Monday, October 1, 2007

AL Central Wrap: Indians

Jake Taylor: I play for the Indians.
Chaire Holloway: Here in Cleveland? I didn't know they still had a team!
Jake Taylor: Yup, we've got uniforms and everything, it's really great.
Long gone are those days when that joke even remotely applies.

The Indians are good. We say this not just because they took 10 of 18 from the Royals this year and Kelly Sh
oppach sent Alex Gordon to the hospital yesterday with a line drive, or that they're tied with the Red Sox for the most wins in the Majors with 96. (Okay, partly because of those 96 wins.) We say it because they're an incredibly balanced team, ranking in the top five in the American League in home runs, on-base percentage, OPS, team ERA, WHIP and K/BB (and tied 7th in strikeouts), and have a 1-2 punch of Sabathia and Carmona that's as good as any in baseball, as they embark on their postseason journey by hosting that other New York team.

Yankees fans have been dreading an opening round matchup against the Angels for weeks, but as Cranston mentioned recently, they're in for a
big surprise if they think they can manhandle the Indians like they did in the regular season.

No one knows this better than our final AL Central Wrap writer, a man known on his website as Mr. Dees (which reminds us of the Outkast lyric, We luv deez hoez, ha ha ha ha! We luv deez hoez). A longtime Indians fan -- his first game was at Municipal Stadium, and his lasting memory was missing out on a foul ball -- who estimates he's watched about 100 games this year on (and 8-10 in person), Dees currently lives in Chicago and teaches middle school history at St. Mary's in Lake Forest.

Why is he here? It's true Mr. Dees has not appeared on this blog prior to today, but his respect for the Royals endears him to us. "In all honesty," he says, "the Royals are always a thorn in the Indians' side. Case in point: last Saturday. The Indians needed to keep winning in order to gain home-field advantage, and Joey Gathright beats us in the 8th inning. Any true Indians fan respects the Royals because they play hard. Also, we will never forget Grady’s lost ball in the sun during the last week of the 2005 season. That play started the 1-6 swoon that knocked us out of the playoffs."

Without furth
er ado...


By Jeff Dees

Ask any baseball prognosticator in March what the key to the 2007 season would be, and the answers would've ranged from Jhonny Peralta to Grady Sizemore to C.C. Sabathia. But no one could have ever foreseen the emergence of a shortstop named Asdrubal Cabrera. No, that shortstop wasn’t even on the Indians. He was beginning the year in AA for the Akron Aeros.

Acquired one year ago from Seattle for ex-player, now subpar broadcaster, Eduardo Perez, Cabrera shot through AA by July, spent a grand total of nine days at AAA before being called up to the big time. With Josh Barfield struggling at second base and the Indians offense languishing as a whole, manager Eric Wedge saw the need for a change. Since Cabrera's insertion into the starting lineup on August 15, the Indians have compiled a 31-12 record and pulled away from the Tigers to capture the AL Central crown. Cabrera’s slick play in the field and clutch hitting (.375 from the 7th inning on) gave the Tribe some much-needed energy while reminding Clevelanders of another Venezuelan-born, #13 wearing great -- Omar Vizquel.

Asdrubal Cabrera is the perfect example of the Indians 2007 campaign. Sure, everyone knew that players such as Victor Martinez, Travis Hafner, Sabathia and Sizemore would play a major role in determining if the club could finally match its high expectations. But the contributions from Ryan Garko, Ben Francisco, Franklin Gutierrez, Rafael Perez, Jensen Lewis and especially Fausto Carmona are the true reason why Cleveland is now the division champion.

Of the seven newcomers who inspired the Tribe this season, only one was supposed to be on the Major League roster when the team left Winter Haven, Fla., at the end of Spring Training. That was Ryan Garko, and he was the 25th man on the roster!! Garko would eventually become the everyday first baseman and hit over 20 home runs on the season. Francisco bounced back and forth during the year, but who can forget his first week in the big leagues: 4 HR in 7 games, including a walk-off against the Royals. Gutierrez, the vaunted prospect in the farm system, finally met his potential and supplanted aging Trot Nixon in the outfield. Frank the Tank’s speed, power and sheer athleticism greatly improved the defense.

On the mound, Lewis (who began at AA) augmented a bullpen that needed one more arm to give some rest to the three-headed monster at the end of ball games. Perez, a good starter in the minors, was brought up to bolster a bullpen that did not receive the help it desired from Roberto Hernandez and Aaron Fultz. Perez’s disgusting slider has baffled hitters and given him a sub-2.00 ERA.

Finally, the Fausto Carmona saga. All baseball fans recall the disastrous week known as the Fausto Carmona Closer Experiment last August. He lost four saves in one week while compiling a 1-10 record for the year. However, before and after that disaster, Carmona pitched lights out last season. Boy, did the trend continue this year. Injuries to Jake Westbrook and Cliff Lee kept Carmona in the rotation through May, and by then, only a fool would have taken him out (GM Mark Shapiro was almost that fool when he demoted Carmona for three days before another injury to Westbrook). Carmona’s mid-90s fastball and nasty slider -- so bad that Torii Hunter said it was like trying to hit while drunk -- propelled him to a 19-8 record and a 3.06 ERA (second in AL). If Carmona does not win the Cy Young this year, he should certainly be up for the Comeback Player of the Year.

The unlikely contributions seem so fitting because 2007 has truly been a different kind of year for the Tribe. The home opening series against Seattle was canceled because of a ridiculous snowstorm that hovered over Cleveland for a week. The next series against the Angels would mark the return of American League baseball to Milwaukee as the three games had to be played there. The team didn’t play a home game in Jacobs Field for over two weeks, yet in those beginning weeks, something special was brewing. The Indians knew if they could survive the ridiculous month that they could fight through anything. Well, April turned and the Indians found themselves atop the AL Central.

The weird turns only continued as the calendar moved to May and June. Jeremy Sowers and Cliff Lee, two supposed cornerstones of a solid staff, couldn’t get outs. Sowers compiled a 1-6 record with an ERA above 7.00 and earned a demotion to AAA. Lee was even worse in June: a 0-4 record with an ERA above 10.5. How many teams would demote a pitcher who had won 15 games in his last three seasons? It seems ludicrous, but the move had to be made. Besides the pitching woes, the Indians offense began to stagnate. After a hot April, DH Travis Hafner went cold and his bat stayed that way until the middle of September. Can’t-miss prospect Andy Marte missed the ball quite a bit at the plate and earned himself a trip to AAA. Yet, through all of the struggles before the All-Star break, the team remained within striking distance.

After the All-Star break, everything was supposed to turn the corner. Instead, it got much worse. The offense couldn’t hit. The pitching, except for Sabathia and Carmona, began to fade. The bullpen struggled to hold games. The Yankees and Red Sox came into Cleveland and just pounded the Tribe while winning six of seven games. The fans grumbled about manager Eric Wedge’s moves, GM Mark Shapiro’s lack of trades and a general malaise throughout the team. Then, C.C. Sabathia says, “We are going to win the division. Guaranteed.” WHAT?!? was the collective reaction throughout Northeast Ohio. Yet the big man saw something and would be proven right in six weeks.

We have already documented the great role of the youngsters in an amazing stretch run, but a core group of players has also delivered this year. While Peralta, Sizemore and Hafner have compiled mediocre numbers, catcher Victor Martinez has provided a consistent bat that mixes power and timely hitting. At the back end of the bullpen, the three-headed monster of Perez, Rafael Betancourt and Joe Borowski have shut down games. Perez and Betancourt -- or the Raffys -- both have sub-2.00 ERAs, while Borowski leads the AL with 45 saves (and a 5+ ERA, but let’s not discuss that). Lastly, Sabathia.

Carston Charles, or C.C., the supposed leader of the staff and team, had to deliver this year. He trimmed his weight in the offseason, quit golf to avoid injury and entered camp with an attitude that losing was not acceptable. The numbers will tell the rest of the story for the most likely winner of this year’s AL Cy Young Award:
  • 241 innings pitched: leads the AL
  • 19 wins: 2nd in the AL (would be 21 or 22 if the team scored ANY runs in August)
  • 5.65 : 1 K to BB ratio: the best in the majors among starters
  • 209 Ks: 5th in AL
  • 3.21 ERA: 5th in AL
This mixture of contributions from expected sources and unlikely minor leaguers is the blueprint for any small-market team. The world (and ESPN) may focus solely on the big-market boys like the Yankees, Red Sox and Cubs as the playoffs come to the fore, but the best record in baseball belongs to the AL Central Champion (96-66, tied with Boston). Their combination of timely hitting, a deep starting rotation with two aces and a reliable bullpen make the Tribe a lethal team come October.

On the field, the impact of Lofton can be classified as a moderate success. He certainly is no longer an everyday player (especially in the field), but his abilities at the plate make him extremely important for the team come October. The Lofton deal is significant because it represents the savvy of GM Mark Shapiro. He was able to land Lofton for a minor-league catcher in an organization that is already crowded with catchers (see: Martinez, Victor and Shoppach, Kelly). Shapiro would not give up the world for Dotel or Gagne; and as the baseball world has seen, that proved to be a very wise move. Lofton will be an important presence in October, and it’s comforting for Indians fans to know that we did not mortgage the future for him to return to Cleveland.

The great Indians teams will always be compared to the mid-90s Indians, but it is highly doubtful that any future Indians team will invigorate a city as much as those teams did. The 90s Indians had a perfect storm of ingredients in their favor: a new stadium, a talent-laden team full of home-grown products, a city without football for three years. With little sporting alternative, the city of Cleveland rallied around those 90s teams and sold out a Major League record 455 consecutive games as a result. No Indians team will match that.

The 2007 team does not have the amazing stats of the mid-1990s teams, but the team appears to be much better suited for the short series of October. With a 1-2 combo in Sabathia and Carmona, the 2007 Tribe has a pitching combo that far surpasses the old days of Charlie Nagy, Orel Hershesier, Dennis Martinez and Jaret Wright. The 2007 offense, while extremely talented, does not have Hall of Fame talent from top to bottom like in the mid-90s. Let’s take a look at the common names in the lineup: Lofton, Vizquel, Baerga, Belle, Murray, Thome, Ramirez, Alomar Jr. These men all dominated their positions in baseball for a few years, and more than a few are Hall of Fame worthy. Yet, they went ring-less in Indians uniforms. The 2007 team may lack those names, but the strength at the top of the starting rotation makes them a more formidable October foe.

Indians fan: Tell me about it. I just that name and I shudder.
Chief Wahoo: Jose Mesa.
Fan (shivering): Ooooooh.... do it again.

Wahoo: Mesa.

Fan: Ooooooooh.

Wahoo: Mesa. Mesa. Mesa.

Fan: Oooooh... it tingles me!
If the Indians are going to lose in the playoffs, the most likely reason for their downfall will be Joe Borowski. He may lead the American League with 45 saves, but his eight blown saves (and numerous other close calls) cause way too much drama at the end of ball games. His inability to lock down two saves in Seattle during the last week of the season cost the Indians home-field advantage AND the all-important choice of the long or short ALDS series. Indians fans all recall being three outs away from the title in 1997 only to see Joe Table (aka, Jose Mesa) blow that save in Florida. Ten years later, there is a great fear of that happening again.

The Yankees swept the Indians 6-0 in the season series, but they did not face C.C. Sabathia during the season. They will certainly face the big lefty in Game 1 and possibly again in Game 4 or 5. The starting pitching advantage certainly goes to the Indians with Sabathia and Carmona, but the Yankees lineup has been firing on all cylinders over the last two months. The X-Factor will be A-Rod. His October struggles are well documented, and if those continue, the Indians will have a great advantage. It is a very even matchup, and the winner is well prepared to represent the AL in the World Series. These are the two hottest teams in the American League playing in the first round, and it will certainly be interesting. The series will most likely go to five games, and once it goes five, who knows what will happen? If I had to pick now, I’d go with the Indians because of the superb depth in their pitching staff (or maybe because I’m a homer who desperately wants his team to beat the Yankees).

-- Jeff Dees, Sept. 30, 2007

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