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Corner of Carnegie and Ontario: Less flaws is more edition

Corner of Carnegie and Ontario: Less flaws is more edition
June 9, 2012
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With the Indians playing the brand of baseball that can best be described as middling, it’s quite easy to fall into the same pattern of, “I told you they couldn’t keep it up all season” banter. I’m not ready to go that far just yet. There are too many indicators that lead me to believe that this team is different than those in recent memory. There are many compelling stories, and while many of the stories involve the “he can’t keep that up” theory, there’s hope that the Indians may be something more than a team of over-achievers. As a matter of fact, I think this team has underachieved, but we’ll get to that.

The issues with this club are fairly clear. The Indians have lacked a true stopper in the starting rotation that you can count on from one start to the next. They lack the potent right-handed bats to really attack left-handed pitching. Their back-end of the bullpen has been the best in baseball, but the guys in front of them have been less than stellar. Their bench is just deplorable.

While all those issues are true and make the Indians a flawed team, they aren’t insurmountable. Especially when you consider their immediate competition in the first place Chicago White Sox, the third place Detroit Tigers, and the emerging fourth-place Kansas City Royals.

The White Sox, statistically, are really comparable to the Indians in nearly every important category. Their overall ERA is considerably better (3.99 to 4.49), with their starters slightly worse (4.21 to the Indians 4.69), and their relievers a lot better (3.51 to the Indians 4.07). When you really look right at it though, I’d likely take the Indians rotation and bullpen over the White Sox. They have Jake Peavy healthy and pitching well, as well as their young lefty, Chris Sale, but past that, they don’t have an ERA under 5 in their regular rotation. Their closer, Addison Reed has been lit up, and other their main bullpen pieces aren’t all that attractive (Nate Jones has a 1.52 ERA in 21 games, and Jesse Crain is sitting at 2.08), but there really isn’t anything that outwardly makes you think this unit is anything special. The one worry is that the White Sox can put a rotation with up to four lefties in play (Sale, John Danks, Jose Quintana and Eric Stults) if they want, and their bullpen has had five lefties as well (Matt Thornton, Hector Santiago, Will Ohman, Quintana and Stults). So there’s that, but overall, I do think the Indians are a better overall unit.

Right now, with Chris Perez (2.70 ERA, 19 saves), Vinnie Pestano (2.28 ERA), Nick Hagadone (2.75 ERA), Scott Barnes (0.00 ERA) and Joe Smith (3.24 ERA), as well as a Jeremy Accardo (1.54 ERA) in the garbage role, you have the potential for one of the best pens the mafia has ever seen, and certainly better than the Sox going forward. There’s also pieces in Columbus and Akron that may still make this an even better unit, and one that could overcome injuries should they crop up.

The White Sox offense is loaded for bear with power, with A.J. Pierzynski, Paul Konerko, Vayan Viciedo and Adam Dunn all with double-digit homers. The Indians have none. Still, the Indians are hitting .252 as a team, vs. the White Sox .256. The Indians OBP is a stellar .332 because of their league leading 219 walks (180 for the White Sox), while the Sox come in at .322. At the end of the day, the White Sox OPS as a team sits at .738, while the Indians aren’t far behind, at .714, with the Sox scoring 272 runs in 58 games, to the 257 for the Indians in 57 games. In all seriousness, the Indians leave runs on the table, and likely are still improving. Are the White Sox?

The Tigers pitching, for all the hype at the start of the year, hasn’t been good at all. Their overall ERA is better than the Indians at 4.30, but the overhyped starters aren’t much better (4.30 to 4.69), and their bullpen has been worse. Porcello and Scherzer haven’t pitched well, while Smyly and Fister have. Verlander is on another planet, and while I’d take this rotation in a heartbeat, it’s very comparable to the Indians right now, with the difference being Verlander. The pen, which was so good last year, has been a detriment this year. They’ve had to plug many holes to varying degrees of failure, and while I do see the pen getting better as the year progresses, the Indians possess better parts.

Offensively, the Tigers have Fielder (.312, 9 homers, 37 RBI) and Cabrera (.321, 13 homers, 51 RBI). Andy Dirks and Austin Jackson are also hitting .328 and .331 as well. Peralta is hitting a Peralta-like .261, which will more than likely see a bump as well. Listen, this is a fantastic offense, and it will come around. Thing is, they are hitting right now, and the team is still losing. Clearly, this team has holes. I’m not saying that I’d take the Indians offense over the Tigers, because I’d be lying. What I am saying is that the Indians can match up with the Tigers offensively if their staff is firing on all cogs, and I believe it will get better. How much better is a mystery, but the Tigers playing good baseball, and the Indians playing good baseball are pretty comparable. The Indians just have to make sure the Tigers don’t go on a tear like last season. If they do, there’s not much the Indians will be able to do, other than get as much distance between the two teams in the mean time. At the end of the day, the Tigers are only hitting .264 this season, with a .325 OBP and a .738 OPS. Again, as good as the offense already is, it’s not much better than the Indians.

The Royals have a 4.17 ERA, but you want to talk about a night and day staff. Their starters have a 5.08 ERA, while their bullpen is at an insane 2.99. It always scares me when I see splits like that, because if that rotation figures out a way in the next few weeks, that bullpen could make them very dangerous. Their rotation doesn’t really have a guy that you fear, but they do have three lefties that have already proved to be an issue for the Indians, so don’t forget about this team going forward. The pen is led by closer Jonathan Broxton (1.59 ERA and 14 saves), lefty Tim Collins (2.17 ERA), lefty Jose Mijares (2.19 ERA) and Aaron Crow (3.20 ERA). Broxton is the oldest in that pen at 28, Kevin Herrera, Collins, Crow and Mijares coming in at 28, 22, 22, 25 and 27. The only thing that will stop this pen is inexperience and youth.

Offensively, the Royals are hitting .259, and interestingly enough, have less strikeouts than the Indians (last in the league with 342, while the Indians come in second to last, at 359). That’s rare for a young team like the Royals. While the Royals don’t strike out much, they don’t walk much either. They are second to last in the league, with 142 walks, vs. the Indians 219. The Indians OBP is considerably higher than the Royals (.332 vs. .314), and while their OPS is very similar (.714 to the Royals .711), the Indians have managed to score 38 runs more than the Royals, in one more game. Still, with youngsters like Eric Hosmer, Alcides Escobar, Mike Moustakas, Billy Butler and Alex Gordon (an old man in this lineup, at 28), you have a lot of potential to watch going forward.

At the end of all this, what does it mean? Exactly what I’ve been saying all along. The AL Central is a flawed division, with a slew of teams that have major holes. I think a case could be made that the Tigers have the team with flaws that seem fixable the quickest, but we haven’t even talked about defense, and to say they are bad defensively would be an understatement. They may be the worst of all the teams in the central, and while I’m not calling it an equalizer, it certainly does narrow their gap.

Taking all things considered, and realizing that the Indians have yet to play even close to their ceiling with any repetition, you realize that the Tribe is more than just a thought going forward. How much depends on a few players, and one or two additions. If the Indians front office and on-field management push the right buttons at the right time, this team will make the playoffs. They are that good, and they most certainly are in the right division.

I’ve always been a big fan of Michael Brantley’s, even through his tough years since the trade. I know he’s struggled at the big league level, but I never got the impression that he was a Quad A player, as some have suggested, and never thought that he was the bust that he was made out to be. Matt LaPorta was clearly the main piece of that trade back in 2008, but I’ll never forget Shapiro talking about Brantley after it was announced that he was the player to be named later. He made it pretty clear that the deal wouldn’t have happened without Brantley’s name being included, and it wasn’t hard to figure out why.

Brantley has always been a guy that knew how to hit. No, he’s not your everyday power threat, but he can make contact, get on base, and steal some bases for you. He’s had moments of great play with the Indians, but it’s never been sustained. He’s either gotten hurt, or it’s been a wrong place, wrong time scenario.

This season started off as a struggle for Brantley in the lead-off role, as well as defensively. I wasn’t all that worried about him as some others were, because these struggles can play themselves out, but Manny Acta wasn’t very passive about it. He began moving Brantley through the lineup, and once he was out of that lead-off slot, things began clicking. Now, Brantley is riding a career-high sixteen game hit streak.

Throughout the streak, Brantley has batted in the six-hole seven times, the five-hole six times, and the two-hole three times. If you would have mentioned Brantley as a potential five-or-six-hole batter at the start of the season, you’d have been laughed off the planet, and for good reason. During the streak, Brantley has gone 21-for-61 (.344), with 11 runs, three doubles, a triple, a homer and 15 RBI. He currently has 29 RBI on the season, and we are just in the second week of June. His career high is 46. He’s walked 13 times, but only struck out 25 times in 54 games. There is that professional approach that we’ve been missing.

In center, Brantley has been above-average of late, and solid all season long. He’s only made one error on the year in 483 innings, and 140 chances. His .993 is tied for 7th in the league at center. Sure, you could make a case that he doesn’t cover as much distance as some, but I’ve seen much, much worse. Brantley already has nine stolen bases as well, with his career high being 13. He’ll easily surpass that this season.

This is just the tip of the iceberg for Brantley, who I believe has been playing like a second-fiddle guy because he’s never really felt like it was his job to lose. That’s changed. Acta stuck with him through his early season struggles, and worked hard to find him his slot. Now he has it, and Brantley is a changed ballplayer. I don’t expect 16-game hit streaks on a monthly basis, but I could see some streak-hitting in his future. He’s just that kind of ballplayer…and he makes fantastic contact.

The interesting piece to all this is how he and Choo have sort of flipped on each other a bit. Choo was moved out of the middle of the order, and into the lead-off slot, while Brantley moved from that lead-off slot, to the middle of the order. It’s panned out. As a lead-off hitter, Choo is batting .316, with 22 runs, eight doubles, two homers, six RBI, 10 walks and three stolen bases, in 23 games.

When Brantley is batting in any of the slots from 2-through-6 this season, he’s hitting .309, with 11 runs, four doubles, two triples, a homer and 16 RBI. I’d say that’s a successful swap, wouldn’t you? Brantley’s currently hitting in the five-hole, and he’s hitting .375 in eight games there.

Give Acta credit for being flexible, which clearly was one of the Atomic Wedgie’s flaws.

I’m really starting to like about Josh Tomlin. While he’s not a lefty, I’d lump him in with a slew of pitcher that the Indians have drafted over the years that throw okay fastballs, have good breaking stuff, and can locate (like lefties Jeremy Sowers and Aaron Laffey, as well as Jeanmar Gomez, to name a few). You know the guys I’m talking about here, as they really don’t have a discernible out-pitch, but have success that’s completely dependant on defense and hitting spots. These are the guys that come up and just dominate for a time, because they hit their spots and fool batters that have never seen them before.

Over time, they get very hittable, because most can’t successfully alter their routine to be effective. Sowers never recovered from that, and Laffey got dealt because he was heading down the same path. The jury is out on Tomlin and Gomez, although I Tomlin is starting to show himself to be that kind of scrappy, Jake Westbrook/Paul Byrd sort that knows how to keep guys off balance…throw strikes, but have this knack of knowing when they can throw it in the dirt and get a guy to swing.

This season, Tomlin looked like the guy that got figured out, after his 12-win, 4.25 ERA season of a year ago. After his second start, he’d been rocked to the tune of eight runs in 8 2/3 innings. Then, he bounced back with an eight-inning, five-hit, one run gem in which he struck out seven, without walking a batter. At that point, Tomlin had struck out 14 batters, vs only one walk. In other words, he was throwing strikes and locating…and maybe more important, learning.

After another bad start, Tomlin came back with two really good starts, going 13 1/3 innings, giving up ten hits and five earned runs, while striking out 12, and walking only four. Both were against the White Sox, and the Indians won both games. For those counting at home, the Indians are 4-8 against the White Sox, and Tomlin is 2-1 against them. He then went on the DL, and came back with two middling performances, before last night’s seven inning gem against St. Louis.

Tomlin is a scrapper, and a guy that has all the makings of being a 12-15 game winner from year-to-year. In other words, the Indians have found their #4 starter for years to come, and if he turns into anything more, pure icing.

I’m far from a Marlon Byrd fan, but boy would he look a lot better in the lineup than Richie Freakin’ Cunningham (before I get any e-mails, he’s the guy from Happy Days, a show from the 70’s and 80’s about the 50’s, for you whippersnappers). No, Byrd isn’t a starter by any stretch at this point, but he’s a right-handed hitter, and he’s not Richie Freakin’ Cunningham!!!

It’s much too early to start talking about the trade deadline, but it is June 9th, and there will be some right-handed hitters available. Here’s a bit of a list to peruse as we bide our time waiting to see if the Indians are a player in all this (they will be), or not:

  • Kevin Youkilis—not playing particularly well, but could be had without giving up much if the Indians would be willing to take on a bit of his salary. In his prime, was a guy that could really decimate players, but hasn’t been all that great in over a year, and hasn’t been very healthy since 2008. Youkilis can play first and third, and can DH. He does bring that professional approach to hitting that the Indians need. A change of scenery could be the ticket for Youk, and the Indians are scouting him.
  • Carlos Quentin—San Diego Padres—You know, it would be ironic if the Indians could make a move to get the former White Sox power hitter, as they would then use him to try and beat the White Sox to a playoff slot. He’s going to be pricey, but he would fill in a massive hole, as he could play left and DH. Buster Olney did mention Quentin in a piece earlier this week in the ESPN Insider. Quentin is playing for a payday, so he could have a big year now that he’s healthy.
  • Josh Willingham—Minnesota Twins—Everyone knows the Twins are out of it, and Willingham is a likely trade candidate. He’s probably the most enticing of the three because of his contract (three years-21 million), so the Tribe will have control, and would be willing to part with some picks for him. He won’t cost as much as a pitch for Quentin would (although the Twins could ask for the farm because of the three years of control), but who knows.
  • B.J. Upton—Tampa Bay Rays—I don’t see the Rays dealing this guy while they are in contention, and they’ll be in contention all season, but they will lose him next year, as his contract is up. Upton is a guy that I’d love to see the Indians get. I know some folks are down on him for differing reasons, but I’m not. I would deal for him, and sign him to a three or four year deal. That’s just me though.
  • Carlos Lee—Houston Astros—I’m not a big proponent of getting Lee, but he is having a nice season, he is a right-handed bat, and he could play left field or first base. He’s currently playing first for Houston. Because he’s 36 and playing in the last year of his deal, I think the Indians could get him for a serviceable piece, and someone from the low minors.

There’s certainly more names out there, like Alfonso Soriano (holy contract batman), Michael Cuddyer (from a familiar trade partner in Colorado) and Yeonis Cespedes (yeah, too much, I know). Plenty of time to ponder, and likely some names out there that aren’t in play as of yet, not that any of these are.

Shhhh…Johnny Damon is hitting .285 in June, with four runs, a homer and four RBI in the five games he’s played. He’s also got three walks and one K. I’m sorry folks, but this is exactly the guy we signed. If he were right-handed, we’d likely be ready to make him a saint***Can someone tell me if the real Ubaldo Jimenez stood up this past week, or am I literally going to throw my TV through a window during his next start. Oh no, I’m going to lose a TV, aren’t I***Does everyone see Choo as a permanent lead-off hitter, or is this just until he’s right? Personally, you don’t mess with anything that works, in my humble and not-knowing-much opinion***Sorry, but Tony Sipp should have been sent down weeks ago. He’s another one of those guys that I would send down and say, figure it out, or pack your bags***Ebb and flow people…ebb and flow. This team is one that always finds a way to fill in the cracks. I promise you, there will be a time when there is a lot more flowing than ebbing, and it may not be too far away.

It’s a beautiful weekend for baseball, everybody…

Jim is currently the senior editor and Columnist, as well as  the host of IBI's weekly online radio shows, Smoke Signals and Cleveland Sports Insiders. You can follow Jim on Twitter @Jim_IBI, or contact him via e-mail at jpete@indiansprospectinsider.com.

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