Sunday, January 31, 2010

Finding Fausto Carmona

The Cleveland Indians need an ace, a stopper, a guy that not only has wicked stuff, but is able to use it to win ballgames. No, I'm not talking about a default ace that struggles through six or seven innings, and at best can win you about 15 games, but more likely will lose you about 15 games. I'm also not talking about the guy who wins the the Indians King of the Mountain game between their brigade of #3 and #4 starters.

I'm talking about an actual ace.

We all know the irony after the Indians dealt away back-to-back Cy Young Award winners CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee, then watched them face off against each other in this past season's World Series. In the meantime, the Indians left themselves with a rag-tag group of starting pitchers for the 2010 season. Justin Masterson, Aaron Laffey, Jeremy Sowers, an injured Jake Westbrook, David Huff and a slew of unknowns will enter spring training hoping to grab a spot in this very unassuming rotation. The unknown commodity remains to be Fausto Carmona, who went from domination in 2007, to an abomination since.

Fausto Carmona is the one and only current member of the Cleveland Indians pitching staff who not only has the ability and stuff to be an ace, but has already done it. The catch-22 for Fausto is that he could just as easily lose 20 games, as he could win 20. The catch-22 for the Indians is that he could win 20 games this year and the Indians STILL could lose more than they win, but their chances of winning will improve exponentially if the big righty can find what he's lost over the past two seasons...which would be the strike zone.

In 2007, Carmona went 19-8 with a paltry 3.06 ERA in 215 innings. Carmona was electric, peppering the lower part of the strike zone with both his hard sinker and slider. He struck out 137 batters, while walking only 61. Most importantly, he trusted his viscous stuff, which was in question after he bounced around from Triple A Buffalo to Cleveland, from the bullpen to the spot starts. Carmona finished fourth in the 2007 Cy Young voting that season, and Torii Hunter was quoted as saying after facing the young righty, "I can't wait until we face normal pitchers. This guy's sinker is practically unhittable." He seemed on the precipice to become the American League's next dominant pitcher. He even signed a four-year, fifteen million dollar contract, that could turn into a seven-year deal with the three club options at the end that would push it to a potential $40+ million dollar windfall.

Then it all went away.

Over the next two seasons, Carmona turned into a pumpkin. He went 13-19 with a 5.89 ERA. Likely the most telling struggle was his control. Carmona had only 137 K's and 140 walks. He also struggled with injuries. Somewhere along the way, Carmona began trying to nip corners, instead of just throwing strikes. This perfectionist attitude, along with more batters willing to keep their bats on their shoulders forced Carmona to adjust. He adjusted alright, if you consider his mechanics problems, missing the strike zone, multiple injuries and being sent to triple A adjusting.

The struggles have led several to question why the Indians would sign Carmona to a long-term deal. It's the type of hindsight that makes me sick to my stomach, to be honest. Carmona signed the deal in April of 2008, right after his ace-like year. Remember, this was prior to Cliff Lee's big season, and directly after Lee didn't even make the postseason roster. This was also the final year of CC Sabathia's deal. Dealing Sabathia at that moment were shrouded in thoughts of going to the world series. Sabathia wanted too much money, and Cleveland likely would have to keep the big lefty for the duration of the season as they made a run for the playoffs. At the time, it looked like Carmona would be the only guy at the top of the rotation after the season.

The Indians had long followed the plans of John Hart, who believed that good business was to avoid arbitration at all cost, and sign your future talent to long term deals. Remember, it was Hart that signed several players to multi-year contracts starting in 1992 that led to the Indians near-decade of dominance. Sure, we all talk about the deals given to Albert Belle, Kenny Lofton, Jim Thome, Carlos Baerga and Paul Sorrento, but rare do we talk of the deals that season to Jack Armstrong, Scott Scudder, Mark Whiten, Glenallen Hill and Dave Otto. It's a hit or miss process, and in all honesty, Carmona's deal had more prior support with regards to statistics than nearly all of those guys mentioned when they signed. Remember, he finished fourth in the Cy Young voting in 2007, and certainly would have garnered more votes had Sabathia played for another team.

The Indians followed the Hart philosophy with Victor Martinez and Jhonny Peralta and CC Sabathia (before he left) and Grady Sizemore. It's a sound investment. Does it always pay off? No, but I also believe that Carmona still has the ability and stuff to become an ace again, and there was no reason to believe any different prior to the start of 2008.

Now Carmona has most definitely found himself at a crossroads. After the 2007 season, many in and out of the organization saw Carmona as the ace-in-waiting. Whenever CC Sabathia would find his way to the Yankees in a mega-deal, Carmona was the heir-apparent. As a matter of fact, there was a small faction that believed Carmona was the better pitcher in 2007, with the better stuff.

Fast-forward two years, and if you are to believe the stories that are floating around, Mark Shapiro has been exploring the possibility of trading Carmona to free up money. The problem with that theory is that Cleveland NEEDS Fausto Carmona. Why? Without him, the Indians have a nearly zero chance to do anything but lose this season.

Sure, Jake Westbrook could rebound after two seasons of nothing to win the Indians 15 games. Sure, Aaron Laffey could finally put it all together and stay healthy. Sure, Justin Masterson could continue to develop into something more than a glorified relief pitcher. Sure, Jeremy Sowers could revisit the 2006 season, that saw him put up Fausto Carmona numbers. Sure, David Huff could win 11 games with something lower than a near-6.00 ERA. Sure, Carlos Carrasco could develop into something more than a quad A starter. Sure, maybe even Hector Rondon makes the bigs and makes some waves, since he's the one guy with the stuff to do it. The problem is that there are just so many question-marks, even IF Carmona steps up this season. If the Indians can manage to get half of their starting rotation to achieve at the highest level, and if Carmona can manage to regain some of that 2007 magic, than this season could be more interesting than originally thought.

This past offseason, Carmona pitched for Aguilas in the Dominican League. Mark Shapiro didn't want him to, worried that his former ace-in-waiting was setting himself up for arm trouble later in the season. Carmona talked his GM into letting him go, as both worked up a plan to work out the kinks in his mechanics. There was also some thought that if he could find success, he could walk into spring training in Goodyear, AZ riding a bit of a high, instead of a two year slide.

Carmona did just that, going 1-1 with a 2.70 ERA. He gave up five total runs, four earned, and 10 hits. The key to his success in the DR league is that he didn't walk a single batter, while striking out five in 13 1/3. Manny Acta was pleased with what he saw as well.
"Some of the adjustments that we wanted him to make when Spring Training starts, he did some of that during the winter. That enabled him to pound the strike zone. That stuff's still there. That night I saw him, he was pitching up to 93, with good sink, and he threw some good sliders. It's a matter of him understanding that he needs to get more of the plate and induce more contact, rather than trying to be too fine."
New pitching coach Tim Belcher will be at the forefront of bringing Fausto back from the land of 6.00+ ERA's. His philosophy is fairly simple,
"You have to be able to throw strikes and command the baseball there is no question about that. I am a big believer that 'firsts' are so important in the game. First pitch strikes, successful first inning, and first hitter of each inning. If we can accomplish some of those things and set those as goals to try and lead the league in those categories a lot of the stuff really takes care of itself after that. If you can have an overwhelming majority of the hitters you face start out with a strike or at least 1-1 and then you record the leadoff out with great regularity you are going to have a chance to be very successful. If you can get through the first inning when the opposing team has the lineup setup exactly how they want it 1-2-3 with the big bopper in the four spot, if you can survive that first inning you have a great chance of going on and having a successful game. There are obviously mechanical and psychological things involved with throwing strikes. In a lot of ways it might be a little bit more reflective of the youth with our pitching staff more than anything. You get a bunch of guys that are maybe in the big leagues maybe a tick earlier than they should be and they are not comfortable pounding the strike zone and going after some of these hitters in the American League, so they shy away from that. As they gain experience and confidence then they will move more in the middle of the plate."
Sound familiar?

Remember, Carmona's stuff was never really in question. Danny Wild of had a nice article on Carmona's path to the pros earlier this year. Carmona's 2002 manager Rouglas Odor (potential name of the year) described him as "...a strike-thrower, pounding that strike zone. It seemed like 95 percent of the time, he threw a strike." In 2003, Carmona was named the Indians Minor League pitcher of the year at Lake County. In 2004, Brad Komminsk, his Double-A manager at Akron thought "He was good, he dominated back then. His size and velocity and the way he attacked hitters, he always kept the ball down in the zone."

Carmona would lead the Indians organization in innings pitched in 2005 with 173 1/3 innings, and had 13 wins. The Indians would nearly ruin him in 2006, when they left him in Buffalo, then brought him up to spot start, relieve, close, get sent down, get called back up, and lose 10 games in a row. He was called a head case, a bust, but had certainly been mismanaged that season.

If Acta and Belcher can get Fausto to trust his mechanics and his stuff, and if Carmona can stay healthy, he can still be that ace. This may be his last chance, and the only realistic chance that the Cleveland Indians have at being anything but a laughingstock.

photo courtesy of flickr creative commons and Keith Allison:

Saturday, January 30, 2010

All-Aught Indians--SS--Omar Vizquel (2000-2004)

There wasn't a more solid position in the Aughts for the Tribe than at shortstop. The first nine years of the decade were anchored by Omar Vizquel for most of the first five season and Jhonny Peralta for the next four. There couldn't have been more difference between the two. Vizquel certainly is the best defensive shortstop to ever don the Indians jersey, and one of the best defensive baseball players of all-time at any position. The Indians, tantalized by Peralta's offense, allowed the elder Vizquel to leave via free agency after the 2004 season. Peralta proved a plodding infielder who covered as much ground as a fire-hydrant. He found himself in Eric Wedge's doghouse more often than not, and has never found the offensive consistency that would have provided an excuse to keep his defensive liabilities at Omar's old haunts. The decade ended in full-circle, with another #13 roaming the position in Asdrubal Cabrera. The All-Aught Indians shortstop could only be Asdrubal Cabrera's hero growing up, Omar Vizquel.

When I think of Vizquel, I'll always remember the first time I met him during the 1996 season. He was signing autographs next to the dugout prior to a game against the Yankees at the Jake, and while signing, I asked him what made him so good defensively. Vizquel immediately started laughing...
I played wall ball bare-handed with a racketball, baseball, tennis ball, or whatever I could get my hands on. I'd play with a friend, and we'd play games. If you caught the ball, it was an out. If you dropped it, it was a run. I didn't lose many games.
A week or so later, I was sitting in the club seats, and sitting in the dugout was Vizquel. There were no other Indians to be seen, and there he was, throwing a baseball against the dugout wall, barehanded.

It's hard to put years around Vizquel's performances because they are so timeless. For every story I can come up with that had Vizquel turn and run to not-so-shallow left field to catch a ball over his shoulder, can be matched with countless similar stories. There were games in which you were sure that Vizquel was somehow playing both third, short and left field, he covered so much ground. Vizquel, seemingly every game, would find himself flying past second base, towards first, to rob a sure single from an unsuspecting batter.

We were spoiled, watching the magician flip the ball out of his glove towards second to start an inning-ending double-play. We were in awe, watching him move about twenty feet in about a half-second, plant, reach across his body, snag the ball, and nip the runner by about a millimeter on the throw. The jaws would drop when he would barehand a high-chopper that most couldn't get a glove on, and beat the runner by about 20 steps. There was nothing he couldn't do with the glove, and that was never in question even though he entered the decade at the age of 33.

It's hard to look forward, without first looking back, prior to the 2000 season. The Indians received Vizquel from the Seattle Mariners for El Gato, Felix Fermin. Talk about highway robbery. Vizquel came from Seattle having won his first gold glove. His defense would only improve, but the light-hitting offensive player also improved at the plate each year. From 1996-2000, Omar wouldn't bat under .280. His bat and smart base-running in the two-whole made him a valuable commodity OFFENSIVELY, as well as defensively.

Vizquel would win the gold glove in both 2000 and 2001. Even though the 2001 award would be his last as a member of the Indians, he could have, and likely should have won the award in both 2002 and 2004. The 2001 award was his ninth as a member of the Indians.

Omar was never an offensive juggernaut by any stretch of the imagination, but he wasn't a dog as some have professed him to be. Vizquel batted .333 in 1999, and followed that up by hitting at a .287 clip in 2000. He netted 101 runs and 22 SB batting second, to go along with 27 doubles. Vizquel saw his offense plunge in 2001, and many saw it as a pre-cursor to diminishing skills. He would rebound in a big way in 2002, however, batting .275 with 85 runs scored and 31 doubles. Vizquel would also mash a career high 14 home runs and roll out 72 RBI. The 14 homers matched his previous three-year totals combined.

Vizquel would struggle with injuries in 2003, and Jhonny Peralta threatened to take over the position. Vizquel would once again rise from the ashes in 2004 with another fine offensive season, batting .291, with seven homers, 59 RBI, 28 doubles and 82 runs scored. He stole 19 bases. It was his last season as an Indian.

To put Vizquel's numbers into perspective, you just need to compare his 21-year career to Jhonny Peralta's seven. Peralta, the offensive juggernaut, has a lifetime .266 average, while Vizquel's is .273. With the Indians, it's ten points higher. Vizquel has struck out just over 1,000 times. Peralta is closing in on 800 in his seven seasons. Sure, Peralta has more power, but it comes at a price.

Looking past the numbers, Omar's position in the two-hole behind Lofton was as important as Thome and Ramirez turned out to be. Vizquel was a magician at the plate, who seemed to be able to direct pitches foul whenever he needed to. Why was this important? He'd drive pitchers nuts while Kenny was hopping around first base. I wonder how many stolen bases Kenny should attribute to Omar?

Omar was also very adept at those nasty drag bunts to move Kenny, or another runner to second or third. He also managed more clutch hits down the line. Perhaps memory isn't serving me 100% correctly, but I seem to remember several balls in the outfield, down the line, driving opposing teams crazy.

Let's stop messing around with offense though. Vizquel isn't the All-Aught shortstop because of his offense. Defensively, there was none better. Top that off with his leadership role in the clubhouse that the Indians have yet to replace, and you have the consumate player of the 2000's. Vizquel was the last holdover to the great teams of the 90's. During that team's heydey, Vizquel was often the most overlooked player on a team loaded with offense. He wasn't truly appreciated in full until he quite literally became the leader of the team after the 2001 season (although some would say it happened before that).

What says the most to me about Vizquel is his memory. He never forgets. He often talks about a game in 1994 against the Royals in which he made three errors, which led to seven unearned runs, which led to a Royals victory. It was the game that changed his life as a baseball player..."made him a man," as he likes to say. It's funny many gold gloves many incredible plays later, and he still talks about that one game, in 1994, in which he made so many mistakes. The good ones are driven. The great ones are something a bit more. Vizquel is great, there's no doubt about it.

At the end of the day, Vizquel is the guy that literally lives the game of baseball, and does so with a smile on his face. When the Indians were considering bringing in Vizquel over this past offseason, the SABR-specialists began throwing out their numbers about why Omar was too old, and played too little. Unfortunately, the numbers rarely measure the heart, or the influence a player like Omar could play in the clubhouse for a team hunting for a leader.

In June of 2008, Omar Vizquel returned to Cleveland for the first time since he left the corner of Carnegie and Ontario in 2004. The Indians faithful gave Omar the welcome that he deserved before the game, a 90-second standing ovation. You see, Omar is one of us, a Clevelander through-and-through. He's not the guy pumping his fist at the opposing dugout like Joey, or wandering around the outfield looking for a four-leaf clover like Manny. He's not blazing down the basepaths at the speed of sound like Kenny, or mashing homers clear to Mentor like Jim Thome. He's just the little guy, working twice as hard as the rest, perhaps becoming better than them all.

During Omar's first at-bat, the crowd gave him another minute-plus standing O, and you could tell Omar could barely keep it all in. He grounded out, but of course, he nearly beat Andy Marte's throw with a head first, go for broke slide. It's Omar...he doesn't do it any other way.

That's what adds up to equal Omar Vizquel. The sum of his parts are much more than any statitistics, and even all those gold gloves. When it was all said and done, Omar was left standing, and perhaps the biggest influence for the organization from those grandiose teams of the 90's. I don't know when his last game will be, if it will be sometime this year, or next.

What I do know, is when it's all over and Omar has retired, if you look in a dugout somewhere where he's coaching perhaps, or maybe just reminiscing, you'll find #13, throwing a ball of the wall, trying to get the most outs.

Here's to you, lucky's been my pleasure...

The Two Thousand, Aught Shortstops: Omar Vizquel, Enrique Wilson, Jolbert Cabrera, John McDonald, Jhonny Peralta, Ricky Gutierrez, Zach Sorenson, Alex Cora, Ramon Vazquez, Hector Luna, Lou Merloni, Joe Inglett, Mike Rouse, Asdrubal Cabrera, Jorge Velandia, Luis Valbuena, Niuman Romero

Trading Fausto Carmona to sign Orlando Hudson is ridiculous

So let me see if I have this straight:

The pitching starved Cleveland Indians were exploring "the idea of trading right-hander Fausto Carmona to clear money for free-agent second baseman Orlando Hudson." I don't even know where to start with this one. Surely, the team that declared Jake Westbrook its ace in October wouldn't be thinking of dealing it's #2 starter, would they? Not with Westbrook having thrown about as many innings over the past two seasons as Bob Feller. Not with a #3 starter in Justin Masterson who has been much more effective as a reliever throughout his career. Not with a #4 starter that won 11 games last year, but did it with a near 6.00 ERA. Not with a bunch of #5 starter candidates who have either failed over and over again, or had injury issues.

If you look past the fact that the Indians couldn't possibly be thinking of dealing away a commodity they don't have, do they really need a second baseman? I know that you can never have too many middle infielders, and Orlando Hudson would be an upgrade. Still, the Indians turned to rookie Luis Valbuena at second base last season, and the promise was obvious. He has some pop in his bat (10 homers) and is a solid fielder. He can't hit a lick against lefties (.205) yet, but at 23, he's got room to grow. The Indians will be, and should be, looking for a player that can potentially platoon with Valbuena for the time being, but even if Valbuena goes through a trial by fire, he's still a solid prospect. If he fails, put Cabrera back over there. Who cares. The point being is that this team has far more needs than second base. I like Hudson, but there are other players that the Indians could have signed for the same money that would have been much more effective.

Hudson has been ont he Indians radar for several years, but as I mentioned a couple of days ago, Hudson is looking for a deal somewhere between five and ten million a year. Even if Hudson decides to sign a smaller deal at say, three million a year, the Indians wouldn't be in the market. Remember, their biggest signing this offseason that wasn't a manager or coach was Mike Redmond, to the tune of $850,000. Mark Shapiro and the Dolans have been preaching that there's no money in the hopper, so the only bargain the Indians would take will cost them in the realm of a million. Yeah, hard to take after dumping millions and millions over the past year and a half, even with escalating contracts.

Even if you find yourself on the side of the fence that believes Carmona's monster 2007 season was his one-hit wonder, his upside and relatively team friendly contract over the next two years of $4.9 and $6.1 million makes him a nearly a must-keep player. Add the fact that he's at the top of the rotation, and the only pitcher in the near future that has the type of stuff that can make him a legit ace, and you have to hold onto him. If you go on the market with that kind of money, the starters you get in return are a lot like the starters that are already here. You can role the dice with Carmona this season with new pitching coach Tim Belcher. If it pays off, you have an ace at an affordable price, or a trade commodity that brings in better prospects.

If Mark Shapiro is legitimately thinking about dealing Carmona now, it's just another one of those head scratchers. Carmona would be a sell-low right now, having given up more walks than strikeout over the past two seasons. After signing him to a long-term deal, he'd be giving up on another player. Add a strike to the column.

I wouldn't mind the Indians making a move for a starter or a left-fielder, but dealing a pitcher for likely nothing, to acquire a second baseman just isn't that move.

This is what happens when your major league team is in a trading and signing vacuum. What's next, a deal for Albert Pujols?

Friday, January 29, 2010

All-Aught Indians--3B--Casey Blake??? (2003-2008)

Oh, what a tangled web we weave...

Choosing the Cleveland Indians All-Aught third baseman was no easy task. The decade started off promising, when the 31-year-old Travis Fryman had the finest season of his career. In 155 games, the tribe third-sacker rolled out a shiny .321 average with 22 homers, 106 RBI and 93 runs. He also won the gold glove that year. Unfortunately for Fryman and the Indians, he would struggle through two injury-filled seasons in 2001 and 2002, and would never come close to his decade starter. From that point on, the Indians filled third base with a hodgepodge of players, ranging from the multi-position Casey Blake, to the oft-injured Aaron Boone, to the overhyped Andy Marte, to short-timer Mark DeRosa, to the former shortstop, Jhonny Peralta. With Fryman's numbers diminished by injury, and the rest of the lot bargain ballplayers, well, backing into the team of the decade as the All-Aught Indians third baseman is Casey Blake.

I've got to be honest here, I probably should have rolled out the red-carpet for Fryman's single season brilliance, because Casey Blake certainly didn't have the types of numbers that should put you on the All-Aught anything. Don't get me wrong here, Blake was a workmanlike third-sacker, and was all about the blue-collar player. He wasn't going to hit for much, but had some power. He wasn't going to win a gold glove, but most certainly would get his jersey dirty to make a play. His first year with the Indians, in 2003, he had already turned 29, and hadn't logged any major innings or games with either Toronto or Minnesota.

He had an okay 2003 season, posting 17 homers, while hitting at a .257 clip, but would make up for it in 2004, with his career-high 28 homers, 88 RBI and a .271 average. The Indians thought so much of his third base prowess, that Blake would take a two-year leave from being their every day player at the not-so-hot corner. Aaron Boone, who had tore his knee ligament during the off-season in 2004 playing basketball, would fill the role for two season, while Blake would move to the outfield.

Blake would return to third in 2007, because the Indians simply didn't have anyone else to play there. Blake had another yeoman's effort in '07, batting .270, with 18 homers and 78 RBI, but he would save his best for last, during his final season as an Indian in 2008.

Blake would play in only 94 games for the Tribe in 2008, but left an impact that will likely last in Cleveland for years to come. Sure, he threw out a .289 average for the Tribe, and was on pace for a 20 dinger season (with 11 when he was traded), but his biggest impact had nothing to do with his numbers.

The Indians and Mark Shapiro managed to deal Blake to the Dodgers for an unbelievable prospect, catcher/lead guitarist Carlos Santana. Santana was busy shredding the minor leagues offensively, and was quickly becoming one of the top prospects in all of baseball. Santana is currently the top prospect in the Indians organization, and likely the cornerstone for years to come.

Blake wins the award out of sheer bulk. His three-and-a-half seasons of moderation slightly beat out Fryman's one HUGE year, and two injury-plagued bombs. Why? Two words...Carlos Santana. Blake did bring tenacity to the Indians, and was the guy in the clubhouse that kept the ship steady. He's in the mold of the uber-utility guy, a la Aubrey Huff. That goes to show many just why the Indians haven't been contenders. Blake should likely have been rolling off the bench daily, instead, he was a regular out of necesity. I will say this, when his bat would heat up, he was one of the best in the game. Sure, it would only be for a couple of weekends every couple of months, but it was good enough to grab 3B tenure for the decade, and bag the Tribe their best prospect of the next decade.

Thanks Casey...

The Two Thousand, Aught Third Basemen: Travis Fryman, Enrique Wilson, Russell Branyon, Jolbert Cabrera, Mark Lewis, Bill Selby, Greg LaRocca, John McDonald, Earl Snyder, Casey Blake, Jhonny Peralta, Ricky Gutierrez, Angel Santos, Lou Merloni, Aaron Boone, Jose Hernandez, Ramon Vazquez, Ron Belliard, Andy Marte, Hector Luna, Kevin Kouzmanoff, Mike Rouse, Chris Gomez, Jamey Carroll, Andy Gonzalez, Mark DeRosa, Tony Graffanino

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Kenny Lofton's Legacy

When I think of Kenny Lofton, it all starts with his walk from the on-deck circle to home plate. It wasn't quite a walk, but more of a strut. Lofton walked up to his bats, seemingly knowing just a bit more than the guy throwing the pitches. Kenny would then torture the pitcher, slapping away every pitch thrown his way that he had no interest in, until that one pitch came his way. No, we aren't talking a guy looking to go yard (although he could). No, Lofton would often send a nubber down the third base side, and by the time the opposing third baseman would get to the ball, Lofton was already crossing the bag for an inning-starting single.

Sure, the Indians of the 1990's are often remembered for their lineup full of thunder. Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez, Albert Belle often lead the charge with regards to their memorial mammoth home runs. More often than not, the first person to touch home plate after the tape-measure shots was the table-setter himself, the lightning of the line-up, Kenny Lofton.

Today, Kenny Lofton was named as the 2010 inductee to the Cleveland Indians hall-of-fame, and there isn't anyone more deserving than good 'ole #7.

Lofton made a name for himself for wreaking havoc on the basepaths. Lofton is the Indians career stolen base leader with 452, and ended his career 15th all-time with 622. Lofton led the league in stolen bases with the Indians from 1992-1996. His 66 stolen bases in 1992 made him the first rookie since Vince Coleman to lead the league in that category. Of course, flippin' Pat Listach beat him out for rookie of the year. Yeah, Pat Listach. If you're wondering where HE is, he likely cleaned your winshield at the local car-wash just the other day.

To say that Lofton was simply a base-stealer would be more than unfair. He was arguably the best lead-off hitter of his generation, and the only player of his era that was in his class was hall-of-famer Rickey Henderson, who had more power than his Cleveland counterpart.

Lofton also showcased the leather, winning four gold gloves. He had a notoriously weak arm, but made up for it with the best first step in baseball. Lofton lived in the shallow confines of centerfield, and commonly ran down balls that looked like sure-fire triples. He also used a spectacular vertical leap from his basketball playing days under Lute Olsen at Arizona to make several wall-climbing, home-run stealing catches.

How will I remember Kenny? The game everyone's been talking about the past 24 hours: the 1995 ALCS-clinching game six, in which the Indians were facing off against Randy Johnson. Lofton broke open a scoreless tie in the fifth-inning when he singled home Alvaro Esponoza, who had reached second base on an error by bug-eyed Joey Cora. He was saving his best for last. In the eighth inning, Lofton made his signature move for the Tribe.

Tony Pena led off the inning with a double, and Ruben Amaro Jr. pinch-ran for the lumbering catcher. Lofton again waltzed up to the plate against the Big Unit, and managed to not only advance Amaro with a bunt off an RJ fastball, but beat out the throw for a single. Lofton immediately stole second, to put runners on second and third. The Lofton mindbender now complete, Johnson reverted to his pre-Mariner days and threw a bit wild, and the pitch got passed Mariner catcher Dan Wilson. Lofton was off, nearly with the pitch. Amaro scored easily, with Lofton about ten feet behind him to make the score 3-0. Shades of Willie Mays Hays were dancing in our heads, and two batters later, Carlos Baerga touched the long-haired freaky person for a home run. RJ was gone from that game, and it was all thanks to Lofton's brilliance.

Before Omar Y Amigos, there was Kenny's Kids, and there really wasn't a player more beloved in Cleveland than Lofton during the initial playoff run. Lofton's image began to take a bit of a hit after the 1996 season. Albert Belle had taken the money and run, and the Indians, trying to be proactive, offered Lofton a five-year, $44 million deal to stay with the Tribe. His agent turned them down. Rather than lose Lofton, as he did Belle, he dealt the centerfielder to Atlanta. Lofton was shocked. A year later, Lofton would re-sign with the Indians for three-years with a club option for a fourth, for slightly over $30 million. He was glad to be back.

Lofton would leave the Indians in 2001, but return in a trade in 2007 for the playoff run that would leave the Indians a game away from a world series birth. It would be his last as a player.

What is Kenny Lofton's legacy as a Cleveland Indian? He's the guy that was always there. To pitchers, he was always there, messing with their heads. To second basemen and shortstops, he was always there, after stealing a base. To Cleveland fans? He was always there. He's the guy that always found his way home...

Congratulations Kenny, to one of the true greats in Cleveland Indians' history, if not THE greatest of all time.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Johnny Damon an Indian? Not likely...

There have been some rumblings that the Indians could make a bid for former Red Sox and Yankees outfielder Johnny Damon to play left field during the 2010 and 2011 season. I'm not sure if the thought of Damon coming to the Indians is even something that can be deemed as a positive, but it doesn't really matter. The Cleveland Indians can't afford him, even if he takes a substantial pay cut.

The common thinking is that the Indians are going to use the 2010 season to find out what they have. Michael Brantley is the future in left for the Indians, and most fans feel like the youngster is ready to take the mantle. He did show some promise in a brief cup of coffee during 2009, but there does seem to be some hesitation with Tribe brass to just give the job away. Manny Acta has stated many times not to rush the idea of Brantley taking over left and the lead-off slot until he was ready.

Does it make sense for the Indians to do anything BUT see what they have with the youngsters? Many would say absolutely not. A free agent signing, especially for a year, would do nothing but hinder the progress of a guy like Brantley, or even Trevor Crowe. Spending any amount on a fill-in player would be a waste.

If the Indians don't plan on contending in 2010 in any form or fashion, this would absolutely be the case.

However, after listening to Manny Acta, you start to get the impression that the Indians brass are promoting rebuilding, but think that there could be a shot to do some damage in the weak AL Central. If that is the case, then signing a guy like Johnny Damon would certainly be in play if you could get him for the right amount of money.

In 1994 and 1995, the Indians spent (and in some eyes, overspent) money on old-school players such as pitcher Dennis Martinez, Eddie Murray and Orel Hershiser. All three were signed to provide the Indians with veteran leadership as been there/done that players. The plan worked like a charm, as the Indians rolled into the World Series in 1995.

Damon would be that type of bridge-player. He's nearing the end of his career, but is still productive. He had 24 homers and 82 RBI, while scoring 107 runs at the top of the vaunted Yankees lineup. He batted .282, and stole 12 bases without being caught. What's more impressive, or scary, is that Damon did this in only 128 starts, and 132 games altogether. At 36, injuries are an issue, but he can still produce.

The Indians could initially plug Damon in left field, and use him in a variety of slots. He can play all the outfield positions, can DH, and even play first in a pinch. He's a lefty and the Indians are likely looking for a cheap righty in any sort of role (to either platoon with Brantley or cover for LaPorta while he's out), but again, it all depends on what the Indians plans are.

Damon would walk into any club with question-marks. He's 36, and it's obvious that many clubs are wary of his abilities. He's likely to drop off soon because of age, and the style of hard-nose playing that can debilitate a player. He also has a horrendous arm that ranks with the worst in the game. Again, he's not the perfect solution to anything the Indians need, but neither was Eddie Murray when they signed him.

So why would this never happen? Well, first and foremost, the Indians aren't looking to add any payroll that may fail, and Damon would fall into that potential category. Judging from the trade involving Kelly Shoppach, the Indians aren't willing to look at a guy for anything over a couple of million dollars, and likely not for more than a year. It may be less money. On the flip side, Damon was initially looking for a two-year deal, worth ten million a year. The Yankees balked, and offered him a two-year deal, worth seven million a year. Damon balked, and the Yankees have since walked. It's believed they'd be willing to offer him anything between a one-year deal worth 2-5 million at this point.

The Indians can't outbid the Yankees, or a couple of other teams that are interested in the outfielder.

I still believe the Indians don't WANT him. I do believe that Acta and Shapiro believe they can surprise some teams in the AL this year. I just believe that it's with the players they have now, as well as perhaps a late spring pitching pickup that can round out the starting rotation.

Now, if Damon came knockin' at the door with some sob story about wanting to put it to the Yankees, and then said he'd play for 1 1/2 million, he'd be with the Tribe the next second. Of course, we all know that's not going to happen.

If he wants to make someone pay, do you really think he'll call Cleveland?

If you answered yes to that, I have a nice World Series trophy for you to buy. It says, Cleveland Indians, 2010 World Champions.

I'm kidding, right?

Orlando Hudson in the mix for the Tribe?

Orlando Hudson is talking to the Indians?

Bill Ladson, a writer for, recently had an interview with Hudson while discussing the possibilities of the free agent second baseman signing with the Nationals. During that interview, Hudson made an interesting comment when asked when he was going to sign with another club:

"I will sign soon enough. You can put it on the Internet and on TV. I'm going to sign. I can't say exactly when. It will not be long. I can't say if it's with the Nationals, San Diego or Cleveland. I can't say with whom. Something is getting done."

Hudson has been on the Indians target list before, albeit when they were actually contending. It's hard to believe that Hudson, who's believed to be hunting for a deal in the neighborhood of $9 million a year, would have even talked to the Indians. Sure, the Indians may have done their due diligence and given the guy's agent a call, but I'm sure it was a short conversation.

It also is a deal that doesn't make any sense for the Tribe, with Luis Valbuena likely to continue as the starter. Worst case scenario for the Indians' second base incumbant is a platoon scenario that would find the Indians finding a right-hander out of a mix. Hudson is a starter, period. No way he signs with a club unless he's the guy. Even if he WOULD platoon, he's a better left-handed hitter, so THAT doesn't even make any sense.

If you read his quote more than once, you get the distinct impression that he threw out a few names just off the cuff. Hudson obviously didn't do his homework if he was planning on driving up his price with interested teams. The Pads recently signed Jon Garland to a big deal, and don't have any money left over, and the Indians spent all their money a couple of weeks ago when Mark Shapiro picked up a six-pack at Giant Eagle.

Exit the Indians.

The only way this guy signs is if it's for a lot less than his asking price, like say, 1/9th?

Is that likely? Orlando Hudson isn't a six-pack.

Brian Bixler maybe, but not Hudson.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

An Homage to Cleveland Indians days gone by

Ah yes, gone are the days of 10 cent beers and massive baseball riots. Of course, I'm thinking about the infamous June 4, 1974 Indians game against the Texas Rangers that ended in a massive, beer-induced riot.

The 1974 season wasn't a complete failure on the field for the Indians prior to June 4th. As a matter of fact, the Indians had spent some time tied for first place in May and were only three games back heading into the infamous 10 cent beer promotion. The team was led by pitching brothers Jim and Gaylord Perry, Buddy Bell and Charlie Spikes. Unfortunately, the Indians were drawing less than 10,000 a game, and as recent as June 1st, had only brought in 4,205 fans to the giant Municipal Stadium.

The Indians front office answer to low attendance? You got it, cheap beer. The Indians had watched in awe as the Texas Rangers brought in slightly over 9,000 fans against the Indians on a similar beer night. What the front office failed to notice was that the Indians and Rangers nearly started a riot that night. Drunk fans nearly charged the field after several incidents on the field.

Now, you have to admit, the thought was fairly brilliant for the Indians front office. Offer up cheap Stroh's beer to the tune of 10 cents, and watch the tickets fly! 25,000 fans showed up, and let the games begin.

The Indians and Rangers, as mentioned before, were still steaming at each other heading into the June 4th showdown. There was a bench-clearing brawl in their last outing the prior week during a beer night, and fans had entered the field of play to incite the incident. The two sides had calmed down and finished the game, but hostilities remained.

Enter drunk fans. The Indians management knew that they needed to put a limit on the beer, or things would get out of hand. Their limit? You could ONLY buy six eight ounce beers AT A TIME. No folks, not six beers total, six beers at a time. A sidenote here. As the game progressed, fans had drained the kegs at the concessions. Stroh's had rolled out trucks behind the outfield fence. Fans were then shipped behind the fences to refill their cups. Ah yes, limitations.

Fans showed up to the game already in the bag, and to show their displeasure with the Rangers, they brought fireworks. Imagine two teams that hate each other combined with drunk fans entering the stadium combined with 10 cent beers. That's when the fun began.

In the top of the second, booze and fireworks broke off into nudity. A woman ran out onto the Indians on-deck circle, flashed her "ladies" at the crowd and the dugout, then proceeded to chase down the Umpire, looking for a kiss. During the fourth inning, a naked man, wanting to one-up the large woman in the second, streaked across the field and slid into second, slip-and-slide be damned. The outfield, feeling left out, spit out two more fans in the fifth inning, who ran down the Rangers outfielders and provided them some extra moonlight.

Now at this point, I'd like to add that Billy Martin was the manager of the Texas Rangers. For those that are too young to remember Billy Martin, you have missed out. Martin was Mickey Mantle's sidekick during their tenure together with the Yankees, and along with Whitey Ford and whoever wanted to tag along, had spend the better part of their down time during their fifties heyday, wreaking havoc and drinking up as much booze as they could get their hands on. Martin also had a tendency to be a bit argumentative. I could imagine that this night had to feel just like home. Martin came out to argue a call in the fourth inning, then, while being pelted with full cups of beer, walked back to the dugout while blowing a few kisses to the Indians faithful. Game on Billy, Game on. Somewhere in 1974, Mickey Mantle's bat phone was ringing.

After the fifth inning, the game was secondary. Fans were casually running out onto the field. Those who realized that a game was taking place, were busy buying six beers, and throwing three onto the field, while drinking the other three. Parts of seats, change, loose concrete, keys and anything else you could find in a pocket began littering the field as well. Firecrackers were getting hurled into the Rangers bullpen. A woman was tackled by security after she went after them, presumably because they stopped her from another striptease.

The game continued.

The Rangers Mike Hargrove was nearly decapitated by an empty bottle of Nighttrain. Padding from the outfield wall began to disappear, apparently as a way to keep security away from the growing number of nudists frequenting the outfield. Perhaps fans felt that the soft cushion would be something nice to sleep on after their drunk deluge.

In the ninth, everything imploded. A fan jumped the fence and knocked the hat off of the Rangers' Jeff Burroughs in the outfield. Burroughs tripped when he turned around to address the fan, and Billy Martin thought that the fan had knocked Burroughs down. Martin and the Rangers grabbed bats and headed into the outfield to protect their teammate. They were met with hundreds of Indians fans, wielding everything they could carry. The Indians then charged the field with bats of their own, to protect their Rangers counterparts.

The players would eventually make it back to the dugout, but the mess on the field continued for a good bit before the game was finally forfeited to the Rangers. The head ump noted a couple of knives buried in the outfield. The bases were gone, as were benches and other items in the field.

It was a debacle for sure, but one that will be remembered in the annals of Indians' history of all that was wrong with Cleveland prior to the 90's resurgence. You can't help but look back and laugh at the ridiculousness of the situation. Top it off with Billy Martin leading a charge of Rangers wielding bats...and well...

...the 70's...what can you say. And you thought THIS team has problems.

For those interested in purchasing the t-shirts pictured above, click the link. Homage Clothing is not only offering up the shirt, but $5.00 of the proceeds will go to Haiti Relief.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

All-Aught Indians--2B--Roberto Alomar (2000-2001)

The Cleveland Indians second base position has all but been a position carousel since the 2001 season. As a matter of fact, Ron Belliard is the only player that has played in more than 100 games in back-to-back seasons since then (2004 and 2005). Belliard was a solid player, but his defensive shortcomings and rather average bat keep him off anyone's all-anything team. The best player at the position since the Aught-One season has been Asdrubal Cabrera, a true shortstop. Cabrera never played 100 games at second, and has since been moved back to short. Top prospect Brandon Phillips and Josh Barfield both logged singular 100+ game seasons at the position, which traumatized both so much that they were sent down to the minors the following season. Ricky Gutierrez was signed in 2002, but a severe neck injury kept him from ever being an effective player on the reservation. To find the best player of the decade, you had to look prior to 2002. The All-Aught Indians second baseman is Roberto Alomar.

Alomar's career with the Indians began in 1999, but there was some scuttlebutt that he might come to Cleveland as a free agent after the 1995 season. Roberto had played winter ball with his brother Sandy Jr. and Carlos Baerga. Baerga moved to third, while Alomar manned second base. There was some thought that the same could happen in Cleveland, but Alomar signed with the Orioles. Alomar would go on to spit in John Hirschbeck's face during the last series of the season(which marred a spectacular season). Thanks to the union, Alomar wasn't suspended until the start of the 1997 season, allowing him to play against the Tribe in the playoffs. Alomar would go on to hit the deciding game-four home run against Jose Mesa and the Indians to eliminate them from the 1996 playoffs. Boy, it makes you wonder what would have happened to the Indians and Alomar had they signed him instead of Baltimore.

With the elephant in the room taken care of, Alomar's career with Cleveland was nothing short of brilliant. He entered the decade after posting 1999 numbers of .323/.422/.533 for Cleveland, finishing third in the MVP voting, setting career highs in runs (138), home runs (24) and RBI (120), and winning the gold glove.

Alomar continued his brilliance in 2000, even though the Indians didn't make the playoffs for the first time since 1994. Alomar would once again bat over .300, would make the all-star team and win the gold glove for the third year in a row, and the ninth time in ten years. Alomar had a scorching second half, batting .359, while leading the Indians on a tear during the late summer that saw the team see their chances at the playoffs foiled on the last day of the season. The Tribe would win 20 of their final 32 games, only to fall short.

The Indians and Alomar would return to the top of the division in 2001. Alomar would finish third in batting with a .336 average, finished fourth in the league in MVP voting, won another gold glove, and went to another all-star game. He became the first infielder in major league history (2nd player ever in the AL, and fifth player all-time) to have batted at least .330, with 30 doubles, 10 triples, 20 homers, 100 RBI, 100 runs and 20 SB. Alomar would go on to win his second Indians' Man of the Year award from the Cleveland chapter of the Baseball Writers of America.

There was some controversy to Alomar. Bill Livingston, who hopefully will never again be mentioned here in the friendly confines of B3, mentioned that Alomar dogged it in game five of the Indians playoff elimination to the Seattle Mariners. It's utter garbage. The blowhard Livingston decided that his judgment call on Alomar should keep him from the hall during his first ballot this season. I'm sure the other morons that didn't vote him in were basing it either on the spitting incident with Hirschbeck, or the recent allegations that Roberto Alomar knowingly had AIDS while with an ex-girlfriend (the lawsuit was settled out of court).

Thankfully, those idiots that actually get paid for writing garbage don't have a say here. The bottom line with regards to Alomar is that if he isn't the best second baseman of all time, he is certainly in the top three. When you watched Alomar play second base for the Indians, and everyone else for that matter, he was that guy that made plays look easy because he could cover more ground than any other second baseman, had soft hands, and worked harder than most. Offensively, he hit for power and average, scored more runs than all of his contemporaries except for Barry Bonds and stole bases. He was a five-tool player at a position that didn't see many. During his tenure with the Indians, he was the best player in the league, period. Top all of that off with the brilliance that was Alomar and Vizquel, and you should have had a hall-of-fame lock, and for sure have an All-Aught lock.

Mark Shapiro dealt Alomar prior to the 2002 season, and the move ultimately symbolized the end of both Alomar's career, and the Cleveland Indians as a successful team. Alomar would never again bat over .300, and his final two seasons were considered busts.

Congratulations to Roberto Alomar, future hall-of-famer, and the Tribe's All-Aught Second Baseman.

The Two Thousand, Aught Second Basemen: Roberto Alomar, Jolbert Cabrera, Enrique Wilson, Ricky Gutierrez, John McDonald, Brandon Phillips, Bill Selby, Greg LaRocca, Angel Santos, Zach Sorenson, Ron Belliard, Lou Merloni, Alex Cora, Ramon Vazquez, Jose Hernandez, Joe Inglett, Hector Luna, Josh Barfield, Asdrubal Cabrera, Mike Rouse, Chris Gomez, Luis Rivas, Jorge Velandia, Jamey Carroll, Tony Graffanino, Luis Valbuena

Friday, January 22, 2010

Will the Incredible Hulk keep Jason Donald from the Indians utility role?

Earlier this past week, the Cleveland Indians traded prospect Jesus Brito for the Incredible Hulk's alter-ego, Bruce Bixler from the Pittsburgh Pirates.

This really isn't a deal of any consequence, to be honest, but much was made of the Indians sending away a young prospect in Brito for a 27-year old Bixler, who most experts are calling a solid AAAA player. I don't know either from a hill of beans, but the stats would dictate that the Tribe got the worst of this deal. I realize that Bixler will be fighting for the utility job along with Jason Donald, Luis Rodriguez and Mark Grudzielanek, so it's not like in any scenario he'll amount to much. Still, it's hard to look past Bixler as the epitome of what the Indians don't need.

Bixler had 44 big league at bats last year in the bigs. He struck out 26 times. For those counting at home, that's striking out 59% of the time. Now, even by Cleveland Indians' standards, that's pretty bad. His strike out percentage does improve if you include his at bats in 2008, so I don't want to be to unfair to the future Indian from Sandusky. He has 152 lifetime at bats, and has struck out 62 times. Yes, that's only 40% of the time over his career. I know, stellar. Those wondering if Bixler perhaps had a bit of Thome in him, well, he's walked 8 times total in his brief major league career for a whopping 5% of his at bats. Of course, if the Indians are planning on using him as a utility guy, so Baseball America's assessment of his defensive prowess are a solid "average defensive shortstop." I can't help but have visions of sugar plums dancing in my head.

As far as Jesus Brito, there's really not much to say about the kid that hasn't already been said in places that know him much better than I. Brito, 22, hit .353/.431/.567 for the Indians' rookie and short-season clubs in '09, but it's not like the kid has been throwing up those kinds of numbers his entire career. As a matter of fact, prior to 2009, Brito never posted above a .239 average, and is considered a player without a position.

The only real problem I have with this deal is that the Indians dealt for a guy that may impede Donald's progress. I could care a less about Brito. He may turn into a player for the Pirates, and so be it. It's not like Brito would ever have made it with regards to the Indians. With a fairly stacked shelf of third basemen including top prospect Lonnie Chisenhall, Brito was more than expendable.

So will Bixler ever amount to anything for the Indians other than minor league fodder? Probably not. He does give the Tribe more options in the infield, and really can do nothing but improve. He's a guy with pedigree as a second round draft choice, and he could surprise. Brito doesn't have much of a pedigree, and likely was a flash in the pan.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

All-Aught Indians--1B--Jim Thome (2000-2002)

Ah, what a tangled web we weave. The Cleveland Indians first base situation has been about as diluted as the nation's quest for a health plan. How diluted? Well, if you can make it through the Earl Snyder, Jeff Liefer or Lou Merloni eras, you end up with two of the top three dogs at the position being Ben Broussard (380 games) and Ryan Garko (334 games). Both had their moments with the Tribe, but neither set the world on fire. The All-Aught Indians first baseman is Jim Thome.

Jim Thome was Victor Martinez, before Victor Martinez ever wore the Tribe jersey. He was the Indian that bled team colors, and more than anything else, wanted that World Series ring. I remember listening to Thome interviews prior to every season after 1995, and they all revolved around doing what he could to bring a championship to Cleveland. I know, all players say that, but when Thome said it, you could see the fire burning in his eyes. When Thome left after the 2002 season, it set off a wave of anger unlike anything I've ever seen. More than Albert Belle, and more than Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome's leaving left several fans angry and bitter. Why? People cared about Jim Thome. People wanted Thome to retire an Indian. Fans believed that as long as Thome toiled at the Jake, there was a chance for something big to happen.

We all know the story. Jim Thome said he would stay in Cleveland. Thome said he wanted to stay with the Indians for the rest of his career. Thome eventually signed a mega-deal with the Phillies that left Tribe fans in disbelief. More on that in a bit. Whether you sided with the Indians management on not offering Thome a long-term deal, or sided with Thome, who took a whole lot more money to head to Philadelphia, chances are pretty good you were just plain upset to see the heart and soul of the Indians' teams of the 90's leave the north coast after, arguably, his three finest years as a player. There were good reasons to be upset.

The Indians entered the new decade in 2000 still at the top of their game. Having acquired Roberto Alomar, the Indians seemed ready to make another run at the World Series. Thome was more than just a big part of that potential. Thome had 196 homers prior to 2000, and had four straight seasons of 38, 40, 30 and 33 jacks. Thome and Manny Ramirez were battling neck and neck for the rights to the All-Time home run record, and made up two of the biggest sluggers in baseball. Thome was the epitome of a power hitter. His at-bats tended to end in either a home run, a strike out or a walk. He was a free swinger in many respects, but he did have an eye at the plate, and would wait for his pitch to hack at. He was entering his prime in 2000, and he didn't disappoint.

Thome rolled out 71 extra base hits in 2000, 37 homers, 33 doubles and a triple, while batting .269. He had 106 runs and 106 RBI, to go with a .398 OBP, a .531 slugging %, and a .929 OPS. The Indians would stutter out of the gate, but would come on strong in 2000, with Thome leading the way. Unfortunately, the Indians hopes were dashed on the final day of the season. They won 90 games, but lost out on a chance in the playoffs by a game to Oakland. Thome was just getting started though. His 2000 year would be his worst as an Indian in the new decade. Yeah, it got that much better.

Thome's statistics improved across the board in 2001. He once again had 100+ runs with 101, and upped his RBI total to 124. Thome led the league in 2001 with 185 (his personal worst), but offset that with 111 walks. His .291/.416/.624 and 1.040 OPS helped lead the Indians into the playoffs once again. The Indians would lose a tough series to the Seattle Mariners in five games, and Thome's struggles may have kept the Indians from an upset. He came back in 2002 with a vengeance. Unfortunately, the dismantling of the Tribe had commenced.

Thome had his personal best season in 2002. In 147 games, his numbers across the board were either personal bests or top five in the league. Again, all numbers were improved, including another stat line that reads like Babe Ruth with .304/.445/.677/1.122, with 122 walks, 52 homers, 118 RBI and 101 runs. Cleveland's management had to cringe, because Thome was entering a contract year, and Cleveland fans were screaming for Mark Shapiro to sign the last remnant of the great 90's teams. Shapiro had just dealt away Bartolo Colon, Chuck Finley and Paul Shuey during the trade deadline, and had allowed Chuck Nagy to leave via free agency. Thome wanted to come back, but would the Indians ante up?

Look at the Aught Numbers: 461 games, 1,563 at bats, 308 runs, 449 hits, a .283 average, 78 doubles, 138 homers, 348 RBI, 351 walks, a .419 OBP, a .605 slugging % for a whopping 1.024 OPS. Thome never finished above 7th in MVP voting from 2000-2002, but you can see that his numbers were more than deserving. The Indians would have to ante up to re-sign their slugger.

Enter controversy. Thome was a 32-year-old slugger, who was looking for a six-year deal. The Indians were a team rebuilding (yeah, I just gagged a bit in my mouth too), and had a history of not signing their top-flight free agents. Thome seemed different though. "Home town discount" was bantered around, and Thome wanted to "retire and Indian."

Enter Chris Antonetti, Mark Shapiro and the wonderful world of numbers. Antonetti's homework showed that players over the age of 35 just don't match their pre-35 numbers. Bonds was the only player to do it, and he obviously had a bit of help. Shapiro wanted a four-year deal for Thome, would be okay with a five-year deal, and wouldn't go for a six-year deal. Thome wanted the sixth year, and it was non-negotiable. The Indians deal was based totally on the numbers. It was guaranteed for five years worth $63 million with a couple of zany perks that got it there. There was a sixth-year guarantee of $2 million, that would jack up to $12 million if he were a top vote-getter in the MVP vote. Of course, Thome finished 7th with the incredible numbers of 2002. Thome walked, to a six-year deal worth $87.5 million.

It really doesn't matter which side of the coin you fall on, gone was the Indians greatest slugger, not so much to argue there, of all time. The Indians Thomenator, the Paul Bunyan of a first baseman that played the game in an old-school style, was heading to Philly. Would signing Thome have been a mistake? The Indians have reached the playoffs exactly once since 2001, and the fans have never really returned to the gates the way they did during Thome's heydey. After the debacle of letting him go, the fans stopped trusting management, and the players as well.

No, Thome has never met the great numbers of 2002, but he certainly maintained solid numbers since. Other than an injury-plagued 2005 season in which he only played in 59 games, Thome never had less than 34 homers or 90 RBI. Would he have been worth $12 million in the last year of his deal in 2008? Travis Hafner made $8 million in '08, and played in less than 60 games. He made $11 million in 2009, and played in less than 100 games. I'm not bashing Hafner, he DID take a paycut to stay in Cleveland, and didn't pan out with the deal. Thome would have outperformed him, and the numbers said he wouldn't.

Regardless, Jim Thome was a special ballplayer. He was born in the midwest, and wanted everything that the fans bring a title to Cleveland. Thome didn't have a swagger, but he would lumber up to the plate like a man wielding a bat twice as heavy as he was, and struck fear into pitchers. He never left anything at the plate, and his swing would rock the entire stadium, even if he didn't launch one of his trademark, tape-measure shots. When the Indians went with their numbers, his great run wearing the blue and red of the Indians ended, but not before Thome launched the new decade with the best numbers a Tribe first baseman had ever seen before, or since. Sorry Jose Hernandez, you just weren't the same.

Here's to Jim Thome, the Tribe's All-Aught First Baseman.

The Two Thousand, Aught First Basemen:Jim Thome, Richie Sexson, David Segui, Will Cordero, Lee Stevens, Earl Snyder, Ben Broussard, Travis Hafner, Casey Blake, Shane Spencer, Lou Merloni, Josh Phelps, Jose Hernandez, Jeff Liefer, Ryan Garko, Eduardo Perez, Victor Martinez, Chris Gomez, Michael Aubrey, Andy Gonzalez, Andy Marte, Matt LaPorta, Chris Gimenez, Mark DeRosa, Niuman Romero

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Indians Arbitration Streak Continues as Perez signs

Greg Swindell.

In 1991, Greg Swindell was awarded a $2 million dollar salary by Stephen Goldberg, and arbitrator that knew nothing about baseball. It was this single solitary moment that changed the philosophy of the Cleveland Indians forever. John Hart and Dan O'Dowd created a plan to sign their youth to long-term contracts, thus avoiding the dreaded arbitration. This plan created the great team of the 90's, and also created a mentality of avoiding arbitration that has lasted nearly 20 years.

Long gone is John Hart, Dan O'Dowd and the 11 players that he signed to long-term deals. Long gone are the victories and the World Series visits. Still in place, the long standing tradition to avoid arbitration. Ahh, it's good to see the important traditions continue.

The streak continued today with the signing of Rafael Perez to a one-year deal worth $795,000. He rolled out a 7.91 ERA to go with his 4-3 record and two demotions to triple-A. Not only did Perez lose his command, but he also lost his imposing slider. He seemed to regain his control during winterball, with a blazing 3-0 record in six starts, with a 0.33 ERA, while striking out 25 in 27 innings and only walking 10. For the Indians to do anything but lose, they'll need Perez to be effective in the set-up role.

With regards to arbitration, it is good that the Indians have found a way to sign players prior to this process. At the same time, the rest of Hart's principals have gone by the wayside. Unfortunately for the Indians, baseball's current money structure has made it nearly impossible for management to sustain any sort of winning structure.

So the arbitration streak continues. Let's hope that the streak of futility of the past two years can somehow end.

Monday, January 18, 2010

All-Aught Indians--C--Victor Martinez (2002-2009)

The Cleveland Indians are known for either trading away or allowing their best players to leave via free agency. Over the years, the Indians have watched the likes of Albert Belle, Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, Bartola Colon, Cliff Lee and CC Sabathia all ride into the sunset. Nothing was as painful as watching the Indians deal away VMart. The All-Aught Indians catcher is El Capitan, Victor Martinez.

Victor Martinez bled Cleveland Indians baseball, and of all the players that have left Cleveland in recent memory, Martinez was the one guy that didn't want to go. I had hoped that Martinez would retire on the reservation, but it wasn't in the cards. Not winning and Carlos Santana made him expendable. Expendable...Victor Martinez...not a chance.

In July of 1996, the Tribe signed a non-descript 16-year-old shortstop out of Venezuela. He was gifted athletically, and most assuredly, John Hart knew that this kid was going to be a player somewhere, whether at shortstop, the outfield, or catcher. He never stopped producing in the minors, and the only real surprise was that the Indians didn't commit to VMart until 2004.

Martinez debuted with the Indians in 2002 with a cup of coffee in the bigs. In his first start for the Tribe that season, Martinez' first hit was a two-run single against the Blue Jays, to tie a game. The Indians would eventually lose, but Martinez began his career of clutch hits.

In 2003, Martinez would spend June and July and the first part of August with the big league club, as well as most of September. He hit .289 in 49 games, but hit a resounding .349 in his September call-up, locking the starting job in 2004.

Martinez rolled out a .283 average, with 23 dingers and 108 RBI. He would make his first all-star team, and win his first silver slugger award that year. Martinez would play in three all-star games for the Indians (2007 and 2009 as well). His career average with the Tribe was .297, with 103 homers and 518 RBI. Victor will most be remembered for his prowess in the clutch, batting over .300 with runners in scoring position, and over .500 with the bases loaded.

Defensively, Martinez isn't going to confuse anyone with Ron Karkovice, Yogi Berra, Ivan Rodriguez and Lance Parrish behind the plate, but he worked himself into a solid catcher. He could always call a game, and in '07 and '08, threw out over 30% of the opposing basestealers.

The numbers really aren't even half the story. VMart was the player the Cleveland Indians built around, along with CC Sabathia, after they dismantled the team of the 90's. Not only was he a clutch hitter, a switch hitter, able to play first and DH, and a serviceable backstop, but he was the leader of this club, both on the field and in the clubhouse.

He played with an energy that couldn't be matched by any other player this decade. It's ironic when you think about it. He's what Sandy Alomar Jr. promised to be for a decade, but could never quite reach. VMart reached it every year, every month and every game. His most resounding quality was undoubtedly his perseverance. He was always there, always producing, and always the glue that held the team together.

If you want to know the major reason why the Indians fell apart in 2008, look no further than VMart missing most of the season with injury. Sure, there were other issues with that club, but most could be attributed to the fact that the player that many looked to as the captain of the team was gone.

In many ways, Victor Martinez WAS the All-Aught Cleveland Indians. Who was the MVP of the club that nearly went to the World Series in 2007? Was it Cy Young winner CC Sabathia? Nope, it was Victor Martinez. Why? He was the best player on the team, and the best player this decade, especially at catcher.

Good luck VMart in your future endeavors (may you bat .400 for a Boston team that tanks year after year). Cleveland will always be "your house" and "your home," as you so eloquently said while cleaning out your locker with your son. Hopefully, you'll find your way back someday soon.

Here's to Victor Martinez, the All-Aught Indians starting catcher.

The Two Thousand, Aught catchers: Sandy Alomar Jr., Einar Diaz, Eddie Taubensee, Tim Laker, Josh Bard, Eddie Perez, Victor Martinez, Sandy Martinez, Kelly Shoppach, Sal Fasano, Lou Marson, Wyatt Toregas

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Cleveland Indians top ten prospects at Baseball America

*On January 6th, Baseball America came out with their yearly Cleveland Indians top ten prospects. Carlos Santana, Nick Hagadone, Jason Knapp, Michael Brantley and Carlos Carrasco were all acquired in recent trades that saw the Indians deal away Victor Martinez (Hagadone), Cliff Lee (Knapp and Carrasco), CC Sabathia (Brantley) and Casey Blake (Carlos Santana). Four of the top ten are draftees: Lonnie Chisenhall (1st round, 29th pick, 2008), Nick Weglarz (3rd round, 94th pick, 2005), Alex White (1st round, 15th pick, 2009 draft) and Jason Kipnis (2nd round, 63rd pick, 2009 draft). Hector Rondon is the lone non-roster free agent, when he was signed out of Venezuela in 2004.

A lot, I'm sure, will be made that five of the top eight were acquired in the dismantling of the roster that nearly went to the World Series in 2007. The only problem I would have with that is that there aren't MORE prospects listed from those deals. Matt LaPorta should be on the list, but he'll be a major leaguer this season. Three of the home grown talent were drafted in the past two years. This either signifies an improvement in drafting, or hasn't given Chisenhall, White and Kipnis time to become busts.

I always take BA's top ten with a grain of salt. What I really look forward to is there future line-up, in this case, in 2013. I must admit, it looks promising.

There are no surprises with regards to the position players, other than Grady Sizemore still being with the club in 2013 (not going to happen). The lineup really showcases both power and speed, is rock solid up the middle, and could be the best lineup this club has seen since the 90's. Seriously, try and put together a lineup:

1. Brantley
2. Cabrera
3. Santana
4. Sizemore
5. LaPorta
6. Choo
7. Weglarz
8. Chisenhall
9. Valbuena

If all these players pan out to some extent, the potential is devastating. Imagine Choo as a #6 hitter. If the Indians were to keep Sizemore, I'd likely try him in the clean-up roll. He has the same type of upward movement as Barry Bonds, and could explode in the four slot. Of course, it's more likely that Sizemore isn't on this team, but we can dream, right?

In my estimation, the rotation didn't showcase any surprises either. Hagadone, quite appropriately, is listed as the ace of the staff. There have been some reports that Hagadone will be coming out of the pen, but with White being developed as a closer, this would be a mistake. Hagadone has the best stuff in the organization, and should be developed as an ace. Knapp's stuff is supposedly nearly as electric as Hagadone. Knapp's injury notwithstanding, he should be a solid #2. Rondon, to me, is the wildcard here, and may be more sure a thing than Hagadone and Knapp. If Justin Masterson is our #4 starter, the Cleveland Indians will be playing in a world series. Better yet, if Carlos Carrasco is the get the point. I know, I know, it's only the future, but you never...ever...know...

For a much better prospect list, make sure to check out Indians Prospect Insider. Tony Lastoria posted his teaser today for his top 50, which he will begin posting tomorrow. Tony also publishes the most complete prospect book available on the Indians minor league system, and I highly recommend it.

Ahhh, least we have SOMETHING to talk about this offseason.