Sunday, August 23, 2009

Found: Tall right-hander, Answers to the name 'Fausto'

Fausto Carmona - missing in action for nearly two years now - has been found.

And he was right where the Tribe left him - on the mound at Progressive Field (though it was Jacobs Field when he was last seen prior to Sunday).

For the past two seasons - we have learned - an impostor has been wearing Fausto's No. 55 and taking the hill for the Tribe.

It is rumored that Tribe manager Eric Wedge, being tied up with his self-challenge to come up with 162 different lineups in one season, didn't realize the impostor had slipped into Fausto's uni beginning in spring training 2008.

It is unclear where the real Fausto has been over the past 23 months.

One thing is clear - the "real" Fausto - or at least what the Tribe hopes is the real Fausto - made the start Sunday at Progressive Field.

This Fausto had a ball that moved, but just far enough out of the zone to entice Seattle hitters to put the ball into play, or in the case of eight Mariners - miss it altogether. He had poise and "stayed within himself," as the players like to say.

It made all the difference in the world.

In all Carmona went seven innings, allowing five hits, one walk and one run. He threw 116 pitches - 76 of them for strikes.

It was - no doubt - Fausto's best outing of the season.

Tony Sipp and Chris Perez finished things off quite easily over the final two innings, lending more credence to the rumor that some semblance of a bullpen has also been found - also after a two-year absence.

The guys who are likely to make up the core of next year's team - Travis Hafner, Jhonny Peralta, Grady Sizemore, Luis Valbuena and Matt LaPorta continued the team's hot hitting, making for a pleasant "family fun" day at the ballpark.

All of which is well and good, but the best piece of news to come down the pike in a while is that the real Fausto apparently has been found.

That, more than any other individual development in recent weeks, is key to the Tribe returning to respectability next season.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Why we still watch

Wow. Wasn't that fun?

Just finished watching the Tribe take it to the Angels tonight.

If you're anything like me you ask yourself nightly, Why am I still watching these guys?

The games mean nothing for this season.

And, as we've learned the hard way time and again in the Wedgie years, what's happening now probably won't mean a heck of a lot for next year either.

But, we keep watching because nights like tonight keep the flicker of hope alive within us.

It's easy to picture Justin Masterson slicing up one of the game's best offenses next year, with a huge assist in a tight spot from Tony Sipp.

Sounds like a formula for a lot of wins in 2010, doesn't it?

And then there was that sixth inning, with everyone contributing - top to bottom.

The vets on the club contributed - with Travis Hafner doubling with two guys on, driving in one of the runs and later scoring on a sacrifice fly. He added an RBI single a couple of innings later.

You can just see Hafner, his shoulder in much better shape, knocking in runs in bunches next year.

Jhonny Peralta had three hits, with Sizemore, Cabrera and Choo each contributing two. Even Andy Marte had two hits, though one was a checked swing roller.

Matt LaPorta 2.0, making his first appearance since being recalled, had a key hit in the heart of the seven-run sixth, knocking in two and adding another ribbie later. And can't you just see LaPorta at the heart of many a rally next year?

It's hardly an every-night occurrence, this team hitting on all cylinders. But it has been happening more lately.

On the surface, Tribe fans - me especially - are curmudgeons and pessimists. But the truth is, with me - and I'm betting with you - way down deep inside we still believe that some day, some way, we will make it to the promised land and it's nights like this that contribute to what some might consider a delusion.

Why else would we be watching and then writing or reading about it when it's over?

(Full disclosure: I did spend an awful lot of time in the hot sun today.)

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

How's Wedgie doin'?

It was the 4th of July weekend when Tribe GM Mark Shapiro went public with his promise that Eric Wedge and his coaches would be around at least until the end of the season, when all would be evaluated.

Since that time the Tribe has played 35 games and put up an 18-17 record. Better than they had been to that point, but hardly an exciting number.

But at the time Shapiro said the post-season evaluation would have less to do with wins and losses than with player development.

Specifically, Shapiro was looking for Wedge to polish off a few prospects to the point where they could be counted on to be a positive presence next season.

So, to borrow of a phrase from former NYC mayor Ed Koch, "How's Wedgie doin'."

Maybe the easiest way to do this is to take each of the youngsters one-by-one and see what type of progress they've made, or in the case of some how much regression there has been this season.

The dismal first half was a collective effort, with all facets of the team underperforming - except possibly for the ground crew and field operations folks who found a quick solution to the seagull problem that cropped up in the late spring.

But it was the pitching - especially the bullpen - that was most responsible for the disaster that the 2009 season quickly became.

So let's start up on the hill.

There are so many failures here a case can be made for many a player, but for argument sake let's just say Fausto Carmona was the biggest disappointment and the biggest drag on the team's success.

As you know, Fausto was sent to Arizona to have his hard-drive cleared and to start the season all over with a clean slate.

Carmona's made four starts since returning from his reprogramming. At first glance, it looks as if some progress has been made in remaking Carmona.

Going into his start Tuesday, Carmona had made 3 starts since his recall, pitching 17 innings and allowing just 5 earned runs - for an ERA of 2.65. But in those 3 starts, Fausto gave up 15 hits and 10 walks in 17 innings. That's a WHIP of 1.47. He'd averaged only 5 2/3 innings in those 3 starts, mostly because he was at or near 100 pitches by that time. He threw three 299 pitches in those three starts, with 172, or 55%, of them being strikes. Not good at all.

Granted tonight's start versus the Angels was against an offense that has averaged about 8 runs per game over the last 6 weeks or so, but it was perhaps Fausto's worst outing since his return. While he gave up just 3 earned runs in 5 innings, the outing was a lot uglier than those numbers indicate. Carmona gave up 10 hits and two walks over those 5 innings, which took him 110 pitches (66 of them, or 54%, strikes) to complete.

So far, Carmona has not shown he's anywhere close to the pitcher who won 19 games just two seasons ago. Better than he was in May, but with still a long way to go.

Aaron Laffey is another story.

Since returning from a mid-season injury, Laffey has made 7 starts and has put up an ERA of 2.93 in 47 innings. In three of those 7 starts Laffey was unscored upon. His 1.38 WHIP has been a little high, but for a groundball pitcher base runners can be easily erased two at a time.

Laffey is looking as polished as any one of the youngsters on the club and should be someone to be counted on next year.

Jeremy Sowers? A string of 3 starts in late July and early August in which Sowers actually survived into the 7th twice and had 3 so-called quality starts seemed to indicate he might be coming around. But in his last outing Sowers folded after 5 again, much as he has done throughout most of the season.

Has Sowers progressed this year under Wedge? I vote no.

Over 17 starts this year, David Huff has put up 6.55 ERA, a 1.65 WHIP and a .319 BA against. Having seen many of his starts on the dish, it seems like those numbers are a bit worse than Huff's actual performance. He has shown flashes at times. But has he developed as he should have this season? Nada.

You could argue that the utter failure of Raffie Perez and Jensen Lewis to perform up to expectations was an even bigger factor in the first half than Carmona's disappearance. I wouldn't give you much of an argument.

Perez has been up and down a few times and Lewis was sent back to Columbus for retooling. Has either been straightened out?

Four of Perez's 5 outings since his latest recall have been scoreless, which is encouraging. But I would hardly say he's been lights out, having allowed 9 base runners in the 5 innings he's pitched over those 5 outings. Still, there's hope Perez can show he's back on track over the next 6 weeks.

Jensen Lewis, like Perez, has had 5 outings since his recall, 4 of which have been scoreless over 7 innings. He too looks to be heading back in the right direction, but lets not forget he put up 13 saves during garbage time with the heat off last August and September as well.

Tony Sipp was most recently recalled in late June. He was horrid in June/July, giving up 7 runs in 7 2/3 innings over 12 outings and allowing 14 base runners in that time frame. August has been another story, as Sipp has allowed only 1 run and 4 base runners in 7 1/3 innings over 8 outings. Another guy who seems to be showing improvement of late.

Chris Perez has been as-advertised since coming over from St. Louis (excepting 2 bad outings in his first 3 appearances with the Tribe).

Jess Todd, the other pitcher obtained from the Cardinals for Mark DeRosa, is still getting his feet wet, but he hasn't looked good doing it - allowing 4 runs in 5 innings over 5 outings. Not much to go on with him yet though.

As far as position players go, there are fewer to be looked at, at least to this point.

Andy Marte continues to be hopelessly lost at the plate and at times (like tonight when he made a costly error and failed to cut off a throw to the plate that cost the Tribe an out) in the field.

Is Marte just lacking the intangibles that separate AAAA players from big-leaguers?

Is he unable to get anything going because Wedge stubbornly refuses to play him every day and he can't get his timing down?

Is he pressing because he knows Wedge won't play him regularly unless he starts to rip it up at the plate?

Who knows. But one thing is clear. When it comes time to look at players Wedge and his staff were charged with developing, this is their biggest failure.

Chris Gimenez? What is Wedge's infatuation here? And is Wedge retarding the development of others by giving Gimenez so much playing time?

Much like with Gimenez, Wedge apparently sees a lot he likes in Luis Valbuena.

In this case I agree with him.

Something about Valbuena's body language on the field, and the attitude he brings makes you feel as though he expects to succeed. And, despite a less-than-stellar .233 BA, he has a nice stroke and rips the ball into the gaps, allowing him to put up an .840 OPS in July and .768 so far this month.

The middle infield appears to be an area of little concern for next season.

We haven't seen enough of Wyatt Toregas to make an assessment yet, and just when it seemed like Trevor Crowe was getting a feel for things he came out of the lineup with an injury.

In September, there are likely to be some new youngsters for Wedge & Co. to work with. Hector Rondon seems like a sure call-up, as does Carlos Carrasco, who is 4-0 with a 3.45 ERA in 4 starts since coming to Columbus in the Cliff Lee deal. Just as important, he's walked only 5 and has struck out 27 in 28 innings at Columbus.

Looking forward to seeing what this duo will do at the big-league level, even if it will be just a September call-up for them.

Which brings us to the other likely call-up next month - Matt LaPorta. I say "likely" because there were three other times this season that I thought he would get recalled, and he remains - mysteriously - in Columbus.

Why LaPorta is not here now - especially since the Tribe has been forced to start Jamey Carroll in the outfield the past few games - is beyond me.

The only thing that makes any sense is that Shapiro was so unhappy with Wedge's indifference to playing LaPorta when he was up briefly earlier this year that he doesn't want to give Wedge another chance to sew seeds of doubt in the youngster's head.

And if that's the case, none of the rest of what I've written will matter. Wedge will be a goner.

And not a moment too soon.