Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Trouble at the top

In between peering through my fingers at the Cavaliers, I have still been paying attention to the Indians as their season takes flight.
It hasn't been a soaring start so much as a gentle glide. Smooth, but not very far off the ground so far.
Heading into tonight's series at the yes-we-can-identify-ourselves-with-the-Los-Angeles-market-but-still-play-in-Anaheim Angels, Cleveland owns one of the worst batting averages in the American League. Their sleepwalking offense and shoddy defense have already wasted a handful of games this year that could have put the Indians over .500. Instead, the Tribe is jogging along with a 6-8 record.
They could have been .500 with a sweep of the the last-place Royals, but the offense let Kansas City wriggle out of bases loaded jams in the fifth and eighth innings Tuesday with not so much as a scratch. The result was a 6-5 loss as Arthur Rhodes had the first blemish on a stellar start by giving up a walk-off home run to backup catcher Alberto Castillo.
I have been among the contingent that believes the Indians' offense is simply off to a slow start. To an extent, I still think that is true. But then I thought back to the end of last season, when we all but knew Matt Lawton and Omar Vizquel weren't going to be back.
I remember thinking how losing those two guys was going to hurt the 2005 offense. And it has.
I don't want to turn this into another episode of "Let's Get Mark Shapiro and Larry Dolan For Not Re-Signing Omar." I've visited that on previous occasions, and I stand by my assessment that, with Jhonny Peralta and Brandon Phillips waiting in the wings, the Indians had better places to spend money this past off-season than on the shortstop position.
But there is no getting around the fact that Lawton and Vizquel comprised the ignition switch for the 2004 Tribe offense that finished fifth in the American League. The pair were playing healthy for the first time in several seasons last year, and it showed. Lawton, hitting mostly leadoff, compiled a .277 batting average with 20 home runs and 70 RBI last year. He also scored 109 runs in 150 games with a .366 on-base percentage.
Vizquel, rebounding from a pair of knee operations in 2003, hit .291 last year in 148 games. Hitting in his customary two-hole for most of the year, he scored 82 runs and had a .353 on-base percentage.
Many heart-of-the-order hitters will tell you how much easier their job is when the guys ahead of them find ways to get on base frequently. The proficiency of Lawton and Vizquel at finding their way to the basepaths contributed heavily to breakout seasons for Victor Martinez and Travis Hafner, and career years for Ronnie Belliard and Casey Blake. Lawton and Vizquel might be the reasons Blake and Belliard were re-signed by the Indians over the winter.
This year, the top of the Cleveland order has been decidedly less potent. Leadoff hitter Coco Crisp, another beneficiary of Lawton and Vizquel last year, enters play tonight hitting .250 with a .318 on-base percentage, though he has managed to score eight runs in 14 games.
The lion's share of the two-hole at-bats have gone to Belliard and newcomer Alex Cora so far. Belliard, who got off to a scorching start last year, hitting over .400 for much of April and May, has been driftwood so far this year, hitting a mere .244 with a .289 on-base percentage in 13 games. Cora has been respectable, hitting .321 with a .367 on-base percentage. But Cora comes with a caveat: As a left-handed hitter, he has played almost exclusively against right-handed pitchers. In his 11 games of action, only three of his at-bats have come against lefties, producing one hit.
In a division that will throw the likes of Johan Santana, Mark Buehrle and Mike Maroth at the Indians four and five times over the course of a season, being at least competent against lefties is imperative.
It remains to be seen whether the lukewarm hitters at the top of the Indians order will lead to a disappointing season in the batter's box, but it is apparent the likes of Crisp, Belliard and Cora are not having the same energizing effect on the Tribe's RBI men that Lawton and Vizquel had last season.
If the Indians want to seriously contend for anything this year, they might have to make a trade for a veteran, top-of-the-order contact hitter before the July 31 deadline. Preferably one having a season like Lawton or Vizquel had last year.

1 comment:

Zach said...

I was making the same point about Lawton and Vizquel to friends, in between my 'see, we do need Juan' remarks.
But watching the Dodgers play yesterdau, another thought popped into my head:
The lineup would sure look good with Milton Bradley in the middle of it.
I know and understand why Milton was shown the door. Further, I think Shapiro made a great deal with benefits down the road.
But Milton is a player. He hit a game winning two run shot Thursday, and is very close to a five-tool player.
This is not so much a "I wish we hadn't traded him" as much as "I wish he wasn't so immature."
Take away the temper, and there is NO REASON to trade him.
Now I can only wonder where we'd be if he was still in a tribe uniform.