And even regardless of how the Indians play, it’s only natural that the numbers will pick up as the weather continues to warm and kids get out of school.
But in the grand scheme, the Indians are still going to finish in the lower-third in the Major League attendance tally. Because that’s the reality of baseball in Cleveland, and it has been for some time.
For just the fourth time in the last decade, the Indians exited April with a winning record. And they exited it in sole possession of first place in the AL Central, despite a minus-1 run differential.
So for all their faults – and undoubtedly some faults were flashed in the season’s first 20 games – the Indians can consider April to be a successful month, on the whole.
But which elements of April were illusions, and which were illustrative of what to expect in 2012? Let’s take a look at some of the most noteworthy developments and try to find out, shall we?
THE RETURN OF PRONK: Travis Hafner hit a home run to the Area Formerly Known as “Pronkville” (and now known as the “Subway Extreme Fan Zone”) on April 11 — a standout moment in a standout month for Hafner, who has a .295/.450/.459 slash line.
Hafner continues to struggle against lefties (.176/.318/.412), and so the Indians would be wise to continue to limit his opportunities when southpaws are on the mound. The idea is to stick to his strengths, and right now his greatest strength is a 1.89 walk-to-strikeout ratio that is the best in baseball and worlds better than the 0.63 career mark he had coming into the year.
Doubtful the walk rate is sustainable, and Hafner was 3-for-19 in his last six games of the month. The return of Pronk? We’ll stay in wait-and-see mode on this one.
I CHOO CHOO CHOOSE YOU: With Grady Sizemore still out of the picture, the Indians’ greatest area of upside from their 2011 offensive performance rests in a return to form for Shin-Soo Choo.
It hasn’t happened yet, and that’s a credit to the early success opposing pitchers had in jamming Choo on the inside part of the plate. Just as he began to cheat a little bit in his swing to account for that attack, he hurt his hamstring last week, and so Choo ended the month with a .697 OPS, still seeking his first home run.
Dating back to the beginning of 2011, Choo has a disappointing .379 slugging percentage. Right now, the plummet in power is his established trend (his isolated power mark of .085 ranks 28th-worst among all qualifying hitters this season), but there is enough track record prior to 2011 to lead one to believe it will return.
CORNERSTONES AT PREMIER SPOTS: My friend Paul Cousineau did a fine job expounding upon the notion that the Indians have established star talents at shortstop and catcher in Asdrubal Cabrera and Carlos Santana, so I’ll turn you to him for full context.
But the quick and dirty analysis is that Cabrera (.808) ranks fourth among all Major League shortstops in OPS, while Santana (.863) ranks sixth among catchers. Their 2011 track records back this up as more than an April illusion, and so the Indians continue to get elite production from two positions not always known for it.
ACES IN THE HOLE: Want to hear a depressing stat? Two of the top four walk rates among Major League starters, entering Tuesday night, belong to the Indians’ top two starters — Justin Masterson (12.7 percent) and Ubaldo Jimenez (13.3).
Personally, I’m inclined to give Masterson the benefit of the doubt. He was dominant on Opening Day against the Blue Jays, and 35 percent of the earned runs against him came in a single inning in Seattle.
Ubaldo? Well, I’m not as confident, simply because his complicated delivery has proven so difficult to repeat over the years. He has a 4.50 ERA with 5.3 walks per nine innings. If we were to somehow remove his magical first half of 2010 from the equation (a 2.20 ERA in 18 starts), he has a 4.02 ERA and 4.05 walks per nine in his career (135 starts). So I would expect some improvement from Jimenez over the long haul of the season, but I wouldn’t hold out hope for a major surge into elite status, based on the bulk of his career.
The Indians targeted Lowe because they saw some flaws in his mechanics from his brutal year with the Braves and felt they could fix him. And what’s encouraging about Lowe’s early success is that many of the numbers he’s posting (9.9 hits per nine, 0.6 homers per nine, 2.8 walks per nine and a 1.30 groundball-to-flyball ratio) are right about in line with his career norm and therefore don’t appear fluky. Even his .289 batting average on balls in play is only slightly below his career norm of .299.
But Lowe’s success has come in spite of a ridiculously low strikeouts per nine tally of 2.6 (career average is 5.9) that will likely have to rise in order for him to keep this up.
HOT-HITTING HANNAHAN: Jack Hannahan had a .976 OPS through April 24 (when he had a game-winning hit against the Royals), prompting me to pen this column on his surprising success. That OPS has fallen 198 points in the five games since, and, well, that’s not wholly unexpected when you look at Hannahan’s track record.
The line on Hannahan is that you sign up for the defense and take anything you get offensively as a bonus. He reversed that notion by committing four errors while logging some big hits in April. Over the course of a full season, however, I think that notion will hold up.
THE BLACK HOLE: American League hitters with a lower OPS than Casey Kotchman’s .494 mark? There are two. Brent Morel of the White Sox (.426) and Mark Reynolds of the Orioles (.467).
So suffice to say that Kotchman has been one of the worst-performing regulars in the big leagues thus far this season. And while he’ll almost undoubtedly improve by default, remember that his OPS+ of 91 (or nine points below league average) from 2004-2010 is his norm and his 128 mark (28 points above league average) from 2011 is the outlier.
Kotchman’s poor performance is juxtaposed against the 1.210 OPS Matt LaPorta is logging in Triple-A Columbus right now. But it’s best not to get too caught up in that for the moment, given the early juncture in the calendar and the fact that LaPorta has a .994 career OPS at the Triple-A level and we’ve seen how well that’s translated to the big-league stage.
The other obvious areas for concern are left and center fields. Shelley Duncan is 5-for-his-last 34 with 16 strikeouts, and so it would appear Johnny Damon — whatever he has to contribute at this point in time — is arriving on time. But Damon or no Damon, we knew all along that left field would be a spot where the Indians could likely count on below-average production.
Another ho-hum start for Michael Brantley, who has a .321 OBP, is the bigger disappointment, but he finished the month strong, going 8-for-20 in his last five games.
ABOUT THE BULLPEN: The bullpen’s 4.35 ERA ranks ninth among the AL’s 14 teams, and so it has not been the team strength it was considered to be entering the year. But Chris Perez has a 1.08 ERA and .406 OPS against since Opening Day, Joe Smith was solid all month, Vinnie Pestano and Tony Sipp appeared to find their footing their last few times out and an extended look at Nick Hagadone is, in my view, a good thing.
The concern with the ‘pen is obviously in the middle innings, and that leads to the greater concern that is innings provided by the starters. Tribe starters worked just 5.83 innings per outing in April. Among AL teams, only the Royals, Twins, Tigers and Yankees rotations worked less. Sure, that puts the Indians in good shape with regard to what has, so far, been a weak division, but this is one area that must improve in order for the Tribe to maintain its position atop the AL Central.
PS: For a look at some interesting April stats from around MLB, click here.
On Twitter: @Castrovince
Anyway, I distinctly remember Opening Day in the Euclid Boys’ League in 1990, when me and my teammates on the Action Auto Body Astros — the class of the 9- and 10-year-old division — took the field in Memorial Park, with tunes — glorious, galvanizing tunes — blaring from the press box speakers. It all felt so professional. This was the first — and, as it would turn out, last — time the dude running the scoreboard would go the extra mile and play some songs between innings. And so, when I came to bat to lead off the second, a song greeted me as I stepped to the plate.
And that song just so happened to be “I Go To Extremes” by Billy Joel, a sweet cut off the Storm Front cassette (yes, cassette, of course).
Now, I’m not saying that if I had the opportunity to choose my tune at that point that I would have necessarily gone with “I Go To Extremes.” But I’d say it’s a safe bet I probably would have dropped some Billy Joel on the crowd. Maybe “Only The Good Die Young,” which would have taken on added prominence and profoundness if the opposing pitcher beaned me in the head and I fell to the turf, or “You May Be Right,” with that opening sound of glass shattering a fitting accompaniment to my ensuing foul ball (because Lord knows I didn’t hit many fair ones).
But “I Go To Extremes” would have been just as appropriate a selection as any, and so its placement at this point in the program caught me by pleasant surprise. I think I might have even been inspired enough to rip a base hit, though I’d have to check Baseball Reference to find out for sure.
The point is that music moves us, takes us to higher ground, and that’s why at-bat music has become such a blaring presence at your local big league ballpark.
And as has become tradition here at CastroTurf, I am here to share with you the list of songs the 2012 Cleveland Indians have selected for the speakers when they step into the batter’s box or on the mound.
Thanks, as always, to scoreboard operations manager Annie Merovich for the list. Note that active players not listed here simply instructed the scoreboard crew to play whatever they want.
Michael Brantley: “Hustlaz Ambition” by Young Jeezy, “Wherever I May Roam” by Metallica.
Asdrubal Cabrera: “Super Estrella” by Don Miguelo, “Bachata en Fukuoka” by Juan Luis Gerra, “Hasta Abajo” by Don Omar.
Lonnie Chisenhall: “Crazy Train” by Ozzy Osbourne.
Shin-Soo Choo: “International Love” by Pitbull.
Aaron Cunningham: “Bright Side of Life” by Rebelution.
Jason Donald: “Get On” by Third Day, “Ain’t Talking About Love” by Van Halen (NOTE: Hey, I’m all for switching things up, but Donald used to come up to “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” by The Stones. This is a downgrade).
Shelley Duncan: “Dragula” by Rob Zombie.
Travis Hafner: “Burn It To The Ground” by Nickleback (NOTE: Really, Pronk? Really?), “The Game” by Motorhead, and Brock Lesnar’s intro song from WWE. (Yes, folks, this is the first time Hafner is coming to the plate to anything other than Rammstein).
Nick Hagadone: “The Night” by Disturbed.
Jack Hannahan: “Just Can’t Get Enough” by the Black Eyed Peas, “The Show Goes On” by Lupe Fiasco, “Untouchables” by John Cena, and, of course, an Irish jig.
Roberto Heredia (formerly Fausto): “Stronger” by Kanye West.
Ubaldo Jimenez: “Rie y Llora” by Celia Cruz, “Run This Town” by Jay-Z with Rihanna and Kanye West.
Jason Kipnis: “Sweet Child of Mine (remix version)” by Guns ‘N Roses, “L’Amour” by Bingo Players.
Casey Kotchman: All that’s listed for Kotchman is “silence.” Now, perhaps that refers to some band or song named “Silence” of which I’m not aware. Or maybe Kotchman really just wants a little peace and quiet when he comes to the plate. But he used to come up to “Till I Collapse” by Eminem, and he’s currently hitting .140. So silence works just as well. UPDATE: Kotchman has updated his entrance music to “Boom” by Snoop Dog, featuring T-Pain.
Derek Lowe: “Turn the Page” by Metallica.
Lou Marson: “All Mixed Up” by 311, “She’s An Easy Lover” by Phil Collins (NOTE: Yes!), “Louie Louie” by the Kingsmen.
Justin Masterson: “Bingo” by Still Trill Christians.
Chris Perez: “Firestarter” by The Prodigy.
Rafael Perez: “Scoreboard’s choice.” And as readers of this blog should know, that choice ought to be silence.
Vinnie Pestano: “Welcome Home” by Coheed and Cambria, “No More Sorrow” by Linkin Park.
Cord Phelps: “It’s A Long Way To The Top” by AC/DC.
Carlos Santana: All it says here is “Spanish songs.” He used to come up to “Chambonea” by Omega.
Tony Sipp: “Man On Fire” by Big K.R.I.T.
Grady Sizemore: “John” by Lil Wayne.
Joe Smith: “My Kinda Party” by Jason Aldean.
Josh Tomlin: “I Use What I Got” by Jason Aldean, “Good to Go” by Jason Aldean, “Runnin’ Down A Dream” by Tom Petty.
Dan Wheeler: He’ll come out to “any classic rock,” thank you.
Also worth noting:
When the Indians win, the scoreboard blares “Cleveland Rocks” by Presidents of the USA, “My Town” by Michael Stanley, “Again Tonight” by John Mellencamp, “I Love This Town” by Jon Bon Jovi or “When It’s Over” by Sugar Ray. After daytime wins, Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days” is added, and after night wins, it’s “Rock & Roll All Night” by Kiss.
When the Indians lose, it’s “Lost” by Coldplay or “Just One Victory” by Todd Rundgren’s Utopia.
And sadly, nobody uses “I Go To Extremes.”