Monday, March 26, 2007

Playing Against Pythagoras

As the Indians set to embark upon the 2007 season, their opponents go beyond the White Sox or the Tigers or the Mariners. They include, prominently, an ancient Greek philosopher/cult leader who believed that “number is the ruler of forms and ideas and the cause of gods and demons.”

Apparently, the numbers weren’t quite as potent as Pythagoras thought. For over the last two years, the Indians have fallen miserably short of the winning percentage from runs and runs allowed that we call by his name. In 2005, the Indians “should” have won about 96 games; that would have given them the wildcard by a one game margin. Instead they won 93. This type of discrepancy happens all the time, and is no particularly noteworthy--however, the consequence of the shortfall does gall. But in 2006, the Indians “should” have won around 90 games; instead, they won 78.

So are the Indians, on paper, a team that had a 90 win-type performance or a 78 win-type performance last year? It’s semantics, but it is important to forming an opinion of how much better the team must play this season to contend. If they were truly unlucky, then we can assume that they are already right in the race. If however, the 78 wins truly represent their performance, then there’s a long way to go in order to contend, and in a division with three other contenders, the odds can’t be good.

I tend to believe that the Indians are closer to 90 then 78, but all of the mysteries of Pythagoras will not matter once the season begins; the team will win or lose real games, and the standings will reflect it. So let’s set that aside, hope that fortune or the gods smile upon the Tribe this year, and take a look at who will be taking the field.

At catcher, Victor Martinez is one of the top offensive players at the position. On defense, he’s one of the top offensive catchers. That led to some increased time at first base last year, along with the presence of a credible backup in Kelly Shoppach. Those two should keep it held down well this year; in case of injury, a faceless catcher will be plugged in as the backup, and will post a putrid offensive line.

There is more intrigue at first base, where Casey Blake figures to emerge with a great deal of playing time, as will Ryan Garko. Garko’s presence on the roster is not a certainty, but it the signs seem to point to him coming north with the team. Garko’s RBI-laden late-season performance has earned him a the vaunted “clutch” designation from many Tribe fans; he is a solid bat but not someone with a high ceiling as he is already 26. He may play relatively well, but will probably be viewed by many fans as a disappointment.

At second base, Josh Barfield comes over from the Padres to provide a long-term solution. Barfield played well enough in his rookie campaign, hitting 288/327/435, nine runs better then an average second baseman. This looks to be a trade that will work out for both teams, as Kevin Kouzmanoff can hit, and will in San Diego.

At third, Andy Marte has lost almost all of his super-prospect luster, but bettering Aaron Boone’s +2 RAR and statuesque defense should be well within his range, and Jhonny Peralta is a good bet to recover from his bad 2006. Not to the 2005 level, which was over his head, but to a level where he is an above-average contributor.

The infielders will apparently be backed up by Mike Rouse. I had assumed that Hector Luna would be the utility spot, but he came to camp overweight, butchered everything that came near him in the field, and generally ticked off the Indians’ brass this spring. Rouse is a 27-year old out of Cal St.-Fresno who played in eight games for Oakland a year ago. His OPS at AAA the last two years has been around 735, so he’s not likely to contribute much at the plat. Luis Rivas is the other potential option, but he is not on the forty-man roster, and is not valuable enough to make a move.

In the outfield, Grady Sizemore is the centerfielder and leadoff hitter, and one of the finest players in the American League. He will see many different combinations to his left and right, however. Casey Blake, Jason Michaels, David Dellucci, and Trot Nixon will all see time in the corners. Michaels and Dellucci figure to platoon in left, with Michaels going versus lefties and Dellucci versus righties. Last year, the two in those platoon splits combined for 475 PA of 296/358/494, so this at least has the potential to be a productive arrangement. Nixon will be trying to rebound from an injury-plagued year, but if worst comes to worst, Blake can assume right with Garko playing full-time at first. The Indians may not have a great outfield, but it is a flexible and deep one.

Michaels can handle backup duties in center, so there will be no need for a fifth outfielder, leaving Ben Francisco and Shin-Soo Choo on call in Buffalo.

The Indians should have a fairly good starting rotation once again in 2006. CC Sabathia is the unquestioned ace. Although he has never been able to establish himself as an elite pitcher, he has been very good on a consistent basis and was again with a +47 RAR campaign. He is followed by Jake Westbrook, who is a good bet for 200 innings of above average performance. Third starter Cliff Lee regressed last year, and will now miss the opening of the season. Jeremy Sowers was excellent in his major league debut, with a 3.57 ERA in 88 innings. However, his low strikeout rate (3.6) is a concern and casts doubt on his long-term potential. Paul Byrd suffered through an awful season; it remains to be seen whether he is done or if he can bounce back.

With Lee temporarily felled, Fausto Carmona will be the fifth starter. Carmona pitched decently in a few callup starts last year, then looked very good out of the bullpen until he was handed the closer’s role. The meltdown that followed was of historic proportions. Carmona is still young and well-armed, but questions will remain around him until he succeeds at the big league level. If any more problems befall the rotation, top prospect Adam Miller is hovering on the horizon and could be summoned up; he worked eleven scoreless innings in Florida.

The disaster area that was the Indians bullpen last year has been patched over, but is not significantly better on paper. The good news is that I believe that good bullpens are largely formed through fortune and not necessarily through high-priced acquisitions. I don’t believe that the bullpen will emerge as a strength, but I also doubt that it will be ghastly as in 2006.

Joe Borowski is nominally the closer, but for a town where Bob Wickman’s baserunner-laden saves produced consternation, it’s the same old tune; his 4.69 eRA in Florida last year is not particularly encouraging. Setting him up will be the ageless Roberto Hernandez, whose 3.13 ERA last year belies his 4.61 RRA and 4.57 eRA and Rafael Betancourt, whose consistently solid performance remains unappreciated. Aaron Fultz gives the Indians a lefty specialist they lacked last year; his numbers weren’t good last year, but he did allow a .344 $H and he faced many more righties (211 of 317) then he will this year. He held lefties to a 668 OPS in 06 and 666 in 05, so he figures to have prettier numbers from the alternate role.

Behind them, Fernando Cabrera and Jason Davis have never lived up to their potential, although I am a big believer in Cabrera’s stuff and eventual success, and could easily envision him closing come summer time. Davis has never had the strikeout numbers to match his stuff, but he is out of options and will make the team. Matt Miller will be the last member of the bullpen, health-permitting; he has pitched very well when able, but skepticism about his stuff as a sidearmer and health have prevented that from happening too often. If Miller cannot go, lefty Juan Lara or righty Tom Mastny could get the call. Beyond them, depth is provided by lefties Rafael Perez and Tony Sipp and righties Brian Sikorski, Edward Mujica, and Brian Slocum (a tweener between starting and relieving at this point).

Eric Wedge is in his fifth season as manager, but could quickly be on the hotseat. Buck Showalter was brought in as a consultant to the front office, and it easy to see a poor start putting him the driver’s seat. Wedge seems to be on good terms with GM Mark Shapiro, but the call may be out of his hand if things don’t go according to plan. Will they? I have a guess, which I will share when I make my MLB predictions on Sunday, but all we can ask from Pythagoras’ numbers is to stay out of the way.

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