The Sports Report

A Statistical Take on Sports and Politics

Cleveland Indians Future: Pitchers

Now that the Cleveland Indians have traded C.C. Sabathia to the Milwaukee Brewers, they have made a sign that they are planning for 2009. After 96 wins and a trip to the American League Championship Series in 2007, numerous injuries, and disappointments have brought the Indians to 13 games back of first place in the Central even before the All-Star Break.

In the trade the Indians made with the Brewers on Monday, Cleveland did not receive any pitchers in return. This leads me to think of what the organizational chart looks like in the pitching department. After a talk with Joe Jastrzemski of WAKR, here is what looks to be the future of the Indians pitching staff:

  • Cliff Lee, Fausto Carmona, and Aaron Laffey will be the three fixtures on the rotation for the rest of this season, and for opening day 2009. Lee (turns 30 on August 30th) has been sensational this season, and despite his struggles last year, he looks like he should be a mainstay on the rotation for the future no matter what. Laffey (turned 23 in April) has been silently impressive this season (4-5, 3.49 ERA), and has had enough success in his near-full season in the Majors to call him a full time starter. Carmona (turns 25 in December), on the other hand, had a fantastic year last season before getting hurt this year. Hopefully, he will return within the next two weeks from his hip injury.
  • That leaves two starter positions that will be contended for over the next eight months up until April of 2009. The main long-term options at the #4, and #5 starting positions are Jeremy Sowers (turned 25 in May, struggling in Cleveland), Adam Miller (turns 24 in November, could start a throwing rehab program in two weeks, and be back in Buffalo by August) and David Huff (turns 24 in August, recently promoted to Buffalo). Take one look at the other starting pitchers on the Cleveland and Buffalo rosters, and all you see is a whole mesh of old players that will be stop-gaps at best. Paul Byrd (37,) John Halama (36,) Dan Reichert (turns 32 next week,) and recently-signed Jeff Weaver (turns 32 in August) are the only other possibilities.

While Weaver, Byrd, and possibly Halama, and Reichert will compete for the final spots on the rotation for the remainder of this season, expect Sowers, Huff, and Miller to have the advantage in the long-term. In talking with Jastrzemski, we came to an agreement that General Manager Mark Shapiro’s job could be on the line because of this trade. That is entirely unfair, but because of the success from last season, and the multitude of failed projects under his regime (Phillips, Kouzamanoff, and Guthrie) this trade might very well be his last chance to etch himself on the Indians landscape for the extreme long-term. Incredible expectations are again placed upon newcomers Rob Bryson, and Zach Jackson, acquired in the Sabathia trade, to make up for some of the woes of the bullpen.

Speaking of the bullpen, Mark Shapiro’s philosophy highlights the fact that pitching as a whole can be rather unpredictable. Unlike measurable hitting statistics, pitching statistics are skewed much more violently in connection to their batting average allowed on balls hit in play. The only direct statistics a pitcher completely control are strikeouts, walks, and home runs. Everything else relies upon what the defense does, and thus can vary significantly from year to year. I am sure that some of this random luck has hit hard upon relievers Jensen Lewis, Rafael Betancourt, and Rafael Perez, who all had fantastic Major League seasons last year in the pen but are struggling in 2008. The following list is a compilation of names that should be options either in the long-term or short-term for the Indians relief pitching:

  • Masahide Kobayashi (turned 34 in May) is signed through next season, with a club option for 2010. He hasn’t pitched more than 57.2 innings since the 2000 season, and because he already has pitched 41 this year, might not be as prevalent a fixture in the second half of the season. Will be on for the long haul no matter what because of his contract.
  • Rafael Betancourt (turned 33 in April) is signed through next season, with a club option for 2010. In the 2005-2007 seasons in Cleveland, Betancourt had a WHIP of 0.971. In 2008, his WHIP has skyrocketed to 1.462. Indians are stuck with him because of his past success in the organization, and his contract. In my mind, he is the most logical choice to be the short-term replacement at closer.
  • Rafael Perez (turned 26 in May), and Jensen Lewis (turned 24 in May) are two players that burst onto the scene in 2007. They each are under one-year contracts but should get there first big paycheck sometime in the off-season. Perez is not doing all that bad in Cleveland this season (3.79 RA in 38 innings), and Lewis has been a workaholic in between Buffalo, and Cleveland (52 innings pitched in 32 games).

Those are practically the only four mainstay long-term pieces the Indians have in their Major League bullpen. Perez, and Lewis would be nice long-term options as a replacement closer, but time will tell for both of them. After these four players, there is a significant drop-off to the next tier of relief pitchers in the organization. These next four guys are currently labeled as Quadruple-A players that might not be the greatest alternatives for the Indians, but should get the job done for now. They might still have some long-term promise, but they really don’t have much of a place within the organization, and will constantly be in limbo between Buffalo, and Cleveland.

  • Juan Rincon (turns 30 in January), who was designated for assignment by the Minnesota Twins about four weeks ago, is the newest addition to the Indians roster. He has a 7.56 RA in between stints with Minnesota, and Buffalo this season, and who knows if he will be able to return to his form 2004-2006 when he was one of the best set-up men in the big leagues.
  • Tom Mastny (turned 27 in February), has been absolutely dominant in his last three stints in the minor leagues. Since the beginning of the 2006 season, Mastny has had a 2.33 RA to go along with a 1.03 WHIP in 89 minor league innings between Akron, and Buffalo. Since the beginning of the 2006 season, Mastny has had a 5.83 RA to go along with a 1.76 WHIP in 80.2 innings with Cleveland. That doesn’t seem right to me, and I sincerely hope things will start to improve for Mastny as he stays with with the Indians.
  • Edward Mujica (turned 24 in May) is most famous for having an incredible streak in the 2006 season. After 38.2 innings of scoreless baseball in Akron, and Cleveland, Mujica did not allow an earned run that season until July 14 in a Cleveland uniform. His streak of 43.1 combined scoreless innings was a thing of beauty, and propelled him to the spot where he is now with the Tribe. Unfortunately, since that famous streak he has had an ERA of 5.34 in between 116.1 innings of work between Buffalo, and Cleveland.
  • Brian Slocum (turned 27 in March) was hampered by injuries in 2007, which limited him to only 26 innings of work in 5 starts in Buffalo. He had been quite impressive in 2006 for Buffalo, and was expected to climb quickly to the big leagues as a reliever. Now in 2008, he is back with the team, and I am really not sure what to expect. He certainly was not that impressive the first three months of the season in Buffalo (5.05 RA with a 1.48 WHIP in 62.1 innings).

The only other pitchers that are at all on the current Major League radar are four relievers that are still a little bit away from making the roster at all. Three started the year in Akron, while the other was included in the Sabathia trade the other day, and has already reported to Buffalo. Randy Newsom (turned 26 in May), Jeff Stevens (turns 25 in September), and Reid Santos (turns 26 in August) are becoming legitimate assets for the Indians and may find their way to the team by September of this year. On the other hand, Zack Jackson (turned 25 in May) has some Major League experience for the Brewers, and as a lefty could be an important piece of the Cleveland bullpen.

Newsom, and Stevens were both shoo-ins on bad trades (Newsom in the Boston/Coco Crisp trade, Stevens in the Brandon Phillips/player-to-be-named deal), but have excelled so far this year. Newsom had a 2.25 RA to go along with a 5-0 record, and 24 saves in Akron before being promoted to Buffalo last week. Stevens, meanwhile, has a 1.10 WHIP, and 3.42 RA to go along with a 5-2 record, and 6 saves in 47.1 innings of work for both Akron, and Buffalo. Santos has been rather good in Akron (1.36 WHIP, and 3.27 RA in 22 innings) but struggled mightily in Buffalo (2.04 WHIP, and 7.56 RA in 25 innings). He is currently back on the Akron roster. Jackson struggled in Nashville this season (1.73 WHIP, and 8.48 RA) but has not been horrible in his brief Major League career (1.64 WHIP, and 6.00 RA in 42 innings). All of these players are still rather young, so time will tell over whether any of them could eventually be a consistent reliever in the Major Leagues.

Overall, things do not look that great for the Indians pitching in the short-term. With only two healthy long-term options in the current rotation (Carmona not included,) the Indians need to find time in the next eight months to figure out who will be the eventual replacement for Sabathia in the rotation. It will not be an easy task, but it will be necessary if Mark Shapiro wants to keep his job, and the Indians plan on contending in 2009, and for many years to come.

July 9, 2008 - Posted by | Cleveland Indians Future | ,

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