Saturday, April 28, 2007

A Message to the AL: The Tribe is for Real, AND Improving

We all know the numbers by now:

• A six game winning streak

• A 13-7 record, first in the AL Central

• A series victory in all but the Yankee series

• A 4-2 record against division rival Chicago

• A 2-0 record against division rival Minnesota

I know, I know, it's early, but it is incredibly tantalizing to compare this season to the past few. After 20 games the past three years, Cleveland was already scuffling. April has historically been a difficult month for this version of the Indians. Under Wedge, Cleveland came into the season 38-59 in April. That history makes this 13-7 start something to keep an eye on. An April with a winning record puts them ahead of their past bell curve.

Still, it’s early, and I don’t have to tell ANY Indian fan that it’s a long season.

How REAL is this team?

Offensively, it's safe to say that Cleveland hasn’t come close to tapping their offensive potential. Cleveland is tied for ninth in the AL in batting with an unspectacular .247 (all stats are BEFORE tonight’s victory). Only two Tribe regulars were batting over .300, and it took a 16 for 26 run by Travis Hafner to get him included in the .300 plus range. The majority of the Indians' runs have come from the home run ball. Look, home runs are important, but depending on the big inning isn’t something you want to hang your hat on. With that being said, the offense is still finding ways to win games, and doing all the necessary things TO get the job done. Average is overrated when you are finding ways to get on base.

Cleveland’s offense has a solid .350 OBP to go along with an enigmatic offense that strikes out a lot, but walks more. Tonight, Cleveland was out-hit 8-7, but managed to take 8 walks. If you put 15 men on base, your chances of winning are pretty good. This is a good sign that we are going to see a giant offensive improvement as the season progresses, and the weather warms up the Tribe bats. Cleveland batted .280 last season, and it doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize they are going to end up around there again this season.

I also can’t express enough how BIG 2-out runs are. The Tribe of the 90’s made a living out of huge 2-out hits. This team seems to have the same sort of drama-inducing sense. Last night, both Josh Barfield and Grady Sizemore’s daggers came with 2-outs. Cleveland does struggle a bit with runners in scoring position at .237, but this will no doubt improve. It has too…or the ball’s going to start to bounce the other way.

Josh Barfield isn’t going to end up hitting .130.

Grady Sizemore isn’t going to end up hitting .270.

Vmart isn’t going to end up hitting .280.

We don’t know WHAT Peralta is going to do, but he WON’T hit .230 this year. He’s hitting the ball hard…and IS a different player this year.

Shin-Soo Choo and Ryan Garko have all found a way into the lineup, and have added a needed spark. Choo probably won’t be around for long, but it’s hard to argue with what he’s been doing. Having interchangeable parts as the year progresses is an added bonus. Especially with injury-prone Trot Nixon (what a start).

Point? This team hasn’t come close to reaching its offensive stride. Sooner or later, this is a team that will score runs in multiple innings to go along with the big inning. Once that happens, there are some AL teams that aren’t going to be all that happy. Realize this. Cleveland is FINDING ways to win. Something tells me we aren’t all that far away from not having to look that hard.

The starting pitching is just warming up. C.C. Sabathia is doing what we expect. He’s a #1 starter. He’s a stopper. In five starts this year, C.C. has given up 3 runs or less in all but one start. He has 35 K’s in 34 innings pitched. More impressively is that he’s only walked 8, and topped out with 3 against Chicago. The key for C.C. is to stay healthy. If he does, this could be a ‘break-the-bank’ year for Sabathia.

Jake Westbrook signed a new multi-year deal (3 years, 33 million). I needed to mention that, because Westbrook has been the complete opposite of Sabathia this year. His ERA stands at 7.96. It came down over a run last night thanks to a low strike zone from the umpire. He hasn’t looked good. Westbrook is to good a pitcher not to turn around. Watch for Jake to turn it around as the weather warms up, and his new contract settles in.

Sowers has been a solid #3 starter for this team. In three of four starts, he’s given up 3 or less runs, and has really done the job expected of him. He doesn’t walk many (we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt for his five walk performance against Chicago), he hasn’t given up the long ball, and aside from getting blown up in the Bronx, has been the 2nd best starter on the staff. There’s no reason to think that Sowers WON’T continue this throughout the seasons. Expect consistency, an occasional blowup, but more good than bad. Isn’t that the definition of a #3 starter?

Byrd has been a mild surprise so far. He goes 6 innings. He avoids HUGE innings. This year, he wins games. Many are calling for Byrd to be dealt once Cliff Lee comes back, and I can’t deny that might not be the smart way to go. I do feel that Byrd is underrated, and as a #4 is extremely effective. Of course, once Lee comes back, if you’d ask me who I’d rather have in the rotation, Byrd or Fausto Carmona, I’d pick Carmona every time. That puts Adam Miller as the first guy called up from Buffalo. I like the sound of that.

Speaking of Fausto, how about this kid? After getting lit up in his first start, he has been highly effective, and improving in every start. Psst…he outdueled Johan Santana. You are looking at a #2 or #3 starter in the making, and I’m happy with the Tribe brass finally just putting him in the rotation. He’ll probably be in Buffalo soon, but I suspect not for long.

Cliff Lee is the kind of pitcher you always expect more of. I remember seeing him dominate in Akron, and you have to think that he can do that in the Majors. The question becomes when. He should be back in the rotation next week, and let’s hope that we get the top end starter he should be. He’s looked good in his rehab starts.

Overall, this rotation has been relatively consistent (Byrd, Carmona and Sowers), sometimes spectacular (CC), and head-scratching (Westbrook). But with Adam Miller rolling in Buffalo, and Cliff Lee joining the club this week, this staff is as good as it has been in the last several years…with plenty of room to improve. Look for a move (Byrd or…surprise, surprise, Westbrook).

The Relief Pitching has been pretty darn good. I know, I saw Fultz and Hernandez do their impression of the local pinball machine last night. But, I also so Rafael Betancourt slam the door shut on the Orioles…followed by Joe Borowski striking out the side in the ninth.

Fernando Cabrera has been electric. His ERA stands at 0, while compiling a 1-0 record, with fifteen K’s in 10 innings pitched. There are already calls to move him to the closer roll. I just want to remind you all what moving around a bullpen can do. Leave him be. We need shut down setup guys.

Jason Davis and Betancourt are proving the Tribe brass right. Many felt that both would “grow up” this year. Davis has been pretty lights out (although walking a bunch), and Betancourt has been as well. These two, with Cabrera, have given the Tribe a solid trio to use in the 7th and 8th innings.

The new signings, Aaron Fultz, Roberto Hernandez and Joe Borowski have had their ups and downs. Fultz, overall, has been very good. The last two games, he’s failed to retire a batter, however, with 2 walks and a run-scoring hit. Hernandez has, for the most part, gotten the job done. Still, he’s not lock down any more. Like last night, he can give up a string of hits. Borowski has nine saves, to go along with his 9.00 ERA. He’s given up a run in 4 of his 10 appearances. Still, he’s only blown one save so far, and aside from getting BLOWN UP against the Yankees, hasn’t been anything we didn’t expect. As advertised, this guy is a lot like Bob Wickman. Take a look at Wickman’s stats this year. No, he’s not blown up like Borowski did against New York, but you’ll notice some striking similarities.

You add to that Mike Miller, who’s on the DL, Tom Mastny, and a slew of kids in Buffalo who have been lights out. Certainly, this is a vast improvement.

The Indians fielding hasn’t been close to up to par, but better than it looks from the outside looking in. Barfield and Marte have 4 errors apiece, and Peralta has 3. The Tribe as a team have 18 errors, third worst in the AL. With that being said, anyone who saw the game last night, and the play that Barfield made, shows you what kind of defensive player Barfield is. He covers a country-mile, and makes fantastic plays look easy. He’ll get errors on plays many can’t even get too. Marte looks flat out overwhelmed. Truth be told, he’s starting to scare me a whole lot. Thank god we got Kelly Shoppach in that deal. Peralta IS playing better in the field. His three errors are actually in the top third of the AL, and he and Barfield are playing well together. Again, the defense has struggled, but overall, still is improved. Marte will need to be watched.

Overall, you have to grade the Tribe start as an A-. I’d throw them an A+, but this team still isn’t grooving yet. That’s the exciting piece to this start. Anyone who’s seen this team play over the past few years, knows that there is another gear we haven’t seen yet. Still…

I’m pretty happy with the gear we are in now.

Tonight…Sowers against Bedard. Let’s pull for 7.

No comments:

Post a Comment