Smoke Signals Over the Cuyahoga #2: Piece by Piece

I’m gonna level with you fine folks for a second. I haven’t been following Spring Training in the slightest. Not this year, or last year, or for several before that. If memory serves me correctly, the last season I paid attention with the intent of tracking facts and figures and statistics and position battles was probably prior to the ’99 or 2000 seasons – maybe both. Back when the biggest question mark on the team was who would be filling in as the rotational LF/DH/1B, occasionally spelling good ol’ boy Jim Thome in the process. Richie Sexson? Wil Cordero? Jacob Cruz? Is Dave Justice’s knee going to hold up for most of the season and what of our glut of OF prospects? Can we work in some auditions for Alex Ramirez or Scott Morgan? Now, I haven’t completely ostracized myself from the process. A good story is always worth sinking teeth into, regardless of whom or what teams are involved. About a year ago I found myself in the minority of those who didn’t exonerate Ubaldo Jimenez for intentionally throwing at Colorado Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzski during an ST game. The alleged reasoning behind this was Jimenez had taken issue with statements Tulowitzski and fellow OF Carlos Gonzalez had made regarding their former teammate’s performance prior and after his trade, contract status, and relationship with their respective front office – the most scathing of which weren’t even made to the media. My position was, has been, and continues to be that off-field spats and gripes should stay that way and shouldn’t dictate what takes place on the diamond, least of all during Spring Training, and therefore Jimenez was rightfully suspended for dealing with a personal problem in an unprofessional manner. Now, I’m not above brushing a batter off the plate or sending a message to an opposing team when called for, but as an athlete (and moreso as an adult) a verbal provocation is merely that and easy to toss away. You brush it off and sit the man down swinging on three pitches to make your point. So, as you can see, a little drama during what’s typically an innocuous few weeks can make for some good banter. Little did I know at the time that it would pale in comparison to some of the more robust controversies ahead for the Indians.

Now that the hustle and bustle of the team’s recent acquisitions has died down with Spring Training in full swing, I’ve taken the time to digest their significance and what they could mean for the team. Certainly, a makeover was necessary and for many a starved sense of optimism has once again been renewed. Here’s some brief bullet points about where I stand with new kids we could be cheering and jeering on at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario. You may want to grab a kosher dog or two and an adult beverage of your choice. I hear they’re going to be much more economically

  • Nick Swisher – For the first time in his career, Swisher will be heavily counted on to anchor an offense that has had more than its share of woes. Without the benefit of batting in the lower third of a powerhouse lineup as he’s been accustomed to, his acumen for adjusting to pitchers over the course of a game (and by proxy, the season) and seeing less viable pitches will be put to the test as it was for him coming up as a rookie in Oakland. Manager Terry Francona is inclined to give him more games at 1B than RF than previously expected, thus effectively moving Mark Reynolds to DH. Although I think this weakens the starting OF as a whole on paper given Swisher’s athleticism for the time being, it speaks volumes about the roster’s versatility.
  • Michael Bourn – At long last, Bourn provides what’s been desperately missing in a true leadoff man for the first time in years. One of the better contact hitters in the NL, how he adjusts to the more breaking-ball friendly pitchers in the AL will determine how effective he can be at getting on base. Given that he has a penchant for going after a pitch he wants rather than waiting for one, his walk totals have been less than ideal. Francona can and will take advantage of his speed on the basepaths as made evident by his basestealing ability but in order to do so, Bourn still has to sharpen up his plate discipline. While some of the Kenny Lofton comparisons are a bit too far-fetched for my liking, I’ll take a more well-rounded version of what Coco Crisp was capable of both at the plate and in the OF during his best years on the Indians. Time and youth are on his side, it’s up to him to turn the key.
  • Mark Reynolds – In a previous post I had speculated that a move towards DH may benefit Reynolds in allowing him to strictly focus on improving his contact and cutting down his strikeouts, both of which will make the difference in whether he can be the threat he’s hoped to be. It’s no secret that he will never win a Gold Glove for his defense, but his versatility at the corner infield positions could come into play if 3B Lonnie Chisenhall can’t finally make the strides forward this season that he’s expected to. Reynolds is no Adam Dunn but this lineup can’t afford a hitter of those extremes, anyway. He is by far the most differential risk/reward hitter in this lineup right now.
  • Drew Stubbs – Still not much of a fan of him in spite of his reputation as a hard-nosed “grinder” type of a player. Whereas I had once feared he’d be sharing time in CF, the acquisition of Bourn and the penciling in of Swisher at 1B now almost guarantees that RF is his to lose. And he will be given that opportunity to lose it, make no mistake. The raise he made through negotiations prior to arbitration in the offseason will definitely get put to use. I’ll even go so far as to say that he too, like Swisher, is a defensive improvement over Shin-Soo Choo. Another victim of excessive strikeouts, he’ll be planted in the lower third of this lineup to work through those kinks and hopefully put up some respectable numbers for his position.
  • Mike Aviles – There’s still more to his acquisition than meets the eye to me. He certainly won’t be fighting for a starting spot outright before the beginning of the season, but I’ve held fast to the opinion that he’s been brought in to challenge Asdrubal Cabrera for time at SS and keep the possibility open to Cabrera being dealt. Aviles’s strengths as a solid defensive infielder at multiple positions and a relatively similar offensive game to that of Cabrera’s makes such a move enticing if the latter continues to have in-game relapses and apathy. Like Reynolds and Ryan Raburn to follow, he too gives the team an option at 3B that can be immediately plugged in and be at least as effective.
  • Ryan Raburn – Although he’s coming off of injury from his tenure with the Tigers, Raburn’s built a reputation of being one of the best utility players in the AL on both sides of the ball with both starting and late-game experience. When healthy, he reminds me of a better version of KC’s Shane Halter from years past – someone who can be put into any situation of a game at any time and won’t shortchange the manager for doing so.
  • Jason Giambi – The legend continues… ? It would personally be something to see this potential future HOF’er break camp with the Indians and give one last season of hell on some low fastballs and hanging breaking balls into moonshots. This lineup with Giambi at even 75% (at most) of what he used to be entrenched at DH could even get ME to smile at that kind of potential. Alas, the past few seasons of being absolutely decimated by injuries have all but entirely eroded away the last vestige of whom was once one of the true superstars and characters of the early 21st century. There’s also the option of Rule V pick Chris McGuinness standing in his way and just how high his ceiling could be. Still, Francona could opt for his veteran clubhouse presence with productivity coming second.
  • Jeremy Hermida – Another former prospect now fighting to keep his MLB career alive, Hermida is another in a long line of youngsters on an equally young team with the Marlins that had all the tools and all the talent to become a future star on a but couldn’t shake the injury bug. A non-roster invitee whom will likely fill out the AAA roster, his health and what he can show during ST may make all the difference on whether the team really decides to go with Stubbs in RF, Hermida’s natural position.
  • Brett Myers – As the probable #3 starter in the rotation, Myers has much to prove to both himself and the organization that he can still be a viable starting pitcher in the league after bouncing around between roles in relief the past couple of seasons. Additionally, the uncertainty of both Masterson and Jimenez puts more focus on his ability to be this year’s grizzled veteran all the while mentoring Zach McAllister, Carlos Carrasco, and others into taking their next respective steps. Given his off-field troubles, he’s not exactly on my short list of go-to leaders but everyone loves a comeback story, and if he can teach the younger pitchers to learn from his professional AND personal mistakes, that may be where his value truly lies.
  • Trevor Bauer – There is little doubt that the crown jewel of the offseason trades will be in Columbus to start 2013, but the rotation’s state of flux in both its newcomers and incumbents could change that in short order. Although I’m not quite sold on him becoming an undoubtedly true ace and #1 through talent and not just necessity, he has the physical and mental makeup to provide the team with a strong #2-3 for several seasons to come if he’s brought along properly and can come in with little doubt as to the type of pitcher he needs to be.
  • Daisuke Matsuzaka – A once-promising career as a starter with the Red Sox cut down by injuries, Dice-K will get what may be his last shot as a rotation pitcher with the Indians with the wide open #5 slot. Most of what’s been stated about Scott Kazmir applies to him as well, being another in an assembly line of lightning-in-a-bottle signings the FO has made in the wake of having so few SP prospects on the farm. In all likelihood, Matsuzaka and the rest of the candidates are facing an uphill battle against Carlos Carrasco whose coming off missing all of last season recovering from Tommy John surgery. The primary difference between all of them being Carrasco’s youth and ceiling.
  • Rich Hill – A former starter with the Cubs and Orioles, Hill showed that he could make the transition to relief pitching in a brief period with the Red Sox last season. Left-handed relievers will always be a commodity, especially those that can deal to hitters on both sides of the plate instead of just being “specialists.” I’d hoped he be in the running to fill out the back end of the rotation when first signed, but given the glut of names already vying for that position whether deserving or not, he’ll be better serving the team and other potential suitors just how well he’s settled into his new role. Getting a shot at long relief will certainly help his chances.
  • Matt Albers, Matt Capps, & Bryan Shaw – Ideally, I’d like to see the season open with at least 2 but preferably all 3 of these guys in the bullpen. However, given that they should be examining if Cody Allen can continue to improve upon his short stint of success last season, showcasing what Matt Barnes and Nick Hagadone might provide over the course of a full season in their roles or in case of trade opportunities, and the longman role falling to whomever doesn’t make the rotation, I assess that only 1 will make the cut. Even then, it will probably come down to Albers, whom was one of the featured players acquired from the Diamondbacks, or Capps, a former All-Star with experience in closing, set-up, and middle relief.

Are ya full? I know, that’s a bit to digest, and the beauty of it is they may not even break camp with about half of those names. What remains, as I’ve said here previously, isn’t all that worth getting excited for. You won’t see me rushing out to get a Swisher jersey anytime soon as I’m still feeling the pangs of buyer’s remorse over my Carlos Santana replica. It’s going to take a much more vibrant and consistent offense than they’ve had in years and at least 2 starting pitchers playing out of their minds to really show that the team is worthy of competing in a division that has once again seen its top teams continue to make necessary improvements. Add what Kansas City’s done to the mix, and the AL Central – while still comparatively weak to the rest of the AL – could be an even steeper uphill climb than before.

That’s gonna do it to it for me here. As always, your thoughts, feedback, raised fists of contention are more than welcome and always appreciated!


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