Tribe off-days seem few and far between. With a 21-game in 20-day stretch now over and the 40-game mark now surpassed, we can take a look at some hard truths about this this team. Last year the magic number was 45 games, where the Indians were 30-15 and the darlings of the majors. Things fell completely their way during that stretch. The pitching was spectacular, both rotation and bullpen. It was a different hero every single night. Heck, Orlando freaking Cabrera (Obie!) was being hailed as a guy who was a great clubhouse influence (insane I know) who helped Asdrubal Cabrera find his power stroke. Everything clicked.
This season we have another first place team at essentially the same point in the season. Once again, the pitching has been very good, but not quite as good as a year before. During that hot start, the 2011 club looked a lot better offensively than what we have seen from this current group, yet both teams are in first place. The 2012 offensive limitations have been known since the start of Spring Training.
There have been three spots of concern – first base, third base, and left field. Casey Kotchman hasn’t exactly set the world on fire with his bat (.208/.291/.611/3 HR/14 RBIs), but at least he is playing gold glove caliber defense and is moving in the right direction with his bat (.276/.348/.746/1 HR/10 RBIs in May). Jack Hannahan has stabilized the hot corner (.287/.365/.801/3 HR/18 RBIs) despite missing the last week with a bad back. Left field, on the other hand, has been a complete disaster and doesn’t look like it it is getting better anytime soon.
We will get it out right out of the way before we go any deeper – the Indians are in this predicament thanks to the brilliant idea of bringing back the injury plagued Grady Sizemore to be the center fielder. Michael Brantley was supposed to roam left field, but he has yet to play a single game there.
The Indians started the season by handing the job to Shelley Duncan, a career bench player who at age 32, got his big break. Last September, Duncan was the Indians most consistent performer, driving in23 runs and hitting seven jacks. As for the hoard of journeyman the Indians brought in to compete with him in Goodyear, well lets just say one was worst than the next. Despite hitting under .200 this Spring, but leading the team in RBIs, Shelley won the job.
As the exclusive regular left fielder in April, Shelley struggled mightily. he struck out 22 times in 61 ABs and hit just .230/.355./.700. Things got desperate enough that on April 13th, the team signed the 38-year old Johnny Damon, a guy who hasn’t played the outfield regularly for more than two seasons. It was a complete, knee-jerk, panic move by the Indians front office, who hoped to catch lightning in a bottle. By May 1st, Damon was brought to the club, despite zero Spring training and just two weeks of shagging fly balls and hitting off of rookie league pitching in Arizona.
Once Damon arrived, he and Duncan became a pretty strict platoon in left. So far the results have not been what anyone had hoped they would be. I really want to give Johnny the benefit of the doubt, considering he was rushed to Cleveland without any Spring Training. But what I have seen from him just has not been impressive. The only part of his game that has worked have been his legs. However, he doesn’t get to run very often considering he isn’t getting on base. A career .285 hitter, Damon is hitting just .172 (10-58)/.285/.508 with just two extra base hits and two RBIs. It is not as if he is making loud outs either. We’ve seen a lot of weak popouts and grounders from Damon. He started as the Tribe’s leadoff man, but has been moved down to the seven spot.
His defense…. I’ve gone there many many times since he has been signed. Johnny is no longer a viable major league outfielder and hasn’t been for three years. The Indians thought he’d hit and they could live with his glove. Well, Damon isn’t hitting and he’s stuck in left field, unable to DH with Travis Hafner on the roster. The Tribe will continue to go with him and hope he breaks out of it.
Duncan is the only viable option on the current Major League roster until Sizemore returns in late June/early July. But as poor as he was in April, his May has been worse (.143/.226/.547/1 HR/2 RBIs) Aaron Cunningham is a defensive replacement and bench guy. Damon will have to turn things around by the time Sizemore comes back or he will be dropped.
In the meantime, there has been a clamoring of sorts for our old friend, the AAAA special Matt LaPorta. Give Matty credit. He has handled himself incredibly well despite completely falling out of favor with the franchise that made him a cornerstone chip in the the 2008 trade for CC Sabathia. He went down to Columbus and has knocked the cover off the ball. But we have all seen this before. He’s now 27 years old and has had more than 500 AAA at-bats over a four-year span. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that he is hitting .321/.401/1.058/13 HR/28 RBIs while playing both left field and first base.
Check his road and home splits though. LaPorta is hitting .360 with 12 homers and 24 RBIs at Huntington Park, a notorious hitters haven. On the road, he has just one home run and four RBIs while hitting .255. I think The Gator has one more shot with the Indians, the question is when. LaPorta was taken out of last night’s 9-6 loss to Scranton/Wilkes Barre after being hit with two pitches. However, he stayed in the game for two innings before being pulled. Could he be on his way to Cleveland for the Tigers series?
His manager Mike Sarbaugh denied as much after the game saying LaPorta was taken out because his ribs were sore.
The fact that we are even discussing LaPorta as a real option for left field is a scary proposition and the worst case scenario for what the Indians had planned back in January. Long term there is an even bigger issue. There are no outfielders in the pipeline above the A ball level that can be taken as serious top flight prospects. This upcoming offseason will again feature shopping or trading for some sort of outfield help.
In hindsight, the decision not to go three years with OF Josh Willingham looks to be a mistake. At the time, I understood why they didn’t and was behind it. Three years for the 33-year old outfielder seemed like a stretch, despite the fact that he was coming off of a career year (.246/.332/.810/29 HR/98 RBI) in Oakland. But the thought of being saddled with a 35-year old below average defender in that third year making $7 million was something GM Chris Antonetti just didn’t want to get locked into. However, sometime you pay for that last year for the production of the first two.
Willingham ended up signing in Minnesota, where he has kept the power going, hitting .292/.410/1.003/8 HR/25 RBIs. Imagine those numbers from a right-handed stick in the middle of the lineup playing left field for the Tribe right now. All of the issues I described in the last 1100 words or so wouldn’t exist (assuming Willingham’s production was close to the same as what he has done for the Twins).
The incredible thing about this entire situation is the fact that the Tribe is getting absolutely nothing from the left field position and very little from first base – two “offensive positions” – yet they are in first place.
(photo via Chuck Crow/The Plain Dealer)