Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Beating the heat

Eric Wedge has apparently dodged a bullet. For now. The embattled Indians manager may have beeen cut some slack in terms of his immediate job security. Now that the Indians have traded Mark DeRosa and essentially conceded they are incapable of competing for the division title many felt they were the favorites to win, it turns down the heat on Wedge, whose job is likely now safe for the remainder of the season.

Once the season is over, that could all change. Certainly it's to be expected the front office, including ownership, will take a look at the entire organization after this season, because there are clearly some changes that need to be made. This is the second consecutive year the Indians have been one of the favorites to win their division but by mid-season they were so far behind in the division race they began trading some of their veteran players.

Whether it's poor evaluation of players, poor exectution by those players, poor leadership by the manager or coaching staff, or poor player acquistion at the major league level and/or poor player development at the minor league level - all of that will presumably be put under the microscope by ownership following the season.

It's become obvious that there some changes need to be made in the way the Indians are operating. The only question now is what changes will be made, how many will be made, who will be effected, and how soon after the end of the season those decisions will be made.

Monday, June 22, 2009

On owning the Tribe

As the Indians desperately try to avoid sliding not just out of sight in the AL Central race, but towards total irrelevancy for the remainder of the season, the pressure mounts on Indians owner Larry Dolan and his son Paul, the club president.

The current state of the Tribe is the biggest crisis faced by the Dolan family since they bought the team in 2000. It's bigger than the decision to fire Charlie Manuel as manager and begin a massive rebuilding of the organization. It's bigger than the free agent issues involving Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, C.C. Sabathia, Travis Hafner, and Jake Westbrook.

The current state of the Tribe is the biggest challenge the Dolans have faced as owner of the team because it is not one on which they necessarily can lean on General Manager Mark Shapiro for counsel. For most of the biggest baseball decisions they've made since buying the team, the Dolans have had Shapiro, and Eric Wedge, since the latter was hired as manager, as sounding boards for potential moves.

Now, however, it's the futures of Shapiro and Wedge themselves that have become issues, given the Indians' second consecutive trainwreck season. For the second year in a row the Indians were picked by many to not just win their division but possibly make it to the World Series. For the second year in a row the Indians won't even come close. For the first time in nearly 20 years the Indians are in danger of finishing in last place.

As owners of the team, the Dolans must ask some hard questions about what's wrong with the way the organization is being run. Two of the biggest decision makers on how the organization is being run are Shapiro and Wedge. The Dolans can't go to Shapiro and Wedge for advice on that. The futures of the general manager and the manager are decisions only the Dolans can make.

The Dolans have never before faced a situation quite like this. They must decide whether their team needs a new direction. They must decide if Shapiro and/or Wedge have had enough time to prove they are up to the job of building a championship team, or if it's time now to replace one or both. . . or neither.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Rock bottom?

Friday's loss may not have been the Indians' worst of the season - the competition for that honor, so to speak, is extremely intense - but it's at least in the top five. Maybe the top 3.

When you have a 7-0 lead with the reigning American League Cy Young Award winner on the mound, you should probably win that game. The Indians lost that game, 8-7 in 10 innings. They lost the game because their bullpen is a lost cause. When Cliff Lee, pitching magnificently again, left the game in the eighth inning, the Indians were leading 7-2. All Lee was was asking from the bullpen was for six outs.

Instead, the bullpen blew sky high again and the Indians gave up four runs in the eighth inning, one in the ninth, and one in the 10th. Manager Eric Wedge tried most of what's out there, all the usual suspects - with the exception of Jensen Lewis (and how buried is he right now?) - but nobody could stop the bleeding.

The most revealing moment of the day, however, came before the game started, when Wedge was talking to the media about the decision to release reliever Greg Aquino. "We probably could have sent out two or three guys,'' said Wedge.

That's how bad the Indians' bullpen is right now. There is nobody that Wedge can count on, and that includes Kerry Wood, who has already given up five home runs in 24 innings after giving up only three homers in 66 innings in the entire 2008 season. Wood's problem, however, is he simply isn't sharp due to a lack of consistent work.

There are no such excuses that apply to the other relievers. Based on what we've seen so far, this has a chance to be the worst Indians bullpen in not years but in decades.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

From the sublime to the ridiculous

It was more than ironic to go from Cliff Lee's clinic on pitching during his three-hitter Sunday night over St. Louis to the four-alarm fire drill that was the Indians' chaotic 14-12 loss to Milwaukee Monday. Beyond the irony of having two such disimilar games on back to back nights, the two games displayed what will be the fatel flaw in the Indians' hopes of crawling back into the division race.

That flaw is the lack of a consistent, productive No.2 starter behind Cliff Lee. Ideally, of course, you'd like to have at least three productive starters at the top of your rotation. The Indians currently have one: Lee. The former No.2 starter, Fausto Carmona, is such a mess right now that the Indians sent him all the way back to rookie ball to try to get him straightened out. He won't be back anytime soon, and can't be counted on to contribute much, if anything, the rest of this season - if and when he does return.

Carl Pavano, Monday's starter, was a stretch as a No.3 starter. To presume he could assume the role of a No.2 is unreasonable. The way he's pitched so far this year is probably as good as the Indians can hope for. He's probably a .500 pitcher, at best, this year. That won't cut it as a No.2 starter. Jeremy Sowers, David Huff, and Tomo Ohka? Please.

Jake Westbrook and Aaron Laffey could be back in the rotation by the end of the month. But Westbrook is barely a year removed from Tommy John surgery. It's unrealistic to expect a pitcher in that situation to assume the heavy responsibilities that come with being a No.2 starter. Laffey is too young and inexperienced to fill that role.

What all this means, of course, is that no matter how much the Indians keep "grinding'' they simply don't have the starting pitching with which to make any kind of serious run towards contention. The only reason they are still marginally in the race is that the AL Central is so bad it's virtually impossible to fall OUT of contention. If the Indians were in any other division they would be mere afterthoughts in those races.

The lack of any consistent starting pitching behind Lee makes it impossible to take the Indians seriously as a contender this year. And it's also the number one reason why all those Cliff Lee trade rumors are utterly ridiculous. Imagine what this Indians rotation would look like this year, and next, without Lee.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Now that's a demotion

The Indians tried everything else with Fausto Carmona. Friday they tried some shock therapy. The Indians sent Carmona to the minor leagues. The low minor leagues. How low? You can't get sent any lower than Carmona got sent. The Indians sent their struggling No.2 starter to the Arizona Rookie League. That's a league typically filled with first year professionals. That's how much work Indians officials apparently feel Carmona has ahead of him.

The numbers support that feeling. A 19-game winner just two years ago, Carmona is 2-6, with a 7.42 ERA. His earned run average over his last three starts is almost 20. How could Carmona go from so good two years ago to so bad this year? Part of it is that Carmona is a big man physically, and big pitchers are more prone to mechanical problems because of their size. Carmona also has a violent delivery, which frequently requires maintenance. Carmona is also a very emotional pitcher.

All of those are factors in Carmona's demise as a pitcher. The question now becomes, can Carmona be fixed, and how soon? The Indians' minor league staff will undoubtedly take their time with the big right-hander. Surely Indians Manager Eric Wedge and pitching coach Carl Willis don't want to bring Carmona back until they are reasonably sure he's ready to compete again at the major league level.

Until then, the Indians' starting rotation is Cliff Lee, Carl Pavano, and three shaky tomorrows. The bottom three spots in the rotation are currently manned by Jeremy Sowers, David Huff, and Tomo Ohka. My guess is we haven't seen the last change to that rotation.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Everybody hurts

Never mind winning a game. The Indians can't even get through a game now without losing a player. Saturday it was Victor Martinez who went down with an injury. Sunday it was Rafael Betancourt. Tuesday it was Asdrubal Cabrera. They currently have eight players on the disabled list. If Cabrera, who suffered a shoulder injury Tuesday night, goes on the DL, that will make it nine players on the DL.

The list of injured players includes three of the top four hitters in the Indians' lineup: Cabrera, Grady Sizemore, and Travis Hafner, plus two pitchers _ Rafael Betancourt and Joe Smith _ who were supposed to be cornerstones of the bullpen this year.

So the Indians have a lot of injuries now, but let's not get carried away and blame all the losing on the injuries. The Indians were losing games before they started losing players. Losing players may make it more difficult to avoid falling further behind in the Central Division race, but let's be clear about this: the Indians are where they are not because of injuries, but because of underachieving players and a lack of performance teamwide. The injuries, obviously, don't help. But this was a bad team before it started having bad luck.