… To Start Sweating The Details Of A New Indians Season

Never Too Early 

… To Start Sweating The Details Of A New Indians Season

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There seems little point in recapping the disastrous year in Cleveland sports. Helping the Browns' front office box up their belongings would be more fun. So instead, let's look forward with the second installment of Scene's 2009 Cleveland Indians preview. Today I'm joined by Jay Levin, proprietor and editor of LetsGoTribe.com, and past contributor to Esquire and myriad baseball sites.

VG: Alright. Let's talk bullpen. By all acounts, Kerry Wood will be good if he's healthy, so it's kind of useless projecting his performance unless you're Miss Cleo's half-brother, and even then, it's pretty freaking useless. Instead, let's talk about what a healthy Kerry Wood means to the rest of the bullpen.

JL: You're right, it's almost pointless trying to predict relievers. The only thing worth looking at is strikeouts and walks, and by those measures, K-Wood is an absolute beast. I think he actually was better in 2008 than the numbers showed, and health aside, he's as good of a bet to have one of those obscenely dominant seasons in 2009 as any reliever in the game.

Almost all relievers are pitchers who weren't talented enough to be starters, and that includes some of the very best closers, you could argue even Mariano Rivera. Not Wood -- he was more than talented enough to be a starter, he was a really good starter, so he's in the much shorter list of relievers who are in that role for some other reason, like Smoltz a few years ago, or Papelbon. Possibly Adam Miller at some point.

What does it mean for the bullpen? It's a thickening, which is a little different from depth. I haven't really done the numbers on this yet, but it seems to me that what a team really needs is four or five really good relievers in any season. You're in fantastic shape with five, solid with four, barely squeaking by with three -- we had three in 2007. If you end up with more than five, that's actually pointless, as we saw in 2005. Thing is, you don't really know how many you're going to have going into any season, because relievers are so damned unpredictable. We think we can slot Perez and Lewis in as solid guys, but you don't really know -- look at Betancourt last year, he was absolutely terrible, with no warning and for no reason. So you've got those three, plus Joe Smith, plus five really good prospects who will all get their shots (Miller, Rundles, Meloan, Sipp, and Stevens).

With those nine guys, what's our risk of still not having a solid bullpen? I think it's significant -- there's a lot of talent, but the most well-tested guy, Betancourt, was awful last year. So I think adding Wood at the top gives the team a much higher probability of having those three really solid relievers, without which the bullpen is a trainwreck, and a very good chance of having the four or five relievers that would constitute a really good bullpen.

VG: Let's move on from the quagmire of the bullie. By all accounts, it looks like Jhonny Peralta will start the season at third, Cabrera at short, and Garko at first. Does it matter who plays second? I guess, yes, of course it does, but if they don't land Orlando Hudson or trade for Brian Roberts (because neither will happen), we're looking at Josh Barfield, Jamey Carroll, and newly acquired Valenbuela competing for playing time.

Doesn't that seem eerily similar to Shapiro's Dellucci/Michaels platoon? Who do you think comes out of that trio, what can we expect in terms of production, what would be serviceable in terms of production, and is there any chance it's not any of the three?

JL: I don't know what the front office really thinks of Valbuena, but my read on his numbers is, maybe he's ready right now, and as a lefty hitter, he'd make a nifty platoon with Barfield -- he already hits righties better than Barfield ever has. I think Barfield starts out on the big-league bench this year anyway, and we know they like Carroll but not in a full-time role. So I'm thinking, if you've got those two guys on the bench anyway, why not throw Valbuena in there and just see what happens?

Okay, I guess Valbarfield is a little similar to Dellichaels, but age is an important difference. Dellucci and Michaels were both middling veterans who had shown some signs of being viable as everyday players, and they just never rose to that opportunity. When they were bad in 2007, there wasn't a good chance they'd be better in 2008, because they're in their 30's. If they put Barfield and Valbuena in there and they struggle, there's still significant upside in those guys, even later in the same season.

VG: C.C. just signed a ridonkulous contract in New York, and it's as good a time as any of Tribe fans to remember just what Shapiro wrought from the Brewers. Matt LaPorta and Michael Brantley both figure prominently in the Indians' near future. The question is: How near is that future?

I don't see Ben Francisco being anything above quite ordinary as an everyday starting left fielder, and think he'd be more useful as a fourth guy. Garko has driven me absolutely nuts for years, despite the fact that I love calling him Ryan Garkononopolous. And who the hell knows what Travis will bring to the table this year. There's rumors he's down to 210 pounds, which while perhaps healthy for his body and a good preventative measure to make sure his shoulder doesn't exponentially and unexplainably lose strength like it did last year, it has to be concerning for your DH power hitter to be at that weight with his recent struggles. There's three big question marks. Do LaPorta and Brantley figure into two of these spots sometime?

JL: Oh, I forgot Masa in the list of relievers, so there were actually ten main options before we signed Wood. But Masa just amplifies the main point, in that the question is, can he be one of those four or five really good relievers for us, and the realistic answer is, "Maybe." Not even "Probably." I just watched the Wood press conference a minute ago. Gotta admit, I'm pretty charged up just seeing him in the Indians cap and jersey.

I agree, the absolute best we can hope for out of Ben is that he's an ordinary starting left fielder, and although for one year or two, that sure would be nice to have, we can't even count on that much out of him.

The weight-loss thing with Hafner is a sideshow -- nobody thinks he has an eatingdisorder or cancer, right? I'm not worried about his weight, only about his shoulder. It seems like Hafner carried a lot of extra muscle weight around that didn't necessarily help his bat speed -- he liked weightlifting, he's into football and wrestling. It made him more physically imposing but not necessarily a better hitter. The bottom line is, if his shoulder can recover, then he'll be a very good hitter again -- not the 2006 heights, but very good -- and if his shoulder doesn't recover, then we're screwed. It really is that simple.

I'm a big fan of both guys as prospects -- I think most fans don't quite "get it" with Brantley, but they will in a few years. I don't see 2009 as the year for either of them. Brantley was a very young 22 last year and was playing against older competition in Double-A. For him to hit Triple-A a few months shy of 23 is really great, but both in terms of his physical development and his performance, I think he's at least a year away. LaPorta had a good year in Double-A but certainly didn't dominate the league, not like Kouzmanoff did in 2006 for example, so I don't think it follows that he's already a borderline major leaguer. I think it's likely that we'll give him a good taste this year -- we'll end up needing him somewhere -- but I don't think he'll make an impact.

By the way, C.C. is a jackass. I was cool about it until today, when he got introduced as a Yankee. But the bottom line is, you sign with the Yankees, that makes you a jackass. I don't care what the reasons were, and I'm sure he's a nice fellow and loves his family and all that. Doesn't matter, he's just a jackass for life now, just like Roger Clemens.

VG: Yeah, I definitely get the jackass sentiment. "The Yankees give me the best chance to win" is a fine and dandy explanation for signing with a team. Now, it irks me that it's the hated pinstripes, but whatever. If that was the reason, why did they have to jump their offer up $21 for him to come around to that conclusion? As for Woods, I keep having this vision of him trotting in from the bullpen and the crowd going nuts in the "Wow, is he just going to shut the other team down" way. Kind of like singing "Wild Thing" for Vaughn in Major League II, except with everyone better dressed and not acting so goofy.

JL: Yeah, but it isn't. The Yankees do not have to play on a level playing field, building their team up from the ground and making sharp moves along the way like 25 other teams. The Yankees aren't "competitive," they're at the craps table with loaded dice. A real competitor doesn't want to win with unfair advantage, he wants to compete. Star players who want to go to the Yankees, aren't going there to "compete," they're going there for the loaded dice. They don't want to have to earn postseason berths, they want titles handed to them on a silver platter. I have zero respect for that. He got the extra money because it was there for the asking. They paid it because the money doesn't matter to them. That's all.

With Wood...

Well, there's going to be a settling-in period, when the fans get used to the idea that Wood isn't godlike, he's just a really good pitcher. His legacy is going to be based on getting something done in the postseason, first and foremost. We've had some awfully good players come and go here without having their names totally ring out. There isn't an Indians fan alive who wouldn't trade Sabathia's Cy Young for a victory in ALCS Game 5.

Oh, yeah, I guess that's the real final statement on C.C. -- he's a jackass AND he choked in the playoffs, four times.

VG: Re: C.C. -- Memories like that make me anxious for a possible playoff matchup with the Yanks.

What in the world is going to happen with the rotation? That's a very open-ended question, obviously. Go where you will. Cliff? Fausto? Third starter? Soft-tossing lefty overload? Whatever.

JL: I'm optimistic about Fausto -- it's not unusual for a guy rehabbing to have problems with his command. Let's not forget that we've seen this guy bounce back from adversity in a big way before this. He's young and talented and apparently healthy, so my money's on him in 2009.

Beyond that ... yeah, it's not great. A whole bunch of maybes, and the best one is probably David Huff, who won't start the season in the majors. I think the idea is that the cavalry will come at some point -- Huff in June, Westbrook in July -- but in the meantime can we get something respectable out of Reyes and Jackson and Laffey and Sowers? Tough call. I like Laffey a lot and suspect that Reyes has something to contribute. Fans don't seem to have noticed, but our pitching coach has pulled a few rabbits out of hats over the past few years. Maybe we shouldn't underestimate him.

I know the Indians want another infielder and the fans want a big bat, but I see this as the Indians' biggest problem heading into 2009. They need to come up with a signing that's better than Jason Johnson and cheaper than Ben Sheets, but those are hard to come by. It's not even clear whether they would spend another $10 million on a pitcher if the right guy were available. I think that they would, but it's not clear.

VG: To channel Peter King for a moment... I think I think that Anthony Reyes has a lot more than just a little to contribute in 2009. His projections (Baseball Think Factory has him at a 4.79 ERA, pitching 94 innings, and a 95 ERA+) aren't entirely promising, so my basis for thinking he might throw up a 4.00 ERA, 140 innings, and a 105 ERA+ have no basis in reality I suppose. Maybe it's the way he left St. Louis, maybe it's the movement and speed on his pitches, maybe it's the flat brim on the hat, or the strong finish in 2008, but I suspect he could be the lynchpin in the holdover movement in the rotation. The soft-tossing lefties will be just that -- soft, left, and tossers. They really won't win or lose games -- that will be decided by the offense and bullpen. Reyes, at least in my fantasy, is above that, and barring any injuries, I think he'll surprise a lot of fans in holding down the middle of that rotation until the cavalry arrives.

Am I on crack?

JL: No, you're not on crack. I like Reyes a lot. Having said that the story about him and the pitching coach not getting along, as if that's the whole source of his struggles ... well, it's a little too good of a story and too light on real evidence. I mean, it can't be that easy, can it? Although I love the idea that Reyes can be "our Guthrie." Those things do happen, just not all that often. There's a lot to be said for guys who neither win nor lose games. I would argue that guys like that quietly win pennants, that they can be the difference in any given season. We're talking about eating some innings, and that's the question for these guys. Nobody is expecting a Cy Young, but can we get 300 kinda-sorta decent innings out of them by the All-Star break? That's the big question.

Bottom line, I think whichever three guys break camp as part of the rotation are going to get a good six weeks to put together some decent games. Time enough to show they can do something, but also time enough to get a good jump on screwing up the whole season.

VG: You've taken to posting "Ask Jaysie" columns on LGT, which just takes the "Ask Hoynesie" section from the PD, and you provide your version of the answers. Why?

JL: Well, let me first tell you what I'm not doing, and that is, being one of these anti-MSM warriors. What I would write on LGT is very different from what anyone would write for the Plain Dealer, but the main reason for that is the audience and the assignment, less so the actual writer. If I were a mainstream baseball writer -- God help me -- would I approach the job differently? Yeah, I'm sure I would, but probably not as differently as LGT readers would assume. So that's what I'm not doing.

As for what I am doing, the simple answer is, these are questions that deserve better answers than Hoynes is giving them. Now, there are two versions of that. One version is where it's a really stupid question -- usually not even intended to be a good question, just a cheap shot at management -- and Hoynes fails to call him out. Now, Ocker publishes dumb questions and points them out, which is kind of a jerky thing to do. But Hoynes publishes dumb questions and doesn't recognize them as dumb questions, and you could argue that that's worse. If I were choosing the questions, I simply wouldn't choose those questions.

The second kind is where the reader has asked a pretty good question -- maybe it's kind of rudimentary from a diehard blogger standpoint, but still a good question -- and Hoynes is giving some 1973 state-of-the-art answer. We know so much more about the game than we used to, and there isn't one local baseball writer who is more sophisticated in understanding the numbers -- how the numbers really impact the game -- than, say, the 100th most sophisticated contributor to LetsGoTribe. They simply have not made the effort to keep up, and every year, maybe 10,000 more daily readers become more advanced than the daily writers. Yes, as I said before, this is a different audience that these guys are writing to, but I do think that Hoynes does the readers a disservice by not going beyond batting average and RBIs -- both in the sense that he's underestimating the readers, in my view, and also just by reaching conclusions that are simply wrong, and printing them.

I believe Terry Pluto just discovered OPS in the past year.

VG:Now that that's out of the way... are you sad to see Sal and his fu-manchu go?

JL: I am not convinced that he's gone yet. I have not given up hope. He hasn't signed with anyone, has he? There will be a time for mourning, if and when he actually signs elsewhere, but until that day comes, keep hope alive! Sal is a special player. He may or may not help the team win any games, but he somehow makes the team more awesome anyway. A lot of things can happen, and I'm hopeful that Sal will make it back to Cleveland this season.

VG: Alright, projection time. Taking into account what the White Sox, Twins, Tigers, and Royals have and have not done, how's the division line up?

JL: I haven't really given it a lot of deep thought, how the division is shaping up -- it seems like a waste of time at this point, since a lot of moves have yet to be made. One thing I can say is that the Twins will continue to struggle to score runs, but they've set themselves up as a long-term threat because of how many young pitchers they brought into the picture last season -- I mean, it was kind of unbelievable. Unless a couple of those guys get injured or their bullpen blows up, the Twins aren't going to be a pushover for the next several years at least.

The Tigers, on the other hand, are a mess. They've been overspending for a few years, and last year they traded most of their significant prospects away. They've got some real talent, but it's generally fragile or aging or both, and they only have maybe one guy on the farm who might help them in 2009 or even 2010. They want to cut payroll and add talent, but their best players are on pretty expensive contracts, so that is simply not going to happen. They have become the classic case of how a team with a little extra money can spend their way right into fourth place. It just goes to show how hard it is to spend extra money effectively -- free agents are very, very expensive and just not reliably productive -- and that is the only reason that the Indians can still compete in this league.

VG: Should the Tribe keep playing "Again Tonight" by John Mellencamp after every home victory? I'm quite partial to the song. I got the cassette when I was young, maybe 9 or 10, and was enamored with the Cougar because he > turned the phrase, "Hump the moon, again tonight," in the tune. Also, he > was my first concert ever, and he said "Fuck" onstage.

JL: I don't really have a dog in this hunt, since I watch the games on the Extra Innings package, and they cut off the broadcasts before the song starts. But I like Mellencamp, and I think they should keep the song for all the reasons you cite. Speaking of "fuck," nobody ever talks about this, but one of the things I really missed about the Pronk last year was how most any time he struck out, or even just guessed wrong on a pitch, he would let loose a big old "FUCK!" over the semi-public airwaves. That for some reason is still a special thrill, and the games were just not the same without it.

VG: Your guess: Infielder, starter, or nothing before spring training.

JL: Starter. I see some mediocre-to-decent guy falling in the market down to a bargain price, and they won't be able to resist that. I don't think that will happen with an infielder, and I have a funny feeling that they're kind of comfortable letting Barfield and Valbuena fight for time at second base, while pulling the trigger on Peralta-to-third. But this is just a hunch.

VG: Adam Miller: Over/under 25 major league appearances.

JL: The smart money is probably on "under," as he's only gone over 25 in two seasons, 2004 and 2006. Still, I'm taking the "over," which I know in my gut is the right answer. I may be bitter and demanding sometimes, but in my heart I'm still a cockeyed optimist. So does that tie your piece up with a nice shitty little bow?

VG: Yes, that's it. For now. Not much else can be said except that sometime shortly after the holidays are over I'm going to figure out the exact day count to pitchers and catchers reporting. Mainly, let's just all take a minute to thank the heavens that the brain trust at MLB scheduling finally figured out it's not a good idea to have Opening Day in Cleveland in March.

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