4.29.2008

Fixing the Tribe's early season woes

This article was originally run in the April 21, 2008 edition of The Cauldron.

The Indians less that spectacular start to this season—they stand at 7-10 through Friday’s win at the Twins—has been very disconcerting, especially considering the success they had last year, and the expectations I had for them this season.

And while I’m hesitant to judge a team before they’ve played 30-35 games, I have some major concerns about the inconsistencies the Tribe has shown, and what this season could turn into if they aren’t corrected in the next week or two.

Here are four things the Indians need fix now, what will happen if they don’t, and when to push the panic button:

First of all, the Indians have got to get the Starting Pitchers figured out. You know things aren’t going well when Cliff Lee [3-0, 0.40] is your best pitcher three weeks into the season. C.C. Sabathia [0-3, 13.50] looks nothing like the Cy Young winner of last season, and Paul Byrd [0-2, 6.08] seems to have lost his usually impeccable control, which is the biggest reason he has value to the team.

Sabathia and Byrd—along with Fausto Carmona, who is 2-1, but with 18 walks—need to regain their mastery of the corners, and ability to control the game. If they do, it will be the first step in righting the ship. If they don’t, it will lead to a disappointing season.

After forty or fifty games at this same pace, it’s possible that the Tribe might trade or release Byrd—who is in the last year of his contract—in favor of Aaron Laffey, who is mowing down AAA hitters in Buffalo.

Secondly, the Bullpen needs to get it together. The best in the majors in 2007, our relievers look nothing like themselves, unable to closeout tight games. Joe Borowski [0-2, 18.00, 2 saves] is likely finished as the Indian’s closer, even if he gets back to 100 percent this season. The only scenario in which Borowski might return is if his replacement—for the time being Rafael Betancourt [1-0, 4.50]—struggles mightily.

That said, struggle is what Betancourt and fellow relievers Rafael Perez [0-0, 5.40], Jorge Julio [0-0, 5.63], and Jensen Lewis [0-1, 4.66] have done all season, and while all will be given a chance to sort things out, they have to prove to Eric Wedge that they can be reliable in big situations.

If Betancourt can’t close, look for Masahide Kobayashi [0-0, 2.84] to get a chance. Kobayashi is a former closer, saving 227 games in his Japanese career. If the rest of the pen continues to struggle, possible internal candidates include Scott Elarton, Edward Mujica or a converted Adam Miller from Buffalo. The Indians could also trade excess position players in exchange for bullpen help.

The bottom third of the lineup has to have better at-bats. Casey Blake [.180, 1 HR, 10 RBI], Franklin Gutierrez [.192, 1 HR, 4 RBI], and Asdrubal Cabrera [.173, 6 RBI] are off to terrible starts, and the lack of production shows. The Indians can’t score runs when it counts, and a big reason is these three guys.

Gutierrez, because of his age, power and spectacular defense, has some time to prove himself as the .280 hitter the Indians believe he can be. But make no mistake, when Shin Soo Choo returns from Tommy John surgery, and the front office has to make a decision about who goes, Gutierrez better make sure he’s playing well enough not to go back to Buffalo.

Cabrera is also great defensively, and will be given the sophomore slump pass for the time being. But Jamey Carroll [.267 average] is playing well in a utility role, and will eventually make it hard for the Indians to keep Cabrera in if he continually fails at the plate.

Blake, the Indians everywhere man, is my biggest concern. With Andy Marte hogging a roster spot and Blake not playing well, it’s going to become increasingly hard not to give the young guy another chance at a starting role. It would be disappointing for Blake—a great guy, who never gives anything less than his best—to have to sit down for Marte.

That said, I think all three of these guys will turn it around for the Tribe.

Finally, the Left-Field Platoon has got to go, at least as it currently stands. David Dellucci [.276, 1 HR, 4 RBI] and Jason Michaels [.132, 5 RBI] haven’t justified the platoon system at all. Despite Dellucci’s improvement in the last week, these two don’t justify the current system. Particularly when Ben Francisco looked so good in spring training and only missed making the club because the Indians had to give Andy Marte a roster spot.

It might be wise to give Michaels and Dellucci a few more games to sort things out, but if they don’t turn the corner soon, one or both of them should be traded for bullpen help, or released to allow Francisco to join the club.

Also note that upon Choo’s return from the DL, a roster spot will have to be made available. That spot isn’t going to come from the struggling bullpen, or any of the other starters. So it’s Marte, Carroll, or one of these two. Based on the Tribe’s reluctance to give up on Marte, and Carroll’s fantastic play thus far, expect Dellucci or Michaels to be gone by mid-June.

 

 

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