June 23, 2008
Picking the Right Path
Everywhere you look, there's a new team that is supposed to be trading for the Indians' C.C. Sabathia. With the Tribe apparently having been written off for 2008, it's assumed that GM Mark Shapiro will have to convert his left-handed ace into something by July 31, lest he lose him to free agency and get just draft picks in return.
The Indians have had a spectacular run of misfortune this year, losing 40 percent of their rotation and two of their three offensive stars to injury. Their bullpen, such a strength in 2007's run to the ALCS, has been a disaster, the worst in baseball by WXRL. Joe Borowski and Rafael Betancourt have imploded in 2008, and Rafael Perez and Jensen Lewis haven't quite matched their '07 work. Cliff Lee has swapped places with Fausto Carmona as this year's surprise #2 starter, but Carmona himself is on the DL (with his 23/38 K/BB). The offense consists of Grady Sizemore and arguably one other above-average performance, that being Ben Francisco's .302/.353/.479 line. The Indians are seventh in the AL in runs, and even that's inflated by a fantastic performance (.270/.371/.444) with runners in scoring position. Their fundamentals place them in the bottom third of the league-the Indians are 11th in the AL in EqA.
And with all that said…what are these people thinking?
The Indians are 6 ½ games out of the lead in the AL Central with 86 games to play. They trail three teams, two of which were expected to be .500 or below at the start of the season. The third, the Tigers, their main rivals for the division lead, have been just as disappointing after coming into the season as favorites. While the Indians are in fourth, they are one of just two teams in the division to have outscored their opponents, and their +15 run differential is sixth in the AL, a good night from being fifth. They have easily improvable situations in right field, where Shin-Soo Choo is finally back and maybe getting the playing time he's deserved for years, and second base, where almost anyone will do better than Asdrubal Cabrera's .184/.282/247 performance.
The Indians should not be looking to trade their best starter and begin plans for 2009. They should be looking to shore up what they can shore up and take a very winnable division in 2008. This is not a young team with a core than can be kept together for a long time. Sizemore is 25 and a stud, but Sabathia is probably going to be lost, Victor Martinez is 29, Travis Hafner, or whatever is left of him, is 31, and Cliff Lee is 29. The Indians are wired to win right now, and passing on an opportunity because the team is 6 ½ games out with more than half a season to play would be a huge mistake.
Rather than trade Sabathia, Shapiro should look for a short-term fix at second base that's better than Jamey Carroll, such as the Orioles' Brian Roberts or perhaps the Giants' Ray Durham. The Indians could use some OBP in the #2 spot, where Carroll has been hanging out of late. His current .369 OBP is helping, but he has the track record of a utility player, and it does not seem likely that he can sustain that figure as the everyday second baseman for the rest of the season.
Shapiro can also look to make marginal improvements. Upgrading on David Dellucci is a start. Dellucci hasn't hit at all since signing a three-year deal with the Tribe two winters ago, and his contact rate and K/BB are strong indications that he won't start soon. Adding an arm to the problematic bullpen, especially if it means giving up on the idea that Borowski is a high-leverage relief pitcher, would help considerably.
It's not just about the front office, though. To actually win the division, a couple of the team's farm products are going to have to improve upon their poor play to date. First baseman Ryan Garko, who hit .289 with very good power in winning the first base job last season, has had a lousy age-27 season. Despite a better contact rate, Garko's batting average has slipped 34 points, and when he hits the ball, he's not getting as much out of it: an isolated power of .113, as opposed to .194 last season. He's working deep counts-Garko is 11th in the AL in pitches seen per plate appearance-without getting much benefit, and it might be time to ask what a bit more aggression would do for his numbers.
Jhonny Peralta has the opposite problem, with 19 walks and 58 strikeouts in 290 PAs. His .292 OBP, accumulated almost entirely in the middle of the lineup, has been an offense-killer all year long. Peralta had average walk rates from 2005 through 2007, which makes his sudden lack of patience all the more frustrating. Peralta's power is still there, and he's actually making more contract than usual, but the combination of a .243 BA and a brutal walk rate are making him a #9 hitter in #5 hitter's clothes. Moving him down in the lineup-further than sixth, which is where he's spent some time--until he gets his OBP into the .300s would patch the problem, but the Indians will be hurting unless Peralta gets back to his .330/.440 level.
The idea that the Indians have to trade Sabathia and plan for the future is yet another example of a significant negative trend within baseball: judging teams too quickly. We've developed this NFL mindset in which a three-game losing streak, or a bad month, leads to rumors and firings and chaos. Baseball is wired differently. Baseball needs time. There's nothing unusual about a very good team playing around .500 for a month or three, or for that matter, a bad one doing the same. There's nothing insurmountable about a 6 ½-game deficit, and if the Indians aren't in trouble, then the same can be said for the Mets, or the Yankees, or the Braves, or any of a number of other teams around whom there's an air of panic.
Baseball doesn't reward panic. It rewards perspective and patience, and those two traits are in ample supply in Cleveland. The Indians are perfectly capable of not just making their season interesting, but extending it well into October. They should hold on to C.C. Sabathia because doing so helps them reach their goal: a championship in 2008.