A Storybook Ending

Today Jim Thome takes his well-deserved place among baseball’s immortals, and most appropriately, his plaque that will hang in the Hall of Fame will feature him as a Cleveland Indian.

If you follow the Cleveland sports media, or sports media in general, you’ll by this time have read, heard, or seen just about every one of Thome’s career highlights and retrospectives, so I don’t want to duplicate those. Although I will recommend, if you missed it the first time, Jason Lukehart’s Top 100 Indians profile on Thome, as it captures his professional and personal greatness (the two are intertwined) in an understated way, the profile a reflection of the player and person.

Instead I’m going to indulge into some personal history regarding a rather painful time as an Indians fan. For there to be a storybook ending, there has to be a story, and a story without a conflict just isn’t a story.

Let’s go back to the winter of 2002. I was away at college, but baseball and particularly Jim Thome had as much of a hold on me as well as any of my courses, as this was the winter of his free agency. It was a rather protracted negotiation, which led to no small number of rumors, speculation, and an increasingly drawing out of emotions. After all, not only was Thome one of the best players in team history (he had just clinched the franchise home run record that season), but represented the last chance for the Indians to actually keep one of their homegrown stars for life.

By this time the rebuilding had begun, so I was under no allusion that keeping Thome would suddenly vault the team back into contention, but at least there would be some piece of those past teams that would carry forward, some continuity between the great teams of the 90s and the hopefully the next great team. I’d seen Albert Belle leave after 1996 and Manny Ramirez after 2000, and now hoped that this time, this player would decide to stay for good. Thome, unlike Belle or Ramirez, had signed a extension that kept him in Cleveland past his initial free agent year, but even so, hadn’t yet been a free agent. Now the large market teams were circling, ready to pick off the last of the homegrown stars.

I don’t remember exactly where I was when the news came down that Thome had signed with the Phillies. I had spent the last several days furiously refreshing the various sports news sites between classes, arguing on the ESPN Indians board at night with various characters about whether ownership would pony up the money to at least get close to what the Phillies had been offering. I distinctly remember that the Indians’ final offer included a statue, as though they hoped that immortality, that most tantalizing of intangibles, could somehow offset what we later learned to be a most tangible difference in salary. I also remember not believing the news at first, having read and heard many false stories masquerading as truth over the previous month. But as the confirmations came from other, more trustworthy sources, slowly, then quickly, stark reality hit. I closed the browser before the inevitable trolls would make the news hurt any worse.

Over 15 years later, it’s clear that nobody was the villain in this story. Thome clearly had wanted to stay, and the Indians tried to keep him. But the talk all during that long, dark winter was who was at fault more: Indians owner Larry Dolan, or Jim Thome. It got rather heated, to say the least. The ESPN board archives aren’t available any more, and I don’t remember every argument that I made back then, but I do know that I was more willing to believe that the offers were closer than they ultimately were, and therefore, blamed Thome more. I blamed Thome quite a bit, in many different ways. Rationality in this issue had been shoved way out of the picture, and wouldn’t return for quite a while. I think this was the case for a lot of Cleveland fans.

Meanwhile Thome handled the signing and its emotional baggage as well as he possibly could. Initially it helped that he was in the National League, and so wouldn’t face the Indians very often. But in a cruel twist of fate he would be traded back to the American League in 2006, and to a team in the AL Central. And not only that, it was to the Chicago White Sox, the year after they had won the World Series. The White Sox, whose manager (Ozzie Guillen) had given a choke signal at Jacobs Field at the end of the 2005 season. And Thome was still a great player, capable of making a difference in the division race. Needless to say, the cards were stacked against the fans of Cleveland giving Thome any sort of appreciation for all the years he’d spent captivating them as an Indian. I note all this to prepare you for the next paragraph.

By this time I was running Let’s Go Tribe, and so was spending even more time poring over the various reactions and commentary from the media on the Indians. The usual national media response to the chorus of boos Thome received while in Cleveland was indignation. “How could those fans boo a player who was so great for so long?” was a typical formulation you’d see in print, online, or on TV or radio. Indignation always makes for great audience engagement, so any time Thome appeared in Cleveland from then on (and because he was a member of the White Sox, it was quite often), that formulation became de rigueur and I became used to responding to it. But at the heart of that moral preening was a compelling argument: that Tribe fans were letting their emotions overwhelm them and holding a grudge that should have long faded away. As the years went by, and as the rawness of the events of 2002 faded, this became more and more apparent. I also understood where that emotion was coming from, because I had felt it as well (heck, still felt it somewhat), and you can’t just ignore that without being deeply dishonest with yourself.

I dredge up all these memories, the worst memories I could possibly have of Thome’s great career, for a reason. It makes today’s ceremony all the more poignant to me. Throughout the years of acrimony, of boos and other unpleasant banter, Thome handled it all with grace and magnanimity. And so, when the opportunity arose to bring him back in 2011, the ground had long been prepared for Indians fans to finally reciprocate that goodwill. Unpleasant history shouldn’t be forgotten, but neither should a Hall of Fame career be overshadowed by it. So in the twilight of his career, Jim Thome returned to Cleveland, and it was as if he had never left. The statue that had been promised back in 2002 as a condition was now given freely. The adulation withheld over the years was returned all at once. And it was not just because Thome was in an Indians uniform. The following year, Thome returned to Cleveland as a Baltimore Oriole, and was cheered just as loudly. There was no rebuilding that grudge now.

This story has its hero perform great feats, only to leave his home to jeers and curses by those who once adored him. But years later, the hero returns home, and the memories of those past glories softens the hearts of all, and once more they count him as one of their own.

And so he will be today in Cooperstown.






Getting Back Off the Mat

The Indians, in a bizarre game, beat Detroit 9-6 last night. The game featured two instances of starting pitchers self-destructing after a run of pretty good pitching. Fortunately for the Indians, Nate Robertson’s implosion resulted in nine runs being scored, which was enough to overcome Sabathia’s five-run seventh inning. CC had looked pretty good up to that point, only allowing one run on one hit through six innings. The win was encouraging because it came in the wake of probably the most devastating loss of the season.

Some transactions:

Reinstated 1B Travis Hafner from the Disabled List

Optioned OF Jason Dubois to Buffalo (AAA)

So the Indians, instead of trying out Dubois at the very least against left-handers (note how Coco Crisp and Grady Sizemore do against southpaws), the Indians keep Jeff Liefer around, who has the same defensive ability as Dubois, plays the same positions, and who is five years older than Jason. How exactly does Liefer fit in the lineup, except as a replacement to Casey Blake? I don’t get this move; yes, Liefer is out of options, but who’s going to claim him now when they could have had him for a song when he was with Buffalo? I wrote when the Gerut-Dubois deal was made that the Indians owe it to themselves to see what Dubois can do. And that hasn’t really happened yet. Dubois will probably put up some great numbers for the Bisons in the interim, but that wouldn’t be anything unexpected.

Placed LHP Arthur Rhodes on the Bereavement List

Recalled RHP Fernando Cabrera from Buffalo (AAA)

Rhodes, who is attending to a sickness in his family, will be gone a minimum of three days, which puts even more of a strain on the Indian bullpen, especially the back-end folks. Bob Wickman was not available last night, and Scott Sauerbeck has been used a lot lately. The Indians could have a used a blowout on Friday, but thanks to the five-run seventh inning, the Indians had to use Bob Howry to save the game. Cabrera hasn’t been inserted into any high-leverage situation, but he has the stuff to handle a seventh inning assignment right now. Of course Brian Tallet is still in the bullpen, and yes, he hasn’t been used yet; that can be looked at as a good thing, because no starter has been taken out early since CC Sabathia’s blow-up in Oakland. But like it or not, the Indians will have to use a relatively inexperienced pitcher sooner or later, and Cabrera is the best young relief arm in the system right now.

MLB Suspended RHP Kevin Millwood for five games, RHP David Riske for four games, and Eric Wedge and Robbie Thompson for one game apiece

What really got me is the guy who started the whole mess, Shigetoshi Hasegawa, only received a fine. Obviously the umpire that night believed that Hasegawa threw at Sizemore intentionally, so why does MLB not believe so? Take for example Cliff Lee’s suspension last year: he was thrown out of a game for throwing behind Ken Griffey, Jr, and he was suspended for six games (one start). How are the circumstances different here (besides the fact that Hasegawa actually hit Sizemore)? Is it because Grady Sizemore isn’t the superstar Griffey was? To me, this smacks of a double standard. Here’s what Millwood had to say about it:

“[Hasegawa’s] the one that started the whole mess,” Millwood said. “If he doesn’t get suspended, then it’s pretty much a joke.”

Millwood, who will make his next start on Thursday in Kansas City, gleaned a message from the discipline dispensed after Cleveland’s 10-5 victory.

“I guess it’s OK to throw right in the middle of somebody’s back when you’re getting your [backside] whooped,” Millwood said. “But it’s not OK to [stick] up for your teammate.”


Boone’s Option Picked Up

Exercised (and restructured) the 2006 Option of 3B Aaron Boone; Added a 2007 Mutual Option

Press Release

I guess you could call this an extension, although Boone probably would have reached the plate appearance threshold where the option would have vested anyway. No dollars have been released, but Mark Shapiro said that Boone gave back a bit for 2006, and the Indians added the mutual option for 2007. Not really an earth-shattering move, but the Indians save some money next season.

If you believe that Boone’s level of play is closer to what he’s done in June and July than in April and May, then Boone’s probably worth the option. If you think he’s the player that hit at or under the Mendoza line the first two months of the season, then he isn’t. I think the future level of production lies somewhere between the two extremes, probably he’s good for a .260/.320/.430 line next year. Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA player projection system pegged Boone’s 50 percentile forecast at .263/.322/.429. His defense has been pretty good, probably better than I expected it to be.

Scott Elarton, Again

Boy am I glad when I’m wrong.

Elarton made his second start against the Yankees, and for the second time he pitched as well as you could hope for. His line:

6.0 IP, 4 H, 3 ER, 4 SO, 0 BB

I’ll take it. But to look long-term, is Elarton, who is eligible for free agency after the season, worth bringing back? After all, the Indians do have a couple pitchers that they could plug into the rotation in 2006.

The standard pitching numbers look pretty good. Elarton has given up 120 hits in 117 innings of work, which is pretty decent. He’s struck out 68 hitters this year, which translates to 5.0/9IP. One reason why Elarton has been successful has been his low walk totals: he’s only walked 30 this season, which is especially important given his penchant for giving up homers (all the runs scored off him tonight were via the long ball). My view is that you’re looking at a guy who has marginal stuff, but can survive if he can spot his offspeed pitches. If he can’t throw his curve or change for strikes, then he’s in trouble. But you could say that for a lot of successful MLB pitches. What I want to know, then, is if this season’s numbers are a product of luck, or whether they are indicative of what Scott could do for the next couple of years. To do that, let’s look at some of the numbers I used to evaluate Jake Westbrook’s 2004 season.

xFIP ERA: 4.70

This statistic normalizes fielding independent pitching to the pitchers’ home park, which is especially useful when considering that we’re looking at a flyball pitcher. FIP itself is a statistic used to take out all the externalities (mainly fielding) that can affect a pitcher’s regular ERA. In this case Elarton’s xFIP ERA is a bit higher than his regular ERA, but not by a large amount. So you can say that Elarton’s current ERA is pretty good measure of how he’s pitching.

LD%: 20.6%

This is expected given how most of Elarton’s outs are recorded. I will say that I believe Elarton has been helped very much by the Indian outfielders, specifically in center and left, and that if a an inferior outfielder is playing behind Elarton, some of those line drives may start to fall in for singles and doubles. Just a word of warning.

One other thing that should shed some light on Elarton: a trend analysis. I’ve broken down Elarton’s perforance by month, noting innings, hits, and walks (the strikeouts seem to have remained constant):

April: 19.0 IP, 27 H, 9 BB
May: 29.1 IP, 33 H, 9 BB
June: 31.0 IP, 29 H, 5 BB
July: 37.2 IP, 31 H, 7 BB

Note that Elarton has gotten better during every month. To my untrained eye, he seems to have more control over his pitches, and more hitters are making “weak outs” than before. In summary, everything looks good, and the Indians should entertain bringing Scott back on a one- or two-year deal if they can’t retain Kevin Millwood. If they keep Millwood, Elarton is probably redundant. Notice I haven’t mentioned the cost; because I underestimated last season what pitchers would be getting on the free agent market, so rather than by suggesting numbers that might look comical four months from now, I’ll say Elarton should be retained with “fourth starter money.”

Jim Ingraham has figured out why the Indians are trailing the White Sox by umpteen games:

Despite the fact that they are 10th in the American League in hitting, and have lower slugging and on-base percentages than the Indians, the White Sox are running away with American League’s Central Division race.


They play the game the right way. They move base runners, they hit with runners in scoring position, they catch the ball. The Indians do none of that. At least not consistently.

Of course, he failed to mention that the White Sox lead the AL in pitching. And hitting with RISP is not a “fundamental;” it’s hitting (and it involves some luck). “Catching the ball” is called fielding; it is not (by my definition) a fundamental. And while the White Sox are second in the league in Defensive Efficiency, the Indians are right behind them.

I’ve come to believe that “fundamentals” are just a catch phrase sportswriters use to criticize teams that aren’t playing “the right way, according to me.” If a team like the Indians doesn’t bunt all that much, they get criticized because somehow bunting has come to be indicative of a “true team.” Nevermind in most cases that giving up an out in order to slightly increase the probability of scoring one run in that inning decreases drastically thel posibility of scoring multiple runs in that inning. ESPN stopped tracking “productive outs” (to my knowledge) this season, and for good reason; there seems to be no correlation between productive outs and scoring runs.

Ingraham, later in the article, admits that a definition of “fundamentals” is very hard to pin down:

Fundamentals are hard to quantify statistically, except for one very obvious statistic: Wins. The teams that win the most tend to be the teams that play the game the right way the most.

Why don’t we then concentrate on what we can quantify, then? Baseball does not lack for statistics by which we can evaluate players or teams, which makes relying on a such a subjective concept so silly.


Reinstated LHP Jason Stanford from the 60-day Disabled List; Optioned him to Akron (AA)

Stanford has made a couple starts (an inning apiece) in Mahoning Valley, but he’s a ways away from pitching in the majors. Stanford had Tommy John surgery just about a year ago (7-29-04). He should be in the pitching mix for the Indians next season.

Transferred OF Juan Gonzalez to the 60-day Disabled List (hamstring)

Juan is probably going to miss the rest of the season, barring something miraculous happening.

Optioned IF Brandon Phillips to Buffalo (AAA)

Phillips played sparingly (although you can’t blame Wedge, given how well Peralta and Belliard were playing), but the main reason he was up in Cleveland seemed to be Derek Shelton, the team’s pitching coach and former minor-league hitting instructor. Phillips is good enough defensively to be on a major-league roster right now, but his swing still has too many holes in it. Getting Phillips to take outside fastballs to right field is probably a major hurdle to clear, from what I’ve seen.

Recalled IF Ramon Vazquez from Buffalo (AAA)

Because Travis Hafner isn’t ready to go yet, the Indians called up a middle infielder, although he probably would have been called up anyway. Vazquez is a left-handed middle infielder, and can hit right-handed pitching (career .715 OPS). I’d expect Belliard and Peralta to get some days off now, especially if Hafner comes back. For now, Jeff Liefer is still with the club, and will probably hit against right-handers until Pronk comes back.


I did find it amusing that Buster Olney and Steve Phillips spent two hours on Sunday breaking down the trades that weren’t made. Although I do have to say I enjoyed watching the Sunday night broadcast sans Joe Morgan, although I know it’s only a one week reprieve. Jon Miller and Steve Stone would be a great pairing, but I know it’ll never happen. For those unfamiliar with Stone, he used to do Cub games for WGN, and now he’s doing ESPN broadcasts, usually for daygames. Hopefully he’ll get better assignments in the future, for I think he’s the best there is among color analysts.

When Matt Lawton is the biggest name dealt near the trading deadline, you know it’s been a boring deadline. Interestingly enough, the Cubs dealt Jody Gerut to the Pirates in exchange for Lawton, forming a sort of three-way deal that’s taken place over eight months (VORP in parenthesis):

Cleveland Gets:
LHP Arthur Rhodes (14.3)
OF Jason Dubois (4.4)*

Pittsburgh Gets:
Jody Gerut (2.6)*

Chicago Gets:
Matt Lawton (24.5)

*Combined between Cleveland and Chicago

Given that the Indians have Rhodes under contract for 2006, there’s good chance they come out on the winning end of this deal. The opportunity cost remains though, as the Indians essentially replaced Lawton with Casey Blake (he of the -3.8 VORP). I guess it would have been funny if the Indians had dealt Dubois to Pittsburgh for Lawton, closing the cycle once and for all.

The Rangers did not deal Alfonso Soriano (much to Adam’s chagrin), Manny Ramirez decided once and for all that he was a Boston “gangster,” and the Devil Rays decided to sit on Julio Lugo and Danys Baez rather than get something for them. Hal Lebovitz reported that the Royals had demanded Fausto Carmona for Matt Stairs; if this “offer” is representative of the deliberations last week, then there’s no wonder why almost nothing got done. I’m a bit disappointed that the Indians couldn’t deal one of their relievers for an outfielder, but given what actually got traded, that disappointment is tempered somewhat.

VORP report as of August 1st (AL rank):

C Victor Martinez: 23.2 (4th)
1B Ben Broussard: 7.5 (13th)
2B Ron Belliard: 16.2 (8th)
3B Aaron Boone: -3.1 (24th)
CF Grady Sizemore: 26.7 (3rd)
DH Travis Hafner: 43.9 (2nd)
LF Coco Crisp: 17.6 (6th)
RF Casy Blake: -3.8 (24th)
SS Jhonny Peralta: 32.3 (5th)

As you can see, the Indians have great offensive numbers up the middle, but are getting little production from traditional offensive positions. Victor Martinez has carried the team since Travis Hafner went on the disabled list, and although Boone’s numbers still look horrific, he’s hit well in both June (.272/.341/.506) and July (.314/.362/.430). Coco Crisp continues to be a pleasant surprise in left, and Jhonny Peralta is 5th only because he’s behind a stellar group of shortstops (and because he sat early in the season). You know the drill on the underachievers.

Next up: the Yankees. The Indians offense has to put the hurt on the Yankee starters, because New York’s offense will get their six runs a game.

Friday Night Fights (Sort of)

Alright, no punches were thrown in last night’s victory, but give it time; there’s two games left in the series.

First of all, Hasegawa hit Grady Sizemore on purpose for no real good reason. Yeah, he just gave up a home run to Jason Dubois on the previous pitch, but come on. The umpire absolutely made the correct call in tossing him, given where the pitch was thrown (right behind Sizemore, so Grady would back into the pitch). The next inning, Millwood stuck up for his teammate by plunking Yunieski Betancourt, the first batter of the next inning. The benches cleared, Millwood and manager Eric Wedge were tossed, but nothing else happend. But David Riske set the stage for future histrionics by hitting Ichiro in the ninth inning; of course he was ejected, and acting manager Robbie Thompson was as well. Stay tuned, for the next two games may get interesting.

Of course, there was a lot of good that happened during the course of the game; the Indians pounded (soon to be ex?) Seattle pitcher Aaron Sele for nine runs. Victor Martinez, who seems to be hitting now like he did a year ago, hit another three-run homer to effectively put the game out of reach. He finished a triple short of the cycle. Grady Sizemore lead off the game with homer to deep center, and ended a double short of the cycle. Jason Dubois, who loves fastballs out on the outer half of the plate, scorched a home run to right center. When Travis Hafner comes back, Jason needs to be playing right field; although there are some holes in his swing (like a lot of power hitters), you’ll take the strikeouts if you can get some power out of him.

The trading deadline is approaching (Sunday at 4pm), and there’s some talk that Mark Shapiro might deal either Bob Wickman or Kevin Millwood for some offensive help. Now I’d deal Wickman before Millwood, but I understand that Kevin at this point has a lot more value. With the proposed three-way deal involving Manny Ramirez held up, I’d look to see if I could get Mike Cameron or Aubrey Huff. Obviously the Devil Rays would want prospects (and are supposedly asking the moon and the stars), but the Mets might be interested in Wickman or some other bullpen arm. The Rangers might be a possible destination as well; Kevin Mench would be a great fit. And the Marlins might move Juan Encarnacion. I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of classic veteren-for-prospect deals this year because of all the teams that are still in races. However, I think you might see a lot of veteren-for-veteren deals where two clubs might trade strengths for weaknesses.

Karma….and Casey Blake

I guess this is karma coming back on Wickman (and me) because of all those saves he almost blew, but it was an awful time to receive it. Again, there’s a lot of season left, but with virtually everyone in the AL still in the race, merely keeping pace with the peloton isn’t good enough. What makes the loss even more frustrating is that the Indians collected 14 hits, and had but 4 runs to show for it. Whether it’s due to the lack of getting hits at the right time or just plain idiotic baserunning, wasting opportunities just grates on me. But if you look at the stats, Oakland left just as many runners on base (11), and had as many hits (14). That’s baseball, I guess.

Let me once and for all enunciate my thoughts on Casey Blake, which dovetails with a bit of my philosophy. Blake is disliked right now not because of who he is, but how he’s being used. I think if Blake was a platoon partner for Ben Broussard or played in the outfield once a week and still hit .223/.296/.388, some people would complain, but it wouldn’t cause much of a kerfluffle. It’s because he’s trotted out to right field every day, and his offensive struggles are there in front of you every day that it begins to gnaw at your insides. And I don’t care where he’s hitting in the order, because it really doesn’t matter all too much, but I do care that he’s in the lineup to begin with. A parallel is the animosity towards Matt Lawton during his stint with the Indians; it wasn’t Matt Lawton per se, it was the fact that the Indians gave him a huge contract after trading for him. Heck, at this point I’d take Lawton’s cement-shoed range in right field right now, because he’s still a pretty decent hitter. But I guess that’s besides the point right now. It wasn’t that the Indians should have kept Matt Lawton, it’s that they replaced him (essentially) with Casey Blake.

And it goes a bit farther than just saying the Indians made a bad move signing Blake to a two-year deal last winter, because there are instances where a team made the absolute correct decision and the player bombs despite everything. No, the Indians signed Blake to a two-year deal, knowing they’d be moving him to outfield, knowing that even at 2004 levels he’d be an average right fielder, knowing that he was 31 and didn’t have much of a track record. The good news is that Blake can play the outfield, and he probably can make out a career as a fourth outfielder/utility man. The bad news is that he’s not hitting enough to be a backup catcher right now, and as a result, the Indians have a gigantic hole in the outfield. I’m just glad Grady Sizemore has played as well as he has this season; if not, the outfield would have been Coco Crisp, Jody Gerut (assuming they wouldn’t have traded him), and ????.

How do you make the best of this situation? Well, I think you go to Jason Dubois, tell him that he’s the right fielder, and see what happens. Or Jeff Liefer. Or Ernie Young. Or Andy Abad. Whoever they decide to pick. Obviously besides possibly Dubois, none of these guys are much of a long-term solution, but they don’t need to be. All you want is a .250/.350/.450 line for two months.

I guess my point is that good organizations get the most out of the players they have, and they find the right roles for them. For two years, the Indians did exactly that with Casey Blake, a minor-league free agent who gave them two good years at third base. Then they gave him a two-year deal to play right field, effectively canceling out the great return they received in 2003 and 2004. Hopefully he serves as a warning, so whenever the next Casey Blake appears, they know what to do with him.


Placed 1B/DH Travis Hafner on the 15-day Disabled List (post-concussion symptoms)

Thanks a lot, Buerhle. Hafner has been hitting on the side, but unfortunately whenever he starts running or exercising, he gets dizzy. So after nine days of hoping the dizzyness would go away, the Indians had to DL him on Tuesday or lose the retroactive option. If the dizzy spells go away, Pronk would be eligible to come back when the Indians return home.

Purchased the Contract of 1B/OF Jeff Liefer and Recalled him to Cleveland

Liefer is one of Buffalo’s several good AAAA players. A plus for the Indians is that he can play in the outfield some, so I’m hoping against hope that Casey Blake is out of the lineup at least a couple times on the road trip. Liefer’s line in Buffalo: 321 AB, .321/.388/.595, 27 2B, 19 HR. Keep in mind that Liefer is 30, lest you entertain any ideas about him. He’ll probably be DFAd when Hafner returns.

Optioned RHP Fernando Cabrera to Buffalo (AAA)

Recalled LHP Brian Tallet from Buffalo (AAA)

This happened because of CC Sabathia’s meltdown on Monday; the Indians used both of their longmen, and needed some insurance for Tuesday. It turns out that Jake Westbrook spun a gem; of course, Tallet hasn’t had much luck at all as far as getting into games is concerned. His next major-league appearance, whenever that happens, will be his first since undergoing Tommy John surgery in August of 2003.