Sunday, April 24, 2011

Bringing Back Boudreau covering IPI's bases

For those of you that don't know, I've been covering the Kinston Indians for Tony Lastoria's Indians Prospect Insider. Last week, Tony had successful surgery to remove a tumor on his kidney.  In the meantime, I have taken on the caretaker roll for IPI so that Tony can take some time to recuperate with his family.  Until then, the bulk of my work with be at IPI.  I'll be posting links here in the meantime, so that coverage maintains somewhat regular here, but all original content will be at Indians Prospect Insider for the time being.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Grady Sizemore set to return to Tribe line-up

(Photo: Mark Sobba--flickr creative commons)
Grady Sizemore will return to Cleveland today, starting in centerfield, as well as leading off.  To make room on the roster, starter Mitch Talbot will be placed on the 15-day DL, in a bit of a surprising move.

It was believed that Travis Buck would be sent down since he has an option left, but he gets a temporary reprieve.  Talbot is officially out with a strained right elbow, and likely won't be back until the middle of May.

On May 16, 2010, Grady Sizemore was hitting .211 without a home-run, and with a deplorable .271 OBP.  It would be the last game he'd play with the Indians in 2010.  Sizemore went on the DL with a sore knee, which turned into something a bit more serious.  After microfracture surgery, Grady was done for the season, and thought to be out six-to-nine months.

Fast-forward nearly a year.  Sizemore is currently wrapping up a stint with the Indians top two minor league affiliates.  Grady's combined statistics are fairly impressive.  He's batting a sizzling .353, with an OBP up to Grady standards, and then some, at .450.  He has six hits (2 doubles, a homer and three singles) and a 1.097 OPS.  Granted, our cross-section of games is only five games old, but compared to last season, these are surely re-assuring numbers.  Grady played all five games in center, without making an error.

So, what does this mean for the Tribe's centerfielder?  It means exactly what you think it does.  With Sizemore apparently fit and healthy for the first time in over a year, the Tribe management is set to bring him back up to the big league club.  It's unknown how much he'll play, but Manny Acta has already placed him back in center, and back in his familiar lead-off roll.

Both positions are currently owned by one Michael Brantley, who has done a tremendous job in his stead this season.  Brantley is currently hitting .333, with seven runs scored and two stolen bases, in only thirteen games.  He's played center in all 13 appearances, and in 36 chances, he has only made one error.  Brantley will officially move to left field, as well as move down in the order to make room for the Indians former all-star.

Sizemore has already said that he could care-a-less where he bats, as long as it's somewhere where he'd be productive.  Might Manny Acta play around with the line-up while the Indians are torrid hot to start the season, or will he just pop Sizemore back in, and let Brantley force his way onto the club?

Either way, it's a good problem to have.

Cleveland's Travis Hafner is Re-Pronkified, for now

If there was one thing that I was fairly sure about heading into the 2011 season, it's that Travis Hafner would never be the same player that he was before he signed his large contract, became injury prone, and seemingly lost all his power and worth to a rebuilding club like the Cleveland Indians.

I know it's early, but boy does it seem like I was wrong.

Tribe manager Manny Acta indicated early on in spring training that Hafner was going to play more this season, was 100% for the first time in a long time, and that there was no need to worry about the surgically repaired shoulder.

These comments weren't all that surprising, since we've been hearing the same thing since the days of Eric Wedge. What was surprising was the fact that other than Acta's brief bro-mance with the 34-year-old DH, there hadn't (hasn't) been all that much discussion about the shoulder from the Indians' camp. As a matter of fact, it's been a non-factor.

Hafner has currently played in 11 of the Tribe's first 14 games, and has done his best to imitate his former self. Hafner is currently hitting .293, with three homers, eight RBI and an .884 OPS. Last season, Hafner didn't hit his third homer until May 5th, and never hit above .281.

Certainly, the season is still early, but Hafner is clearly hitting the ball harder than he has in the past few seasons. Still, what I still can't get out of my mind, however, is the 2009 season, in which Hafner came out of the gate like the Pronk of old. After the sixth game of the season, Hafner had three homers and six RBI, and his slugging would ultimately reach a peak of .714 in those early days of the season.

I was already to re-dub Hafner to his old Pronk self. Unfortunately, the injury-bug bit, and Hafner was placed on the DL for soreness and fatigue to that wonderful shoulder.

Nobody thought it was all that serious, including Eric Wedge, but it turned out that Hafner had to miss over a month. He would return, and wouldn't have a horrid season, but Pronk was seemingly gone.

Enter 2011. The Indians are playing outstanding baseball, and find themselves at 10-4 early on. Every card is lining up for the Tribe so far, including Hafner. Is it a false sense of security for the Tribe slugger? Is he just getting some extra protection because of a slew of hot bats, or is the shoulder finally as strong as it was five years ago, prior to the injury-bug?

If it is, that false sense of security I just mentioned, just got a little less false.

Welcome back Pronk, we'll take it as long as we can get it.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Asdrubal Cabrera grabs the Indians leadership reins

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Asdrubal Cabrera is the straw that stirs the Cleveland Indians' drink.

That's what I said four years ago when he made his debut for the Indians and helped lead the team to the 2007 playoffs.  That's what I said when he was out last season, nursing a broken forearm. That's what I say today, with Cabrera winning American League's co-player of the week after starting the season with four home runs in 10 days (he hit three last season, in an injury plagued year, and has never hit more than six in a season).

Cabrera's bread and butter will always be his defense. No, he's not Omar Vizquel, but who in their career was on the defensive side of the field? Cabrera has split his time between second base and shortstop over his career. As a shortstop, his career fielding percentage is an impressive .975 (Omar's, while clearly with a larger body of work, is .985). As a 2nd baseman, Cabrera has a .994 fielding percentage. Overall, he's at .983, while Omar's is .985. That's not too shabby for the start of a career.

This season, Cabrera has yet to make an error, and it should be interesting to watch him settle in at shortstop over the long haul. He's got soft hands, great footwork, good accuracy, has a high IQ, and is able to get to many balls that others can't get to. He can be an acrobat out there, but like Vizquel before him, it's not for show. He does whatever it takes to get into position, and has a strong enough arm to get the ball to first. Should he stay healthy and stay at the position, he's a gold-glover.

The big question with Cabrera has always been his offense. Could Cabrera turn into a productive offensive player, or would he ultimately be a one-sided defensive whiz? 2009 seemed to prove the former, as Cabrera played in 131 games and hit a stout .308, with 17 SB and 81 runs. He's now a career .284 with a lifetime .347 OBP.

Cabrera has always struggled being a selective hitter, but as he matures, that OBP could really start to take off. The other question with Cabrera has always been his power, of which he has showcased absolutely zilch over the length of his career...until this year. Cabrera's four homers in ten days is the most in that span that a shortstop has hit for the Tribe since 1960.

If you ask manager Manny Acta who the leader of the Indians infield is, without hesitation, he'll say Asdrubal Cabrera. That's saying something, considering the Indians signed former all-star and two time gold glove winner, Orlando Cabrera prior to the season. What speaks even more volumes is that Acta forced Orlando to move to second base, a position he played 37 times in nearly 1804 games total. The rest of the time, Orlando has been patrolling the shortstop position. Acta felt that Asdrubal's time was now.

Asdrubal Cabrera, at 25, is now one of the Tribe elders, and clearly a team leader. Only Shin-Soo Choo, Travis Hafner, Grady Sizemore and Fausto Carmona can claim to have as much or more time with the Tribe in the bigs. Hafner is the DH, and has been a part time player for much of the past three seasons. Other than 2011, he's been nothing more than a struggling bit player. Carmona has been busy playing a game of pitching yo-yo since his break-out 2007 season. Sizemore has been nothing but injured for a season and a half. The only player who can lay claim to being an overall better player over the past four seasons is Choo, who certainly shares the mantle as an unofficial captain of the team.

Watch the Indians fortunes closely this year, and how they relate to Cabrera's play. Choo is currently struggling with a .184 average, with one homer and two RBI. The Indians, however, are thriving under the subtle leadership of one Asdrubal Cabrera. They've won eight games in a row, and are currently at the top of the A.L. Central heap.

While the Tribe starters are certainly a major factor in this newfound winning, Asdrubal is certainly the major cog defensively, and now offensively.

As Cabrera goes, so go the Indians...

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Cleveland sweeps the Red Sox in a finish right out of the Twilight Zone

Carmona--photo c/o Road Warrior

If you would have told me that the Cleveland Indians were going to be 4-2 five days ago, I'd have laughed you under the rock you just crawled out of.  I half think that I would have laughed had you said 2-4.  Somehow, the Indians have righted the ship behind solid starting pitching, a rock-solid bullpen, solid play from supposedly unsolid acquisitions, and some great "feel" calls from Manny Acta.

I don't know if the Cleveland Indians are going to be contenders this year, or even next year.  I don't know if the starting pitching is going to hold up all season, or head to Seattle and give up 40 runs in three games.  I don't know if Manny Acta is going to continue making the right calls against the grain, or if by next Friday, the masses will be calling for his job.

What I do know is that Cleveland Indians baseball has been fun to watch, and none more fun than today's sweeping victory against the struggling Boston Red Sox.

Today, the tipping of the cap starts with Fausto Carmona.  Carmona got beat into submission last weekend against Chicago, and looked a lot like the guy that made us cringe in 2008 and 2009.  No, he didn't get the win, and he may not even have been the best starter today (Jon Lester struck out nine, giving up three hits and three walks in seven scoreless innings), but he was his old viscous self.

Carmona pummeled the strike zone with his dancing sinker, and the Red Sox couldn't do a think with it.  Carmona gave up two hits, singles by Jacoby Ellsbury and Marco Scutaro in the third and fifth respectively.  He walked only two batters, and struck out four in his seven scoreless innings.  He threw 18 first pitch strikes to his 25 batters, and induced 9 ground balls.  He wasn't quite dominant, but pretty darn close.  If this is the Carmona we get for the rest of the season, I'll take it in a heartbeat.

Enter the bullpen.  Chad Durbin came in the game, and likely continued his path out of Cleveland, giving up a single and a walk after getting his only out.  Enter Rafael Perez, who was brought in to face Carl Crawford with runners on first and second, and one out.  Perez induced Crawford into a weak grounder to third in which Brooks Everett fielded cleanly charging in, and nailed Crawford for the second out.  The runners advanced, and all hope was surely lost...right?

Surely, Perez would purposely walk Dustin Pedroia to load the bases with first open, and newly acquired Adrian Gonzalez would jack one out of the park.  That's when crazy happened.  Manny Acta let Raffy pitch to Pedroia!?!  A cruddy chopper guessed it...Raffy, and the inning was over, and all was right with the world.  Of course, it was still 0-0, but the Indians miraculously made it through an inning with two runners in scoring position.

Adam Everett led off the bottom half of the 8th with a walk.  With Orlando Cabrera squaring up to bunt, Everett stole second.  Cabrera then did bunt, and Everett moved to third.  The funny thing is...I actually laughed thinking...wouldn't it be funny if they bunted again, and scored on a suicide squeeze.  Up came Asdrubal Cabrera, and sure enough, down came the bunt, and sure enough, Everett scored the first and only run of the game.  Back-to-Back big games for ACab...from a three-run jack, to a one run sac.  After the three seasons we've had, it felt like the world series again.

In came Chris Perez to face off against the meat of the Red Sox order, and more hilarity ensued.  Perez retired Gonzalez and Youkilis with ground balls, but of course, it's never really over, is it?  David Ortiz drew a walk, and up came J.D. Drew.  Drew hit a high-chopper to Everett, who looked at first, didn't have the play...then pulled up, looking for an out at second base.  Sure enough, pinch-runner Darnell McDonald flew around second as though he were going to try and score, and there was Everett...waiting for it.  A quick throw to Cabrera, a close play at second, and the final out of the game.

In all honesty, it seemed like some sort of wacky episode of  'The Twilight Zone,' but either way, the Indians get the win.  Is it hustle?  Is it luck?  Is it just fine play?  Is it all of the above?  I don't know, but whatever it is, it sure is fun to watch.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Tribe starters struggles will likely be the norm in 2011

Fausto Carmona and Carlos Carrasco have done a nice job giving the spars crowds at Progressive Field their best impression of a pinball machine, getting lit up to the tune of 17 runs in 9 2/3 innings. While it's certainly disconcerting to see the #1 and #2 Tribe starters getting beat like a drum, it definitely shouldn't come as a surprise.

Carmona is undoubtedly the ace of this staff. Unfortunately, that's based more on the contraction of every other quality member of the Tribe's starting staff over the past three years then Carmona's pitching dominance. Everybody remembers Carmona's 2007 season, when the starter burst on the scene with a 19-8 record, a 3.06 record, and a sinker and slider so wicked, he looked like an ace for years to come. Since then, Carmona's gone 26-34, with an ERA north of 5.00. Yes, Carmona rebounded last year with a 13-14 record, and a 3.77 ERA, but to say he's a true ace would be a stretch for any rotation...well...any rotation not belonging to the Indians.

Now, Carmona is clearly the best Tribe starter. That's not necessarily a pat on the back.

Carrasco used to be the gem of the Phillies promising minor league system. The Indians received Carrasco when they traded Cliff Lee to the Phillies in 2009. Carrasco was still highly regarded, but 19-year-old Jason Knapp and his cannon but oft-injured left arm was considered a bigger get. While Carrasco did pitch well in his last few starts of 2010, his overall numbers in the majors are far from stellar. In his 12 major league starts, he is 2-6 overall, with a 5.51 ERA. While we don't know what he'll turn into down the line, I think it's safe to say that his ceiling this year isn't up to a #2 starters' standards.

Justin Masterson was a major piece of the Victor Martinez deal in 2009 (five days ofter the Carrasco deal), but like Carrasco, wasn't as highly sought after as flamethrower Nick Hagadone. Masterson was a reliever that the Indians were planning on trying out as a starter. In his season and a half with the Tribe, Masterson is a less than stellar 7-20, with a 4.66 ERA. Many still debate whether or not Masterson is a starter, or a reliever. Most agree that Masterson's ceiling is #3 starter. He's certainly a stretch there now.

Josh Tomlin was battling for the last slot in the Indians' rotation throughout spring training. Now, Tomlin not only won the last spot, but was bumped up to the #4 spot because of the struggles of one Mitch Talbot. Tomlin was a bright spot in the Indians' pitching rotation after joining it in late July last year. Tomlin went 6-4, with a 4.56 ERA, and won five of his last seven starts. Tomlin isn't overpowering by any stretch, but he does possess command of four pitches and a high pitching IQ. Still, he's likely a couple of years away from being a lock in any rotation.

Mitch Talbot was a top prospect for the Astros and the DRays, but like Tomlin, he's not an overpowering pitcher. Talbot has one of the best change-ups in baseball. Unfortunately, he has a hard time repeating his fastball, which leaves him susceptible to getting hit. Talbot was clearly their best pitcher during the first two months of the season. He then struggled with consistency and injury. This year, Talbot got roughed up in the spring. His solid 2010 campaign likely gave him his second chance this season.

There is help on its way, in the form of Alex White. White, who will start the season off in Columbus, is a legit future #1 starter, and could find himself in Cleveland by July if he continues to impress. In the near future, Drew Pomeranz, Hector Rondon, Joe Gardner and several others have the potential to make an impact. Unfortunately for the Tribe, it doesn't appear as though this is the year to see an important impact from these top-end prospects.

It's unfortunate, because the Indians offense and bullpen will likely be the strength of this year's team. With a stopper to help anchor this rotation, things could be different. Will Carmona accept the role, or will the Indians have to wait for Alex White to emerge?

The Cleveland Indians 2011 starting staff does have upside, and will likely have starts in which they look fairly impressive. Unfortunately, the norm may be more like games 1 and 2, when an improving offense will have to carry a below average starting rotation.

Friday, April 1, 2011

It's a BEAutiful day for Cleveland Indians baseball...

Opening day is upon us, and I'm not planning on waxing poetic about the smell of the fresh cut grass, eternal spring hope, or the joys of 40 degree April baseball in Cleveland.  Yet, the adrenaline is flowing this morning, as your Cleveland Indians are a mere six hours away from taking the field for the first time in 2011.

Yeah, it's time to dust off the cobwebs off Bringing Back Boudreau for another season as the Tribe attempts to remove themselves from the bottom of the standings in the Central.  Will this just be another rebuild year, as the Indians slowly bring up more of their vaunted prospects, or is this the year that the puzzle starts taking shape?

Here's a quick look at my rather brief Tribe predictions, as well as the rest of the Indians Prospect Insider staff predictions for the Indians, heading into 2011.  This team really could sneak up on some teams.  No...really.