Saturday, June 28, 2008

Clarification on Koufos

In the column below, I stated that many Cavs fans in the "anti-Euro-stiff" camp would have been displeased if the Cavs had drafted Kosta Koufos.

Koufos, as was pointed out to me via e-mail, is a native of Canton and very much American. I knew this. Koufos, in reality, is neither European nor a stiff. But many Cavs fans were against the drafting of a player with Koufos' skill set -- which does lend itself to European-style basketball.

The term "Euro-stiff" was meant to convey the fans' reaction to Koufos' game, no matter if he is from the U.S., his heritage country of Greece (where he holds a dual citizenship and plays for the national team) or any other nation.

I should have been clearer on that in the column. Koufos is American. Koufos' game, at least as it's largely perceived, is European.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Stunned silence

The Cavaliers draft party at the Winking Lizard in Lakewood was a cauldron of sound Thursday. A restaurant packed with Cavs fans who showed up for the draft, the drinks, the contests, the scantily-clad Cavalier Girls working the crowd and -- just in case you didn't get enough of it during the season -- the opportunity to have TV announcer Fred McLeod and pregame emcee Ahmaad yell in your ear for three hours.

Tension was building with each passing pick. In the home stretch leading the Cavs pick, potential targets Marreese Speights and Roy Hibbert went off the board, thickening the plot.

When the 19th pick finally arrived, it seemed Danny Ferry would have two logical choices -- the best two players left on ESPN's draft board, Ohio State's Kosta Koufos and Kansas' Darrell Arthur.

I expected a loud juxtaposition of cheers and boos when the Cavs' selection was announced. Fans are typically divided like that when it comes to draft picks. If it was Koufos, the Ohio State fans in the crowd would be thrilled, while the anti-Euro-stiff crowd would be calling for Ferry's immediate dismissal.

The clock hit zero for the Cavs. No sign of NBA Commissioner David Stern to announce the pick. What seemed like a minute passed. Still no Stern. We started whipping ourselves into a frenzy. The Cavs made a trade! They got Michael Redd! Or Elton Brand! Milwaukee or another team is going to be making this pick while Ferry walks away with LeBron's Pippen!

Fans and media love to get hyped on that sort of thing. When Stern approached the podium, we expected something big. What we got was...

"With the 19th pick in the 2008 NBA Draft, the Cleveland Cavaliers select .... [pause for dramatic effect] .... J.J. Hickson, from North Carolina State."

The crowd took in a deep collective breath as the pick was announced, ready to cheer or boo or just explode in general. When Hickson's name was announced, we all ... just exhaled. No cheering, no booing, no passionate response whatsoever. Just stunned silence.

After the silence became a murmur again, one fan, making a quick departure, yelled to the crowd, "Trade Ferry! He sucks!"

After weeks and weeks of hearing about Speights and Koufos and Hibbert and Darrell Arthur and Brandon Rush and Chris Douglas-Roberts, the man Ferry ultimately selected was a guy completely off our radars, and guy who many in the Winking Lizard crowd had probably never heard of.

Even I didn't know that much about him. My initial reaction was much like the others around me: J.J. Who? A 19-year-old freshman from N.C. State? This isn't the type of pick that will convince LeBron to stay, or help the Cavs win a championship in the next two years. If this guy can contribute big minutes prior to 2011, it will be a miracle.

Once the initial wave of emotion passed and I started to get a better read on Hickson, however, the pick made a bit more sense.

Hickson is too inexperienced for me to consider him an ideal use of the 19th pick, especially when Arthur and Koufos were left on the board. But we're not talking about a bloody-side-of-beef raw prospect here. He was an All-ACC honorable mention as a freshman. He led all ACC freshmen in averaging 14.8 points and 8.5 rebounds per game. You can throw out the point total because there is no way on Earth Hickson is going to average 14.8 points per game in the NBA anytime soon.

But pay attention to the high rebound total. This is why Ferry and Mike Brown were drawn to him. At 6'-9" and more than 240 pounds, Hickson projects as a solid -- maybe even very good -- NBA rebounder and defender. He has the size to not get pushed around in the paint and on the block, and since he was only heading into his sophomore year of college, there is reason to believe he can pack on more muscle as he refines his technique.

Unless he hits a growth spurt to get closer to seven feet, Hickson's ability to play multiple positions in the NBA might be limited. But there are ways around a lack of height. Six-foot-nine guys have excelled at both the power forward and center spots in the pro game, and once team activities begin, Hickson will learn from one of the best undersized bigs of the past 10 years, Ben Wallace, who has made a career out of valuing technique and know-how over size and supreme athleticism.

That's another plus for Hickson. He has more athletic ability than Wallace had in his prime, and the hope on the part of Cavs management is probably that he'll be able to combine his natural talent with what he learns from the Cavs' wise, aging gurus of the frontcourt to become a difference maker on the next level.

Hickson has hops and size, is built to do the dirty-work aspects of the game and is headed into a good situation for a young frontcourt player. That is the thumbs-up portion of drafting him. The thumbs-down portion centers not really on Hickson, but on the LeBron Clock.

Can Hickson contribute in any meaningful way as the Cavs attempt to win an NBA title in the next two years? As I mentioned in my previous column, any pick Ferry made at 19 would likely have to be made with an eye toward 2010 and beyond. That's the type of rough-edged player available at 19.

But with LeBron's possible July 2010 opt-out date drawing ever closer, the players Ferry picks up, be they via trades, free agency or the first round of the draft, have to be able to give the team some kind of production this coming year and next. The need to win is simply too urgent to be running an NBA nursery school at the end of the bench, teaching rookies like Hickson the ABCs of the pro game while they average four points and one rebound in limited action.

Every major move Ferry makes doesn't have to yield a star, but it does have to yield a player who can step in and contribute right away. That's especially true in the case of Hickson, who might be pressed into significant minutes if Ferry ends up dealing the expiring contracts of Anderson Varejao and/or Joe Smith in a trade later this summer.

The Cavs did make a pair of second-round moves to further fortify the frontcourt, acquiring Kansas forward Darnell Jackson from the Heat for a future second-rounder, and teammate Sasha Kaun, whose rights were purchased from the Sonics. Jackson is a power forward, Kaun a center. Kaun is expected to play in Russia next year according the The Plain Dealer.

Given the fact that the Cavs have had decent luck developing second-rounders in the past five years or so, the 6'-8" Jackson -- who averaged more than 11 points and led the national championship Jayhawks with 6.8 rebounds per game -- might become a nice insurance policy if Hickson isn't ready to contribute next season.

But Jackson or Hickson, preferably both, need to contribute in some meaningful way on the court starting next year. If they're stapled to the end of the bench, watching the vast majority of games from the Lance Allred seats, this draft was a bust, at least in the short term.

As much as Ferry and Brown need to look to the future as three of their main frontcourt players inch further into their 30s, there is no way around the fact that LeBron's contract means Ferry's moves will be judged in their impact on the team between now and 2010.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Expect a player, not a miracle

Forty-five wins is a dangerous number in the NBA. And the Cavs sat right on it at the end of the regular season.

When a team lands in the mid-40s for a win total, chances are it didn't get a high enough seed to make a deep run in the playoffs. Chances are it didn't get a decent draft pick either.

The Cavs are following form. A second-round exit from the playoffs (though in a competitive seven-game series against the eventual NBA champion Celtics), and the 19th pick in Thursday's draft.

At the 19th pick, the Cavs might get a talented player, but you can't assume they'll be able to land a heart-of-the-rotation guy who is going to play a major role in a 2009 championship run.

The Cavs need more impact veterans to increase their chances of unseating the Celtics as the NBA champs in 12 months. Barring a home-run trade during the draft proceedings, which area newspapers have been saying is highly unlikely, that's not the type of players the Cavs are going to walk away with Thursday. Danny Ferry is likely going to be left to explore those types of trades once the calendar flips to July and the free-agent signing period begins.

Like it or not, the pick or picks the Cavs make in this year's draft will have to be made with an eye toward 2010 and beyond. At a time when the Cavs' big thinkers have to do whatever they can to give this team the best possible shot to win a title between now and July 2010 -- the dreaded date when LeBron is eligible to opt out of his contract and become an unrestricted free agent -- the type of player that will most likely be available at the 19th pick is one who will need some seasoning.

Certainly, Ferry could look to trade up. In the past month, the overworked rumor mill has already attached the Cavs to the Knicks at No. 6, the Bobcats at No. 9 and the Pacers at No. 11. With Charlotte acquiring the Nuggets' pick at 20 on Wednesday, there is always a possibility that the Bobcats might look to trade their ninth pick. Or they might look to package both those picks and move up even higher.

Long story short, don't expect Ferry to jump through hoops to try and trade up, especially if you're talking about moving up a mere 8 or 10 spots, from the lower-middle portion of the first round to the upper-middle. The price will be too high, and the benefit reaped might be the difference between Kosta Koufos and Marreese Speights, two players who are probably going to need some sanding and polishing to become productive in the NBA.

So assuming the Cavs stay at 19, what can we expect?

As zero-hour drew near on Wednesday evening, the mock draft at had Koufos, Speights, Roy Hibbert and Brandon Rush off the board by the 19th pick. All four have been listed in the Cavs' slot in previous mock-ups on the site. The Cavs' current pick on the site is Rush's Kansas teammate, Darrell Arthur, a power forward with hops, a developing post game and a need for more muscle.

No mock draft can be treated as gospel, but it's probably best to assume Koufos and Hibbert will be gone. That would make a lot of Cavs fans happy. Koufos and Hibbert will both battle to shake off the "too slow, too soft and not athletic enough" tags in the NBA, and Cavs fans who want less plodding and more fast-breaking on the team are turning up their noses at guys who might struggle to run with LeBron -- or guys who might get pushed around on the block as they try to create a post game.

There is probably a 50-50 chance Speights is available. He's probably the player who would best fit the type of team Ferry and Mike Brown are trying to construct and maintain. He's long, athletic and has the potential to make an impact at both ends of the court. His focus and work ethic are the potential red flags waving over what is otherwise as strong of an NBA prospect as a team would be likely to find at 19.

If Koufos, Hibbert, Speights and Rush are all gone by the time the Cavs go on the clock, the consolation prizes are Arthur, Robin Lopez and Chris Douglas-Roberts. If Arthur isn't there, chances are the Cavs are going to be walking away with some lovely parting gifts, but no actual prize.

Lopez, the twin brother of likely top 10 pick Brook Lopez, is a banger with questionable offensive skills. Douglas-Roberts has a nicely-developing offensive game, but if he were a model, his name would be "Twiggy." He barely cracks 200 pounds on most scouting reports, and there is apparently some concern among scouts that his bodybuilding potential will be limited.

If you read between the lines, that means the best Douglas-Roberts might ever hope to become in the NBA is another Wesley Person. A stick-thin shooter with virtually no penetrating ability, no ability to finish at the hoop and a rumor on defense.

So if I had my way, what would I do?

I'll be honest, my first choice might make some of you choke on your corn flakes, but I'd take Hibbert if he's there. If you're looking for an heir apparent for Z, a guy who might be able to step in and start in Z's place as early as the 2009-10 season, Hibbert is your man.

Hibbert's skill set matches Z's as closely as any big man in the draft. He has a good shooting touch around the basket, can step back and shoot midrange jumpers, and is a solid rebounder to boot. He has questions to answer in the mobility department, and his competitive fire has been criticized by fans and pundits alike, but you can certainly do a lot worse than a Big East-seasoned 7'-2" center who can shoot and rebound.

After than, my next perfect-world option would be to take Koufos and attempt to groom him in the mold of Dirk Nowitzki, a seven-footer who can play facing the basket, shoot and drive. Though admittedly, Koufos will probably not develop the consistency in shooting the NBA three-ball that Nowitzki has.

After Hibbert and Koufos, my ideal picks for the Cavs would be Speights, then Arthur. I'd also keep an eye on Nevada's JaVale McGee and Texas A&M's DeAndre Jordan if Speights and Arthur are off the board. Both are raw big men who will need considerable seasoning at the NBA level. But hopefully the cupboard doesn't run that bare for the Cavs by the time they pick.

I would stay away from guards and swingmen. Rush and Douglas-Roberts would be tantalizing options for a team like the Cavs, still searching for that long-sought running mate for LeBron. But neither would fit the bill.

There is a lot to like about the games of Rush and Douglas-Roberts, and even Kansas NCAA Tournament hero Mario Chalmers, who might be available at 19. But the Cavs need veterans at the wing and point positions, not low-first round rookies. There is always the chance the Cavs could find LeBron's Pippen at 19, but not likely. If Rush, Douglas-Roberts and Chalmers develop into core-type players on an NBA roster, it likely won't occur between now and the summer of 2010.

Ferry needs to draft for a player or players who can provide depth now, and might prove to be guys who you can build around later. With that in mind, the message to Ferry and Brown is clear: Think big on Thursday. Think smaller next month.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Trading away the season

The tease-and-falter pattern of the Indians season continues. A week ago at this time, they had won five-of-seven, four of them at home, prompting me to write this hopeful column arguing that maybe, just maybe, Eric Wedge and Mark Shapiro were onto something by benching their injured players and relying on their healthy players to carry the load.

Then they went on the road and were swept right out of Colorado by the lowly Rockies. They won Friday night in Los Angeles, but needed a 10th-inning two-RBI hit off the bat of Jhonny Peralta to rally for a 6-4 win after Rafael Betancourt and Joe Borowski couldn't protect a four-run lead.

Cliff Lee handed the bullpen a 4-0 lead and walked away with a no-decision. He is stuck at 10 wins, and with each passing start that is not converted into a win, his bid to become the Tribe's first 20-game winner in 34 years is gradually slipping away.

There was reason for some guarded optimism for the Indians in the first half of June. Their offense burst onto the scene in splitting four games in Texas, followed by a four-game split in Detroit. After home series wins against the Twins and Padres, it looked like there was some actual momentum building. But the sweep in Colorado killed all that off. Even Terry Pluto, one of the few glass-half-full types in the Cleveland media, proclaimed the season dead in Friday's Plain Dealer.

Whether you think the '08 Tribe's tombstone should have been etched five weeks ago, or whether you steadfastly believe in the gospel of the 1964 Cardinals and 2007 Phillies -- the one that says you're not dead until you're mathematically eliminated -- there is no denying that while, in the words of one Mr. Berra from New York, it ain't over 'til it's over, it also gets late really early around here.

No matter how inconsistent and flawed the teams above the Tribe are, making up an eight-games-and-growing deficit in a division that will almost certainly send just one team to the playoffs is a daunting proposition. Victor Martinez and Travis Hafner could return with a vengeance after the all-star break, and it would still likely be too little, too late.

It appears that Shapiro and his staff will gear up to have a mini-fire sale, much like what occurred in 2006. Veterans who don't project as part of this team's long-term plan will be sold off between now and the end of July for prospects. Say "fire sale" and the first name that pops into your head is C.C. Sabathia. But he won't necessarily be the first player out the door -- if he's even traded at all.

Below is a list of the Indians' most tradeable assets, ranked by the likelihood that they will be traded.

1. Casey Blake

In a shocker, C.C. is not at the top of the list. It's Mr. Grinder himself, Casey Blake.

When you look at the numbers, it's really a no-brainer. Making him appealing to other teams: he led the team in RBI and doubles through Friday, he's raised his batting average from the .210s to nearly .270 over the past month, he's hitting .342 with a 1.029 on base plus slugging percentage figure on the road through Friday and he can play multiple positions.

Making him movable for the Tribe: He's already earning over $6 million this year, he's eligible for free agency and probably an additional bump in pay this winter, and moving Blake would allow Andy Marte to get an extended look at third base for the remainder of the season, something he hasn't been afforded on the big-league level so far.

Possible destinations: The Yankees might be able to use Blake as a plug-in at both corner infield and corner outfield spots. Blake has historically hit well in Fenway Park, so the Red Sox might be interested as well -- though it would be hard to see Blake getting consistent at-bats in that stacked Boston lineup.

2. Paul Byrd

How does Byrdie end up above C.C. on the list? I mean, look at the man's stat line: 3-7, a 5.21 ERA with 45 earned runs and 19 homers surrendered in 14 starts and 77 innings pitched. Gag me with a spoon, right? And we haven't even mentioned the stench of HGH scandal that will continue to stick to Byrd, deservedly or not.

But Byrd is a veteran who knows how to pitch. He's had a history of performing well on playoff-bound teams, and let's not forget that the majority of playoff-bound teams are usually looking for that fourth or fifth starter who can help solidify their rotation for the stretch run.

Byrd would fit the bill, with the added bonus that, as a future free agent this winter, he's a half-season rental who will likely come at a half-season rental price. For maybe a marginal A-ball prospect, there will likely be more than a few teams willing to take Byrd off the Tribe's hands and attempt to give him a 100,000-mile tune-up.

Possible destinations: Look up and down the starting rotations of teams in first and second place. Anywhere you come across a fourth or fifth starter and say "Who is that?" you have found a potential destination for Byrd.

3. C.C. Sabathia

Obviously, the hefty lefty is the Tribe's biggest trade bullet to fire before the deadline. Which is why he didn't crack the top two.

Many fans subscribe to the "get whatever you can for C.C. before he leaves" school of thought. Shapiro probably doesn't share that view. He knows that any trade for C.C. is going to have to bring much in return. When you're haggling with other GMs over the top two or three prospects in their farm systems, an impasse can appear as quickly as a pothole on a Cleveland street in the winter.

Shapiro doesn't have to try to sell a C.C. deal. Other teams will beat a path to his door, particularly well-endowed teams like the Cubs, Dodgers, Yankees and Red Sox, who can afford to not only acquire C.C., but ink him to a generous extension before he has a chance to become a free agent. But just because the interest is there doesn't necessarily mean a deal will get done.

Shapiro will (or should) drive a hard bargain. Other GMs will offer and pull back prospects in an endless shell game aimed at enticing Shapiro and outmaneuvering other teams. It's a complicated dance with no definite ending.

Possible destinations: Rumors have already connected C.C. to the four teams mentioned above. From a prospect return standpoint, you'd be wise to root for C.C. to be traded to the Dodgers and (painfully) the Red Sox.

4. Jhonny Peralta

It appears the Indians have cooled considerably on Peralta over the past three years. It's not just the up-and-down statistics or the woeful lack of range at baseball's most important defensive position. It's the fact that Peralta's focus seems to zone in and out from game to game, week to week.

His bat is still dangerous when he connects, which would make him a good auxilliary piece for a team filled with good bats. But as a heart-of-the-order hitter on a Tribe team with sparse offense, his all-or-nothing approach yields little in the way of results.

Peralta will either move to third base or be traded, if not before the deadline, then over the winter. At this point, it's probably better to move Peralta than try to shoehorn him in at another position. But it would still be nice to wait until his numbers are better and he'd yield more in a trade.

Possible destinations: It's difficult to tell because it's hard to peg where a swing-for-the-bleachers right-handed hitter without a true natural fielding position fits with another team. His relatively low '08 salary -- the balance of $2.5 million -- means that lower-budget contenders like the Rays might get in on the action if Peralta is shopped.

5. David Dellucci

With Ben Francisco and Shin-Soo Choo fitting comfortably into the outfield rotation with Grady Sizemore and Franklin Gutierrez, Dellucci is being phased out of the Indians' plans.

As long as Hafner and Martinez stay on the DL, there will be at-bats for Dellucci in the DH spot, or in the outfield while someone else mans the DH spot. But sooner or later, Looch will be squeezed out of the lineup.

Dellucci might be moved in a minor trade for the legendary Player To Be Named Later.

Possible destinations: Dellucci might end up back with the Diamondbacks, where he won a World Series in 2001. Arizona could stand to add some veteran outfield depth for another playoff run, and Dellucci would be a cheaper option than some others.

6. Joe Borowski

Yeah, I know. Who would want him? He just got done blowing a save Friday night. But the quest for bullpen help does strange things to teams.

Possible destinations: I predict that Borowski will be the annual Superfluous Bullpen Addition By A Paranoid Big Market Team Convinced It Doesn't Have Quite Enough Depth. Octavio Dotel and Eric Gagne have held this title in previous years.

Look for Borowski to be pitching the 11th inning of a playoff game for Red Sox or Cubs or the like, getting prdectably annihilated in a blowout loss and then predictably shredded in the local newspapers. I'll just feel sorry for JoBo in advance.

7. Andy Marte

Wedge won the argument with Shapiro over Brandon Phillips. Shapiro will probably see to it that it doesn't happen again with one-time uber-prospect Marte. In the third base wars, Wedge favorite Blake will be shown the door before Shapiro's prized pickup Marte.

But in the event that Shapiro caves, pawns off Marte and keeps Blake, don't expect the trade to register on the Richter Scale. The only sound you'll hear is the sound of thousands of Tribe fans gnawing on their nails LeBron-style, waiting for Marte to bust out with .320, 40 homers and 115 RBI with his new team next season.

Possible destinations: The Reds. They traded for Danny Graves, Sean Casey and Phillips. Why fight it?

Monday, June 16, 2008

Taking one for the team

About a week ago, the Indians were left for dead. Coming off yet another dismal road trip, they were eight games back and fading fast. The punch was gone from the lineup, as Travis Hafner was in the midst of his rehabilitation odyssey, while Victor Martinez was just beginning his.

Jake Westbrook was out for at least one calendar year. Fausto Carmona still hadn't returned from a hip injury. Asdrubal Cabrera had lugged his sub-.200 batting average back to Buffalo, and his replacement, Josh Barfield, was shelved with an injured finger days later.

Like vultures swirling over a soon-to-be dead desert mammal, scouts from other teams were lining up to gauge the specifics on C.C. Sabathia, who appeared headed out the door sooner rather than later as Mark Shapiro, it seemed, would be forced to bail out on this sinking season.

But then, a glimmer of hope. The Tribe, sans the heart of their order, sans their Nos. 2 and 3 starters, with Jamey Carroll acting as a 5'-10" gauze pad over the bleeding abrasion that second base had become, rattled off five wins in seven games, slicing their division deficit to five and a half games as of Monday. 

Five wins in seven games normally doesn't save a season. But for the Indians, the past week might have been a light-bulb moment for the team's movers and shakers. In the hierarchy of revelations, it wasn't Moses climbing the mountain to see God speak through a burning bush, but it was significant nonetheless:

Healthy guys should play. Injured guys should sit.

For most of the season, the Indians' decision-makers seemed to operate under the assumption that whatever their injured players -- Hafner and Martinez in particular -- could give them was better than not having them available at all. Shapiro and Wedge were very slow to put their two sluggers in sick bay because, quite honestly, where else was the run production going to come from?

It's a legitimate question, at least to look at the Tribe's lineup on paper. So they opted for the macho "suck it up, fight through it and play ball" route. We all know what happened. The strategy backfired like a Model T.

Hafner, with a arthritic right elbow and a shoulder injury that had been veiled from the public until he actually went on the disabled list at the end of May, was hitting at a .217 clip with four homers and 22 RBIs when the Indians finally decided enough was enough. 

Martinez had been battling a sore hamstring all season. But it was his right elbow that likely drained his home run power (again, a secret the Indians guarded until he was placed on the DL) and ultimately put his season on ice. Martinez underwent arthroscopic surgery to remove bone chips from the elbow and will likely miss 6-to-8 weeks.

Keeping Martinez and Hafner in the lineup for so long was in character for Wedge and Shapiro, historically a pair of ultra-conservative baseball minds who would rather stay the course and plow through adversity than make radical changes. But as the Tribe's season foundered, their collective hand was forced. It turns out, the moves they were so reluctant to make were the best moves to make for the sake of the season.

Freed from the burden of having to stick with Hafner and Martinez, wasting at-bats on their injured limbs, nursing them along as the pair tried to get healthy and work through the mental static that accompanies any prolonged slump, Wedge was able to turn to the healthy guys left in his clubhouse and ask them to carry the load. So far, it has worked.

Youngsters such as Ben Francisco and Shin-Soo Choo have responded well to increased playing time, both hitting well over .300. Ryan Garko has shown signs of life batting cleanup. Grady Sizemore has raised his average to nearly .270 and is on a 40-homer pace. Casey Blake, the Tribe's best clutch hitter all year, is inching his batting average through the .250s and is tied with Sizemore for the team RBI lead.

And Carroll, who just completed a 14-for-22 homestand, gets a special mention.

What happens when you add a competent offense to good starting pitching? You tend to win. The Indians are 8-7 in June as of Monday. Not something to get too worked up about, but it's at least a trend in the positive direction.

None of this should be interpreted as a statement of belief that the Indians are a better team without Hafner and Martinez. They're better off without their current injuries clogging the lineup, but there is no question that the Tribe won't be whole again until those guys are back, healthy and producing at a high level. But the moral of the story is, if you're going to try and win a baseball game, put your best team on the field, and seldom does your best team include a guy with a bum shoulder and a guy with bone chips in his elbow.

Facing how-many-ever weeks without Hafner and Martinez is a risk for the Tribe, but it might end up being a risk that saves their season, particularly as they square off against the weaker, non-Arizona-Diamondbacks portion of the NL West over the next two weeks.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Hey Jealousy

My girlfriend is originally from Michigan. Both sides of her family are from Michigan. Most of her friends are from Michigan. When we get together with her extended family for birthdays, anniversaries and whatnot, it's usually at a location in or around Detroit. At those gatherings, the subject -- at least among the guys -- sooner or later shifts to sports.

Of course, I'm the only Clevelander in the room, so I immediately take a defensive posture, readying myself for a trip down Jealousy Road into Envy Town. Interspersed with the banter about the Wolverines, Tigers and Lions is the occasional question directed at me. They're good people and only trying to have a bit of fun, but sometimes it's a little too easy to make fun of a Cleveland fan.

From a family gathering in January: "Hey, Erik, were you disappointed about the Browns not making the playoffs?" which was pre-emptively answered from across the room by another Michigander: "Aw, he's from Cleveland. He's used to it."

From a wedding last October, as I was trying desperately to not get updates about Game 6 of the ALCS, so it wouldn't ruin my evening if the Indians lost: "Hey Erik, grand slam, Boston! Not looking good for your Indians!"

I had to spend an entire car ride from Detroit to Toledo listening to the final innings of the game on the Westwood One national radio feed, slumping into the backseat of the car as the Red Sox laid blow after blow. Being a gracious guest, I didn't want to tell my girlfriend's dad, who was driving, that my ears were going to start bleeding if he didn't change the station this instant. My girlfriend was sitting next to me, occasionally smiling at me, apparently oblivious to the fact that my heart was turning into a giant vat of Dog Chow before her very eyes.

Her dad noticed, though. "Man, you looked like you were about to die as that game was ending," he later told me.

No kidding. It's probably difficult for a Detroit fan who has actually experienced world championships in his lifetime to comprehend the pure, dysfunctional desperation of being a Cleveland fan. If you're a Detroit fan, your championship itch has been sufficiently scratched. But it goes deeper than that.

I consider Detroit to be an average sports town. Four teams, ranging from the chronically bad (Lions) to a quasi-dynasty (Red Wings). The Pistons are good every year, but don't have an embarrassment of riches to show for it. The Tigers won a pennant in 2006, but have regressed every year since.

The college scene features a Michigan Wolverines football program that has fallen definitively behind Ohio State in the Big Ten pecking order. Michigan State is the less-favored stepbrother, but Tom Izzo has still constructed a Spartan basketball powerhouse that won the 2000 National Championship.

Michigan and Detroit fans have experienced the good and the bad. They've won, but not so much that they've developed the sense of entitlement that you might find in Boston or New York. They've lost, but not so often and consistently that it would make them overly cynical.

I've attended Detroit sporting events as both friend and foe, dressing up in Red Wings colors to go to several hockey games at Joe Louis Arena and dressing up in my Tribe gear to go to an Indians-Tigers game at Comerica Park in 2006, where I was heckled and mocked on three or four separate occasions, including by a particularly persistent (I assume) drunk who spent more time screaming at me than watching the game.

All in all, I shouldn't be jealous of these guys. Detroit is the same type of town as Cleveland, only about twice the size. They have the same crumbling economy, the same deficient schools, the same abandoned buildings, the same pothole-riddled streets and the same idiot drunks at sporting events as Cleveland does. Both towns are pure rust belt, manufacturing towns that fell on hard times when America's power center moved from brick-and-mortar factories to glass-and-steel skyscrapers.

But I am jealous of them. And I'm jealous of Pittsburgh. Both towns are first cousins with Cleveland, but unlike our fair city, they win enough sports titles so that sports doesn't affect the collective self-image of the people who live there. Detroiters and Pittsburghers might get down about the state of the economy in their cities and states, but you don't seem to find a lot of people from those towns who are ashamed to call their cities home.

In Cleveland, you find more of that. The can-do spirit of perseverance that you might find in another city is in much shorter supply here. Frustration has turned to depression, which then turns to apathy. Sports shouldn't have this much to do with collective self-image, but it does, especially in a town where sports has sparse competition for attention and money. In Cleveland, sports is the Great Uniter in good times, and the Great Demotivator in bad times.

No one needs to tell us what the climate is usually like. Pain spiked with short, fleeting bursts of superficial pleasure.

Anymore, we've become so dysfunctional as a fan base that it's not only about what we don't have. It's what other cities do have. Our misery is compounded when nearby cities populated by people we know get to celebrate while our championship drought inches further into its fifth decade.

It came home for me over the past weekend when my girlfriend's aunt and uncle came to Cleveland to visit her. One of the first things her aunt handed to us was a copy of the front page of the Detroit News, Red Wings Stanley Cup Parade Special Edition.

On the cover was a full page photo of red-clad Detroiters clamoring in the ecstatic parade pandemonium to get a look at the Stanley Cup. Even though it was the Wings' fourth title in 11 years, the enthusiasm for a championship never wanes.

Inside, quotes from people on the street: "This is great. Detroit needed some good news and we've finally gotten it."

On the back page, a car advertisement: "Congratulations Red Wings on a great end to a thrilling season."

In Cleveland, it's the kind of ending that only exists in storybooks and other cities.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

To trade or not to trade?

The Indians' season to this point is a matter of perspective.

Heading into play on Thursday night, the Indians were 27-32 and five and a half games back in the AL Central. You can look at that one of two ways:

The stay-the-course, glass-half-full camp says the Indians are five games under .500 and five and a half back in what has shaped up to be a very mediocre division this year. The White Sox and Twins are the two teams ahead of the Indians, and they're noticeably flawed themselves. To boot, it's still only early June. One hot month could propel the Indians back to the top of the division.

The abandon-ship, glass-half-empty crowd says the Indians are indeed five games under .500 in a very mediocre division. Prior to a offensive outburst against the Rangers this week, they had virtually no clutch hitting to speak of. Now the injuries are mounting for both the hitters and pitchers. Even if they were to somehow vault past Chicago and Minnesota and get back to the postseason, they'd probably get chewed up and spat out by their first-round opponent.

The Tribe's front office has to weigh both sides of the exact same argument. The future of C.C. Sabathia hangs in the balance.

Before we analyze this any further, let's make one assumption: C.C. is not coming back to the Indians next year. Stranger things have certainly happened, but judging by the money likely to float in C.C.'s direction next winter, and judging by the Tribe's history of not spending beau coups bucks on long term deals for free agents who can see 30 on the horizon, it's probably safe to assume the 2008 season is C.C.'s last with the Indians.

With that ground rule set, the only reason to keep C.C. is to make a championship run this year. The only reason to trade him is because you are certain you won't be able to make that championship run.

History would recommend Mark Shapiro deal C.C. to the highest bidder approximately 15 seconds before the trade deadline at the end of July. There is a reason why teams that emerge from the midseason doldrums to win a World Series are usually given the prefix "miracle." It doesn't happen very often.

But baseball's postseason setup makes it harder than ever to punt away a star player in midseason. A three-division setup increases the likelihood that at least one division will be won by a team without championship credentials, a team that would have finished in third or fourth place in the old two-division alignment. The White Sox and Twins look like they're vying for that designation this year.

On top of that, the wild card always dangles out there, most years tempting any team within sniffing distance of .500 to keep plugging along with George Mason-type dreams of shocking the world.

In the end, it's almost too easy for a team like the Indians to rationalize holding onto a pitcher like C.C. until the bitter end. To do otherwise would be giving up, willfully crumpling up and throwing away all the progress made during last year's 103-win run to the seventh game of the ALCS.

Shapiro and his staff are competitive guys, otherwise they wouldn't be in the business of sports. They might project the bone-dry personalities of businessmen who have jammed their noses into one too many statistical abstracts, but when it comes to willingly saying "We're losers this year. We admit it." it's probably hard to separate the heart from the head.

Unfortunately, baseball is only romantic in books and movies. In real life, it's far colder.

Shapiro's heart probably says, "keep fighting for first place. Never admit defeat." His head probably says, "The Indians organization has virtually no power hitting prospects in the upper tiers of the minor leagues. The Buffalo Bisons have probably given the big league club all they can with regard to ready-made hitting help. This organization desperately needs an infusion of hitting talent that can be ready to produce at the big league level this year or next. A couple of young bullpen arms probably wouldn't hurt, either."

It's easy to see which part of Shapiro's anatomy is probably making the more convincing argument to him. But then he has to listen to his head and perform the difficult task of parting ways with a player he's seen raised from a pup as an Indian. The good news is it shouldn't take too long for Shapiro's Princeton-sharpened business instincts to kick in and make him realize that the right move is the move that will make the Indians a more well-rounded organization.

If you've lost confidence in Shapiro's ability to do everything else, you can remain confident that he can pluck good players out of other organizations' farm systems.

Since becoming GM in 2001, Shapiro has gleaned a list including Grady Sizemore, Cliff Lee, Brandon Phillips, Travis Hafner, Asdrubal Cabrera and Shin-Soo Choo from other teams' minor league systems. All are producing, or have recently produced, at the major league level.

There is every reason to believe that Shapiro would take the same time and care in gathering a return package for C.C. The trade would have to rival the Bartolo Colon trade as a defining move in Shapiro's tenure, and it's doubtful that fact is lost on the Tribe's GM.

Once Shapiro commits to trading C.C., history says he'll do a good job. But in order to do his job, he has to overcome the temptation to damn the torpedoes and make a kamikaze run at the World Series from third place in the American League's weakest division.

Like the infamous Japanese suicide divebombers from World War II, that approach will lead to a crash and burn, but the only damage the Indians will inflict will be on themselves and their future.

Back up and running

After three weeks without Internet access in my apartment, I'm finally back up and running with a wireless Internet connection. Now that I don't have to do my leisure time Interneting from remote sites, hopefully it will mean something of a return to normalcy, both for me and my blog.

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Lakers vs. Celtics: The Rich Get Richer

Basketball might not be a part of mom-and-apple-pie Americana the way baseball is, but there is one place where the NBA definitely gets one over on Major League Baseball, and does so on the sport's biggest stage.

The Yankees and Red Sox can engage in the most colossal and riveting of playoff series, but because baseball's two flagship franchises share a league, the most that will ever be at stake is an AL pennant. If anything, when the Yankees and Red Sox meet in the ALCS, it seems to render the World Series anticlimactic to the the national at large, outside the city of the NL champ.

The NBA's two most storied franchises, by contrast, hail from opposite coasts and opposite conferences, meaning that when they hook up in the postseason, it's for the the whole bag of cookies.

This year, for the 11th time in history, the Lakers and Celtics will decide between them the NBA championship. Game 1 is Thursday in Boston.

Opinions are sharply divided in Northeast Ohio over whether it's worth watching the Celtics win a 17th title versus watching the Lakers with a 16th, or whether it would be less painful to simply commit hara-kiri with a serrated butter knife. But we're in the minority, an island of deprived bitterness in a sea of intrigue.

Anyone who has a vested interest in the NBA has to be ecstatic at the rebound of the league's marquee playoff series. Last year at this time, we in Cleveland were thrilled to be seeing our Cavs headed to the NBA Finals for the first time, but the '07 Finals were a national dud even before the Spurs swept the Cavs back into obscurity.

Nobody in the all-important East and West Coast markets cares when the Spurs play the Cavs. It could have been a riveting seven-game series and nary a sliver of TV sets would have been tuned to ABC in Boston, New York and Los Angeles.

This year, the NBA expects, and will almost certainly get, ratings for the Finals that it hasn't seen in years, largely because the all-important casual fans who don't know LeBron James from Jerome James will tune in. They might not know the intricacies of the game of basketball, but they know Lakers vs. Celtics is a big thing.

Certainly, this isn't the Lakers-Celtics rivalry from the days of yore. The long-standing player rivalries aren't there. The players who were Celtics and Lakers for so long that they came to embody the very essence of their franchises aren't there, for the most part.

The Lakers still have Kobe Bryant, on his quest to prove that he's not helpless to win a title without the services of the Big Crutch, Shaquille O'Neal. The Celtics have Paul Pierce as their drafted-and-bred star. Beyond that, the star power in this series is largely store bought. Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen came to Boston in offseason trades last year. Pau Gasol came to the Lakers in a midseason trade this year.

This version of the Lakers-Celtics rivalry doesn't involve the traditional standards of excellence set by these franchises. There are few Magic Johnsons, Larry Birds, James Worthies and Kevin McHales raised from pups in the ways of winning. There aren't many diamonds in the rough who took the road less traveled to greatness like Robert Parish.

This is the story of a Lakers franchise that was mired in mediocrity a year ago and a Celtics franchise that was a putrid excuse for a basketball team a year ago, and the quick-fix moves their GMs made to get them back to the top.

Of the two teams, the Lakers probably have the most staying power for the coming years. They have the cornerstone superstar who isn't yet 30, the second-option scorer in Gasol who also hasn't yet turned 30, and a young star-in-the-making in center Andrew Bynum ,whose season ended due to a knee injury in Jaunary. If the Lakers win the title without Bynum, that does not bode well for the rest of the league once Bynum is a healthy, shot-blocking, rebounding presence in the middle for the Lakers.

The Celtics' big three of Pierce, Garnett and Allen are all on the plus side of 30. The Celtics figure to be a factor in East for the next several years, but as their core ages, they will struggle to reach the level of performance they're reaching this spring. In the end, Boston GM Danny Ainge make quick-fix, short-term moves and that's exactly the type of team he got.

Of course, if the Celtics win an NBA title, I doubt anyone in Boston will complain if the Celtics start to backslide in the coming years ... oh wait, it's Boston. Of course they'll complain. But they'll still have the championship hardware to bear witness to their display of ingratitude.

If you like interesting subplots and long, winding, saccharine, sentimental trips down memory lane (and lots and lots of big-market ego-stroking) this is your kind of NBA Finals. If every Yankees or Red Sox World Series title makes you want to stab yourself in the eye with a fork, maybe the Discovery Channel is more your speed for the next few weeks.