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 formulate a strategy for the Tribe to win the Kansas City series; speculate on recently-returned Grady Sizemore's future; cry about our long relief woes; and fess up on who our favorite Indians are.
I would like to thank this week's participants, Dale Thomas and Jim Piascik, for their contributions. This discussion is open to all, so please feel free to comment below and pitch your thoughts on the questions we're addressing this week.
1. Coming off a sweep of Baltimore over the weekend, the Tribe heads to Kansas City to face off with the team they're tied with for first place in the AL Central. After that, they face another Central division foe over the weekend, the Minnesota Twins.
What's your strategy for defeating the surprising Royals?
Also, what on Earth is wrong with the Twins, who are 4-10 as of Sunday despite being picked by many to win the Central?
Samantha Bunten: The Royals are scoring a lot of runs, but they aren't exactly overpowering opponents with huge hits. What they're doing (and doing very well) is manufacturing runs. Sure, they've had some big hits, but mostly they're scoring by getting a lot of guys on base and bringing them home with walks, steals, singles, etc.
That means Indians pitchers really need to keep the walks issued down this series. The Royals are fairly aggressive base stealers, so those walks turn into runners in scoring position very quickly. If Tribe pitchers allow too many baserunners, they'll wind up losing by a handful of runs every night.
On the offensive side of things, the Indians need to strike early and score runs in bunches. This tends to work best for them in general, plus it will help them knock the starters out early. This is particularly important in Kansas City, where the bullpen is beatable and can be taken advantage of.
As for the Twins, I think they need to find someone to remove the curse. So far their season has been a stunning example of what happens to a team when everything goes wrong at the exact same time.
Star players are either injured or underperforming or both. Their lack of depth has become apparent in how poorly many of their backup options have performed. (Sabermetricians out there, can someone tell me the value over replacement numbers for Joe Mauer and Drew Butera?).
Add to that the facts that their pitchers are blowing up (both in the rotation and in the 'pen), the team has been making sloppy mistakes because it gets rattled and, to top it off, apparently everyone now has the flu. Yikes.
Dale Thomas: The Royals offense has been impressive. Good pitching and flawless defense will be key for the Indians. The KC hitters are patient and do a great job on the base paths. Throw strikes, hold runners.
Who will win the AL Central in 2011?
That said, the Tribe will also need to take advantage of the Royals bullpen. They must continue moving runners around and can't depend on the long ball. Patience at the plate is essential.
The Twins have about every problem imaginable: injuries abound; their closer can't close; Pavano gets hammered; the flu is spreading through the clubhouse like wildfire. Once again they brought Mauer back too soon from injury. Morneau hasn't found his stroke. The bench is thin. The bullpen is thinner. Overall the Twins need to score some runs and take some of the heat off their pitchers.
Jim Piascik: The Royals are scoring runs (90, the same as the Tribe through Tuesday's game), but are giving up more (74 runs allowed to 58 allowed by the Indians).
With that, I'd say the key is making sure to score enough runs and trying to keep their offense down. The Indians have to take advantage of any mistakes Royals pitchers make because their offense is going to get theirs.
As for what's wrong with the Twins, I think they were slightly overrated going into the year and got hurt on top of that. They aren't going anywhere without Mauer and there's only so much trust one can put into Liriano and Pavano at the top of the rotation. They'll probably come around, but I won't be surprised if they don't.
2. On Sunday we finally got our first chance to see Grady Sizemore back in action after a very, very long absence, and no one knew quite what to expect out of him.
Some people thought Sizemore would return to the 30-30 caliber player he was in 2008. Some thought he'd be functional, but never quite the same as he once was. And some thought he'd never really get it back at all.
After seeing Sizemore homer in his second at-bat after returning to the Tribe on Sunday, then following that up with a double, it seems safe to say the chances that he'll never be able to play viably again are nil.
But just how good can he be? Now that we've finally had a chance to see him back in regular season action with the Tribe, what do you think the future holds for Sizemore? Will he get back to being a 30-30 type guy? Will he be mediocre from here on out? Or does his future hold something in between those two extremes?
Samantha Bunten: Every once in a great long while, baseball fans are lucky enough to see a player like Grady Sizemore come along. When Sizemore first began his career, we thought he was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of player because he was so talented. Years later, after multiple injuries, microfracture surgery and two shortened seasons, Sizemore still looks like a once-in-a-lifetime player, just for different reasons.
Of course he's still immensely talented, but what looks to be so rare about him now is the tremendous amount of fight he has, which allowed him to make it back in the amount of time he did and with a readiness to regain his 2008 form. It's just incredible, a true testament to Sizemore's work ethic, determination and heart.
Sizemore, of course, will never tell you about just how tough it was. He doesn't want your praise or your sympathy for something he feels he had to do because it was, simply, his job to do so. Luckily Chris Perez, a more chatty fellow than Sizemore, was willing to let the cat out of the bag.
In the future, I don't really see Sizemore going 30-30 again. That's not because he's lost a lot off his game but because so few people accomplish this even once. It's not an easy thing to do twice, even if you haven't had to suffer the adversity that Grady has. And I don't see much reason for him to focus on stealing bases anyway.
That said, I still expect great things out of Sizemore, both on offense and on defense. In his first few games back there's every indication that he's still capable of greatness.
Dale Thomas: Sizemore's future looks as bright as it ever did, and maybe even brighter based on his current performance. His swing looks great; very quick and he's just hammering the baseball. He's been fluid both in the field and on the base paths.
I don't know if he will be a 30-30 guy, but there is every indication that he could be. I'm more interested in him being a .300+ hitter with the doubles than I am with him being a big blast guy. Since returning, his contribution to the Tribe's offense has been huge at a time when others are struggling.
Looks like Grady is back in full force. In addition to his bat and glove, I also think he returns to the team a can-do spirit that has been sorely missed by teammates, management and fans since early last year.
Jim Piascik: I think that Sizemore won't go 30-30 this year. Next year, however, all bets are off.
I think that too many people forget how young Grady still is. He's only 28 right now. It's not like he was a 35-year-old trying to come back from microfracture surgery; he can still rebound.
Will he be elite again? I don't know. But he will be more than serviceable, and possibly great.
3. With the Tribe off to a great start in 2011 and playing great baseball across the board, it's tough to find much wrong with the team.
But amongst all the good things happening with the Indians, there is one area in which they seem to be struggling. That would be long relief.
Justin Germano has struggled quite a bit, and Chad Durbin has been downright awful.
How big a problem is it that these two have fared so poorly? Do you think Germano and/or Durbin can turn it around? If not, is there someone in Triple-A who you think the Tribe should bring up to replace one or both of them?
Samantha Bunten: On Tuesday night against the Royals, Durbin turned in his best outing of the season, a nice two-plus inning relief stint that yielded no runs to the Royals. Unfortunately, the most prevalent thought I had while watching this was, "He's just doing this to mess with us."
Yep. It's nice that he had a good outing and all, but I still don't buy it. Durbin was a pretty solid reliever in the past, but his best days are clearly behind him. In first place, the Indians can't afford to let him work out his issues on the mound, a price that a fourth place team might be able to spend. If you're in first, you can't risk sacrificing a game so some guy can get his head screwed on right.
I have a little more patience for Germano. He's younger and has made mistakes because he's not completely developed as a pitcher yet, as opposed to because he's washed up like Durbin. Germano has been better in recent outings, so I don't think it's time to pull the plug on him just yet.
I know the Indians want to keep David Huff in Triple-A so he can start every five days, but they may have to call him up and use him in long relief if Durbin doesn't get it together, and fast. We have a lead in the AL Central to protect.
Dale Thomas: Durbin turned in a good game against KC last night, giving up no runs on no hits and no walks through 2.2 innings. I would call that his best outing this year.
I'm wondering if his previous struggles were mostly in his head. His biggest problems have come against right-handed batters with guys on base—like he panics or something.
Germano has done okay in his last three outings, but appears to have some control problems. The Indians have built up a pretty good stash of pitchers in the farm system.
I'd like to see Vinnie Pestano get a shot as a middle reliever, amassing a 1.81 ERA with a 77/16 K/BB in 60 innings last year. I know he's pretty far down the list, but I'd still like to see what he can do.
Jim Piascik: I'm of the opinion that the bullpen is a crapshoot. You can do your best to organize a good relief corps, but even the best bullpens on paper can combust just like that.
With that, if Germano and Durbin continue to struggle (which they managed to avoid last night, making me look stupid for ragging on them all the time), then bring someone up from Triple-A. I really don't care who it is, just that the other two are gone. All I want out of the bullpen is the ability to swap out the faulty parts easily. I think that's the hallmark of a good bullpen.
4. Last week we made our first attempt to predict AL division winners for 2011. Now it's time to take our first shot at nailing down the NL winners. Take your best guess:
Samantha Bunten: NL East: Phillies—that rotation can't be beat; NL Central: Reds or Brewers—whichever of the two finishes the season with the, uh, less awful pitching staff; NL West: San Francisco—I don't believe you, Colorado; NL Wild Card: Braves—don't let the 8-11 record fool you. They're just lulling you into a false sense of security.
NL Champion: Phillies, but not necessarily because they're that much better than the rest of the NL. The playoffs are a crapshoot and the eventual league winner is always the team that is hot at the time, not necessarily the team that had the best season. So yeah, I pretty much picked the Phillies out of a hat.
Dale Thomas: NL East: Philadelphia; NL Central: Milwaukee—but they have to play better on the road. Yep, out on a limb here; NL West: San Francisco—I just don't see the Rockies pulling it off. In fact, I see them slipping out of contention by July; NL Wild Card: Cincinnati—if they stop stealing shirts.
NL Champion: Phillies
Jim Piascik: NL East: Phillies—Halladay/Oswalt/Lee is too much for the Braves and the Marlins; NL Central: Cardinals—I don't have as much faith in the Reds as most people. Pujols will rebound, Berkman has rebounded and Rasmus is special; NL West: It's close, but the Giants for now—I didn't like them to take the West again before the season, but they've been reasserting their dominance over the Rockies this week; NL Wild Card: Reds—today. Could be the Rockies tomorrow and the Braves the day after that. This one's wide open. Maybe the Brewers if they can keep it together until Greinke gets back.
NL Champion: Today, I'll take the Cardinals. I think their slow start is bad luck (88 runs scored, 65 runs allowed, only an 8-8 record) and the wins will come soon.
5. Fun Question of the Week: With the Tribe doing so well thus far in 2011, it's tough not to like every guy on the team. But I know you still have your favorites, so fess up: Who are your three favorite current Indians and why?
Samantha Bunten: First: Grady Sizemore, for all of the reasons mentioned above plus many, many others. It's a thrill and a privilege to watch him play.
Second: Michael Brantley, who has been a favorite of mine since we first acquired him in the Sabathia trade from Milwaukee. He's been frustrating at times and last season he had me worried that perhaps I'd overestimated him. But he's come on in 2011, more than enough to restore my faith in him.
Third: Chris Perez. Come on! How do you not love this guy? He's entertaining on and off the field. With his amusing quips and his Chaz Michael Michaels hair, it's never a dull moment when Perez is around. Oh yeah, he's a pretty good closer too.
Dale Thomas: As always, at the top of my list: Grady Sizemore. He works hard, plays hard and goes above and beyond the call of duty. The guy truly loves the game and puts the team before himself. Always.
Coming in at a close second: Chris Perez. I like him because he's just plain crazy and a lights-out closer. I also give him a lot of points for publicly throwing credit to Grady for his dedication to rehab and extremely fast recovery.
Who is your favorite Indians' player?
Third place: Hannahan for playing third base so well. His defense has been the difference between winning and losing in several games and it's been great to see the combination of skill, urgency and effort on every single play. What a great addition he's been.
Jim Piascik: My three favorite current Indians are Asdrubal Cabrera, Matt LaPorta and Grady Sizemore.
Asdrubal because I was a shortstop and he reminds me of Omar; LaPorta because I think everyone unfairly underrates him; and Sizemore because I'm basically a part of Grady's Ladies and so glad to see him back.