Tuesday, June 17, 2008

The Cleveland Indians Conundrum

The Cleveland Indians find themselves in a very interesting and puzzling situation. After a spectacular 2007 which saw them win their first division title since 2001 and come within one win of the World Series, they sit at a disappointing 33-37.

Their #2 and #3 starters, Fausto Carmona and Jake Westbrook, find themselves on the disabled list, with Westbrook out for at least a calendar year after Tommy John Surgery. Their #3 and #4 hitters, DH Travis Hafner and catcher Victor Martinez, are also on the DL after succumbing to nagging injuries that apparently have been affecting them for months.

Young, up and comers Jensen Lewis, Tom Mastny and Asdrubal Cabrera who were supposed to be part of the foundation of the team mind themselves in AAA Buffalo. On top of that their staff ace, C. C. Sabathia looks poised to leave the team via free agency for richer pastures after the season.

Until recently, the offense has been atrocious and unbearable to watch on a daily basis. Journeymen Jason Michaels and Jason Tyner have been jettisoned while Jorge Velandia and Yamid Haad occupy roster spots due to injury. Andy Marte continues to be glued to the end of the bench with no decision on his future with the team seemingly imminent. The magic number of four runs has only been achieved in barely half of their 70 games played to date.

The only thing worse than the offense may be the previous rock of the team, the bullpen. Closer Joe Borowski had injury/strength issues out of Spring Training which forced a realignment of the bullpen. Once un-hittable Rafael Betancourt now regularly brings a gas can to the mound in the late innings. Young lefty Rafael Perez is suffering through an inconsistent sophomore season. Japanese import Masa Kobayashi still has his moments where he struggles with location. Jorge Julio, Craig Breslow, Lewis and Mastny are either no longer with the team or in the minors.

But despite the injuries to two of their best starters. Despite missing their two best power hitters. Despite the offense woefully underperforming for 70 games. Despite the bullpen inconsistencies. And despite their 33-37 record they still only sit 5.5 games out of first place in the American League Central and have 92 games left to play.

The offense has seemed revitalized with young OFs Ben Francisco and Shin-soo Choo joining the line-up. Grady Sizemore has been on an incredible slugging streak and may be developing into the "superstar" player the Indians have lacked since 2001. Ryan Garko looks to have regained his hitting stroke which propelled him through the Indians minor league system.

Jamey Carroll looks to be the #2 hitter the Tribe has been sorely missing after basically being handed the second base job by default. Even oft criticized 3B Casey Blake continues to deliver in the clutch after being putrid in the same situation in 2007.

The starting pitching continues to drive the team and keep it in contention as Sabathia has looked like the reigning Cy Young Award winner his last 12 starts. Aaron Laffey has picked up the slack, providing almost a carbon-copy of Carmona's 2007 breakout performance. And what can be said about Cliff Lee? After looking like he may have lost it last year, all he has done is lead the AL in wins (10) and ERA (2.55) and could have 12+ wins if not for the stagnant offense.

Even the bullpen has started to be a little more consistent as Borowski has given up a run in only one of his appearances since returning from the DL. Perez and Betancourt still have moments of self-combustion but they are less frequent recently. Kobayashi seems to have tightened his control and veteran Scott Elarton keeps eating innings and keeping the Tribe in games when long relief is needed.

It all sets up a very interesting conundrum for the Cleveland Indians. Buy or sell? Make a playoff push in 2008 or realize it may not be their year and start planning for 2009? The fan base may be split right down the middle but I think each side can see the other's viewpoint.

If you are in the camp of it's not even June and they are only 5.5 games back you will point to the 2007 Colorado Rockies or the 2003 Florida Marlins. Teams left for dead that came out of nowhere to make it to the World Series.

You will say the offense has been a lot better in the last two plus weeks and can only improve once Hafner and Martinez return from the DL. When Fausto returns we have four good pitchers in Sabathia, Lee, Carmona and Laffey. The bullpen shows signs of getting sorted out and Lewis and Mastny will be back once they get sorted out in AAA.

If you are in a seller's mind set you will say the Indians have never made it to the playoffs when they haven't been within a game or less this late (as early as it may be) in the season as outlined by Jesse Lamovsky of The Cleveland Fan.

You will say that the starting pitching can not continue at it's amazing pace for the entire season. That the offense still throws in a clunker every now and again and shows no sign of bucking that trend. That Sabathia must be dealt for proven talent at his highest value as the two #1 draft picks they'd get if he leaves in free agency just aren't enough. And that this team just doesn't have the look, feel or vibe that last year's team did and may not find it this season.

The difficult part about the conundrum is that both sides are right and their points are valid. It is too early to tell where this offense will go from here, how far the pitching will drop off, if the bullpen can return to some sort of coherent form and what the injured players will do after their recovery. That's the great thing about baseball.

Personally, I think The Plain Dealer's Terry Pluto said it best. The Indians need to actively shop Sabathia to get an accurate gauge of what they can get for him. Some team will be desperate come the end of July and will be willing to overpay. In the meantime, offer him a more than generous 4-5 year deal that doesn't break the Indians' bank but will have him set for life. It will put the onus on Sabathia to make a decision, take the deal and stay here or be traded. It puts you in a position to be set both ways.

If the Indians falter, they can already have the offers on the table to evaluate and make a decision and can start sending out feelers on other veteran's that would be attractive to contending teams.

If they return to somewhat of a 2007 form, they can reevaluate their position, put out feelers on a young bat they may be interested in and hope the retuning sticks from the DL revert to their old, ball-crushing ways.

Other than that, they just need to wait and see how things play out. The minor don’t have anything more to offer than a few players who have already seen the big leagues this year. There will be no "blockbuster" trade due to the recent injury bug. All the Indians can do is suck it up, play baseball and show the fans what they are really made of.

Until then, it's just another Cleveland Indians Conundrum.

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