“If you ain’t first, you’re last”

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

ImageLast place, unappealing as it is, at least comes with a certain amount of clarity. Because at least we can say that what’s happened to the Indians these last couple months is not just jaw-dropping or bewildering or perplexing. It’s borderline historic.

Perhaps you’ve seen the note that only three teams in baseball history have been in first place after 70 games and gone on to finish last — the 1991 Angels, the 2005 Nationals and the 2006 Rockies.

Now, granted, the season is not over, and the Indians might not finish last in the AL Central. They might not even be in last by the time you read this.

But even those Angels and those Nats wound up with 81 wins, while the Rox finished with 76. These Indians, whether they finish last or not, clearly aren’t going to wind up with 76 wins or anything close to it. They are on pace to lose 95 games.

As I write this, the Indians are in last… with a caveat. The Twins are in last, too. But the Indians are 5-10 against those Twins, so consider that a tiebreaker.

This is an abomination, and it doesn’t even matter what the “right” moves are. The Indians have to consider the drastic ones.

Some will say that should start with a purge of Manny Acta and the coaching staff at season’s end, if not sooner (though many of those same people will want bench coach Sandy Alomar Jr. installed as the skipper). As rational as I try to be in this space, as much as I know a managerial change won’t change much, who am I to disagree? Heck, at this point, a dismissal might be merciful.

(This Jon Heyman report has Acta on the hot seat. As you know, Paul Dolan said a few weeks back that everybody, Acta included, was safe. But obviously those votes of confidence can go south. Besides, Dolan said that at Acta’s charity bowling function. That wouldn’t exactly seem a reasonable time to talk publicly about his performance being under scrutiny… unless, of course, you wanted to invite speculation that Acta’s on the outs if he rolls anything less than a 200.)

Nobody has been a bigger supporter of the energy level and insight Acta has brought to this club than me. Frankly, on a personal level, as a media member, I love dealing with the guy. And I can’t fault him for falling short with a flawed roster. (In fact, Baseball Reference’s Pythagorean W-L calculation estimates that these Indians should actually be five games worse than they are right now. So if you think this is bad, well….)

But who could possibly muster an artful defense of Acta and his coaches now that the Indians have won just nine of their last 43?

Wait… does that sound dramatic enough? Let’s try this again: The Indians have lost 34 of 43.

No, no, that still doesn’t quite capture it. Let’s try this: The Indians have been losing roughly eight out of every 10 games… for seven weeks.

There, I think that did it.

And while this is an issue that goes beyond coaching and beyond preparation and ultimately comes down to talent level (or lack thereof), maybe at some point you do have to send a message to your players and, yes, to your fan base that, hey, we’re going to try doing something differently, even if it can be construed as change for the sake of change.

Has Acta lost the clubhouse? Have the players stopped caring or trying? Or are they really just this bad a baseball team?

This is how Chris Antonetti answered questions of that nature Tuesday, courtesy of Paul Hoynes:

“I don’t get any sense that the guys are just finishing out the string. The balance of the year is still important to everybody. We still have mostly a very young team that is looking to establish themselves as Major League players. Everybody still has something to play for.”

So… are you picking up on that supposed sense of urgency when you watch this team play?

Look at these quick and dirty numbers since July 27:

Justin Masterson: 7.14 ERA, .295 average against, .507 slugging percentage against (including nine home runs).
Ubaldo Jimenez: 6.79 ERA, .295 average against, .498 slugging percentage against (including eight home runs).
Asdrubal Cabrera: .236/.303/.343.
Shin-Soo Choo: .237/.346/.329.
Jason Kipnis: .206/.281/.287.
Michael Brantley: .262/.323/.362.
Carlos Santana: .260/.339/.447.

Those are not some young guys in an audition or guys getting innings and at-bats out of desperation. Those are your purported anchors, your purported building blocks in the rotation and in the lineup. And aside from Santana (whose numbers are not great but are at least an improvement on his season tally), they have all regressed — in some cases, quite significantly — down the stretch (and in the cases of Masterson and Jimenez, this is regression on top of regression).

Whether that’s an issue between the lines or between the ears is probably case-specific, but one has to wonder about the overall focus level in that clubhouse right now.

But if the Indians are, indeed, going to focus on change, it has to extend beyond the coaching staff and beyond the trade department, where the markets, however limited, for Choo, Chris Perez, Cabrera, Masterson and Jimenez must, at the least, be explored this winter.

On the heels of the 11 straight losses in early August, Antonetti said it was “possible” that the Indians’ evaluators had overrated their pitching. I think we can go ahead and update that to “probable,” and the overrating quite obviously extends to some amateur and trade acquisitions on both the pitching and position player front over the years.

I don’t think it’s unfair to say Antonetti has had a brutal 14 months, dating back to the Ubaldo trade. The budget is not all that’s held the Indians back in 2012, and neither is a lack of luck.

Antonetti’s job is still expected to be safe at season’s end, and indeed he’s built up a good deal of collateral in his 13 years in this organization. But it might do the Indians well to get some new blood in the evaluative and developmental mix to pair with Antonetti and Co. Fresh ideas, new ways of scouting talent or analyzing data. Because while many of the criticisms thrust at this front office the past decade have been unfair, the criticisms start to carry more weight when a rebuild goes wrong. And aside from a 30-15 spurt of unexpected brilliance at the beginning of 2011 and contention-by-default in a bad division at the outset of 2012, very little has gone right here since the 2009 purge.

The current standings allow us to sum it all up in clear and certain terms: In 2012, the Indians expected to contend for first. For a while, they did. But now they are in last. And their place in the standings probably won’t be the last area of drastic change.

~AC

“Don’t it feel like you’re a rider on a downbound train”

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

The Indians’ 2012 season has gone completely off the rails. They’ve basically stopped winning baseball games.

They were a game over .500 five days before the Trade Deadline. They’ve gone 4-18 since. And the dissatisfaction in their lifeless play extends off the field, where Manny Acta makes pointed remarks about the holes on the roster and Chris Perez engages in an embarrassingly ugly altercation with opposing fans.

The “window of contention” theme we took from the front office and propped up in these parts? It’s been more like one of those utility windows in your basement. Because the Indians finished two games under .500 a year ago when injuries and depth issues erased a startlingly strong start, and they have a very real chance of finishing 2012 with 90 losses or more.

If you had asked me two weeks ago (as the 11-game losing streak was winding down) if heads would roll because of the disappointing way 2012 has played out, I would have told you pitching coach Scott Radinsky and hitting coach Bruce Fields are probably both on thin ice, given the regression we’ve seen from the likes of Justin Masterson, Ubaldo Jimenez and Carlos Santana. Not to say that I think either guy was or is necessarily doing a lousy job; it’s just that this is the way the business works. So when Radinsky bit the bullet later that week, I figured that was the end of it and the Indians would plod along their mediocre route to the finish line.

But they just keep losing, and rather convincingly so. And when Major League clubs lose at the rate the Indians are losing in seasons in which they, rightly or wrongly, expected to contend, well, it tends to get ugly in the aftermath.

Right now, I can’t tell you how safe Acta’s job is. When asked two weeks ago if Acta would be back in 2013, Chris Antonetti said, “I have no reason to think otherwise.” But that was, of course, the same conversation in which Antonetti said he wasn’t contemplating any coaching changes, and Radinsky got the axe three days later. Frankly, the way the Indians are playing right now is reminiscent of the way they played in the lead-up to Eric Wedge’s dismissal in 2009. When teams go this bad this long, it gets prickly for the manager.

So, no, I wouldn’t say Acta’s job is quite as secure as Antonetti’s two-week-old words would lead you to believe. Nor do I think it’s necessarily fair to assign Acta the blame, for no amount of sacrifice bunting or on-field tirades in the faces of umpires or motivational speeches was going to get much more mileage out of this lemon.

But since when is the business of baseball fair? Ask Brad Mills about fairness.

Acta nailed it last week when he noted that the Indians “need more than four guys in our lineup to be productive” (a statement that is true, no matter the manager). He rattled off this shopping list:

“We’re going to have to find a solution in left field, we’re going to have to find a solution at first base and we’re going to have to find a solution at DH. That’s pretty obvious. And the third base situation is not determined either. Lonnie Chisenhall has a broken arm.”

All right, so… a left fielder, a first baseman, a DH, maybe a third baseman. Just reading this list, I get that same queasy feeling I get when my wife is walking around Nordstrom’s, and I’m not even the one responsible for writing the Indians’ paychecks. We know well by now that the Indians, like most teams, aren’t going to outspend revenues, and we know from the attendance tallies (and this Terry Pluto interview with Paul Dolan) that revenues aren’t exactly robust.

(By the way, about that DH spot… the buyout of Travis Hafner’s 2013 contract is $2.75 million. Count me among those skeptical that the Indians are going to pay Hafner $2.75 million to suit up for anybody other than the Cleveland Indians next season.)

But wait, we’re not even done with the shopping list. Here’s Acta with another obvious assertion a few days later:

“For us to play better, we need to pitch better. You can’t win if you don’t pitch better. It’s that simple. Pitching is the name of the game.”

Well, yeah, and the Indians have maybe the worst pitching staff in the American League. Their staff ERA (4.82) is, at the moment, a tick better than that of the Twins (4.83), but they’ve walked 85 more guys than Twins pitchers.

The Indians clearly need to improve their starting staff, top to bottom. And we must add that to the shopping list, because if this season is any indication, the answers aren’t likely to come internally.

You look at that list — put together by a guy whose usually prone to positivity about the assets he has on-hand — and you start to come to the perhaps inevitable conclusion that this club’s 2013 competitive hopes aren’t much brighter than 2012’s. You start to wonder if the Indians would, indeed, be best to move the most attractive pieces from a team that wasn’t all that good to begin with in order to bring in some younger, projectable bodies you can place around the likes of Jason Kipnis, Chisenhall, Santana and Brantley.

Yes, that could mean trading Shin-Soo Choo, who wants to be with a winner as much as he wants to sign a fat free-agent contract. Yes, that could mean trading Perez, though his reputation will undoubtedly precede him in trade talks. Yes, that could mean even mean parting with Asdrubal Cabrera, who has once again seen his production wane in the second half.

But if the Indians do it, don’t call it a “rebuild,” because that would tend to imply that something significant was previously built.

This talk of stripping this club down to its core is probably the last thing Indians fans want to hear, three years after Cliff Lee and Victor Martinez were dealt. And it’s talk that, just a few weeks back, I personally would have strayed far away from. That just goes to show how much can change in a few weeks’ time in this game, and perhaps the Indians will change this outlook in the remaining six weeks of the season.

For now, though, they just keep losing ballgames, and they look lifeless doing so. And sometimes, a lifeless ballclub leads to a lively transaction wire.

~AC

“Oh, Frank, it’s horrible!”

I referenced this scene in my latest column on the Tribe for MLB.com, but mentioning it inspired me to watch it and watching it inspired me to post it here.

Here, friends, courtesy of the makers of “The Naked Gun,” is a perfect encapsulation of how the last week and a half has gone, with regard to the Indians and their competitive standing in the AL Central:

~AC

“Everybody’s doing something; we’ll do nothing!”

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

The MLB Trade Deadline has passed, and what did the Indians do?

They did nothing.

Well, sure, they acquired Brent Lillibridge last week and they got Lars Anderson from the Red Sox just before the deadline, but, you know, like I said:

They did nothing.

For the better part of the past two months, those of us who like to discuss such things talked about the Indians’ needs: Should they pursue a right-handed bat or starting arm? Starting arm or right-handed bat? Bat, arm. Arm, bat. Both? Tribe fans studied Jason Vargas’ game logs. They tried to talk themselves into Alfonso Soriano. And just when there seemed to be some consensus that, yes, an arm was what the Indians needed most, well, that’s when a new opinion intervened…

The Indians should sell! Yes, that’s right. They went 6-11 after the All-Star break and fell five games back of first place. Time to blow it up and start all over! Time to send your best player, Shin-Soo Choo, to Pittsburgh or Los Angeles or maybe even back to South Korea, as long as the return is Major League-ready. Send Justin Masterson — two years and two months away from free agency, mind you — back to Boston. Send Chris Perez to San Francisco and let him complain about their fans. Ship off anything that’s not nailed down… and yes I’m looking at you, Jose Lopez.

These were, to put it bluntly, especially schizophrenic circumstances, and perhaps they were unavoidable when you’re talking about a mediocre (minus-66 run differential, second-worst ERA in the league) contender (“Verlander Schmerlander”).

Rather than sway toward any side of the line, Chris Antonetti stayed Switzerland, content to let 2012 play out as-is.

It was not a surprising stance.

As discussed last week, this club’s needs were too many to address at the Deadline (and for this, the front office definitely deserves some blame, as Josh Willingham and/or Yoenis Cespedes would have been excellent and affordable additions last winter), and the trading chips on hand were too scarce. The 2012 Indians simply did not give Antonetti enough reason to pull the trigger on any trade that would have weakened an already frail farm system in exchange for a short-term rental. And that frail farm system (which, mind you, is also the fault of the front office) caught up to the Indians once again, as they don’t seem to have the adequate pieces to bring in an impact acquisition under control beyond 2012.

That addresses the “buy” situation, but what about the “sell”?

Well, when Antonetti made the Ubaldo Jimenez trade on July 30, 2011, he embraced a so-called “window of contention” based on the contractual control the Indians held on Jimenez, Choo, Masterson, Perez and Asdrubal Cabrera, each of whom would have been eligible for free agency either after 2013 (Choo, Jimenez, Cabrera*) or 2014 (Masterson, Perez).

*Cabrera, of course, has since been extended through 2014, and the contractual status remains the same for the rest.

Now, it’s my opinion that the Indians whiffed on Ubaldo. I don’t know how to put it any other way. We have no way of knowing what Drew Pomeranz (especially) and Alex White would have become in Cleveland instead of the pitcher’s nightmare that is Colorado, but the Indians at least would have had six years to find out. Instead, they got two years and two months of Jimenez, and the first calendar year has been an unqualified disappointment. Jimenez is 12-14 with a 5.08 ERA and 1.55 WHIP in 32 outings with the Indians. As my friend and colleague Jordan Bastian notes in this piece, Ubaldo currently leads the league in walks and stolen bases allowed and wild pitches thrown. He’s a mess.

But if you’re Antonetti, in the immediate, you have to make the most of that mess. You have to hope, perhaps against hope, that Jimenez, even if he’ll never become the ace-type arm he once was, at least rights himself enough to become a dependable middle-of-the-rotation guy. You have to hope the backward steps taken by Masterson and Carlos Santana this season are not indicative of future results and that the coaching staff you helped put in place is capable of righting them.

That’s the immediate, because the Trade Deadline, by nature, doesn’t seem to be the best time to make bold decisions about the future of the franchise (the Ubaldo and Cliff Lee deals, neither of which have gone particularly well, best illustrate the basis of that belief).

But the Indians are going to have an awfully interesting offseason ahead, because now that they have a feel for the outside interest levels in the likes of Choo and Masterson and Perez, maybe they’ll delve further down those roads.

I’ve expressed my opinion that the Indians ought to seriously consider parting with Perez for a variety of factors, not the least of which is money. The arbitration costs you’d save by dealing from a position of strength could be applied elsewhere, and Lord knows the Indians have plenty of places to apply them.

This 2012 season ought to serve as a lesson that, no, the almost completely left-handed lineup and the right-handed rotation do not lend themselves to the kind of sustained winning stretches it takes to be a true contender. Both of those issues absolutely need to be addressed, one way or another, if the Indians are going to contend in 2013, and perhaps Travis Hafner and Grady Sizemore coming off the books will help Antonetti do so. You can look at the Indians’ lineup, factoring in a healthy Lonnie Chisenhall and matured Jason Kipnis, and see the seeds of a competitive club. But as I wrote earlier, if the Indians do ultimately decide to deal Choo, they’d almost assuredly be taking a big step back with regard to their 2013 outlook, and that’s a tough sell to a fractured fan base.

Still, given the way the Jimenez trade has transpired and some notable core elements have disappointed this season, perhaps a step back in 2013 in order to augment the 2014, ’15, ’16 outlook is the way to proceed. I suppose that all depends on just how aggressive Antonetti plans to be (or, rather, has the budget capability to be) this winter in the construction of the 2013 club.

For now, Antonetti wasn’t aggressive at all at the 2012 Trade Deadline. I’m sure he racked up the cell phone minutes, but, ultimately, he did nothing.

And given the schizophrenic nature of a club that is not quite good enough to contend but not quite bad enough to detonate, maybe “nothing” makes sense.

~AC

“I choo choo choose you”

By Anthony Castrovince/MLB.com

On Twitter: @Castrovince

ImageWhat will the Indians do with Shin-Soo Choo? The answer will tell us quite a bit about the Indians’ evaluation not only of their 2012 season going astray but also about 2013, too.

The Indians have known for two and a half years that Choo is their property through the 2013 season and not a day longer, given that he’s a five-tool talent who latched on with an agent — Scott Boras — known for getting his players to free agency as quickly as possible.

Naturally, the pending Trade Deadline, coming as it does just as the Indians spiral out of contention in the American League Central, has a way of forcing a club to take stock of its standing and its assets, both present and future. And there is no question that one of the Tribe’s greatest assets in the immediate is Choo.

It comes as no surprise, then, that interest in Choo, who has a .292 average and .862 OPS and has had an impactful presence in the leadoff spot for the Indians, is high right now. Reports have run rampant that the Pirates have particular interest, and they have the ability to dangle promising prospect Starling Marte, among others.

It comes as equally no surprise that the Indians are at least willing to listen to offers for the 30-year-old native of South Korea, because this is an organization known for trying, with varying degrees of success, to reel in returns for its top talent before that talent bolts.

Choo’s, though, is a particularly delicate case because it comes at a time when the Indians are still trying to repair relations with a fan base that largely turned its back on the latest rebuild, and his sheer presence is a key element of any effort to maximize the so-called “window of contention” the Indians have outlined for themselves.

Because beyond Choo, the Indians’ outfield arrangement at the upper levels of their farm system can best be described as barren with a side of bleak. The most illustrative moment came midseason, when former No. 1 pick Trevor Crowe, drafted nine slots ahead of Jacoby Ellsbury in the famed 2005 First-Year Player Draft, was released by an organization that too often whiffed on amateur talent.

The Indians, though, got it right on several relatively low-profile trades, and that was undoubtedly the case when they acquired Choo from the Mariners six years ago. All it cost them was Ben Broussard, the second half of their 2006 first-base platoon. The first half, Eduardo Perez, had also gone to Seattle in exchange for future All-Star shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera.

Those two swaps are still nothing short of amazing.

It’s altogether possible, six years later, that the Indians could get it right again and move Choo for a prime piece or two. They are definitely targeting upper-level bodies with the ability to play in the Majors in the present tense.

But if the return is, say, Marte, who is young (23), controllable and — bonus — right-handed (the Indians’ lineup famously leans to the left), you’re still sacrificing a good deal of 2013 output from the loss of Choo’s leadoff lumber in order to attain a longer-term projection.

And maybe the Indians are comfortable with that, given that Ubaldo Jimenez, the man whose arrival signaled the Indians’ embrace of the aforementioned “window,” has established himself as anything but an ace and Justin Masterson has also taken a step back in 2012. Those two have been leaders of the Tribe rotation only in the sense that they have been equally unsteady as the rest of the starting five.

Masterson, for the record, has also been rumored to be a movable piece, but he’s under the Indians’ control through 2014.

For this club to contend both in the immediate and in 2013, a rotation upgrade is definitely in order, and that is, of course, the most costly and difficult area to upgrade.

So maybe the Indians use a strength like Choo to address a weakness, be it in the rotation or the long-term outfield alignment. The Deadline presents a frenzied environment in which clubs act impulsively, so this could be a time to reap a robust return. Or if the Indians are really serious about dangling Choo, they can also wait until winter, when more clubs can get involved. Or they could keep him, knowing they could always monitor this market a year from now, if 2013 goes off-track.

Choo is the hotter topic at present, but if the Indians are really swaying toward “sell” mode, they would be wiser, simply as a function of in-house replacement options, to part with closer Chris Perez.

Perez won’t be a free agent until after 2014, but he’s already making $4.5 million with another raise looming after a stellar season. If his pay gets bumped to somewhere in the $7 million range, then the Indians, realistically, could be investing about 10-12 percent of their 2013 player payroll into the erratic commodity that is a closer, knowing full well that lower-cost option exists in Vinnie Pestano and that bullpens, in general, can be pieced together on the cheap. Late-game relief is definitely a seller’s market at present and could be in the winter, as well.

Naturally, the Indians have the option of standing pat and letting the 2012 season resolve itself, hoping the first sustained winning stretch this current club goes on will be the one that triggers a rapid rise in the Central standings.

But even if the Indians hold firm now, these questions will come up again in the winter. It says here that you can trade Perez and probably still build a winner next year, especially if you wisely apply the money saved. Trading Choo, on the other hand, would present a more difficult proposition for 2013.

According to Baseball Reference, Choo has created 71 runs this year, or 16 percent of the Tribe’s total output. Combine that with his rocket arm in right, and his impact is impressive. Any returns on a trade better be the same and better be ready for prime time, or else the Indians would have a tough time selling this current “window” as anything other than shut.

~AC

“Somehow all you ever need’s never quite enough”

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

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.

ImageBecause 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.

~AC

Acta impacts, impressed by scholarship recipients

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

Manny Acta’s ImpACTA Kids Foundation’s annual scholarship program seeks to positively change the lives of two young scholars from the Cleveland area.

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.

~AC

“I’m just average, common too”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~AC

The search for the Ohio Cup

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

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

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

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

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

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

Long story short: It’s a big deal.

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

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

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

Where, exactly, is the Ohio Cup, anyway?

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Undaunted, I pressed for more info.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fair enough.

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


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

~AC

UPDATE (June 21):

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

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

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

So naturally, we were talking about the Cleveland Indians.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Carlos Quentin?” we ask.

Carlo nods aggressively.

“All right,” I say. “Done deal.”

I relay this story for three reasons:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~AC

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