Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Ahh, Choo!

The Indians will get Shin-Soo Choo back Friday. That's about nine months earlier than expected. Choo will have missed just slightly less than three weeks with a right thumb injury that originally looked like it might require season-ending surgery. Turns out it only needed a little season-continuing rest.

Is Choo the Indians' best player? All-around player, yes. Grady Sizemore gets more publicity, but Choo is the better all-around player. Choo is clearly the better hitter. Choo's career marks: a .294 batting average, .387 on base percentage, and a .487 slugging percentage.

Sizemore's career numbers: a .272 batting average, .363 on base percentage, and .477 slugging percentage.

Choo has a stronger arm than Sizemore, although Sizemore makes more memorable catches in the outfield, because he's fearless in going after balls near walls, while Choo seems a little gun shy of the wall. Sizemore is faster, but Choo is a very good baserunner as well, and a very good base stealer.

The return of Choo makes the Indians' lineup deeper and better. So that should help the Indians offensively for the remainder of the season. This is a big season for Choo financially because he will be eligible for salary arbitration next spring, and there's a chance he will be coming off two quality seasons, which means he will command a hefty raise from the $461,100 salary he is making this sesaon.

Will the Indians explore trying to sign him to a long term deal? Choo's situation is similar to that of several Indians players in the past who have been offered, and accepted, multi-year deals with the Tribe, but one gets the sense that ownership may not be willing to continue that tradition.

We'll see.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Win, win, win.

Say, you don't think they're going run the table now, do you? Win all the rest of them? Now THAT would be a winning streak. The Indians beat the Twins Tuesday 4-3. It's the Indians' sixth win in a row. That's their longest winning streak since September of 2008.

And, of course, everyone could see this streak coming. Yep, it was so obvious. The Indians set it up by losing five of their last seven games before the all-star break. Then they come roaring out of the break, winning their first six games. The pitching has been great. The hitting timely. The defense, not horrible.

Put it all together and you've got the hottest team in the majors right now. And, theoretically, the Indians should be getting even better in the coming days. Tuesday Asdrubal Cabrera was activated off the disabeld list, where he'd been for two months with a broken arm. On Friday Shin-Soo Choo is scheduled to come off the disabled list, where he's been since July 4.

The addition of Choo will mean the Indians' lineup will be as complete as it's going to get this season. Grady Sizemore is still on the DL, but he isn't coming back. Not this year, following major knee surgery.

So for now the Indians are 6-0. Undefeated for almost a week. Go figure. Almost makes you forget about LeBron, no?

Who'd have thunk it?

With their win over the Twins Monday night the Indians have now won five games in a row since the all-star game. That has never happened before. Who would have thunk that this Indians team would do something this year, in a positive way, that no Indians team had ever done before?

Not only that, but the Indians have done it against two of the best teams in the Central Division, the Tigers and the Twins. And the Indians have done it with outstanding pitching. How many improbables can you stack onto one week's worth of work?

How should we interpret this winning streak? Well, it's a good sign that the team is progressing, even though it is shorthanded. The Indians have only had the first three hitters in their lineup - Asdrubal Cabrera, Grady Sizemore, and Shin-Soo Choo - in the lineup at the same time in just 28 games this season. The loss of those three players for varying degrees of time has been countered, to a certain degree, by the promotion of Carlos Santana, who has changed the lineup by, even as a rookie, being the most mature hitter in the lineup.

Santana's rare ability to work the count, reaching a 3-2 count a ridiculously high percentage of the time, has had a positive effect on the lineup. But the biggest reason for the Indians' imnproved play lately has been the pitching staff, which very quietly has put together a nice two or three week-run in which the starters have kept the team in the game and the relievers have been able preserve most of the leads late in games.

The result has been one of the Indians' best runs of the season. Can they keep it up? Probably not. But they are at least capable of sustaining it for this long. That, in itself, is progress.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Would some team take Jake?

Is Jake Westbrook tradeable? He didn't help his cause much Thursday night, giving up three home runs in six innings in a 5-2 loss to the Rays. Westbrook is now 5-5 with a 4.75 ERA. Those aren't exactly numbers that will have GM Mark Shapiro's cell phone ringing endlessly with calls from other GM's.

And ironically, that might work in the Indians' favor. If the Indians get no decent trade offers for Westbrook - and by decent I mean a mid-level prospect, at best _ they may just keep him and try to re-sign him after the season.

The Indians don't have a good record of re-signing their own free agents. But given that Westbrook is in the final year of a three-year $33 million contract for which he has produced a record of 6-7, and given that Westbrook is one of the most high-character guys on the team, I could see him re-signing with the Indians, even at a reduced salary, feeling like he owes him something more than 6 wins in exchange for $33 million. Remember, he missed one full season on the contract due to elbow surgery.

It will be interesting to see how the Westbrook situation plays out.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Acta: We wuz robbed!

Manny Acta almost never gets thrown out of a game. He argues with umpires even less than that. Wednesday in Texas he did both. I don't blame him.

After watching two of his hitters, Shelley Duncan and Jason Donald, get called out on strikes on what were clearly checked swings, but were ruled swings by first base umpire Tim Timmons, Acta went ballistic. After the second of the calls, on Donald, Acta leaned back on the bench in the dugout and took off his hat. Timmons, who was obviously staring in at the dugout after making the call, immediately threw Acta out of the game. It's Acta's first ejection as manager of the Indians and only the third ejection of his four-year managerial career.

After the game the normally calm and controlled Acta erupted with a tirade directed at Timmons, and major league umpires in general.

"I got thrown out for taking my hat off,'' Acta told reporters after the game. "That's a shame. Everyone is talking about the pace of the game, and I have to delay the game and run out there 150 feet away to argue after I get thrown out for taking my hat off. It's sad.''

Acta was just getting warmed up.

"I've been doing rebuilding jobs for four years,'' he continued. "These kids on rebuilding teams don't get the benefit of the doubt from those guys (the umpires). If they don't know your name, you don't get a fair shake. I don't care what anyone says. I've seen it for four years. Kids they don't know don't get the same checked swing calls that other guys get. I know we're not supposed to criticize those guys (umpires) in public, but so be it. I'm fed up with it. I've seen it for four years. Look at my record. I'm probably one of the easiest guys for them to deal with over the years. And that's what I get? I take my hat off and get thrown out of the game right off the bat? I don't know. I guess it's part of the game. The check will be on the way.''

That last line is an acknowledgment by Acta that he's probably going to get fined for publicly criticizing the umpires. But in this case I think's he's right. Unfortunately for him, however, that comes with the turf of being the manager of a rebuilding team. When a good team plays a bad team, the good team will almost always get the benefit of the doubt on any close calls. It's been that way in baseball, and other sports, for as long as there have been umpires and referees.

It is refreshing, however, to hear a normally mild-mannered manager such as Acta point it out. It won't change anything, of course. But it's still refreshing.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Marte's decline

How about the career curve of Andy Marte? In the space of just a few years he has gone from can't miss blue chip minor league prospect to a waivers-clearing unwanted spare part, who is in danger of playing his way out of the major leagues for good. And the transition from phenom to flop was instantaneous. It wasn't like Marte hit the big leagues as a phenom, had several quality years, then slipped into journeyman status.

Nope. Marte, seemingly, was a phenom one day, a bust the next. Tuesday night Marte had another forgettable game while subbing for Matt LaPorta at first base. In addition to striking out twice, Marte had an inexcusable mental blunder at first base. He watched second baseman Jayson Nix field a grounder behind second base then throw to first for what should have been an out. But it wasn't an out. There was just one minor problem.

The Indians' first baseman wasn't standing on first base. The Indians' first baseman was Marte.

He was about three feet off the base, watching Nix make the play. Nix's throw to first seemed to take Marte by surprise. As he caught the ball about three feet from the first base bag, Marte tried to shove his foot back onto the bag. Too late. The runner was safe because the Indians' first baseman wasn't on first base.

And this is the first baseman who comes into games late as a defensive replacement for LaPorta. That play pretty much sums up Marte's career. And because his career has dissolved into him hanging on as a utility infielder, Marte cannot afford to be making mental mistakes like the one he made Tuesday night.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Jayson and Jason

In the Indians' 9-3 win over Texas Monday second baseman Jayson Nix belted two home runs and shortstop Jason Donald had a career-high four hits. What does that mean in the big picture for the Tribe? Probably not much. It's only one game. Nix is still only hitting .214 since joining the team. Donald is up to .280, but once Asdrubal Cabrera comes off the disabled list Donald will either have to find a seat on the bench, or have to accept an option to Columbus.

Nix is trying to prove to Indians officials that he could be a long term fit for the Tribe at second base. He'll probably get considerable playing time the remainder of the season, but he'll turn 28 in August, so it's not like he's a hot young prospect. The only reason the Indians have him is that the White Sox released Nix, and the Indians' claimed him off waivers.

Being a last place team doesn't have many advantages, but one of the few breaks you get from being the worst team, or close to the worst team in your league is you get first crack at players placed on waivers. The order in which teams can claim players off waivers goes in inverse order to the team's won-loss record. In other words, the worst teams in the league get first crack at those players.

That's an advantage of sorts for the Indians, who obviously could use some better players. Donald, who was acquired from Philadelphia as part of the Cliff Lee trade, and Nix are both players who were discarded by their former teams. Whether they can carve out a niche for themselves on the Indians' roster beyond this year remains to be seen. And I guess hitting two home runs or collecting four hits in a game are always better for a player trying to win a job than not hitting any home runs or getting any hits in a game.

So in that sense what Nix and Donald did Monday night are significant achievements for both of them, even if many Indians fans aren't exactly on the edge of their seats.