If hotshot Indians keep winning, they will be ahead of schedule
By Peter Gammons Special to ESPN.com
It's the 18th of June and the Cleveland Indians are six games over .500, one game better than the Braves in the won-lost column, 1½ better than the Yankees, two better than the Cubs, better than the entire National League West.
Five weeks earlier, the Indians were 12-18 and floundering. Mark Shapiro resisted the temptation that general managers sometime find irresistible -- to feed their egos by making trades to show the fans and media they are "doing something" -- and stuck with what he and manager Eric Wedge believe is a building team that can and will contend next season. "We believed that we are closer to what we hit last season than the first six weeks of 2005," says Shapiro.
As Coco Crisp, Travis Hafner, Ronnie Belliard and most everyone other than Victor Martinez has crept toward their expected norms, the Indians have developed two middle-of-the-diamond regulars in their first full seasons. Grady Sizemore, 22, has an .834 OPS, second best among AL center fielders behind Johnny Damon. Jhonny Peralta, 23, has an .848 OPS, third among AL shortstops after Miguel Tejada and Michael Young.
Outfielder Coco Crisp is one of a host of young Indians players meeting expectations.
With the presence of Bob Wickman at the end of games, Cleveland's bullpen has been the best in the league: Its 2.54 ERA through Friday was .30 lower than runner-up Minnesota, and it has led in strikeout/walk ratio and -- as a stuff indicator -- lowest OPS against. That has allowed C.C. Sabathia, Cliff Lee and, now that he has some support, Jake Westbrook to build as a rotation with Kevin Millwood. Incidentally, Millwood has earned deep respect from his general manager. "This is a guy who threw 200 innings four times before he turned 30," says Shapiro. "When I see that and I see how he stays in games even when he doesn't have his best stuff makes me appreciate how badly he wants it and how he does not ever give in. He's been a very positive influence on the younger pitchers."
Beginning with the 2006 season, the Indians will be able to enter the free-agent market. But they will also have several young pitchers ready for the major leagues, like relievers Fernando Cabrera (5-0, 0.97, 52-7 K/BB in 37 IP) and left-hander Brian Tallet. And Double-A starters Dan Denham (5-3, 3.10, but .201 opponents' average) and J.D. Martin, who in eight starts has a 2.82 ERA and a 56-7 K/BB ratio in 44 2/3 innings. Then there are also two starters who may be on the horizon by this time next year, top prospect Adam Miller, returning from arm problems, and lefty Jeremy Sowers, their 2004 first-round pick from Vanderbilt.
Not that this season is over. The Indians were three games out of the wild card on Saturday, a far cry from where they were five weeks ago, and right where they thought they might be when the season began. Another reminder that even when you're 12-18, only a fifth of your season has been played.
Small markets, big problems
Then there are small-market teams in trouble, like these three:
1. Tampa Bay. Lou Piniella did the right thing. He apologized to his players and is trying to move forward. But will he be managing the Rays in 2006? Doubtful. Will he be there the rest of this season? Every indication is that it's 50-50.
Don't start blaming Chuck LaMar, because he and Piniella's representative, Alan Nero, worked feverishly Thursday to try to get this thing to work. The problem is that the next ownership group in Tampa, headed by Stuart Sternberg, is, in one source's words, "starving Vince Naimoli," who wants to hold on through '06 at the least. When Piniella accepted the Rays job, he was promised that the payroll would increase. Instead, it has decreased each year, much to LaMar's frustration as well. If someone can't step in and get Sternberg to loosen the purse strings, this will not be resolved.
2. Kansas City. GM Allard Baird says "the decision to cut payroll and roll back this year was mine, not David Glass." Now, players believe Baird is falling on his sword, but Glass has made it clear to Baird that he cannot dump Mike Sweeney or other veterans just to clear payroll. So Baird is talking about Sweeney, Jeremy Affeldt, Matt Stairs, et al, but he wants prospects back and he needs the other club to take the money. Which makes such a deal nearly impossible.
The good news is that unlike Tampa and Cincinnati, Kansas City has young arms, especially with Andy Sisco, Ambiorix Burgos and Leo Nunez in the bullpen. The Royals' 2004-05 first-round draft picks, Billy Butler and Alex Gordon, could be big-league corner outfielders in a hurry, and first baseman Justin Huber will be in Kansas City and hitting next year.
Incidentally, the Royals have not talked to the Angels about Sweeney.
3. Cincinnati. No pitching is the result of years of miserable drafts. But as Austin Kearns got sent down -- and, hey, he's overweight -- and the Danny Graves fiasco struck, there might not be a more disgruntled group of players. Junior Griffey's leg is bad and most of the good players want out. Who'd have thought they'd be pining for the return of Marge Schott, rest her soul.
This, that and trade chatter
• The Yankees are trying to get Oakland's Mark Kotsay, who can be a free agent at the end of the year. But whether or not Brian Cashman will give up the prospects needed to get one of the game's premier center fielders, like right-hander Philip Hughes and perhaps third baseman Eric Duncan, remains to be seen. Cashman has talked to a number of general managers, but isn't offering to break up the team as some have suggested. Getting Kotsay would completely change their outfield defense and give them a solid leadoff hitter as they try to move Tony Womack.
The Yankees need better outfield defense and a solid leadoff hitter. Tony Womack isn't that player.
• The Red Sox have been looking for pitching and have talked to the Giants about Jason Schmidt, although they do not like what they see from Schmidt, even in Friday night's shutout victory over the Tigers. Jay Payton has asked to be traded, and Boston is trying to oblige him; curiously, the Braves had no interest. The Red Sox think that 25-year-old minor league free agent Chip Ambres might be able to fill the role of fourth outfielder. The Red Sox also have Rule V'er Adam Stern and there is a good chance Gabe Kapler will return from Japan. In fact, Craig Shipley, assistant to GM Theo Epstein, is in Japan scouting, and one front office executive says he is working on a deal for Kapler's return.
Two years ago, the Red Sox's reports on Akinori Otsuka were such that they passed on him, a mistake, and Shipley and Eastern scouting director Jon Deeble are doing extensive work this season in Japan.
• Padres GM Kevin Towers has been attempting to acquire a veteran infielder and tried to talk the Red Sox into helping their bullpen by giving up Bill Mueller (but not for Otsuka). However, as much as they are convinced Kevin Youkilis can play, the Sox know the importance of Mueller, not only as a performer, but as a clubhouse guy. Towers might look in Tony Graffanino's direction, and apparently he has little interest in Womack.
• The Giants have told other teams that they want to get younger, but it is unlikely right now they will get a boatload of prospects for Schmidt. One encouraging sign is that Lance Niekro has taken over first base, his shoulder is healthy for the first time in years and he had an .895 OPS through Friday.
• Toronto will talk about one or two of its relievers, like Miguel Batista or Scott Schoeneweis, but J.P. Ricciardi says he will not trade Shea Hillenbrand even if teams like the Angels and Orioles have interest. The Jays are convinced Aaron Hill is the real thing. Next decision: third or second, and what does that mean to the incumbents?
• The Rangers felt they could go no further with Ryan Drese and Pedro Astacio. Next up on the horizon is Edison Volquez, nicknamed "Little Pedro," who has been moved up Double-A Frisco. "A week after we let Drese go he'd have had the right not to go to the minors," says Buck Showalter. "These days in the American League, you can't get a pitcher fixed by working in the bullpen. He has to go pitch."
• As third baseman Andy Laroche shoots through the Dodgers system -- 21 homers in mid-June -- one has to tip one's hat to Dan Evans, who off the Cape Cod League gave LaRoche $1 million after being drafted out of Grayson County JC in the 39th round. But that doesn't help the current medical situation in L.A. The Dodgers already are over 400 DL days compared to 369 all of last year, not counting the players who never were going to appear -- Paul Shuey and Darren Dreifort.
• The Yankees' new stadium figures to increase their revenues by at least $50 million a year, and right behind them Mets owner Fred Wilpon will jump in on the heels of his cable network and build a new Ebbetts Field in the Shea parking lots.
• Cubs GM Jim Hendry on Rich Hill: "With that great curveball, we thought this spring he'd eventually be a lefty out of the bullpen (Scott Sauerbeck?). But his command of his fastball (88-to-92 mph) has improved so much he may turn out to be a starter. We'll have to wait and see."
Testing's trickle-down effect
Look, home runs are at their 2002 level, and the Rangers are on a pace to eclipse last year's leader, but that doesn't mean GMs and managers aren't talking about the long-term impact of drug-testing. "There is a new day coming, it's clear," says one AL manager. "We went into this draft thinking that the game is going to change back," adds an AL GM. "We were also very careful about looking into the backgrounds of some of the bigger kids," as everyone in baseball has noticed that one rookie is nowhere near as strong as he was at the time he was drafted.
One NL GM says, "last winter was one of the most difficult free agent and trading evaluation periods, and this winter will be as bad. Predicting performance is getting increasingly difficult. How much is the result of the testing? I don't know."
More power to those not playing first
The breakdown in American League performance at first base is probably one of those random cycles. But the AL leader in All-Star voting is Tino Martinez, neck and neck with Coco Crisp in OPS. Turn to your Baseball Prospectus: In the NL, four of the top six in adjusted equivalent average -- a pretty good tool for judging offensive performance -- are first basemen Derrek Lee, Carlos Delgado, Nick Johnson, and Albert Pujols. Only one of the top 20 in the AL is a regular first baseman, Mark Teixeira, who ranks ninth. The AL leaders are Brian Roberts, Alex Rodriguez, Miguel Tejada, Gary Sheffield, Melvin Mora, Carlos Guillen and Jason Varitek, which means that two shortstops, two third basemen, a second baseman and a catcher are producing more than any first baseman.
Turn to VORP, and there are but six AL first basemen at 10.0 or better -- seven second basemen, seven shortstops. Power position?
Now ... and before
Several general managers believe this past winter was one of the most difficult when it comes to judging talent acquisitions. Now that the season is more than 40 percent completed, here is a look at the major acquisitions of this past offseason and their performances through Sunday compared to their average performances over the previous three seasons: