Cleveland Indians Tribe Talk: The Black Hole in Right Field

Samantha Bunten@@samanthabuntenAnalyst IJuly 1, 2011

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - JUNE 24: Shin-soo Choo #17 of the Cleveland Indians lies on the ground after being hit in the hand by a pitch from Jonathan Sanchez #57 of the San Francisco Giants in the fourth inning during a MLB baseball game at AT&T Park June 24, 2011 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

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 try to figure out what to do with the right field spot in Choo's absence, discuss what some of the Indians' Triple-A prospects might be able to contribute and share our two-cents' worth on the other teams in the division who will be vying for the AL Central title. 

I would like to thank this week's participant Lewie Pollis for his contribution. 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.

Go Tribe!

1. The Indians offense has taken a very bad turn in recent weeks. What was once one of the strongest parts of this team has now become one of its weakest. The Indians are losing games in which their pitchers give up less than three runs, and also seem unable to come back from even a small deficit in the score. 

What's going on here? Is this just a team-wide slump or is it something bigger? Does this mean firing the hitting coach was pointless? 

If you're the manager, what would you do to try to fix the problem? Change the lineup? Wait it out? Start praying?

Lewie Pollis: I think it's a combination of stiffer competition, regression to the mean (guys like Jack Hannahan were playing over their heads at the beginning of the year), and yes, a big ol' slump.

But one of the biggest problems really is bad luck—according to my latest context-neutral stat calculations, pretty much every Tribe hitter except Travis Hafner is getting unlucky.

It wasn't all bad luck, though. From April to June, Tribe hitters' walk rate fell by 0.9 percent, their strikeout rate rose by 2.2 percent and their isolated power fell 49 points (the scariest drop, in my opinion). In the midst of this, the Indians' line drive rate also shot up from 17 percent to 21 percent, which is encouraging, if confusing.

Unless you've got an impact player waiting in the wings, the only real cure for a team-wide cold streak is to wait it out. Firing Nunnally would have made sense if he didn't get along with the players, or if other coaches noticed a specific problem he wasn't able to fix. But short of that, it seems reactionary to me.

Samantha Bunten: As we discussed in last week's Tribe Talk, firing the hitting coach given the situation was, on the whole, ridiculous. On the surface and in the simplest of terms it is, above all else, a team-wide slump.

The only cure for that is either time or bringing in a wringer. At the moment, the Indians have more time than money, so the wait it out approach is probably the only viable option at the moment. However, it won't be long before they start running short on time as well.

Sure, we've still got more than half a season to play, but if the Indians are more than a game or two back at the break, it's going to be that much more difficult for them to recover and make up the lost ground in the second half. We've said it before: It's much easier to hang onto a one-game lead than to make up a one-game deficit. That only gets worse the further you fall behind. 

Aside from waiting it out (and maybe encouraging some of our hitters to cut the head off a live rooster), I wouldn't be opposed to a call-up from Columbus if it would help the offense even a little. The one thing I'm opposed to is the incessant batting order shuffling. Seriously, Manny Acta, just stop it! Stop! I think we all learned from watching Eric Wedge for years that playing a never-ending game of batting order roulette never, ever works. 

2. Yet another blow to the offense came when Shin Soo Choo was hit by a pitch and broke his thumb last week. 

How much do you think Choo's absence will hurt the offense? Do you think the Indians have someone in-house who will be a suitable replacement? Who do you want to get the bulk of the starts in right field while Choo is out of commission?

Lewie Pollis: How much it hurts depends on who we play. If Kearns, Buck and Duncan continue to share right field responsibilities, you might want to stock up on duct tape.

The Indians do have a suitable short-term candidate to replace him, though, and most Tribe fans have never heard of him. Jerad Head isn't much of a prospect—he's 28 and he's never played in the big leagues—but even if he's done developing, he's still good enough to be a solid contributor.

According to my projections, he'd be a 4.0-WAR improvement over Kearns over a full season, meaning the Indians will be losing more than a full win if they stick with the incumbents until Choo gets back.

Samantha Bunten: At the moment, the way Choo has played so far this season means, it won't hurt the Indians nearly as much as it would have in the past. Still, the options for takeover who are currently on the roster aren't great. 

Travis Buck is probably the best bet, if for no other reason than that we've seen him make a few throws in from the outfield in the last week that showed at least we won't feel the loss of Choo's throwing arm as much. Still, none of the current right field options (Buck, Kearns, Duncan) are guys any of us should be too eager to see out there. 

So, unless the Indians are willing to call someone up from Columbus, that spot is going to hurt us for a while. Without calling up a prospect, there just isn't much to be done about it, unless there's someone on the current roster capable of playing a position we didn't realize they could handle. Fausto Carmona in right field, anyone??

3. It's always a bit of a struggle for a manager to figure out how to get his DH into the lineup during Interleague Play away games. This is particularly difficult for Acta and the Indians given Hafner's struggles with being able to play the field without aggravating or sustaining an injury.

If you were Acta, how would you handle the situation? How often would you try to put Hafner out there at first base? Would you try to get him into the game at least as a pinch hitter every time out? 

How much do you think not being able to use Hafner every game hurts the Indians when playing in NL stadiums?

Lewie Pollis: I say pinch-hit him every game. His bat is too good not to use at some point (one could argue that there's a strategic advantage in being able to use him whenever we want), but why risk him breaking something in the field?

There's no question Hafner's absence hurts the Indians, but you have to remember that everyone else is in the same boat. Perhaps some other teams' DH's aren't as good as ours, but it's not like the other 29 teams aren't hitting their pitchers, too. When he got to play against the Rockies, it meant Jason Giambi got to play, too. How'd that work out?

Samantha Bunten: Manny Acta stated before the start of the interleague road trip that his goal was to somehow get Hafner's bat into the lineup every game for at least one at-bat. I think that's absolutely the right way to look at it. 

Some teams have the luxury of a DH who can play first base every day during an interleague road trip and a first baseman who they can either afford to leave out of the lineup or move to another position, like Boston putting David Ortiz at first and moving Adrian Gonzalez to the outfield. 

The Indians don't have that luxury because Hafner cannot be an everyday first baseman, even if it's just for a couple of weeks. We've tried that before, and it ended in an injury. It's certainly frustrating that Hafner is too fragile to stand over there at first base and not have an arm fall off, but it's better to accept that and use him accordingly than risk injury to one of our best hitters. 

Acta got it right—use him as a pinch hitter for the most part, and keep his time at first to a minimum.

4. Returning again to the issue of the Indians' anemic offense, it seems like it might be a good time to consider calling up one of the kids from Triple-A Columbus. 

The Indians brought up rookie Cord Phelps a few weeks ago to try to give the offense a shot in the arm, and unfortunately, it wasn't enough. How do you think Phelps has done so far? Do you think it was unrealistic to expect one rookie to be the catalyst for repairing the entire offense, as the Indians seem to have hoped? 

And who would you consider calling up next? Are there specific players from the Clippers you have in mind as potentially helpful to the offense, or are you more concerned about calling someone up according to the position(s) where the Tribe needs the most help?

Author's Note: This question was posed to panelists before Lonnie Chisenhall was called up. 

Lewie Pollis: I sure hope the Tribe brass didn't really think Phelps would carry the team on his back. Even if he represents a substantial improvement over Orlando Cabrera, anytime you're counting on a single player, you're screwed. You could put Babe Ruth in the lineup, and you'd still lose if no one else was hitting.

Well, Lonnie Chisenhall has already gotten the call. It's great, it's exciting, and I'm glad he's here, but he's not going to make much of a difference. His offensive numbers from Triple-A this year don't project to be much better than Jack Hannahan's, and when you factor in Hannahan's superior defense, it's six one way and a half-a-dozen the other. As long as we're contending, our first priority for calling up prospects should be making the team good, not giving them exposure.

With that in mind, the only guy I really want to see right now is Jerad Head. We need him in right field.

Samantha Bunten: Poor Cord Phelps was given a job he couldn't possibly do: save a dying offense. I think Phelps has done well in his debut, but you can't ask a kid up from triple-A for the first time to be the catalyst for an offense that needs someone to reignite it. That has to come from an experienced player who has been part of the team for more than a couple of weeks. 

Chisenhall was called up this week. Obviously, if it was going to be anyone, Chiz was our guy, but again, this isn't going to rescue the entire offense. I'm glad to see him, and I think he's ready to handle major league pitching for the most part, but while this might sell a couple extra tickets, it doesn't really solve anything on the field. 

At this point, the guy who probably deserves the most consideration for a call-up is a pitcher, not a hitter: Zach McAllister. Obviously, though, that won't help the offense either. That leaves us with Jerad Head, which makes sense given Choo's injury or a recall of Ezequiel Carrera for the same purpose. 

5. Fun Question of the Week: Let's take a bit of a break from talking only about the Indians and take a deeper look at their Central division foes.

We can probably safely assume that Kansas City doesn't pose much of a threat for the division title, but everyone else, including the rejuvenated Twins, seems to be a potential problem for the Tribe. 

Of the three teams chasing the Tribe (Tigers, White Sox, Twins), what is the biggest thing each one is doing right? What is the biggest thing each one is doing wrong?

Finally, how would you rank the three in terms of their chances of winning the division (in terms of how you feel about it, not what the current odds placed on it are)?

Lewie Pollis: The Tigers are hitting well (108 wRC+) but could use some help on the mound (112 ERA-). The White Sox, on the other hand, have had great pitching (89 FIP-) and bad hitting (92 wRC+). And the Twins (82 wRC+, 112 ERA-) aren't doing anything right.

I'd say the Tigers are the definite favorites to win the division now. If Detroit and Cleveland both somehow slip out of first place, it'll be the White Sox who end up as division winners. The Twins don't have a chance.

Samantha Bunten: Starting with the least likely candidate, it's tough to say the Twins are really getting much right this year. A lot of it wasn't their fault because they had such awful luck with injuries, but their lack of depth showed when they couldn't absorb it. At all. 

As for Chicago, while you'd never know it from watching them when they play the Indians, they seem to have a lot of trouble scoring runs. Their big, pricey HR hitter Adam Dunn is hitting .171, which is sadly not all that surprising, though the fact that he only has seven homeruns is. In fact, the only guys on their offense who seem to be able to do anything right are Alexei Ramirez and the perpetually underrated Paul Konerko.

At the moment, what's keeping them in the race is pitching. Raise your hand if you didn't see Philip Humber coming. Yeah, neither did anyone else. 

Detroit is obviously the biggest threat, mostly because they're the division's most well-rounded team. They have the best hitting in the Central at the moment by leaps and bounds, and while their pitching isn't as good as the Indians', it's been good enough because their hitters do such a good job bailing them out when they get into trouble. 

Bottom line: It's still anybody's game at this point except for the Twins, who will continue to fade and will probably be out of the race well before the trade deadline.


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