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Corner of Carnegie and Ontario: The Cinco de Mayo edition

Corner of Carnegie and Ontario: The Cinco de Mayo edition
May 5, 2012
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I can’t think of a better way to kick off my inaugural Saturday column than with a day filled with food, parades, cerveza, and a wee bit of tequila. While I would call this celebration a direct result of my weekly foray into witty and instructive Cleveland Indians discussion, most other folks would call today Cinco de Mayo. I can dare to dream though…I am a Cleveland Indians’ fan after all.

As per the column itself? I have no clue what direction this thing will go in. I’m not even sure what the name of it will be from week to week. So weekly reader, I apologize if you’re looking for a brand name just yet. I have a feeling I’m going to be trying on a few things here and there, before something strikes me as being good. As per the topics? I’m not sure about that either. Some weeks I could be straight up whining and moaning…other weeks, not so much. Some weeks I could have a major league focus, and other weeks, here come the minors. Some weeks, I may not even talk about Indians baseball. Who knows. Whatever strikes me as prevalent is what will end up in these pages. I'm just hoping that at least a couple of you agree or disagree, which is the whole point, after all.

So…here we go…

The Texas Rangers have blown into town, bringing with them temperatures that resemble more May in Arlington, Texas than those found in Cleveland, Ohio. That didn’t seem to bode well for the good guys, as Texas seems to be on the top of everyone’s list of all things that are great about baseball. Yes, the Rangers are the new “best team in baseball,” and deservedly so. Don’t forget, heading into this season, the Rangers had played in the past two World Series. While they had lost both, it seemed as though their learning curve was complete.

The funny thing is that those summer winds didn’t bring in the club that was sitting at 12-2 on April 21, the day Spring began. Instead, it brought in a team that was 17-8, had lost their last two games, and three of their past four, and four of their past six.

The Indians, on the other hand, seemed to be taking a different tack. While they are in first place, which is deemed a success to any Tribe aficionado at any point in the season, there is no doubt that the Indians had left a few games on the table over the month of April. With that said, the Indians seemed to have turned a corner over the past week with some kid named Jason Kipnis catching fire, and his grandpa, Johnny Damon joining the team.

Heading into last night’s game, the Indians had WON their last two, won three of four, and four of their last six. Yeah, I know, it’s some freakish mirror of the Rangers last six games.

So what did this all mean last night with Jeanmar Gomez taking the mound? Could the Indians beat the ‘best team in baseball’ in one of the most “who gives a rat’s hindquarters” battle of first place teams in the history of baseball? The answer was a resounding yes. Thanks to a quality start from beanball extraordinaire, Jeanmar Gomez, another sterling offensive outing from Jason Kipnis, a spark at the top of the lineup from the old man, and Uncle Hannahan continuing his strange but true adventure, the Indians won the game 6-3.

So I pose this question to you Indians’ fans, did last night’s win finally prove to the masses that the Tribe could actually be for real this year? The answer should be a resounding yes, and last night’s game provided many reasons why, going forward.

Jason Kipnis has been my favorite player in the organization, from Cleveland to Arizona for a long time. Seriously, those of you that don’t follow this organization’s minor league teams need to get started. Kipnis has provided the Indians organization with the same type of play since they drafted him out of Arizona State in the second round of the 2009 draft. Yes, he was an outfielder way back then, but it was clear from the start that he was going to be plugged into the middle infield. What he’s provided since has been absolutely scintillating.

If you look at his numbers, he’s raked at every level. He hit .306 at Mahoning in his first season, with 12 extra-base hits in 29 games, playing mostly center and left field. In 2010, he hit .307 in Kinston and Akron, with 56 extra-base hits in 133 games. He hit .300 in the Carolina League, which is known to decimate hitters, and then topped that off with .311 in Akron. This was all while being moved to second base for the first time in his career. The Indians than really put an exclamation point on his season by moving him to Columbus during their run in the playoffs. All he did was hit .455 in five games, culminating with his 4-for-5 performance during the clinching game of the International League championship game. He hit for the cycle. He was named the Indians’ minor league player of the year, and deservedly so.

In 2011, Kipnis “only” hit .280, but had an excuse, he was busy playing for the Cleveland Indians by the end of July, so he didn’t have a chance to get that average back up, which he surely would have done.

Kipnis joined the Indians in 2011, and struggled right out of the gate. He debuted on July 22, and by the end of July, was hitting a minute .136, having gone 3-for-22, with one run, one double, one homer and two RBI. He had struck out nine times, and hadn’t walked once. Most everyone called for Kipnis to head back to the farm, but the Indians brass had done their homework on Kipnis.

You see, the kid had a tendency to catch fire. Sure, you see guys hit the ball a ton now and then, but Kipnis seemed to take it to the next level. Take his advancement to Columbus as an example. Good players often come into new situations and do well, but Kipnis showed up, played well for three games, and then hit for the cycle when it counted. Yeah folks, the cycle. It was his M.O. In general, Kipnis plays solid offensive baseball…hitting around .280 or so, knocking in some runs, getting on base a bunch. But then there are these ‘Kipnis streaks’ that take place when it’s clear that he’s seeing something mere mortals done see. You can see these streaks peppered throughout his minor league career. On August 1st, he brought that to Cleveland.

Kipnis entered the game on August 1st hitting .136. Little did we know that his home run on July 31 was the first salvo of what would become his first major league ‘Kipnis streak.” Kipnis would go 3-for-5, with three runs, a double a homer and an RBI. He would hit homers in his next two games as well, for a four-game streak. Kipnis would go on the DL on August 12th, after having gone 16-for-46 (.347), with 13 runs, three doubles, five homers, nine RBI and five walks. He still struck out 13 times, but Kipnis is nothing if not aggressive.

This season, Kipnis started off slumping again, and his line was .167/.226/.396 on April 20th. Since then, he’s gone 20-for-44, with eight runs, two doubles, a triple, a homer, six RBI, five walks and seven strikeouts. His line has jumped to .301/.371/.527. Kipnis finds himself in the second slot in the lineup, and I have to wonder if that’s going to be his slot going forward in this offense. It’s certainly a big fit with Johnny Damon batting lead-off. While I still feel like Kipnis would be a solid lead-off guy, he’s certainly not typical.

With that said, Kipnis has the ability to carry a team on his shoulders. He’s not your typical power hitter, but he’s that scrappy spark-plug with better offensive skills than people give him credit for that will beg, borrow and steal his way to scoring runs, driving guys in, and winning games. With Johnny Damon hitting in front of him, and Asdrubal Cabrera hitting behind him, it could be an interesting year for Kipnis.

Johnny Damon really makes this line-up interesting, don’t you think? Just forget, for a moment, the issues with regards to right-handed hitting, and focus on the names, and the potential offense that these guys can provide:

Indians Lineup

1.  Johnny Damon LF

2.  Jason Kipnis 2B

3.  Asdrubal Cabrera SS

4.  Travis Hafner DH

5.  Carlos Santana C

6.  Shin-Soo Choo RF

7.  Michael Brantley CF

8.  Casey Kotchman 1B

9.  Jack Hannahan 3B

While there are certainly things about the lineup that I could see changing over time, it does provide you with a decent look at how good adding Damon, a true lead-off hitter, into the lineup can be. Kipnis, as I have mentioned, is smoking hot right now, and ideally suited to the #2 hole. Cabrera seems established as a .300-ish hitter, with better-than-advertised power, who can drive in some runs, advance runners, and get on base a bunch. Hafner is slumping right now, but you have to believe that Pronk will regain that mojo he was showing off prior to his current 10-game slide. He’s simply too good not to, but may not be healthy enough to be consistently good. Santana is Santana, and while he’s only hitting .259, that’s just not important when it comes to the Tribe’s best overall player. His OBP is sitting at .396, and he can just work over pitchers. He just isn’t ever going to see enough fastballs, unless he has protection. Enter Shin-Soo Choo, who hit sixth last night. He just hasn’t looked like the Choo from pre-2011, but did have a big home-run yesterday. It’s funny how big of a mess Choo has become since the start of 2011. I still feel like Michael Brantley is best suited to the nine-hole, but it’s hard to argue with Jack Hannahan hitting anywhere in the lineup. Of course, I’d ride Hannahan’s hot bat, and have him somewhere in the middle, but that’s just me. That leaves one Casey Kotchman, and I’m just not going to talk about him today. I’ll save that for other colums. It’s Cinco de Mayo…and I’m not going to let the human offensive hole bring me down.

It’s funny how a couple of weeks can change the thought process on a line-up. Sure, there will be some changes over the next few weeks and months, but it does look like something that can carry a team to some wins. With Damon at the top, at the very least you have a guy that can really work over a pitch-count. I used to hate watching that slap-happy approach as he would foul off what would seem like 50 pitches in the stands. With the Tribe jersey on, it’s amazing how much I just love it. He hit the triple last night, scoring a couple, and you could just see what this team has been missing since Sizemore turned into a human injury machine. That said, Damon is in the lead-off slot this season until someone comes and takes it away, and I really don’t think it will be Sizemore…who may be the only one that can. The two-hole should be slotted for Kipnis going forward, but could see a scenario in which Cabrera hits there at times. Clearly, the three hole isn’t the perfect slot for Cabrera, but I just like Choo there better, and at that point, he has to hit three. Still, Santana and Choo and Hafner could find time there, depending ont heir hot bat. Please put Santana in the clean-up slot, and forget about him. Give him Choo or Hafner as the protection (whoever is hitting better), and move on. Put Hannahan at seven, and move Brantley to nine, and hope that first base can improve at some point. Either way, not a bad line-up at all.

Okay, I know I’m supposed to stay happy today, it being Cinco de Mayo and all, but I just can’t stand watching Ubaldo Jimenez pitch. I can’t stand watching him when he’s pitching well. Oh wait, he hasn’t. Oh sure, if you think back to last August, he had an eight-inning start against Detroit, and two or three more seven-inning starts, but there wasn’t one of them that looked all that good. He hasn’t really had a good start this season, hasn’t had less than three walks in a game, and hasn’t struck out more than five. When you give up Drew Pomeranz, and get a guy who has walked 20, and struck out 14, you don’t have to look at any other statistic…so please don’t. His velocity is down, he can’t locate anything, and he’s just not very good. You could really make a case that he’s a #4 or #5 starter right now, just there to swallow up five or six innings a game.

Now imagine playing defense behind him. Seriously, think back to your days in little league. You remember the games when you were just getting shellacked, or even beating the tar out of the other team? You sit out there in the field thinking, “God, will this ever end.” Generally, at that point, a ball is roped to you and by the time you wake up, it’s by you for an error. That’s Ubaldo on the mound, and clearly, that’s the Indians’ defense behind him. Think of the Bad News Bears moments the other night…that was games in the making.

I can’t wait until this guy is gone. Oh, and to that guy that’s saying, “Well, at least we’ll be able to afford him,” are you flippin’ kidding me?

I would like to officially issue Chris Perez an apology. If you rewind back to opening day, his velocity was touching just over 90 MPH, and everyone I was calling for his head on a platter. Let’s face the facts, I would have dealt him for a one-handed, right-handed reliever, who was missing his right hand. Okay, so I can’t help that I have memories of the bad versions of Jose Mesa and Mike Jackson, and memories of the good versions of Danys Baez and Bob Wickman and Joe Borowski. So, now he’s averaging 94, and dominating. Sure, his velocity isn’t perfect, but it’s on its way. No, I don’t think everything is fixed, but boy, if it’s not, it’s close. No, I’m not convinced, but hey, I’m an Indians’ fan, so sue me.

Either way, Perez is just dominating right now. With Perez looking like he is right, and with Pestano and Hagadone as the set-up guys, and with Joe Smith and Rafael Perez (when healthy) before them, this bullpen is starting to shape up. If Sipp can figure things out, and with a host of younger guys in Columbus, including C.C. Lee and Cody Allen, and with Bryce Stowell looking good, this pen is really a strength. If the starting pitching could figure things out, and get to the seventh inning, Cleveland could make a run at one of the top spots in baseball. I’m telling you, they are that good.

The schedule is looking pretty good. The Indians are sitting at 14-10, are in first place, and after these two games with Texas, have a solid looking schedule for the rest of May. They have Chicago next at home, before a four-game series at Boston. The Red Sox are a struggling bunch right now, have lost three games in a row, are 4-8 at home, and primed for the taking. After that, there’s a two game series at Minnesota (7-18), a two game series with Seattle (11-17), and a three-game series at home with Miami and Ozzie Guillen (12-14, but on a four-game win streak). That’s when the Tigers enter town for the first time, on May 22nd. After that three game set though, we head back to Chicago, then come back home for Kansas City and Minnesota. By then, we’re into June. If the Indians play their cards right and win the games they are supposed to, this lead could get bigger. Time will tell.

With my parting shot, I head over to Jeanmar Gomez, who has been a saving grace to this club this season. Gomez is another in a long line of Indians starters who have made their claim to a bottom-end spot in the rotation. While it’s clear that Gomez isn’t even close to the #5 starter on this team right now with Ubaldo Jimenez on the staff, he really doesn’t have top-end stuff. In all seriousness, Gomez is much more similar to Jeremy Sowers, Aaron Laffey and Josh Tomlin. His fastball tops out in the low 90’s, and his bread and butter pitch is a sinker that drops off the table. When that’s going well, and in the low 90’s as well, it can confound hitters looking for the heat. I’m asked all the time if Gomez can keep it up all season, and I still need to see what happens when the Tigers see him a couple times. Great pitchers do more than throw…they learn. Laffey and Sowers didn’t do that very well, and they became casualties. Can Gomez? Let’s wait until the summer…then we’ll see. He couldn’t be worse than Ubaldo, could he?

Have a fantastic Cinco de Mayo Tribe fans. Our best starter is on the hill tonight. Yep…Derek Lowe. I know, I know…I’ll save it for next week.

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.

User Comments

shy
May 5, 2012 - 6:12 PM EDT
The Indians competing for a top spot in September? I need some of that giddy juice dude, pass the bottle... Manny the magician I say. Agree on Ubaldo- I still want to see the tape of Dan O'Dowd hanging up the phone after he pulled that rip off- Pomeranz is the real deal- he outpitched Kershaw and shut down the Dodgers last start. Ubaldo might not have gotten out of the first inning. Jeanmar Gomez also the real deal. He does one thing Jeremy Sowers and Aaron Laffey don't- wins most of the games he pitches. He has the mental "je ne sais quoi" to keep batters off balance most of the time. Perez has been more lucky than good, over time that doesn't work so well, but he's getting stronger and faster and that I like
Jim
May 5, 2012 - 3:20 PM EDT
Oh, I know, and have reported as such prior to this, but I also am not expecting either in Cleveland in the next couple of days...I was alluding to them becoming a factor in August, when this team needs more arms for a stretch run...
civ ollilavad
May 5, 2012 - 2:57 PM EDT
Sorry to spoil your day, even a little, but Bryce Stowell is back on the DL and so is Lee.

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