Eight months ago when Manny Acta agreed to a three year deal with the Cleveland Indians you would be hard pressed to say this is what he envisioned. After 42 games the Indians are 16-26 and are virtually almost at the bottom of the American League in every offensive category. Coming into the season everyone knew that the pitching staff, from starters one through five and the bullpen would be suspect, but everyone else including Acta, said the Indians would hit. Despite Acta’s best efforts to have the team in regular season mode at the end of spring training to avoid a slow start, but apparently no one told the Indians that spring training ended. Things were much more optimistic at the end of March, with the team playing well. But when April hit not much changed from what the Indians hoped to get away from the Wedge era.
The Indians were confident they would hit, but now almost two months into the season very few things have gone as planned, at the plate or in the field. Grady Sizemore never got into a rhythm offensively after being moved to second in the batting order. Now he is on the 15 day disabled list with what is said to be a bone bruise in his knee, but there have been rumors that he has been playing with a similar injury since the end of spring. Michael Brantley never got going at the plate, but he was only supposed to be up for a short time until Russell Branyan got healthy, and at some point he will re-appear in Cleveland. Two very key players offensively were Matt LaPorta and Branyan. Branyan has been up and down since coming back, more down than up, but hasn’t shown the power the Indians envisioned when Acta handed him the first base job before taking one at bat in the spring. LaPorta is currently hitting .274, but only with one home run and four runs batted in. At this point LaPorta has been reduced to a bench player because of his early season struggles.
The Indians middle and left side of the infield haven’t been good either, or had much luck. Jhonny Peralta started off very slow in April and so far in May. Only in the last week or two has he started to hit the ball with any consistency. Luis Valbuena has been awful; nothing more needs to be said about that. Asdrubal Cabrera was having an excellent season at the plate and in the field, until Peralta, out of position on a shift against Tampa Bay last week, broke Cabrera’s forearm with his knee sliding for a ground ball. Cabrera is out until at least August. Lou Marson, who has been awful at the plate all year and was awful behind it during April, has gotten better defensively, but looks, overmatched at the plate almost every at bat.
Still there have been some bright spots on offense. Shin-Soo Choo has six home runs through the weekend and will likely earn the Indians lone All-Star spot this season (barring freak injury, thankfully Peralta doesn’t go near Choo during the game). Austin Kearns, signed to a minor league deal started off hot and basically took at bats away from LaPorta. Whether that is a good thing or not can be debated, but Acta had to keep Kearns in the lineup because the way he was hitting. Travis Hafner is starting to hit the ball a little better recently, but he can hardly be called a bright spot because he is very far from what the Indians need from him to put runs up on the board consistently. However he is showing some positive signs.
The Indians on the mound have been very up and down. Jake Westbrook has not put two good starts together as he is still trying to get back all the way from Tommy John surgery two seasons ago. Fausto Carmona has been the Indians most consistent pitcher, giving them a quality start almost every time out. Justin Masterson has been bad, and needs some serious help. David Huff started out good but has since been roughed up. Since Huff’s complete game on April 15th, he has allowed four, five, four, six runs in consecutive starts. In his last two he has allowed three runs in each, showing some better signs. Mitch Talbot has been maybe the Indians best or at least second best starter until he was hammered in his most recent start.
The bullpen has been spotty at best. Chris Perez’s early season stint as closer was average, with a few big blow ups early on, but he has been much better since. Tony Sipp, since a bad first week of the season has been excellent. Aaron Laffey has been very average, at times dependable, other times too hittable. Rule five draft choice Hector Ambriz hasn’t given much to talk about and has been kept on the roster above Jensen Lewis, who was very solid early on. Kerry Wood has made a handful of appearances since coming off the disabled list and has not looked anywhere worth $10 million. Rafael Perez has been terrible and it doesn’t seem Acta trusts using him in any spot at this point, but has no options left, and the Indians are afraid he won’t make it through waivers unclaimed.
So after Acta said the Indians would contend this year, and 40 games is hardly enough games to decide your season, but if he wants to win more than they have, there are a handful of things they can do to help themselves.
1). Bring back Jensen Lewis: let’s face it, Acta has stopped using Raffy left in any situations, and with Sipp and Laffey in the bullpen, you still have two left handers in the bullpen. Either cut Perez, who is probably untradeable at this point, or get rid of Ambriz, who is wasting a roster spot. Lewis meanwhile as of last week pitched in six games and has only allowed two runs.
2). Trade or cut bait with Kerry Wood. Yes $10 million is a lot to eat, and even if you have to pay more than half his salary in a trade and don’t get much back, at least he is off your roster, and someone else who still has hope to play a big role on this team, gets a chance. The Indians traded Saul Rivera last week for cash or a player to be named later, who was pitching well at AAA Columbus. Granted there haven’t been a ton of pitchers forcing the Indians hands at Columbus, but players such as Frank Hermann (14 IP, 1 ER). For a team who doesn’t have a lot money to spend $10 million on a closer isn’t a good investment, especially one who isn’t either given many save opportunities or hasn’t earned his money when he’s had the chance.
3). As long as Sizemore is on the DL (might even require surgery), keep Trevor Crowe in center (10 for 33) since being recalled. Brantley at some point needs at bats and needs to be up, but Crowe is 25, and his prospect start has long faded, and now that he looks productive, it would be wise for the Indians to at the very least showcase him for an eventual trade.
4). Call up Carlos Santana: of course this is an obvious one. He needs to work defensively, but with Sandy Alomar coaching in Cleveland and Santana playing at Columbus, its hard for him to learn from Alomar, which is essentially why the Indians hired their ex catcher/star. Santana will outhit most of his defensive mistakes and will provide the offense the Indians thought they were going to have at the beginning of the season. Let him learn at the major league level instead of learning how to do it at AAA.
5). Trade Peralta: of course he is starting to hit, but after incidentally breaking Cabrera’s arm and starting the season putridly slow once again, it’s time to cut bait. Peralta has a $5 million team option for 2011 which either way will most certainly not be picked up. Trade him now in a few weeks if his bat does pick up. Get him off the payroll now and let either Andy Marte play third so he can either prove, or disprove his value. Wes Hodges is also hitting .296 at AAA, and would look good with a smiling chief wahoo above his head right now. This also gets Lonnie Chisenhall moved to AAA once he is healthy. (Currently Chisenhall is on the disabled list with a leg injury)
6). Move Masterson to the bullpen and move Laffey to the rotation: Masterson is essentially a three pitch pitcher. The Indians may have kept him in the rotation this long to justify and try to get something out of the Victor Martinez trade, but it’s becoming brutally clear he is a reliever, and could be a solid one. He has a power arm and is tough on right handers, but two and three times through a lineup against lefties, he isn’t effective. Laffey doesn’t look as comfortable in the bullpen as he does starting. Plus he would add another left hander between the four right handers in the rotation.
7). lock up Choo at all costs: At this point of his career Choo is in his prime and healthy. (Knock on wood Peralta doesn’t find himself out of position again) He hired Scott Boras as his agent last season to assure he wouldn’t have to go back to Korea to serve in the army. He is the Indians best player and more of a five tool player than Sizemore at this point, and is clearly the Indians fan favorite. (For the males anyway). If the Indians let him go, they let go of a sure thing and turn to another set of prospects and only potential. Of course that would go against most of what the Indians have done in the last two seasons and require the Dolans to spend money on a good player.
8) Send Valbuena back to Columbus: he hasn’t hit all season long aside from one or two games early on, and he supposedly ‘lost a ground ball in the sun.’ That’s just a poor excuse for not being prepared. Mark Grundzilanek is a solid veteran who wont make the same mistakes as Valbuena. He may not be as athletic at second but will at least out hit Valbuena. With Jason Donald probably playing shortstop until and if Cabrera comes back, just deal with Brian Bixler or Anderson Hernandez as your utility infielder, it has to be better than what Valbuena has done.
Of course it’s only May 24th; any of these moves could be on their way in the next few weeks and months. So far many think Acta has done an ok job with what he has been given. Another option to fixing the Indians would be for the Dolans to spend some money in the developmental system which is what made the Indians of the mid 90s so good, because it was the first thing Dick Jacobs spent money on. The Indians however have done a much better job of drafting in the last three season and help is most definitely on the way, maybe in the next two seasons, but it has to continue beyond that. The Indians still have 160 games to go, and after the All-Star break this team could be very different because of trading veterans like usual. But if they want to improve their record, make moves sooner rather than later, force these players to make adjustments and know if they want a job they must earn it, and that all options will be tried until something works.