Tribe Happenings: Are the Indians...the Twins?
Some news, notes, and thoughts from my Indians notebook…
Are the Indians a new version of the Twins?
When you look at this current Indians concoction and how they have played last season and so far this season, it brings to mind a team that in the early part of the 2000’s was just emerging and coming into its own in the AL Central.
The Minnesota Twins.
Those that will remember, 12 years ago during the 2001 season the Twins were a pesky bunch that came out of nowhere to give the Indians a battle for most of the season for the AL Central crown. At one point that season, two games after the All Star break, the Twins were 56-34 and up 5.0 games on the Indians in the AL Central.
The Twins cooled considerably going 9-27 in their next 36 games and that 5.0 game lead evaporated and turned into a 5.5 game deficit to the Indians. The Twins eventually finished that 2001 season with an 85-77 record, 6.0 games behind the Indians who went 91-71. All of this was after the Twins went just 69-93 the previous season and had been a doormat in the AL Central since its inception in 1994.
Everyone knows what happened the next season in 2002 and for almost a decade after that. The Indians tore the team down in 2002 and went through a rebuild, and at the same time the Twins emerged as a perennial American League powerhouse as they won the division in six of seven seasons and won 90 or more games five times.
When you look back at that Twins team and how it emerged in 2001 and then kind of stepped in and became a yearly division contender in 2002, the current Indians team is a lot like them. The Indians went 69-93 in 2010 (like the Twins in 2000) and last season they began to emerge as they were in the division race up until the final month of the season. This season they are right in the thick of the AL Central race and if the pitching holds up will continue to be in the race all season and for the next few seasons.
But the similarities go beyond the records as the makeup of the teams is nearly identical.
The Twins never really had a roster full of stars. They had their two or three very good players, but most of the rest of their lineup was made up of role players, the pitching staff was filled with solid arms one through five, and without a doubt the strength of their team was always their bullpen.
That sounds a lot like the team playing today playing in Cleveland.
Here is the starting rotation for that 2002 Twins team that went 94-67: Rick Reed (15-7), Kyle Lose (13-8), Eric Milton (13-9), Brad Radke (9-5), and Johan Santana (8-4). That was a solid staff that was hardly dominating, but they were solid one through five and they kept their team in games.
For the most part this season that is what the Indians’ starting staff of Justin Masterson, Ubaldo Jimenez, Josh Tomlin, Derek Lowe, and Jeanmar Gomez has done. They have all had a few bad outings, but as a collective unit they have often competed and kept their team in games so they could turn the game over to their dominant bullpen.
Here is the Twins starting lineup in 2002: catcher A.J. Pierzynski (.300, 6 HR, 49 RBI), first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz (.261, 10 HR, 64 RBI), second baseman Luis Rivas (.256, 4 HR, 35 RBI), shortstop Christian Guzman (.273, 9 HR, 59 RBI), third baseman Corey Koskie (.267, 15 HR, 69 RBI), left fielder Jacque Jones (.300, 27 HR, 85 RBI), center fielder Torii Hunter (.289, 29 HR, 94 RBI), right fielder Dustan Mohr (.269, 12 HR, 45 RBI), and designated hitter David Ortiz (.272, 20 HR, 75 RBI). That Twins offense finished 8th in the American League in on-base percentage (.332) and 9th in runs scored (768).
As you can see with the lineup, the Twins had their holes and each season thereafter they continued to have holes and fill in with different role players. Even when they had a young Justin Mourneau, Joe Mauer, Michael Cuddyer and Hunter, they always still had to fill the rest of the lineup with four or five role players everywhere else.
The Indians lineup this season is a lot like that Twins lineup. The Indians are currently 4th in the American League in on-base percentage (.332, exactly the same as the Twins in 2002) and are 6th in runs scored (257). They have a defensive first baseman in Casey Kotchman like the Twins did with Mientkiewicz, and have a few role players playing several other positions. The Indians may actually have a little more star power with the current lineup as it boasts an emerging Jason Kipnis and Carlos Santana as well as two players that have been elite performers in the past or currently in Asdrubal Cabrera and Shin-Soo Choo.
Here were the Twins main contributors to their bullpen in 2002: Eddie Guardado (68 G, 2.93 ERA, 45 saves), J.C. Romero (81 G, 1.89 ERA), LaTroy Hawkins (65 G, 2.13 ERA), Michael Jackson (58 G, 3.27 ERA), and Tony Fiore (48 G, 3.16 ERA). The trio of Guardado, Romero, and Hawkins was as good as any in the game that season.
The strength of the Twins was always their bullpen. After the 2003 season they made the trade where they sent Pierzynski to the Giants for Joe Nathan and Francisco Liriano, and that really fortified their pen with Nathan closing out games for almost the next decade. In future seasons others were added and subtracted to the mix like Juan Rincon (his early seasons), Jesse Crain, Grant Balfour, Matt Guerrier, Dennys Reyes, and Pat Neshek.
Everyone watching the current Indians team knows that their bullpen is the strength of the team. If they have a lead in the seventh inning, they convert on a high percentage of those late leads and win the game thanks to their strong backend of the bullpen led by Vinnie Pestano and Chris Perez. If they are tied or down a run or two in the seventh inning or later the bullpen also does a good job of keeping them within striking distance so they can find a way to win a game late.
If the Indians are truly like the Twins from a decade ago, then this team will win the division this year and go on a strong run the next decade by being competitive every season and making the playoffs often. The game has changed some since the Twins dominated the AL Central division from 2002-2009, but their formula for success worked in an era dominated by offense (and PEDs), and it looks like the Indians have adopted the same approach.
It may not have looked pretty while they were doing it, and they may have had their flaws, but when the dust settled and the season ended the Twins found a way to more often than not finish on the winning side of the ledger. Perhaps this Indians team is of the same ilk.
Over the past few weeks I have received a lot of emails or tweets from concerned Indians fans that if the Indians fall out of the division race by mid-July that they will have another fire sale.
If the Indians do fall out of the race, I would be strongly against a fire sale. While I cannot control what the Indians do, it send a poor message to the fans if they did do it. But that having been said, I do not see them doing such a thing anyway.
The Indians believe they have a window of contention for this season and next season, and potentially longer depending on the health and development of some of their younger players. If they did fall out of the race and wanted to purge some players from the roster, I believe the only “fire sale” which would be conducted would be to trade off players entering free agency.
That would mean players like right-hander Derek Lowe, outfielder Johnny Damon, Kotchman, and infielder Jose Lopez. None of these players are considered integral pieces to their aspirations to contend in 2013 and all would be long gone before the season starts next year anyway. Plus, in the case of Lowe, the Indians could maybe get a valuable piece or two to add to their roster for next season.
Fire sales are needed when a team is rebooting. This team is not at such a stage or close to it, even if they disappoint the next month and a half and fall out of the division race. All of their key players are under control in 2013 and won't be too expensive, and the ones that are free agents after the 2013 season will not be big time free agents so the Indians would have a decent chance to retain them if they choose.
The fire sales of the past headlined by C.C. Sabathia, Cliff Lee, and Bartolo Colon were because they were at the top or near it at their position, so were traded because the chances of retaining them were remote (and at the same time the Indians could conceivably expedite the rebuilding process). Even though they traded players like Victor Martinez and Casey Blake recently, I think those were more piggyback moves with the Sabathia and Lee trades and would not have occurred on their own.
Going out and having a fire sale would be a horrible PR situation, especially considering the team already has a non-existent fan base (check the attendance numbers). A bad precedent has already been set with the fire sales of 2002 and 2008/2009, and they need to get out from under them and rebuild confidence and trust in the fan base.
Some of that trust and confidence came back last season when at the trade deadline the Indians added Jimenez. While that move to date has not worked out well, it showed people they were willing to go out and make a move to get a player to supplement the current roster in Cleveland.
Win or lose I believe the Indians will go into the trade deadline looking to add talent to help not only this season, but beyond as well. Sure, if they falter and have to trade Lowe, so be it, but as for the stars like Cabrera, Kipnis, and others, they are going nowhere.
LaPorta is in a tough situation
First baseman/outfielder Matt LaPorta was called up last Sunday when Damon left the team for three days on paternity leave to be with his wife and newly born twin daughters. LaPorta stayed with the team even when Damon returned on Wednesday, and in three games he is 2-for-11 at the plate with no walks, no extra base hits, and two strikeouts.
Naturally, the reaction from the fans had not been good to LaPorta’s less than stellar performance in his first three games. After his good showing at Triple-A Columbus this season where he hit .307 with 14 homers, 32 RBI and 1.007 OPS in 46 games, a lot of people were hoping he turned a corner offensively and can be a right-handed bat which helps the Indians in some capacity this season.
But fans are in for a big disappointment if anyone is expecting LaPorta to be a miracle worker and be drastically different from the career .238 hitter (.701 OPS) in his short three-year Major League career coming into this season. He offers a ton of power from the right side – which is what makes him so intriguing still - but he is still a very flawed hitter that can be pitched to.
LaPorta has shown some improvement this season with his approach and laying off breaking balls low and away, but until he shows he can consistently take pitches to the outside corner of the plate to right center and right field and not try to pull them almost every time, he will continue to roll over on balls and pile up a lot of weak groundball outs to shortstop.
At this point the expectations are a little out of whack with LaPorta. Had he been a minor league free agent pickup in the offseason with the same career and performance up to this point, the tone would be a lot more positive. But that is the nature of the beast when you are a player that was the headliner in the Sabathia trade almost four years ago and been a disappointment.
All expectations aside, there is no question LaPorta has a right-handed bat which can still help the team in some way going forward. If he were put on waivers he would be snatched up in a heartbeat because of his power and because teams think there is still something in there that can be tapped into (I have heard from two scouts that say this exact thing). Of course, the same was felt about Andy Marte and it never happened, but it did with a guy like Ryan Ludwick. Sometimes guys just “figure it out” late and others do not.
LaPorta is hardly an answer to the Indians’ offensive woes, but I still believe he is no worse than a guy like Shelley Duncan and has considerable more upside. With LaPorta still up and not playing every day, we are already beginning to see him take on that role as the right-handed bat off the bench that plays left field and first base, a role Duncan has had for most of the last three seasons.
With LaPorta out of options after this season, it may be a role he needs to learn to be productive in so the Indians can salvage anything with him and extend his stay in Cleveland beyond this season.
On Wednesday the Indians claimed right-handed pitcher Chris Schwinden off waivers from the Blue Jays. He was optioned to Triple-A Columbus. … The Indians also activated Damon from the three-day paternity leave on Wednesday and optioned catcher Luke Carlin to Columbus. …Triple-A Columbus right-handed reliever Chen-Chang Lee recently underwent Tommy John surgery and is out for the season. Coming into the season he was expected to be a strong candidate to be added to the Indians bullpen at this point in the season.
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Whether the Indians go on to win the division this year mainly depends on Masterson and Jimenez consistently pitching like they did in their last starts, and finding a left fielder who can provide some offense.
Ryan Ludwick is an interesting comp to Matt LaPorta. Ludwick got his first taste of the bigs at age 23, then spent six seasons bouncing back and forth between AAA and the bigs, much like LaPorta has been doing. At age 29 Ludwick finally broke through with a .299 BA, 37 HR, 113 RBI career season with the Cardinals. The following year he hit .265/22/97 before his career tailed off and he never hit much again.
I doubt that Laporta will ever hit .299 or put up those power numbers, but they're similar players so he may manage to put it all together for a year or two like Ludwick did. It probably won't be with the Indians, though, because he'll probably be moving on to another organization after this year.