Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Carl Pavano?

In case you missed it, Carl Pavano has more wins in the month of May than any pitcher in the major leagues. More than Johan Santana, more than Justin Verlander, more than this year's flavor of the month, Zack Greinke.

Pavano has won five of his six start this month for the Indians. Carl Pavano. Who knew? Who expected this? In his first start of the season Pavano gave up nine runs in the first inning. There was no second inning. Now he's 5-1 in May and the winningest pitcher on a staff that includes the regining American League Cy Young Award winner, Cliff Lee.

There some snickers when the Indians signed the perpetually injured Pavano to a low-risk one-year deal during the off-season. Who's snickering now? Pavano and Lee are the only ones holding the Indians' starting rotation together.

General manager Mark Shapiro said at the start of the season that for the Indians to contend they needed big years from the numbers one and two starters, Lee and Fausto Carmona. Shapiro may get those two big years from starters, but it might be Lee and Pavano instead of Lee and Carmona.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Bad idea

There are certain times when managers must go against the book. Tuesday night was one of them. The Indians had a 5-2 lead after eight innings. They are paying closer Kerry Wood $10 million this year to close games. It was a save situation. So bring in your closer to pitch the ninth. A no brainer, right?


In that particular situation, Wedge owed it to starter Cliff Lee to allow him to finish the game. Lee, the reigning American League Cy Young Award winner, had the game under control. He was leading 5-2, and was cruising to a much-needed win for himself and a desperately-needed win for the Indians.

Lee had only thrown 101 pitches. That's fewer pitches than he has thrown in any of his starts this season, with the exception of opening day. Lee also had an extra day's rest since his previous start. Put it all together _ a starter who is dominating the opposing team, a relatively low pitch count, and a pitcher working with an extra day's rest _ and there was no reason for Lee to be taken out of the game after the eighth inning, unless Lee said he was tired.

Another factor is Lee is the Indians' No.1 starter. The No.1 starter has earned the right to, within reason, finish any game in which he's in position to. Wedge owed it to Lee to allow him to finish that game. The Indians, moreover, had lost three games in a row prior to Tuesday. They had their ace, Lee, matched up against Kansas City's No.3 or 4 starter, Brian Bannister. Wedge also knows the Indians will be facing Zack Greinke - the best pitcher in the league thus far - in the final game of the series. That made winning the first game with his ace on the mound, an even bigger priority for Wedge.

The Indians were in a position to win Tuesday's game. Their ace was cruising, his pitch count was down, he was working with an extra day's rest. There was no reason not to allow him to finish. Had any of the Indians other starters been in that situation, it would have been justified to bring in the closer. But not with Lee. Not there. Not after Lee had been denied so many wins this season due to a lack of run support, and was, on Tuesday, in position to close out his own victory.

But instead Wedge removed Lee from the game, brought in closer Kerry Wood, and a few minutes later the Indians had lost four in a row.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Help wanted

Luis Vizcaino Friday night made his first appearance out of the Indians' bullpen. It looks like he'll fit right in. Vizcaino's appearance lasted just six pitches. The last of those pitches was turned into a walkoff home run by B.J. Upton, handing the Tribe another excruciating loss, this one 8-7, to Tampa Bay.

Can it get any worse, any uglier for the Indians' bullpen? Probably not. In this loss the Tribe was unable to protect a 7-0 lead. Jensen Lewis probably punched his ticket to Columbus with another dreary outing. And what does it say about how buried Masa Kobayashi is in the bullpen that the Indians used a reliever signed off the street just 24 hours earlier - Vizcaino - ahead of Kobayashi?

The Indians in the offseason added two relievers in hopes of bolstering what was the worst bullpen in the league last year. Those two relievers were Joe Smith and Kerry Wood. Smith is on the disabled list, and Wood hardly ever pitches, because the relievers in front of him have been so bad they can't get the game to him.

Look for more bullpen moves in the next couple days. Lewis could be optioned to Columbus to make room for a starter who will have to be called up to make a spot start Sunday. Or the Indians could send Tony Sipp down. Or they might even release Kobayashi, which means they would eat what's left of his $3 million salary, ending what was one of the club's more ill-advised (two years, $6.25 million) contracts given to a free agent reliever.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Where's LaPorta?

Since the Indians season began to go down the drain club officials have done some very uncharacteristic things. Start with the fact that they have already begun to make wholesale roster changes, and minor league callups. These moves have come far sooner than in any year since Eric Wedge became manager. They moved their No.4 starter, Aaron Laffey, to the bullpen, not because he was failing as a starter, but because the bullpen was so bad. That, again, is pretty much unprecedented since Wedge became manager. Usually, when a pitcher is pitching well in the rotation, he stays in the rotation.

It's clear the Indians are grasping at straws trying to figure out how to get the team winning again. Getting swept in a three-game series at home by Detroit, a series in which the Indians only scored three runs, adds a further sense of urgency to everyone running the team.

In the midst of all that, however, there have been some curious decisions by Wedge, relating to who is and isn't in the starting lineup. Outfieldre Matt LaPorta, for example, didn't get one at bat in any of the three games against Detroit. That's the same Matt LaPorta about whom Wedge said, "We brought him here to play,'' when LaPorta was recalled from Columbus.

Going into Monday night's game LaPorta had sat out four of the Indians' last five games, which makes no sense at all. As one of the Indians' top prospects, LaPorta needs to be playing every day, not sitting on the bench for a last place team with the worst record in the major leagues. If LaPorta isn't going to be in the Indians' lineup every day - which he should be - then he needs to be sent back to Columbus, where he can continue to develop by getting consistent playing time every day.

The way the Indians are currently using, or not using LaPorta, isn't helping him or them.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

A bull with no horns

Last week they made six roster moves in one day. Wednesday they moved the No.4 starter from the rotation to a setup role in the bullpen. All that from an organization that prides itself on its patience?

You've got to give this much to Indians officials: it's obviously broke, and they are trying to fix it. And they aren't wasting any time. That's how bad the bullpen has been. So bad that the front office is making moves a full month earlier than usual. During the Mark Shapiro administration the Indians typically wait until about the 40 game mark to make any judgments on the team. Not this year. When you've been in last place every single day of the season, when your longest winning "streak'' is two games, and you've only got one of those, it's time to start making moves, and plenty of them. What's the worst that can happen? You can't go any lower than last place.

Specifically, Indians officals are trying to fix a broken bullpen that has become a threat to sabotage the entire season. So far the bullpen has been even worse than last year, which is almost inconceivable. Wednesday they called up 39-year-old retread Matt Herges, who wasn't even pitching particularly well at Columbus. Why? Because they were getting tired of looking at bullpen by implosion.

Next, Indians officials moved one of their better starters, Aaron Laffey, not just into the bullpen but into a key spot in the bullpen: a setup role. A setup role that Laffey performed so well Wednesday night that he was allowed to be the closer as well, picking up a rare three-inning save.

They demoted the lost-at-sea Rafael Perez to Columbus. Jensen Lewis would probably already be at Columbus, if there were any options down there to replace him. Masa Kobayashi's job security can't be much better. Tony Sipp has already been overused and he's barely been on the team a week. Rafael Betancourt? He hasn't pitched well either, but it takes him so long to throw the ball it's not as apparent.

Jeremy Sowers will be called up Thursday to take the place of Laffey in the rotation, etc., etc., etc. If you're getting the idea the Indians are making this up as they go along, that's exactly what they're doing. They don't have much choice. The season is over a month old, and it is in danger of slipping away. It still could, unless the bullpen starts pulling its share of the load.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Like pulling teeth

So let's see. The Indians are held hitless and scoreless for the first 6 1/3 innings Monday night, then score 9 runs on 15 hits in the next 5 2/3 innings. Kerry Wood, who was previously 5-for-5 in save situations, blows a save in the ninth inning. Rafael Betancourt, who previously was one of the problems, not one of the solutions, in the bullpen, pitches two scoreless innings, with three strikeouts and gets the win.

The Indians' 9-7 win in 12 innings over Toronto was the Indians' season in miniature. Wall to wall inconsistency. Alternating instances of poor performance followed by bursts of clutch play. It's the kind of hot and cold pattern of play that will make it almost impossible for the Indians to put together any kind of long winning streak. Winning streaks demand consistency. The Indians have no chance at the former until they master the latter.

All that inconsistency also makes managing the Indians extremely difficult, because there aren't many players on the roster whom Eric Wedge can count on for consistent performances from day to day. In short, this has been a nightmare start to the season for Indians officials, who are already making wholesale roster changes, which is against their nature. They typically are patient to a fault, waiting until the season is at least two months old before making any significant decisions or moves.

It's probably a measure of the degree of exasperation felt by club officials that they have been much quicker to pull the trigger on so many roster moves so early this year. That's what happens when winning games has become as difficult as pulling teeth.