The Cleveland Indians came within one game of getting to the World Series last season. With the way the Indians have played during the first three weeks of this season, however, it seems hard to believe they were that close to a Fall Classic berth just six months ago.

The Indians are 7-11 and hardly anything seems to be going right. C.C. Sabathia has gone from winning the American League Cy Young Award last season to being the worst starting pitcher in the major league through his first four outings. Closer Joe Borowski, shaky during the best of times, is on the disabled list with a strained triceps. Second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera and right fielder Franklin Gutierrez have struggled after both made such great strides during the second half of last season to help the Indians win the AL Central.

Indians manager Eric Wedge admits he hasn’t always liked what he’s seen from his team in the early going. In fact, he held a team meeting Thursday, a day after the Indians were hammered 13-2 by the equally-struggling Detroit Tigers at Progressive Field. Wedge said the Indians must resist the temptation to make major changes to a team expected to stage a strong defense of its division title, though the Tigers were the pre-season favorite to win the AL Central.

“Everything that happens at the beginning of the season tends to be magnified,” Wedge said. “I respect the length of the season, but also the urgency of each game. It’s a fine line you’ve got to walk and you’ve got to walk it with the right heartbeat.”

Sabathia’s performance has been making the hearts of Indians’ fans beat faster than normal, and not in a good sense. He was booed off the field Wednesday after allowing nine runs in four-plus innings, and already has a minus 1.0 SNLVAR, the worst figure in the majors. Last year, he was 10th in the majors, at 6.5.

The general consensus in Cleveland is that Sabathia is distracted by his impending free agency at the end of this season. Sabathia turned down a four-year offer from the Indians before spring training started and then asked to table negotiations once he reported to Winter Haven so the contract issue would not interfere with the season.

“I can honestly say I haven’t thought about it,” Sabathia insisted when asked if thoughts of free agency were part of his problem.

Wedge also pooh-poohs the idea that Sabathia is thinking too much about his potential big payday.

“C.C. is really close to being the C.C. we’re used to seeing,” Wedge said. “He’s really not as far away as it looks. He’s worked hard between starts and he’ll get straightened out.”

The Indians, though, don’t seem as confident about Borowski getting back on track. He injured his triceps midway through the exhibition season and went on the disabled list Wednesday, a day after Boston’s Manny Ramirez crushed an 80-mph fastball–good for a high school pitcher, not so good for a major-league relief pitcher–for a game-winning home run in the ninth inning. Borowski said he felt like he was “throwing through water” in that game.

Set-up man Rafael Betancourt has been promoted to the closer’s role while Borowski rests from two to four weeks. That would seem like a good thing from a statistical standpoint. Betancourt was second in the AL in WXRL last season with a 6.845 mark, behind Seattle’s J.J. Putz (7.419), while Borowski was 16th, at 2.776. However, Wedge is concerned, because Borowski lead the AL with 45 saves last season.

“Any time you lose your closer, it hurts,” Wedge said. “Joe has been out there in the ninth inning and done the job for us. We know what we have in him. Now, we have to change everybody’s role in the bullpen and that makes it tough on everybody. It’s not always an easy transition.”

Meanwhile, Cabrera and Gutierrez are having a rough time transitioning to being full-time major-leaguers at the start of a season for the first time in their careers. Gutierrez’s EqA is .209, but that actually looks pretty good next to Cabrera’s .133. Wedge has been giving Jamey Carroll more starts at second base, but the veteran bench player is an unlikely candidate to keep his EqA at .345 very much longer.

Third baseman Casey Blake (.204) and shortstop Jhonny Peralta (.246) are also under .250, and the Indians are eighth in the AL in scoring with an average of 4.59 runs a game. However, it is the heartbeat of the bullpen, sans Borowski, that has most of Wedge’s attention these days.

“Joe came to spring training throwing the ball as good as we’ve ever seen but then [the injury] clipped him,” Wedge said. “We never thought it was serious but he was just never able to get all the way back.”

The Chicago White Sox‘s .318 on base percentage last season was the worst in the major leagues, which led to the White Sox finishing last in the AL in runs scored. Thus, White Sox hitting coach Greg Walker decided to go to one of the first organizations that grasped the full importance of OBP, calling people he knew with the Oakland Athletics.

“They said they didn’t have much luck changing guys,” Walker told the Chicago Tribune. “They draft them and they trade for them. We knew we had this problem. It’s not like it’s brain surgery or rocket science. I like the mix that (General Manager Ken Williams) came up with, especially at the top of the order.”

Williams traded with the Athletics for center fielder Nick Swisher and the Los Angeles Angels for Orlando Cabrera. With that duo hitting in the first two spots of the batting order, the White Sox are fourth in the AL this season with a .344 OBP. Swisher’s OBP is .448 and Cabrera’s is .371. Coming into this season, Swisher had a .361 career OBP and Cabrera had a .321 mark. The White Sox also acquired outfielder Carlos Quentin and his .316 lifetime OBP–.413 in the minors–from Arizona in a trade. Quentin has a .373 OBP so far this season.

“All three of those guys know how to work counts and get on base,” Walker said. “I think it is contagious because players see it works.”

Swisher believes having a high OBP is all about attitude.

“It has to do with the type of player you are,” he said. “You look at Alfonso Soriano and he’s doing just fine for himself. Some guys like to hit early in the count. It’s tough hitting with two strikes in the big leagues.”

San Diego’s bullpen made history last year when it set a major league record by pitching 29 scoreless innings to start the season. The Padres‘ relievers went on to finish the season with a major league best 3.01 ERA. So far this season, the Padres bullpen has a 5.04 ERA, which is 14th in the 16-team NL. Manager Bud Black is not panicking.

“Once these guys as a group start getting in the flow, we’ll start seeing them make pitches,” Black told the San Diego Union-Tribune. “The one thing that’s hurt us is the walk. And these guys, to a man, have a track record of not walking guys.”

Padres relievers have walked 24 in 55 1/3 innings, an average of 3.90 per nine. Meanwhile, Padres fans are concerned about all-time saves leader Trevor Hoffman, who has a minus-0.180 WXRL this season. He had a 2.894 mark last season while pitching with a sore elbow that required surgery last October for the removal of bone chips. However, Hoffman blew saves twice in the final three days of the season, including against Colorado in the one-game playoff for the NL wild card, to keep the Padres from making a third straight postseason appearance.

“More than anything, because of what happened at the end of last year, there’s going to be some focus on Trev’s first number of save opportunities this year,” Black says. “A couple of saves have gotten away from him, and things have been over-magnified and overblown. What I saw in spring training, his stuff, his velocity and his hand speed were the same as last year, if not better.”

The nature of bullpens is that they are volatile from one year to the next. For example, Cleveland has a relief ERA of 5.44 this season after posting a 3.75 mark last year. Conversely, the White Sox and Baltimore have had much better relief pitching so far this season than in 2007. Chicago has a 3.28 relief ERA, as opposed to 5.49 last season, while the Orioles have lowered their bullpen ERA to 3.32 from last year’s 5.75.

“Pitchers are an entirely different animal and I don’t mean that in a negative way,” Detroit manager Jim Leyland said. “Relief pitchers, in particular, are hard to figure. It seems like they get in a role or situation where they are comfortable in one year and they do well, then something might change the next year and they go bad. You try to catch some lightning in a bottle with enough guys that it all works out for you in a particular year.”

Milwaukee’s Ryan Braun wasn’t exactly a paragon of patience last season when he won the NL Rookie of the Year award, as Braun drew just 29 walks in 492 plate appearances. Yet, his .634 slugging percentage was the highest ever by a rookie in major-league history.

Braun’s SLG is down to just .422 so far this season, and Brewers manager Ned Yost attributes that to the left fielder’s .258 OBP. Braun did not draw his first walk of the season until Friday night off Cincinnati’s Bronson Arroyo, in his 63rd plate appearance.

“He’s stepping in the [batter’s] box and wanting to get into a real big hurry,” Yost told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. “He’s too good a hitter for that to happen. He needs to stay patient and he needs to stay a little more disciplined, and let the at-bat come to him. Focus on good at-bats, not focus on results. I’m still not seeing pitchers get him out on a regular basis.”

Yost feels Braun is getting himself out by chasing bad pitches.

“All players go through this,” Yost said. “The difference being that a player of his caliber doesn’t have to go through it for as long. He just needs to take a bit of a step back and re-focus on what he’s trying to accomplish.”

NL Rumors and Rumblings: Washington manager Manny Acta was so alarmed that reliever Chad Cordero‘s fastball topped out at 82 mph in his first appearance after coming off the disabled list that he will continue to use set-up man Jon Rauch as closer for the time being … Pittsburgh has all but given up hope of being able to trade right-hander Matt Morris, who looks like he is at the end of the line despite being just 33 years old … New York Mets second baseman Luis Castillo is going to get at least one and sometimes two days off a week to rest his ailing right knee … Look for Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Juan Pierre‘s playing time to decrease as left fielder Andre Ethier and right fielder Matt Kemp continue to cement starting positions … The Dodgers plan to give left-hander Hong-Chih Kuo a longer look in the starting rotation … Atlanta will try to get by with a closer committee that includes Manny Acosta, Blaine Boyer and left-hander Will Ohman now that Peter Moylan has joined Rafael Soriano on the disabled list … Cincinnati right-hander Josh Fogg has been demoted to the bullpen and Matt Belisle, activated from the DL on Saturday, will take his spot in the rotation … Colorado second baseman Jayson Nix could begin losing playing time to Clint BarmesRockies left fielder Matt Holliday believes he can steal 20 bases this season. His previous career best was 14 in 2005.

AL Rumors and Rumblings: The Los Angeles Angels would consider trading outfielder Reggie Willits, who was sent to the minors this past week, for pitching help … White Sox shortstop Orlando Cabrera has rejected contract extension overtures and plans to test free agency at the end of the season … Boston could end up benching disappointing shortstop Julio Lugo if he doesn’t start to hit soon in favor of rookie Jed Lowrie … The Red Sox are also considering bringing up right-hander Craig Hansen from Class Triple-A Pawtucket in an attempt to bolster their sagging bullpen … Oakland rookie left-hander Greg Smith, acquired from Arizona as part of the Dan Haren trade during the offseason, has been so impressive that some scouts are comparing him to Tom Glavine and Kenny Rogers … Minnesota left fielder Delmon Young plans to run more this season after stealing 10 bases for Tampa Bay as a rookie last year.

Some interesting facts as Week Three of the regular season comes to a close:

  • Outfielder John Bowker became the first player in Giants‘ history, either in New York or San Francisco, to hit a home in his first two major-league games when he connected last Saturday and Sunday off St. Louis’ Todd Wellemeyer and Joel Pineiro.

  • Washington starter John Lannan struck out 11 and did not walk a batter in six innings Wednesday against the Mets. He became the first rookie left-hander to strike out 10 or more and not walk a batter in a start of at least six innings since San Francisco’s Noah Lowry struck out 10 and walked none in 6 2/3 innings against the Mets on Aug. 20, 2004.

  • The Yankees did not steal a base until their 13th game of the season last Sunday when Johnny Damon swiped a bag. That was the deepest into a season a team had gone without a steal since Toronto went 19 games in 2003 before Eric Hinske notched a stolen base.

  • The Yankees beat the Red Sox 15-9 on Wednesday, putting up the most runs against Boston at Yankee Stadium since a 17-9 win on July 7, 1954. The game also featured the most combined runs by the two rivals in a game in New York since the Yankees’ 14-10 win on April 21, 1956, when Mickey Mantle had three hits, including a home run, to lead the way for the Yankees.

  • Colorado’s 2-1 win over San Diego in 22 innings Thursday night was the longest game by innings in the major leagues since Aug. 31, 1993, when Pedro Munoz‘s 22nd-inning home run off Jason Grimsley gave Minnesota a 5-4 win over Cleveland. It was also the longest game in the Rockies’ 16-season history, the longest in Petco Park’s five-year history, and the longest by innings in Padres franchise history.

  • When Chipper Jones, Mark Teixeira and Brian McCann hit consecutive home runs on Thursday against Florida, they became the first Atlanta teammates to go back-to-back-to-back since May 28, 2003, when Rafael Furcal, Mark DeRosa and Gary Sheffield connected against Cincinnati’s Jeff Austin.

  • Pittsburgh center fielder Nate McLouth has a hit in each of the Pirates‘ first 17 games, the longest hitting streak to begin a season by a Pirate since Al Oliver‘s 18-gamer in 1972. First baseman James Loney‘s 15-game hitting streak to start the season was the longest by a Dodger since Ron Cey hit in 17 in a row to begin 1977.

Three series to watch this week, with rankings according to Jay Jaffe‘s Prospectus Hit List:

No. 1 Diamondbacks at No. 4 Dodgers: Wednesday-Thursday, April 23-24
Probable pitchers: Dan Haren vs. Derek Lowe; Edgar Gonzalez vs. Chad Billingsley

No. 2 Mets at No. 7 Cubs: Monday-Tuesday, April 21-22
Probable pitchers: John Maine vs. Carlos Zambrano; Nelson Figueroa vs. Ted Lilly

No. 8 Braves at No. 2 Mets: Friday-Sunday, April 25-27
Probable pitchers: Jair Jurrjens vs. Mike Pelfrey; Tim Hudson vs. John Maine; John Smoltz vs. Nelson Figueroa.

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