Five Questions: Cleveland Indians

Last year’s version of the Cleveland Indians defied the Law of Pythagoras; can this year’s team defy their AL Central brethren and make the playoffs? Hopefully these five questions will provide some clarification.

1. So what’s with all these platoons?

They’re pretty affordable, for starters. David Dellucci and Jason Michaels, the left field platoon, will be making $5.75 million between them this season, about half of what Carlos Lee will be making in 2007. And effective platoons can turn two part-time players into a pretty good amalgamation of a full-timer:
Dellucci vs RHP, career: .271/.359/.468 (.208/.275/.315 vs LHP)
Michaels vs LHP, career: .303/.387/.464 (.268/.342/.394 vs RHP)

In this case, the Indians already had Michaels, who was destined for either a non-tender or at the very least a demotion to the bench, on hand. They signed Dellucci to a three-year deal, then extended the arbitration-eligible Michaels through 2008 with a team option stuck on the end of the deal, so they could keep the pair together through 2009.

Signing Trot Nixon didn’t really create a platoon; it merely replaced one of the participants. Shin-Soo Choo was supposed to be platooning with Casey Blake in right field; now he’ll be in Buffalo. Ryan Garko is the third leg of the platoon; he’ll play first against left-handers, while Casey Blake will move in from the outfield to play there against southpaws. Got all that?

Will all this platooning work? It can if manager Eric Wedge can effectively divvy out the playing time, and stick to the platoon even if it involves sitting the hot hand. And, of course, everyone staying healthy is going to be factor, especially when the discussion includes Nixon.

2. So why is Ryan Garko stuck behind Casey Blake?

To answer that question, let’s first review where Ryan came from. The Indians drafted him in the third round of the 2003 draft as a senior catcher. He got poor marks from scouts as a defender, but also was an outstanding hitter. Of course, if he couldn’t stay behind the plate, he wasn’t much of a prospect, right? Garko remained a catcher throughout much of his minor-league career, and while his defense was still thought not good enough, he continued to hit, to the point where his offense justified a move out from behind the plate. He played first base in 2005’s Arizona Fall League, and moved there permanently the next season, splitting his time between Buffalo and Cleveland.

So it’s mainly his defense. I’d say when he reaches the point of serviceability, the job will be his. The Indians would love to solve everything by having Travis Hafner play more at first, leaving Garko his more natural position of designated hitter, but Pronk’s elbow has given him problems when he’s played in the field. So the temporary fix is to ease him into playing every day. Blake is the primary backup at several other positions, so Garko should be able to get fairly regular at-bats.

3. Can Jhonny Peralta remain at shortstop?

Last season saw Peralta regress dramatically both on offense and defense. His range, which was never good, deteriorated greatly. He was charged by the Indians front office to work on his defense over the winter, and the early returns are promising; he’s looked much better this spring. He also underwent Lasik surgery to correct nearsightedness, which won’t be a panacea, but can’t hurt, either.

Jhonny’s struggles at the plate, more specifically, were mainly due to his failure to adjust to pitchers’ new game plans against him. In 2005, Peralta was very adept at hitting fastballs on the outside portion of the plate to the opposite field; last season opposing pitchers adjusted by setting him up inside with hard stuff, and then throwing breaking pitches that tailed away from him, which he would invariably chase. He’ll need to adjust his approach to counter this.
Last year’s offense overcame Peralta’s Wile E. Coyote-style offensive plunge to the tune of 870 runs, but much more is expected of Jhonny. There’s not much on the depth chart behind Peralta (Luis Rivas and Mike Rouse are the current front-runners to back him up), so he’s the guy for now. If he can regain some semblance of his former hitting prowess, I’d venture that the Indians (and their fans) would be more apt to overlook some of his defensive shortcomings.

4. Will quantity over quality work in the bullpen?

The Indians gave out four one-year deals to relievers this winter, hoping that there was safety in numbers. Keith Foulke, who was probably going to be the team’s closer, retired before throwing a single pitch, elevating Joe Borowski into ninth inning duties. Borowski carries with him his own set of injury questions.
Roberto Hernandez and Aaron Fultz were also brought in on one-year deals. Hernandez, who’s 42, still has the stuff to be an effective setup man, while Fultz, who’s the lone left-hander in the bullpen, should rack up a lot of appearances. The three signings by themselves aren’t going to vault the Tribe bullpen to elite status; they’re intended to just get the relief corps back to respectability.

The real key to an improved bullpen is whether Fernando Cabrera and Jason Davis, the bullpen’s “live arms,” can take on much more meaningful roles. Cabrera rarely was able to combine command and control at the same time last season, and was a huge disappointment. Davis, who’s been in every pitching role imaginable in his five major-league seasons, has had trouble pitching out of jams, a flaw you absolutely can’t have in a middle reliever. Both pitchers are out of options, so it’s sink-or-swim time for them. And as they go, so the Tribe bullpen will go.

5. Will Eric Wedge be fired if the Indians don’t make the playoffs?

A qualified yes. The qualification is there because general manager Mark Shapiro likes continuity, and may give Wedge another year if the Indians come close. But if the team tanks like they did in 2006? He’s gone; results at some point have to matter, and there’s simply too much talent on the roster to accept another losing season.

Wedge’s perceived flaw, at least the one espoused most frequently by the local writers and talk-show hosts, are the team’s lack of fundamentals, which can include things like bunting, stealing, hit-and-running, clutch hitting, fielding percentages, sacrifice hits, and other various Little Things. Yes, for a market that most recently marveled at the mid-’90s offensive machines, the Little Things are extremely important. This incarnation of the Indians is likewise not inclined to succeed playing Whitey Ball; there are not many base stealers on this team, and many players you absolutely would not want even attempting to run. Grady Sizemore, who has the best wheels on the team, hits two in front of Travis Hafner, so in most cases there’s no reason for him to steal a base, for he’s already in scoring position with a single or a walk. In other words, the Indians are playing the style of baseball their personnel dictates they should play.

Wedge’s real flaw has been his handling of bullpens, or more specifically, his insistence on assigning roles. He’ll set up a pecking order by inning, and then stick to it to the point of exasperation. That’s great when you have an excellent and consistent bullpen, like the Indians had in 2005, but a recipe for disaster when there are injuries or just plain inconsistency. Last season, three relievers went on the DL in April, and the bullpen never really recovered. The result was a team with a losing record (78-84, to be exact) that also happened to outscore the opposition by 88 runs. That’s a huge disconnect between their actual record and what they should have done. There wasn’t a particular week or even month that the bullpen caused havoc; the havoc was spread quite consistently over the entire season. This is a bit of “black box” analysis, but constructing a somewhat reliable bullpen is one of the few things I believe a manager and pitching coach should be able to do on a regular basis. The bullpen is always going to be small Sample Size Theater, and in cases of instability, the manager should be playing general manager on a micro scale, assigning roles and appearances based on their latest observations. For whatever reason, Wedge wasn’t able to adjust after the bullpen fell apart in April.

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