5 Realistic Roster Moves to Keep the Tribe Afloat
The Cleveland Indians are beginning to show some of the same glaring weaknesses in 2012 that doomed last season’s promising campaign. In what has become an eerily reminiscent double take of the 2011 season, the Tribe has recently succumbed to injury and inconsistent starting pitching.
A three game sweep of the rival Tigers was followed by successive injuries to Travis Hafner, Asdrubal Cabrera, Carlos Santana and Jack Hannahan, and an abusive three game sweep at the hands of the suddenly red hot Chicago White Sox. Things didn’t improve much after the Tribe returned home to lose two of three to the Royals, with the offense predictably struggling to hit soft-tossing Royals left-handed starting pitching in the process.
Cabrera has thankfully made a prompt return, the injury to Santana doesn’t appear to be serious, and the loss of Super Jack will give Lonnie Chisenhall another shot to prove himself both at the dish and the hot corner. Hafner’s loss, while unfortunate, is neither surprising nor irreconcilable if management makes some wise roster decisions.
The following five players need to be given a legitimate chance to prove themselves in the wake of the Hafner injury and the inconsistent play of veterans currently on the roster.
1. Russ Canzler
Reigning International League MVP Russ Canzler brought an immediate curiosity factor to the Tribe roster when he was acquired on the eve of Spring Training.
Many fans wanted to see what Canzler could do after an impressive 2011 season where he hit .314, with 18 HR, 83 RBI and a .401 OBP for the Rays’ Durham AAA affiliate. There was some thought he could even win the vacant starting job in left field out of Spring Training.
An underwhelming Spring Training from the left-field candidates all around granted the job to Shelley Duncan, with career backup Aaron Cunningham receiving the fourth outfielder role.
Despite a regression in Canzler’s AAA numbers this year, the man must be given a chance to play at the big league level. He’s paid his dues in the minors for eight years and can play any corner infield or outfield position.
Shelley Duncan will never be a 25 HR-a-year guy, no matter how many at-bats he’s given, and Aaron Cunningham looks like a poor-man’s Trevor Crowe at best (and that is saying something).
There’s a reason neither player was ever able to strike it big with the Yankees, A’s or Padres. Canzler might as well be given a chance, regardless if the other two have minor league options or not. No team is going to scramble to claim either off waivers.
2. Zach McAllister
After a largely disastrous short tenure with the big club in 2011, I wasn’t exactly thrilled to see "Zach Mac" back in Cleveland.
What a difference a year can make.
McAllister contributed four very respectable starts before being demoted back to Columbus. In starts against three of the most formidable lineups in the AL, the big righty went a combined 1-1 with a 3.72 ERA, 16 Ks and only one walk in 19.1 innings against the White Sox, Red Sox and Tigers.
While staff "aces" Justin Masterson and Ubaldo Jimenez look lost in their search for the strike zone, McAlister has remained aggressive attacking hitters with his fastball at AAA.
In 35 starts for the Clippers since being acquired from the Yankees in 2010, McAllister has yielded just 50 walks compared to 175 strikeouts in 211.2 innings. Granted, those numbers are against minor league lineups, but a 3.5:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio bodes well for future success.
Perhaps the Indians should use a six-man rotation, introducing McAllister into the mix. One writer suggested only starting Ubaldo Jimenez at home, and a look at his five road starts speaks for itself:
2-3, 9.00 ERA, 23 BB, 16 Ks, .358 AVG, 2.58 WHIP in 24.0 innings pitched
When it’s Ubado’s turn on the road, I’d rather take my chances on McAlister, who pitched very respectably in Fenway Park, his lone road start this year.
3. Jason Donald
Three years removed from the Cliff Lee trade, utility man Jason Donald is the Indians player with the longest—albeit abbreviated—track record of success.
After a decent rookie campaign, JD caught a tough break in 2011 when he was hit on the hand with a pitch and forced to miss the majority of the season. He returned to finish the season strong, hitting .318 with a .364 OBP in 39 games.
The late season surge essentially guaranteed him a roster spot in 2012.
Donald got his first crack at everyday playing time when Asdrubal Cabrera briefly went on the bereavement list, but struggled to capitalize on the opportunity. When Cabrera pulled a hamstring last week, Tribe management overlooked Donald, and called up rookie Juan Diaz instead.
Maybe Diaz possesses some capability of which I’m unaware, but a glance at his stats shows a steady regression in each of the past three seasons. A career minor league .255/.311/.354 slash line doesn’t suggest much in the way of offensive potential, and Diaz is strictly a shortstop.
Donald, on the other hand, can play short, second or third base, and was working to learn the outfield in spring training. With the temporary loss of Jack Hannahan and the uncertain production of Lonnie Chisenhall, it would seem the time is now to give Donald another shot.
4. Chen Lee
Tribe management wasted valuable bullpen innings on ineffective journeyman Jairo Asencio and a disappointing Dan Wheeler to start the season. It got things right when Nick Hagadone finally got his chance to be full-time member of the “Bullpen Mafia,” and the lefty has impressed thus far in 2012.
Chen Lee should be the next recruit in line to join the bullpen ranks.
In three plus minor league seasons, Lee has been remarkably consistent. His ERA and WHIP have steadily declined each season, and he has struck out 286 batters in only 234.1 combined innings.
Tabbed as a potential big league set-up man, Lee has the kind of numbers that can only keep him at AAA for so long.
Given bullpens’ characteristically hit-and-miss nature and the inconsistency in the Tribe’s starting rotation, there’s no reason Lee shouldn’t get the call to replace an ineffective Tony Sipp or an inconsistent Jeremy Accardo.
5. Matt LaPorta
Yes, I’m jumping on that bandwagon.
To be fair, I’ve been a bigger Matt LaPorta supporter than a likely majority of Tribe fans dating back to last season. Personally, I believe his overall contribution to the team wouldn’t have made us any worse off than we currently are with Casey Kotchman manning first.
Perhaps this assumption is validated by both player’s pitiful WAR stats:
LaPorta 2011: -0.8
Kotchman 2012: -0.7
No one will doubt that Kotchman is a vastly superior, Gold Glove-caliber talent at first base. The problem is, he simply doesn’t hit enough to justify being an everyday player.
Although he hit .276 in May (after a woeful .149 in April), Kotchman is a predominantly singles hitter. The Tribe’s power-deprived lineup needs more from a run-producing position.
If Kotchman was getting on base at the rate of some of his teammates, it would be understandable for him to retain his spot. A .297 OBP doesn’t justify anything other than a dreaded platoon role or use as a late game defensive replacement.
Set aside LaPorta’s history of failure with the Tribe and the unmet expectations that come from being acquired for CC Sabathia.
2012 is inevitably LaPorta’s last chance to prove anything in Cleveland. The Indians would be wise to give him a shot, at least in the hope of raising his trade value.
It’s not completely implausible that LaPorta could be packaged alongside other prospects to a team like the Brewers in a play for Zack Greinke.
Milwaukee is currently manning first base with career backups Taylor Green and Travis Ishikawa, after Mat Gamel (not a world beater himself) was lost for the season to a torn ACL. Then again, noting the Tribe’s luck with National League trades, it’s also highly likely that LaPorta could turn into a masher in Milwaukee for years to come.
To summarize, the Tribe doesn't need to do anything drastic. They don't need to trade any of their veterans, fire their manager, or deal more top prospects. Not at this time, at least.
The gradual roster additions of Canzler, McAllister, Donald, Lee and LaPorta are inevitable at some point this season, whether in the coming weeks or in September. Potentially losing Shelley Duncan, Aaron Cunningham, Juan Diaz, Jeremy Accardo, or Tony Sipp won't cause the season to spin out of control.
None of the moves I've suggested will necessarily turn the season around, and most of them would likely prove to be minor changes. That being said, to continue fielding ineffective or inconsistent players when there is potential improvement on the cusp doesn't help the team in any way.
The Indians didn't give up anything of value to acquire any of the players I propose to demote (or potentially lose to waivers). They did, however, give up two former aces and a former starting outfielder to obtain three of the possible additions.
With the team's strengths beginning to show a chink in the armor, the time is now to make the necessary adjustments to get back on track.