The Cleveland Indians have enjoyed another early-season surge to the top of the American League Central. It hasn't been nearly as impressive as their 30-15 run to start 2011, but a 17-12 mark is nothing to thumb your nose at.
Still, this is a flawed team that has benefited from a relatively easy schedule through the first month. Things figure to get much tougher as the calendar flips to June, with matchups against Detroit, St. Louis, Cincinnati and New York.
With that in mind, there are a few things that the Indians' front office should look to do in the near future to at least give this team a better chance to hang around the race until the end of September.
Give Matt LaPorta Another Shot At First Base
Believe me, I know. LaPorta is not the answer that anyone is looking for at first base. He had every opportunity to take the job in 2009, 2010 and 2011, but he failed every time. His career line of .238/.304/.397 doesn't exactly inspire a lot of confidence.
But would those numbers really be that much worse than what Casey Kotchman has brought to the table?
The Indians signed Kotchman late in the offseason expecting that he would hit for average and provide plus defense at first base. While it is still early, the returns on the investment have not been promising at all.
Kotchman is hitting just .182/.265/.284 with two home runs and eight RBI, and his groundball-to-flyball ratio is 2.10. He has never been a power hitter, but at least he kept his average respectable.
Now, Kotchman isn't hitting for average and his defense so far has been well below average. His Ultimate Zone Rating so far is -1.7, according to Fangraphs, good for 18th among 25 qualified first basemen.
LaPorta has never been a defensive wizard, nor has he shown much with the bat in Cleveland, but he has been dominating Triple-A again this year—.356/.429/.683, nine home runs, seven doubles—and there is no reason to keep him down there because we know he can dominate that level.
Even if LaPorta doesn't hit much when he gets called up, he would still bring more to the offense than Kotchman is capable of.
Move Nick Hagadone Into The Closer's Role
Since there doesn't seem to be anything physically wrong with him, it is safe to assume that the pitcher Chris Perez has been since the start of the 2011 season is the one he will be for the foreseeable future.
Perez has never had good command, but he had velocity and threw enough strikes to miss bats and keep opposing hitters from squaring up his pitches.
Something has changed with Perez, because his velocity has been declining the last two years—his average fastball has gone from 94.6 in 2010 down to 92.9 this year—and his slider doesn't have the same hard, sharp bite that it once did.
Perez's strikeout rate has gone from 8.71/9 IP in 2010 to 5.88 last year. It has kicked up a bit this year (6.59), but he has looked like a man without a lifeboat in a lot of his chances this season.
Hagadone, on the other hand, was called up on April 17 and looks like he is here to stay. It has been a small sample size—9.1 innings—but so far the results have been encouraging.
In addition to averaging nearly 94 mph with his fastball, his slider has been a swing-and-miss pitch. He throws hard and does it from the left side, which only increases his value.
Manny Acta is obviously starting to feel more comfortable with Hagadone in late-game situations, as evidenced by his appearance in the ninth inning of a tie game against the White Sox on Tuesday night.
The bullpen is the biggest strength for the Indians, but Perez is quickly becoming a liability in his late-inning role. Moving Hagadone into the closer's role would make the Bullpen Mafia that much more lethal.
Put Michael Brantley Back In The Leadoff Role
Signing Johnny Damon was a good move for the Tribe. He is still a productive player and is a big improvement over Shelley Duncan in left field, but he is not a leadoff hitter anymore.
Brantley has not taken to the leadoff position the way that most assumed he would when he was first brought up in 2009, but he is just 25 years old—or will be on May 15. He started out slow, but he has started to hit the ball better in recent weeks. His stats may not show it—.239/.289/.327—but you can see that he is hitting the ball harder and looks more confident at the plate.
One thing Brantley has going for him over Damon is his ability to work deep counts and make consistent contact with the ball. He may not be getting a lot of hits, but he has been outstanding at putting the ball in play. Eventually, the ball is going to find the hole for him, and that average and on-base percentage will start to look much more respectable.
Damon is not going to walk enough to keep his on-base percentage high enough to keep leading off, and he doesn't make the same amount of contact that Brantley does.
It is time to move Brantley back to the leadoff spot and keep him there for good.
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