Saturday, April 26, 2008

Sweet redemption

It's still early, and baseball careers normally aren't defined over the span of one month, so it's easy -- prudent, even -- to take Cliff Lee's fast start with a wait-and-see grain of salt. After all, we've seen it in baseball more times than we can count: Today's headliner is tomorrow's forgotten footnote.

But even if you're still cooling your heels and not joining a "Cliff for Cy Young" campaign just yet, you should still take special notice of Lee's 2008 start.

Why? He's been good through his first four starts. Very good. Historically good. And with his April performance he is casting away the demons that haunted him in 2007, a season that might have had him questioning his place with the Indians, maybe even his place in the game.

First things first. Let's establish just how far Lee has come from the doldrums of last year. In his first four starts, he has compiled a 4-0 record and 0.28 ERA. He's surrendered 11 hits and two runs all year. Only one of those runs was earned, hence the ERA that fits neatly onto a microscope slide.

Batters might as well be coming to the plate with toothpicks slung over their shoulders when Lee is on the mound, because those big sticks of lumber they usually carry aren't doing them any good. Contact hitters, power hitters, it doesn't matter. They've combined to amass a .109 average off Lee so far.

Hitters' approaches haven't mattered either. Swing aggressively? Lee has 29 strikeouts. Stay patient? He's only walked two batters all year.

The last pitcher to be so dominant over his first four starts was Roger Clemens, who posted an identical 4-0 record and 0.28 ERA in 1991. Clemens ultimately ended up with an 18-10 record and 2.62 ERA, and cruised to the Cy Young Award with 119 voting points and 21 first-place votes.

Time will tell what is in store for Lee during the remainder of the '08 season. There will be time for analyzing that later. Because this fantastic April that Lee has authored isn't really about his stat line or where this month will stand among the greatest pitching months in baseball history.

It's about the redemption of a man who, less than a year ago, didn't even belong on the Tribe's big league roster.

Last year, Lee was shelved with an abdominal strain in spring training. The injury took several months to heal properly, and when he returned to the rotation in May, he was firmly out of sync. The problems snowballed from there.

With control and command that had already been compromised by injury and lack of practice, Lee's historical penchant for giving up hits and runs in bunches seemed to become a monster he couldn't control. He made mistake after mistake over the plate, and hitters knocked the stuffing out of whatever came from his left hand. He was on pace to set career highs for hits and runs allowed if the plug hadn't been mercifully pulled on his spot in the rotation after 16 starts.

But the damage had been done by season's end: A 5-8 record with a 6.29 ERA, and Lee's pitching reputation in shambles. Making matters worse, his temper got him into trouble at least twice.

In May, he engaged in an altercation with Victor Martinez following a start in Texas. Lee beaned Sammy Sosa on the night when the Rangers were celebrating Sosa's 600th career home run. Martinez reportedly took exception to the beaning, and the confrontation led to a team meeting after the game.

After getting shelled by the Red Sox at the end of July, Lee was roundly booed by the Jacobs Field crowd upon being lifted from the game in the fifth inning. His frustration boiling over, he sarcastically tipped his cap to the crowd. The next day, he was sent down to Buffalo and wouldn't see the big leagues again until rosters were expanded in September.

With the emergence of Fausto Carmona and, to a lesser extent, Aaron Laffey, many fans thought Lee was expendable this past winter. Message boards across the Internet were alive with trade scenarios that could have sent Lee packing to any one of a number of destinations across the country. The overarching theme: We don't want a pitcher who stinks up the joint, then gets mad when we boo him. Send him to the National League, where he can face eight-man batting orders.

But in an offseason during which the Indians infamously did next to nothing to improve the team from the outside, Lee was among the non-moves.

Mark Shapiro and his brain trust, almost to a fault, don't want to trade away pitching. It's maddening at times, especially when you know a pitcher might be able to buy Shapiro the power-hitting corner outfielder his team so desperately needs. But, like it or not, there is more than just a little wisdom in that approach.

When confronted on the subject of why he hangs onto pitchers, even at the expense of improving the offense, Shapiro has two case studies he can point to now. In Carmona and Lee, he has two prime examples of patience paying off.

Perhaps Shapiro was lucky in both instances. Or perhaps he knows that in this world of baseball, redemption is just a year, or a week, or even a start away.

Cliff Lee knows that for sure.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

An identity crisis

When the playoffs start in the NBA, the action invariably becomes more intense. Players foul harder, tempers flare, shoving matches sometimes result.

Occasionally, someone will cross the line and earn himself a technical foul. On rare occasions, someone might even jump way over the line and get slapped with that scarlet letter of NBA discipline, the flagrant foul (I'm looking at you, Rasheed Wallace).

Most of the time, it's an accepted part of the high-stakes dance of the playoffs. Players aren't setting out to maul their opponents; they just want to win and get to June.

Then there's the Washington Wizards, the team the Cavaliers have had both the fortune and misfortune to meet in the first round for the third straight year.

At their best, the Wizards are the Eastern Conference poor man's version of the Phoenix Suns. They are fronted by three capable scorers in Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison. Those three are surrounded by a battalion of serviceable role players like Brendan Haywood, Antonio Daniels, Andray Blatche and the man everyone in Cleveland knows and loves, DeShawn Stevenson. Running the show is a highly-underrated coach in Eddie Jordan.

The Wizards have been a playoff participant for four straight years, largely on the shooting, penetrating and rebounding of their big three. They win with offense primarily. Defense isn't a completely foreign concept to them, but it would be fair to say 80-75 is not their ideal final score.

They've had decent success playing that way for almost half a decade, probably about as much success as you could expect from a team that has a good-but-not-great roster and lacks a true superstar to offset that fact as the Cavs do. Which makes the Wizards' sudden shift to Rick Mahorn disciples rather confusing.

Maybe it's the pressure rendered by the prospect of losing to the same team in the first round three years in a row. Maybe someone pulled Jordan aside and made him believe that the toughest, most defense-minded teams usually advance in the playoffs. Maybe they're desperate. Maybe they're flaky. But whatever is happening, the Wizards are drilling holes in the hull of their already-sinking ship with this messy attempt at physically intimidating the Cavs -- and, of course, LeBron in particular -- into submission.

The Wizards don't have the personnel or the practice to play that type of ball, and it shows. Strange as it might sound, there is an art form to inflicting pain but doing it in a clean enough fashion that you don't get players ejected or start a melee under the basket. You can send a message and still make it look like you're going for the ball.

Maybe the Wizards tried that early in Game 1 and decided it wouldn't work to stop all 6'-9" and 260 pounds of LBJ. They're probably right. So instead of going back to the binge scoring they execute so well, they decided to kick the dirty play up a notch in Game 2.

An aggressive shove to the back from Arenas to Wally Szczerbiak when Sczcerbiak was attempting to back the smaller Arenas down in the post. Haywood's Hack-a-Bron tactics that culminated with his overzealous shove of LeBron in the third quarter and subsequent ejection.

Before we paint the Cavs as helpless victims, they did their part, too. Anderson Varejao was whistled for a flagrant foul for using his arm as a club in the first half. Ben Wallace was guilty of a karate chop in the first half that netted him a good, old-fashioned personal foul. So pain was being administered on both sides.

But what the Wizards are doing seems to go deep, and some might say too far. Their thug tactics are aimed at inflicting pain, and quite possibly injury, on LeBron, the man for whom they have no answer.

It's the kind of play you fear when you play tough-guy teams like the Pistons. But Detroit at least knows how to play aggressive defense and commit hard fouls within the rules of the game. Telling the Wizards to play that way is like telling a 16-year-old with a newly-minted driver's license to speed down a crowded freeway at rush hour and not wreck 20 cars in the process.

The 16-year-old probably thinks he can do it. As an experienced driver, you know better.

So for at least two more games, we have to entrust the safety of our superstar to three referees, a handful of teammates and, if it gets that far, the NBA Commissioner's Office. Meanwhile, the Wizards will probably continue to live in a fantasy world where they can use their massive girth and sharp elbows to dissuade LeBron and his teammates from venturing into the paint. And if that doesn't work, hey, there's always upending LeBron in midair and hoping he lands squarely on his head.

The Cavs are halfway done with disposing of this apparently-delusional team. Here's hoping they win the next two and end this series as quickly as possible, before something really bad happens.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Five questions for the Cavs

After 82 regular-season games, what we know about the 2007-08 Cleveland Cavaliers is ... not much more than what we knew in November.

Give LeBron and Co. credit for this much: They've succeeded in maintaining an aura of mystery for more than six months. Everything you thought you knew about this team at the outset of the season has pretty much been turned upside down.

In November, the Cavs were a gritty team enduring the contract holdout of Anderson Varejao. They didn't have overwhelming talent across the board, but they had guys who could hold down the fort, keep games close with defense and give LeBron a chance to play hero in the fourth quarter. Which, in his best season yet, LeBron played very well.

But contract holdouts gave way to injuries. LeBron's finger. Sasha Pavlovic's foot. Andy's ankle. Then, possibly under pressure from both inside and outside the organization, Danny Ferry shook the roster like a giant snow globe at the February trade deadline. Larry Hughes and Drew Gooden out along with four others; Ben Wallace, Wally Szczerbiak, Delonte West and Joe Smith in.

The injuries kept coming: Daniel Gibson's ankle, Zydrunas Ilgauskas' back, Wallace's back, LeBron's back, Sasha's foot again. The net result is a team that never clicked, never found their stride like you would expect from a defending conference champion. The defense-first philosophy is out the window, largely because Mike Brown has been so busy attempting to acclimate his new players to his system (which isn't known for being easy to grasp, mind you) that he can't hammer away on defensive principles in practice the way he'd probably like.

The offense, so dependent on LeBron, fizzled as LeBron battled a back injury for most of the past month. Szczerbiak and West have shown flashes of the offensive firepower they are capable of bringing to the table, but nothing consistent enough to make fans stop fretting.

So, as we stand on the cusp of another playoff run, who are the Cleveland Cavaliers? Here are five questions that need to be answered:

1. Can LeBron continue to carry this team on offense?

It would seem foolish to bet against arguably the greatest player on the planet. But it would also be foolish to assume LeBron can continue to fight through the wear and tear of the postseason with no negative affects.

LeBron seemed to tail off toward the end of the season. Part of it was due to his back, which he says has healed. But it just didn't look like he had that great freight-train explosiveness that makes him so dangerous when he gets a path to the rim. He's also seen a rise in turnovers, many of them unforced. Maybe it can be blamed on a lack of familiarity with his new teammates, but it's also not outlandish to think that even The King could suffer from a bout of mental fatigue.

All this, and he still has to fly to China and play in the Olympics this summer.

2. Can the bigs provide the advantage they did in last year's playoffs?

The Cavs got to the NBA Finals last spring with more than a little help from their big men. The trio of Z, Gooden and Andy provided the undermanned Wizards and undersized Nets with matchup problems galore, and helped make life a little more difficult for the Pistons, too.

No surprise, then, that the Cavs made a habit of dominating the boards at both ends of the floor, taking the opposition out of their offensive rhythm and providing the Cavs with plenty of second-shot chances. The play of their bigs was right up there with the play of LeBron and Gibson as the most important reasons the Cavs shocked the world with their first conference title.

This year, it's a whole new ballgame.

To look at the roster, you'd think the Cavs would have a great depth advantage in the frontcourt with Wallace and Smith accompanying Z and Andy. Wallace is a rugged rebounder who can step out and guard smaller players. Smith is a decent rebounder in his own right, and we already know what Z and Andy can do.

But the carousel of injuries has placed a damper on what should be a major team strength. Wallace is always one tweak away from another back flare up, Z is going down that road as well, and Andy simply hasn't been the same energy guy, at least consistently, since his January ankle sprain.

In short, we don't know what each of these guys are going to be able to give the Cavs in the playoffs, or for how long. A limping, aching frontcourt is going to drag this team down in a big way.

3. Will the real starting shooting guard please stand up?

Even before Pavlovic went down with his latest foot sprain, the shooting guard situation for the Cavs was less than desirable.

Pavs was the best choice to start because he could do the most at both ends of the floor. He is the best athlete and tallest defender of the off-guard bunch. With Pavs out of commission for at least one series, the starter's job likely falls to Devin Brown, who has performed admirably down the stretch of the season. But he's probably not a guy you want to pencil in for 40 minutes a night, which means the bench bunch of Szczerbiak, Gibson and Damon Jones becomes all the more important.

The Cavs have to get good play out of at least a couple of those guys. Unfortunately, Mike Brown will probably find himself in a situation where he has to substitute on a situational basis in an attempt to mask the shortcomings of his grab bag of two-guards. Already, we know Jones, Gibson and Szczerbiak basically bring nothing in the way of defense. Heading into a series in which stopping Caron Butler and Gilbert Arenas will be Jobs 1 and 1a, that's not exactly comforting to know.

Ferry had better put the shooting guard spot near the top of his to-do list for the summer. The Bucks and Grizzlies, rebuilding teams that currently employ Michael Redd and Mike Miller, should be on Ferry's speed dial.

4. Can Delonte West play the point at a playoff level?

West has been in the league for a few years now, but never on a team expected to make waves in the playoffs. Now, he needs to mature in a hurry from youngster with potential to legitimate starting point guard on a veteran playoff team.

Time will tell how long the Cavs last in this year's playoffs, but if West sticks around here long enough, he'll likely find himself squaring off against the likes of Chauncey Billups, Gilbert Arenas or Mike Bibby in a high-stakes playoff series on more than one occasion.

West is already the closest thing the Cavs have had to a true point guard playing alongside LeBron. But pushing the ball against the Charlotte Bobcats in a March regular season game is light years away from tangling with Billups or Arenas with your season on the line.

The upcoming playoff series will be a baptism by fire for West. We'll soon know a lot more about whether he's a player worth building around.

5. Is Mike Brown part of the problem or part of the solution?

Fans have been passionately divided over whether Brown's coaching helps or hurts the Cavs. When fan punching bags Hughes, Gooden and Donyell Marshall were shipped out of town and the Cavs still didn't streak to the top of the standings, Brown became the new lightning rod for the fans' ire.

There is value in both arguments. On the good side, Brown did show that a team can play over its head if it knows how to play defense. The Cavs were not an elite team last year, but they played elite-level defense down the stretch and in the postseason, and it was one of the biggest factors in getting the team to the NBA Finals.

It will take time, but I have confidence that Brown will eventually get the current Cavs squad to play defense at a high level, and it will help them win games.

The offense is another issue. No matter what Brown does, the Cavs never seem to find an offensive scheme that works. Maybe it isn't all his fault, as keeping players from falling into a "stand around and watch LeBron" trance seems to be a full-time job in and of itself. But you have to wonder why a team that has a superlative offensive talent like LeBron can look so predictable, vanilla and ultimately ineffective at the offensive end sometimes.

Don't expect him to change anytime soon. Brown was, for lack of a better term, "scared" back to his defensive principles when the Cavs broke camp last fall and promptly became one of the worst defensive teams in the league. Brown immediately blamed himself for the grievous sin of eschewing defense during camp in favor of teaching offense. Bet he won't do that again.

But even with all of that offensive baggage in tow, if defense wins championships, it's hard to vote against a guy who thoroughly understands that.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Borowski burnout

It will happen. Somehow, some way, Joe Borowski will eat through the notorious resolve of the Indians' brass.

Like caustic acid, Joe Bo will slowly destroy the stick-to-your-guns, stay-the-course philosophy of Eric Wedge and Mark Shapiro that says you should never rush to any conclusions, be patient to a fault and let things play out over months, not days or weeks.

Forty games is supposed to be the magic number, we're all told. You can't make a judgment on any player, any team, until you've passed that milestone game sometime in May.

Well, we're less than 20 games into the 2008 season, and here's what I see: I see a Major League team that is trotting out a pitcher who is throwing arrow-straight, 82-mph fastballs and calling him their closer. Moreover, this is a team with World Series aspirations.

I'm not really peeved at Borowski so much as I'm peeved at Shapiro and his roundtable of eggheads who agreed that picking up his option over the winter was a good idea. And, no, this isn't a case of hindsight being 20/20. The Ivy League-educated brains who run this shop saw the same stat line, the same ghastly peripheral stats and the same 5-plus ERA we all saw out of Borowski a year ago. They saw the same pitcher ducking and dodging his way to 45 saves that we all did.

There is cost-effective. And then there is common sense. Common sense should have told any decision-maker with an office high atop Progressive Field that maybe, just maybe, Joe Bo caught lightning in a bottle last year and maybe, just maybe, it was asking too much of him to re-create his '07 success, which netted him an American League saves title, but was otherwise tentative at best.

As far as option-year pickups, the Tribe already has Titanic-caliber and Lusitania-caliber disasters to their credit with Borowski and Aaron Fultz, who was so bad he didn't make it out of spring training with the club.

But Fultz was at least just the second lefty in the bullpen. Borowski is charged with making sure that leads become wins. In two of four save situations so far this year, he has -- in spectacular, homer-surrendering fashion -- failed to do so.

I'm going to venture to say this isn't a slump. Borowski is less than three weeks from his 37th birthday. He arrived on the Tribe's doorstep after the '06 season with a unhealthy right shoulder that caused the Phillies to renege on what would have been a multiyear contract offer. Chances are, the Indians squeezed the last juice out of Borowski's arm last season.

Unfortunately, the Indians, ever cost-conscious and not wanting to interrupt the apparent chemistry that made one of baseball's best bullpens in '07, overplayed their hand and decided to gamble on Borowski for one more year.

Maybe the Tribe's big thinkers can be forgiven for not anticipating Borowski's arm going bad as quickly as it has. Maybe no one could have foretold Borowski coming to spring training with a lifeless fastball parked in the low 80s on the radar gun. But any baseball executive worth his reputation should be able to look into the future and see the day when his aging closer with a bad shoulder is going to hit the wall.

So far, it looks like the Tribe's leaders didn't. Or if they did, they did their best to ignore it and think happy thoughts. That worked in Peter Pan, but it surely won't in the American League pennant race.

As long as the Indians continue to trot Borowski out there with his overmatched batting-practice fastball to continue to blow saves, it's a poor reflection first and foremost on the Indians, not Borowski. His stat line has been dropping plenty of hints over the past year that the end of his productive playing days might be near.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Pressure point

Ever since C.C. Sabathia arrived in Cleveland eight years ago, his ability to handle pressure has always been red-flagged.

It's not that C.C. has a weak stomach or lives in fear of being the guy in the spotlight's glow, it's that how he deals with acute pressure seems to be, at times, self-destructive.

All throughout his professional career, and probably his entire life, C.C. has struggled to keep his emotions in check. Some professional athletes' competitive nature lead them to keep a cool, collected demeanor under pressure. In Cleveland, you'd probably immediately think of John Elway surgically removing the Browns from Super Bowl XXI with an assassin's calm. Some athletes get goal-focused tunnelvision, like Michael Jordan with his long list of game-winning shots.

Then there's C.C., who too often falls victim to his own frustration when adversity rears its head in a pressure situation. His performance in last year's playoff run is only the highest-profile example in a career that has been plagued with streaky performance.

When C.C. becomes frustrated, it immediately becomes evident on the mound. The methodical approach to pitching that he finally mastered in last year's Cy Young Award-winning season goes out the window. He either becomes a thrower, attempting to gas every hitter with 97-mph heat, or he becomes a 300-pound Charles Nagy disciple, nibbling at the corners with off-speed stuff. Neither approach works very well.

Unfortunately, an offseason's worth of separation from last October's failure hasn't helped C.C. very much. His first three 2008 starts have been miserable. The offense bailed him out on opening day, but two starts against the Athletics -- one of which was in Oakland, near his hometown of Vallejo, Calif. and a place where he perpetually struggles -- have earned him two losses and raised his ERA to 11.57, the worst of any Indians starter, including Paul Byrd (11.05).

Is it merely a hangover from his unforgettably forgettable postseason, or is there more to it than that?

Unless you're in C.C.'s inner sanctum, it's difficult to say what's really eating at him. But I don't think it has anything to do with facing Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz in the ALCS.

C.C. is facing pressure, yes. But this is a whole different kind of pressure. It's the pressure of a free-agent-to-be star pitcher who just watched Johan Santana get traded to the Mets and sign a contract extension worth nearly $140 million over the winter. It's the pressure to get that kind of deal for himself, his family and his agents. And the only way he's going to be worth Santana-type money is to go out and dominate like he did last year.

This is pressure, but it hits far closer to home than toeing the rubber in a playoff game. This is the chance to obtain an amount of money so vast that virtually everyone in his immediate and extended family would be free from financial want for generations to come.

When Santana signed his contract extension, you can bet it sent shockwaves through the C.C. camp. Suddenly everyone close to him had a barometer for how much he's going to be worth in free agency, and now he feels the need to live up to that barometer.

There are more factors at work here than just C.C.'s performance. If the Yankees are desperate enough for pitching this winter, they might still hand C.C. a record deal. But there is always that chance that his performance this season could mean a swing of tens of millions of dollars in the money he'll be offered.

Based on the terse, sarcastic answers C.C. offered for a story in The Plain Dealer on Sunday, his frustration is thinly-veiled. His answers to pointed questions about whether his contract situation is gnawing at him smacked of a man shaking off medical help after hurting himself:

"To put extra pressure on yourself [because of the next contract] makes no sense. This game is hard enough to play as it is. I've never been a guy to put that type of pressure on myself."

Sorry, C.C., I'm not buying it. Your career has provided too much evidence to the contrary when it comes to how you handle pressure. And I'll go so far as to say I'm sympathetic. I don't know what it's like to be the meal ticket for your entire family, close friends, and a nice, fat commission for your agents, so I'm not going to be the one to say that you need to suck it up and just play ball. It's almost certainly not that simple.

But I will say that it's kind of disheartening to know that the pressure you feel is not the pressure of winning a World Series for the Indians. It's the pressure to get out of Cleveland, out of the clutches of an organization that can't and won't offer you record money, and into the waiting arms of a well-endowed big-market club.

But if C.C. is feeling this kind of pressure before he even signs on the dotted line, I certainly won't envy him when and if he's in the center of the diamond at the Yankees' new stadium next opening day, wearing pinstripes, an eight-figure contract in tow and the eyes of the world on him.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Looking out for No. 1

Fausto Carmona is one of those guys you should want to root for. Anyone who has been mishandled, thrown to the wolves and emerged as one of the games rising young stars the way Carmona has deserves your backing.

And now, after agreeing to a contract extension Thursday that is worth up to $48 million and could keep him in a Tribe uniform through the 2014 season, you will have plenty of chances to back the budding ace of the Indians' staff.

Always tagged as a player to watch as he moved through the Indians' farm system, he made his big league debut in 2006 bouncing around among various roles before settling in as a setup man, one of the few bright spots of that '06 bullpen.

If Indians management had kept him in that role, who knows how his future might have panned out. But as we all know, the Indians, solidly out of contention that year, traded Bob Wickman to the Braves and decided to toss Carmona into the fire of ninth-inning save situations.

The result might have ruined a lesser pitcher. Two walk-off homers surrendered in the span of a week. One to Pudge Rodriguez in Detroit and one to David Ortiz under the bright lights of Fenway Park.

By the end of the season, Carmona's name was a 10-loss punch line. Fans of other teams giggled when mentioning Carmona's name in the presence of a Cleveland fan, usually accompanied by a snide remark like "Bet you just LOVE him, don't you?"

We've seen it before, this paralysis-by-overanalysis mishandling of a pitcher that seems to get the better of the Tribe's big brains every few years. Danys Baez bounced around between the rotation and the bullpen, eventually bouncing his way out of the organization. Jason Davis had other issues, namely command of his stuff, working against him, but the Tribe's waffling on his role probably didn't help him get his sea legs.

So you could be excused if you expected to see Carmona arrive for spring training 2007 as a bundle of knotted nerves in need of a psychologist more than a pitching coach.

But what transpired was a great show of perseverance from a young ballplayer. Carmona, reinstated as a starter, had to wait his turn, but when injuries to Cliff Lee and Jake Westbrook opened the door, Carmona rushed in and hasn't looked back.

Nineteen wins later, Carmona was fourth in the AL Cy Young Award voting and, along with C.C. Sabathia, formed the best 1-2 pitching punch in baseball.

Through two starts in 2008, Carmona has shrugged off concerns about his endurance after pitching 215 innings a year ago. He has been nothing short of dominant, far and away the best pitcher in the Tribe's rotation in the young season.

Armed with a mid-90s fastball, heavy sinker and developing off-speed stuff, there is reason to believe he'll only get better, granted the blessing of good health.

He's the right pitcher coming along at the right time for the Tribe. With the more-than-likely departure of C.C. to a deep-pocketed team this winter, Carmona will soon be thrust into the role of undisputed ace, Game 7 starter and stopper of losing streaks. It's a hefty load, but if Carmona's showing since last April is any indication, he'll be up to the challenge.

In a roundabout way, Carmona's disaster of a stay in the closer's role two years ago was a blessing in disguise. It gave birth to a new pitcher, one who is battle-tested, even-keeled and mature. Those are just the qualities a staff ace needs. And that's just what Carmona is becoming.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

The good and the bad

A week's worth of baseball is hardly enough time to develop a realistic view of a player's performance. But that's never stopped us before.

With the Indians treading water at or near the .500 mark, there is already plenty to discuss concerning the Tribe's bats and arms. Already, fans are developing some strong opinions about who is earning their keep, who should be shuffled onto the next bus to Buffalo, and who should be airlifted to Siberia.

In that spirit, let's take a look at some Indians who deserve gold stars one week into the season, and some who deserve a time out in the corner.

All this and brains, too

Fausto Carmona

He wasn't quite as dominant in Monday's outing against the Angels as he was in carving up the White Sox in the season's second game, but his sinker is working overtime, he's throwing strikes and he is setting the stage for one heck of a season. If he keeps it up for six months, he'll be a Cy Young favorite.

Grady Sizemore

With the stalled starts of Travis Hafner and Victor Martinez, Sizemore's .321 average and .406 on-base percentage through Monday wasn't getting a lot of ink. But he's the Tribe's best hitter who hasn't suffered a hamstring pull to date.

Victor Martinez

When Martinez pulled his hamstring, the offense went in the dumper. Martinez is, quite simply, the most important bat in the Tribe's lineup.

Ryan Garko

Here's hoping that Garko did enough weight training this offseason, because he's going to have to do a lot of heavy lifting in this lineup, especially if Hafner continues to plateau. So far, with a .304 average, four RBI and six walks drawn, he's been up to the challenge.

Rafael Perez

Too bad he's so dang valuable as a set-up man, because he'd be a dynamite closer. Through Monday, he had three strikeouts, two walks, a hold and no earned runs in four appearances. The two walks are the only real blemishes on his stat line so far.

It's a start...

Cliff Lee

One start is just that -- one start. But knowing how badly Lee struggled in 2007, to see him pitch 6 2/3 shutout innings in his first '08 start warms the heart. Now, let's see him do it all year.

Jake Westbrook

Six hits and two earned runs in his first start, covering 7 1/3 innings. I'll take it. If he can keep his obliques from ripping, he'll be fine.

Masa Kobayashi

Two appearances spanning 1 1/3 innings, four hits, but no walks and no runs entering play Tuesday. Already, he's better than Roberto Hernandez.

Craig Breslow

I'll admit, when the Indians picked this guy up, he scared me. He came from Boston with the reputation of being Ralph Macchio to Mitch Williams' Mr. Miagi in the School of Wild-Armed Lefties. But so far -- deep breath -- so good. Two innings of work through Monday, one hit surrendered, one strikeout, no walks. But keep in mind that Aaron Fultz started out well last year, too.

I'm not impressed, but I'll withhold judgment for now

C.C. Sabathia

Reigning Cy Young winners get the benefit of the doubt. But doesn't it seem like C.C. lives off the benefit of the doubt a lot? He throws really hard and shows flashes of brilliance, so when he struggles, it's largely viewed as a blip on the radar. But, even with last year's brilliant April-to-September performance, his postseason flameout reminded us all that C.C. has the stench of inconsistency on him, likely until the day he retires.

Paul Byrd

Bad karma alert. Any time you get caught up in baseball's steroid/HGH controversy, it's bad medicine. Byrd's first start left him with a 6.23 ERA. I'm not optimistic about his season.

Franklin Gutierrez

He still needs to prove he can hit righties. He still needs to prove he can hit for at least reasonable power. He brings the defense, but through a little over a week, .182 and one homer just ain't cutting it at the dish.

Rafael Betancourt

ERAs can be a misleading stat for relievers, but any way you slice it, three earned runs and nine hits in your first 3 1/3 innings of work isn't good. If Betancourt crashes back to Earth this year, the Tribe's bullpen is in deep trouble.

Travis Hafner

Nine strikeouts in his first 25 at-bats. Yeesh. He might recover to post solid numbers this year, but I'm beginning to wonder if the days of .300 and 40 homers from Pronk might be over.

Casey Blake

He's 34 and will turn 35 before the end of the season. He's never been an ultra-quick hitter, never really able to make the last-nanosecond adjustments to foul off a nasty pitch. As he inches up through his 30s, he'll only get slower at the plate. So far this year, he's been Eeyore.

Asdrubal Cabrera

No surprises here. Pitchers have adjusted, and now Cabrera must either adjust back, or adjust back to life in Buffalo.

Jhonny Peralta

He must be taking hitting tips from Hafner, because he's hacking away at the plate again. Of course, hacking and guess-hitting seem to become epidemics with this team at times.

The Hefty bag

Andy Marte

Please, please, please end this experiment. The sooner Mark Shapiro and Eric Wedge can come to grips with the fact that they whiffed when they made Marte the centerpiece of the Coco Crisp trade, the better off we'll all be. Stuffing him into the team cargo hold because he's out of options and playing him once a week is simply one last weak attempt to justify a non-factor of a trade.

Jason Michaels and David Dellucci

Playing Dellucci against lefties, Michaels against righties, Dellucci against righties, Michaels against lefties, Michaels during the day, Dellucci at night, Michaels on cloudy days, Dellucci on sunny days, NONE of it will make this a good platoon situation. No matter how hard Eric Wedge tries.

Joe Borowski

A bit harsh to place him on the scrap heap? Maybe. But the legendary general manager Branch Rickey once said that the key to being a successful GM is to get rid of players one year before you have to. I don't think Shapiro did that with Borowski, who already has a walk-off grand slam on the books.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Where have I been?

Here and there. Mostly there.

I returned to Cleveland yesterday after spending nine days either in the UK or travelling to and from. Along the way, I spent time in London and Edinburgh, Scotland, and negotiated three of the world's biggest and busiest airports in London Heathrow, John F. Kennedy in New York and Chicago O'Hare.

I'm exhausted, I'm jet-lagged and I've been out of touch with Cleveland sports for more than a week. I wanted to see the Indians' opener, but bars that feature baseball, let alone an Indians game, are rare in London.

But I've been reading what I can online, so here are some brief hits on some sports topics:


From 2-0 to 2-3. Is it time to push the panic button? No, but it's becoming apparent that the Tribe's offense is going to make or break the season. And when Victor Martinez can't play, as he hasn't due to a hamstring strain suffered on opening day, this offense just isn't going to make the cut most games.

As we know, the Indians' offense is dependent on steady production from several big bats. They can't mash one through nine like the Tigers or Yankees. If one of the Tribe's big boppers is out or mired in a long slump, it really hurts the offense. And Martinez's steady, clutch, switch-hitting presence just might be the most important component of the Tribe's lineup. Once Martinez returns, the offense with probably get its act together. Until then, we might be in for some pretty boring games.

I will be very interested in C.C. Sabathia's next outing. The star pitcher who is next in line to pig out at the money trough, C.C. has looked spectacularly lukewarm in his first two '08 outings. He needed a huge hit from Casey Blake to bail him out on opening day, and he struggled Saturday in Oakland, as he typically does for whatever reason. But so far, C.C. doesn't look like the reigning AL Cy Young Award winner and future holder of a $120 million-plus contract.

An overweight, slow-starting, playoff-crumbling, muscle-strain-prone pitcher with one great season to his credit. You sure you want to break the bank on this guy, Yankees? Just something to chew on.


I'm to the point where I'm about to put up the good ol' emotional defense mechanism with this team so I don't get disappointed when the Wizards finally get the best of them in the first round later this month.

The Cavs are staggering to the finish line, losers of five of their last seven, hampered by a rash of back spasms that has affected even LeBron James. Once one of the best fourth quarter teams in the league, the Cavs are now one of the worst. Dismal second halves doomed them against the lowly Bulls and high-flying Magic, which has taken the Cavs' place as the team most likely to break the Detroit-Boston death grip on the Eastern Conference.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: This is a transitional year. By tearing down the roster and rebuilding at the trade deadline, Danny Ferry made a statement that the old roster wasn't going to win a title, even though the old roster probably could have gotten back to the NBA Finals simply because, as Ben Cox put it on his blog, they were a flawed machine, but a well-oiled flawed machine.

Right now, the Cavs are experiencing the unfamiliarity and disarray that a rearranged team should ideally overcome in November and December. But the trade happened in February and injuries have been an ongoing theme since then, prolonging the problems.

Maybe next season, after having gone through a postseason, offseason and preseason together, the story will be different. It should be, especially if Ferry can add another major piece this summer. But for now, this team is playoff dog meat. They're beaten down and LeBron is running out of gas from another season of having to do virtually all of the heavy lifting with little help.

Maybe the Cavs can get their act together in time to squeak by Washington in the first round one more time. But it's no guarantee, and it won't be pretty if they do. And their reward for making it to the second round will be a beatdown at the hands of the Celtics.

Final Four

When my champion selection North Carolina went down on Saturday, my brackets were officially trashed. I'm actually looking forward to the Kansas-Memphis final, if only because everyone said Memphis couldn't make it this far. I also didn't hear a lot of votes of confidence in the Jayhawks, though they had to knock off spunky Davidson to get to San Antonio.

I'm rooting for Memphis because they've been to the doorstep of the Final Four the past two years only to get turned back. Now they're here, and everyone was so hung up on their inability to shoot free throws, they didn't give them a realistic chance to win it all.

The Tigers are a powerful team, and with North Carolina sent packing, they are the strongest squad left in the tournament. They've earned their battle stripes, and I think it would be very appropriate if Memphis is the team cutting down the nets on Monday night.