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Tribe Talk: So, Cleveland, How's That Rebuilding Thing Going?

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Tribe Talk: So, Cleveland, How's That Rebuilding Thing Going?
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Welcome to Tribe Talk, where Bleacher Report's Cleveland Indians fans weigh in on the ups and downs of the club each week throughout the season.

This week, we evaluate Manny Acta's performance in his first season as Indians manager, assess the team's rebuilding efforts by examining the cases of a few specific players, and predict what the future has in store for the Tribe at third base.

I would like to thank this week's participants Nino Colla, The Coop, and Lewie Pollis for their contributions. 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. A rebuilding effort such as the one the Indians are involved in now depends largely on the progress of the young talent the team has committed to, and how good a job the front office did evaluating on-field talent in the first place. 

The same can be said of the coaching staff during a rebuilding effort. Well into the second half of the season, how would you rate Manny Acta's performance in his first year managing the Indians? 

Do you think the front office hired the right person for the job? What do you see as Acta's biggest strength as manager? What do you see as his biggest weakness?

 

Samantha Bunten: Perhaps my standards are just exceptionally low from spending too many years watching Eric Wedge, but I am totally and completely sold on Manny Acta

He had me way back in May when he was asked about finding non-pressure situations for Rafael Perez to pitch in so he could get his confidence back, and his response was "Life is tough. Get a helmet."

Acta is a tough-but-fair, no-nonsense kind of guy, which is exactly what a young, struggling team needs. He sticks up for and encourages his players, but he also doesn't mince words when calling someone out for their mistakes. 

He's also a purist who respects the tradition of the game. For example, he refused to allow post-game interviewers to turn his move to pitch Marte in relief into some sort of cutesy little gimmick. 

Truthfully, I don't really know if Acta has what it takes in the long run to turn this team into a winner. But a lot of that is not in his hands. Thus far, I think he's done the best job possible with the team he was given. 

As the team improves in the coming years, we'll see if Acta can truly be a difference maker as a manager. One thing seems certain though: unlike Eric Wedge, he certainly won't be a hindrance to the team's forward progress.

Nino Colla: I think Manny Acta has done a fantastic job and I'm pleased with the choice the front office made from the candidate pool they had. Acta was the right man for this job and he's clearly got this young team behind him.

It is hard to rate him because the team isn't winning a lot of games. It's hard to be taken seriously if you grade him highly despite the low win total, but I think for the circumstances that are present and for the tasks that he has to complete, he's done a great job. 

His biggest strengths are his motivation and his game play. I love his style of managing a ball club because he isn't going to kid anyone. He knows what kind of team he has and he plays to their strengths. He's constantly trying to scratch out runs because he knows he has a lot of young players. 

I've also been favorable about the way he's run his bullpen. You haven't seen anyone go a long period of time with no use and he's always throwing the hot hand in there. The same with his lineup. He's not shy about moving his hot hitters up. 

I haven't been a fan of pushing Brantley the way they did early on, but clearly Acta is trying to establish confidence in his young players that he thinks will be a big part of the future.

Lewie Pollis: I'd give him a solid B. 

I can't really point to many specific things he's done well, but when you think about, that's pretty mark much the mark of a good manager--you don't think about him. 

Take Ron Washington, for example: he's probably the favorite for AL Manager of the Year. Is that because people think highly of his game theory? No, it's because he doesn't make very many bone-headed mistakes (also because his team is good). 

With that in mind, I think Acta's done a decent job and I think he'll grow with his young team. My one real complaint is his stubbornness with giving playing time to underperforming veterans, which seems counterintuitive to the rebuilding process. 

It's not just Jhonny Peralta—how about Austin Kearns? From June 12, when he woke up with a .902 OPS, to July 30, his last game in a Cleveland uniform, he hit .221/.294/.287 with one homer and 11 RBI in 35 games. 

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, a rebuilding team let a guy with a .581 OPS and no future with the team 33 starts in 43 games. 

Granted, that probably wasn't just Acta's decision; the front office was hoping to flip him to a contender, and he wasn't going to open any eyes by sitting on the bench. Still, I would have much rather given the playing time to someone like Jordan Brown.

The Coop: If I had to give Acta a grade for his performance, it would certainly be “Incomplete.” It’s just too hard to evaluate someone who is working with such a young and generally sub-standard major league roster. 

However, I must say that it’s very refreshing to watch a manager who doesn’t long to be the center of attention. Acta’s predecessor was a nobody, and yet he seemed to make it all about him. Acta is the exact opposite. He’s not smug and arrogant, but honest and fair.

Acta seems to get maximum effort out of his players, and I can’t ask for much more than that in a forsaken season. 

The true test of that, of course, will be the team’s performance over the final few months of the season, when the games are virtually meaningless. I think that if the Indians finish strong, he will be a big reason why.

2. Let's take a look at a few of the players around whom the rebuilding effort is centered. 

First up: Matt LaPorta

After struggling early in his Indians debut last season and continuing to have trouble adjusting early this season, it appears Matt LaPorta has finally started to come into his own. 

Are you pleased with where LaPorta is at in his development at the moment? Do you think that the adjustments made by LaPorta in his most recent minor league stint have finally translated into success at the major league level?

What do you like about what we're seeing from LaPorta right now? What areas of his game do you feel he still needs to improve?

Samantha Bunten: I'm happy with what we're seeing from LaPorta at the moment. The real question is, is he truly making solid progress, or is he just on a hot streak?

At this point, I'm inclined to say that he's really making some legitimate strides. Unlike a lot of players who are resentful when they're sent down repeatedly and spend their stint in the minors pouting instead of seeking to improve their game, LaPorta appears to have used his time wisely. 

I'm not sure I think he's a better hitter now, but he's definitely a smarter hitter. For a guy like LaPorta, who clearly has the raw skills necessary to succeed at the plate, that's really what matters. 

He still strikes out far too often, but it's obvious his pitch selection is improving. He's horrifying on the basepaths, but then you don't see many first basemen who aren't. 

Defensively, he's far from fantastic, but he's not a liability either. Most of the botched plays we've seen at first this season were the result of bad throws, not LaPorta's inability to field the ball properly.

Nino Colla: I'm very pleased with what Matt LaPorta has done with his game. It sounds like they adjusted his swing when he went down. 

But really I think the biggest thing with him is confidence. And health. He got a little confidence boost by not only going to Columbus and mashing, but by having the club trade Branyan and basically say, "Okay, it's your show now." 

The thing I like most is his hitting off left-handed pitching. I pointed out a long time ago when he was struggling that he never really hit left-handed pitching well, even in the minor leagues. So far his power numbers are still trending toward right-handed pitching, but he's been consistent against the lefties by at least drawing walks and doing a good job of making contact and getting hits. 

You also have to like the defense he's playing. It isn't Gold Glove by any means, but he isn't bad back there.

Lewie Pollis: I'm just going to come out and say it: I love what we've seen from LaPorta over the last month-and-a-half. 

As of this writing, he's gone .286/.353/.496 since being recalled for the minors, and would be on pace for 27 homers and 90 RBI over a full season. Those certainly aren't MVP numbers, and I'm guessing the ceiling Mark Shapiro and company envisioned when they traded for him two years ago was higher than what he's doing now. But it's huge progress. 

The best part is that his stint in the minors really seems to have helped. Since returning to MLB, he's struck out in exactly 20 percent of his plate appearances—still a bit too high for my taste, but certainly not intolerable for someone with his power. The exciting part, though, is his 10-percent walk rate, which indicates an improvement in what was the most worrying aspect of his game. 

I would, however, like to see some improvement on the basepaths. I don't think I've seen anyone that slow since Manny.

The Coop: I am most impressed by LaPorta’s character. Instead of sulking when he was sent down, LaPorta used his demotion to hone his swing. He dominated Triple-A pitching and proved that he belongs in the majors. 

When he was recalled, he made the most of it. While he cooled off a little in July, he’s had a good August so far, and I think he’s only going to get better. 

He’s also proven to have a very capable glove. I think he might have been pressing early on, trying to live up to the hype and justify the Sabathia trade. Now, in a pressure-free environment and playing first base (not the outfield) everyday, LaPorta will thrive.

I think the biggest area of improvement for LaPorta should be to learn how to hit during the day. His average is .291 (39-134) at night, and .221 (25-113) in day games. Wonder if he loves the nightlife a little too much?

3.  Moving on to a player whose progress isn't going quite so well, let's take a look at Michael Brantley. 

Brantley was a hugely pleasant surprise in his debut at the end of the 2009 season, but unfortunately, he hasn't done much to impress since then. 

Are you surprised by how much Brantley has struggled this season? What do you think is the cause of his struggles? 

What do you think is Brantley's biggest problem? Why isn't he performing as well as he should be? Do you think he'll come around eventually, or were we too quick to see great potential in him after his short stint of success at the end of 2009? Are there any areas of Brantley's game at present that you ARE happy with?

Samantha Bunten: Michael Brantley is perhaps the one player who brings out the apologist in me. I love this guy, and I refuse to believe that the flashes of great play we've seen from him are just a fluke. 

To me, he simply just isn't ready. Our outfield this season was supposed to be Choo, Sizemore, and Kearns. Injuries and a trade have instead resulted in an outfield combo of Choo (who also had a stint on the DL), Brantley, and (shudders) Trevor Crowe

Choo is a legitimate star. Crowe is a stopgap for Grady Sizemore while he recovers from injury. Brantley is the guy who should hold down the third spot in the future, if only he can get on base consistently. 

Brantley's defense and baserunning are where they need to be already. He just needs to get his bat up to par. Ultimately I think he'll be fine. He just needs more time to settle down, stop pressing, and adjust to major league pitching. 

Nino Colla: I'm not. He hasn't received an extended period at the major league level. He's had short stints so far. 

I did an article on Brantley's problems and that is the conclusion I've come to: He's putting too much pressure on himself and I think it has to do with the fact that he came up and he knew he was guaranteed. 

Now he's back up here and he's getting an extended look and the Indians have basically told him, this is your show. Austin Kearns is gone, Choo is the only staple in the outfield playing right now, and there is no reason for us to send you down or put you on the bench.

The one thing about Brantley that I dislike is his tendency to pull the ball. I think that is a result of the pressure he's feeling. I think he's pressured to not necessarily hit for home runs, but hit for power. That isn't his game and it shouldn't be his game. 

He should slap the ball the other way because 80 percent of the time. If he does, I'm pretty sure he's going to find himself on second base, even if he only initially gets a single.

Lewie Pollis: Brantley's current BABIP is .184. Using Chris Dutton's xBABIP calculator, we should expect his BABIP to be .305. Doing some quick multiplication, that adds up to 12 extra hits, which brings his average up to .280, his OBP up to .338, and his SLG up to at least .364 (assuming all of the additional hits would be singles), plus it would increase his runs, steals, and RBI. 

Those aren't great numbers and his power leaves something to be desired. But when you throw in his speed and defense and consider that he's only 23, I think we have every reason to be optimistic.

The Coop: The simple answer is that Brantley is not ready. In a perfect situation where the entire Indians outfield was healthy for the whole season (including Grady Sizemore – remember him?), Brantley would not be on the 25-man roster. 

I believe he’s only there to fill a hole at this point. Who else are they going to use? Still, like with LaPorta, getting Brantley major league at-bats is the only way for him to improve. He can dominate minor league pitching, and he has had the right attitude despite his frequent bouncing from Cleveland to Columbus and back. 

Nevertheless, Brantley has tendencies and weaknesses which major league pitchers can obviously exploit. I’d definitely like to see him work more counts and draw more walks, but when a pitcher can get him to hit routine grounders by going right after him, why wouldn’t they? 

Ultimately, he is another guy that will benefit from playing everyday, and his glove is more than adequate. It’s going to take some time, but the upside is big.

4. One of the biggest question marks for the Indians' rebuilding efforts, at least for the moment, is third base. 

Removing Jhonny Peralta from the equation can certainly be considered progress, but it's pretty clear Andy Marte will never be the answer either. 

The Indians have two huge hopefuls at third in the minors (Jared Goedert and Lonnie Chisenhall) who are expected to fill the role nicely in the future. Who do you see being called up to take over the job first in 2011, Goedert or Chisenhall

Which one of them do you ultimately think will wind up with the job for the long haul? Also, given the strong possibility that neither is really ready to take on the job full time in 2011, do you think the Indians need to acquire some sort of stopgap this offseason for third base?

Samantha Bunten: Either way, this one is a win-win for the Tribe, because anything that is not Peralta or Marte at third is an automatic improvement, even if it's an inanimate object. 

In the coming years, I think third base shakes out like this: Goedert gets there first, but Chisenhall ultimately winds up with the job. 

There's no reason to rush Chisenhall. He isn't ready, and probably won't be ready at the beginning of 2011 either. That's where Goedert comes in. He's earned the first shot at the job, and I think he'll fill the role nicely until Chisenhall is prepared to take his first crack at the majors. 

Ultimately I don't think we want to see Goedert keep the job because his defense is, quite frankly, downright scary, and we've spent enough years enduring such horror courtesy of Peralta. I would like to see Chisenhall at third by the end of 2011, and perhaps Goedert can be moved to second.

Nino Colla: Jared Goedert is going to get the first crack, and might even earn a September call-up the way Jayson Nix and Luis Valbuena are playing at third defensively. 

The one knock on him is that his glove isn't very good, but you have two guys there that are considered better defenders, even though third isn't their original position, and even they are struggling.

I've been a fan of what Goedert's done with the bat this season. Who hasn't? The scary reality though is that he is just on a very hot streak in the minor leagues. 

Sure, he's always had that potential with the bat and now that he's healthy, he's able to display it. But Lonnie Chisenhall has more staying power because his swing is more sound, he's more of a pure hitter, and he's got a much higher ceiling defensively.

Lewie Pollis: Looking at Goedert and Chisenhall, two things seem pretty clear. First, that Goedert will get first crack at the third base job. He's pummeling Triple-A pitching to the tune of a .291/.372/.621 slashline and has rocked 18 homers in 57 games. Meanwhile, Chisenhall has a .266/.328/.437 line in Double-A, and has suffered through injuries this year. 

I think it's pretty obvious that Goedert will reach the majors faster. A solid showing in a September call-up or Spring Training could cement him as the Tribe's Opening Day third baseman. But Goedert isn't the long-term solution. 

While his power surge didn't come as a complete surprise (20 homers in 81 Single-A and High-A games in 2007), one has to wonder how sustainable his offensive surge is given that he posted an OPS of .709 at High-A and .657 at Double-A in 2008 and 2009, respectively. 

Perhaps more importantly, his defense is abysmal. That's why Chisenhall will have the spot nailed down by midseason 2012.

The Coop: First of all, while Andy Marte is not the answer at third, please don’t discount his value to the organization as an emergency reliever. Teams with post-season aspirations should take note: need to get Nick Swisher out? You can, if the price is right. 

You hit on the most disappointing thing, which is that neither Chisenhall nor Goedert are ready. It seems that in the long term, Chisenhall will be the third baseman, so you have to wonder what the plan is for Goedert (second base?). 

This is where we all wonder aloud, Whatever happened to Wes Hodges? This was supposed to be his job, and you can’t help but think that if he would have panned out, we wouldn’t have had to deal with Jhonny Peralta for so long. 

Be that as it may, I’m rarely in favor of signing a washed-up has-been when the experience could be given to a younger player. I’m sure that Andy Marte will be given the job outright next year, but I’d really like to see Goedert get a few September at bats and make Marte earn the job next spring. (And, on the bright side, when Marte flops as usual, perhaps the Indians can get rid of him once and for all.)

5. Fun Question of the Week: The fans of any team involved in a major rebuilding effort are required to pay a lot of attention to the team's minor league affiliates. 

How closely do you follow the Tribe's minor league teams? How frequently do you attend minor league games? What's your favorite minor league team/ballpark to go watch (it doesn't have to be an Indians affiliate) and why?

Samantha Bunten: Indians fans, just like the fans of any team in the midst of a major rebuilding effort, are obligated to be on "Farm System Watch". 

We follow our affiliates closely because, especially in the case of the Double-A and Triple-A teams, these guys could be on our roster tomorrow, and they're also where all our hopes for the future lie. 

That's not the only reason to attend a minor league game though. Minor league games are big on entertainment elements, very budget-friendly, and often give you an opportunity to meet or at least get close to players you would never have a chance to interact with at a major league ballpark. 

My favorite by far is the Aeros' Canal Park, but I also think you can't beat Single-A games for circus-like, off-field entertainment and how much bang you get for your buck. 

Nino Colla: I'm a very close follower of the minor leagues. Being in Akron, I follow the Aeros closely and attend multiple games during the season. When I was still in Youngstown, I'd see some Scrappers games, but not with the frequency that I'm at Canal Park. 

I haven't been to many minor league ballparks, so Canal Park is probably my favorite. With this team, you almost have to follow the minor leagues so you have some sort of hope. 

Plus with a farm system that always seems to have players in it, why not? There's always someone exciting to keep an eye on and hope that they are a part of the future some day.

Lewie Pollis: To be honest, I don't pay much attention to the teams as a whole. The only MiLB stadium I've ever been to is the Aeros' Canal Park, and I've been there only twice. I do, however, check in frequently on how individual prospects are performing and progressing.

The Coop: I probably don’t keep up with the Tribe’s lower affiliates as much as everyone else. The journey to the major leagues for most guys is long and grueling, and so many once-ballyhooed prospects never even make it (again, see Wes Hodges). So to that extent, I’m a little cynical and jaded. 

On the flip side, the purity and abundant hope of the minor leagues has a certain charm, as do the ballparks in which the games are played, so it’s definitely fun to take in a minor league contest from time to time. 

I think the minors tug on the emotions of what drew us all to baseball in the first place. For example: If Bull Durham was about a major league team, would it be as great a movie?

I have been to a few Washington Wild Things games (independent Frontier League), usually for a reason other than watching baseball, but I always seem to have a good time. (Of course, it might help that I’m only paying $2 for a beer and not $7.75 too!)

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