Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Cleveland Indians Woeful 2008: Who's To Blame? Everybody.

As the Cleveland Indians aimlessly meander through 2008 failing to live up to the high hopes and expectations they generated in 2007 there are many questions being asked.

How could a team that won 96 games and came a game away from going to the World Series have regressed so much?

How many stellar outings by starting pitchers can they squander by scoring 3 runs or less?

How can every hitter be so bad simultaneously?

What happened to the rock solid bullpen?

But there is one question underlying question on every Tribe fan's mind.
Who's to blame?

There is only one answer. Everybody is. Every one's hands are dirty in this one. It starts at the top and trickles down the the end of the bench. Let's review:

Culprit #1: Mark Shapiro

I think very highly of Mark Shapiro and that I feel what he has done since he took over in the early 2000s can not be overlooked. Yes, he has made some mistakes, but to take the high dollar Jacobs-led Era Indians and transform them to the cost conscious Dolan-led organization they are today is nothing short of amazing. But everything starts at the top and Shapiro's lack of action in the off-season is where this whole mess started.

I hate cliches but there is an old sports cliche that goes "If you aren't getting better, you're getting worse." Coming off that 96 win season in 2007 all Shapiro did was to add Jamey Carroll and Masa Kobayashi. You could defend this and say the Indians didn't need to do much. This which is where Shapiro is culpable.

I do not fault him for not wanting to trade starting pitching. That, beyond all other things in baseball, is a trump card. Starting pitching can carry you in this game a la a hot goalie in the NHL Playoffs. And it has carried the Indians in 2008. I do not fault him for sticking with younger players like Franklin Gutierrez and Asdrubal Cabrera. They are still young, have potential and most player do go through a rough patch in their sophomore season.

However, all veteran players have a track record. A baseline for which you can judge how they will perform year in and year out. Players do have off or career years here and there but for the most part they stick to that baseline. Mark Shapiro knows this.
So it is totally indefensible to think that he would get anything more that what he has from David Dellucci, Casey Blake or Joe Borowski. It is totally indefensible to think he could have gotten more out of Jason Michaels or Jorge Julio. They all had track records that told you they were average or below average players at their respective positions. To think that the Indians would get any more production out of them in unfathomable.

To put this in perspective, the Cleveland Cavaliers had some needs at the trade deadline and made a deal. It may not have worked out perfectly but at least GM Danny Ferry knew they had a deficiency and he did something. Cleveland Browns GM Phil Savage knew he had problems on defense so he did something. It was unconventional and could backfire but he knew he had an issue and addressed it. Mark Shapiro did nothing knowing he had two obvious gaping holes in LF and at 3B. Inexcusable.

One tangent here... The 3B deficiency Shaprio created himself. He had a very capable, young 3B named Kevin Kouzmanoff that he traded for 2B Josh Barfield. Now Barfield may turn out to be a player in the future but it should not have come to that. Shapiro, and some one else to be mentioned later, felt he had to keep Ramon Vasquez over Brandon Phillips and that created a void at 2B. So he robbed Peter at 3B to pay Paul at 2B. Would Phillips and Kouzmanoff look nice at 2B and 3B respectively, for the Tribe right now? Yes... and back to task.

I am not advocating that he should have broken the bank like the Detroit Tigers did for Miguel Cabrera and Dontrelle Willis. But look what they traded to get Kenny Lofton last year, a minor league catcher. Unless they have been up to the majors, all minor league players are just prospects. Nothing more, nothing less.

Grady Sizemore and Cliff Lee were throw-ins in the Bartolo Colon deal. Minor leaguers are nothing until they actually make it to the bigs. Everyone has a big hard-on for Adam Miller. I hope he turns out to be what he could be and then some. I hope it happens in an Indians uniform. But I say forget Adam Miller. Adam Miller has done nothing in MLB and is constantly injured.

If it would have taken Adam Miller to get a Jason Bay or an Xavier Nady over the winter it should have been done. Even without the knowledge of Miller's most recent injury, it should have been done. It may not have not even taken an Adam Miller. Maybe two or three minor league players in the next tier. Maybe a minor league and a major leaguer, who knows, but a move should have been made.

Mark Shapiro did nothing and that's where he deserves blame. You can not fault him for the team's complete offensive struggles, but he knew he had two glaring issues in his line-up and did nothing about it. It may not be the sole reason for the Indians' woes but it is a big, contributing factor.

Culprit #2: Eric Wedge

I am neither an Eric Wedge supporter nor an Eric Wedge detractor. I like the fact that he focuses on the series at hand and enforces winning each series individually. I like how he focuses on winning division games in the era of the unbalanced schedule. I do not like the way he lets some position players and pitchers sit for weeks at a time without playing. I do not like the fact he is very bland and uses the same cliches day in and day out. Overall, I think he is an above average manager. Good but not great.

But when you are the manager it is your responsibility to get the club ready and motivated to play night in and night out. The Tribe, to me, has seemed lifeless for a month. It is the manager's responsibility to put the players in a position to be successful. If your DH and closer are injured to the point that they are hurting the ball club then they need to be removed from the playing rotation. I hate the fact that he is stubborn to a fault. Bottom line the Indians sit at 24-29 and that is a direct reflection on Eric Wedge.

To keep Jason Michaels over a Ben Francisco coming out of spring when Michaels was scuffling ans Francisco was tearing it up was just plain stupid. Eerily similar to the Brandon Phillips fiasco. (See I told you we'd get back to this.) That fiasco falls in the lap of Shapiro because he is the GM and he OK's the deal. He could have said no, but he didn't, and Eric Wedge is to blame as well.

Maybe Wedge was afraid of another Milton Bradley. That was a legitimate concern. But Phillips showed none of the tendencies of a Milton Bradley. Phillips was a young, frustrated player who struggled in his first full year in the big leagues and was sent back down to the minors.

Did he mope, get demotivated and have a bad attitude while in AAA? Yes. But he was a player early in his career who was immature. Bradley was a veteran player who had worn out his welcome in every level he played, and continues to do so.

Phillips outplayed Ramon Vasquez in spring a couple years ago and was shown the door. It was one instance in a line of them where Eric Wedge chose a mediocre, veteran player over a younger player with potential. He did it again with Trot Nixon over Franklin Gutierrez last year and again this year with Michaels and Francisco.

It's also happening with Andy Marte and Casey Blake. I understand Casey Blake leads the team in RBIs and average with RISP but he's still hitting only .216. As I stated above, minor leaguers are prospects until they get to the majors so they can be valuated. You can't evaluate Marte when he sits on the bench 28 of 30 days of the month.

How did Gutierrez do when he came up after Dellucci got hurt last year? How did Francisco do upon his call up this year? How did Grady Sizemore do after Juan Gonzalez got hurt in his 1st AB in 2005? Uncle Eric needs to shed his veteran man-love and realize he has to put some faith in his younger talent. Until he does he will remain average at best.

As far as putting the Indians in a position to win, he can not bat, pitch or field for the team. The fact that the entire team slumped at the same time is not his fault. They fact he didn't bring up Francisco sooner is partially on his shoulders. The Borowski and Travis Hafner injury debacles are also things Uncle Eric is to blame for.

I understand that in today's sports you look for any advantage you can. Smart strategy. But if your closer, who is borderline combustible every time he steps on the mound anyways, is hurt then he should not be pitching, let alone in pressure situations with the game on the line. That is just hurting the ball club. It is the manager's job to prevent that. Uncle Eric did not.

The same thing hols true for Hafner. The guy obviously has something wrong. Whether it is physical, mental, sexual or something else it doesn't matter the manager needs to step in so it doesn't hurt the ball club. Eric Wedge did not step in and that is on him.

Culprit #3: The Players

Listen guys, I am sorry you couldn't get it done against the Massholes in the ALCS last year. It sucked. It hurt. It was a giant kick in the beanbag. For the fans too. Trust us.

But the Indians this year look like they are going through the motions. The facial expressions, the post game comments the body language. The approach at the plate. The lack of execution. The brain cramps at the most inopportune times. Effortlessly handing over of leads right after acquiring them. These things rarely happened in 2007. Suck it up and grow a pair back.

Last year the Tribe were battlers. They were never out of it, always game and full of life. Even when they lost, they had a shot and things just didn't work out or they just got beat. That happens, it's baseball.

If you hold Uncle Eric accountable for being 24-29 then the players must be held accountable for their performance. If Borowski and Hafner are more hurt then the manager or GM knows then they need to say something about it, don't give me that ego BS, if anything you should want to look like garbage every night. Jhonny Peralta is swinging at high heat and sliders away again. He didn't do it last year but these tendencies have returned in 2008.

Wedge called out Betancourt for not pitching inside after yesterday's loss. I say good. He's got a 5.56 ERA, gives up more hits that innings and has given up more homers this year now, than all of 2007. Mr. Untouchable Grady Sizemore is batting .255. Yes his OBP is up and has been hot lately but you know what? Travis Hafner's trouble may be a huge part of the Indians' offensive woes but you know what else is?

The fact that Sizemore hasn't made the proverbial leap to a .300/30 HR/90 RBI/30 SB superstar that we all thought he would be. Maybe we had out hopes too high? Maybe he will still do it? But he isn't right now. Most of his major categories (AVG, R, 2B, HR, XBH, SLG) slipped from 2006 to 2007 he has failed to trend toward 2006 in 2008.

The younger players like Gutierrez and Cabrera are going to struggle at times, there is a readjustment period after the league adjusts to you, but it's no excuse for bad at-bats. How many times are you going to let a 2-0 fastball down the heart of the plate go for a strike instead of taking a cut at it? Same goes on 3-1 counts. That's just bad execution not inexperience or adjustments.

Other than the starting pitching the Indians have failed to execute at a highly maddening rate in every game for Tribe Fans. For them to be that bad in incredible and falls solely on the players. They are the ones playing the game. Not Mark Shapiro. Not Eric Wedge. The way they are playing the game right now is absolutely awful.

They showed some glimmers of hope in the White Sox series but not enough as they lost two of three. They have lost 10 of 12. They travel to Kansas City to take on the Royals, losers of 10 straight and in just as big of an offensive funk as the Indians. The they take on pitch-poor Texas and Detroit to complete an 11-game road trip, their longest of the year.

They may be 24-29 but they sit only 5 1/2 games out of the division lead. Shapiro needs to find a way to fill a hole he ignored. Wedge needs to open his mind to new ideas and new way to motivate and get the most out of his players. The players need stop feeling sorry for themselves, realize they are talented and just play the game. They can still make it Tribe Time Now, but they have to decide if they want to, and decide quickly... or it will be too late.

Tribe Falls to White Sox, Drops 10th of Twelve

The Cleveland Indians have now lost 10 of their last 12 games, botching two potential wins in the last three games against the 1st place Chicago White Sox in stomach-churning fashion. As the offense seemed to start to show some signs of life, scoring three, eight and five runs in the series, the once steady Tribe bullpen decided to flame out when they could least afford it.

Newly promoted Scott Elarton looked horrendous in handing the Sox the game on Memorial Day in the 12th inning. Honestly, I thought it was early season, injured Joe Borowski pitching. Elarton basically threw late night batting practice in the 12th inning of that game.

Wednesday's game was handed to the Sox by Rafael Betancourt immediately after the Indians had put up a three-spot to take a two run lead. Just when the Indians late inning relief looked to be back in order after the return of Borowski they served up a couple of stink pickles for the Progressive Field faithful.

Despite finally scoring some runs in the series, the Tribe continued to fail in situations where they had multiple times to succeed. Two men in, two men on, no one out in the bottom of the 1st Wednesday? Dellucci, Peralta, Aubrey. Strike out, line out, strike out. Instead of breaking the game open a meager 2-0 lead for the Erie Warriors.

Trailing 6-5, the first two men get on in the bottom of the 9th. A perfect bunt by Jamey Carroll to put runners on 2nd and 3rd with one out. Ben Francisco and Victor Martinez due up. Two weak pop ups. On absolutely horrible approaches at the plate. Ballgame over.

It is not coincidence that the only game the Indians won in the series on Tuesday saw them capitalize on these opportunities. They had an opportunity to get ahead early and did. When they had an opportunity to extend the lead they did. When the White Sox threatened late in the game, the bullpen cam in and shut the door.

The fact that the Indians had all three of those things happen in the same game in amazing considering for them to do JUST ONE of those things in any one ball game is difficult for them.

Right now, quite frankly, the Indians don't pass the eye test. They just don't look like a contender or winner let alone a good baseball team. To quote the movie Major League, "These Guys Ain't Too (bleeping) good." Other than the starting pitching they do nothing great or even fairly well.

They sit at 24-29, 5 1/2 games behind the AL Central Division leading White Sox. After 53 games last year they were 34-19 with a 4 1/2 game lead in the AL Central. Last year the Indians went into a post All Star Weekend funk but even through that time they looked like a team that was just working through a rough patch. This year the Tribe just look like a bad baseball team.

Worse than that, a soft baseball team. One unable to handle expectations, adversity or pressure. In fact to quote Tribe skipper Eric Wedge after the game, "You look at that team over there, they're a little bit tougher than we are right now."

I wish I could say I disagree but I can not. After an off day tomorrow it's an 11 game road trip for the Wahoos. With an 8-13 record away from home, and they way they are playing right now, it's a very dangerous task for the Tribe right now.

They need to toughen up if they want to raise the spirits of the Cleveland Faithful because they are like the housing market right now. At an all-time low with no sight of making a comeback.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Top Ten Cleveland Browns With Something to Prove

The Cleveland Browns head into the 2008 season with high hopes and expectations after a 10-6 2007 campaign. The Brownies will have their work cut out for them as they posses the 7th toughest strength of schedule in the NFL. They take on the potent NFC East and AFC South both of which sported three playoff teams in 2007. That coupled with a minimum of five prime-time, national TV games put them under the microscope for all to see.

With all the focus on the Browns as a team there are a number of individual players whose performance will be scrutinized, critiqued and second guessed by the media and fans. Here are my top ten Browns who have something to prove in 2008.

10. Braylon Edwards – WR
Why would someone coming off of an 80 catch, 1,289 yard, 16 touchdown season have something to prove? Because everyone wants to see if he can maintain that level of play. No one expects him break the franchise record for yards and TDs every season but they expect, and need, him to be in the general vicinity. It will also be interesting to see how Braylon handles it when teams lock down on him and he isn’t getting touches.

9. Shaun Smith – DL
He played well in 2007 and talked even better. Searching the opposing team’s media guide for tid-bits to talk smack about players says it all. But “The Hamburglar”, as Carson Palmer dubbed him, needs to have more effect with his body and less with his mouth. How will he handle the rotation up front with the new acquisitions on the defensive line? He needs to step it up to help the much maligned Browns D.

8. Sean Jones – SS
Sean Jones is a solid, above average player. He shows flashes of brilliance but hasn’t taken that step to the next level of elite safeties in the game. The Browns need him to with the inexperience on the outside with their young cornerbacks. He struggled with assignments at the beginning of 2007 after Brain Russell left. The Browns can not afford that in 2008.

7. Antwan Peek – OLB
Injuries derailed you 2007 season from the get-go. A second pass rusher from the outside is sorely needed to take the pressure off Kamerion Wimbley and onto opposing quarterbacks. Peek needs to stay healthy as Willie McGinest is in his final season and David McMillian has yet to show anything in the regular season.

6. Kellen Winslow – TE
Winslow is always going to be on this list because of his knee. We will always wonder just how good he could have been if not for his motorcycle exploits. Even after that he’s a pretty damn good player. But how long will he hold up? The fact he makes it through 16 games every year is amazing in itself. Throw in the Drew Rosenhaus Effect and potential to be a malcontent and it will be an interesting 2008. He has behaved himself greatly since his injury but it will be interesting to see where he goes from here.

5. Kamerion Wimbley – OLB
He was a force as a rookie in 2006 and then eerily silent in 2007. Was it the case of a sophomore slump or has the league adjusted to him? Whichever it is, Kam-Ram needs to figure it out for the Browns to take a step up on defense. Antwan Peek also plays a big role in Wimbley’s success as opposing offense were able to scheme solely against Wimbley as he was the Browns only pass rushing threat.

4. Andra Davis – ILB
He makes a sh!tload of tackles, but they are all 5 yards down the field or after he has been dragged a few yards. Davis claims it was the effect of nagging injuries but it remains to be seen. D’Qwell Jackson will anchor one ILB spot, Leon Williams will see time in passing situations and rookie Beau Bell will be gunning after the other inside spot. So the heat is on Davis who had his best game in the Snow Bowl versus Buffalo when speed and agility was rendered useless. You could see his great reading and reaction abilities in that game. Without the speed and agility his is an average ILB at best.

3A. Eric Wright – CB
3B. Brandon McDonald - CB
Easy-E and B-Mac were in the top ten to begin with and Daven Holly’s season ending injury only raises their importance. The defensive line looks like it is better on paper which will hopefully free up the linebackers to make plays but if we can not cover down the field the 2008 season may be derailed. Having to face Tony Romo, Ben Roethlisberger, Carson Palmer and Eli Manning in four of the first five games of the season and seeing Payton Manning, Donovan McNabb, Palmer and Roethlisberger in four of the last five games is a daunting task for any CB duo, let alone two second year players.

2. Shaun Rogers – NT
The Browns gave up a 3rd Round draft pick and CB Leigh Bodden to acquire him which could be a steal or a bust. It all depends on how motivated and hungry (on the field) Rogers is. He can be a dominant player on the inside when he wants to but he can also be lazy and not care about his effort, weighs or what his teammates think of him. He was happy, upbeat and excited at OTAs and that’s the way the Browns need him. Stopping the run has been the Browns’ Achilles Heel for years and Shaun Rogers holds the key to reversing that trend.

1. Derek Anderson - QB
Was there any doubt who was going to be number 1? Despite winning ten games and putting up the 5th most passing yards and 2nd most passing TDs in a single season in the history of the Cleveland Browns, DA is the most scrutinized player on the team. The first reason is “The Golden Boy” and home-state hero Brady Quinn is waiting in the wings. Despite throwing only 8 passes in the NFL, Quinn still remains as the favorite in the hearts of some Browns fans. Rightfully so of not, it is an issue that will continue to arise from the start of training camp. The second reason DA is under such a microscope in his giant drop off in the second half of 2007 highlighted by the stinker in Week 16 versus the lowly Cincinnati Bengals. Was his 2007 a fluke or just the tip of the iceberg? The Jeckel and Hyde act of “Good DA” versus “Bad DA” wears thin and fast. All QBs are going to have bad games but DA’s are so extreme in either direction it is maddening. If Anderson is the franchise quarterback for the Cleveland Browns he needs to show it and show it early. Why? Because the fans will be calling for Quinn the first bad pass that comes out of DA’s hands. It may not be right, but it is a fact.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Cleveland Indians Weekend In Review

The Cleveland Indians lost two of three to the Texas Rangers over the weekend. Sunday's loss was a perfect example of the Indians' frustrating season as Ben Francisco, who has been one of the few bright spots on offense, let a single bounce through his legs in the top of the 10th inning to allow the winning run to score with two outs as the Tribe fell 2-1. Of course, it came off the bat of former Indians' inept utility man, Ramon Vasquez, currently hitting .356 for the Rangers.

Just when you thought the Tribe bats may have started to awaken from their slumber after putting up 9 and 5 runs in the first two games of the series, it was back to business as usual with 1 run on 9 hits on Sunday.

After scoring one run in the 1st, the Indians had two runners on with one out and failed to score another. They had the bases loaded with one out in the 2nd and failed to score ANY runs. Other scenarios... Runner on second in the 3rd with one out? No runs. Lead-off hitter in the 5th, 6th and 8th gets on base to start the inning? Eliminated by a double play in EACH of those three innings. Runner on second with one out in the 9th? Stranded.

The awful strikeouts by Travis Hafner and Jhonny Peralta and the weak ground-out to second by Victor Martinez in the bottom of the 10th were a microcosm of the season. None of the Indians hitters can come through when it counts especially the ones who they have counted on over the past three seasons.

An interesting tid-bit from The Plain Dealer's Paul Hoynes that can be found here. Indians starters Aaron Laffey (1.60), Cliff Lee (1.66) and C.C. Sabathia (1.66) entered Saturday with the three, lowest ERAs in the AL since April 17. The Indians record in those 33 games? 17-16. Sabathia's 7 inning, 1 run performance will lower his figure and the Indians record lowered to 17-17 in the last 34 games. Ugly.

So now the Indians have lost 8 of their last 9 after winning 8 of their previous 10. They are managing to hang around in the weak AL Central but have shown very few signs of life offensively. The Indians made some roster moves over the weekend, but they were all pitching related.

Fausto Carmona was placed on the 15 Day DL after injuring his hip in Friday's game. Bad news, as Fausto will be out for at least 4 weeks, but the timing works out with Jake Westbrook's activation from the DL on Wednesday. So Laffey will be sticking around as he tries to be the Fausto Carmona of this year, filling in during injuries but pitching well enough to warrant staying in the rotation.

Jensen Lewis was also optioned back to AAA Buffalo to sort out some velocity and mechanics issues. Crafty veteran Scott Elatron and oft-shuttled Edward Mujica were recalled to take their spots. One, probably Mujica, is headed back to Buffalo when Westbrook is activated Wednesday but the Indians are more than comfortable with an 11 man staff with the efforts they have been getting from their starters.

Craig Breslow was designated for assignment on Friday to activate Joe Borowski from the DL. No fault of Breslow, who had pitched decently, but the Indians just don't need a 12 man staff with the rotation they have. Maybe they should have shipped out Jorge Julio after his brilliant performance in relief of Carmona on Friday. The 5 run, 6 hit, 3 walk gem in 1 2/3 innings of work was pure crap and that is an insult to crap.

Borowski gets ripped a lot, even by me, and deservedly so, but the effect he had on the set-up men did make be raise an eyebrow. Rafael Betancourt threw 1 2/3 scoreless innings in two appearances while Masa Kobayashi threw 3 innings of what would have been scoreless ball if not for Francisco's error. Only Rafael Perez gave up a run in 1 1/3 innings on Friday but bounced back with a scoreless 1 1/3 on Saturday.

Even Iron Joe's performance in his return on Saturday was impressive, for him. He tossed a scoreless inning with only 1 weak flare to left on only 10 pitches. Hopefully the bullpen can get itself sorted out which only leaves one MAJOR problem for the ball club.

But the offense continues to weigh down the team each and every night. When two rookies, Francisco and Michael Aubrey, are the only two guys hitting on a consistent basis you are not going to win many games. The fact that they are both hitting in the top five of the order should be all that has to be said.

What can the Indians do to to fix the offense? Short of a trade, which in NOT going to happen before July, hope that some guys "find themselves" and make some minor tweaks from within. He had a 2-3 week run, but David Dellucci has reverted back to David Dellucci. The Looch hit into two double plays Sunday, killing potential rallies both times.

Ben Francisco has been playing every day and rightfully so. Shin-soo Choo is almost ready to come off the DL and should be given The Looch's at-bats. He can platoon with Franklin Gutierrez in Right Field. What they do with Dellucci is really inconsequential at this point. He is serving no purpose right now.

I know his defense is sick, but it might be time to let Asdrubal Cabrera get his bat sorted out in AAA Buffalo. I know Josh Barfield isn't tearing it up down there but maybe they can flip-flop roles from last year. If Laffey can be this year's Carmona why can't Barfield be this year's Cabrera? I hate to say it, because I am the biggest As-Man apologist out there, but it's time for "The As-Man To Go-eth" to AAA and get right.

And just do something with Andy Marte. Play him, trade him, designate him for assignment, I don't care. But right now he is doing nothing and that CAN'T be good for his development as a player at this point. He can't be any worse than Casey Blake, who may lead the team in RBIs, but that isn't saying much when you average 3.5 runs per game, barely.

Continue to play Francisco every day and give at-bats to Aubrey. Hafner and Garko have not shown they know how to get out of a slump maybe sitting on the bench and watching a young, hungry player gets hits might do the trick. Dropping Sizemore down to the 3-hole again like last year may be an option with Choo coming off the DL. He has some speed and Sizemore may be hitting sporadically but at least he's hitting. Other than that I am at a loss.

Despite losing 8 of 9 the Indians remain in contention. A three game series in Chicago against the division leading White Sox can put them right back in the mix after getting swept by the Sox in Cleveland just 3 days ago.

If this team is still wallowing in self-pity after blowing a 3-1 lead in the 2007 ALCS then it's time for them to get over themselves. That's the only thing mentally that these guys may have weighing on their brains. It's time to suck it up, be men and win some ballgames... before it's too late.