So the Cleveland Indians season is over. They traded away C.C. Sabathia, which was the final white flag on the year.
Going into the year, the Indians were one of the most popular picks to go to the World Series. The team was almost exactly the same as last year's team, that came one game from the World Series... except now, all of the young players had an extra year of experience.
But here we are, in early July, and the Indians are the biggest disappointment in baseball. So I'm trying to figure out what exactly went wrong, and what derailed this seemingly-promising season.
Travis Hafner strikes out. In so many ways.
The offense. I debated for a long, long time what the number one problem was. Frankly, any of the top four or five on this list could be the biggest reason. But, ultimately, I feel like the offensive impotence was the single biggest contributor to this disastrous season.
I don't know what happened. Yeah, there were injuries... but everyone sucked. Everyone. Up and down the lineup. Sizemore came on eventually, Peralta flashed a few signs of life and Martinez drove in some runs... but outside of that, none of the starters could really do anything.
So the brilliant starting pitching couldn't relax... they needed to be super-human and give up zero or one runs, or the Indians would lose.
It's hard to find a reason for what happened to the offense. Is it Eric Wedge's slavish devotion to veterans and starters that keeps players from feeling like they need to perform to keep their spot? Is it the organization's increased focus on working counts deep... which was leaving guys way too prone to strikeouts? Is it the hitting coach, Derek Shelton, doing a terrible job? Is everyone secretly injured? I don't know. No one does. But this killed the season. So, Indians front office and coaching staff: FIGURE IT OUT.
The bullpen. If there are three major components to a team -- the offense, starting pitching and bullpen -- I think you can survive if one of them is crappy. But you're dead in the water if two (or three) of them are. And, for the Indians, two of them were. Because last season's lockdown bullpen turned into a complete mess.
Betancourt forgot how to pitch. So did Perez. So did Lewis. (Borowski will get his own point on this list, and he didn't so much forget how to pitch, his nine lives just ran out.) Kobayashi didn't provide much help.
So all of a sudden, the starters didn't just have to keep the opponents at zero or one runs... they had to last at least eight or nine innings so the bullpen wouldn't have a chance to flush the game away.
Once again, I'm not sure what went wrong. Perez may've lost his confidence during the playoffs last year, or just regressed into a sophomore slump. Lewis says he's a slow starter every year... but that's not really acceptable at the Major League level. Who knows with Betancourt... last year might've just been a fluke.
All that I do know is that the bullpen was such a mess that games just kept getting handed back to the Indians' opponents in the late innings... and the offense wasn't close to good enough to make up for it.
Borowski. Last year, he had a billion saves. Almost all of them involved baserunners. A lot of them involved him giving up runs. But, somehow, he always managed to walk the tightrope from one side of the snake pit to the other and not fall in. That did not happen this year.
He was done. He blew some saves, went on the DL, came back and blew some more. Finally, he was designated for assignment... in other words, he didn't even have a shred of trade value left.
Between Borowski and other guys in the bullpen, I went through the schedule and counted 16 games where they either blew a save or failed to hold a tie in late or extra innings. I know this is somewhat syllogistic reasoning, but let's just do it for fun. With a real closer and the bullpen not imploding, assume the Indians win 12 of those games... and right now they're seven or eight games over .500 and battling for the division lead.
Hell, just take out the six blown saves, put in a real closer and the team right now is 44-47... which means they'd be one five-game winning streak away from contending in the Central.
Travis Hafner. On September 1st, 2006, Travis Hafner was hit in the hand by a pitch. He went on the DL for the rest of the year. Since then, he's never been the same. In 2007, his OPS was .836, which was fine, but it was not a superstar OPS... and it was down from 1.098 in 2006. Then this year, his OPS was .676 before he went on the DL. His home runs dropped... 42 in 2006, 24 last year, FOUR in the 46 games he played this year. And those stats are just emblematic of everything dropping.
Maybe it was getting hit on the hand. Maybe during 2004, '05 and '06 he was just playing out of his mind and he's just not that good. But either way, Hafner no longer appears to be the clean-up hitter for a team that fancies itself a contender. Not even close.
And yes, he was apparently hiding a shoulder injury this year and trying to play through it.
Martinez, Carmona and Westbrook getting hurt. Without Victor Martinez being right, the Indians were always dead on arrival. Something seemed off about him... like, it's not normal for a middle-of-the-order guy to hit zero home runs in 54 games... and it turned out he was, like Hafner, hiding an injury. Without Hafner and with a healthy Martinez, the offense could probably chug along and be mediocre to average. With out a healthy Martinez, it's just poor to quite poor.
Losing Carmona and Westbrook were also huge blows. Because, in spite of the offense and bullpen dying, a rotation of Sabathia, Carmona, Westbrook, 2008 Cliff Lee and Laffey might just have been good enough to stay in the race until the offense healed. (Of course, that assumed Wedge would've started Laffey over Byrd, but we'll get to his idiotic devotion to veterans soon.)
But without Carmona and Westbrook, the rotation became Sabathia, Lee, Laffey, Byrd and Sowers. And once Byrd and Sowers had their spots secured like that, they both proceeded to be terrible every single time they touched the ball.
Why do birds suddenly appear? Every time. You are near.
Wedge and his veterans. The biggest problem that most people have with Eric Wedge... and have always had with him... is his eternal patience with veterans. It started years ago when it took an act of God to get Aaron Boone out of the lineup, even though he was the equivalent of batting a pitcher. And it's continued on: Guillermo Mota... Byrd... Dellucci... Jason Michaels... Borowski...
But, of course, no Wedge-veteran love affair is stranger or deeper than his love affair with Casey Blake. By all rights, Casey Blake is meant to be a journeyman. He has a career OPS of .779 and a career batting average of .264. He's the true definition of a veteran utility player.
Over Eric Wedge's dead body. No matter what, Casey Blake starts. Wedge has been starting him for years. Even in 2005, when he was something like 2-70 with two outs and runners in scoring position. Even this year, when he, like the rest of the offense, was sucking... and Andy Marte, our big up-and-coming third baseman, was sitting on the bench, out of Triple-A options.
There are two gigantic problems with Wedge's unrelenting, unbreakable devotion to veterans. First, he won't break his love for them even when no one's performing. So Dellucci, Blake, Byrd and Borowski stay in their spots, even though they're not turning it around and show no signs of turning it around.
The second problem: These journeymen guys take crucial playing time away from young players in the Indians' system who are ready. It took FOREVER to get Ben Francisco up from Triple-A this year. Laffey was better than Byrd last year, and is better than him this year. Dellucci is a dead-end... it's time to let Francisco, Choo and Gutierrez get their reps to see who's going to be a part of the outfield of the future.
This season, even with the team struggling in an epic way, Wedge still wouldn't back off his veterans. And that's a big reason why this season is over.
No internal competition. This is somewhat tied in to the previous point. I always feel like guys step up more when they feel like someone's challenging for their spot. And that just did NOT happen. The front office basically didn't bring in any new players. Everyone (except the fifth starter and last bullpen slot) went into spring training with their spot completely secured. No one had to work hard to earn anything. And as the season went on, no one had anything to lose. And they played like it.
ALCS hangover. A lot of people don't believe that things like confidence and momentum are relevant in sports, but, despite being a "stats" guy, I still do. I've lived it. I know. It's the truth.
And losing the ALCS last year after being up three games to one HAD to leave a mark. Sabathia and Carmona both collapsed in that series. So did Perez. And none of the three of them came back quite right to start out this year.
Outside of the mediocre veterans, the talented guys on the Indians are almost all young and/or playoff neophytes. And I think that this season began with some lingering, internal second-guessing from the ALCS debacle. Especially since this was the EXACT same team.
Young players acting like it. In the ALCS run last year, six rookies or basically rookies played like superstars: Asdrubal Cabrera, Carmona, Lewis, Perez, Laffey and Gutierrez. This year, four of them crash landed on Earth, and Carmona wasn't quite as good and then got hurt. Only Laffey still looked the part. The Indians started the season expecting all of those guys to ascend to even greater heights and lock down their spots for years to come. Didn't happen. Didn't even come close. And all of a sudden, there were gigantic holes all over the team.
Sabathia's slow start. Of all the guys who got knocked down a peg in the ALCS, none showed it as much as Sabathia. He was beyond terrible for his first four starts. The Indians lost three of those four games... and, with the rest of the team really struggling, those games with the staff ace on the mound were games that had to be won early on.
A surprising lack of depth. Everything looked so good on the surface going in. Young players stepping up. A farm system with guys waiting to get the call. Superstars getting ready to make the big leap. But this season just showed how fleeting depth really is.
We thought we had eight Major Leauge starters (Sabathia, Carmona, Westbrook, Lee, Byrd, Laffey, Sowers, Miller). Between injuries, under-performances and, now, the big trade, tomorrow night's game is going to be started by some guy named Matt Ginter.
We thought we had an incredible potential outfield with Choo, Gutierrez and Francisco battling Dellucci and Michaels for two spots. Now the organization is scrambling to find a corner outfielder because they're not sold on any of those five.
Depth is ephemeral, and right now, it seems to have vanished. I hate to be pessimistic, because, at the core, this team is still good... but, man... looking at the next few years, suddenly, things don't seem as bright as they used to be.
This post was originally published on Friday, July 11, 2008 at 02:24:59 PM under the category Sports.