This has not been a great week in for our boys. The weekend made things worse. For the first time this season, your first place Cleveland Indians lost three games in a row and a road series. The Boston Red Sox, who came into the weekend a legitimate dumpster fire, owned the Tribe and came through with big hits when they needed to. The Indians on the other hand couldn’t be clutch if their lives depended on it and left town wondering what happened.
Yes, they still sit atop the soft AL Central at 18-16, a game in front of the Detroit Tigers, but a whole host of issues seemed to have popped up all of a sudden. Readers of my work know that I am usually looking through Wahoo Red, White, and Blue colored glasses (unless I am discussing Ubaldo or the Grady Sizemore signing), but there are warts that can no longer be ignored.
The 40-game mark is usually when front offices and managers have a real feel for what they have. We are 34 games in and the places this team needs to improve seem to be in the same spots we all knew going in – left field, first base, and facing left-handed pitching. All were worries in March and are still problems in mid-May.
So as we do every Monday morning, let us take a look back at the weekend that was in Wahooland.
Ubaldo Jimenez is what he is, but should we now be worried about Justin Masterson? After his last start, some Tribe fans thought maybe Ubaldo had turned the corner. If you looked into that Sunday start against Texas where he didn’t give up a run in seven innings, you would still see five walks and erratic control. That start was the anomaly.
Friday night, Jimenez reverted back to being the real Ubaldo, the guy who has spotty command and can’t blow his one time un-hittable fastball by anybody. He lasted just four and a third innings giving up seven earned runs on nine hits, walking five more hitter while striking out four. Just another in a long line of disappointing performances from a guy the Tribe completely over-estimated.
“I don’t know which pitcher you guys are waiting for,” said Manny Acta when asked about Jimenez’s inconsistency after Friday’s loss. “We just want him to be more consistent in the strike zone. I don’t think any of us are sitting here expecting 97 to 100 mph.”
Unfortunately for Acta and his trusty boss, GM Chris Antonetti, that is how Ubaldo was sold to the fan base; a top of the rotation power-armed strike out machine. That guy certainly doesn’t work here currently. But at this point, I think we have all come to grips with the fact that Jimenez is a fourth or fifth starter. What we didn’t expect was the collapse of ace Justin Masterson, who continues to have issues of his own.
Masterson had come into his own last year and was being counted on as the rock of the rotation. Instead, he’s been almost as erratic as Ubaldo. In Sunday’s latest loss, J Mast again ran into first inning problems and put his team behind, this time with four runs. Since his dominant opening day performance against Toronto, the big right-hander has gone more than six and a third just once. Walks have been killing him, but yesterday the Red Sox just battered him around to the tune of six runs on seven hits. His ERA has ballooned to 5.40.
“It’s not fun,” Masterson said. “You never want to start out like that. You want to try to minimize that to just two. Keep it at two, and then you feel a little bit better. Four and you’re like, ‘Oh my goodness. Come on.’ You never want to put your boys in that type of hole.”
I know Masterson will be fine, but it would be nice to see him come around sooner rather than later. I’m not holding my breath with Ubaldo.
Meanwhile in other rotation news, Josh Tomlin was put on the DL with a sore wrist and was replaced by Zach McAllister. The Zach Attack didn’t pitch badly, giving up four runs in seven innings, striking out eight without a walk. Tomlin is expected to miss just one more start and be ready for the Tigers series in two weeks.
Of bigger concern is the offense yet again. Baseball works in funny ways. Ten days ago, Michael Brantley couldn’t buy a hit and Travis Hafner was locked in at the plate. There was excitement about Johnny Damon joining the fray, nobody could get Asdrubal Cabrera or Jason Kipnis out, and Casey Kotchman looked like maybe he was coming out of his skid.
Now here we are sitting with our heads in our collective hands wondering where the offense will come from.
Lets start with Damon. He gets the benefit of the doubt because of his track record and the fact that he didn’t participate in Spring Training, but so far, he’s been a dog at the plate and a liability in the field. After another 0-fer performance yesterday, Damon’s numbers have sunk to .159/.196/.423 with just two RBIs, both coming on a triple on May 4th against Texas. In 46 plate appearances, he has just two walks. If Johnny is not getting on base, than he becomes worthless to this team. His warts with his glove are well documented and have come as advertised, but the Indians can live with them if he is producing. Thus far, he isn’t. Grady Sizemore’s return is going to occur at some point and if Damon hasn’t come around, don’t be shocked if the Indians cut the cord.
Damon may eventually break out of this slump but Kotchman has become a lost cause to me. I’ve seen all I need to see with him. Sunday he came up three times with runners in scoring position and went 0-3. Twice all he needed was a fly ball to drive in a run and he couldn’t even do that. That moved him to 2-22 with RISP on the season. I have officially declared myself ready to move on from him. Yes, I love his glove, but he is another left-handed bat that is offering absolutely nothing to the offense. The time to Free Matt LaPorta (.336/.413/.1.058/9 HR/21 RBIs) may be upon us.
And no, I cannot believe I am saying that. Meanwhile, I still stick by my assertion that the Tribe needs to move Lonnie Chisenhall across the diamond to first base and stick with Jack Hannahan at third for the next couple of years.
While Brantley had a huge series (nine hits and four RBIs) and has hit the ball hard for the past couple of weeks (his average has jumped .31 points in the last week), Hafner’s game has fallen off the table. His clutch numbers are extremely weak. He’s hitting just .133 (4-30) with runners in scoring position with just two extra-base hits (both doubles). With runners in scoring position and two out, Hafner is 2-15.
These numbers just cannot happen for a guy hitting in the middle of the order.
The biggest problem that hasn’t gone away and won’t anytime soon is the Tribe’s inability to hit left-handed pitching. Have you noticed that every single time a team goes to the bullpen against the Indians, the first guy they call for is a lefty? It doesn’t matter if its the most seasoned veteran or a rookie they’ve never seen before, Manny Acta’s boys have issues with southpaws.
In Saturday’s 4-1 loss, it was the “obscure lefty” factor in full effect when they faced Felix Doubrant. The Indians could only muster three hits and one run in six innings on an RBI infield single by Kipnis. Lefty Andrew Miller pitched in the first three games of this series and didn’t allow a run in three and a third. Fellow lefties Rich Hill (three appearances) and Franklin Morales (two appearances) also went all series without allowing an Indian to score.
This isn’t just a Red Sox problem. The White Sox threw one lefty reliever after another in splitting a series earlier in the week. Remember last Monday’s afternoon tilt where the Indians got Chicago’s Phil Humber for eight runs, but then managed just one hit over the final six innings against rookie Jose Quintana making his Major League debut? Guess which arm he throws with?
The Indians have too many left handed bats in their lineup and at this point there is nothing they can do about it. They have to live with what they have. (Unless they entertain a trade for a right-handed bat like Boston’s Kevin Youkilis, who may soon be available).
“We all know that the track records indicate that the majority of our hitters, except for Asdrubal Cabrera and Carlos Santana, are better against right-handed pitching,” said Acta. “That’s the chance we’re taking. We’re going to see more righties than lefties. We’re not going to face a lefty every time out that dominates us. We’ve seen that this year. But there are going to be times when those lefties are going to go out there and neutralize our guys.”
Against lefties, the Indians are 27th out of 30 teams in baseball with a .216 batting average. The stat that tells it all – the Tribe leads the majors in at-bats against left-handed pitching with 459. That won’t change all year either.
It is not all doom and gloom though, the Indians designated reliever Dan Wheeler for assignment after yesterday’s last straw outing. Rejoice! He shouldn’t have made the team out of Spring Training after looking average at best. He got the job on track record. Even on the day he found out he would be an Indian, Wheeler gave up two homers and five runs in one inning. Yesterday was just another shoddy outing for the veteran righty who clearly doesn’t have it anymore. The Tribe brass had seen enough after Wheeler was rocked for six runs in his final inning of work.
What they will do with Wheeler’s spot in the pen is still unknown, but the leading candidates include Hector Ambriz (3.26 ERA), Frank Herrmann (3.71 ERA), Chris Ray (2.20 ERA), and Jeremy Accardo (2.76 ERA).
Up next for the Tribe is a two-game road set with the Minnesota Twins. Jeanmar Gomez (2-2, 4.66 ERA), coming off his worst start of the season, takes the ball for Acta. He will be opposed by old friend Carl Pavano (2-3, 5.02 ERA). If there was ever a place for the Indians offense to get back on track, its in Minneapolis against the last place Twins.