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Tribe Talk: The Perils of Playing In The Worst Division In Baseball

Samantha Bunten@@samanthabuntenAnalyst IJune 11, 2009

NEW YORK - APRIL 19:  Victor Martinez #41 of the Cleveland Indians bats against the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium on April 19, 2009 in the Bronx borough of New York City.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/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 we discuss whether the AL Central is the worst division in baseball and what that means for the Indians, assess the value of defensive skills, and pay tribute to the late former Tribe owner Dick Jacobs.

I would like to thank this week's participants Nino Colla, Dave Wiley, and The Coop 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.       1. Despite posting a winning percentage of just .424 as of Monday, the Indians are still only 7 games back in the AL Central. This gives Tribe fans a reason to keep believing, but what does it say about the rest of the division? Rumor has it that the AL Central is the weakest division in baseball - do you think this is true?

Nino Colla: This division might be worse than the NL West was a few years ago and that was pretty bad. It isn't out of the realm of possibilities that the division winner is below or at the .500 mark or 83 games wins the thing. It is that bad. It isn't competitiveness either, it's just the division’s inability to beat the other teams in the game consistently.

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There is talent here. Hell,  you can look at the Indians as the poster boy for the division. A lot of talent to be good, but a grave disappointment. Look at Minnesota as a team people expected to be a little better. Chicago is competing but it is the same thing with them. Everyone thought the Tribe would be in it and I think some people believed Detroit would at least be a little better than last year, and they are. Kansas City even had something going.

It isn't that this division is like, awful in terms of what they have. It's just awful in terms of the fact that they are all playing below what they are capable of.

Samantha Bunten: As much as I hate to say it, the AL Central really does look like the worst division in baseball. Only one team in the division is over .500 (Detroit), and they are tied with Milwaukee for the worst winning percentage for a division leader. You also have to consider that their winning percentage would likely be even worse if they didn't have the advantage of facing other weak AL Central teams regularly in divisional play. This division reminds me of 2008’s NL West, where until the Dodgers came to life in the 11th hour, it looked like a team might claim the division with a .500 record.

For the Indians, being in a weak division looks like it would be helpful on the surface, since it lets them stay in the race despite how poorly they have played. However, it ultimately does them no real favors. Even if they play well enough to take over the division, they will still be a mediocre team that will exit early at the hands of far stronger opponents in the playoffs.

Dave Wiley: Yes, I'd have to say its true. Fourteen teams are above the .500 mark in baseball. Every other division has at least two teams over that mark. Only the Detroit Tigers sit above .500 in the AL Central. Put the Tigers in any other division, they are in second place at best. Throw them in the AL East, and they are in FOURTH!!! Yes, the AL Central is bad.

The Coop: If the AL Central isn’t the worst division in baseball, it’s definitely the most mediocre. This is highlighted by the fact that the team that is currently in first place, Detroit, has the lowest winning percentage of all current division leaders.

The AL Central also happens to be the only division that has only one team above .500 at the moment. Still, the division isn’t horrible. The last place team, Kansas City, is only 7 ½ games behind the Tigers. And really, outside of the Royals, who ironically led the division in the early weeks of the season, I wouldn’t be shocked to see any of teams in the division get hot and make a run up the standings and ultimately win the division.

Nonetheless, this represents sort of a Catch-22 for the Indians: the mediocrity of the division means that the Tribe is never really “out of it,” which seemingly perpetuates the Indians desire to stand pat and accept the very average play we’ve seen over the last year and a half.

2.       2. While defense is far from the Tribe's biggest problem, their shortcomings in the field cost them dearly last Saturday in Chicago, and it wasn't the first time defensive miscues hurt this team. How would you rate the Indians' defense overall?

On a related philosophical note, defense is an often undervalued component of the game; do you think teams need to stress good defense more during player development and show more respect for great defensive players, or are you of the opinion that defensive skills are negligible if a player is an excellent hitter?

Nino Colla: Sub-par. I think losing Asdrubal Cabrera and Grady Sizemore, a gold-glove caliber infielder and a gold-glove outfielder hurt in a big way. The team's best defensive alignment though is with Peralta at third, Cabrera at short, and DeRosa at second or in the outfield and I'm glad Wedge finally started going with that. That basic alignment is one that makes it above-average if you ask me.

I think Peralta benefits big time from the move to third and goes from a below-average shortstop to an average third baseman with a good arm with the potential to be more. Ben Francisco and Grady Sizemore have good speed and while Francisco and Choo need to learn to take better routes and not over-shoot cut-off men, they're better than most.

Defensive skills have definitely gone by the wayside in terms of where they come from. I know the Indians are big on defense in terms of stressing it in player development. It's the only reason the Tribe went out and got Mark DeRosa for third instead of pushing Wes Hodges harder. Hodges' bat is probably ready, but his defense is not. It's also the thing that is holding Beau Mills back. His bat should have had him in Double-A last year at some point and probably fast-tracked to Columbus this year, but his defense isn't there.

Defensive skills are not negligible if a player is a good hitter. However, I'll use Ryan Garko for an example. If you are willing to work hard and try your best to improve, but still aren't fantastic, I'll take you on my team. Garko isn't the greatest first baseman, but he's miles ahead of where he was years ago when he first switched. Take in mind that as well, he's a converted catcher, so he had to learn the position at the major league level. But still, he worked hard, always puts in the extra effort an time to get better, and shows steady improvement. You don't have to be amazing, but if you are a good hitter and not great at defense, all I would require from you is hard work to get better. To me hard-work trumps all because you eventually will get what you deserve.

Samantha Bunten: Currently the Indians rank 8th in errors and 6th in fielding percentage in the AL and 17th in errors and 13th in fielding percentage in all of MLB. I think this is a pretty accurate representation of how the Indians defense measures up: very mediocre. Good enough not to draw too much criticism, bad enough to cost the Indians a not insignificant number of wins. Also, at the moment, the Indians' defense is actually far worse than the numbers indicate, as the team is without their two best defenders, Grady Sizemore and Asdrubal Cabrera.

 I absolutely think that defense is undervalued in baseball, and is perhaps the single most undervalued skill a player can possess. Defense is under-appreciated because it rarely wins ballgames in notable fashion, and tends to be noticed and remembered only when it is done poorly.

In other words, there are a lot more memorable miscues a la Bill Buckner that we can all recall than there are great catches a la Willie Mays that are still being talked about. This leads to an under-appreciation of good defense, because good defense is invisible. Only bad defense is apparent enough to be noteworthy.

I don't think defensive skills are EVER negligible unless you are a consistent 40+ home run first baseman, and that combined with poor defensive skills should really make you a DH anyway.

Dave Wiley: I'd give the current Indians defense a B-. Saturday's Chicago game isn't the only one they've given away this year because of lousy defense, but injuries are killing the continuity.

For the second part of the question, Mr. Prosecutor, I present : Exhibit A: Carlos Baerga. Great clutch hitter, lousy on defense. If you are giving away a run and helping score a run, you are a wash. Offense and defense go hand in hand. You can't give good teams more than 27 outs in a game.  As far as the Tribe's defensive woes go, I'd say injuries and lineup tinkering have combined to add to the poor defensive showing. People are in different positions with regularity and not playing every day. It is not easy to get into offensive or defensive rhythm under those conditions.

The Coop: See my answer to the last question. The Tribe’s defense is not the worst I’ve ever seen, but it’s not exactly the team’s long suit. Errors are a part of a game, but so are fundamentals. I’ve seen the Indians miss cut-off men, not be aware of how many outs there are, forget to cover bases…

 To me, this is indicative of more of a lack of focus and preparation rather than poor skill. I’m talking to you, Eric Wedge!

There is definitely less of a premium put on defense these days compared with the past. Gone are the days of slick shortstops with crazy range and hard-nosed, dependable catchers that hit .220. Nowadays, as long as a guy is a threat to go deep, consistently drive in runs, and isn’t a total liability in the field, he’ll be in the lineup.

It’s a sad commentary on how the game is played in the “Steroid Era.” I mean, would you rather have the greatest defensive left fielder in the history of baseball who is a singles-hitter, or Manny Ramirez? I am a huge proponent of fielding a fundamentally-sound team, but no one can tell me ManRam hurts his team with his glove more than he helps with his bat. In the end, I guess it’s just important for teams to know the make-up of their club. If you have trouble scoring runs, you’d better have a damn good defense.

3.       3. With Grady Sizemore and Asdrubal Cabrera both on the DL, how do you feel about Ben Francisco filling in as the Indians' lead-off hitter? Is there someone else you would rather see at the top of the order?

If you were the Indians' manager,  how would you change the batting order to adjust to the loss of injured players? (Keep in mind that Hafner's lingering injury keeps him from playing every day).

Nino Colla: I think Ben Francisco has done as good of a job as you could ask of him filling in. There really is no one else that you can put in there unless you take someone like Choo out of the middle of the order. Jamey Carroll is a nice option for the two-hole when he plays as well, but he isn't an everyday player, especially with his injury.

 I'm keeping Francisco in the one and going as follows: 3B/2B Jamey Carroll, C/1B Victor Martinez, RF Shin-Soo Choo, DH Travis Hafner, SS Jhonny Peralta, 2B/LF Mark DeRosa, 1B Ryan Garko, Whoever Plays.

Obviously, there are days Kelly Shoppach catches, which would bump Garko out of the first base spot, and he'd just slide in where Garko is. I'd try and get Garko those DH at-bats when Hafner sits though. I'm playing Jamey Carroll a majority of the time at third and second, sharing second with Josh Barfield and maybe Mark DeRosa, while DeRosa plays mostly left. I think Luis Valbuena needs to get sent down to get regular playing time at Columbus, his bat is still not where it needs to be.

Samantha Bunten: I really like Francisco even though he isn't doing the best job of justifying the faith I have in him. I like him in the lead-off spot because he's got speed and is a smart baserunner. Of course, he does need to do a better job of getting himself on base in the first place; currently he’s hitting .212 in 33 at-bats in the lead-off spot. Still, Francisco remains my pick to bat lead-off until Sizemore and/or Cabrera returns.

For the batting order under current conditions, I would like to see: 1. Francisco. 2. Carroll. 3. Choo 4. Martinez 5. Hafner 6. Derosa 7. Garko 8. Peralta 9. Crowe, with Derosa moved to 5th and Shoppach 6th when Hafner doesn't play.

Dave Wiley: Francisco has smokin' speed, so why not? Jamey Carroll is probably the best fit for lead-off since he doesn't have the power numbers of Francisco, but he isn't playing every day. I'd go with five regulars in the first five slots, so Francisco wins the leadoff position.

The Coop: I’m not really sure what qualifies Ben Francisco as a leadoff hitter. I like the guy, but he’s been far from consistent during his career and he has no experience hitting in the 1-hole. But, if I started trying to figure out why Eric Wedge does the things he does, I’d end up in the mental asylum.

I would be interested in seeing Choo or DeRosa at the top. Choo has a great on-base percentage and DeRosa is a polished hitter. Obviously, none would be as good of a choice as Sizemore or even Cabrera, but you’ve got to play the hand you’re dealt. More than anything, I’m just glad David Dellucci is no longer an option!

Once we can figure out who is best suited to bat first, the rest of the lineup card pretty much fills itself out. I’d do it like this: 1. DeRosa-LF 2. Carroll-2B 3. Martinez-C 4. Choo-RF 5. Hafner-DH 6. Garko-1B 7. Francisco-CF 8. Peralta-3B 9. Valbuena-SS.

4.       4. Mark Shapiro has stated that it is still too early to tell what role the Tribe will play in the trade market this season, but in the event that the Tribe plays well enough to be "buyers" in trade talks, it is a given that they will be shopping for pitching.

Players like Mark DeRosa and Jamey Carroll would certainly be made available, but they may not be enough. Thus, the question no one wants to have to answer: Would you trade Victor Martinez for pitching? Would the Indians?

Nino Colla: No, no no no no no. And I don't think they would. I'd trade Mark DeRosa, Jamey Carroll as well considering I think Josh Barfield is a cheaper utility option, and as much as I think we need veteran leadership next year, that shouldn't be too hard to find.

 Even Carl Pavano and maybe someone like Kelly Shoppach. But not Victor Martinez. With an option left on his contract and Carlos Santana still a year or two away, holding onto Victor is going to be key. I think he even may be worth re-signing as a first-baseman/backup catcher when his contract is up.

I don't think the Indians are going to trade Victor. I think they realize he is the heart and soul of this team and they want to compete next year if this year is out of the question. They don't compete next year without Victor Martinez, point-blank. I'd much rather take the two draft picks as compensation if he walks as well and get an extra year out of Victor than trade him for pitching. There is only one team that really needs a catcher and they aren't exactly pressing for one, so the return wouldn't be as good as you would think.

Samantha Bunten: Absolutely not, no, never, not in a million years. The value the Indians would lose both on and off the field in trading Martinez could never be replaced in a mid-season trade, no matter who the Indians received in return. Also, trading Martinez would be suicide from a marketing standpoint, and would be viewed as a sin second only to trading Grady Sizemore.

 I don't think the Indians would make the trade either. As blundering as the Indians' front office can be, they're not THAT foolish. They know Martinez's value is even greater than what he puts out on the field, and that alone should be enough to make him an untouchable.

 I like both DeRosa and Carroll, but I would trade either if I thought it could help the team down the stretch. I would hate to lose Shoppach, but I would be willing to part with him if the Tribe was poised to make a run at the division and they were able to get starting pitching in exchange.

Dave Wiley: Man, I hope not, but I can see it happening. Shoppach is a good catcher and can take on that role. The Indians don't need Martinez in the first base platoon necessarily. I have no idea how you'd replace his hitting though. I guess you'd have to take a look at the pile of other guys at first and possibly shop them if people are interested.

 Martinez and Sizemore are the face of the team. Ultimately Sizemore will command a premium and most likely Cleveland won't be able to pay it, similar to what happened with Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, and C.C. Sabathia. I'd say they have a higher likelihood of holding onto Martinez for the balance of his career. I vote keep Victor in house.

The Coop: Trust me, if the Indians trade Victor, there will be a riot. I live in Pittsburgh and you should see the reaction of Pirates fans simply because the team traded Nate McClouth, and McClouth isn’t close to being even half the player Martinez is.

I think that trading Martinez would mean that the Indians are in a seller’s position, not a buyer’s position. There is no way that they would get equal value for Martinez which would get them over the top and still fill the void left by Victor’s absence. So, in a seller’s position, the Tribe would be getting nothing more than prospects with unknown value. Trading Martinez would officially make them the American League’s version of the Pittsburgh Pirates.

If the best way to get pitching is by trading the team’s best player, then Mark Shapiro and the entire scouting department should be fired on the spot. Why aren’t the Indians drafting and developing solid pitchers in our farm system? Why aren’t the Indians trying to make moves in the free agent market? And why do the Indians even draft/sign guys if they just plan on trading them once they have some trade value? Trading Martinez would be nothing more than a cop-out.

5.       5. The death of former Indians owner Dick Jacobs last week was a tremendously sad loss for the Indians organization, Tribe fans, and the city of Cleveland as a whole. We are all indebted to Mr. Jacobs for what he did for our team and our city. Please briefly share your thoughts on this topic.

Nino Colla: If you don't know what Mr. Jacobs did for the Cleveland Indians, my advice is to go pick up Dealing by Terry Pluto, and do it like, tomorrow. While the book is about the more recent Tribe, Pluto doesn't skip over the Dick Jacobs regime and what he did to bring the Indians back to being a respectable franchise. The man pretty much saved the team from being moved to Florida.

He is basically a savior to the franchise. Not only in that that he oversaw the run the Indians made and allowed it to happen, but also because we have a brand new stadium that is still getting kept up to date that will last us for a long time for which he is responsible. Words cannot do justice to how much Dick Jacobs did for this franchise. It only sucks that we couldn't get him the World Series trophy that he truly deserved.

Samantha Bunten: Cleveland, the Indians organization, and Indians fans were all tremendously fortunate to have Dick Jacobs as the team's owner. He possessed that rare, invaluable combination that makes the best owners: the ability to make decisions about the team based purely on business and the ability to also do the opposite and make decisions that are purely about baseball.

Jacobs cared enough about baseball to invest in a team and a ball park that would bring in fans and wins, but was enough of a business man to never allow sentimental leanings to cloud his judgment as to what was really best for the team, whether people got riled up about it or not.

I am sad that the team wasn't able to bring a world series’ victory to the man who did everything in his power to make that possible. R.I.P. Mr. Jacobs.

Dave Wiley: The Jacobs brothers saved the Indians’ bacon. I'm not sure we'd even have a pro baseball team without them. Did the Jacobs brothers’ save the Indians or did the new field save the Indians? You could declare it a toss-up, but my vote goes to the Jacobs’ brothers.

They went out and got quality players, signed key pieces long term, and made the Indians into a winner. New stadium / Old stadium, when teams win, people come to watch. The Jacobs built a winner and the people came to see it. The Jacobs pulled off such fundraisers as selling stock in the team, keeping it financially viable so they could sign big-names.

Additionally, Jacobs Field was the classiest baseball park name in baseball. Too bad it had to change. It would be nice to see the name return in some fashion, even it if were as ‘Jacobs Field sponsored by Progressive’. Sitting in the stands watching the Indians play the Atlanta Braves at Jacobs field in the World Series will go down as a high point in my spectating life. I have Mr. Jacobs to thank for that.

The Coop: I was very young when Mr. Jacobs bought the team. I can’t say that I have any specific memories of the man. But the imprint that he left on the organization and city will remain in my memory forever.

He bought a team that practically couldn’t be given away. And through persistence and dedication, he eventually built a winner (2 AL Pennants), a new home (The Jake), and a new, loyal fan base. Jacobs Field (and the amazingly entertaining team that played in it) was the first brick in the foundation that has turned Cleveland’s horrible national image as a Rust Belt ghost town into one of America’s most vibrant, up-and-coming cities.

 I guess my fondest memory of Dick Jacobs is the fact that I really have no specific memories of the man. Indeed, Richard Jacobs saved the team, worked to make the Indians relevant once again, and rejuvenated the city – all behind the scenes. Tribe fans didn’t have to put up with an egomaniacal owner but were blessed with a humble, genuine leader whose accomplishments are only now being appreciated the way they should. RIP.