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Indians Indians Archive Suddenly It's Spring - Part II
Written by Paul Cousineau

Paul Cousineau
In the memorable words of Clark W. Griswold, as he surveyed the empty parking lot at Wally World ... "we made it, dammit, we made it".  And in Part II of Paulie's spring training preview, he addresses the C.C. situation as well as answering some tough questions surrounding the Indians offense.  What will happen with the corner outfield spots?  Is Asdrubal for real?  What about Andy Marte?  Paulie opines ...

In the memorable words of Clark W. Griswold, as he surveyed the empty parking lot at Wally World…“we made it, dammit, we made it”.

Of course, no sooner had the Countdown to Spring Training clock hit zero than the day was ruined as C.C. Sabathia, through
his website (who knew that C.C. had a website?), declared that he and his agents are cutting off negotiations with the Indians now that the team is in Spring Training. C.C.’s statement claims that he and his agents will re-visit an extension with the Indians after the season, but let’s call this what it is – a statement that C.C. will not be a member of the Indians past this year.

The declaration that he hopes to reach something with the Indians after the season rings hollow as Sabathia will be a Free Agent at that point, capable of fielding offers from any team. One wouldn’t think that the Indians (after the season) are going to suddenly and remarkably determine that they should offer any more than they have on the table at this point in the negotiating process that has been halted by C.C.’s representation. As has been stated here before, C.C. on the open market will fetch a pretty penny and will sign a contract longer in guaranteed years than the Indians (as any other team SHOULD) be comfortable in signing a starting pitcher to. The Indians’ advantage was that they held, essentially, exclusive negotiating rights with Sabathia in the hope that a bird in the hand (a contract on the table) would be seen as more desirable than one in the bush (what C.C.’s agents are envisioning hitting their fax machine next off-season).

Alas, it seems as if C.C. and his agents have decided that the Indians’ offer (allegedly in line with recent contracts meted out to Roy Oswalt, Carlos Zambrano, and Jake Peavy) was either too light in terms of years or dollars and he will begin his swan song with the club. Make no mistake, no amount of cheering for him or begging him to stay will have any more effect than it did on Jim Thome or Manny Ramirez as C.C. has unquestionably made his statement that 2008 will be his final year with the Indians.

The Indians will have one more year to make a run with C.C. anchoring their rotation until he leaves for greener (literally…or is it figuratively) pastures in 2009.

Much more on that situation surely en route, but with that ugliness (that was actually painful to write) out of the way, let’s turn our attention to Part II of the Spring Training preview – non-pitching related portion:

Will the Corner OF Turn the Corner?

Before getting into the entity of mediocrity known as Dellichaels that figures (at this moment) to fill LF, let’s take a quick look at the assumed tenant of RF – Frank the Tank. Gutierrez, for all intents and purposes, laid claim to the 2008 RF position with his performance once he was placed in the everyday lineup. His June (.296 BA / .345 OBP / .537 SLG / .882 OPS, 4 HR, 8 RBI in 58 plate appearances) and his July (.306 BA / .340 OBP / .551 SLG / .891 OPS, 3 HR, 7 RBI in 52 plate appearances) brought the idea that Gutz was finally living up to the potential that accompanied him when he arrived from LA. His defense alone made him a worthwhile addition to the lineup, but the OBP and the power that he exhibited through the first two months of being in the lineup for about every game cemented his right to be handed the RF job for 2008.

Flying high and contributing regularly, something bad happened for Frank…namely August, September, and the Playoffs. His August (.244 BA / .306 OBP / .449 SLG / .755 OPS, 2 HR, 9 RBI in 85 plate appearances) and September (.247 BA / .305 OBP / .424 SLG / .729 OPS, 4 HR, 11 RBI in 93 plate appearances) numbers dipped dramatically compared to his June and July, particularly in terms of OBP and power numbers (same HR and RBI production for September in about twice as many plate appearances as he had in June and July). After looking so comfortable at the plate with a short, compact swing, Gutierrez started fishing for breaking balls as his K totals started to set off alarms, striking out more than once every four times to the plate after the All-Star Break (59 K in 221 plate appearances). His playoff performance (.207 BA / .324 OBP / .310 SLG / .634 OPS, 1 HR, 4 RBI in 34 plate appearances) didn’t help assuage the feeling that opposing teams had “the book” on Gutierrez, as he whiffed 11 times in his 34 postseason trips to the plate.

Whether or not Gutierrez simply struggled as opposing scouts got an extended look at him, arming opposing pitchers with effective scouting reports, or a young player was simply overwhelmed by the bright lights of a pennant race or the playoffs figures to be determined early in 2008. His spectacular defensive ability alone will keep him in the lineup until the organization can determine which Franklin Gutierrez from last year is closer to the player that he will eventually become. That is, Gutierrez’s June and July elicited a great deal of excitement that a solid corner OF option had been developed by the team, while the way he finished the year tempered that enthusiasm dramatically. Even if the true Tank lies somewhere in the middle and assuming he doesn’t fall prey to the dreaded “platoon” label (.919 OPS vs. LHP in 2007, .721 OPS vs. RHP in 2007), Gutierrez will be on a long leash to keep the RF job in Cleveland for 2008 and beyond.

Back to LF, the Indians enter 2008 with a plan identical to that laid out at the beginning of 2007 – which is to platoon LH David Dellucci and RH Jason Michaels with the idea that the production from both players (who have historically hit better against LHP or RHP) will equal that of a solid LF. Back then, and even now, it reminds me of the “Seinfled” episode “The Summer of George” when George decides to be Jerry’s intern in relationships (this episode Jerry courting the impossibly hot and ridiculously energetic Amanda Peet) as neither of them had proved to be enough of a man to sustain a healthy relationship.

I often imagine Dellucci and Michaels coming up with this arrangement last year (and I know, this is nothing that is decided by players or that they have much of a say in it at all…but, for a moment, suspend your disbelief):

Michaels: You know, neither one of us can't handle an everyday position all by ourselves.

Dellucci: I'm trying.

: I've tried. We don't have it. But maybe the two of us, working together at full capacity, could do the job of one normal outfielder.

: Then each of us would only have be like a half-outfielder…that sounds about right!

Regardless if any egg-white omelets or tuna on toast was involved in the discussion is either here nor there. Far more relevant is that the arrangement for each to be a “half-outfielder” couldn’t have gone worse for either and their 2007 performance couldn’t cast more doubt on the possibility that the platoon will suddenly perform as it was supposed to a year later.

When Dellucci went down on June 19th, he was hitting .234 with an OBP under .300 and an OPS under .680 – this all while facing primarily the RHP that he was supposed to “crush”. All told, he proved to be utterly ineffective against LHP (.167 BA / .231 OBP / .250 SLG / .481 OPS) – which was expected – and worse than merely mediocre against RHP (.240 BA / .306 OBP / .403 SLG / .709 OPS). While Dellucci was struggling to do much of anything, Michaels reinforced the idea that he is simply not an everyday player, by posting extreme platoon splits despite comparable plate appearances against both LHP and RHP. As has become customary for Michaels, he performed adequately against LHP (.287 BA / .359 OBP / .441 SLG / .800 OPS in 153 plate appearances) and struggled mightily against RHP (.252 BA / .285 OBP / .351 SLG / .636 OPS in 137 plate appearances), lending more credence to the idea that Michaels exists as a “half-outfielder”.

Whether this duo that combines to form Dellichaels can do what they were unable to do in 2007 (that is, be effective), remains to be seen. Their 38 combined RBI through 70 games prior to Dellucci’s injury don’t exactly generate much optimism that these players (now a year older and Dellucci coming off of a major injury) can form an effective team…regardless of whether they only really have to be “half-outfielders”.

Where do Choo and Francisco Fit In?

The obvious corollary to the fact that Dellichaels and The Tank figure to make up the Indians corner OF positions is that it essentially leaves Shin-Soo Choo and Ben Francisco on the outside looking in. Ostensibly blocked by Dellucci and Michaels (and, to a lesser extent, Gutierrez), Big League Choo and The Frisco Kid find themselves without an obvious spot on the roster after some success over the last two years at the MLB level.

The easier situation to figure is that of The Ben Francisco Treat, as he retains options and is likely to simply start the season in Buffalo, where he won the International League batting title last year. Having obviously thrived in AAA last year, Francisco will be an interesting player to watch as the Bison start their season to see if he struggles at all with what he feels is an unnecessary repeat of a level (as Garko did in 2006) or if he can replicate the success that he experienced a year ago in Buffalo.

For whatever reason, the organization seems reticent to give Francisco a legitimate shot at a spot on the 25-man roster pigeonholing him (perhaps unfairly) as a 4th OF who ideally projects as a platoon OF with a ceiling of MAYBE being an everyday player. Ironically, doesn’t that description basically sum up what we know Jason Michaels to be? Unfortunately for Francisco, it does – meaning that Michaels is essentially already filling the role that the Indians feel Francisco is likely best suited for. The wisdom of this arrangement can certainly be questioned (that is, paying Michaels $2.2M when a cheaper alternative exists in-house), but the fact remains that as long as Jason Michaels remains on the Indians’ roster (and Franklin Gutierrez remains in the everyday lineup), Ben Francisco will toil in Buffalo and wait for his chance.

Much more pressing than the Francisco situation is the question of where the BLC fits on the 2008 roster as he is out of options and looks to be poised to return from the arm injury that sidelined him in 2007 by May of this year. At that point, the Indians will have to make a decision with what to do with Choo, who cannot simply be sent to Buffalo. Like Francisco, Choo finds himself blocked by a similar player to him in the LH hitting Dellucci who, like Choo, struggles to hit LH pitching. Again, Dellucci is essentially taking up the roster spot on the 25-man that Choo seems best suited to – the LH portion of an OF platoon.

The organization has a sort of credo when it comes to “problems” like the Choo situation, in that “these things have a way of working themselves out” – for better or worse. How could it work itself out? Well, Dellucci could struggle out of the gate, perhaps still bothered by his hamstring injury, leading Choo to take his place in the LF platoon. Gutierrez’s struggles against RHP could continue, leading the Indians to the decision to add Choo to the roster to augment Gutz in RF and go all Ollie Stone on the OF (get it…Platoon?). Or, the Indians could try to sneak Choo through waivers, a decision that would likely not work itself to the conclusion of Choo remaining in Cleveland.

Whatever happens with these two, the $4.7M owed Dellichaels in 2008 and a possible hesitancy to go with another relatively unproven youngster at a position (with 2B and RF, with 1B to a lesser extent already falling under that category) means that the BLC and The Frisco Kid will have to remain at the kids’ table and wait their turn for a seat to open at the grown-ups’ table.

Is Asdrubal the Real Deal?

After numerous reports that the Indians’ reluctance to part with AstroCab was the stumbling block for the Tribe to acquire Dan Haren…they sure hope so, particularly with the C.C. statement that makes Haren pitching in Cleveland past this year even more desirable. Of course, the Indians’ hopes for Cabrera are not without merit as Asdrbal’s emergence as the #2 hitter in the lineup served as the impetus for the pennant chase and the playoff run as the team went 24-6 when Cabrera batted 2nd in the lineup. An .800 winning percentage in the 30 games he batted 2nd! This all after it was generally assumed throughout his minor league career that Cabrera’s glove was his meal ticket and any offense that he would contribute would simply be icing on the cake.

While the Indians’ high opinion of his is based on an alarmingly small amount of MLB plate appearances, the switch-hitting 2B (for now) didn’t just impress in his limited stat line. His apparent comfort at the plate and air that he was in complete control lent more credence to the idea that he was a preternatural talent, arriving in Cleveland at the tender age of 21, something that is extremely rare in MLB (he was the 6th youngest player in MLB in 2007, with names like Maybin, Hughes, and Felix Hernandez being younger).

Cabrera may not be at the top of the lineup throughout the year as the league figures to make adjustments to the approach that their pitchers take to Droob, but after his performance down the stretch in 2007, the Indians figure to have Cabrera on a pretty long leash, if only for his defensive prowess that somewhat offsets the lack of range currently at 1B and SS. The corollary to Cabrera being on a long leash means that Josh Barfield (who, at this time last year was simply assumed to be the “2B of the Future”) will likely mire in Buffalo for an extended period of time in 2008 to figure out what went wrong in 2007 and hopefully improve his pitch selection and OBP. 2008 may not definitively answer the question of how the Indians’ middle infield will look for years to come, but it should assist in the determination of whether Cabrera figures to follow the career path of MI who have succeeded at an early age in MLB (Robby Alomar, Alan Trammell, etc.) to become perennial All-Stars or if he simply tops out as an excellent defender whose offense is simply a bonus.

Will Marte McFly?

Much like the BLC, the Indians find themselves in a quandary about what to do with Andy Marte, who is also out of options. Where with the BLC, the Indians have a few months to figure out their course of action because of his injury, Marte is fully healthy and can’t go anywhere but up north with the parent club after Spring Training and still remain in the organization. Last year, Marte had the 3B job out of Winter Haven, but underperformed and was injured, the latter episode (combined with Casey Blake’s initial success in his stead at 3B) sealing his fate as a Bison for the year.

Now, with Blake slated to make $6.1M due to the way that MLB contracts, service time, and arbitration are designed, Marte finds himself to be a man without a cemented spot on the team. The team has said that Marte will have to play some 1B to give them some versatility on the roster, but wouldn’t he be behind Garko and Victor (at least) in that department? How in the world are the Indians going to find any kind of regular AB for Marte and not just let him rot on the bench, where the talent that was so evident prior to his acquisition will go to waste, or (worse) watch him develop into a solid MLB player on another team?

Since it seems that the Indians are committed to Casey Blake being in the everyday lineup and Marte doesn’t figure to be “handed” the 3B job, why not use Blake’s versatility to allow Marte to play 3B against LHP? Seeing that a platoon exists in LF where the RH portion (Michaels) could potentially be moved for another part, what’s wrong with Marte, Blake, and Dellucci platooning LF and 3B?

Against LHP, Blake in LF and Marte at 3B.

Against RHP, Dellucci in LF and Blake at 3B.

That being said, as unlikely as it is to happen, I’m actually of the belief that Marte SHOULD be “handed” the 3B job out of Winter Haven to truly see what he can do in an extended period of time (40 to 60 games) before making a decision to possibly pull the plug on him. Consider that Red Sox 2B Dustin Pedroia had a .544 OPS in April of 2007 through 55 AB in his first extended look at MLB while Marte had a .553 OPS in April of 2007 in 39 AB before his injury sent him to Buffalo for good. Since the Tribe is essentially set everywhere else in the lineup, with suitable back-ups in Shoppach and The Frisco Kid and the versatility of Blake to serve as insurance, let’s see what Marte can do with some regular time (or, at the very least, platooning with Blake and Dellucci) before giving up on a 24-year-old (2 years younger than Francisco, by the way) whose only downfall has been high expectations and a slow adjustment to MLB.

Of course, more questions exist for the Indians’ lineup in 2008, like whether Pronk or that guy named Travis who showed up last season will be donning the #48 jersey in 2008, how the likes of Martinez, Sizemore, and Peralta continue to progress as hitters, how Peralta and Garko field behind a rotation with two sinkerballers, and if Kelly Shoppach figures to remain Paul Byrd’s personal catcher.

But those questions will be answered in a place not called Winter Haven.

For now, break out the sunscreen and think of warmer days…anything to get your mind off of the reality that 2008 will be C.C.’s last donning a Tribe uniform.

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