Friday, September 15, 2006

Great arms confuse the Tribe

If this Indians season has taught us anything, it's that you can't give the team's management too many options. If you do, they're going to have a hard time making up their minds, and players are going to suffer in the process.
As The Plain Dealer's Bill Livingston said Friday, you can use Jeremy Sowers and Fausto Carmona as case studies. Sowers is a soft-tossing lefty who really can't do much besides start. As such, the Indians have put Sowers on a definite path. They used him exclusively as a starter throughout the minors, they brought him up in June and placed him straight into the starting rotation, gave him the ball every fifth day and closely monitored his workload.
Tuesday was his final start of the season after 185 innings between the minors and majors. The numbers speak to the structure and support the Indians have given Sowers: 7-4 with a 3.57 ERA that is second only to C.C. Sabathia's 3.24 among Cleveland starters.
Sowers is widely considered a rising star among AL starting pitchers and should open next season in the middle of the Indians' rotation.
Compare that to Carmona, a righty blessed with a 97-mph fastball. His talent is vast. He has the potential to help a team in so many ways. Like a college student taking The Winking Lizard's Beers of the World tour, the Indians mouths started watering. They didn't know where to start.
With an expanded arsenal of pitches, Carmona could be a really good starter. That's the tack the Indians took in the minors. That's the role in which they brought Carmona to the majors. He pitched respectably in his first major-league start against the Tigers earlier this year.
But the Indians had to ask themselves, are they selling Carmona short? Sure, he could be an excellent starting pitcher, but imagine if they trimmed down his repertoire and put him in the bullpen. That explosive fastball with a filthy slider, he could be untouchable as late-inning reliever.
So they moved Carmona to the bullpen. They gave him the ball in the eighth inning, and he performed well. The Indians' brass must have begun high-fiving each other under the table. They were geniuses! This Carmona kid was going to be Jose Mesa circa 1995, except he was going to be Jose Mesa circa 1995 for the next 10 years!
Get Bob Wickman out of here ASAP! We've got to turn this Carmona kid loose in the closer's role!
Except the Indians' brain trust forgot a small detail. Closing begins with what your arm can do. It ends with what's going on between your ears. Carmona, a painfully young rookie who had never been a closer before, didn't know enough to fear and respect the role. He didn't know what went into the role from a mental approach, and the Indians' leaders didn't do much to prepare him.
All they were listening to is the defiant words coming from Carmona, that he wasn't afraid of closing, that he wasn't afraid of any role.
He didn't know enough to be afraid. That would change, quickly and violently.
In the span of two road series in Boston and Detroit, Carmona coughed up four game-losing hits, two on home runs. His mood changed from confident to fearful to incredulous right before our very eyes. The Indians quickly rushed him out of the closer's role and back to setup, but he was psychologically battered. He struggled there, too, and was sent back down to the minors.
Now, in what has become an ultimate slinking-back-home-with-tail-between-legs image, the Indians have returned Carmona to starting, where he still hasn't been that effective.
Friday, he has the unenviable task of facing Minnesota's Johan Santana. At first blush, it looks like Carmona is in for another dose of humility.
It might take weekly appointments with a sports psychologist this winter to straighten Carmona out. Right now, he's pitching as if every ball that leaves his hand is going to be crushed. He won't blame Indians' management for that, so I will.
And it's not as if Carmona is an isolated case. Ever since Mark Shapiro and Eric Wedge took the reigns of the organization, it seems that potential-laden power arms cause them to waffle like they are covered in syrup.
Jason Davis has been in much the same boat, though that is due in large part to his own inability to seize a starting job and keep it. Now, Davis is in the bullpen for the foreseeable future, and has been every bit the talent tease he was as a starter. All potential, few results. But the bouncing around probably didn't help his confidence.
Danys Baez was the first guinea pig the Indians ping-ponged between the rotation and bullpen. Unlike Carmona, he had some success as a closer. Like Carmona, his arm was good enough that every time he was placed in a role, it didn't take long for the Tribe's decision makers to wonder if he was better-suited for another role.
He eventually ended up in Tampa Bay, where he became the closer, and has been a reliever ever since.
It's hard enough for a young pitcher to adjust to major-league hitting without the added stress of wondering what role they are going to fill on a week-to-week basis. A young player needs to know that the decision-makers are going to make definitive, properly-researched choices and not treat their burgeoning careers like a game of pin the tail on the donkey.
If the Indians had treated Carmona's head with the same care they treated Sowers' arm, maybe Carmona wouldn't be in the mess he's in. But Carmona has the misfortune of having a versatile arm that forced the Indians to make a decision and stick to it, which they appear incapable of doing.

1 comment:

Ben said...

I don't even really disagree with them using Carmona as a reliever or closer... but I do have a problem when his first save is on the road, in Boston.

I mean, come on, let's ease the kid into it. "Here's the ball rook, now go get David Ortiz"