Tribe Talk: Reflections from the AL Central Cellar

Samantha Bunten@@samanthabuntenAnalyst ISeptember 24, 2009

NEW YORK - JULY 13:  Matt Laporta of the Cleveland Indians playing for the United States Olympic Team takes fielding practice before the 2008 XM All-Star Futures Game at Yankee Stadium on July13, 2008 in the Bronx borough of New York City.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

Welcome to Tribe Talk, where Bleacher Report's Tribe fans weigh in on the ups and downs of the Indians each week throughout the season.

This week, as the Indians sit firmly in the AL Central cellar, we ponder whether the Tribe or the Royals are the worst team in the division, think ahead about long-term contracts we would like to see sewn up for some of our young players this winter, and wonder if things have gotten so bad this season that we just want to be put out of our collective misery.

I would like to thank this week's participant Dale Thomas for his contribution.

This discussion is open to all, so please feel free to comment below and pitch in your thoughts on the questions we're addressing this week.

Go Tribe!

1. After a brief period of improvement in late July/early August, the Indians seem to have reverted back to their blundering, first half form, losing 19 of their last 22.

The recent losing streak has landed the Tribe back in the AL Central cellar, in last place behind even Kansas City.

Can the Indians get out of the cellar before the season ends? Right now, who is the better team, the Indians or the Royals? When things are this bad, does it really not even matter?

And is there any chance the Indians don't even win two of the remaining 13 games, and thus suffer their first 100-loss season since 1991?

Dale Thomas: Since Kansas City has 12 wins in their last 20 games, I guess I have to say that for the moment, the Royals are the better team.

Then again, there was that run after the break where the Indians were the better team.

Wait! Kansas City has only scored 638 runs to Cleveland's 721. Cleveland is better. We have more home runs, too! Better. The Tribe has been hit by waaay more pitches! Better?

Let's see...what else? We dumped a Cy Young pitcher and the hottest hitting catcher in the league...better...better...ah...who am I kidding? Does it matter? Nah.

I think the Indians can win two more. We'll squeak in under the 100-loss wire, but I'm not sure that matters either.

Being better than the Royals is like...well, it's like that age-old expression: "It's better than nothing." The sad thing is that we are clearly not better than nothing. We may be the nothing that everybody else is better than.

Samantha Bunten: It's tough to say who the better of the two teams is when both are so incredibly bad compared to the rest of the league, so perhaps I should have phrased this question, "Which team is worse?"

There may be no joy in Mudville, but there is absolute misery in Cleveland and Kansas City. So I figure we can argue about who is in more pain or we can just suck it up and use our time in the dungeons of the AL Central to "sit and think about what we've done."

I suppose I'll say that Kansas City is the weaker of the two teams. Despite the fact that they are now one-and-a-half games ahead of the Indians in the standings, the Tribe took the head-to-head season series 10 games to eight.

The Indians will find a way to eek out two more wins and avoid the dreaded 100-loss tag, though they may very well lose 98 or 99.

As for getting out of the cellar, well, your guess is as good as mine. I don't think it really matters anyway. There's no prize for being the second-worst in the division, and at the end of the day, both Cleveland and Kansas City are still two really bad teams.

The real question is, who has a better shot of bouncing back next year? I'll put my money on the Tribe.

2. With a group of young players filling out most of the roster and the team in a rebuilding phase of sorts, it seems unlikely that the Indians will be very active in the free agent market this winter. However, the team will surely make some small moves to plug a few holes as best they can.

Relieving themselves of the salaries of Cliff Lee and Victor Martinez through midseason trades has freed up at least a little room to maneuver in the payroll. What do you see the Indians going after in the free agent market this winter?

Dale Thomas: Hey! David Dellucci is available! Let's do that again! Or maybe we can find a free agent GM?

I do have one serious entry though, and I'm seriously serious about the seriousness of this entry: Aaron Boone.

Yes, I said Aaron Boone.

His value might not be such that he fills a team need backed up by statistical reference, but let's face the fact that somebody has to turn this jumble of wanna-be's into a team that lives and dies together come hell or high water.

Someone has to be a good dad and teach these guys concepts like picking each other up when they fall. How to feed off of another player's energy. How to support a pitching staff with small ball run support and good defense, or how to support an offense with solid relief pitching—when to swing for the fences and when to just get that bat on a ball.

When to high five your teammate and when to let him know he needs to shut up or step up. Someone to have a cookout now and then and share his life. Someone to help a troubled player deal with whatever, or someone to craft a player-driven plan necessitated by a sudden tailspin.

Our manager has proved over and over that he can't do this, his coaches can't do this, and the front office can't do this.

I also think Boone still has a few things to offer coming off the bench, and I think he would come in cheap. This way that money we are saving would go towards NOT dumping the players that we do sign instead of bringing in payroll to be traded or dumped midway through the season.

Intangible value is still value, and as I look at the long list of 30-somethings and what they would bring to the team for the money they command, this is the guy that stands out.

Okay, time for my meds...

Samantha Bunten: The joke, as always, is, will we re-sign Carl Pavano and do the whole thing over again? I'm guessing not, since most of us, the front office included, are beginning to lose our sense of humor given the way the season has gone.

Still, I think the sentiment behind the joke is correct—the few dollars the Indians can afford to allocate to free agent signings this winter will likely go to a one-year, incentive-laden contract for a veteran pitcher with something to prove. A pitcher who, like the Indians, has little to lose and everything to gain. 

I think this is a good move. The Pavano signing last offseason, in my opinion, was a smart one, and a similar move this offseason could be just as helpful.

Aside from that, I do think there is a possibility that we will see the front office bring in a veteran catcher to help out the young backstops and eat up some innings behind the plate as well.

Mostly though, the Indians should use the money that was freed up by letting Martinez and Lee go to lock up their young talent with long-term contracts.

3. On a related note, the extra money made available when Lee and Martinez were traded might be used, at least in part, to lock up long-term deals for some of the Tribe's promising young players.

Of players who would be in a position to work out this sort of deal, who do you think the Indians should prioritize and focus on signing to long-term contracts?

Dale Thomas: It seems that about 90 percent of this group of guys we currently call a "team" have contracts that expire after this year. I guess that's cool though, since we really don't know these guys well enough to miss them if they disappear next year.

Whether this is because they came in under a minor league contract or not, it brings into perspective the fact that we play like a group of strangers that had to go to the corporate picnic the day before the layoffs.

Maybe we should just forget contracts in favor of a low cost temporary work force who serve their probationary year in Cleveland to determine their worthiness for a full-time spot on a team that has accounted for the fact that players tend to want paychecks and fans tend to buy tickets if they know who they are coming to see.

I mean, let's think about a rock concert with this billing: Random Band Playing. Singer to be named later. Tickets $100.00...okay, okay...I'll answer the question.

Laffey has to be locked up and so does Asdrubal Cabrera. We need Choo, so add him to the list along with Sowers (I continue my blind faith in Jeremy). Brantley is a "must do." He has made an airtight case for himself in a very short time...reminds me of how Victor looked initially, except better.

Valbuena is on my list along with Huff and a couple of Perezes. So as you can see, I'm still trying to figure out how to prioritize an entire team's roster since I figure there is no way we'll go out and bring in veterans.

Samantha Bunten: The first person the Indians should sit down and work out a deal with is Asdrubal Cabrera. I can see him getting a deal similar to the one Grady Sizemore got. His age, talent, and experience are perfect for the sort of low-risk, high reward deal that we see so frequently these days between small market clubs and young talent with great potential.

I would prioritize signing David Huff to a long term deal, too, though I wouldn't afford him the same caliber of offer I would give to Cabrera. I wouldn't mind locking up Laffey in a modest, multi-year deal as well.

Guys like Brantley and LaPorta will probably be in a position to command this sort of deal eventually, but they will need at least another year of convincing performance to prove they're worth it, and the Tribe doesn't need to be in a hurry given that they control both players for several years to come.

4. Now that he is getting regular playing time, Matt LaPorta appears to finally be living up to advance billing. While he is still batting just .235/.278/.426 on the season, over the last seven days, he has posted an impressive .370/.414/.667.

Do you think this is just a fluke, or has LaPorta finally found his stride? How much credit for his improvement do you give to the fact that he is finally getting consistent playing time?

Finally, do you like LaPorta at first base rather than in the outfield, especially given that the team has a crowded outfield and arguably no other viable candidates at first base?

Dale Thomas: I think LaPorta's stride is exactly the .235 hitter that he has been over the course of the season. I do think he's had a good week though, and I'm thrilled that he has seven good games under his belt.

He's hitting only .196 at home though. I mean what's up with that? He hits .299 on the road, so maybe we need to arrange for him to live in Toledo so that he travels to all games.

I do think that consistent playing time is important, since his average tends to creep upward towards the end of those months that he played.

A huge concern for me is that he seems to struggle when he has runners on base. So, trouble when runners are on, trouble at home games, trouble when he is first called up...this may indicate he has a case of nerves, but once he settles down, he can hit okay.

I don't really see him as a .300 hitter over an entire season. I see him hovering around .260, and being that guy who let's the pressures of baseball get into his head and affect his performance at the plate.

He swings better when he's relaxed, so maybe he will prove me totally wrong once he has an established position and a full time job.

I would rather see LaPorta at first base than in the outfield for the same reasons you state above. We really don't have a first baseman, and first base keeps you involved one way or another in pretty much every play. This might keep his nerves in know...stay busy and trust your reflexes.

Samantha Bunten: September stats are very difficult to judge. Any baseball fan will tell you, "weird stuff happens in September," and they're right.

Solid performers choke and underachievers soar, highly touted prospects fall flat in their first turn in the majors, while young guys called up only as afterthoughts establish a convincing presence. And none of that is necessarily any indication of how any of those players will perform next April or throughout their career.

So I guess it's a little premature to say LaPorta has truly figured this whole big league thing out and hit his stride.

However, I am truly impressed by the amount of progress he has made. Back in July I had some serious misgivings about LaPorta—maybe Milwaukee took us for a ride in the Sabathia trade (Oh, the horror)—but he has proved that he has a very solid skill set and the potential to be an excellent player in the future.

His average over the past week is certainly deceptively high, more an indication that he is locked in right now than that he's suddenly become a .300-plus hitter. The .235 overall average still looms very, very large. Ultimately, I see LaPorta as a solid .260-.270 hitter with good power.

I'm in favor of the first base move. While LaPorta still looks more comfortable in the outfield, he will adjust to playing first with relative ease, and that's a good thing for the team because we need a solid first baseman badly, whereas outfielders we have in spades.

5. Fun (sort of) Question of the Week: There is no denying that this has been a very rough season. As much as we love our Tribe, there have been many moments when all of us have covered our eyes during a game and wailed "Make it stop!"

Yet we're also still watching, no matter how bad things have become. With the end of the season coming in a few short weeks, are you sad to see the Tribe's 2009 effort coming to a close, or has this season been so painful that you'll mostly just be relieved when it's over?

Dale Thomas: I like baseball. I feel pretty good just watching a couple of neighborhood kids playing a game of catch, so yes, I'll miss watching the games. Of course, I'd rather be watching a knuckle-biter that determines a division crown or a wild card slot or...(slaps self twice) maybe even a shot at the world championship.

Still, I'm perfectly okay with watching players play, even when they're on a struggling team.

I can get excited about a given player's approach to positioning himself on the field, like a shortstop edging towards second in a 2-1 count with a runner on first, or playing at the cut of the grass, or a hitter swinging freely in an 0-2 count, or having the ability to get his bat on the ball when the pitch is tailing in and sinking out of the zone.

I might just count how many signs my pitcher shakes off or take note of whether or not the closer is just throwing heat. It's all those little things that make the game fun and interesting to watch in a losing season.

Baseball is a team sport that inspires loyalty through familiarity. I can live with a team that isn't doing well, but it's hard to love a team when you don't know who's on it, and even harder when you know who's on it one day, but don't the next. I'm actually more upset by the organization's "strategic" moves than I am from watching the players play.

I like seeing the effort and enthusiasm of a cohesive unit that calls themselves a team, and I even like listening to Rick Manning and...ummm...yeah, that other guy trying to convince us that everything will be okay, when clearly, they don't believe it themselves.

Winning teams spark conversation and interest, so it gives us all something to talk about. Losing teams provide the same thing: Something to talk about and a forum from which we can tap into our armchair management skills.

However, when you don't know any of the players and don't have at least a little bit of history with them, people stop talking altogether. They just don't bring up the Indians anymore. Even the announcers seem defeated and aloof.

So after that lengthy ramble, I guess I'm neither sad nor relieved at this season's end, because the Tribe's season really ended quite a while ago and we have just been watching a bunch of guys going through the motions without noticeable purpose. I've rarely, possibly never, seen such apathy in players, media, management and fans all at the same time.

So, as this season of horrors comes to a close, I feel duty-bound to throw kudos towards the good folks at Bleacher Report for keeping Tribe Talk going.

Moreover, huge credit goes out to Samantha for keeping this season alive and enlightening through her unrelenting support for the Cleveland Indians, her impressive depth of knowledge...and maybe above all...for those snappy headlines! Go Tribe!!

Samantha Bunten: The great baseball writer Roger Kahn once said, "You may glory in a team triumphant, but you fall in love with a team in defeat."

This is indisputably true when your team loses the World Series by one game. Not so much when your team enters a season with great potential, only to completely go off the rails by May and appear so incompetent by September that you spend more time banging your head off a wall than cheering and have to consider the possibility that you may lose 100 games right around the time of year you thought you would be in a pennant race.

But no matter how incredibly not in love with the Indians I am at the moment, that doesn't mean I love baseball any less than I always have. It also doesn't mean I don't enjoy watching the Tribe play, however badly, because every game left on the schedule is one more baseball game I get to watch before the 2009 season ends.

This is not to say I won't be relieved in a way when the season is over, given how painful the Tribe has been to watch and how painful it must be for them to play it out in this futile march toward inevitable doom. I'll still miss baseball this off-season, just like I always do, but I will in a way, be relieved to see the Cleveland season end.

The Indians and I, well, we could both use a break.


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