Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Adam Miller

The most tragic story involving the Indians thus far isn't their won-loss record or poor pitching. It's the plight of Adam Miller, who at one time was not only the brightest prospect in the Indians' minor league system, but one of the most promising prospects in any team's minor league system. Miller had it all. A perfect pitcher's frame, a blazing fastball that could at times push radar gun readings towards 100 mph, and a seemingly unlimited future.

Now his career is potentially over before he even pitched a single inning in the major leagues. Miller's career is in jeopardy due to, of all things, a freak finger injury. An injury so rare that nobody can recall any pitcher anywhere having the exact same injury. It's more typically a rock climbing injury, for crying out loud! Seriously.

It's a complicated injury to explain, suffice to say the ligaments and tendons in the middle finger of Miller's right hand are a mess. Tuesday he had surgery for the second time in less than a year on the same finger. The prognosis does not appear to be good. When club officials who are traditionally in the habit of spinning even the grimmest news in a positive light admit publicly that an injury could be a career-ender, you know it's bad. That's what Tribe officials have said about Miller - that his career is threatened by the surgery he underwent Tuesday.

If Miller never throws another pitch it will be a tragedy for the 24-year-old right-hander and another dose of bad luck for the Indians. Miller was a potential No.1 starter on a major league staff. And there aren't many pitching prospects in any organization that you can say that about. It's not out of the question, moreover, that Miller could have eventually moved into the role occupied now by Cliff Lee, when Lee leaves as a free agent, as he almost certainly will, in a couple of years.

Miller's major league career was set to begin this season, starting as a reliever in the Tribe bullpen, where he also could have eventually evolved into a closer. He appeared to be a budding Kerry Wood, to mention another Texas-born flame thrower who was drafted out of high school. A big career, and big money, was just around the corner.

But Miller's finger injury has changed all that. It's bad enough that it's a career-threatening injury. That it's a finger injury makes it even more frustrating. I mean, come on! How many athletes have you heard of who had their careers ended by a finger injury? Here's how cruel fate can sometimes be. Of all the jobs, all the professions, all the life styles in the world, the only one that would be this seriously affected by the kind of injury Miller has, which otherwise wouldn't be that big of a deal, was the one occupation Miller had: professional pitcher.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Sending a message

It's always interesting to see how long a manager will wait before publicly criticizing his team. For Eric Wedge this year the answer was 18 games. That's how long it took for Wedge to blow his stack. It came after the Indians' 5-1 loss to Minnesota Saturday night. With that loss the Indians had scored one or no runs in there of their previous four games.

That, as Wedge likes to say, isn't going to get it done. So in his post-game meeing with the media, Wedge ripped his team's hitters, criticizing them, collectively, for their poor approach to hitting, and inability to generate any rallies or score runs. One of Wedge's biggest annoyances was his team's sudden lack of discipline. Counting that loss Saturday night Indians hitters had gone three full games and 26 consecutive innings without drawing a walk.

That's ridiculous.

Wedge thought so, too, which is why he chose to do something he is typically very reluctant to do, which is to publicly rip his team. In his six-plus years as manager of the Indians Wedge averages about one public scolding of his team per season. Usually, however, it comes in the second half of the season. It's very unusual for Wedge to lose his patience this early in a season. The explanation for that probably lies in the fact that the Indians in the previous four games looked so bad that Wedge felt he had to say something. But another explanation is that Wedge knows, and welcomes, the lofty expectations for the Indians this season.

Many so-called experts both in and out of Cleveland predicted the Indians would win their division this season. Through the first three weeks of the season, however, the Indians haven't looked anything like a team capable of winning its division. The pitching overall has been horrendous. The hitting was good for the first two weeks but awful the last week. Clearly Wedge feels the one facet of the team he needs to get consistent production from is the hitters. That should be the least of his worries this season.

But over the last week it has been the MOST of his worries. And that led to his rip job of the team Saturday night, which, by the way, was completely calculated by Wedge. When managers rip their teams they do so with a purpose. In this case Wedge wanted the Indians' hitters to read what he had said about them, hoping to shake them from their lethargy.

Did it work? Well, they scored four runs Sunday. You be the judge.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009


Even when an Indians lead seems bullpen-proof, they have trouble closing out wins. It happened again Tuesday as the Indians were six outs away from a 6-1 lead when they went to their bulllpen, and before you knew it they were crawling across the finish line, escaing with a desperate 8-7 win.

Following the game the Indians recalled reliever Tony Sipp from Columbus. That roster move was made one day after Indians general manager Mark Shapiro said that there were no relievers at Columbus who were any better than what the Indians had in Cleveland.

Apparently all it took was one more day of watching the struggles of the big league bullpen to change the mind of Shapiro and other Indians officials. Sipp's arrival further emphasizes Manager Eric Wedge's pre-game revelation Tuesday that the formerly dependable Rafael Perez will no longer be used in an eighth inning setup role. At least not until Perez starts pitching closer to the level he was at the last two years when he was the Indians' most reliable reliever.

Sipp gives Wedge another left-handed reliever to use late in games, which they now need since Perez is being rolled into the garage for an overhaul. In the meantime, the rest of the bullpen isn't much better. Sipp could be the first of multiple roster moves inovloving relief pitchers. The Indians can ill-afford to wait around for their relievers to round into shape. The club is already off to a poor start. More poor work by the bullpen could threaten the Indians' ability to avoid dropping out of the division race almost before it begins.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

New York, New York

The Indians Thursday will help the Yankees open their modest little new ballpark in the Bronx. It will be CC Sabathia vs. Cliff Lee. After producing just one Cy Young Award winner in the first 50 years of the award, the Indians have now produced the last two. Of course, only one of them still currently works for the Indians. The other used his Cy Young Award as a trampoline to a seven-year $161 million contract that he signed as a free agent with the Yankees.

Let's think about that for a second. Let's say Sabathia stays with the Yankees for the entire seven years of his contract, and averages a normal starting pitcher's yearly workload, which is about 32 starts. Over those seven years the Yankees will play 1,134 regular season games. Sabathia, if he stays healthy, will start 224 of them. So in other words, the Yankees over the next seven years will pay Sabathia $161 million, even though he will not appear at all in 910 of the games the Yankees will play over the course of his contract. Talk about nice work, if you can get it.

It's good to be the Yankees. And it's good to be a Yankee. It's also not so bad to own the Yankees. In 1973 George Steinbrenner bought the Yankees for $10 million. In 2008 Forbes Magazine estimated the team's value at $1.3 billion.

Imagine what the Yankees would be worth if they had a mascot?

Monday, April 13, 2009

The return of Manny and Thome?

It's not hard to imagine the cringing that went on in the Indians' offices Monday by Tribe officials over the story in USA Today in which Manny Ramirez was quoted as saying what a great idea it would be for him and Jim Thome to finish their careers in Cleveland. With all the problems the Indians have had getting out of the gate in the 2009 season, the last thing Tribe officials need is to have to react to a hot button issue such as this.

On the surface, bringing back Ramirez and Thome, both of whom could coneivably be free agents following the 2009 season, would undoubtedly be a wildly popular move among Tribe fans. Thome (334) and Ramirez (236) rank 1 and 3 respectively (separated by Albert Belle) on the Indians' all-time list for career home runs. Both are also 500-homer sluggers. The 38-year-old Thome ranks 14th on baseball's all-time list with 543 career home runs. Ramirez, 37, ranks 17th, with 527.

Imagine how formidable the first six spots in the Indians' lineup could look:

Grady Sizemore
Shin-Soo Cho
Victor Martinez
Manny Ramirez
Jim Thome
Jhonny Peralta
Travis Hafner

Of course there's just one minor detail. Where would everyone play? Hafner is the Indians' designated hitter. Thome is a designated hitter, and Ramirez SHOULD be a designated hitter. There's also the small matter of money. Ramirez's salary this year with the Dodgers is $25 million. Thome is being paid $13 million by the White Sox. In other words, Ramirez and Thome combined are making about half of what the Indians are paying their entire roster this year. Both players would have to give the Indians mammoth "home town'' discounts for the Indians to even consider signing them.

And even that wouldn't be enough to convince Tribe officials to grant Manny's apparent dream of him and Thome returning to Cleveland. Emotion has no part in the decision making process of General Manager Mark Shapiro and his assistant Chris Antonetti. Indians fans, without question, would react emotionally to the notion of Ramirez and Thome returning to Cleveland. It's fun to think about it and dream about it. But it has no chance of happening, because it's unrealistic on numerous fronts: logistically, economically, and socially.

That's right, socially. Manny being Manny, and all the separate rules and special treatment that frequently entails, is not, for that very reason, an Eric Wedge-type player. Thome being Thome is never a problem for a manager. Manny being Manny frequently is.

Still, the image of Thome and Ramirez in the Indians' lineup once again is one that would give any Indians fan pause. You're talking, after all, about two future Hall of Famers, a combined 1,070 home runs, and off-the-charts star power.

Delicious to contemplate? You bet. Realistically do-able? Not hardly.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Pitching, pitching, pitching

A general rule of thumb in baseball is the team that wins on a given day is the team whose starting pitcher pitches the best that day. It was true again on opening day, in the Indians' disheartening 9-1 loss to Texas. Kevin Millwood totally outpitched Cliff Lee, and it wasn't even close. Millwood dominated a good hitting Indians lineup. The Indians only had five hits, all singles. Very rarely was a ball even hit hard. There weren't many Indians who even had comfortable-looking at bats.

Lee, on the other hand, looked a lot like he looked in spring training, although everyone in the Indians' clubhouse seemed to think he was better than spring training. Lee's biggest problem that he was unable to pitch out of jams. In the second inning he had two outs and had not allowed a run to score, but then gave up four two-out hits, two of which were two-run hits. Last year Lee rarely had to pitch out of jams, but when he had to, he did.

Given the makeup of their rotation, the Indians can't afford too many bad games by Lee, because he is now the ace, and aces are supposed to win the highest percentage of starts on the staff. Millwood is the Rangers' ace, and he looked like it. After Texas' four-run second inning there was never any point in the game when it looked like the Indians were going to get to Millwood. He was removed from the game not because the Indians were starting to figure him out, but because his pitch count got over 100.

Lee was removed because his pitch count was high, but also because he wasn't fooling many Texas hitters. It should be noted, however, that the Rangers also have a very good-hitting lineup. And on this day it was more than Lee could handle.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Opening day

Can the Indians win their division? Yes. They could also finish fourth, or anywhere in between. It will all hinge on their starting rotation, unfortunately. Because this is probably, on paper, the weakest starting rotation the Indians have gone into a season with in several years. Cliff Lee is the only starter in the rotation from whom the Indians can be reasonably sure what they are going to get. That, obviously, is not good.

You could probably make the argument that the Indians have the worst starting rotation _ or at least the rotation with the most question marks _ in the division, including Kansas City. Indians officials feel they have the depth to overcome injuries or poor performance by their starters, but until a Jeremy Sowers, an Aaron Laffey, or a David Huff comes up and pitches consistently well at the major league level, the starting pitching depth they offer is more one of quantity than quality.

Think about it, the Indians are asking for positive outcomes from three spots in their rotation that are huge question marks: Carl Pavano and Anthony Reyes have injury histories, and Scott Lewis is a rookie. How many wins can the Indians reasonably expect to get from those three spots? Even Fausto Carmona is not a given. He's had one really good year and one not so good year as a starter at the major league level.

It's very difficult to contend for an entire season without a starting rotation that is reasonably productive. Three things happen if your starting rotation becomes an ongoing problem: your team ends up playing several games in which it gets blown out early, it causes you to overwork your bullpen, and all that, especially the loses, can be demoralizing to the team, especially to the hitters who feel like they have to score eight or more runs a game to give the team a chance to win.

In other words, the biggest worry for Indians officials going into the season is one they should rightfully be extremely worried about: their starting rotation. Because it could potentially be the downfall of their season.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Cliff and Koby

Cliff Lee was horrible again on Wednesday, giving up seven runs in five innings during a 14-14 football game between the Indians and Mariners. Lee has been horrible all spring, or at least his numbers have been horrible. However, he seems to be happy with the way he's throwing, and so do Eric Wedge and pitching coach Carl Willis. They seem to think that the dry Arizona air that limits movement on breaking balls is hindering Lee's effectiveness. But they also seem inclined to give the reigning Cy Young Award winner the benefit of the doubt, and remain confident that once the bell rings Monday Lee will be fine.

However, Masa Kobayashi is another story. Wedge typically doesn't like to publicly show impatience with any of his players, but he is clearly growing weary of Kobayashi's up and down spring. When Kobayashi has been bad this spring, he has been really bad, such as Wednesday, when he gave up a single, double, triple, and home run to the first four batters he faced. I don't know if it's because he's facing tougher hitters in the major leagues than he faced in Japan, or whether, at age 34 - he'll turn 35 in May - he's just running out of gas. But there's never been any "wow'' factor for me when watching him pitch, either last year or this spring. Hitters seem very comfortable facing him, they rarely take bad swings, and he really has a hard time making any adjustments during an appearance. If he's bad when comes into a game, he tends to stay bad.

My guess is Indians officials will keep a close eye on Kobayashi in the first six weeks of the season. If he continues to struggle - he gave up some monstrous home runs at the worst possible time in many appearances last year - it wouldn't be a surprise if they tried to shop Kobayashi to other teams, or even consider releasing him. He's in the last year of his contract, though the Indians do hold an option for 2010 (yeah, right!), so they are only on the hook for the $3 million owed him this year. Like most managers, Wedge loathes relievers who are inconsistent because you never know what you're going to get from them when you bring them into the game. That's where Kobayashi is now, and that's why you probably won't see him pitching late in close games anytime soon.