Monday, January 29, 2007

Livingston's war of words

Perhaps it has recently sunk in to the aging skull of The Plain Dealer's Bill Livingston: In all likelihood, he's going to look like a dope come June.

It was Livingston who predicted that the Cavaliers would win the NBA title this season, sticking by his flight-of-fancy prediction prior to last season. But the Cavs, at 25-19, look like a playoff team and nothing more at the moment.

It looks like Livingston will have some yolk to wipe off his face this spring. Of course, in maintaining the highest standards of journalistic integrity that would be expected of a long-tenured sports columnist such as himself, Livingston is apparently dealing with that by:

A) Humbly admitting he overestimated the team.
B) Defiantly sticking to his guns and maintaining his prediction.
C) Throwing the Cavs under the bus several times a week.

If you know the only-man-in-this-town-aging-faster-than-Eric-Snow Livingston that we've all come to know and love, you'll realize the only correct answer would be C.

That well-proportioned man in the Tower City RTA terminal? That's Livingston, who threw the Cavs under the bus and is now waiting to throw them under a rapid train. Next stop: The tarmac at Hopkins International Airport.

Ever since the Ohio State football season was unceremoniously ended three weeks ago, Livingston has come to the realization that his gutsy Cavs prediction is withering on the vine, and has proceeded to tell the entire organization that they suck, top to bottom, in no uncertain terms.

In the past several weeks, Livingston has torched announcer Fred McLeod (and by extension Dan Gilbert), Larry Hughes, Mike Brown, and Monday, this little gem on Danny Ferry (scroll down if you click on the link).

Livingston does bring up a few good points about Ferry and Hughes, but why is he relentlessly dumping on them all of a sudden right now? The column on McLeod was day-late, dollar-short grumbling about a move that was made six months ago. That column belonged on a blog somewhere out this way, not in the newspaper.

Come to think of it, most of Livingston's columns concerning the Cavs have been a day late and dollar short, finding fault with long-term moves based on whatever has occurred in the previous several weeks.

It's easy to make a case that the Cavs are bumbling buffoons when they've lost eight of 10. The real debate-team winner can still make that case when they've won eight of 10. But I doubt Livingston would be backing his argument if that were the case. More than likely, he'd be writing poetic columns about scraped hands and scuffed leather balls on the Texas playground courts of his youth.

Livingston is basically a down-to-earth writer. At times, he can be an excellent wordsmith. But too often, he governs his columns based on the popular opinion of the masses. Any politician will tell you that's a bad idea.

Right after Ohio State was blown out of Glendale, Ariz., Livingston eloquently rebuked some fellow media members for suggesting that the Buckeyes lost because there were "too many Cleveland players on the team."

He said, in so many words, that the Cleveland media needs to stop feeding the fans' perception that the city is star-crossed. He called for Clevelanders to stop pity-partying and end their perpetual dance with misery.

But ever since that column, he has become the exact type of sulking, negativity-spewing Cleveland media member he was chastising in the postmortem Ohio State piece.

I'm all for being realistic. The reality is that the Cavs are not a title-contending ballclub. Not yet. But sometimes, especially in this town, the line between realism and rampant pessimism becomes seriously blurred. That's what Livingston is doing right now with his needlessly-protracted assault on the Cavs.

He is doing nothing but adding to the negative inertia that is already choking the sports culture of this once-proud city.

Sunday, January 28, 2007

The curse of inexperience

Of all the things Cleveland sports fans can select to worry about, you'd think the coaches of their teams wouldn't be one of them.

Cleveland's current coaches -- the Indians' Eric Wedge, the Browns' Romeo Crennel and the Cavaliers' Mike Brown -- all come from the type of background you'd expect rising head coaches to have. Wedge is a gifted orator and organizational whiz kid from the Tribe's own farm system, one of the most meticulously self-analyzed in all of baseball.

Crennel is an apple off the Bill Parcells coaching tree who had Bill Belichick for a mentor. Brown counts Bernie Bickerstaff, Gregg Popovich and Rick Carlisle among his mentors.

Prior to Crennel was Butch Davis, who was a protege of Jimmy Johnson. Prior to Wedge was Charlie Manuel, a stuttering bumpkin to hear him speak, but in actuality a smart, well-traveled baseball man. He was the mechanic of the most-feared baseball offense of the 1990s.

Virtually all Cleveland coaches have had a list of job references long and famous enough to make your average subscriber salivate.

And yet with all that immaculate pedigree and extensive sideline preparation, each Cleveland team has made just one playoff appearance in this decade. The Indians have finished above .500 thrice since 2000, the Cavs twice and the Browns just once.

So where does all that perceived ability go when a coach is hired by a Cleveland team? If you want to go on a witch hunt and look for another long, dark corridor in the complex labyrinth that is the Cleveland curse, save your legs. The answer doesn't involve that much voodoo.

If you want to look for answers, take a look at the combined number of games that Wedge, Crennel and Brown had served as a head coach prior to their current gigs:

Zero. In the case of Crennel and Brown, zero on any level.

Inexperience is a near-epidemic among Cleveland head coaches. In 60 years, the only Browns head coach with prior NFL head coaching experience was Nick Skorich, and even then, he hadn't been a head coach for almost a decade upon receiving the job in 1971.

The last Indians manager with prior experience was John McNamara, at the tail end of a career that will be mostly remembered for him sticking with Bill Buckner defensively in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, setting the stage for one of baseball's immortal gaffes.

McNamara lasted from the middle of the 1990 season to the middle of the '91 season, when he was replaced by Mike Hargrove.

The Cavs have been the least offensive when it comes to hiring coaches without experience. Since 1986, Lenny Wilkens, Mike Fratello, John Lucas and Paul Silas were all hired with extensive prior experience as NBA head coaches.

But then, one has to ask, with the most important player in franchise history entering his prime years, why deviate from that and roll the dice by hiring Brown?

No one doubts that Brown, Crennel and Wedge all know a lot about their respective sports. No one who knows what they are talking about thinks these guys are idiots. But the danger of hiring a guy with no experience is that he's not going to be able to take a holistic view of the team.

No, I'm not talking about yoga and tea leaves. As professional sports become more complex and technology-driven, coaching staffs become more compartmentalized. Assistant coaches are allowed to retreat into their area of specialization with only limited regard for what else is going on.

Brown and Crennel got to where they are by burying their noses in their defensive playbooks. Offense fell on the shoulders of another assistant coach. Motivating the troops was something the head coach handled, or in some cases, the players themselves.

Wedge got to where he is by being a good interview, having good organizational skills and having the good fortune of being on the same mental wavelength as his boss, which never hurts.

No one ever tested Wedge's in-game strategic skills prior to him becoming the Indians manager. No one ever tested the ability of Crennel or Brown to work an offense. No one ever tested the skills of any of the three in handling a locker room full of subordinates who go through mood swings just like the rest of us.

The leap from concepts to reality is the toughest jump to make when you have to pry your nose out of a playbook and start managing people, or dispense with the platitudes of a fiery first-day-of-spring-training speech and start leading your team through the seven-month march of a baseball season.

Before you finger Wedge's aversion to base-stealing, or accuse Crennel and Brown of being cave-bat blind when it comes to offense, realize that it's the leadership skills they lack. Realize that the biggest part of their on-the-job training as head coaches comes when they have to pull in the reigns on a slumping club and hold them accountable. That's where all three Cleveland coaches lack the most.

The trouble is, that's probably the most important part of a coach's job.

The best coaches inspire their teams and get their players to a point where they feel an effective amount of shame in failure. Coaches of great teams might be tactical geniuses, yes, but chances are they are simply pushing the right psychological buttons.

That's the wide-angle view of a team that only experience can teach a coach. And, unfortunately, experience is in short supply among Cleveland coaches.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Feeding the Monsters

You're going to love and hate the Lake Erie Monsters.

You're going to love the fact that they aren't the Fighting Walleye, which widely-circulated rumors had as the decided-upon name for Cleveland's new American Hockey League franchise.

You're going to love that, with image-savvy Dan Gilbert at the helm, this franchise is going to make enough noise to be heard among the tall timber of the Browns, Indians and Cavs. The Monsters' AHL predecessors, the Barons, were run in such a low-key fashion, many Clevelanders didn't even know we had a hockey team from 2000 to '05.

There is a reason why the Barons looked at moving to the Quad Cities before settling on Worcester, Mass last year. That franchise was in over its head competing with three major-league teams for attention and revenue. You can't run a Quad Cities operation in a metropolitan area of 2.5 million people and expect to get noticed.

The Monsters won't make that mistake. Like the Lumberjacks, you'll at least know they exist even if you don't really follow sports.

You'll hate the Monsters because, for the first time in Cleveland's history, one of our sports teams will not pledge allegiance to the city. (Yes, for any know-it-all who wants to point it out, I remembered the Lake County Captains. They play outside Cuyahoga County, so I don't consider them a Cleveland team per se.)

Not only will the Monsters not align themselves with Cleveland, they're not even aligning themselves with a land mass. The Monsters will play for a body of water.

However, if you believe this commentary I wrote a couple of years ago, maybe flattering Lake Erie with name recognition isn't such a bad idea.

You'll love having a minor league hockey team worth paying attention to. You will, however, hate the prices you'll have to pay to see it. It's decidedly NHL without the level of competition.

Glass seats will cost you $60. The cheapest ticket prices will be $10, just like Cavs games.

Gilbert is betting that he's going to be able to spice up Monsters games with enough bright lights and shiny objects to make you forget that it's only a farm team on the ice. In the world of corporate sports, remember, you're not just paying for the game, you're paying for all the chotchkie tosses, laser-light displays, exploding scoreboards and sexy dancers that pelt your senses when the game is not in progress.

Knowing Gilbert's flamboyant presentation style, it will probably be Cirque du Soleil during the first intermission and Disney on Ice during the second.

Gilbert is smart along those lines. Since minor league teams are largely at the mercy of their parent clubs with regard to what players they employ, you can't put a lot of stock in wins as a crowd-drawing tool. It's all about the stuff that fills the breaks in the action.

Cleveland hockey fans finally have a team back. That's what we get out of it. Gilbert gets 41 games' worth of ticket, merchandise and concessions revenue. That's really what this is all about.

Being from Michigan, I'm sure Gilbert loves hockey. Back in his younger days, some daydream probably would have found him pulling on a Red Wings jersey and skating a shift with Gordie Howe. But more than that, Gilbert loves turning his Cleveland arena into a money maker even when the Cavs aren't playing and U2 isn't performing.

That's the real story behind the Lake Erie Monsters. Love it or hate it.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Cavaliers midterm grades

Monday's lackluster loss against the Magic marks the halfway point of the Cavaliers season. Right now, they are 24-17, putting them on pace for 48 wins, slightly behind last year's total of 50, but more than enough to remain competitive in the sluggish Eastern Conference.

There have been peaks (a season sweep of the Spurs) and valleys (losses to the Hawks, Bobcats and Knicks). The Cavs have drawn the ire of many fans because they have developed into a frustrating, tease-and-falter kind of team. For stretches, they look like a team that could challenge for the conference crown. For stretches, they look completely disinterested and utterly inept on the offensive end.

It's time to hand out midterms for the Cavs, a team that has proven they are very good, but have some significant flaws they will have to wrestle with all season.

Shannon Brown (R)
2.5 PPG, 1.4 REB, 0.7 AST
The curse of the Cavs' first-round picks lives. Injuries and poor play have hindered every recent Cavs first-rounder besides LeBron James. On the heels of Chris Mihm, DeSagana Diop, Dajuan Wagner and Luke Jackson, Brown has had his rookie season sidetracked by a deep bruise on his leg, which he reportedly suffered when he was inadvertently kicked during a Dec. 29 practice.
Brown told reporters the bruise bled into his bone marrow. Yummy.
Grade: Incomplete

Dan Gibson (R)
3.9 PPG, 1.4 REB, 0.8 AST
He has shown flashes of becoming a productive player down the road, but right now, Mike Brown sees him as a change-of-pace player, someone to go to if the regular rotation isn't producing.
His performance during Larry Hughes' injury earlier this season make the Cavs' brass sit up and take notice. But right now, it's a flirtation as opposed to a full-blown romance.
Grade: Incomplete

Drew Gooden
11.6 PPG, 8.6 REB, 0.51 BLK
He is the poster child for a tantalizingly-talented yet inconsistent squad. It's probably the way he is going to be for his entire career.
When he puts his mind to it, he can be a borderline-dominant low post player. But his mind is only there about half the time. Some nights, he just doesn't have it and ends up on the bench for the final three quarters.
His newfound jump shot range has been a pleasant surprise.
Grade: B

Larry Hughes
14.6 PPG, 3.6 REB, 3.3 AST
A favorite fan and media target because of his large salary, lukewarm stats and fragile frame, he still manages to find ways to contribute most nights. Unfortunately, he falls into the same jump-shooting habits of his teammates when everyone, including himself, knows he is at his best when driving inside.
Some of that has to do with the fact that he is playing on two injured legs, and probably will be for the rest of the season.
I am a defender of Hughes because I like his versatile game and willingness to play second fiddle to LeBron. But I'd feel a lot better if they had a ready-made insurance policy on the roster.
Grade: B-minus

Zydrunas Ilgauskas
12.0 PPG, 8.1 REB, 1.34 BLK
He still looks like a mismatched part that Mike Brown doesn't quite know what to do with. When the game turns into a track meet, he can't keep up. But when the game turns into a halfcourt meat grinder, Ilgauskas can still contribute by drawing fouls and getting to the line, yet Brown routinely doesn't play Ilguaskas much in the second halves of such games.
The Cavs are still better off having a 7'-3" center with the skills of Ilgauskas than to not have him, but it would be better if everyone could come to an agreement on how to use him.
Grade: B

LeBron James
26.8 PPG, 6.7 REB, 6.1 AST
He has stepped up his defense from past years, but like so much of the rest of the team, it comes and goes. His fatigue from more than a year of nearly nonstop basketball shows when he stops driving to the hoop and starts settling for outside jumpers, which sets the tone for the rest of the team.
The mere fact that he is still producing at a near-superlative level is a testament to his incredible talent.
Grade: A-minus

Damon Jones
8.2 PPG, 1.3 REB, 1.7 AST, .404 3PT
There isn't much to analyze about Jones' game. When his three-balls are falling, he's doing good. When they're not, he's not doing good.
Having said that, it is good to see him actually trying on defense this season.
Grade: B

Dwayne Jones
0 PPG, 1.0 REB, 0.0 BLK
His lone claim to fame: Getting activated ahead of Scot Pollard for a game several weeks ago.
Grade: Incomplete

Donyell Marshall
7.0 PPG, 4.4 REB, 0.60 BLK, .336 3PT
He started the season with the positive intention of returning to the type of inside-out player he was in his heyday. But old habits die hard, and Marshall is back to being a three-point gunslinger, with head-shaking results.
As Marshall was struggling through last season, one Cavs beat reporter suggested that Marshall put on about 30 pounds and prepare to finish his career as an inside banger. It's starting to sound like sage advice, because his perimeter game is deteriorating rapidly.
Grade: C-minus

Ira Newble
0.7 PPG, 1.3 REB, 0 AST
Remember the good old days when Newble was the Cavs' starting two-guard? Neither do I. The less he's on the floor, the better.
Grade: D

Sasha Pavlovic
4.5 PPG, 1.8 REB, 0.8 AST
Somewhere, rattling around inside Pavlovic, is an electric offensive player. I'm afraid he won't reveal himself until next year, when he is playing elsewhere.
Pavlovic is easily the second-quickest player the Cavs have in the open floor behind LeBron. But he has zero ability to finish at the rim right now. Some of the ways he botches plays near the rim are almost comical.
At the moment, he is nothing more than a tease.
Grade: C

Scot Pollard
0.1 PPG, 1.0 REB, 0 BLK
There must have been a disconnect between Danny Ferry and Mike Brown when Pollard was signed. If Pollard knew then what he knows now about his playing time, I doubt he would have agreed to play here.
Grade: Incomplete

Eric Snow
4.9 PPG, 2.5 REB, 4.6 AST
Similar to Marshall, Snow is much of the time attempting to fill a role for which he is ill-suited, be it through choice or necessity.
Snow should be the wise owl on the roster more for his veteran guidance than his playing skills, which are eroding. Instead, he is relied upon to be the facilitator of the offense and a legitimate scoring option, which he has shown he can't really do.
The Cavs can do worse than having Snow as their starting point guard. But if they want to reach the uppermost echelon of NBA teams, it appears they need to do better.
Grade: C

Anderson Varejao
6.9 PPG, 6.3 REB, 0.48 BLK
Often, players who do the flop are derided as pathetic Euro-softies who can't play any actual defense. But Varejao has turned the flop into an art form.
He has arguably the worst hands in the league. Every time he reaches for the ball, it's a 50-50 proposition of whether he's going to secure it or fumble it to an opponent. But his unique talent for floppery makes up for it. At times, it seems like he can almost draw offensive fouls at will.
Every good team needs a specialist like Varejao. He's part of the puzzle, and needs to be inked to a new deal this summer.
Grade: B-plus

David Wesley
1.7 PPG, 0.8 REB, 1.0 AST
The highlights of his season are limited to one half against Golden State. Whatever Ferry was trying to accomplish with this signing, it hasn't happened.
Grade: F

Mike Brown, Head Coach
His relentless hammering on defense has finally started to sink in. The Cavs are among the best statistical defensive teams in the league, and showed an ability to be a lockdown second-half defensive team during a two-week stretch early this month.
But while he harps on defense, he continues to let weeds grow under the offense. Brown committed a sizeable blunder by not hiring an experienced offensive assistant this past summer, and the team is now suffering because of it.
Emphasizing defense is great, but not at the expense of the offense. Hopefully that's a lesson Brown is learning right now.
Grade: B-minus

Danny Ferry, General Manager
The moves he's made since the end of last season have not whipped the fans into a tizzy, but that's by design. After several straight offseasons of upheaval, Ferry wanted to stabilize the roster and fill in around the edges.
So far, the only addition in that time period to contribute significantly is Gibson.
The burden is on Ferry to add the point guard and veteran scorer that can really take the Cavs to title-contender status. If he can add one of those pieces before the trade deadline next month, he'll be doing good.
Grade: B

Dan Gilbert, Owner
He's added tons of bells and whistles to The Q and ratcheted the bar for the Cavaliers as an entertainment experience higher than ever before. He is also planning a new Cavs practice facility in Independence.
He gets docked points for canning the well-respected Michael Reghi as the team's TV announcer in favor of Fred McLeod.
McLeod has a polished delivery and is knowledgeable, but too often comes off with the personality of a TV host reading lines off a teleprompter, which feeds the perception that he is nothing more than an organizational mouthpiece.
All in all, an unnecessary move by Gilbert. But it's the only real black mark on an otherwise stellar revitalization of basketball in Cleveland.
Grade: A-minus

Monday, January 22, 2007

Is Chud another dud?

Fans love it when teams think like them. Judged purely on that, the Browns are the darlings of Cleveland.

We love it when the local team brings in local guys. It gives a sense that the team is truly comprised of "our boys," players and coaches who truly know the pain we've been through as fans these past four decades.

Give Browns management credit for trying to play up the local angle as much as possible. From Charlie Frye to Joe Jurevicius to Dave Zastudil to LeCharles Bentley, the roster is overflowing with native Ohioans.

GM Phil Savage and coach Romeo Crennel both had prior ties to the Browns upon accepting their current jobs.

Now, add newly-minted offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski to that mix. A Toledo native and Browns assistant under Butch Davis, he eschewed a chance (albeit a small one) to coordinate the high-octane offense of his most recent employer, the Chargers, to take over the Browns offense, one of the league's worst.

Why? He "likes challenges," he said.

Before we go any further, let's step back for a moment to that whole "local guy" angle, and ask what does being a local guy bring you among us xenophobic Clevelanders?

Time. And, uh ... time.

When someone is from around here, we Clevelanders tend to be a little more forgiving. OK, a lot more forgiving. Every time Frye struggles, all the media has to do is remind us that he idolized Bernie Kosar growing up, and we'll collectively say, "Aw, the kid can't be that bad, then."

The Browns might have tapped into something here. Give us local guys to satisfy our need for perceived empathy. It won't necessarily lead to more wins, but it will at least soften a fan base ready to boil over at the prospect of another losing season, which 2007 almost certainly promises to be.

But before we swallow the rhetoric of "liking challenges" from yet another Brown with Buckeye blood and zero experience in his current position, let's air out the concerns that have surfaced, or will soon surface.

With open coordinator positions in San Diego and Miami and connections in both places, why did Chudzinski rush to accept the Cleveland offer?

Could it be that he wasn't very high on the list of candidates for either the Chargers or Dolphins for one reason or another? We already know he was probably the third or fourth choice for the Chargers.

The Browns' current regime was reportedly very high on Chudzinski upon conducting exit interviews following the changing of the guard two winters ago. But if we've learned anything from watching the Browns since their return, it's that their perceptions aren't exactly spot-on most of the time.

I'll be honest. I'm concerned the Browns haven't hired an offensive coordinator so much as they have hired a Kellen Winslow Jr. coordinator.

Chudzinski and Winslow are tight. Two legumes in a pod. They were tight at the University of Miami, and Chud plans on getting even tighter with him in Cleveland. Already, Chud is promising to use K2 more in short passing and run-blocking schemes.

Perhaps we've all been burned before, but I smell a Maurice Carthon redux emerging.

Carthon, as you might remember, was all about the fullbacks. Any way he could utilize Lawrence Vickers and Terelle Smith, he wanted to do it. Almost without fail, it blew up in his face because Carthon's perception of what a fullback is capable of and the reality of what a fullback can actually do were miles apart.

Now, in Chudzinski, I fear we might see an offense by Kellen Winslow, of Kellen Winslow and starring Kellen Winslow. Granted, Winslow might be the single most talented player on the offensive side of the ball, and deserves to be a key player, but I'm already having nightmarish visions of Frye forcing passes into triple coverage because the play calls for getting the ball to Winslow at all costs.

Think I'm overreacting? Have you forgotten how every coach the Browns hire seems to swallow a crazy pill upon signing his contract? Comprehensive, rational thinking has not been a strong suit of Browns coaches recently.

Worse yet, imagine the very real possibility of Winslow getting hurt again. Chud might have a panic attack on the spot if Winslow is carted off the field.

An unhealthy obsession with Kellen Winslow Jr. is one of the few reasons I could think that Chudzinski would jump at the chance to coach the Browns offense when other teams with better offenses were still mulling over candidates. If that's the case, the Browns just landed another coach with suspect judgment skills, and another disastrous year for Frye and the Browns offense likely awaits.

But, hey, at least Chud will be back home where he belongs, alongside people who are willing to give anybody with "Ohio" on their birth certificate a second chance. And third. And fourth.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

The Nixon administration

When the Indians first announced the signing of Trot Nixon to a one-year deal Friday, I was a bit perplexed.

Why Nixon, when you signed a very similar player in David Dellucci to a three-year deal only last month?

Both are left-handed hitting corner outfielders. Dellucci has a bit more power, Nixon, when healthy, is a bit better defensively.

You'd want neither out there against left-handed pitching. Over the past three years, Dellucci has hit .185 versus lefties, Nixon .207.

At one time, Nixon was probably capable of hitting in the top or middle of the order, provided he was surrounded by enough power and speed. Now, both Nixon, 32, and Dellucci, 33, are probably best suited to hit sixth and down, though the Indians are confident Nixon will be able to hit second.

Truth be told, looking at the career numbers of Nixon, I couldn't really tell how a well-endowed team like the Red Sox let him patrol right field in Fenway Park for almost a decade.

A .278 career average is respectable, but 133 career home runs for a right fielder who spent 81 games a season taking aim at Fenway's short "Pesky Pole" doesn't see like a lot. At his power zenith in 2003, he hit 28 taters.

And yet, here was Nixon, a rock of stability in Boston's lineup for years.

There must be something more to it. And then it hit me.

Nixon is a clubhouse guy. Wait, before you roll your eyes and go back to YouTube, hear me out.

I know the Indians have plenty of "clubhouse guys." In many cases, it's a euphemism for ".240 hitter who doesn't spend his nights snorting coke and banging hookers." I know you think it's just a byproduct of the tightwaddish Dolan regime. I know you'd rather have a combination of Rick James and Mike Tyson in baseball spikes if he hit .330, won the AL MVP and got the Indians to the World Series.

Shoot, all of that nearly happened with Albert Belle.

But think about it. Think of all the outfielders who have come and gone in Boston without an affect on Nixon's starting job. Manny Ramirez was shifted to left field because Nixon was a better defender.

Troy O'Leary is long-gone. Johnny Damon came, saw, conquered and left. Coco Crisp was acquired a year ago. The Red Sox paid a king's ransom for J.D. Drew this offseason.

In the end, it was injuries that forced Nixon out of the Red Sox lineup, and eventually out of Boston.

The Red Sox, a team with the cash to contend every year, kept Nixon around and starting alongside players that typically put up gaudy stats every year. He must bring something to the table beyond what he does between the foul lines.

This guy isn't Dellucci. He's not a journeyman who happened to win a championship by being in the right place at the right time. He held down right field at Fenway for nearly a decade. He was one of the rocks upon which the Red Sox's 2004 championship was built. A small rock, but a rock nonetheless.

Nixon could turn into Keith Hernandez and spend his Cleveland stint in the whirlpool more than the outfield. Or he could become a similar rock for team in desperate need of experienced leadership.

For one year and $3 million, why not take a chance? At least when Nixon flashes his World Series bling, we know there's something in the man to back it up.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Why C.C. is expendable

As Jarad Regano pointed out in his excellent column earlier this week, C.C. Sabathia might be putting some handwriting on the wall for the Indians to see.

The tone of his comments in a recent story in The Plain Dealer don't exactly cause Tribe fans to swell with confidence that the hefty lefty will still be sporting a Wahoo cap in 2009.

C.C. said he is "definitely excited" about the contracts that have been dished out to starting pitchers this winter. Mediocre pitchers Gil Meche and Ted Lilly have gotten five-year and four-year deals, respectively. The market-setting ace, Barry Zito, got seven years and $126 million from the Giants.

C.C. can be excused for having visions of a Zito-type contract in his future. I mean, if that's what the market is paying, who can blame him?

C.C. says he likes Cleveland, and would certainly like to stay, but it doesn't take a super sleuth to find clues that say he is anticipating playing for another team in two years.

Just like the fans, C.C. knows what the Indians generally pay out for contracts. He knows the comfort zone the Indians operate in, and knows that the type of money he'll be looking at after the 2008 season is far too rich for Larry Dolan's blood.

The Indians also know what type of cash C.C. will be looking at upon becoming a free agent. They aren't holding onto any delusions of their No. 1 starter accepting a 50 percent hometown discount. The Jim Thome negotiations taught them that the hard way.

The Indians also have the impending free agencies of Travis Hafner and Victor Martinez to worry about in the next three years.

With that in mind, the two sides might have already come to a kind of wink-nod understanding that C.C. will be employed elsewhere in two years. C.C.'s comments in the newspaper certainly do nothing to dissuade that line of thinking.

So the real question is, why not trade him, say next offseason?

The reason is simple: Keeping Hafner and Martinez is far more important than ponying up the cash for C.C.

Why? C.C., in a nutshell, has a better chance of being replaced than Pronk or Martinez.

Ever since the Larry Dolan-Mark Shapiro tandem has taken over the team, there has been a renewed emphasis on pitching. We are starting to notice the effects.

In much the same way the Tribe of the '90s had a glut of big bats in the upper tiers of the farm system, the Indians of the 2000s have arms waiting in the wings.

Jeremy Sowers and Fausto Carmona had their first taste of the big leagues last year. Power arm Adam Miller is just over the horizon. With proper nurturing and a bit of luck, those three could form the front of the rotation by 2008 or '09.

That's the sunny side of the coin. The flip side is kind of dark.

The Indians do not have a replacement for Hafner or Martinez anywhere on or over the horizon. Hafner can be a free agent at the same time as C.C., and Martinez can follow them a year later.

They are the two proven heart-of-the-order hitters the Indians have. Without them, the offense, already inconsistent, could come crashing down to the level of the Kansas City Royals at their worst.

Pronk is one of the 10 best all-around hitters in the game. He is vastly underpaid and deserves a huge raise. Of the trio I mentioned, he is by far the most important to keep. If Dolan is ever going to pick a time to break the bank, it should be when his people talk turkey with Hafner's people.

Martinez draws complaints about his arm. But don't let one aspect of his game cloud your overall view of him. His bat can go dormant for weeks at a time, but when he gets hot, he stays hot for half a season.

His catching skills aren't top-notch, but what he lacks in defensive prowess he makes up for in presence. Pitchers love working with him, and as he becomes a veteran, he will always be one of the most respected and sought-out guys in the clubhouse.

On several fronts, Martinez would be tough to replace.

C.C. has all the tools to be an ace, and sometimes he puts it all together for stretches. But he's never showed up on the Cy Young Award radar except at a distance, and he always seems to disappoint when you expect him to finally round the corner and become a true staff ace.

Somebody is going to drastically overpay for this guy, and given the talent that is waiting in the wings to work for a sliver of the price, I'd just as soon it not be the Indians.

The reality of the Dolan regime is that, even when times are good, you'll probably see them occasionally pawn off an established player for prospects to replenish the farm system, which is the organizational lifeblood. A C.C. deal would have the chance to become another Bartolo Colon trade, where the Indians manage to land two or three top prospects from a stocked organization.

That doesn't mean Shapiro should be trying to dump C.C. on the highest bidder, but if the right deal comes along, it's something he should consider.

C.C. is almost certainly gone in two years. You know it, I know it, the Indians know it and C.C. himself knows it. The better option would be to add some top prospects and use the leftover money to keep Pronk and Martinez swinging for the Jacobs Field fence.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

The streak

You think Cleveland sports teams can't keep a good thing going? Hogwash.

Every year at this time, the Indians put their most cherished streak on the line, every year we wonder if this is the year it's going to be broken, and every year they seem to come through at the 11th hour.

If that's not drama, I don't know what is.

You see, the Indians have not been forced to the salary arbitration table since 1991. If you don't know the last Indian to go to salary arbitration,* then you are not truly a fan. I mean, it's in the paper at least six times every January.

You might think that's a dumb record to be proud of. I'll tell you that in small-market baseball management circles, a string of 15 years without an unscheduled 300 percent bump in pay for one of your key players is akin to the Atlanta Braves' decade-and-a-half division title run. It is impressive.

Which is why we should all be waiting on pins and needles to see if the Indians can come to terms with Jason Davis.

Davis is the last of the Mohicans among the ranks of the unsigned Tribe players after Jason Michaels, Matt Miller and Rafael Betancourt all agreed to terms in the past few days. Davis is the annual last man standing, the man who can break the bank and drag the Indians to the negotiating table ahead of schedule.

If the streak ends at Davis, that blood is on his hands and he will officially be the most reviled Cleveland athlete since ... well ... the last athlete we decided we sorta-kinda didn't like. Jeff Garcia, maybe?

So for the love of all that is good and decent, Jason, agree to terms. Don't jeopardize our marvelous streak. Next January, I want to be able to open the sports page and be reminded, yet again, that no Indian has gone to salary arbitration since 1991.

*Greg Swindell. Like you didn't know.

Update 1/18: Davis has signed a one-year deal. The streak lives!

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Maggette madness

Are the Cavaliers interested in acquiring high-scoring swingman Corey Maggette from the Clippers?

If you believe what has to say, the answer is yes.

The rumor, which has been repeated in several other media outlets, says Cavs GM Danny Ferry is interested in acquiring a starting-caliber insurance policy for the oft-injured Larry Hughes (which would be a smart move), and the Clippers are actively fielding offers for the 6'-6" swingman.

The Heat and Spurs are also reportedly interested in Maggette, so the Cavs would have some stiff competition if they were to make a serious overture. But the idea of acquiring Maggette, provided the price isn't too steep, is an intriguing one, especially considering the landscape of the Central Division.

The Pistons just fired the first warning shot over the bows of the Cavs and Bulls by signing Chris Webber for the remainder of the season. Webber is only a fraction of the player he once was, but deteriorating knees aside, he still averaged 20 points and 10 rebounds for the 76ers a season ago and is one of the best low-post passers in the game. His arrival will only strengthen what is already a deep Pistons team.

The Bulls are armed with tradeable pieces and cap space. Most basketball pundits would rate them as "Most likely to make a major splash before the trade deadline." Does that mean Kevin Garnett? Probably not, especially as the Timberwolves have climbed back into the West playoff race. But the potential is still there.

That leaves the Cavs, who have neither the maneuverability of the Bulls nor the street cred to land a title-searching veteran free agent like the Pistons just did.

That means, if Ferry wants to land someone like Maggette, he's going to have to be creative.

HoopsWorld's article notes that the Clippers want a solid veteran player, a young player with upside and a future first-round pick for Maggette.

Ferry would be wise not to mess too much with Mike Brown's rotation. For the first time since he became coach, the Cavs appear to be settling into a comfort zone with each other and with the playbook. That means, no matter how much some fans might dislike their games, Ferry had better think twice before dealing Donyell Marshall, Damon Jones or Eric Snow, at least during the season. Larry Hughes and Zydrunas Ilgauskas, two other favorite fan targets, are likely making too much money for the Clippers to seriously consider taking in return.

That leaves Drew Gooden, Anderson Varejao, two rookies and the end-of-the-bench guys.

We can assume that, at this point, Varejao is important enough to the team that it would take a lot to convince Ferry to trade him. Probably more than the prospect of landing Maggette.

Gooden's contract is very team-friendly, but he has been playing well of late and trading him might also fall under the heading of "don't mess with Brown's rotation." But if the Clippers were to ask for a major piece in return, Gooden is the most likely candidate.

If Ferry can't bring himself to part with Gooden, then he'll have to MacGyver a trade package together out of small contracts and draft picks. David Wesley and Sasha Pavlovic are the names to watch for, says. I personally find it hard to believe that the Clippers would part ways with their best wing player for a has-been in Wesley and a career underachiever in Pavlovic. But acquiring a couple of short-term deals would give the Clippers some more flexibility down the road as youngsters like Shaun Livingston inch toward free agency.

But there is a caveat in all of this, even if the Cavs and Clips can bridge the gap: The Cavs have bit of a history in getting hosed by the Clippers in trades. Ron Harper for Ferry is the obvious one. Twelve years later came the unimpressive Andre Miller-for-Darius Miles swap.

But if the Pistons and Bulls continue to move their chess pieces, Ferry might be forced to do something. The Cavs currently own the best record in the East. If they want to keep it, Ferry is going to have to be every bit as shrewd as counterparts Joe Dumars and John Paxson.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Show a fan a sunny day....

As sports fans, I think we're all delusional to some point. Emotion always seems to cloud our judgment.

After pulling off that blockbuster trade, your team can do no wrong. After disappointing you, your team can do no right. The truth probably lies somewhere in between, but compromise makes for lousy debating.

Here is my midwinter musing: If you went around the country, and showed the sports fans of various cities a sunny day, how would they interpret it? I think I have a pretty good idea.

Show a New York fan a sunny day, and he'll say, "That's because God is a Yankees fan."

Show a Boston fan a sunny day, and he'll say, "That's because George Steinbrenner is going to hell for buying the Yankees."

Show a Los Angeles fan a sunny day, and he'll probably worship it as part of the Scientological, neo-Kabbalist, Wicca-practicing Sun God Ra cult he recently founded in hopes of becoming a B-level celebrity.

Show a Pittsburgh fan a sunny day, and he'll wonder why the moon is so bright tonight.

Show a Seattle fan a sunny day, and he'll say "What is that extremely bright round thing in the sky? I've never seen it before! Is the world ending?"

Show a Buffalo fan a sunny day, and he'll see it ... as soon as he digs out of the 24-foot snow drift encasing his house. He'll likely blame the snowstorm on Scott Norwood, then recant out of guilt.

Show a San Francisco fan a sunny day, and he'll pop pills until the Sun becomes purple and starts conversing with him in Mandarin Chinese.

Show a Philadelphia fan a sunny day, and he'll say," "Too bad it's storming out."

Show a Cleveland fan a sunny day, and he'll say, "Too bad a tornado is coming and we're all going to die."

Show a Cincinnati fan a sunny day, and he'll take it as a sign that Pete Rose should be in the hall of fame.

Show a Detroit fan a sunny day, and he'll think it's residual glow from the 40,000 smoldering cigarette butts in Jim Leyland's ash tray as he tries to smoke away memories of the World Series.

Show a Miami fan a sunny day, and he'll pray that it's 30 degrees and snowing back home where his family lives.

Show an Atlanta fan a sunny day, and he'll be moved to tears because he knows it's Richard Petty smiling from beyond the grave. Then, he'll realize Richard Petty isn't dead. It's easy to get your dead NASCAR drivers mixed up with your live ones.

Show a Chicago fan a sunny day, and he'll say "That's Ditka ascending to sitteth at the right hand of the Father. Or Jay Mariotti exploding. Either one."

Show a Democrat D.C. fan a sunny day, and he'll say "That's because my boys in the solar energy lobby greased the palms of the cloud makers, who are ancient Tiki gods that control the clouds with magical hemp wands. Or that's what my professor at Berkeley told me. Oh, and go Redskins, or something."

Show a Republican D.C. fan a sunny day, and he'll say, in a menacing tone of voice not unlike The Brain from "Pinky and The Brain":
"Once our vast, powerful oil lobby has purchased the Sun and put it out of business, everyone will have to come to us for their energy needs. We'll suck every drop of oil out of the Earth! It will look like a giant prune when viewed from outer space! And I will be filthy, stinking rich! Then, maybe, I can finally give these damn Redskins PSLs away without bankrupting myself.

Show a Dallas fan a sunny day, and he'll say, "I already own the Sun. Bought it last month. And it looks like the city of Washington D.C. is behind on it's first solar energy payment. So unless you want your mosquito-infested swamp of a city shrouded in perpetual darkness, I suggest you pay up!"

Thursday, January 11, 2007

The Drive: 20 years later

Not that you wanted or needed any reminding, but Thursday was the 20th anniversary of a landmark moment for a man and a city.

The moment was good for the man, and helped contribute to a self-loathing complex that the city is mired in to this day.

The man was John Elway. The city, if you hadn't already guessed it by the "self-loathing" reference, was Cleveland.

It was January 11, 1987 and the Browns were on the cusp of the Super Bowl for the first time in nearly 20 years. They had a star-studded offense led by a thinking man's quarterback, Bernie Kosar.

The Broncos hadn't been to a Super Bowl since getting thrashed by the Dallas Cowboys 10 years beforehand. They had a no-name offense, save for Elway, who was a man ahead of his time.

In much the same way that Cal Ripken Jr. was a tall, hard-hitting shortstop an era too early, Elway was an athletic, scrambling, rocket-armed quarterback about a decade before Steve Young and Mark Brunell made that type of quarterback the prototype.

The thing is, before that AFC Championship Game, most people would have taken Kosar's brains over Elway's athleticism. The QB position is where football's chess match occurs, and you need a guy with a quick mind before you need quick legs.

Or so the popular theory went. But Elway was about to blow that out of the water.

Elway might not have had Kosar's ability to dissect a defense on the fly, at least at that point. But he had one thing Kosar didn't: He had a competitive streak that bordered on vicious.

Michael Jordan had it. Pete Rose had it. That desire to be the one who delivers the dagger shot. The ability to be utterly ruthless with the game on the line. The type of competitor who could get just as much satisfaction from 80,000 stunned-silent fans of the opposition as he could from 80,000 home fans cheering at the top of their lungs.

Within the span of 30 months, both Jordan and Elway had their coming-out parties by slaying a Cleveland team at home in the playoffs.

I won't go through the gory blow-by-blow of what has come to be known as "The Drive," as has been done ad nauseum over the years, but suffice it to say that Elway reached another level of consciousness for those four minutes. He ran faster, he thought faster, he threw harder.

Marty Schottenheimer gets a lot of flack for his "prevent" defense during Elway's drive, but Elway was so determined to win and so elusive on foot, it might not have mattered if the Browns had rushed seven guys at him. Elway's vast physical gifts were carrying him.

When Rich Karlis' field goal knuckled just inside the upright in overtime, a watershed moment had been secured. Elway was going to be a pillar of the NFL for years to come, and Cleveland was on the road to seeing itself as Heartbreak City, U.S.A.

The Browns dug their heels in long enough to be eliminated by the Broncos again in two of the next three years, but that game really represents a high-water mark the franchise has not been able to reach since.

Elway, as we know, went on to win a pair of Super Bowls and have his path to Canton lined with rose petals. He retired after knocking off the Falcons in Super Bowl XXXIII, one of the few players to leave a champion, and not look back.

Those days are long gone. The Browns and Broncos are now like ships passing in the night. Once in a while, the perennial playoff-contending Broncos will show up and smack the undertalented Browns around for four quarters, but the simmering hatred is no longer there. The rivalry didn't die when Elway left, it died when the Browns left.

But the impact of that game still lingers. Somehow, a stadium and franchise later, the emotional scar from that game still lingers in Cleveland, heavier than Earnest Byner's fumble, heavier than Jordan's shot, heavier than even Jose Mesa's blown save in Game 7, which is the only one of the above that directly cost Cleveland a championship.

In the cluttered closet of Cleveland sports memories, it's The Drive that hurts the most. You remember your first heartbreak like you remember your first love. It never really goes away.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Exploited to perfection

We never saw it coming. Not like this.

Sure, Florida could win. It's not like, in our legendary Northeast Ohio paranoia, that we never entertained the thought of something going horribly wrong and Florida snatching the national championship away.

It's just that we prepared ourselves for something like a Tony Romo botched hold on a game-deciding field goal attempt. We conditioned ourselves for Antonio Pittman to play the role of Earnest Byner on third-and-goal in the fourth quarter.

Forty-one to 14, we couldn't have seen coming. Ted Ginn Jr. getting injured by friendly fire in a touchdown celebration, we couldn't have predicted. The crystal ball didn't show Troy Smith looking like Charlie Frye, overmatched and running scared.

And no clairvoyant could have sensed that Jim Tressel would look like a high school JV coach pitted against Urban Meyer.

Maybe we should have.

With the Buckeye necklaces stuffed back into sock drawers for the winter and the last notes of "Hang On Sloopy" fading from the air, it's time for some 20/20 hindsight.

This 2006 Ohio State team was very good. Perhaps, as some have asserted, the best in school history, which is saying a mouthful. But perhaps they weren't as perfect as we wanted to believe.

This was not an all-time great college football team all along. A lot of what they accomplished, they accomplished with timing first and talent second.

This was a team fortunate enough to not have to face Vince Young when they played Texas. This was a team that cut a wide swath through the Big Ten when the conference was in a down period.

They clobbered Minnesota and Northwestern, but let Illinois scare them and let Penn State hang close until late.

Much like the 2002 Buckeyes, the '06 edition relied on the Houdini qualities of its quarterback and big, talented receivers to create big plays that frequently eliminated the need for long, clock-controlling drives. But the '02 Buckeye offense was backed by a dominant defense that carried the team.

The '06 Buckeye offense, perhaps more talented than their '02 counterparts, had no such luxury.

Say what you will about the stats, about the Buckeyes having one of the stingiest defenses in the nation this year, but the defense wasn't really challenged by a BCS bowl-caliber offense until they faced Michigan. Then, they were exposed.

Michigan proved that a good offense can score against the Buckeye defense. Even though Michigan was well-aided by turnovers in scoring 39 points, Florida coach Urban Meyer probably locked in on footage of the Michigan game when preparing for Ohio State. Whatever he saw, and whatever he taught his team, it worked better than anybody's wildest dreams.

In their last two games of the season, the Ohio State defense surrendered 80 points. Those particular numbers don't lie. When Ohio State's defense was truly challenged, they were exposed as not being national title-worthy.

But if the roster had its shortcomings, it still doesn't explain the egg laid by Tressel, a coach who has gotten deficient teams to play over their heads in the past.

Tressel looked as bad as he's ever looked as the Ohio State coach. Right now, Tressel is, by a sizeable distance, the second-best coach in college football. Meyer simply overmatched Ohio State's accomplished coach. Why that happened is a riddle that might never be solved.

Everything that Tressel normally excels at -- game preparation, mid-game adjustments, keeping his players calm and collected in the heat of battle -- he failed at miserably on Monday night.

Everybody has an off day on the job, and perhaps Tressel just had one at the worst possible time. With superior athleticism at key positions, Florida might have beaten Ohio State had Tressel been on his game. But the fact that Tressel wasn't on his game is the reason Florida won by 27 points.

We seemed to think, heading into the game, that Tressel and his team would have to be caught napping at the wheel to lose this game. ESPN's Lee Corso came right out and said as much. Well, Tressel was napping at the wheel. And Meyer was wide awake, with a faster, hungrier, and in some cases, a more talented team.

You saw the result. If I didn't know better, I'd say that Ohio State, from the coach down, didn't deserve to be the favorite heading into the game. They sure as heck didn't play like anybody's favorite.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Expect the unexpected

By now, Boise State's exploits in the Fiesta Bowl are the stuff of legend.

They rallied on a hook-and-ladder play. They won the game with a two-point conversion, down by a point in overtime. That call took a rare combination of icy resolve, intestinal fortitude and man organs the size of grapefruits.

Give Boise State coach Chris Petersen an "A" for boldness, but not for creativity. He probably saw that play before.

Urban Meyer, then the coach at Bowling Green, ran a similar do-or-die two-point conversion to beat Northwestern in 2001.

Meyer knew his team couldn't stack up talentwise with a Big Ten school, so he pulled out all the stops. In his two seasons at BG, it usually worked. Meyer had a habit of pulling out wins against ostensibly better teams from bigger schools. His BG resume also included wins over Kansas and Missouri.

It's not quite as severe as a MAC school against a BCS conference school, but Meyer knows his current team, the Florida Gators, are the underdog as they face Ohio State tonight for the national title.

A word to the wise, which I count Jim Tressel among: Expect the unexpected. Meyer knows his team can't go blow-for-blow with the powerful and well-balanced Buckeyes, so expect him to use smoke, mirrors and the element of surprise to try and gain the upper hand.

Meyer is quite simply the best offensive head coach in the land. His playbook, chock full of innovative formations, misdirections and other chicanery, would be enough to make a Browns fan weep.

Meyer will likely employ Muhammad Ali tactics tonight. If the Buckeyes come right at the Gators, slugging away, he'll probably instruct his team to rope-a-dope as much as possible, trying to withstand an early barrage of energy from the fired-up Buckeyes. Then, if he can keep the score close and tire the Buckeye defense out, he'll use his team's speed and a few dips into the bag of tricks to try and eke out the win.

If Tressel is wise, he'll instruct his team to leave something in the tank for the fourth quarter. It's the national championship, adrenaline will be flowing on both sides, but a team that is too fired up in the first quarter can be the team that is spent by the fourth quarter.

Meyer is the kind of coach who preys on your fatigue. He isn't trying to wear you out physically so much as mentally. That's when you let your guard down. That's when he can spring something on you.

You might think, in a moment of arrogance, that maybe Florida shouldn't be in Arizona tonight. Maybe USC or Michigan would have made for better competition. But even if you think Florida's roster isn't national title-caliber, their coach most certainly is. That matters more than you might want to believe.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Indians offseason midterms

In the world of professional sports, the season never really ends. The games stop for a while, but every general manager in sports will tell you it's a 12-month job.

With that in mind, it's time to pause and reflect on what the Indians have done so far this offseason. A Mark Mulder signing or a major trade is always a possibility, but for now, let's labor under the assumption that Mark Shapiro has made all the significant moves he's going to make this winter.

Does this team have a better shot at contending than the club that left the field at the start of October? Let the grades show the way...

Josh Barfield, 2B
Acquired: Trade with San Diego
I have yet to read or hear any media outlet (at least outside San Diego) that thinks the Indians got the worse end of this deal.

Once filtered through the black-death refracting lens of Cleveland sports, the Barfield acquisition is merely a bandage to cover the Indians' botched handling and subsequent giveaway of Brandon Phillips. But if Barfield has the talent of Phillips minus the head-case personality, one could make a case that Barfield is actually an upgrade because he'll be able to adapt better.

Regardless, this is a much more solid acquisition than even the Andy Marte deal of a year ago. Marte is very talented, but he was bought largely on spec, and it cost the Indians an effective two-hole hitter in Coco Crisp.

In the Barfield deal, the Indians gave up a hard-hitting but redundant player in Kevin Kouzmanoff to get a talented all-around player who already has had a full, productive year in the big leagues. His bat still needs work, but Barfield could play his way into the Indians' vaunted "core."
Grade: A

David Dellucci, OF
Acquired: Signed to a three-year deal
Strange as it sounds, I think Dellucci was signed to fill the Aaron Boone void.

The Indians love "clubhouse guys." They love guys who can get a clubhouse closer to that Utopian place where outfielders, infielders and pitchers come together, clasp hands and sing "Kum-bi-yah."

When it comes to the actual lineup, Dellucci is grout, squeezed in to fill cracks. Ostensibly, he'll platoon with Jason Michaels in left field, what has to be the least exciting position on the entire roster. He'll hit seventh, eighth, ninth, maybe second, maybe cleanup if he finds his way into Eric Wedge's heart like Casey Blake.

It wasn't a bad signing. It wasn't a great signing. Dellucci is what he is: Necessary. Useful. Versatile. Cheap.

Like I said, he's grout.
Grade: C

Roberto Hernandez, RHP
Acquired: Signed to a one-year deal.
You can guess the appeal of Hernandez, a old, leather-armed workhorse with closer's pedigree and volumes of knowledge to impart on the next generation of young firemen.

The danger in signing a 42-year-old pitcher entering his 17th big league season is that his wheels are going to fall off on your watch.

To Hernandez's credit, he has held off Father Time to this point. Last year, he split time between the Pirates and Mets, compiling a 3.11 ERA in 63 2/3 innings. His strikeouts outpaced his walks, 48 to 32.

But I still get uneasy with the idea of a 42-year-old pitcher being relied upon to help hold down the fort if a starter gets knocked out early. The Indians already have two bullpen guys who might have endurance issues in Joe Borowski and Keith Foulke. Compounding problems is the fact that Wedge's bullpen-management record is spotty at best.

All it's going to take is for one of these rusting pitchers to go down, and it could start a really bad chain reaction.
Grade: C-minus

Aaron Fultz, LHP
Acquired: Signed to a one-year deal.
Left-handed matchup relievers are the placekickers of baseball. They have one job, so they'd better be immaculate at it.

Fultz ... well, he's not too bad, but you most definitely won't be confusing him with Paul Assenmacher circa 1995, either.

The batting average-against, one of the time-tested barometers of matchup relievers, doesn't give a ringing endorsement to Fultz if he's applying for the job of getting Justin Morneau to pop up to shallow left with the bases loaded and one out in eighth.

Lefties hit a respectable .277 off Fultz last year. He actually struck out more righties than lefties, 35 to 27, largely because as a member of the Phillies, he faced almost twice as many righties than lefties.

The Indians might have signed Fultz with the idea that he'd be Scott Sauerbeck's replacement. He might actually be closer to a poor man's Arthur Rhodes.
Grade: C

Joe Borowski, RHP
Acquired: Signed to a one-year deal
Borowski has 80 career saves. All but 11 of them came in two seasons: 36 last year with the Marlins, and 33 in 2003 with the Cubs.

A career closer he is not, but what he will bring is a steadying influence and consistent, above-average pitching provided he is healthy. In other words, he's just what the doctor ordered for the ailing Tribe bullpen.

Of course, the rub is that he fell to the Indians because there are questions about his health. If not for a suspect MRI on his shoulder, he'd be a Phillie.

The positives of signing a pitcher the caliber of Borowski to a one-year deal outweigh the negatives under most any circumstances. But the Indians had better take care of him. Something tells me he's going to become the glue that holds this '07 bullpen together.
Grade: B

Keith Foulke, RHP
Acquired: Signed to a one-year deal
From 1999 to 2004, Foulke was an elite closer. The Athletics and Red Sox sought him out to be the man who nails the door shut in October games. He has a World Series ring from Boston because of that.

Then came 2005 and 2006, and suddenly, Foulke's body became downright creaky. Knee, back and arm problems all seemed to sideline him at once. His ERA soared, he lost his closer's job and became an afterthought.

His year in Cleveland will serve as an attempt to right his career. If he has the type of season the Indians need him to have, he'll be gone next winter.

I'd bet Foulke has no intention of making his Cleveland stint a long one. He made it clear he wanted to play out west to be closer to his family. But the Indians pursued him doggedly and have a good reputation for rehabbing pitchers.

Former Indians reclamation project, and now well-paid Cubs reliever Bob Howry reportedly recommended the Indians to Foulke.

Foulke will use the Indians, the Indians will use Foulke, everybody will get what they want. There is probably still a good closer rattling around inside Foulke's aging limbs, and here's a roll of the dice that says he rebounds and has a 30-save season for the Tribe.

Then he'll be gone, and the Indians will be back to square one again next winter. But for at least a year, the Indians will have a proven veteran closer with something to play for.
Grade: B-plus