Is anyone else sensing trouble here in Wahooland? This was supposed to be the week where the Tribe got fat on the AL Central bottom feeders. The Kansas City Royals and the Minnesota Twins each came to town for a three-game series. It seemed to be the perfect tonic for the banged up Indians. Instead, they lost four of six and fell two and a half games behind the first place Chicago White Sox. Maybe the best tonic is for this team to leave town. But one this is for certain, the Indians seem to be in a heap of trouble.
The starting pitching was a little better over the weekend, but not good enough. The lineup is still without big guns Carlos Santana and Travis Hafner. The clutch hitting has disappeared. I know, I sound gloomy, but the fact remains that the Indians have lost seven of nine since riding high after the sweep of the Detroit Tigers less than two weeks ago.
So what went wrong this weekend? What can be done to improve the offense (I don’t know)? Lets take our usual Monday morning look back on the weekend that was.
I’m getting this out of the way right off the bat – the Indians front office made a mistake deciding not to offer OF Josh Willingham three years. After watching the big, powerful right-handed bat abuse the Indians with his bat while playing a solid left field, all I can think about was the giant miscalculation that GM Chris Antonetti and his staff made passing on Willingham.
Its been well documented that Willingham preferred Cleveland as his free agent destination, but the Indians balked at giving him a third year. Instead, he chose to sign with the Twins for three years and $21 million. Two months into the season, Willingham is hitting .280/.400/.960/10 HR/36 RBI while playing a solid left field for the last place Twins. Meanwhile, the Indians gave $5 million to Grady Sizemore and his broken body to move Michael Brantley to left. That plan never made it out of the driveway.
Shelley Duncan won the left field job and was disasterous enough that the front office, in a complete move of desperation, took a flyer on 38-year old Johnny Damon. Without the benefit of Spring Training, Damon has yet to find any sort of stroke. Not to mention he is brutal with the glove and has an arm that makes Grady Sizemore’s look like Shin-Soo Choo’s. Neither Shelley nor Damon are the long term or even short term answer in left for that matter. Now with Damon out for a few days on the maternity leave list, the Indians have brought up Matt LaPorta from AAA.
That’s right, good old MaTola will be the latest to try his hand in left. Indians left fielders rank dead last in the AL in batting average, slugging percentage, and homers.
Seeing Willingham play over the weekend just made me seethe at what should have been. The issue isn’t just 2012. Its beyond. I’ve said this 1000 times, but there is no answer for left field in the pipeline and the Indians are going to be in the exact same position this offseason as they were last winter – looking for a right-handed, power hitting, left-field type who can be plugged into the middle of the order. Willingham was the perfect answer. You want a prospect like a LeVon Washington to take over in 3-4 years? Wouldn’t Willingham have been the perfect stop-gap? The worry was the third year for the 33 -year old left fielder would be too pricey and his production could dip, but you buy that for the first two years.
Imagine the Indians right now with Willingham in left instead of the Duncan/Damon duo. They most likely would not have brought in Casey Kotchman to play first base, but with the Sizemore injury already known, they could have still kicked his tires. Its not as if Kotchman had a ton of suitors as the Indians got him on a one-year, $3 million deal on February 3rd, less than two weeks before pitchers and catchers reported. Willingham solves all the offensive problems that this team has – a quality left fielder, power hitter, right-handed bat for the middle of the order. $7 million per year is a Tribe-esque price tag.
Call it hindsight (I for one wasn’t huge on Willingham when he was being talked about), but the truth is, he is the perfect fit for this team and the exact type of guy the Indians are now looking for and will be shopping for in the offseason. Would things with Willingham been different had the Indians not already wasted spent $5 million in Sizemore?
The Indians issues against left-handed pitching is the worst-kept secret in baseball, and teams are lining everything up to take advantage of it. Remember that spin Manny Acta gave us: “most starters we will face this year will be righties.” It was easy to see right through that. On Sunday, another obscure lefty, Scott Diamond, completely shut the Indians down, despite the fact that his defense was brutal. Over seven innings, Diamond cut right through Acta’s right-handed special lineup, scattering seven hits. The three runs he allowed were all unearned. Again, anytime they put more than one runner on base, they couldn’t come up with the big hit.
It is hard to overlook what is going on with the roster right now, but as Acta said, nobody is feeling sorry for them. The guys who are in the lineup have to go out and deliver. But when you look at a lineup with Jose Lopez hitting cleanup and 6-7-8-9 of Duncan, LaPorta, Aaron Cunningham, and Marson, you are going to struggle to score. The lineup was loaded with righties, but as they said, quality is better than quantity.
Acta is hamstrung without Hafner, Santana, Jack Hannahan, and even Damon. But even with everyone healthy, the options look very limited. The depth just isn’t there. Lopez has been the only guy who has stepped forward and played well. But whenever a left-handed pitcher starts or enters the game, it seems to be lights out. Yesterday, Twins manager Ron Gardenhire smartly went right to lefty Glen Perkins in the eighth after watching Diamond breeze through. Perkins didn’t allow a run. The White Sox Robin Ventura did it time after time last weekend when the Sox swept the Tribe.
“We do have a lot of lefties in our lineup, and the majority of them are better hitters against right-handers,” Acta said, “but the issue is not only that. When we try to sneak in some right-handed bats that are supposed to help us out, they’re not hitting, either.”
Sunday’s loss to the Twins moved their record against left-handed starters to a putrid 4-12. Said Acta: “I wish I had a simple solution.” The Indians remain dead last in the majors in batting average against lefties (.214).
The hope is that with Carlos Santana expected to be back for the Detroit series, the offense will hopefully get back on track. Santana is going to DH tonight at Lake County, and if all goes well, he will be activated Tuesday. The roster as it sits today has a ton of dead weight. Cunningham is not a major leaguer. Luke Carlin and Juan Diaz don’t belong up here either. LaPorta is 4A. Kotchman and Duncan aren’t offering much at the plate. Throw in Marson who has always had a had time hitting his weight and that is HALF of your position players I just mentioned. They are counting on big contributions from Lopez, who they designated for assignment earlier in the season. Lonnie Chisenhall has just arrived and should fit right in nicely (hit two homers this week), but this speaks to the organization’s complete lack of AA/AAA depth. That is on the front office.
One guy who Acta has been able to count on is Michael Brantley. I picked Brantley as the Indians breakout player in Spring Training and thus far, he hasn’t disappointed me. Over the past three weeks with so many of his teammates dropping with injuries, Brantley has been a model of consistency. He is currently in the middle of an 12-game hitting streak where his is batting .370 with 10 RBIs. His move to the middle of the order has really seemed to work.
On top of it, he has looked smooth in center, making two unbelievable catches over the past week to boot.
Imagine where this offense would be without Brantley and second baseman Jason Kipnis right now. They are 1-2 in RBIs on the team (Kipnis leads with 34, Brantley has 24) and are the only two core regulars who haven’t missed any time with an injury.
Justin Masterson may have recorded a quality start on Sunday, but he was far from “back.” This was the Minnesota Twins, so let us not be too impressed with six innings of three run ball. He gave up seven hits (two bunt singles) and walked three. Of his 103 pitches, 62 were strikes. He is the supposed ace of this staff, he just has to be better than this.
Ubaldo Jimenez has been catching all of the grief from Tribe fans (and rightfully so), yet Masterson hasn’t been much better and seems to be getting a free pass. Its probably because he wasn’t brought over for the Indians two top pitching prospects, but check the numbers:
Masterson – 12 starts – 2-5/5.09 ERA/1.51 WHIP/53 K’s/37 walks/lefties hitting .326 against him
Jimenez – 10 starts – 5-4/5.79 ERA/1.79 WHIP/33 K’s/42 walks/has a 9.00 road ERA
?Where would the Indians be right now if these two were actually performing to the levels they were supposed to. They are just 2.5 games out of first and are getting close to nothing from these two – their supposed #1 and #2 starters.
The schedule is about to get a lot tougher, that is why the Indians blew a huge chance to gain some traction this past week. They get a day off before starting a nine-game trip that includes stops in Detroit, St. Louis, and Cincinnati. Ubaldo is the man who will take the hill on Tuesday and the Indians will be forced to face another lefty, rookie Drew Smyly (2-1, 3.46 ERA). That sounds like a recipe for disaster doesn’t it?
photo via Chuck Crow/PD