Sunday, August 21, 2011

Nice trip. . . Not!

Observations from the Indians' dreary 2-4 trip to Chicago and Detroit:

Ubaldo Jimenez is becoming a problem. A big problem. This is no time for a slump, but a slump is what the Indians have to hope he's in. Because the alternative, if it's not a slump, is that he's injured. Nobody wants to think about that.

He's not throwing like he's injured. The velocity is there. He's throwing like a guy who can't consistently throw strikes - for whatever reason. He's also throwing like a guy who doesn't have a lot of confidence, almost like he's being intimidated by American League lineups.

Certainly Jimenez wouldn't be the first National League pitcher to come to the American League and struggle. Unlike NL lineups, AL lineups don't have automatic outs in the 8th and 9th spots in the order. Prior to being traded to Cleveland, Jimenez had spent his entire career in the National League. He's obviously having difficulty making an adjustment - and the Indians don't have time to wait.

There's a division title up for grabs, and Sunday was the kind of game the Indians traded a boatload of talent to the Rockies so that Jimenez could win such games. Instead, he failed miserably.

Jimenez has won one of the four starts he's made for the Indians. In the other three he has an 11.77 ERA, having allowed 17 runs and 25 hits in 13 innings. That isn't going to cut it. The Indians need No.1 starter numbers from Jimenez. So far he's giving them No.5 starter numbers.

Travis Hafner looks like he could be headed to the disabled list with a strained foot, suffered in Sunday's game. Hafner has been horrible of late. His single Sunday snapped an 0-for-16 slide. At one point on the road trip he struck out 11 times in 21 at bats. He's swinging at balls and taking strikes. He's a mess right now. Maybe two weeks on the DL wouldn't be such a bad thing. It would given him some time to mentally re-group.

I can't remember a major league season in which the umpiring has been so routinely bad. The Indians were victimized by blown calls by umpires at least a half dozen times on the trip. The umps are bad for both teams, so this isn't an Indians problem. It's a baseball problem, and I'm not sure how you fix it.

The loss of Jason Kipnis is devastating. He brought considerable energy, production, and confidence to a lineup that needed all three. THIS may be the injury that hurts the Indians the most coming down the stretch.

It's interesting now that Manny Acta seems to be going back to Jack Hannahan over Lonnie Chisenhall at third base. Chisenhall looks a little lost at the plate right now, and if he isn't going to be a major offensive upgrade over Hannahan, then Hannahan is going to play, because of his Gold Glove-caliber defense at third base. I'm in complete agreement with Acta on this one.

Kosuke Fukudome has been very impressive defensively in center field, but the next time the Indians play in Comerica Park, with its spacious outfield, somebody needs to tell Fukudome that he doesn't have to position himself in Grand Rapids. He was playing so deep in the Detroit series, almost anything hit to medium or shallow center field was falling in for a hit.

Jimenez's latest meltdown, and the wild finish in Sunday's loss in Detroit overshadowed another brilliant performance by the Indians' bullpen. This is the best Tribe bullpen since the '95 group (Mesa, Plunk, Assenmacher, Tavarez, Poole), and it deserves tons of credit for carrying the team through much of this season.

Friday, August 19, 2011

No Kipnis? Big problem

It's still only August, but any series between the two top teams in the AL Central is a big series. That makes the Indians' three-game series that starts Friday in Detroit a big one. The second place Indians are 1 1/2 games behind the first place Tigers, but the two teams are tied in the loss column.

The Indians got some good news and some bad news on the eve of the series. The good news is the Indians won't face Cy Young favorite Justin Verlander in the series. The bad news is the Indians probably won't have Jason Kipnis in the series. They may not have him for the next two weeks, or perhaps even longer than that.

Kipnis has a strained oblique and a strained hamstring. Each of those injuries typically take three to four weeks to heal. Manager Manny Acta said after Thursday's game that Kipnis will likely be put on the disabled list, which means the Indians will have to play the next two weeks, if not longer, without their sparkplug rookie second baseman.

Even though he has only played in 18 games since being recalled from Columbus, Kipnis is sixth on the Indians in home runs, with six. For an Indians lineup that struggles to score runs on a nightly basis, the loss of Kipnis is huge.

The timing couldn't be worse for the Indians. Counting the series that begins Friday they have nine games remaining with the Tigers. All of them are big ones, obviously, especially if the Indians are going to have to play them without Kipnis.

Monday, August 15, 2011

The waiver game

An interesting bit of gamesmanship climaxed Monday when the Twins traded outfielder Delmon Young to the Tigers. It's interesting on a couple of fronts. First of all, the Tigers, like the Indians when they traded for Ubaldo Jimenez, have chosen to strengthen an area that was already a team strength. The Tigers' hitting is their strength. Monday they added another hitter _ a hitter the Indians could have prevented the Tigers from acquiring.

The trade that sent Young to the Tigers started out as a waiver claim. The Twins put Young on waivers, the Tigers claimed him. At that point the Twins had three options. They could immediately pull Young off waivers and keep him. They could pull him off and attempt to work out a trade with the Tigers for Young. Or they could have simply let Young go to the Tigers in a straight waiver claim.

The Twins chose option number two, and ultimately traded Thome to the Twins for a minor leaguer. What's interesting is that the waiver claim process works in inverse order of teams' won-loss records. In other words, the second place Indians had a chance to claim Young before the Tigers did. So the Tribe could have claimed Young in order to prevent him from going to the first-place Tigers.

Obviously the Indians had no way of knowing whether or not the Tigers would claim Young, but the Tigers did _ and they got him. Young is having a very poor season, hitting .266 with 4 home runs and 32 RBI. However, last year Young had a big season, hitting .298 with 21 homers and 112 RBI. He is, moreover, a right-handed hitter, which the Indians need.

Young's salary this year is $5.375 million, of which only about $1 million remains, which is what the Tigers will be responsible for. Why did the Indians not claim Young? They apparently feel that he isn't much of an upgrade over what they have in left field, although I might dispute that. I don't recall any Indians outfielder driving in 100 runs the last couple years. The Indians also probably felt their chances of re-signing Young after the season were slim.

Young can become a free agent after the season. He'll turn 26 next month and will probably be looking for a big contract this winter. The Indians must not feel Young is worth the kind of money he is going to be looking for as a free agent, so the Tribe passed on claiming him on waivers.

Now they have to hope that Young's bat doesn't help push the Tigers further ahead of the Indians in the AL Central race.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

You win some, Ubaldo some

Well, that was interesting. In his Indians’ debut Friday night Ubaldo Jimenez got enough runs to win, left with the lead _ but didn’t win.

He also didn’t lose, which is a victory of sorts for Indians pitchers these days. The newest Indian did get a taste of the excruciating way in which the Indians sometimes lose. This one, an 8-7 loss to Texas in 11 innings, was the Indians’ third loss on this road trip. All three losses have come on walkoff hits by their opponents, and two of those hits were walkoff homers.


Jimenez probably didn’t deserve to win Friday, since he really didn’t pitch very well. He gave up five runs on seven hits and three walks in five innings.

He also threw a whopping 108 pitches in those five innings. The Indians twice gave him 5-run leads: 6-1 and 7-2. There was also a 3-0 lead after the top of the first.

Unfortunately for Jimenez and the Indians he gave up single runs in each of the first three innings, then left the game in explosive fashion, giving up a home run to Mike Napoli leading off the sixth inning, prior to walking the next batter.

It was hardly a No.1 starter-type performance, but we can probably give Jimenez a mulligan on this start. He is still trying to get over his last bizarre appearance as a member of the Colorado Rockies, in which he actually started a game, pitched one inning, and threw 40 pitches, even though for all intents and purposes he was no longer a member of the Rockies.

Once Jimenez can settle into an every-five-days routine with the Indians he should be fine. His next start will come next week in the Indians’ huge series with Detroit. He’ll presumably be much sharper in that one, although he did strikeout seven in five innings Friday.

“Ubaldo had pretty good stuff, he just didn’t have very good command early in the game,” Tribe manager Manny Acta told reporters after Friday’s game. “His pitch count went up too much in the first three innings and that hurt him. But he showed a good fastball, good breaking ball, and good changeup.”

Even with all that Jimenez would have been the winning pitcher had closer Chris Perez, with the Indians leading 7-5, two outs and nobody on base, been able to close the deal in the bottom of the ninth inning.
Perez didn’t, so Jimenez will have to wait another five days, at least, to win his first game with the Indians.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Explaining the Huff demotion

So David Huff turns in his third consecutive outstanding start Tuesday vs. the Red Sox, and after the game gets informed that he is being optioned back to Columbus. Seems like an odd move, with Huff pitching great and Carlos Carrasco pitching pitifully. So what's up with that? Well, it may not be exactly what it seems.

In three starts after being recalled from Columbus Huff had a 0.51 ERA. Carrasco, meanwhile, is 0-5 with a 9.13 ERA in his last five starts. So how does Carrasco get to stay and Huff has to leave?

Well, actually Carrasco is going to leave after his start Wednesday night in Fenway Park. He is dropping the appeal of the six-game suspension he received for throwing a pitch at the head of Kansas City's Billy Butler last Friday.

Carrasco, however, has to pitch tonight. The Indians have no other starter with enough rest to make that start. So Carrasco will make it, then begin his six game suspension, which will run through the remainder of this road trip, and the first two games of the next homestand. With the team having an off day Monday, they won't need a fifth starter again until a week from Friday.

Players optioned to the minor leagues cannot be recalled for 10 days. Huff's 10 days will be up on the day the Indians will next need a fifth starter. So don't be surprised if he starts Sunday in Columbus, then is recalled by the Indians to start Friday, Aug. 12 vs. Minnesota, with Carrasco being optioned back to Columbus once he is done serving his suspension.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The friendly confines

So all it took to get the Indians' comatose offense to stir to life was a visit to cozy Fenway Park. After scoring nine runs in their previous four games combined, the Indians scored nine runs Monday night in a 9-6 win over the Red Sox in Game 1 of a potentially punishing road trip in which the Indians will play seven consecutive games against first place teams.

Nice to see rookie Jason Kipnis have the biggest game of his still brief major league career, smacking a single, double, and home run. Kipnis and double play partner Asdrubal Cabrera were a combined 6-for-10 with a double, three home runs, six runs scored, and five RBI.

Sometimes this happens. Teams struggle at home, then go on the road - it doesn't matter where - and immediately have a big game. Believe it or not there is far less pressure on the road. You're playing in a hostile environment, but that can work in the visiting team's favor because it knows it won't be booed, nobody is expecting the visitors to win, and sometimes, if the visitors really put it to the home team, it's the home team that gets booed - which also works in favor of the visitors.

Let's not get carried away with the Indians' win Monday, however. It came against the least effective pitcher in Boston's rotation, John Lackey. Indians pitchers are going to have to bear down on the Boston lineup the rest of this series, because most of the Sox hitters look locked in. On Monday many of their hits came on some pretty good pitches by Josh Tomlin, who I thought threw considerably better than his line indicates.

Overall, an encouraging start to an ominous road trip. I think if the Indians can win three of the next six on this trip they would be delighted.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Ubaldo: If nothing else, enjoy the name

Late Saturday night, after the word was out that the Indians and Rockies had reached an agreement on the Ubaldo Jimenez trade, WTAM's Nick Camino came into the press box and said callers on his show were about 70-30 against the trade. I found that interesting, because for all the months fans have spent ripping Indians ownership for not spending any money and not trying to win, here was tangible proof to the contrary - and yet most fans didn't like it.

Reaction nationally to the trade has been mixed. ESPN's Keith Law basicallly said the Indians were delusional in being buyers at the trade deadline. However, most of the other ESPN commentators liked the trade for the Indians. Many observers liked it for BOTH teams. Indeed, this could wind up being a trade that helps both teams. A lot.

It's not out of the question that Jimenez will be the 200-innings horse at the top of their rotation that Indians officials felt it was worth giving up their top two pitching prospects to acquire. It's also not out of the question that Drew Pomeranz and Alex White will be mainstays in the Rockies' rotation for the next six years.

While it's fashionable after trades of this magnitude to declare, or predict an ultimate winner of the trade, it's not always black and white. Sometimes both teams win. Or lose.

The Indians could be losers if Jimenez, for the remainder of this season and the next two years, doesn't pitch reasonably close to the level he did last year, when he was the starting pitcher for the National League All-Star team.

The Rockies could be losers if White and Pomeranz don't blossom into above average major league starting pitchers. There are no guarantees. The road the the Hall of Fame is littered with top pitching prospects who never had even mediocre careers at the major league level.

What I like most about the trade is that it's a big, bold, brassy move by an Indians team that hasn't made one of those in a long time. I'm not crazy about giving up two top pitching prospects and not getting a big-time hitter in return. But I will give the Indians credit for being aggressive at a time when there is a division - albeit an incredibly weak division - to be won, and going out and making a high stakes trade to try to win it.

Hey, if nothing else, the Indians acquired the player with the best name in the majors.

How can you not root for an "Ubaldo"?