April 16, 2014

Tribe Season Review: Catcher, First Base, and DH

In the first of our series looking back on the 2010 season, we will take a look at the Cleveland Indians catching, first base, and DH situations. Injuries and inconsistent play marred these spots all year and the future is uncertain, but there was progress. So just exactly how did we get here?

Catcher

Opening Day Starter – Lou Marson (262 ABs,  .195 BA/3 HR/22 RBIs/.274 OBP/.560 OPS). Projected 2011 Starter: Carlos Santana (150 ABs, .260 BA/6 HR/22 RBIs/.401 OBP/.868 OPS).

The best laid plans of the front office…. The season started with Marson as the everyday catcher and veteran Mike Redmond as his backup. The idea was to get Santana more acclimated and comfortable with the English language and improve on his game-calling skills behind the dish. Nobody doubted his bat, which was Major League ready. But Marson, acquired in the Cliff Lee trade, was going to be the seat holder.

That plan lasted until early June. The Indians were in desperate need of a middle of the order bat, and Marson wasn’t hitting his weight – he is listed at 198 lbs, and when he was sent down to make room for Santana, he was hitting .191. Even when Redmond was released, the Indians brought up Chris Gimenez to backup the kid. Partly because they wanted Marson to continue to play everyday in Columbus, but also because he was barely hitting .200 in AAA as well.

While Santana was here, he showed immediately why he is one of the best prospects in baseball. He hit .345 in his first month (20-58) as the #3 hitter in the Tribe order. How many times is a rookie called up to make his Major League debut thrust into the three spot immediately? I’d say never. But Manny Acta had little choice.

In July he went into a little bit of a funk, which rookies are prone to do. Trying to do a little too much, he hit just .209, but you could still see the progress, especially behind the plate. The shame of it all is that Santana’s season ended way to short and he was robbed of a valuable extra two months of play.

On August 2nd in Boston, Red Sox rookie Ryan Kalish tattooed Santana as he was blocking the plate on a throw home from Shin-Soo Choo. He held onto the ball for the out, but suffered a gruesome knee injury, costing him his season. The Indians are lucky it wasn’t worse. Santana is expected to be recovered by Spring Training and the hopes are for him to go right back into the middle of the lineup for Opening Day 2011.

As for Marson, he became the #1 catcher again after Santana’s injury. While he will never be Johnny Bench at the plate (he didn’t sniff the Mendoza line until September 2oth), he is one of the best in the league at throwing out base stealers. He threw out 31 of the 82 would be runners (37%), an impressive stat. It’s clear he will be the backup catcher next year behind Santana, and should get AB’s against left-handed starters, with Santana DH’ing. Marson hit .286 against lefties this year.

Also worth mentioning, Luke Carlin’s cup of coffee with the team over the last two weeks. He hit .357 (5-14) with two homers. How Chris Gimenez has lasted so long in the majors, I’ll never be able to explain. Great guy, not a great ball player.

First Base

Opening Day Starter – Matt LaPorta (337 AB’s, .221 BA/12 HR/41 RBIs/.306 OBP/.668 OPS). Projected 2011 Starter – LaPorta

This was supposed to be the year Matt LaPorta became a man; the right-handed, middle of the order bat that the Indians so desperately needed between Shin-S00 Choo and Travis Hafner. He was the centerpiece of the CC Sabathia trade for that very reason. This was his time.

Again, the best laid plans…..

LaPorta’s lingering hip and toe injuries that he had surgically repaired in the offseason held him back in Spring Training. To make matters worse, the Indians went out and signed the venerable Russell Branyan just before camp and announced that “Russell isnt here to sit, he’s here to play everyday.”

Some took it as a shot at LaPorta, others took it as a motivational ploy for him. He wasn’t just going to be handed the job, he’d have to earn it. Branyan’s back wasn’t ready for opening day and The Gator got the call at first. It took just 10 days from The Muscle to return and LaPorta hadn’t done much at the plate. In fact, he got spot duty at first, left field, and DH over that first month and hit just .217 with 1 RBI in 60 AB’s.

Was he still hurt? Or was he just not producing? Things didn’t improve much in May and his playing time dwindled even more. He hit .212 for the month (11-52) with just 6 RBIs. After playing in just one of the first six games in June, LaPorta was sent to the minors to find himself. He tore it up in Columbus, hitting .362 with five homers and 16 RBI’s in 18 games before returning to the big club after Branyan was dealt.

Now LaPorta had no excuses. No looking over his shoulder. The position was his for now and the future, so he should have been able to relax and play his game. He gave us a show of what we wanted to see over that first month, raising his average from .211 to .260 on July 27th, hitting four homers and driving in 14, but the bottom would fall out again over the last two months.  He hit .207 in August and .156 in September, driving in a total of 18 runs.

Here is the thing – first base is a cornerstone, power position. The Indians set themselves up right by acquiring LaPorta, who by all accounts, was to be that young guy. Can you blame his 2010 struggles on the injuries? I’m not sure. One thing that is for sure, LaPorta gets a long leash from the Tribe brass. He really is their only option at first right now and giving up on a young player with such great success at every level would be foolish. Look at how long they stuck with Andy Marte? Call it the Brandon Phillips reaction.

One thing is for sure, 2011′s first base job belongs to him. What he does with it will shape his future, because after Carlos Santana’s gruesome knee injury, he may have to be moved to first one day.

DH

Opening Day Starter – Travis Hafner (.278 BA/13 HR/50 RBI/.374 OBP/.824 OPS) Projected 2011 Starter – Hafner

Lets get it out of the way right off the top. He is completely overpaid. The Indians actually opened their wallets for once and they bet on the wrong horse. His numbers have drastically taken a drop since he signed his extension. Yes, I am the man who refers to him as “Hackner,” and I still don’t think we will ever see the “Pronk” of old. That guy doesn’t work here anymore.

The guy who does work here is more of a singles, gap hitter. The power is gone and it doesn’t look like it will ever return. The health of his shoulder has been a problem over the past three years and it doesn’t look like he will ever be able to go through a season injury free.

However, in 2010, Hafner played in over 100 games for the first time since 2007. After his DL stint in August, the big lefty entered his best hot streak of the season, hitting .356 with seven RBI’s over two weeks. After the all-star break, Hafner was at his best since the ’07 season. The stats tell the story. He hit a team high .329 with a .409 OBP and a .932 OPS  in 155 at-bats. The power still wasn’t there (just five homers with 21 RBIs), but at least the Indians are getting something for the $14 million.

I just wish the Indians brass would admit what he is now, a glorified singles hitter. The shame of it all is that he cannot play the field and the Indians can’t get rid of him because of his enormous salary (on the hook for two more years). They are stuck. Things could be worse I suppose, he could be hitting .240 with no power.

  • oribiasi

    It always puzzled me that the Indians were willing to pay for Hafner but not for pitching. Have they really learned no lessons from the 90s Indians woes in the post-season with having to start Nagy with 3 days’ rest? Sad.

  • Harv 21

    Re LaPorta, problems may be between the ears, he can’t stop a slump. If the prob is physical, how to explain .362/5 homers in 18 games at Columbus after being sent down, and then the return of probs on return.

    Like Santana, he was advertised as one of the most “major league ready” minor leaguers. Maybe not wise to trumpet that until proven after the fact. He’s going to be 26 next season, a little old to be a prospect. Not sure what you do with him if he doesn’t break out. Do you wait forever, like with Marte, and keep thinking about how you blew the CC trade?

  • oribiasi

    @ Harv 21: Calling Santana the most ready did sound way too much like “God Himself Cannot Sink This Ship” and we all know how that went down.

    26 is old? I’m not even 30 yet :(

  • http://www.heyhokie.com Vengeful Pat

    Hey Josh Hamilton didn’t come around until his late 20′s… if we get something out of LaPorta next year, I am still a happy camper.

    I am really wondering if it’s really Hafner’s “shoulder” that sapped his power, or if he just couldn’t hit it as long after cutting off the juice.

  • Harv 21

    @ 4/Pat: Josh Hamilton was otherwise distracted by pretty serious off-field issues. If we find out LaPorta is a stone cold meth addict I’ll feel more optimistic. Uh, wait …