A Tale of Four Free Agents

In the Tuesday edition of The Plain Dealer, there was a profile of the Indians’ four free agent pitchers.  Which of the following hurlers (Kevin Millwood, Scott Elarton, Bob Wickman, and Bob Howry) will be wearing a Tribe uniform in 2006?  Here is what I believe the Tribe will do in the off season with the pitching staff.
First, it is doubtful Cleveland can keep Kevin Millwood.  After leading the AL in ERA at 2.86, he is probably the best of a slim crop of free agent starting pitchers.  Adding to the problem is that his agent is professional pain in the ass, Scott Boras.  Tribe GM Mark Shapiro doesn’t like giving multi-year contracts to pitchers (I agree with him), and with Millwood being 30 years old, and looking for a three or four year deal, Millwood is going to be pitching elsewhere in 2006.  Shapiro may look to swing a trade for a pitcher in the last year of his current contract, or search the free agent market for some bargains.
If Millwood leaves, Cleveland will make a concerted effort to retain Elarton.  The big righthander was 11-9 with a 4.61 ERA in ’05, solid numbers for a back of the rotation starter.  He seems to be over the shoulder problems he had several years ago, as he threw over 180 innings this year.  Elarton could likely be resigned for a two year deal at a modest price.  He could remain the fourth or fifth starter.
In the bullpen, after saving a career best 45 games, if Wickman decides to pitch in 2006, he will likely want one last big payday.  He won’t get it from the Indians.  So figure Wickman in a another uniform, unless he decides to retire.  That means Shapiro will make every effort to keep Howry, who appeared in a career high and team record 79 games.  Howry has closer experience, saving 28 games for the White Sox in 1999. 
Bullpen success is a hit or miss proposition, but Cleveland looks to be in good shape if Howry is the new closer.  Matt Miller and Arthur Rhodes will be back, and Fernando Cabrera looks to be in line to share the set up man role with Rhodes.  Rafael Betancourt will be back as well, but David Riske likely will be non-tendered.  I would hope the team can keep lefty Scott Sauerbeck as well. 
If Shapiro cannot make a trade for another starter, the team will look to farmhands Jason Davis, Fausto Carmona, Jeremy Sowers, and Jeremy Guthrie to fill the fifth starting spot.  Sowers and Carmona are the names to watch.  Sowers is a strike throwing lefty who pitched at Class A Kinston, Class AA Akron, and Class AAA Buffalo in ’05, going a combined 14-4 with a 2.37 ERA.  Carmona is a sinker baller who went 13-9 with a 3.68 ERA at Buffalo and Akron. 
The hot stove league starts right after the World Series ends, but don’t be surprised if the Tribe pitching scenario plays out this way in the offseason.

Is It a Choke Job?

The Cleveland Indians’ offense took a week long siesta with a playoff spot on the line, scoring more than four runs in a game just once (the 6-0 victory over the Devil Rays), even though they finished fourth in the American League in runs scored.  Did they choke?  Or is it simply a case of young players trying to do too much?
In the cases of Grady Sizemore and Coco Crisp, it was players trying to do too much.  I think Ronnie Belliard is guilty of the same thing.  The bottom of the order simply doesn’t make enough contact to make Eric Wedge’s one though nine approach work when the top of the order isn’t hitting over a period of time.  Still, this is a very young team, meaning its key offensive components are still going to get better.  Travis Hafner is the oldest of the core players at 28, within the prime of his career.  Victor Martinez will be 27 next year, historically the best year a player has.  Grady Sizemore, Coco Crisp, and Jhonny Peralta are all 25 and younger, and should be getting better as players. 
Ronnie Belliard, age 31 in 2006, will probably have his $4 million option for 2006 picked up, and although I’m not totally sure about this move, it is tough to argue the logic of bringing him back.  Aaron Boone restructured his 2006 deal to take less money, but at 33 he is not going to improve.  I would be stunned if Ben Broussard will be back with the Tribe when they meet in Winter Haven in February, and Casey Blake will probably become a utility man subbing at 1B, 3B, and the outfield. 
The Tribe’s lineup does strike out too much.  The team had four players with over 100 whiffs (Sizemore, Peralta, Blake, and Hafner), and Broussard fanned 98 times.  They need a professional hitter, preferably righthanded in the middle of the order.  The Indians were second in the AL in striking out, and all the whiffs effect the team’s ability to have productive outs.  Sizemore and Peralta should improve their numbers with experience.
On the pitching side, Kevin Millwood will likely not be back in 2006, but if he is not, Scott Elarton probably will be.  Cliff Lee and C.C. Sabathia are quality pitchers and should pitch well again in ’06.  Jake Westbrook is a good back of the rotation starter.  The bullpen is a hit or miss proposition every year, but Fernando Cabrera should be in the mix next season. 
The Indians have some tradable commodities like Broussard, Brandon Phillips, and maybe even Jason Davis to help fill some of these holes.  GM Mark Shapiro must be willing to trade some (not all) prospects to perhaps get another Millwood type hurler to anchor the rotation. 
Another encouraging sign for next season is the luck factor.  The Indians lost 36 one run games in 2005, and history tells us this number should turn around the following year.  Stat guru Bill James would always say the sleeper team for the following year is the team who lost the most one run games that season.  Despite what WKNR’s Kenny Roda believes, losing one run games is mostly luck. 
No one knows if the Tribe will lead the league in ERA next season.  They probably won’t.  But, if they finish in the top five in 2006, it will be a great season for the Cleveland Indians.  This is a young team, and many of its players will continue to get better.  Ask any baseball expert who will be the favorite in the AL Central next season, and they will say the Cleveland Indians.

That's More Like It

The Indians went back to the Earl Weaver formula they had used to during their hot streak in last night’s 6-0 win over Tampa Bay, but with a little twist.  Weaver, the former manager of the Baltimore Orioles during their halcyon days of the 70’s, used to say you win with pitching and three run homers.  Last night, the Tribe did it with pitching and a pair of two run dingers by Travis Hafner and Ronnie Belliard, and a solo shot by Jhonny Peralta.
So, this weekend means everything is on the line against Chicago.  The White Sox have clinched the Central Division title, so whether Sox skipper Ozzie Guillen decides to rest any of his regulars is something to watch.  The Tribe needs to win at least two out of three to insure they will at least have an extra game to get into the playoffs.  A sweep means the team is in regardless of what happens in Boston.
One thing Manager Eric Wedge should do is play Ben Broussard against lefthanders.  His platoon partner at first, Jose Hernandez has hit just .196 with 1 HR since the All Star break, mostly against lefties.  I’m pretty sure Broussard could accomplish those numbers.
This could have been avoided if the team would have done what I advocated a month ago, that is to bring up Ryan Garko and let him play against lefties.  I’m sure Garko could have done better than the numbers Hernandez put up, and it would have given him valuable experience.
After this weekend, eveything will be decided.  Maybe.

A Bad Time For A Slump

The Cleveland Indians have picked a bad time to have their first three game losing steak since the middle of August, as they have dropped consecutive one run decisions to two of the worst teams in the American League, Kansas City and Tampa Bay.  The one positive thing that has happened to the Tribe is the Red Sox have been losing so the Indians are still tied for the AL Wild Card lead.
As was the theme early in the season, the hitting has let the team down over the last three games.  In Sunday’s loss to the Royals, Victor Martinez hit a three run homer in the first, but the bats did little after that in a 5-4 loss.  Tuesday, the Devil Rays’ Scott Kazmir baffled Tribe hitters for seven innings allowing just one run in another 5-4 setback.
Last night was the most appalling performance.  Seth McClung, who had been lit up like a Christmas tree in his last three starts, shutout the Indians for eight innings in a 1-0 game.  Cliff Lee pitched very well in the defeat, holding Tampa scoreless until the top of the eighth.  The Indians didn’t even mount a threat until the bottom of the eighth when Ben Broussard lead off with a double, and stayed there as Aaron Boone couldn’t get a bunt down and grounded out weakly to third, as did Casey Blake.  Grady Sizemore hit a blooper to third to end the inning.
So, where does this leave the Tribe?  With a must win game tonight against the Devil Rays at Jacobs Field.  Cleveland has lost all five of its games against Tampa Bay this year.  C.C. Sabathia is the man who must stop the bleeding, but the bats must relax and get better pitches to hit.  They seem to be not as selective as they have been in their hot streak, and need to work the count better.
If Cleveland can win three of their last four games, the worst that can happen is a playoff game on Monday to get into the Division Series.  With the Red Sox and Yankees playing over the weekend, one of those teams will lose at least two games.  If the Tribe bats can get it straightened out, they still will be playing a week from today in the American League playoffs.  The playoffs really start tonight for the Cleveland Indians.

Tribe Fans: It's Far From Over!

With everyone feeling down about yesterday’s Tribe loss to Kansas City, it is time to realize that fans have to remember that either the Red Sox or the Yankees will lose at least two games this week.  Why do I know that for sure?  They play each other this weekend.  So, in reality, the Indians can lose one more game and still know they are going to the playoffs.
Last week’s road trip was a success as the Tribe won 5 out of 7 games.  However, there were some question marks that arose.  After a month of tremendous starting pitching, the rotation took some hits.  Cliff Lee and C.C. Sabathia both struggled in their starts against the Royals, but Cleveland won both games.  Jake Westbrook had two starts, but could hold leads in either one.  The Indians lead the American League in ERA, so figure the pitching to have a strong last week of the season.
Another potential problem is fatigue for Bob Howry.  After dominating hitters since the All Star break, the righthander had problems in Chicago and KC.  It would be nice with Monday’s day off if Manager Eric Wedge can get away without using Howry until Wednesday.  One good thing that came out of the road trip was the usage and performance of rookie Fernando Cabrera.  Cabrera showed that he may be a guy that can be counted on down the stretch and into the post season if Cleveland makes it. 
Travis Hafner has hit his way into consideration for the American League MVP with his performance against the White Sox in particular.  Of course, Pronk has no chance to win because he doesn’t play for an east coast team (like say Boston or New York), but it was good to see him get some attention.  The DH needs to get his normal stroke back because he looked like he was trying to yank everything out of the park by the end of the road trip.
Another area for concern is Tuesday’s starter Scott Elarton’s performance against the D-Rays this year.  In two starts against Tampa last month, Elarton was hammered.  However, he is 4-0 with an ERA of under 1 in the month of September.  Since this is the big righty’s last start in the ninth month, hopefully he comes up big one more time.
This is the week for ulcers to start flairing up and fans’ collective stomachs to be in their throats.  By this time next week, we will know if the Tribe is in or out of the playoffs.  A 5-1 home stand insures a return to the postseason for the first time since 2001.

Note to Roda: Please Shut Up!

One would think that with the streak the Cleveland Indians have been on, the people who comment on the game would learn something.  Once again, WKNR’s Kenny Roda disproves that theory.  After the Tribe’s 7-6 loss to the White Sox on Tuesday, which by the way was a terrific baseball game, Roda made no sense with his analysis of the game, particularly regarding Ronnie Belliard.
The afternoon drive time host was irritated that Belliard swung at the first pitch with the bases loaded in the 7th inning and the Indians leading 5-3.  Belliard hit a smash to third right at Sox’ third baseman Joe Crede, who turned it into a double play.  If Belliard had hit a weak roller or a pop up, the criticism would have been warranted.  But, had Belliard’s bullet been three feet to Crede’s right or left, it would have been a 7-3 lead for Cleveland.  If the first pitch is something you can hammer, you swing at it.
Next, Roda was upset when Belliard swung at the first pitch with runners on second and third, and the Tribe trailing 6-5 in the ninth with one out.  The White Sox were playing the infield back conceding the run.  Belliard hit a grounder to second base to tie the game.  THAT WAS HIS JOB!  Get the run in at all costs.  Yes, it would have been nice for him to hit a three run homer, but he did what he had to. 
Roda also rants about the lack of bunting by a guy like Casey Blake.  Yes, it would be nice if all major league players were completely fundamentally sound, but they are not.  He jumped on the error by Jose Hernandez which gave Chicago the lead, but ignored the fact that Aaron Rowand misplayed Victor Martinez’ drive in the ninth which allowed Cleveland to tie the game. 
Roda also points to Cleveland’s struggles early in the season as proof that Eric Wedge was not managing well.  Anyone who knows the game realizes that your record in one run games is LUCK.  Bad teams can have a good record in one run games.  Heck, Seattle and Tampa Bay have winning records in one run games.  Although Wedge is not John McGraw reborn, he is true to what he believes in.  His patience with guys like Aaron Boone and Scott Elarton are far more important to the success of the Indians than when he chooses to bunt.
Lastly, stop comparing Little League ball to the Major Leagues.  There is a different mindset in teaching young people to play the game, than what goes on in the Majors.  All of the Indians were the best players on their respective teams throughout their lives.  A true fan doesn’t care what goes on in your son’s games.  I’m sure he appreciates hearing his dad talk about him on the air, but it is not relevent to Indians’ games.
Cleveland baseball fans deserve better analysis than they are getting from WKNR.  Hear’s hoping Kenny Roda can learn something about the game.

Feel Good Today: Tribe and Browns Win!

With apologies to Browns’ GM Phil Savage, who doesn’t like Cleveland’s woe is me mentality (actually I don’t like it either), it is rare that people on the North Coast can celebrate victories by two of its teams in the same day.  The Indians completed a sweep over Kansas City and the Browns gave Romeo Crennel his first win over Green Bay.  A great day indeed, but it’s time to look ahead to a crucial series for the Tribe against the White Sox, while the Brownies get Indianapolis next Sunday.
First, the Indians took care of business by sweeping the Royals, and increased their lead in the Wild Card race to 1-1/2 games over the Yankees.  Cleveland plays three in Chicago and then goes to KC for a four game set with the Royals.  The starting pitching continues to be the big story for the Tribe as Scott Elarton, Cliff Lee, and C.C. Sabathia allowed just 5 earned runs in 22-1/3 innings of work. 
Eric Wedge’s game by game approach is just perfect for this team.  Baseball is a game in which the starting pitcher has a huge amount of influence.  That is, after all, how Las Vegas sets the odds on the sport.  It isn’t really a momentum sport.  A team could have a horrible loss one day, and the next day the starting pitcher throws a two hit shutout, and negative momentum is averted.
If the Indians continue to get the starting pitching they have received over the last month, they will continue to win ballgames.  The White Sox series starts with AL ERA Leader Kevin Millwood going for Cleveland, and winning the series would help the Tribe keep it’s lead in the Wild Card chase.  By the way, the Indians now are tied for the second best record in the American League with the Red Sox.
Meanwhile, the Browns picked up win #1 of the season at Lambeau Field.  Trent Dilfer threw three touchdown passes and the defense picked off Brett Favre twice in the 26-24 victory.  One of Dilfer’s TD tosses was an 80 yarder to Braylon Edwards, who caught a 10 yard slant and took it the distance.  That would mean it was the biggest contribution by a Browns’ #1 draft choice since the team came back in 1999, other than Courtney Brown’s three sack game against the Bears. 
Let’s face it though, the Packers are not a good football team.  They lost to the Lions in week one, and Detroit was hammered by Chicago yesterday.  Next week, Romeo’s boys get a reality check against Peyton Manning and the Colts. 
Enjoy the win, Browns fans.  To top it off, the genius Brian Billick’s Ravens are now 0-2.  I guess he isn’t smarter than everyone else.  Also a note to Phil Savage’s critics:  Billick was the one who wanted Kyle Boller, not Savage. 
Hope everyone has plenty of antacids on hand for the Tribe-Sox series this week.

Tribe Takes 2 of 3 From A's

The Cleveland Indians maintained its lead in the American League Wild Card race by winning the three game series against the Oakland A’s at Jacobs Field.  The series win was huge in that it showed the Tribe can win the type of baseball that is played in the postseason, and against a quality opponent.
Once again, the starter pitching keyed the series win.  C.C. Sabathia, Kevin Millwood, and Jake Westbrook allowed just 2 earned runs in 15 innings to match the A’s starters pitch for pitch. 
After going scoreless the first 15 innings of the series, the bottom of the order keyed the offense.  Ben Broussard emerged from a 1 for 23 slump to hit two homers on Tuesday, and drove in all five runs in the 5-2 win.  Last night, Ronnie Belliard’s tie breaking three run dinger off of Barry Zito led to the 6-4 victory.  Belliard also played incredible defense in the series, turning several difficult double plays to help the pitching staff.
Now, the last place Kansas City Royals come in for a three game set which the Tribe most certainly has to win, if not sweep.  The best case scenario would be a blowout win in one of the games, so Manager Eric Wedge can give some rest to players who are basically going every inning, such as Jhonny Peralta, Coco Crisp, Grady Sizemore, and Victor Martinez.  GM Mark Shapiro has said that fatigue is his one concern going down the stretch.
It is curious that with Class AAA Buffalo now out of the International League playoffs, shortstop Brandon Phillips was not recalled to Cleveland.  Phillips will probably be traded during the off season after hitting just .256 in his second season at the AAA level.  The middle infield "prospect" also struck out 90 times while walking just 39 times for the season.  Phillips was passed up by Peralta last season, and Belliard’s performance has likely earned a deal for the 2006 season.
Also, fans worried about who will be here next season are missing an exciting pennant race.  Whether or not Millwood, Wickman, etc. will be in Tribe uniforms in 2006 is something to worry about after the season and/or playoffs end.  In today’s baseball, fans have to understand the faces will change on a yearly basis.  It depends on what value each team places on its talent.  Worry about these games, and you can worry about next year when the hot stove league starts.

Tribe Picks a Good Time to Start Winning at Home

All season long, the Cleveland Indians have struggled at Jacobs Field playing just .500 baseball at home.  The team has won at over a .600 clip on the road, and with just seven games remaining as the visiting team the Tribe needed to start playing better in Cleveland to make the playoffs.
So far, so good.
The Indians have won the first four games of an eleven game homestand, and have virtually eliminated the three time defending AL Central Division Champion Minnesota Twins in the process.  Last night’s nationally televised 12-4 thumping of the Twins raised the Tribe’s record to 82-61, the third best mark in the American League.  Tonight starts a new challenge, a three game set against Oakland, who trails Cleveland by 2-1/2 games in the Wild Card race. 
With 19 games remaining on the schedule, Cleveland will be at home for 12 of them, including four against Kansas City to finish the current homestand.  The only road games left are three with the Royals, and three more with the White Sox.  This space still maintains whether or not the Tribe makes the post season will depend on how they fare against the Pale Hose in the six games left.
Meanwhile, Cleveland’s nearest persuer, the Yankees have just seven home games left, and have to play 13 more road games.  New York is roughly a .500 ballclub on the road in 2005, and they start a big three game series at Tampa Bay tomorrow.  Of course, everyone by now has read that the Bronx Bombers are just 5-11 versus the Devil Rays this year.  And New York still has a three game series at Fenway Park on the last weekend of the season.  I’m sure the Sox would like nothing better than to knock Steinbrenner’s crew out of the playoffs.
Cleveland has won 32 of its last 45 games, but there is no room for a letdown now.  Manager Eric Wedge keeps preaching the importance of winning series, and if the Tribe continues doing that, they will be playing in October. 
The pitching continues to be incredible allowing more than four runs in a game just four  times since August 13th.  It’s a lot easier to put together this type of streak when you don’t need to score eight runs to win a game. 
Tighten your seat belts, Indians’ fans!  It promises to be exciting right down to game 162.

Sabathia Isn't Fat Now!

One of the common topics on Cleveland sports talk radio is the weight of Tribe left hander C.C. Sabathia.  Whenever, the big southpaw struggles, as he did in June and July, the reason by both hosts and callers in that Sabathia is fat.  Based on the results C.C. has put up recently, he must have lost 50 pounds since then.
The truth of course is that he hasn’t, but he has been on a roll.  Sabathia has won his last seven starts, and his last two appearances were pitching gems.  Last Friday, to start a big three game series against the Twins, C.C. carried a no-hitter into the sixth inning, and would up pitching 7-1/3 scoreless frames in a 6-1 win.  In his next start, the whipping boy of the talk show circuit retired the last 21 men he faced in a complete game 4-1 victory over Detroit.
For all of those asking when Sabathia will start pitching like an ace, they have their answer.  He has picked it up a notch during this pennant race.  Does this mean he will never struggle again?  Of course not, but when he does it is due to things like tipping pitches, and not having command of his stuff, not because he is out of shape.
After just turning 25 earlier this year, Sabathia now has 63 wins in his big league career.  He has won more than 10 games in each of his five big league seasons, and is reliable pitching over 150 innings per season.  Can pitching glamour boys like Kerry Wood and Mark Prior make this claim?  I don’t think so.
The point is Sabathia is still a very young pitcher.  He is still learning his craft.  Meanwhile, the morons calling to trade him to the Reds for Adam Dunn have stopped calling.  If C.C. continues to pitch like this, he may be making his secong post season start this October.