Monday, April 27, 2009

Biff's Draft Reactions

You all know that my default position regarding the Browns and the new regime is one of complete skepticism. I'm not sure I really understand what they've been trying to do and I don't necessarily appreciate the attitude with which they've done it. That said, I approached this draft having disposed of most of my animosity toward the franchise and put to rest the majority of my personal grudges against its owner and head coach. I was ready to give the new regime the fresh start that they probably deserve. With that little preamble, allow me to give you my thoughts on the Browns 2009 draft.

1. Trading down from the #5 pick was a godsend. Truthfully, I don't even need to know anything about the players we acquired from the Jets. It was the right move. It would have been completely absurd for the Browns to pay #5 money to any of the guys that were on the board when they were picking. Not a single player in the top 10 of this year's draft is the type of sure thing pro-bowler that would warrant the type of money they're going to get. It's not worth butchering your cap situation to roll the dice on virtually the same calliber of player that you can get for a third of the money a handful of slots later. As you can tell, I absolutely loved the move back, even though I think based on traditional value charts, it should've cost the Jets a little bit more to move up twelve spots in round 1 (but maybe that's just because as a Browns fan, I'm used to paying high second rounders to move up one spot). Either way, it was a GREAT move.

2. I loved that the Browns kept moving back. It didn't matter that they were only getting 6th rounders in return; they were going to get the same quality of player for less money and pick up additional opportunities to take shots in the dark with late picks. No brainer.

3. With the 21st pick, the Browns select Alex Mack, C, California: Ok, I didn't see that one coming and I didn't necessarily love it. But, my reasoning is probably different than it is for a lot of other people out there. I don't have a problem with the Browns drafting a center in the first round. Truthfully, I think the importance of the center position is underestimated by most fans. Not only are you anchoring the point of attack, nowadays usually against a mammoth two gap tackle, but you're also making the line calls. I like the idea of having a massive, intelligent guy manning the middle of the Browns line. That said, here's what bothers me about Mack: He's not a great run blocker. If there's such a thing, it sounds like he's more of a finesse center. Now, when we're talking about our left tackle, the guy protecting our quarterback's blind side, I'll take agility and finesse at the expense of some run blocking power. At center though . . . I want a road grader. I'm not sure that Mack fits that bill. I love drafting offensive linemen in the first round but I would've rather seen them take Michael Oher. To me, getting a top flight right tackle would've given them a little bit more than a top flight center. I know Fraley is done but the same could be said of whichever miscellaneous journeyman we're going to have manning the right tackle position this year. I think the upgrade would've been more significant at RT, but, I realize that that's just a matter of opinion. Overall, I don't think any of us should have a real beef with the Mack pick.

4. With the 36th pick, the Browns select Brian Robiskie, WR, OSU: Inexcusable. Flat out inexcusable. I understand that with or without Braylon, we needed a receiver. That said, there were a lot of great players left on the board. Even if the Browns had decided they weren't going to take Maulagua (a decision with which I now agree with after reading scout after scout say he is an out of control alcoholic maniac), there were other players available there that offered more than Robiskie. This is especially true if the Browns knew they had another receiver on their board for the second round that they liked in Massaquoi. Why not take, say, Lesean McCoy (you realize our starting RB is finished, right?) or even a D-lineman or defensive back to bolster the defense? As for Robiskie himself, I have two thoughts: 1) People love to tout the fact that he was the most NFL ready receiver in the draft. Well, to me, that's code for the fact that he probably has the least room for growth of any receiver in the draft. He's going to remain exactly what he is right now: A smart receiver with good size and route running ability who is just too slow to get good separation. I don't see him filling a slot role because of his lack of speed and I'm not sure he will ever be effective on the outside because he can't get separation. 2) Say what you want about Robiskie's hands but I'll always remember him for dropping the biggest pass of his college career. I don't care what anybody else says: if he catches that TD pass in the Superdome, that game would've played out totally differently. This was just a really bad pick. I hated it.

5. With the 50th pick, the Browns select Mohammed Massaquoi: Massaquoi was a good college receiver and should make a solid #2/3 receiver in the pros. Plus, he has a fantastic reciever name that I sincerly enjoy saying out loud for no reason. This pick would've made a ton of sense had they not just taken a crappier version of the same guy 14 slots earlier. After taking Robiskie at 36, this pick made NO SENSE. With all of the holes on the roster, you're taking TWO possession receivers in the second round? That's maximizing the value of the picks? I'm sorry but I just don't get it. The Browns should've gone defense or running back with one of those two picks and I think down the line, this will prove to be a costly mistake. Second rounders are hard to obtain. You can't just keep burning them up by making redundant picks of "safe" players at a position that is far less important than others at which your team has gaping holes. Overall, a good player but a head-scratching pick given the circumstances.

6. With the 52nd pick, the Browns select David Veikune, DE, Hawaii: I'll be honest and say that I don't know the first thing about this guy. I know he was projected as about a 3rd rounder and it never makes me feel wonderful when the pundits are calling the pick a reach. I'll give the new regime the benefit of the doubt and say that maybe they're just smarter than we think and they know how to find guys to fit their system. Still, I just can't help but think that this is another case of a front office thinking they're smarter than everyone else. Then again, I've also lived through a regime that came to a consensus on using a second rounder on a guy that nobody had ever heard of who played on a winless college team called West Texas A&M. Excuse me for being skeptical on the whole idea of the small school diamond in the rough. Still, it's not fair to criticize a pick I know nothing about. We certainly needed a "hybrid" DE/LB (which essentially means you end up spending a high pick on a guy without knowing if he has any ability to play the position for which he's just been drafted) so I'll take a wait and see approach.

7. With the 104st pick, the Browns select Kaluke Maiave: The Browns add yet another Polynesian defender to take the sting out of the Maulaga miss! Seriously though, there is nothing wrong with this pick . . . other than the fact that between Maiave and Veikune, I'm not sure we found a single linebacker who is big and physical enough to play every down in the NFL. I have nothing against Maiave, but a 229 lb linebacker probably isn't the cure for what ails our run defense. Perhaps maybe we should've taken a linebacker with a bit better size instead of a crappy possession receiver at 36. Editor's note: My buddy DC started referring to this guy as "the third tenor," a nickname which I find to be very appropriate even though, truthfully, Clay Matthews Jr. is really the third USC tenor and this guy is . . . I don't know, the guy who served as Carreras's backup. Who knows, maybe he'll add some bulk to his frame and end up being a contributor. But hey, on the bright side for Maiave, he'll have virtually no competition at his position on the roster, so that's a positive!

8. I'll lump all of the sixth rounders together:

177 - Carey: Scouting report says he has tight hips. I have no idea what that means but if I had a scouting to english dictionary, it would probably say that "tight hips" translates to "nickel at best." I might've gone with Cedrick Peerman at this spot, the RB out of Virginia. Obviously it's a shot in the dark with anyone this late in the draft but Peerman graded out significantly higher than James Davis, who we ended up drafting later on.

191 - Coye Francies: The scouts like him and after all of the yawnworthy picks that came before him, I like the fact that he's a bit of a risk/reward pick . . . and by risk, I mean he was once brought up on weapons charges and kicked out of Oregon State. I'm glad we carried the "high character" theme all the way through the draft.

195 - James Davis: Well, we certainly needed a running back. Unfortunately, I'm not sure we needed one with all the explosiveness of a 30 year old Jamal Lewis. I'm doubtful Davis will be on the roster by this time next year. I really would've like to have seen this position addressed in round 2 with LeSean McCoy.

Overall Grade (because grades mean so much and are not in any way arbitrary): C+

If nothing else, the Browns were smart enough to trade out of the 5th spot and prevent the inevitable contract holdout/money hemmorhage that goes with it. In addition, between the trade with the Jets and the picks, the team probably added 4 starters. Unfortunately, the starters they added are probably the quality of players that you would expect to be starting for a 5-11 or 6-10 team. I guess you have to take baby steps when you're rebuilding and get your hands on as many solid guys as possible, but I'm still a little concerned that we came out of this draft without a single player that projects to be a major impact guy at any point in his career. They all seem to be solid but unspectacular . . . which is probably the way I'll remember this draft in general.
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Sunday, April 26, 2009


What a day. Full of highs and lows. The nervous, excited anticipation was palpable. Today we learned exactly what we are getting with the MANKOK regime.

Rumors swirled for months that the Browns would trade Quinn and Edwards. Countless big name college stars were mentioned as possible selections with the 5th overall pick. Even another qb, Mark Sanchez, was speculated to be a Brown.

Ultimately, it was all a perfectly planned smokescreen. We got the Jets to trade us a starting DE, Safety, bankup qb, and a second round pick for the right to switch 12 spots in round one. Defensive problems mostly solved. Now we just need a pass rushing olb. Now picking at number 17, surely Clay Matthews jerseys will be back in style in Cleveland.

A couple more trades and a couple more 6th round picks later, and I'm as high as a kite. This is incredible. We saved so much money be backing from the 5th pick to the 21st pick. Not to mention the players and picks acquired. I'm in love with MANKOK. And then it happened.

Alex Mack. I will spare you the Secret World of Alex Mack reference (or will I). Pure devastation. Maybe I didn't watch closely enough, but I didn't think Fraley was that bad. Our biggest need is OLB, not center. Maybe I was wrong, because lots of folks have since told me Fraley is a bum. That's fine. I'll get on board with this pick. Sure it was a little high. But we did our best to get as close to the end of the first round as we could in order to take him closer to his projection. I can't fault the team for getting the guy it wanted (unless that team is the Raiders). Gotta like a center who is smart (academic heisman), and was one of only four lineman to run a 40 yard dash in under 5.0. He also has the size to contain Hampton and Ngata. Good pick. I guess.

After the Mack pick, I was hoping we'd trade some of our newly acquired picks to move back into the first round to take a linebacker. Didn't happen. I was hoping Nicks would fall to us at 36. Didn't happen. I was hoping we'd trade Braylon to the Giants. Didn't happen.

What did happen was three more reaches. Robiske, Massaquoi, and Veikune were taken higher than projected by the "experts." But they do fill needs and are smart, character guys (or so I am told by the "experts"). WR was possibly the weakest position on the team. Braylon can't catch. Stallworth has legal and health problems. Syndric Steptoe was our starting WR last year. If you recall, we traded up for Hubbard last NFL draft, and he wasn't good enough to make the field for this collection of stiffs last year. Robiske and Massaquoi were arguably the two best receivers available. If we wanted immediate improvement at the WR position, which we definitely needed, we had to take them.

Veikune I don't know much about so I won't pretend to. He played DE in college, but is a linebacker in the nfl. One of the reasons MANKOK liked him is probably that he has potential at both inside and outside linebacker. If he is a bust at either, we can always convert him.

Now I'm going to watch Mel Kiper's sexy hair. Bye.

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Thursday, April 16, 2009

Garnett, Stephen A., Braylon, Etc.

A few quick thoughts:

1. I don't think it matters all that much but as a Cavs fan, I'm a little upset that Garnett is out for the playoffs. First of all, the Magic give me far more concern than Boston. While I'm 90% sure the Cavs would beat a healthy Boston team in a 7 game series with the home court, I am far less comfortable playing Orlando. With the Magic's size and 3-point shooting ability, they could very easily get hot and steal one at the Q. Meanwhile, the Cavs have struggled mightily in Orlando. What's more, if Boston still manages to get past the Magic, I think they'll be a slightly more dangerous team playing with an "us against the world" or "nothing to lose" mentality in a potential Eastern Conference finals than they would have been with Garnett out there hobbling around at 60%. Overall though, I'm confident it's not going to matter. The Cavs are going to win the east. That's right, I said it. This is the year and this is the team.

On a side note, what a gift this is for Celtics fans. In spite of what Bill Simmons wrote this morning, we all know that this will give Celtics fans the title defense excuse they are so desperately seeking. Ten years from now, instead of telling everyone that they couldn't defend their title because they were the 3rd best team in the league, they'll be pulling the whole, "yeah, and we were poised to do it again but then Garnett broke down so we never had the opportunity" routine. Leave it to Boston fans to come up with some great revisionist history. Make no mistake: The Celtics had NO chance of defending their title, even with a healthy Garnett. Both the Cavs and Lakers are younger and more talented, and Boston is terrible in the clutch away from home.

2. Well Stephen A. Smith is no longer with ESPN. That's right, the man who built his career on making up stories and being the loudest guy in the room is apparently a free agent. According to deadspin, the worldwide leader asked Smith to take a pay cut and he was not having it. Shrewd career move Steve. I'm sure, given the huge demand for journalists right now, you'll have no problem landing a better gig. Even if you don't though, you can always hang your hat on the lasting impact you made on the sports world with "Quite Frankly."

3. I sincerely hope that the Browns trade Braylon for a first rounder but wouldn't it be fitting that they'd end up spending an insane amount of money on first round picks shortly before the collective bargaining agreement is completely rewritten to include a rookie pay scale.

4. If I were Mark Shapiro, I'd be spending my days studying the minor league prospects of contending teams that need a catcher. Victor's value is going to be sky high this summer and the Indians need to seize the opportunity to move him.

5. I started thinking today about a scenario that would make the city of Cleveland spontaneously combust. Game 7, NBA finals, Cavs win a thriller, the fans are going berzerk as the players hoist the O'Brien trophy, and then, out of nowhere, Lebron grabs the trophy, the microphone, and a pen, and then Ferry walks out with a new 3-year contract that Lebron announces he is signing. I honestly think people would start having heart attacks. Now that would be some kind of something.

Ok, I obviously have nothing more to talk about. That's it for now.
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Sunday, April 12, 2009

Alvaro's Afterthoughts: Tribe 'Snaps' Losing Streak

The Indians finally decided to show up for the 2009 season, winning their first game today 8-4 over the Toronto Blue Jays. Here are my brief thoughts on the game.

1. I was in attendance at the game today and it was the smallest turnout I can remember seeing since the Indians moved into the new stadium. Announced attendance was at 14,216, which according to ESPN is 32.7% capacity and it seemed much emptier than that. The upper deck was almost completely empty - at one point being populated by more birds than fans. I know it was a) Easter b) Cold c) the Tribe has been playing poorly and d) the Cavs were playing the Celtics in the Q (1 more game to clinch home court throughout the playoffs!) but it was disheartening to the see the stadium so empty so early in the season. If the Indians fall out of contention sooner rather than later, we may start see old Stadium-sized crowds returning. Given the choice between the Cavs and the Indians right now, I think most fans would choose to spend their limited resources on a winner.

2. Anthony Reyes was solid, but not spectacular today. However, in comparison to the recent starting pitching of the Indians, he was an All-Star. Reyes had some trouble locating his pitches (only 53 of his 96 pitches were for strikes) and walked three batters, but other than his last inning of work, kept the damage to a minimum.

3. Like Reyes, Blue Jays' starter David Purcey had all sorts of trouble finding the plate. I don't know if it was the cold temperature, but Purcey bounced at least ten balls and sailed two over the head of Rod Barajas. Somehow, despite this wildness and walking 6 batters, Purcey also managed to strikeout ten Indians. Fellow CMCR writer, Biff, who attended the game as well, pointed out that the Indians showed some awful plate discipline today - and helped Purcey out of a couple situations that could have been a lot worse.

4. Before the game, Biff and I were talking about the impact that speed can have on a team. Grady Sizemore showed that in the first inning, creating a run himself ala Kenny Lofton. Sizemore walked to lead off the game, stole second, went to third on a wild pitch by Purcey and scored when Barajas threw the ball into the outfield. Though Sizemore would have been dead at third with a good throw, because of his speed, Barajas was forced to rush his throw and the Indians were gifted a run without the aid of a hit in the inning. Shin-Soo Choo also stole a base in the game.

5. Mark DeRosa gave the Indians a 3-0 lead when he launched his first home run of the season into the left-field bleachers. I was glad to see DeRosa hit one out as I was worried his power numbers might be affected negatively leaving the wind-aided confines of Wrigley Field. DeRosa still looks a little uncomfortable at the plate, after a very solid Spring Training. It's possible he's pressing a bit, trying to make an immediate impact with his new team.

6. Trevor Crowe provided the highlight of the season thus far. With runners on second and third and two outs, the Blue Jays chose to pitch around Ryan Garko issuing the "unintentional-intentional" walk. Trevor Crowe came to the plate with the bases loaded, looking for his first major league hit, and promptly struck out. Crowe then snapped his bat over his knee in frustration - a throwback to Bo Jackson. Then, in a twist of baseball fate, Crowe came back two innings later in the same situation, two outs with the bases loaded. This time, Crowe ripped a double to right-center scoring two runs. It was good to see Crowe not let his first at-bat get into his head and come through with a key hit in a key situation. The more Crowe produces, the greater the chance we will not be seeing Dellucci on the field again.

7. Pronk Patrol: Travis Hafner looked awful in his first three at-bats. Two swinging strike outs and a caught looking for the hat trick. However, Pronk worked a walk in his fourth plate appearance and in the ninth inning, with the Indians clinging to a one-run lead, hit a no-doubter into the right-field stands, providing two very large insurance runs. If you told most fans before the season started that Pronk would be batting .300 with 3 HRs a week in, they'd be thrilled. I'm going to give Pronk the benefit of the doubt in saying that he looks like someone working to regain their comfort level at the plate. He's had some bad swings so far this season, but he's also had some very, very good ones, reminiscent of Pronk swings from the past. The swing Hafner had when he hit the double in the first game of the series against the Blue Jays was the best swing I've seen Hafner had in two years. He's now hit home runs in three straight games. I'm not a believer that he can keep this up for the course of the season yet, but I'm cautiously optimistic.

8. Jhonny Peralta draws the ire of a lof of Indians' fans for his defense, sometimes deservedly so. However, his offensive production often goes overlooked. It might surprise you to learn that Peralta lead the American League in home-runs from the shortstop position last year with 23. Today he went 3 for 5, raising his batting average on the season to .333. He had multiple hit games every game in the series. Peralta seems to approach the plate with a Manny Ramirez mentality - he seems to have no short-term memory of any previous poor at-bats. I think that he can be a steadying force in the lineup.

9. Finally, Kerry Wood was lights out today, striking out the side in the 9th inning on 13 pitches. Wood was hitting the high nineties on the rader gun and just attacked the Blue Jays hitters. Hard to think that at this time last season we were being subjected to Joe Borowski's 80 MPH meatballs. Wood also seemed to energize the crowd, receiving one of the largest cheers all day when he took the mound. Hopefully he will have a save situation to pitch in sometime in the near future.

Tribe begins its series at Kansas City (3-3) tomorrow at 8:10. Carmona (0-1 10.80 ERA) will be looking for his first win against Zach Greinke (1-0 0.00 ERA)
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Saturday, April 11, 2009

Indians Thoughts

A few thoughts on our now 0-5 baseball team:

1. I didn't expect the Indians to win more than about 85 games this year but they're definitely not this bad. My guess is that they'll settle down eventually and become a .500 team. What kills me about the idea of another atrocious April though is that the Indians are going to be completely out of it by the all-star break, even in a very mediocre division. That makes for an awfully long season. It's one thing to play a meaningless second half. It's quite another to be playing virtual exhibition games in early June.

2. Shapiro and Dolan have to be absolutely terrified by the scenario that might be unfolding for the organization right now. Combine a cold, wet April with a terrible start for the team, now add in a bad recession and the possibility of the Cavs making a very deep playoff run that could last all the way into late June. I mean really, if all of those things come to fruition, the team could be looking at an absolute financial armageddon. What's more, I don't even know if they could really even dump salary if they wanted to because most of the expensive pieces that they might consider moving are virtually untradeable (Hafner, Dellucci, Kobayashi). I mean sure, you could shop a guy like Jake Westbrook if he can come back healthy but then you'd be seriously jeopardizing your chances to contend in 2010. The situation has the potential to turn into a mess. If the Indians can't stay within a hope and a prayer of the division lead in the first half, the only card that Shapiro will have to play as the summer rolls on is to bring up the kids from Columbus and sell the fans on the idea of growing with the team, with an eye toward next year. I don't see Indians fans opening their wallets for that idea but it might just be Shapiro's only option.

3. I've never been an anti-Eric Wedge guy. I've always thought that for the most part, he's done a decent job with what he's been given. That being said, I think if after 40 games, the Indians aren't showing any signs of life, it might be time to make a move. If nothing else, it would allow the Indians to bring in a new voice and a fresh perspective. I also think it's high time for Derek Shelton to be relieved of his duties as well. I know people will point to the second half of last season but I've always had my doubts about Shelton. If you look at the Indians young position players, how many of them have truly improved their approaches at the plate during Shelton's tenure? As a team, the Indians still don't work themselves deep into counts, they strike out at an alarming rate, and they swing at an abnormally high number of pitches outside of the strike zone. You can even look at a guy like Sizemore, who by all accounts is just a phenomenal hitter, and see that his weaknesses really aren't getting any stronger. I just don't think Shelton is helping the team to develop disciplined young hitters. It's time for him to go.

4. As for the pitching staff, I think the bullpen will end up being fine. There are just too many decent arms in that pen for them to continue to struggle like they have. I also think that both Lee and Carmona will straighten things out to some degree and end up winning between 12-15 games apiece. I think Lewis isn't going to be back withe the big league team anytime soon and I suspect that Pavano will end up being this year's Jason Johnson. It's certainly not a rosey perspective, but looking forward to next year (and after all, it's already mid-April....why wouldn't we be looking forward to next year), the Indians would have a chance to piece together a decent rotation out of Lee, Carmona, Westbrook and then some combination of Reyes, Laffey, and Huff.

5. Here's something that really bothers me about the Indians: As a team, they have absolutely no speed. So, even when they string together a couple of base hits, they end up playing station to station and making the diamond look like a clogged toilet. They must improve this aspect of the team going forward. I know that speed is probably less important in the American League, but it is still a huge disadvantage to be completely devoid of good baserunners. For example, look at a guy like Ryan Garko. Yes, at times, he's a perfectly decent hitter, but if he's going to be a sloth on the basebaths, he at least needs to be able to hit for power. If he can't (and I think it's safe to say that he can't), I'd rather have a guy like Michael Brantley (and yes, I'm aware that they play different positions) who, although he may bring even less power, will be a threat every time he gets on base. This team has been slow for far too long. It's time to get faster and more athletic.

6. It really upsets me when I see the Indians swinging at first pitch after first pitch against good pitching like they did today with Halliday. I understand that when you're facing an ace, sometimes you only get one pitch in an at-bat that you can really drive, but if you keep making outs early in counts, you have no chance of getting to the other team's bullpen. Good teams always seem to work deep into counts and force other team's pitchers to throw strikes. The Indians . . . not so much. Again, I think some of the blame for this has to fall on Shelton and Wedge.

7. I think that if the Tribe isn't in contention at the All-Star break, the should explore the idea of trading Victor Martinez. I know that's going to rub a lot of people the wrong way but I think it makes a ton of baseball sense. I believe that the Indians have an option on Martinez for next year, but then after 2010, he would be a free agent (and of course, the Indians probably wouldn't be able to afford to re-sign him). If Victor is healthy and reestablishes himself as a premier hitting catcher/1B during the first half, at age 30 with a lot of gas left in the tank and a contract that plenty of teams could absorb, Martinez could bring in a huge haul. If you look at this team, they're probably a couple of years away from contending again with or without Martinez. If they moved him, they would still have an above-average catcher in Kelly Shoppach, along with the jewel of their farm system, Carlos Santana. With all of the teams out there that would fall all over themselves to get Martinez, the Indians should use their organizational depth at Catcher to bring in more prospects. Given their payroll limitations,the team is probably going to struggle to contend more than once every few years. If they can move Martinez (and maybe even Cliff Lee) now, they can create a bumper crop of top-level prospects to give them the chance of growing into a serious contender a couple years down the road.

That's all for now. Here's hoping we can get off the schneid tomorrow.
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Updating the Power Rankings

After a couple of months, the revised power rankings look strikingly similar to the original. The only new name on the list is Anderson Varejao, who replaces Cliff Lee (currently getting shelled for a second straight game) and knocks Josh Cribbs and Shaun Rogers down a spot. The justification for the move is pretty obvious: The Cavs have been the talk of the town for months, Varejao is having his best season as a pro, and the fans and media are all in love with the way he plays the game.

As for Lee, it's not that all of the goodwill of a Cy Young season has been wiped away with two bad starts. But considering the way the Indians and Lee have stumbled out of the gate, the truth is just that Varejao is probably more beloved in this town right now than Lee. Rogers barely hangs on to the 10th spot after reconciling with the Browns after previously demanding his release.

Others just missing the list: Delonte West, Travis Hafner, Cliff Lee, Matt LaPorta

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Thursday, April 9, 2009

We're All Thinking It: We Just Don't Say It

Well the Indians got blitzed in Texas and appear to have some serious problems, but for all of our sakes, I'll skip the gruesome recap. I'll just say that it's not hard to believe that a team with just two above-average starting pitchers, two threatening hitters, and a cleanup hitter that can't hit his way out of a wet paper bag, might struggle to win games at the major league level. But I'll save the discussion of the overall roster for another day. Right now, it's the aforementioned cleanup-hitting DH that I'd really love to talk about.

I haven't really said a word about Travis Hafner since the last time his career was at all relevant to my rooting interests as an Indians fan. That was 2007 during the ALCS, and even then, his relevance had little to do with his performance and much more to do with the fact that he was in the starting lineup for a team on the verge of winning a title. Truthfully though, Travis Hafner hasn't been Travis Hafner since 2006. Now listen, by all accounts, Travis Hafner seems like a pretty good guy. His teammates seem to like him, he plays hard every day, and he's never said anything but positive things about the city of Cleveland. However, it has been those same endearing qualities that have shielded Hafner from what, for a less likeable player or one in a more intrusive media market, could have been a firestorm of criticism. Consider the facts:

1. Travis Hafner was not a highly regarded player in his youth. He was a 31st round draft pick out of Cowley Community College in Kansas in 1996 and never really distinguished himself as an elite prospect at the minor league level.

2. Hafner spent 5 years in the late 1990s and early 2000s in the Texas Rangers' farm system. During that period, the Rangers were absolutely loaded with steroid users. Although we can't know the full extent and the depths to which the steroid culture permeated the different levels of the Ranger organization, it is safe to say that during that period, the franchise was becoming the poster team for baseball's dark era. If you played in the Texas system in the late 90's, it's a pretty safe bet that you learned a thing or two about steroids.

3. Here are Hafner's numbers from age 25 to age 31 starting with plate appearances, then batting average, home runs, and finally, OPS:

25: 70, .242, 1, .716
26: 324, .254, 14, .812
27: 573, .311, 28, .993
28: 578, .305, 33, 1.003
29: 563, .308, 42, 1.097
30: 559, .266, 24, .837
31: 233, .197, 5, .628

I'm no statistician but I'd say that's a pretty a pretty steep curve on both sides of the crest. And keep in mind, we're talking about a six-year period here. In the life of an NFL running back, that's an eternity. In the career of a major league DH, six years is nothing, especially when they happen to span the end of player's youth and the beginning of his prime.

4. Baseball sluggers in general are not normally predisposed to such precipitous drops in ability. This isn't Ian Baker-Finch trying to find the fairway at the British or Rick Ankiel trying to throw a fastball for a strike. We're talking about a skill that once a player acquires, he generally continues to possess until his body begins to break down. Of course, there are exceptions to this general rule, but for the most part, All-Star sluggers don't just inexplicably fall off the map when they hit 30.

5. Pronk's decline can't be attributed to a specific injury. Yes, he broke a bone in his hand when he was beaned by C.J. Wilson on September 1, 2006, but that's not the type of injury that just ends a player's career. Plus, he played the entire 2007 season without any mention of that injury. In 2008, after a horrible start, he had his shoulder scoped, but mysteriously, the doctors never really ever found a problem with it. Am I the only one that finds that completely strange? James Andrews spent 45 minutes inside Hafner's shoulder and didn't find a damn thing wrong with it. We were told that the joint was "cleaned out" but were never offered any additional clarification as to what Andrews actually found that could have caused Hafner to lose all of his strength.

6. We've yet to hear of any mechanical issues with Hafner's swing. You'd think that after trying to work out of a "slump" for two years, if Hafner's problems had anything to do with his swing or approach at the plate, he and Derek Shelton would've figured it out by now.

7. Even though his shoulder joint is now apparently "clean," Hafner has lost virtually all of his bat speed. A player who was once perhaps the most feared in the American League can now have the bat absolutely blown out of his hands by a low 90's fastball on the inner-half of the plate. Moreover, even when he does connect, the words most apt to describe his power are "warning track."

Hafner is now HALF THE SIZE that he used to be. This is easily the most alarming aspect of the entire ordeal and is also the inspiration behind my decision to write this post. I turned on the Rangers game the other day and almost fell out of my chair. Half is obviously an exaggeration, but for a guy who was once built like a lumberjack, Hafner now looks absolutely scrawny. This type of thing just doesn't happen to elite hitters in their early 30's. If anything, they continue to get bigger. I haven't seen what the Indians are listing Hafner at this year, but honestly, it doesn't make any difference. My eyes work. He's not nearly the same size that he was when he was hitting 30 and 40 bombs a year. Look at the two pictures above. One is from this year. The other is from Hafner's prime. Can you see the difference? If you can't, maybe my eyes are playing tricks on me.

And please, don't tell me that the loss of muscle mass is because of the surgery. He's a major leaguer. Every professional athlete is put through an intense rehab and weight training program after a procedure like the one Hafner underwent. I've yet to hear any reports of any of them suffering from irreversible shrinkage of the chest, arms, or head.

. . .

Now, forget for a minute that we're talking about Travis Hafner. Look at the last eight points but imagine that we're talking about a player for whom you never rooted or for whom you never felt any personal affinity. Play connect-the-dots for a minute. What conclusion would you draw?

So, what does this all mean? Well, I guess it means whatever you want it to mean. The thing is, you can't prove the negative: Hafner can never really prove that he wasn't on the juice. But, at the same time, the chances that any of us will ever be exposed to evidence implicating Hafner are remote at best. Baseball is primed to sweep the rest of the steroid era's dirty laundry under the rug. A few giant fish have been caught and disgraced, and based on the current HR numbers leaguewide, it appears that those who were not caught have been sufficiently deterred. In short, there remains little incentive to keep digging, especially around benign figures such as Pronk. We're just never going to know the answer.

Still, I think there is a point to all of this. We're all free to believe whatever we want to believe, but if you are like me, and are convinced, based on the overwhelming circumstantial evidence, that Hafner was juicing through at least the 2006 season, you have a right to be outraged. Hafner signed a four-year, $57 million extension during the 2007 all-star break. If he knew that the contract was premised on a level of performance that he could not, or perhaps did not intend to replicate, he defrauded the club by signing the deal. Now, the Indians are paying $13 million a year for a guy who has no place in a major-league lineup. If this were New York, we wouldn't care. For a team like the Indians and a city like Cleveland though, if my theory is correct, Hafner has screwed us all.

Finally, if Hafner was in fact roiding through his best years, Shapiro and Wedge had to know about it. That, above all else, is the most compelling defense Hafner's story has to offer. If Hafner was on the juice, a smart guy like Shapiro certainly knew about it; and if he did, it would seem horribly reckless for him to have given Hafner that extension. Of course, there is the possibility that 1) Shapiro suspected but didn't know for sure, and just figured whatever Hafner was doing, he would keep doing it, or 2) he knew exactly what Hafner was doing but thought, based on Hafner's popularity and ability to draw fans, he could squeeze enough out of him over the next four years to make him profitable.

In Conclusion, I don't really know what happened. My theory is based on nothing more than instinct and conjecture. All I know is that a lot of Cleveland fans are still holding out hope that Hafner will return to a level that, for whatever reason, drugs, injuries, or otherwise, I don't think he is ever capable of reaching again. I also know that the Indians are a mid-market team that owes a boatload of money to a guy who can't have more than a couple of months left as a "cleanup hitter," and probably doesn't have more than a couple more years left on a major league roster. And finally, I know that as an Indians fan, I really hope that Matt LaPorta is the real thing. Having watched multiple elite power hitters leave town over the years, and then another decide to stay, only to inexplicably fall off the face of the earth at the very outset of his prime, I need LaPorta to be as good as advertised . . . And unfortunately, unless another power hitter miraculously falls from the sky, the Indians are going to need him if they hope to contend in the years ahead.
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Monday, April 6, 2009

Alvaro's Afterthoughts: Cleveland Crushed In Opener

The Indians looked absolutely awful today in dropping their season opener to the Rangers 9-1. Cliff Lee continued his poor performance from Spring Training in giving up 7 runs and 10 hits in only five innings of work, looking nothing like the dominate Cy Young award winner of a year ago. Lee failed to consistently get ahead of hitters, which he excelled at last season, and made the cardinal sin of allowing four runs to score with two outs in the second inning.

Meanwhile, the offense was downright anemic against Kevin Millwood, managing only 5 hits and stranding nine runners. At no point in the game did the Tribe muster any serious threat other than the 4th when, with Grady on third and Victor on first, Hafner weakly grounded into an inning ending double play.

Even Jensen Lewis who had a very solid spring, was hit hard, giving up 2 runs and 4 hits in his inning of work, including a home run to Jarrod Saltalamacchia.

So what to take away from this disappointing start to the season? Well, it's important not to get worked up over one bad game. Baseball games at the beginning of the year tend to feel more important than those from later in the season because we have less of a sample size to judge from. Through the course of a 162 game season, a team is going to have a few of these clunkers. If the date was July 6 rather than Opening Day, a loss like today's may be nothing but a mere bump in the road.

What does worry me is that I fear this year's team lacks an anchor in the rotation. Last year, Cliff Lee could be counted on to take the mound every fifth day and give the Indians a very good shot at a victory. I don't have the confidence that Lee is going to be able to repeat that role this season. Perhaps Lee's bad day could be attributed to the line drive he took off his pitching arm in the second inning (proceeding the 4 runs he allowed).
Or perhaps Lee's day was a continuation of his spotty performances all spring. We know Lee is capable of being a much better pitcher than he showed today. Arlington Park is a difficult place to pitch successfully at and the Rangers tend to smack the ball pretty successfully against the Tribe. I think Lee's results this year will lie somewhere between his magical run of last year, and his disappointing 2007 season. On a side note - I was shocked to hear during the game that Lee threw to first base only 4 times the entire season last year to hold runners on. I know Lee's left-handed, which gives him an advantage in holding guys at first, but seriously, only 4 throws to first all season? That certainly isn't doing any favors for Victor or Kelly Shoppach.

In positive pitching performances, I was pleased to see Masa Kobayashi work a solid inning. Kobayashi's been treading thin ice with the team all Spring Training and it would be a big boost to the bullpen if he's able to straighten himself out sooner rather than later . Raffy Perez also continued his role as the most solid arm out of the pen, working a scoreless inning.

At the plate, Victor looked good swinging the bat - having the best at-bat of the day, a 10-pitch battle in the first inning. Prior to getting injured last season, I thought Victor was one of the best pure hitters in the game and I was glad to see some of that reemerge today.

Finally on Pronk Patrol: Hafner went 1-4, with the above-mentioned double play ground out. Though Hafner failed to get the ball out of the infield in his first two at-bats, I was pleased with his approach at the plate (read: he didn't seem to swing weakly at balls or grossly misjudge pitches) and even hit a single and scored the only run of the game. What's worried me most about Pronk, beyond his glaring absence of power, has been that he's seem to have lost his ability to judge pitches and the strike zone - resulting in his looking mismatched. I am optimistically hopefully that Pronk can contribute in some manner to the success of the team this year, but realistically believe he might be near the end of his rope. I'll make the bold prediction that for the Indians to make the playoffs this season, Hafner will have to hit over 20 home runs. I think less than 10 may be more likely.

Up Next for the Tribe: Wednesday Night 8:05 pm at Texas: Carmona vs. Padilla. Unlike Lee, I believe Carmona may end up being the anchor off the pitching staff this year. I hope he gets it started on Wednesday.
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Saturday, April 4, 2009

First Annual Cleveland Sports Blogs Fantasy Baseball League

With Opening Day rapidly approaching (tomorrow!), CMCR is excited to announce the First Annual Cleveland Sports Blog Fantasy Baseball League. We've gathered some of the paramount Cleveland Sports Blogs around to compete in a head-to-head battle of armchair baseball knowledge.

We've created this league for two distinct purposes. First, this league is going to serve as a friendly competition and chance for all the websites involved to prove who has the greatest fantasy baseball knowledge along the banks of Lake Erie. Writing for a blog, it's easy to step into the shoes of Eric Wedge or Mike Brown and state how we might do things differently, while never really facing the repercussions of our decisions. Now, instead of merely writing about how knowledgeable we are about baseball, we'll actually have to prove it or suffer the verbal abuse of our peers. It's a chance for you to see our differing baseball philosophies in action.

The impressive list of sites participating in the league include:

Second, and more important than the self-serving purpose of above, this league is designed to be entertaining for the readers of all the participating sites. Weekly updates will be posted on this blog, and all season long you'll be able to follow every transaction and witty retort here. Many of the participating blogs in this league are quite well-connected and knowledgeable within baseball and may be even able to help you within your own fantasy leagues. I welcome any and all fantasy questions to be posted in the comments section below. Additionally, this league will also serve to unite several of the Cleveland Sports Blogs, hopefully creating better insights and interesting stories for all the Cleveland Sports fans out there reading.

Finally, not only will this league be available for you to follow, but as a loyal reader of CMCR, we are opening up the forum for your suggestions as to what the prize should be to the winner of this league. We've been considering having jerseys or t-shirts being made up of former Indians' greats -who wouldn't want to sport a Jerry Browne throwback? The individual who suggests the best prize may even be asked to compete next year. This league is for your entertainment - help us make it the best it can possibly be. Here's to a great season. Go Tribe!
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