SweetSpot: Chris Perez

Congratulations, Ned Yost, you just managed the worst inning of the season.

The situation: The Kansas City Royals trailed the Cleveland Indians 4-3 entering the top of the ninth. The Indians summoned closer Chris Perez from the bullpen, a guy who has been awful of late. In his previous 13 appearances Perez had faced 60 batters and allowed 18 hits -- including four home runs -- and four walks. In September, he'd pitched four innings and allowed eight hits.

Salvador Perez led off with a base hit to left field. Mike Moustakas walked on four pitches. Pinch-runners for both were on base. Lorenzo Cain, Jarrod Dyson and Alcides Escobar -- the bottom of the order -- were due up. You have a struggling pitcher who just walked a batter on four pitches. What do you do?

[+] EnlargeJimenez
Jason Miller/Getty ImagesUbaldo Jimenez stepped up and dealt at a time when the Tribe needed him to.
Here's what you don't do: Give Perez an out.

David Lough pinch-hit for Cain and sacrificed. Didn't take a pitch. Didn't make Perez throw at least one strike. He bunted the first pitch.

Look, it's not just the sabermetric crowd who is anti-bunt. Managers have become anti-bunt, not sacrificing nearly as often as they used to. It's a one-run strategy with minimal payoff in a world where more hitters than ever can drive the ball for extra bases or out of the park. A bunt may slightly increase your chance to score one run but it also decreases your chance for multiple runs. It's a strategy from an era when singles were more common, but in this age of increasing strikeouts and declining batting averages, singles are less likely than ever to occur.

In this specific instance, though, why give an out to a pitcher who has been a train wreck of late? Why make him get only two outs in an inning instead of three?

Yost then trumped that decision with an even worse one: He pinch-hit Carlos Pena for Dyson. That's .208-hitting Carlos Pena. That's Carlos Pena, with two major league plate appearances since July 20. That's Carlos Pena, the owner of one of the highest strikeout rates in the majors (28 percent of his PAs this year). So with the Royals' season on the line -- well, maybe not quite the entire season, although it sure felt like it to Royals fans -- Yost sent up a guy who doesn't hit singles and had a 1-in-3 chance of striking out.

Maybe he was hoping for a sacrifice fly, playing for the tie rather than the win. Go for the knockout blow there when you have a chance. (You can argue that he should have saved Lough to hit for Dyson, since he's a much better contact guy than Pena.)

Pena saw six pitches. Didn't move the bat off his shoulder. Called out on strikes. An awful at-bat by a veteran who knew he was sent up there to put the ball in play. Then again, that's what Pena does: He strikes out. After George Kottares, yet another pinch-hitter, skillfully coaxed a walk off Perez, Alex Gordon flew out to shallow center. Game over. Season over?

Yost, you may remember, was the manager the Milwaukee Brewers fired with 12 games remaining in the 2008 season -- they were battling for the playoffs but had just lost six of seven. Dale Sveum replaced him and went 7-5 over the final 12 games and the Brewers won the wild card. Who fires their manager with 12 games left in a playoff season? I mean, outside of the NHL? A front office that felt it could do better.

So ... this was a huge win for the Indians, and a huge start again for Ubaldo Jimenez, who allowed one unearned in seven innings, with 10 strikeouts and no walks. It was his second walk-less start of the season, but also his second in three starts: He had a 10-K, no-walk start against Atlanta on Aug. 29. In fact, since July 22, Jimenez has a 1.95 ERA in nine starts, with 63 strikeouts, 22 walks and three home runs in 55 2/3 innings. It's his best run of pitching since that great start he had for the Rockies in 2010.

The Indians need him to keep doing this with Justin Masterson possibly out the rest of the season. With the Rays idle, the Indians (and victorious Orioles) moved to 1.5 games behind Tampa for the second wild card. The Royals dropped down to 4 back. In a most painful way.

This whole closer thing is a tough business. Perfection isn't just expected; it's demanded. Slip up once and it's a headline; slip up twice and fans are ready to trade you to Topeka. Slip up three times and your manager usually starts questioning your intestinal fortitude. As the late, great Dan Quisenberry once said, "A manager uses a relief pitcher like a six-shooter: He fires until it's empty then takes the gun and throws it at the villain."

The trouble with closers, and the decisions managers have to make when they start to struggle: When do you know if the chamber is empty?

Three playoff contenders suffered wrenching defeats this weekend when their closers blew multirun leads. Blown saves in one-run games are bad enough; blowing leads of two or three runs is generally unacceptable. The victims, or saboteurs if you prefer: Jim Johnson of the Baltimore Orioles, Chris Perez of the Cleveland Indians, and Fernando Rodney of the Tampa Bay Rays.

Here's what happened:
  • The Orioles led the Blue Jays 5-2 on Sunday entering the bottom of the ninth, but Edwin Encarnacion doubled, Adam Lind grounded a single up the middle and J.P. Arencibia lined a base hit to right. A fly out, walk and fielder's choice made it 5-4 with runners at the corners and two outs. Light-hitting Munenori Kawasaki was at the plate. Johnson threw Kawasaki six consecutive fastballs -- six of his signature mid-90s sinker -- but the sixth one didn't sink much. The pitch hung out over the middle of the plate, and Kawasaki lined it into left center for a game-winning two-run double. The Orioles lost just one game last season they led heading into the ninth inning; they already have five such defeats in 2013. Johnson has lost three of those, and he has two other defeats, as well.
  • The Indians also led 5-2 entering the bottom of the ninth, ready to salvage a split of a four-game series at Fenway Park. Dustin Pedroia walked to lead off, and, as you can probably guess, bad things happen when you walk the leadoff batter with a three-run lead. David Ortiz doubled. A groundout scored a run, Ortiz stole third and then another groundout made it 5-4. But now the bases were empty and Perez had two outs. He walked Jonny Gomes, who is hitting .200 without a homer against right-handed pitchers; Stephen Drew lined a base hit to right; and Perez walked light-hitting Jose Iglesias. Terry Francona had finally had enough and brought in Joe Smith to face Jacoby Ellsbury, who won it with a double to left center. It was the first game Cleveland lost entering the ninth inning and just the second loss for the bullpen, but Perez has been shaky of late. Last week, he blew a two-run lead in the ninth to Seattle only to get the win, and two days later, he gave up the go-ahead run in the ninth only to be rescued again as Cleveland won in extra innings. That's seven runs his past three outings.
  • Rodney blew his fifth save on Saturday night, a 3-1 lead against the Yankees, who won in 11 innings. The Rays have now lost three games they led entering the ninth (and five they led entering the eighth). Last season, when Rodney allowed just nine runs all season and the entire pen was stellar, those figures were two and three.

So that's the play-by-play of disaster. That all three are struggling isn't necessarily a big surprise. Their Proven Closer labels were a little dubious entering the season, especially for Johnson and Rodney, who each had just one full season as a closer under the belt. In fact, it's time we take the magic out of the whole "closer mystique" nonsense that everybody likes to pretend exists. The fact that guys like Jason Grilli of the Pirates and Edward Mujica of the Cardinals are doing just fine is another indication that closers are often lucked into, not made.

There are few great ones -- Mariano Rivera, of course, and Craig Kimbrel (although even he has three blown saves) -- but the truth is that for most of these guys there's a slender margin between invincibility and Tom Niedenfuer. That's exactly what we're seeing with Johnson, Rodney and Perez this season.

Johnson is a pitch-to-contact closer whom sabermetric analysts predicted would be hard-pressed to match his big 2012 campaign when he saved 51 games. His strikeout rate is up, but that's because he's throwing more pitches up in the zone; a sinker up in the zone is a bad pitch. Last season, Johnson's ground ball rate was 62 percent; this season, it's 42 percent. Thus, he's getting hit more.

Perez was an All-Star the past two seasons, but his 3.45 ERA during that span is hardly elite material for a closer. He's always been a guy who lives on the edge, a decent reliever who got the ninth-inning role. His heat map shows a lot more pitches up in the zone this season, as well -- he's already allowed five doubles, four home runs and 10 walks in 16⅔ innings.

Rodney's implosion is probably the least surprising of the three. From 2007 to 2011, his ERA was more than 4.00 each season. Last season, he suddenly developed the perfect feel for his changeup to go along with fastball command, and batters hit .071 off it with 55 Ks and five walks. This season, the fastball command hasn't been there, and neither has the dominance on the changeup. He's already walked 18 batters (including 10 on changeups) after walking 15 all of last season. After giving up four extra-base hits in 2012, that total is already at nine. In other words, instead of getting Dennis Eckersley in his prime, the Rays are back to getting Fernando Rodney.

The managers of these clubs have some difficult decisions. Because all three have the Proven Closer label, how many chances do they get? And just shuffling them into the eighth-inning role and promoting the setup guy to closer doesn't necessarily solve anything; they can blow games just as easily in the eighth as in the ninth. Orioles manager Buck Showalter has the best options, as relievers Tommy Hunter, Darren O'Day and Brian Matusz have all pitched well.

"We should be getting on the plane with three wins here, but I can't hang my head too long," Johnson said after the game. "It's going to hurt for a little bit, and it should."

For now, it appears Johnson will keep his job despite four blown saves in his past five appearances. But no matter what happens the rest of the season, the ninth inning has already been a disaster for the Orioles. Last season, the average team lost 3.7 games it lead heading into the ninth. As mentioned, that's already five such defeats for the O's this season. And each one has hurt a little bit.



Which closer should lose his job?


Discuss (Total votes: 3,919)

Three stars

1. Anibal Sanchez, Tigers. Sanchez lost his no-hit bid on Friday when Joe Mauer singled with one out in the ninth. After Detroit acquired Sanchez from the Marlins last season, his strong performance in the playoffs led the Tigers to sign him to an $80 million contract that seemed a little ambitious considering his 3.65 career ERA and the fact that he'd never pitched 200 innings in a season. So far, however, Sanchez has been much better than a midrotation starter, as he's increased his strikeout rate from 20.4 percent a season ago to 30.6 percent now. While he's getting more strikeouts with all four of his pitches, the biggest increase has been with his fastball, which had a strikeout rate of 13.8 percent on plate appearances ending with the pitch in 2012 but 28 percent this season. The command of his fastball -- especially on the outside corner to righties -- has made his other pitches even more effective.

2. Stephen Strasburg, Nationals. For a guy who is "struggling," Strasburg has looked pretty good of late. He allowed just one run in eight innings against the Phillies on Sunday. In his past three starts, he's allowed four runs and just 13 hits in 23 innings. He's recorded 39 groundouts and 15 fly outs over those three starts. He's still seeking his first double-digit strikeout game of the season but still has 71 Ks in 72⅓ innings. While his ERA of 2.49 is a little misleading -- he's allowed nine unearned runs -- his recent outings should alleviate the minor concerns about his early performance.

3. Pete Kozma, Cardinals. How to beat Clayton Kershaw? The Cardinals shortstop went 4-for-4 on Sunday with three doubles; three of those hits came off Kershaw, including a three-run double and rally-starting two-base hit, as the Cardinals won 5-3.

Clutch performance of the weekend
Of our many walk-off heroes, how about Chris Young of the A's? The A's trailed the Astros 5-3 on Friday. Jose Veras walked John Jaso and Coco Crisp on 3-2 pitches, setting the stage for Young with two outs. Young did this on a 1-1 curveball. The A's are now five games over .500 -- thanks in large part to a 9-0 record against the Astros, who they've outscored 68 to 31. Hey, if they go 19-0 against the Astros, it's going to be hard to deny them another trip to the playoffs.

Best game
The Giants fell behind 4-0 to the Rockies on Saturday but chipped away and tied the game in the seventh. Manager Bruce Bochy got ejected in the eighth when Marco Scutaro was thrown out at third base, and the Giants escaped a two-on, nobody-out jam in the ninth. Troy Tulowitzki homered off a Sergio Romo slider in the 10th. But then, after the usually steady Rafael Betancourt walked Brandon Crawford, Angel Pagan lofted a deep fly to right center that kicked off the wall … and, well, Pagan ran 360 feet around the bases, helped a bit by a lazy relay throw from Rockies center fielder Dexter Fowler.

Hitter on the rise: Matt Dominguez, Astros
When the Astros acquired Dominguez last season from the Marlins for Carlos Lee, everyone knew he had a major league caliber glove at third base. After going homerless in his first 33 games, doubts began increasing about his bat. Dominguez, however, has now popped seven homers in his past 13 games. His season line still needs some work, especially in the on-base department (.279), but he's starting to look like a positive in this dismal Astros season.

Pitcher on the rise: Jason Vargas, Angels
Don't look now, but the Angels have won eight in a row and are a respectable 23-27. Did they start too late, just like last season? Vargas is 4-0 with a 2.25 ERA in May, allowing nine runs in five starts. The Angels' next 10 games are against the Dodgers, Astros and Cubs. If they're a couple games over .500 at the end of those 10 games, they'll be back in the wild-card race.

Team on the rise: White Sox
Besides the Angels and Pirates (last week's team on the rise), the hottest club is the White Sox. We keep wanting to count out the South Siders, but, somehow, they find a way to hang in there. They don't score much, but they've won nine of 12 the old-fashioned way: with starting pitching. The starters have a 3.25 ERA over those 12 games, and that despite ace Chris Sale missing his last start with mild tendinitis in his shoulder. He's scheduled to start Tuesday against the Cubs.

Team on the fall: Mariners
They pulled out an extra-inning victory over the Rangers on Sunday, but that ended an eight-game losing streak. Starters not named Hernandez or Iwakuma have combined for a 6.78 ERA, which essentially means three-fifths of the Seattle rotation is below replacement level. The Jesus Montero catching experiment was finally, mercifully, brought to an end as he was demoted to Triple-A to see if he can rediscover the supposed hitting prowess that once made him a top-10 prospect (and play some first base). Dustin Ackley continues to be awful and Michael Saunders is three for his past 37. Things are so bad that Mariners fans are excited about Justin Smoak and his .698 OPS.
Dear umpires,

You blew it.

Baseball fans

* * * *

The Oakland Athletics and Cleveland Indians played a good baseball game on a sleepy Wednesday night in early May, the Indians winning 4-3. The A's scored three runs in the fourth off Justin Masterson -- bunching the only four hits they would get off Masterson in his seven innings. One of those innings that can just happen in the middle of an otherwise strong pitching performance. The Indians scored twice in the fifth without getting the ball out of the infield -- two walks, an infield single, a force at home and then a potential double play that Adam Rosales threw in the dirt and past first baseman Daric Barton, allowing two runs to score. Just one of those innings that happen from time to time during the long grind of a baseball season.

Then the Indians took a 4-3 lead in the sixth doing what they've been doing a lot of lately -- hitting home runs. Nick Swisher and then Carlos Santana connected off A.J. Griffin fastballs with long home runs. Swisher swatted a 2-1 four-seamer that was left up and away (catcher John Jaso wanted the pitch in) for a 404-foot blast to right-center, and then Santana clocked a nearly identical 3-1 pitch well over the center-field fence. One of those innings that happen when you fall behind in the count and your fastball checks in at only 90 mph.

We should be talking about Cleveland and its ninth win in 10 games, but instead the umpires blew a call in the top of the ninth. With two outs, Rosales drilled a Chris Perez fastball off the top of the left-center wall for a double. Replays seemed to clearly show the ball hitting off the railing behind the wall for a game-tying home run.

After a review that lasted nearly as long as the Twins-Red Sox game, the umpires emerged from the replay dungeon. Second-base umpire Angel Hernandez pointed to second base. Double. A's manager Bob Melvin proceeded to get very angry. The on-site consensus agreed that it was a home run:

After the game, Hernandez told reporters there wasn't enough evidence to overturn the call. Except there was. What's the point of having a replay system if you're still going to blow the call? Did the four umpires all watch the same replays and all agree? Hard to believe. Even Indians fans were tweeting that it was a home run.

Perez loaded the bases before finally get a ground ball back to the mound to end it -- Perez sprinted over to first base to record the out himself -- but the blown call tainted the final result. Suddenly, just another game in May could end up having huge ramifications by the time we get to the final week in September. What if the A's miss the playoffs by one win, or fall short by a game in the division race? A's fans will remember this game, that's for sure. The right call wouldn't have guaranteed them a victory, of course, but it at least would have extended the game and let the players decide the outcome.

I'm not usually one to knock the umpires, and every mistake they make gets thrust into the spotlight, fairly or not. But some of the recent negative publicity could have easily been avoided -- the David Price/Tom Hallion altercation in which Hallion ended up publicly calling Price a liar; the ridiculous ejection the other day of Bryce Harper by John Hirschbeck (MLB decided not to fine Harper, leading to his classic quote: "That's great. I'm glad I don't have to pay the $1,000. That's another $1,000 in my pocket"); and now this blown call that may have cost the A's the game.

None of this should be happening. We should be talking about Swisher and his joyous trot around the bases, his smile as wide as Lake Erie, and then his even more joyful reaction when Santana tied it a few moments later. We should be talking about Santana's incredible start (.358/.455/.674) or how the Indians have hit 21 home runs during this 9-1 stretch and averaged 6.7 runs per game. We should be talking about Barton's return to the majors and his mountain-man beard that would make Josh Reddick proud, or whether or not Rosales should have turned that double play.

Instead we're talking about Angel Hernandez, railings and another fiasco by the umpires. They have to do better.
Quick thoughts on Wednesday's games:
  • Three closers blew ninth-inning leads -- Phil Coke of the Tigers, Fernando Rodney of the Rays and Chris Perez of the Indians. The Rays and Indians ended up winning their games anyway, so no harm, no foul. Of the three the one I'd most worry about is Rodney, because he was so good last year and the Rays need him to dominate once again. Coke entered with a 2-1 lead after Joaquin Benoit had walked the leadoff hitter in the ninth, and Coke gave up a little flare to right and then a two-run double to Eduardo Escobar that was tagged to deep left-center but Austin Jackson and Andy Dirks had a miscommunication, letting the ball drop. I'm not that worried yet about Detroit's closer-by-committee situation, as I still think they have enough good arms down there to make it work.
  • The other closer to really worry about, however, is Milwaukee's John Axford. After giving up a game-tying homer in the opener, he pitched the ninth while down 4-3 and allowed five hits and two runs, failing to get three outs. Rockies beat writer Troy Renck reported on Twitter that a scout said hitters are seeing Axford's release point so easily that it's almost like he's tipping his pitches. I don't see how the Brewers can use him in a save situation again until he proves he can actually go through an inning without giving up a home run. (Carlos Gomez did have the play of the day, however.
  • Watched Tim Lincecum's start and it wasn't pretty, although he escaped with the win despite walking seven batters in five innings. How rare is that? Tommy Hanson was the only starter to walk seven batters last year and come away with a victory. Like with Roy Halladay, we're still left wondering what lies ahead.
  • Great game in Arizona that I didn't stay up for, the Diamondbacks beating the Cardinals 10-9 in 16 innings. Josh Collmenter pitched five innings to get the win, which begs the question: How many teams even have a reliever like that anymore, a guy you can leave in to soak up innings? Collmenter has spent parts of the past two seasons in the Arizona rotation. (Although I don't understand moves like this: David Hernandez, one of the best setup guys in the game, pitched just one inning and 10 pitches. In a tie game, why remove him so quickly? In a tie game, don't you have to think about the game being extended and how you want as many innings as possible from your best relievers? Especially since Arizona doesn't even play on Thursday. It worked out in the end for Kirk Gibson, but I hate that rote "remove a guy after one inning" mind-set and ignoring his pitch count.)
  • Was watching Halladay pitch, so missed Matt Harvey's gem for the Mets (7 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 10 SO). I think I'll be watching some of his starts soon enough. In a postgame interview, he said he had command of his fastball to both sides of the plate, and didn't have to shake off catcher John Buck all game.
  • The Astros, Marlins or Yankees: Which team will be worse? Just kidding, Yankees fans! (Sort of.)
Wednesday’s Baseball Today podcast with SweetSpot blogger Dave Schoenfield and I was one of those delightful episodes with much back and forth and opinion, with among the juicy topics being ...

1. Who’s joining that Orioles bandwagon after another extra-inning victory? Well, Dave is! We also take a look around the game from Tuesday, discussing Jose Valverde, Evan Longoria and Chris Perez.

2. Who are the top center fielders in the game and where does B.J. Upton rank? What in the name of Jon Jay is going on here?

3. Barry Bonds says he’s a Hall of Famer. Do we agree? Do you?

4. Our emailers have thoughts on those Orioles and run differential, Bryce Harper’s real place among the top NL rookies (hint, Michael Fiers might have a say in this) and more!

5. Wednesday’s schedule features the NL ERA leader, and it’s certainly not a name you’d expect. Plus, Dan Straily versus Zack Greinke should be interesting!

So download and listen to Wednesday’s Baseball Today podcast with Schoenfield and I, because who else is talking about Cesar Cedeno, Greg Luzinski and Ken Griffey’s rookie campaign?

OK, I'll give you Justin Verlander.

I'll even give you Miguel Cabrera, Prince Fielder and Austin Jackson.

But five through 25? I think I'll take the Cleveland Indians over the Detroit Tigers.

The Indians beat the Tigers 5-3 on Tuesday, even though Ubaldo Jimenez struggled once again with his control. Relief ace Chris Perez, who criticized Indians fans on Saturday for their lack of support (Cleveland is last in the majors in attendance), was greeted with a thunderous ovation as he came in out of the bullpen in the ninth inning. With two runners on, he struck out Cabrera and got Fielder to ground out.

Just another save. "That's the loudest I've ever been cheered here," Perez said. "I was pumped, the adrenaline was going. It could have gone the other way. I came through. I didn't know which way it was going to go. I was thankful it went the good way."

The good way pushed the Indians to 24-18. The Tigers are 20-22, and for the life of me I can't understand why everyone still thinks Detroit is the better team. Mind you, I'm not saying the Indians are better. I just don't see why the Tigers are better. Just because everyone picked them before the season?

Once you get past those big shiny names on the Tigers' roster, if you want to pinpoint one big difference between the two clubs, it's a little statistic that us sabermetric types love: the old base on balls. The Indians lead the American League with 188 walks, 25 more than any other team; the Tigers have 127 walks, ninth in the league. That patience will go a long ways toward giving Cleveland an offense capable of scoring as many runs as Detroit's (the Indians have outscored the Tigers by one run so far, 184 to 183).

In fact, when you go position by position, you'll see what I mean.

Catcher: Carlos Santana versus Alex Avila. So far, Avila has been unable to match 2011's .366 average on balls in play, the sixth-best average in the majors. Which means he's hitting like he did in 2010. Santana, meanwhile, is a walks machine who hit 27 home runs in 2011.

First base: Casey Kotchman versus Prince Fielder. Obvious edge to Fielder, of course. The most interesting thing about his start (.292/.354/.472) is his walk rate is down from 15.5 percent to 8.5 percent. Part of that is he was intentionally walked 32 times a year ago, just three this year.

Second base: Jason Kipnis versus Ramon Santiago/Ryan Raburn. Please. Big edge to Kipnis with Santiago and Raburn both hitting under .200. Will Detroit make a move here?

Third base: Jack Hannahan/Jose Lopez versus Miguel Cabrera. This may be the first and only time you'll see Jose Lopez mentioned in the same breath as Miguel Cabrera. So far, however, this edge has been minimal. Cabrera is hitting .304/.362/.488, Hannahan .287/.365/.436 but with better defense. According to Defensive Runs Saved, Cabrera has cost the Tigers four runs -- worst among third basemen (tied with Hanley Ramirez).

Shortstop: Asdrubal Cabrera versus Jhonny Peralta. With the Indians preaching plate discipline, check out Cabrera: Last year, 44 walks and 119 strikeouts; this year, 18 walks and just 12 strikeouts. He's hitting .309 with an OBP over .400 but hasn't lost any power. In 2011, he swung at 31 percent of the pitches out of the strike but he has cut that down to 24 percent. Small differences can go a long way. Peralta was a big surprise for Detroit last season but hasn't matched the numbers in the plate or in the field.

Left field: Johnny Damon/Shelley Duncan versus Andy Dirks/Delmon Young. Damon has looked terrible. Dirks has looked great, but too early to evaluate this one.

Center field: Michael Brantley versus Austin Jackson. With his defense and hot start at the plate, Jackson has been as valuable as any player in the American League not named Josh Hamilton.

Right field: Shin-Soo Choo versus Brennan Boesch. This one isn't close and that's with Choo off to a middling start in the power department. Choo has a .391 OBP, Boesch a .271 OBP. Choo is a solid defender while Boesch is slow and lumbering. With his poor start at the plate and poor defense, Boesch has been one of the worst regular in baseball so far. Choo is an underrated asset and I love Manny Acta's decision to move him into the leadoff spot.

Designated hitter: Travis Hafner versus field. Cleveland's designated hitters have six homers and .370 OBP (fourth in the league). Detroit's DHs have one home run and a .238 OBP (13th in the league). Big, big edge to Pronk.

Rotation. With the best pitcher on the planet, Detroit's rotation has posted a 3.87 ERA; without the best pitcher on the planet, Cleveland's rotation has posted a 3.94 ERA. Both teams have played 42 games and Cleveland's starters have thrown 12 more innings. Moving forward, maybe you think Detroit's group will perform better. After all, Doug Fister missed some, Max Scherzer just struck out 15 in game (never mind that the Pirates have been an historic strikeout binge of late) and Rick Porcello will put it together one of these years, because everyone says so. Meanwhile, Ubaldo Jimenez can't throw strikes, Justin Masterson hasn't pitched as well as last year and Derek Lowe is doing it with smoke, mirrors and a deal with the devil. The one thing the Cleveland starters do is keep the ball in the park; they've allowed 20 home runs, second-fewest in the league. Look, maybe you think Scherzer will start pitching better; I'd say so will Masterson. Maybe you're a Porcello believer; I'm not, especially with that infield defense behind him. Lowe is a fluke? Well, let's see how Drew Smyly does as the scouting reports get around on him.

Bullpen. Neither pen has been stellar, as Cleveland's 4.16 ERA ranks 13th in the AL and Detroit's 4.76 ranks 14th. Cleveland's top guys, however, have been pretty solid -- Chris Perez is 14 of 15 in save opportunities while Vinnie Pestano, Joe Smith and Nick Hagadone have pitched well. Detroit's top two of Jose Valverde and Joaquin Benoit, so dominant a year ago, have both struggled to throw strikes.

I said before the season that I believed the Tigers were drastically overrated. On the Baseball Today podcast late in spring training, I predicted Cleveland would win the division. Unfortunately, when ESPN.com published predictions a few days later, I changed my pick to Detroit. I bought into the hype.

I'm not buying any longer. This division is wide, wide open. (And I haven't even mentioned the White Sox!)

Jose Altuve Troy Taormina/US PresswireDiminutive Astros infielder Jose Altuve isn't always so low to the ground.
First base: Ninth-inning heat. Sean Marshall actually hadn't pitched that poorly for the Reds, not with 22 strikeouts and three walks in 14.2 innings. But he'd allowed 22 hits thanks to an unlucky .488 BABIP, so Dusty Baker made the move: Aroldis Chapman is in as the team's closer. He picked up his first save of 2012, closing out the Reds' 5-2 victory over the Yankees. I don't have any major issues with the move, but let's see how Baker handles Chapman. Will he extend him past one inning on occasion? (Four of his previous relief outings had been two innings.) The problem with making your best reliever your designated closer can be seen in Sunday's usage. Leading 3-2 in the eighth, Baker used Marshall and Logan Ondrusek. Leading 5-2 in the ninth, Baker used Chapman. The biggest out of the game was Marshall retiring Robinson Cano with a runner on and no outs in the eighth, while Chapman faced the bottom of the lineup. So while Chapman will get the saves, this move probably has little bearing on the Reds' W-L record.

Second base: Empty seats in Cleveland. The Indians are in first place but last in the majors in attendance, averaging 15,873 per game. Indians closer Chris Perez isn't happy about it. "It's just a slap in the face when you're in first place and last in attendance," he said. "Last. Not 25th or 26th. Last." Team president Mark Shapiro was left attempting to cover Perez's tracks, but I don't think what Perez said was unfair. He was being honest. Yes, the weather has been tough so far, but the Indians aren't a bad team and were decent in 2011. It is sad to see all the empty seats, however. From 1995 to 2001, the Indians ranked first, second or third in the AL in attendance as the team made the playoffs six times in seven years. But in 2003, when the team fell to 68-94, attendance quickly plummeted to 12th in the AL and hasn't recovered. Even in 2007, when Cleveland tied for the major league lead with 96 wins, the team ranked just ninth in AL attendance. Yes, the local economy may not be as strong at it was in the late '90s, although Cleveland has survived the downturn better than many cities. The fans left in 2003 and just haven't returned.

Third base: Interleague's opening weekend. The American League holds a slight edge through the first group of interleague series, going 24-18 thanks to sweeps by the White Sox and Mariners over the Cubs and Rockies. Interleague play returns on June 8. The AL's 131-121 advantage in 2011 was the closest the NL had been since 2004, when the AL held a 127-125 edge, but it was also the third straight year the NL had narrowed the gap.

Tweet of the day. Detroit's Max Scherzer struck out 15 Pirates, most in the majors this season. All 15 K's were swinging and he did it in only seven innings. (The Pirates, by the way, struck out 41 times in the three-game series against the Tigers.)

Ubaldo Jimenez eases Indians' concerns

April, 7, 2012
After my father and I nearly froze to death from 16 innings of Opening Day “magic” at Thursday’s Indians game, he turned to me and asked, “What if it goes extra innings on Saturday as well?” I responded by saying, “Ubaldo Jimenez will probably give up seven or eight runs in the first couple of innings. Dan Wheeler will be sent in for mop-up duty, and he’ll give up a few more. The offense will be terrible, so it will assuredly end in nine innings.”

I’m glad to say that if I had to be wrong about one of those statements, it was the one about Jimenez. Nobody really knew what to expect from Jimenez today, but Indians fans seemed to fear the worst. He was all over the map in spring training, and was shaky after he plunked Troy Tulowitzki against Colorado last Sunday. With a five-game suspension looming (Jimenez announced that he will drop his appeal) and the ongoing drama with the Rockies, would he be able to put all of that behind him and help the Indians bounce back from their heartbreaking loss Thursday?

Jimenez looked sharp today, and despite the fact that he earned a no-decision in Cleveland's 7-4, 12-inning loss, he took a perfect game into the sixth inning, and a no-hitter into the seventh. From what I saw on the radar gun at the ballpark, he topped out at 93 mph and looked like he was throwing a lot of off-speed pitches. His command, a problem at times this spring, was sharp until the sixth inning. He was able to quiet the bat of Jose Bautista, which no Indians pitcher seemed able to do on Thursday (including Justin Masterson).

While I’m certainly not ready to declare last summer’s trade with Colorado a complete success yet, it has to make Indians fans feel a little bit better to see a strong opening performance from Jimenez. I expected to see more tension and excitement at today’s game as it reached the later innings. The closest I’ve ever been to witnessing a no-hitter was when Cliff Lee took one into the eighth inning against the Cardinals on June 14, 2009; on that night, you could just feel the electricity in the air at Progressive Field, as if something really special was taking place. Today, much of the crowd around me appeared to be disengaged, or Toronto fans. Nobody really seemed to fully grasp the performance they were seeing from Jimenez.

To be fair, most people with a rooting interest in the Indians were preoccupied with complaints about the Indians’ offense. The Tribe has now played 28 innings of baseball in just two games. In those 28 innings, they’ve scored eight runs, six of which have come via the home run. The Indians left just three runners on base on Saturday, two of which were left stranded in the 12th inning after Toronto had already gone ahead by four. While there were a number of missed opportunities on Thursday, they didn’t even have any opportunities to miss this afternoon. In their first two games they’ve had just 12 hits, and three of those came in the bottom of the 12th today. The “major” free agent signing this winter, Casey Kotchman, has started the season 0-for-12. He has yet to hit a ball out of the infield; a couple of his groundouts today didn’t even make it past the pitcher’s mound.

The “Bullpen Mafia” has shown some signs of weakness early in the season, with Chris Perez, Jairo Asencio, Vinnie Pestano, and Tony Sipp all responsible for surrendering runs in pivotal situations. With the offense as weak as it has looked these first two games, the Indians would probably still be playing Thursday’s game if the bullpen continued to hold the Toronto offense scoreless. Both Thursday and today, manager Manny Acta appeared slow to pull the trigger once Perez and Sipp got into trouble. Nobody was warming up, and nobody even tried to stall for time to get someone else up in the bullpen. When your team is struggling to score runs, a quick hook with a struggling bullpen pitcher may be the best form of action.

Even though the Indians have only played two games thus far, Masterson and Jimenez have been the bright spots in both. This offseason, fans were most worried about the starting pitching and the offense. Even though it’s far too soon to declare the starting pitching situation “fine,” I’ve seen enough from the offense to know that I’m concerned. Masterson went eight innings on Thursday, and Jimenez lasted seven today; you can’t ask for much more than that from your starting pitchers.

Now the offense needs to step up and prove that these two games were a fluke, and not the norm. Perhaps they just need to start a feud with Troy Tulowitzki and the Colorado Rockies. It seemed to work for Jimenez.

Alexei Ramirez Jim Cowsert/US PresswireAlexei Ramirez took a tumble with a critical ninth-inning catch for the Sox.
Stephanie Liscio blogs about the Indians for the SweetSpot network at "It's Pronounced 'Lajaway'," and can be followed on Twitter at @stephanieliscio.
This looks like the pitching line of a dominant closer:

88.2 IP, 49 H, 15 R, 14 ER, 27 BB, 77 SO, 2 HR, 1.44 ERA

That's the collective work of Thursday's 14 starting pitchers. Eleven of the 14 allowed one run or zero runs. Justin Verlander and Roy Halladay affirmed their status as baseball's top pitchers with eight scoreless innings each. Justin Masterson and Ryan Dempster each struck out 10. Clayton Kershaw, with his own claim as baseball's best, started despite a bad case of the flu and still pitched three scoreless innings before exiting. Johnny Cueto shut down the Marlins on three hits over seven innings.

Starting pitchers: Dominant.

Hitters: Still working on their timing.

The bullpens weren't quite as effective, leading to an exciting ninth inning in Detroit as Jose Valverde, a perfect 49-for-49 in save opportunites in 2011, blew a 2-0 lead; Kerry Wood couldn't hold a 1-0 lead for the Cubs, walking three consecutive batters; and Cleveland's Chris Perez collapsed in a flurry of walks and hits to surrender a 4-1 lead. That blown save eventually led to Toronto's 7-4 victory in 16 innings, the longest Opening Day game in history.

Baseball, welcome back.

If anything, the dominant form of the pitchers raises the obvious question: Will offense decline again in 2012? Check out the runs-per-game totals in recent seasons:

[+] EnlargeOmar Vizquel
AP Photo/Amy SancettaIn an unusual move, Omar Vizquel, age 44, made just his second-ever outfield appearance.
2007: 9.6
2008: 9.3
2009: 9.2
2010: 8.8
2011: 8.6

Of course, one day -- especially when guys named Verlander, Halladay, Kershaw and Jon Lester are pitching -- doesn't signify anything. Still we had three shutouts and nearly had two others. That isn't necessarily unusual, as there were many days in 2011 with three shutouts and May 14 with six such games. Still, three of the seven games were shutouts and we nearly had four 1-0 games.

* * * *

Fun fact of the day: In the bottom of the 12th inning the Indians put runners at the corners with one out. Blue Jays manager John Farrell brought in Omar Vizquel as a fifth infielder. Technically, since he replaced Eric Thames, Vizquel was listed as a left fielder, just his second major league appearance as an outfielder. The first one came in a remarkable game in 1999. The Indians scored 10 runs in the bottom of the eighth inning, capped by Richie Sexson's three-run homer off Troy Percival, to take a 14-12 lead against the Angels. Due to various moves in that inning, Vizquel moved from shortstop to right field in the ninth inning.

Fun fact No. 2: There were two previous 15-inning games on Opening Day. The Tigers beat the Indians 4-2 in 1960 and in 1926 Walter Johnson outdueled Eddie Rommel 1-0. That's right, both pitchers went the distance.

Hero of the day: How about Toronto reliever Luis Perez? He got out of that first-and-third jam with a double play and went on to pitch four hitless innings.

Good sight of the day: Johan Santana back on the mound for the Mets, throwing five scoreless innings.

Spring-training-doesn't-matter note of the day: Matt Kemp looked horrible all spring for the Dodgers, finishing with 26 strikeouts and two walks. He went 2-for-5 with a two-run home run and no whiffs.

Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.
Alex Avila, Carlos Santana & Joe MauerUS PresswireWith Alex Avila, Carlos Santana and Joe Mauer, the AL Central is loaded at catcher.

We're back with more divisional position rankings for 2012. You can scream, you can holler, you can protest and call me names. But just because I rated your player lower than you think he deserves doesn't mean I hate your team.

(Here are the NL East and NL West rankings.)

1. Alex Avila, Tigers
2. Joe Mauer, Twins
3. Carlos Santana, Indians
4. Salvador Perez, Royals
5. A.J. Pierzynski, White Sox

The AL Central might not be baseball's glamor division, but it may have three of the top five catchers in the game if Mauer bounces back from his injury-plagued campaign. Since we're not certain of his health, I'm going to give top billing to Avila, who had the best hitting numbers of any catcher outside of Mike Napoli and plays solid defense. I wouldn't be surprised if Santana explodes; with his power-and-walks combo, all he has to do is raise his average 30 points and he'll be one of the most valuable players in the game. Considering that his average on balls in play was .263, there is a good chance of that happening. Perez hit .331 in 39 games; OK, he won't do that again, but he doesn't turn 22 until May and puts the ball in play. There's no shame in being fifth in this group but that's where I have to place Pierzynski, who keeps rolling along and is now 36th on the all-time list for games caught.

First base
1. Prince Fielder, Tigers
2. Paul Konerko, White Sox
3. Eric Hosmer, Royals
4. Justin Morneau, Twins
5. Matt LaPorta, Indians

In 2009, when Morneau played 135 games, he hit .274 AVG/.363 OBP/.516 SLG. Even if he replicates that line, he may rank only fourth. Konerko has hit a combined .306 with 70 home runs the past two seasons. He's 104 home runs from 500 but turns 36 in March, so he's probably four seasons away; not sure he'll hang on that long, but who knew he'd be this good at this age. If Hosmer improves his walk rate and defense and Konerko declines, Hosmer could climb past him. If it doesn't happen this year, it will happen next. The most similar batter to him at age 21: Eddie Murray.

Second base
1. Jason Kipnis, Indians
2. Gordon Beckham, White Sox
3. Johnny Giavotella, Royals
4. Alexi Casilla, Twins
5. Ramon Santiago, Tigers

Well, this isn't exactly a Robinson Cano/Dustin Pedroia/Ben Zobrist debate, is it? Kipnis' bat is a sure thing, as evidenced by his excellent play after his call-up (.272 average and .507 slugging in 36 games). His glove was once a question mark but now appears solid enough that he looks like a future All-Star to me. Can anybody explain what has happened to Beckham? He's second mostly by default; he's gone downhill since his superb rookie season in 2009 but is only 25, so there's hope that he'll find those skills again. Giavotella has some potential with the bat (.338/.390/.481 at Triple-A), which is more than you can say for Casilla and Santiago.

Third base
1. Miguel Cabrera, Tigers
2. Mike Moustakas, Royals
3. Lonnie Chisenhall, Indians
4. Danny Valencia, Twins
5. Brent Morel, White Sox

We'll go with the idea that Cabrera is Detroit's starting third baseman, although I predict he'll end up starting more games at designated hitter. Manager Jim Leyland will end up doing a lot of mixing of his lineups, but for this little exercise we have to choose a starter. Moustakas didn't tear up the league as a rookie and I worry about his ability to hit lefties (.191, homerless in 89 at-bats), but he showed more than fellow rookies Chisenhall and Morel. Valencia doesn't get on base enough and he rated poorly on defense in 2011. I hope he's at least good in the clubhouse. Morel was terrible all season and then exploded for eight of his 10 home runs in September and drew 15 walks after drawing just seven the previous five months. Maybe something clicked.

1. Asdrubal Cabrera, Indians
2. Alexei Ramirez, White Sox
3. Jhonny Peralta, Tigers
4. Alcides Escobar, Royals
5. Jamey Carroll, Twins

Peralta had the best 2011 season, but he's a difficult guy to project. He had an .804 OPS in 2008 but dropped to .691 in 2009. He had a .703 OPS in 2010 and then .823 in 2011. I just don't see a repeat season, at the plate or in the field. Cabrera didn't rate well on the defensive metrics, and after a strong start he wore down in the second half. Ramirez has turned into a nice player, with a good glove and some power, and he even draws a few walks now. Escobar is a true magician with the glove. Carroll is actually a useful player who gets on base (.356 career OBP), but he's pushed as an everyday shortstop and he'll be 38. He'll be issued the honorary Nick Punto locker in the Twins' clubhouse.

Left field
1. Alex Gordon, Royals
2. Alejandro De Aza, White Sox
3. Ben Revere, Twins
4. Michael Brantley/Shelley Duncan, Indians
5. Ryan Raburn/Don Kelly, Tigers

I'm not sure what to do here. After Gordon, I just get a headache. We'll pretend to believe in De Aza after his impressive stint in the majors (171 plate appearances, .329/.400/.920). He's hit in Triple-A for three seasons now, and while he's not going to post a .400 OBP again, he should be adequate. Revere is one of the fastest players in the majors, but he's all speed and defense; he hopes to grow up to be Brett Gardner, which isn't a bad thing, but he'll have to learn to get on base at a better clip. Brantley doesn't have one outstanding skill so he'll have to hit better than .266 to be anything more than a fourth outfielder; Duncan provides some right-handed pop as a platoon guy. The Tigers have Delmon Young, but I'll slot him at DH. That leaves supposed lefty masher Raburn and utility man Kelly to soak up at-bats; both had an OBP below .300 in 2011, although Raburn has hit better in the past.

Center field
1. Austin Jackson, Tigers
2. Denard Span, Twins
3. Grady Sizemore, Indians
4. Lorenzo Cain, Royals
5. Alex Rios, White Sox

I can't rate Sizemore any higher since he's played just 104 games over the past two seasons, and he hasn't had a big year since 2008. Rios was terrible in '09, OK in '10 and worse than terrible in '11. I'm not betting on him.

Right field
1. Shin-Soo Choo, Indians
2. Brennan Boesch, Tigers
3. Jeff Francoeur, Royals
4. Josh Willingham, Twins
5. Dayan Viciedo, White Sox

Choo would like to forget 2011, but there's no reason he shouldn't bounce back and play like he did in 2009 and 2010, when he was one of the 10 best position players in the AL. I don't expect Francoeur to deliver 71 extra-base hits again, but maybe he'll surprise us. Viciedo is apparently nicknamed "The Tank," which makes me wonder how much ground he can cover. He did improve his walk rate last season in the minors and turns 23 in March, so there's still room for more growth.

Designated hitter
1. Billy Butler, Royals
2. Travis Hafner, Indians
3. Ryan Doumit, Twins
4. Delmon Young, Tigers
5. Adam Dunn, White Sox

Has there been a bigger prospect disappointment than Young in the past decade? I mean, yes, there were complete busts like Brandon Wood and Andy Marte, but those guys had obvious holes in their games, while Young was viewed as a sure thing, a consensus No. 1 overall prospect. But his bat has never lived up to its billing. Other than one decent year in Minnesota, he has low OBPs and he clearly lacked range in the outfield. His career WAR on Baseball-Reference is minus-0.2 (1.6 on FanGraphs), meaning he's been worse than replacement level. He's just not that good, Tigers fans.

No. 1 starter
1. Justin Verlander, Tigers
2. John Danks, White Sox
3. Justin Masterson, Indians
4. Luke Hochevar, Royals
5. Carl Pavano, Twins

Masterson was better than Danks in 2011, and I do believe his improvement was real. He absolutely crushes right-handers -- they slugged an anemic .259 off him. Danks had two bad months but has the longer track record of success. Even in his "off year" he had a higher strikeout rate and lower walk rate than Masterson. If you want to argue about Hochevar versus Pavano, be my guest.

No. 2 starter
1. Doug Fister, Tigers
2. Ubaldo Jimenez, Indians
3. Gavin Floyd, White Sox
4. Francisco Liriano, Twins
5. Jonathan Sanchez, Royals

Yes, sign me up for the Doug Fister bandwagon club. Jimenez's fastball velocity was down a couple miles per hour last season but the positives are that his strikeout and walk rates were identical to 2010; he'll be better. Floyd isn't flashy but he's now made 30-plus starts four years in a row, and he'll become a very rich man when he becomes a free agent after this season. Sanchez won't have the luxury of pitching in San Francisco (and to eight-man NL lineups).

No. 3 starter
1. Max Scherzer, Tigers
2. Scott Baker, Twins
3. Philip Humber, White Sox
4. Bruce Chen, Royals
5. Josh Tomlin, Indians

I could be underrating Baker, who was excellent last season, but only once in his career has he made 30 starts in a season. Tomlin's fans will disagree with this ranking, but he's a finesse guy who relies on the best control in baseball (21 walks in 26 starts). He's the kind of guy you root for, but the league seemed to figure him out as the season progressed.

No. 4 starter
1. Felipe Paulino, Royals
2. Rick Porcello, Tigers
3. Jake Peavy, White Sox
4. Derek Lowe, Indians
5. Nick Blackburn, Twins

Scouts still love Porcello's arm and I know he's just 23, but he's made 89 big league starts and shown no signs of getting better. His WHIP has increased each season and his strikeout rate remains one of the lowest in baseball. Paulino has an electric arm -- he averaged 95 mph on his fastball -- and is getting better. How could the Rockies give up on him after just 14 innings? How could the Astros trade him for Clint Barmes? Anyway, kudos to the Royals for buying low on the guy who may turn into their best starter. Peavy can't stay healthy. Lowe has led his league in starts three out of the past four seasons, but I'm not sure that's a good thing anymore. Blackburn is a poor man's Lowe, and I don't mean that in a good way.

No. 5 starter
1. Chris Sale, White Sox
2. Jacob Turner, Tigers
3. Aaron Crow/Danny Duffy, Royals
4. Fausto Carmona/David Huff/Jeanmar Gomez, Indians
5. Brian Duensing/Jason Marquis, Twins

Welcome to the AL Central crapshoot. Turner and Sale have the most upside, but one is a rookie and the other is converting from relief. Crow will also be given a shot at the rotation, but his difficulties against left-handed batters (.311 average allowed) don't bode well for that transition. Even if the artist formerly known as Carmona gets a visa, what do you have? A guy with a 5.01 ERA over the past four seasons. Duensing is another typical Twins pitcher, which means he at least throws strikes. His first full season in the rotation didn't go well, so of course the Twins brought in Marquis, yet another guy who doesn't strike anybody out.

1. Jose Valverde, Tigers
2. Joakim Soria, Royals
3. Matt Thornton, White Sox
4. Chris Perez, Indians
5. Matt Capps, Twins

Four good relievers plus Matt Capps. I do admit I'm a little perplexed by Perez, however. In 2009, he struck out 10.7 batters per nine innings. In 2010, that figure fell to 8.7 but he posted a pretty 1.71 ERA. In 2011, it was all the way down to 5.9, but without much improvement in his control. Perez blew only four saves but he did lose seven games. He survived thanks to a low .240 average on balls in play. He's an extreme fly-ball pitcher but didn't serve up many home runs. Bottom line: I'd be nervous.

1. Indians -- Vinnie Pestano, Rafael Perez, Tony Sipp, Joe Smith, Nick Hagadone
2. Royals -- Jonathan Broxton, Greg Holland, Louis Coleman, Tim Collins, Jose Mijares
3. Tigers -- Joaquin Benoit, Octavio Dotel, Phil Coke, Daniel Schlereth, Al Alburquerque
4. White Sox -- Jesse Crain, Jason Frasor, Will Ohman, Addison Reed, Dylan Axelrod
5. Twins -- Glen Perkins, Alex Burnett, Anthony Swarzak, Kyle Waldrop, Lester Oliveros

If you're starting to think I'm not high on the Twins for this season, you would be correct.

1. Royals
2. Indians
3. Tigers
4. White Sox
5. Twins

I like the youthful exuberance of the Royals, plus the likelihood of improvement from the young players and the possibility of some midseason reinforcements from the minors. The depth of the bullpen will help bolster a shaky rotation, and this just feels like an organization that is finally starting to believe in itself. The Indians are riding last year's positive results and enter the season knowing they might get better production from Choo and Sizemore and full seasons from Kipnis and Chisenhall. I'm not knocking the Tigers here, but they do lack depth in the pitching staff and the pressure is on them.

The final tally
1. Tigers, 65 points
2. Royals, 55 points
3. Indians, 54 points
4. White Sox, 46 points
5. Twins, 35 points

No surprise here: The Tigers will be heavy favorites to win the division with a lineup that should score a ton of runs. I don't think it's a lock that they'll win -- Verlander, Avila, Peralta and Valverde will all be hard-pressed to repeat their 2011 campaigns, for example. But the Royals and Indians appear to have too many questions in the rotations, the White Sox have serious lineup issues, and the Twins have a beautiful ballpark to play their games in.

Kansas City Royals, Detroit Tigers, Minnesota Twins, Cleveland Indians, Chicago White Sox, Andy Marte, John Danks, Jonathan Broxton, Denard Span, Nick Punto, Alcides Escobar, Rafael Perez, Justin Morneau, Doug Fister, Rick Porcello, Brandon Wood, Anthony Swarzak, Dustin Pedroia, Tim Collins, Justin Verlander, Jonathan Sanchez, Alexei Ramirez, Ryan Doumit, Justin Masterson, Jason Frasor, Jason Marquis, Francisco Liriano, Matt Capps, Luke Hochevar, Alex Gordon, Matt LaPorta, Prince Fielder, Gordon Beckham, Alexi Casilla, Joakim Soria, Gavin Floyd, Delmon Young, Ramon Santiago, Carl Pavano, Mike Napoli, Ubaldo Jimenez, Grady Sizemore, Jeff Francoeur, Travis Hafner, Jose Valverde, Jake Peavy, Billy Butler, Derek Lowe, Miguel Cabrera, Brian Duensing, Ben Zobrist, Fausto Carmona, Jim Leyland, Shin-Soo Choo, Max Scherzer, Michael Brantley, Danny Valencia, Jose Mijares, Danny Duffy, Carlos Santana, A.J. Pierzynski, Austin Jackson, Robinson Cano, Chris Perez, Clint Barmes, Brett Gardner, Brennan Boesch, Nick Blackburn, Paul Konerko, Scott Baker, Chris Sale, Josh Willingham, Jhonny Peralta, Asdrubal Cabrera, Vinnie Pestano, Matt Thornton, Aaron Crow, Josh Tomlin, Lonnie Chisenhall, Jason Kipnis, Jamey Carroll, Jesse Crain, Alex Avila, philip humber, Brent Morel, Joaquin Benoit, Ben Revere, Eric Hosmer, Al Alburquerque, Ryan Raburn, Mike Moustakas, Dayan Viciedo, Octavio Dotel, Jacob Turner, Salvador Perez, Johnny Giavotella, Lorenzo Cain, Jeanmar Gomez, Shelley Duncan, Alejandro De Aza, Bruce Chen, Greg Holland, Louis Coleman, Glen Perkins, Felipe Paulino, Nick Hagadone, Daniel Schlereth, Will Ohman, Addison Reed, Dylan Axelrod, Alex Burnett, Kyle Waldrop, Lester Oliveros

Tribe keeps rocking at Reds' expense

May, 21, 2011

Despite receiving just three innings from starter Alex White, who was forced to depart with a hand injury, the Cleveland Indians managed a 5-4 victory on Friday over their in-state rival from Cincinnati. For the first time in recent memory, both the Indians and Reds look to play significant games into September, and possibly into October for the first time since 1995, giving new meaning to a series once seen as a mere interleague “regional rivalry game” formality.

The Indians' bullpen was up to the new importance and intensity of the series. After White departed, Frank Herrmann, Joe Smith, Tony Sipp, Vinnie Pestano and Chris Perez combined to pitch the final six frames, fanning three batters, walking none and allowing only one run on six mostly scattered base hits.

Consider yourself forgiven if some of those names are new to you. They're new to nearly all but the most devoted Indians fans -- that is, those who could stomach watching beyond the sixth inning over the past two seasons. Pestano is a rookie, Herrmann is in his second MLB season, Sipp in his third, and Perez -- although well-known to those who follow top relief prospects and enjoy high-velocity fastballs -- didn't make his name all that well-known to the fan at large until taking over Cleveland's closer role in 2010. Smith is the veteran of the group by default, with five years under his belt, but merely decent middle relievers tend to carry with them as much excitement as the name “Joe Smith” connotes.

So you should also consider yourself forgiven if you haven't noticed that the Indians' bullpen -- largely the group that pitched Friday night's game -- ranks in the top 10 in ERA, FIP (fielding-independent pitching) and WPA (win probability added). If anything, it goes to show just how inexpensive a quality bullpen can be. Last year's group, one of the worst by FIP, yet average by ERA and WPA, earned roughly $15 million dollars. (Hello and goodbye, Kerry Wood.) This season, middle man Chad Durbin was added for $800,000, while Perez earned $2.25 million in his first season under arbitration, but every other Indians reliever is earning approximately $400,000 as a pre-arbitration player, for a total under $6 million for seven players.

Of course, there isn't any guarantee of continued quality from such a young bullpen. However, there is room for some level of confidence. Perez has shown that his pedigree as a top prospect was not unfounded, striking out more than a batter per inning and posting an ERA under 3.00 in his time with Cleveland. Smith has been consistently good for five straight years. Sipp has a powerful fastball/slider combination, and although he may struggle with his control at times, his stuff has the potential to overmatch MLB hitters at any time. The problem for the Indians, though, projects to be the bridge to the eighth or ninth more than the late innings themselves.

Even if this rough-and-tumble relief crew can keep it together, will there be leads to hold? The offense has been decimated recently by injuries to Grady Sizemore and Travis Hafner. Perhaps one injury could be hidden, but the second will surely prove to be tough to handle, as the presence of Shelley Duncan, the ultimate "Quad-A player," in the Indians' lineup as DH indicates. The emergence of Michael Brantley should make the Indians' outfield passable in Sizemore's absence, but substituting a replacement-level DH for Pronk will almost certainly take the punch out of Cleveland's lineup.

With the way the run-prevention unit has performed so far -- only Oakland has allowed significantly fewer runs in the league -- Cleveland should be fine if it can just get an average performance out of the guys on hand. Ideally, Shin-Soo Choo and Carlos Santana can pick up the slack and carry the Tribe for the time being, as the Indians have somehow managed to rank second in the AL in runs scored despite sub-.400 slugging percentages out of the two hitters most pundits expected to carry much of Cleveland's offensive burden this year.

Santana and Choo both chipped in for the Indians on Friday night, and Choo set up the winning run by tripling in the eighth, but they also got key contributions from Duncan as well as speedster Ezequiel Carrera -- the man called up to take Pronk's place, and the man who plinked the game-winning bunt up the first-base line to plate Choo.

With yet another loss from the Tigers, the Indians now have a six-game lead in the AL Central and a clear fast track to the playoffs. Although the injuries to the offense present some adversity, the Indians have received high-quality effort from unlikely sources all season long. The bullpen and starting rotation will have to stay solid until the cavalry comes over the hill, but if the first month and a half of the season tells us anything, this group of no-names is up to the challenge.

Andy SonnanstineSteve Mitchell/US PresswireIs it yoga or an old-fashioned full windup? Who says baseball isn't new age?
Jack Moore writes general baseball for FanGraphs, fantasy baseball for RotoHardball, and blogs the Brewers at Disciples of Uecker for the SweetSpot network. You can follow him on Twitter.
Grady SizemoreAP Photo/Mark DuncanGrady Sizemore's return has provided a big boost -- offensively and defensively.
The Cleveland Indians were quiet this past offseason. No sexy free-agent signings, no wheeling and dealing. When I arrived to Indians camp in spring training, I spent considerable time with rookie GM Chris Antonetti and second-year manager Manny Acta. Both were convinced that if everything went as planned the Indians could contend as early as this season -- even though this was a team that hadn’t had a winning record since 2007 and had lost 93 games in 2010 and 97 in 2009. Contending? Really? How?

Antonetti, one of the youngest and brightest GMs in baseball, broke it down this way for me on that hot Arizona March day: "To contend we need the following to happen: (1) We need our key players to get healthy, specifically Grady Sizemore, Carlos Santana, Asdrubal Cabrera and Travis Hafner; (2) We need our other young players on the roster to continue their development with meaningful contributions on the field. This list of players includes Justin Masterson, Carlos Carrasco, Josh Tomlin, Chris Perez, Michael Brantley, Matt LaPorta and our young bullpen arms; (3) We need our veterans to contribute and provide leadership on the field and in the clubhouse, including Orlando Cabrera, Sizemore and Hafner."

Check, check and check, Mr. Antonetti.

This Indians team is not only contending but has the best record in the American League. Are they for real? Yes, they’re for real. I’m not saying they’re going to win the division, but what I am saying is that if they stay healthy, this team will contend into September and should win more games than they lose. The main reason this team is for real is the pitching and defense. The starting pitching is solid, the bullpen underrated and the infield defense is the best the Indians have seen since Jim Thome, Roberto Alomar, Omar Vizquel and Travis Fryman played together.

[+] EnlargeJosh Tomlin
Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesJosh Tomlin is 4-1 with a 2.43 ERA and a 0.81 WHIP through six starts this season.
The starting rotation is led by Fausto Carmona, who won 13 games last year and is capable of winning 13-16 again this season. Masterson, one of the pitchers acquired in the Victor Martinez trade with Boston, is emerging as a solid No. 2 behind Carmona. Masterson has great size and stuff. His four-seam fastball goes up to 97 mph while the two-seamer sits between 89-94. He mixes in a slider and change from a deceptive lower arm angle and has great downward bite. His command in the lower part of the strike zone has improved due to the fact he solidified his delivery. Most importantly, Masterson continues to develop the understanding of how to best utilize his stuff to attack left-handed hitters, a weakness throughout his career. Masterson has quickly become one of the better pitchers in the league, starting 5-0 with a 2.11 ERA.

Carrasco just spent time on the DL for the first time in his career, but the Indians are not concerned as he is set to return to the rotation this week. In my discussions with Shin-Soo Choo, Santana and Acta, they raved about Carrasco’s potential. They think he’ll develop into a 15-game winner. That brings us to Josh Tomlin, who wins everywhere he goes. His minor league career record is 54-21 and his major league career record is 10-5, including 4-1 this year. Here is Antonetti’s scouting report on Tomlin that he gave me this week: "Great competitor. Won’t beat himself. Pounds the zone. Good four-pitch mix. Understands how to pitch and get hitters out." No argument from me. He might not chalk up a lot of strikeouts each night, but he’ll get the groundballs and get the outs to win games.

That brings us to the infield defense. When you have a rotation that pounds the lower part of the strike zone, but doesn’t always miss bats, then you better catch the ball in the infield with range. This infield catches the ball with range. Jack Hannahan, the journeyman infielder, has done a tremendous job defensively at third base, catching everything with soft hands and an accurate arm. Asdrubal Cabrera is quickly becoming one of the best all-around shortstops in the American league, a very good offensive and defensive shortstop with power, quick hands and feet and a strong arm from the hole. He also has great baseball instincts. He exchanges the ball from glove to release as quickly as anyone. Orlando Cabrera was the one major free-agent signed by Antonetti this offseason and here’s his assessment of Cabrera: "He has made an impact both on the field and in the clubhouse. He has great baseball intelligence and understands what it takes to win." In fact, it seems wherever Cabrera goes his teams win (see: Reds, Twins, Red Sox).

Behind the plate Santana has helped lead the Indians' staff to the third-best ERA in the AL. He has well above-average arm strength and eventually will be able to stop the running game when he gets more experience. He’s off to a slow start with the bat, but he can hit and hit with power from both sides of the plate. He’s a legit future All-Star.

The outfield defense matches the infield defense. Choo is one of the best right fielders in baseball. He gets great jumps, angles on balls and has a strong arm. He can also hit and hit with power. Sizemore is back diving for baseballs and Brantley covers everything in left field like a center fielder. Not a lot of balls are going to be falling in the the gaps at Progressive Field this summer.

The Indians' starting pitchers are pitching deep into games, their offense has put up quality at-bats and has manufactured runs in a variety of ways, thanks to the shrewd managing of Acta, and the bullpen has done a great job of closing games when they get leads as closer Chris Perez has saved 10 of 11 opportunities while Tony Sipp, Vinnie Pestano and Rafael Perez all have ERAs under 2 setting him up.

Remember, this first-place team is doing it without much production from the heart of the order as Choo and Santana have struggled to get past the Mendoza line and top hitting prospect Lonnie Chisenhall is in the minor leagues getting additional seasoning. But we all know that will change, and all three will be productive offensive weapons by season's end.

Hafner and Sizemore are competing for the Comeback Player of the Year Award. Hafner’s shoulder is finally healthy and according to Acta, that allowed him to weight train for the first time in years in the offseason. The result is that Hafner’s bat speed is back, as shown by his .347 average and .932 OPS.

The farm system is also about to add another wave of young talented players as well. Rookie starter Alex White made his debut recently with a win, Nick Hagadone and Drew Pomeranz aren’t far behind ( not to mention Jason Knapp, Zach Putnam and Bryce Stowell) and Chisenhall will probably be taking over third base by the middle of this summer. Chisenhall has a chance to be a .290-to-.300 hitter in the big leagues with 15-20 home runs and 40 doubles. He can really hit and is adequate and improving defensively at third base.

Acta is not only one of the best-dressed managers, but he’s also quickly becoming one of the most respected young skippers in the game. He’s done a phenomenal job in developing the Indians' young arms the last two years and his ability to communicate and motivate are special.

The Indians -- if they stay healthy -- are for real and should produce a summer of winning and continued improved parity in the American League Central.

Thanks for reading and as always I appreciate your comments and feedback. Follow me on Twitter @JimBowdenESPNxm and feel free to send me ideas for future blogs.
Orlando Cabrera AP Photo/Tony DejakThe Red Sox can't catch a break as Orlando Cabrera tags out Darnell McDonald to end the game.
Welcome to Cleveland. It’s a foggy, misty day, something out of a Stephen King novel. The lights are on, the stands are empty and it looks like a completely miserable day to be playing baseball.

Especially if you’re 0-5.

Fausto Carmona is starting for Cleveland. He gave up 10 runs on Opening Day. We don’t see pitchers give up that many runs too often -- only 15 times in 2010 (including four times by Brewers pitchers). If Boston’s offense is to get on track, this may be the pitcher to do it against, although Carmona had a pretty solid 2010 (13-14, 3.77 ERA, 4.11 FIP).

Jon Lester goes for Boston. A popular Cy Young pick, Lester gave up five runs in his first start and didn’t strike out a batter. He had just one start with fewer than four K’s last season, a one-strikeout game when he got knocked out in the second inning.

Let’s follow along with a running diary. How often do you get to write about the presumed best team in baseball when it's off to an 0-5 start?

Top first: Carmona gets two quick ground balls (his specialty) and then strikes out Dustin Pedroia. That gives Pedroia five K’s against zero walks so far, odd since he entered the season with more career walks than strikeouts.

Bottom first: Lester strikes out Asdrubal Cabrera and Shin-Soo Choo. He needed just 11 pitches. Nice start.

Top second: It’s cold enough -- 38 degrees -- that the pitchers are allowed to breathe on their hands while on the mound, and Carmona is going to his mouth before nearly every pitch. Carmona gets Kevin Youkilis to line out softly on one of his hard sinkers. Can’t be a fun pitch to hit on a chilly day. That’s the big pitch in his arsenal -- a 91 mph darting sinker that he really has no idea where it’s going. He threw it for strikes often enough last season and in 2007, when he had that great playoff start against the Yankees, but couldn’t locate it in 2008 and 2009, when he had a 5.89 ERA.

Top fourth: NESN tries to kill Heidi Watney by making her try the fried-chicken-and-waffle sandwich that is sold at Progressive Field. I know this is shocking, but she reports that it wasn’t very good.

Bottom fourth: Nice diving stop by Adrian Gonzalez to take a hit away from Choo. Let’s just say that Prince Fielder wouldn’t have made that play.

Lester has Carlos Santana 0-2, thought he struck out him out on a 2-2 pitch and then walks him. Santana -- remember, he had knee surgery in August -- tries a surprise steal and almost makes it, but Pedroia makes a nice tag on a short-hop bad throw from Jarrod Saltalamacchia. As they say, that’s a little thing that doesn’t show up in the box score. I liked the play from the standpoint that this Cleveland lineup is going to have trouble scoring today off Lester.

Except Shelley Duncan just walks. Could have been first and second with one out; instead, it’s one on and two outs.

Lester gets out of it but has to run up his pitch count. Now at 71 through four. Carmona has 72. Although they’ve allowed only three hits combined, neither looks as though he'll last past the seventh. You can't watch a baseball game these days without being a slave to pitch counts, and I don’t know whether that makes me feel smarter or sadder.

Top fifth: Jerry Meals rings up Saltalamacchia on an outside pitch. Salty gives a glare. David Ortiz had a few words the previous inning after getting rung up. C’mon, Meals is cold! Or maybe he’s just hungry for a chicken-and-waffle sandwich. Which has me thinking: Do umps eat anything during games? Do they carry a Power bar in their back pocket for a burst of energy in the seventh inning? Considering the average Red Sox game lasts about four hours, it may be wise to do so.

Top sixth: Carl Crawford pokes a long fly to right-center that doesn’t reach the warning track. Tough day for hitters, with the wind blowing in and the cold air. That’s probably a home run in June.

Bottom sixth: Two more strikeouts for Lester, giving him nine. This is the pitcher everyone expected to see this season.

Top seventh: Another 1-2-3 inning for Carmona. Comment from my friend Mike, a Red Sox fan: "Two hits for $160 million? At least we have the eventual bullpen collapse to look forward to."

Bottom seventh: Duncan leads off with a double into the gap. I’d pinch-run here. How many chances are you going to get? Salty makes a diving catch on a foul bunt attempt behind him. Nice play. Jason Varitek couldn’t have made that catch since 2003. Lester gets out of it.

Top eighth: Rafael Perez enters with two on and one out to face the $160 million man. And Crawford grounds out softly to third. But at least he moved the runners up! That's just good baseball. Perez gets ahead 0-2 on Pedroia, then we get: foul ball on slider, foul ball that trickles foul, nice block by Santana on a slider in the dirt, foul tip on another pitch in dirt, ball low, trickler back to the mound, nice job by Perez to gun down Pedroia.

[+] EnlargeChris Perez
AP Photo/Tony DejakChris Perez and the Indians swept the Red Sox as Boston loses its sixth game in a row.
Bottom eighth: Daniel Bard comes on and walks Adam Everett. I mean ... Adam Everett? He wasn’t that good when he was good. Everett steals second. The Red Sox, of course, couldn’t throw anybody out last season, so we’ll see how Salty does throwing out runners. He airmails this one into center field, so he’s 2-for-2 on bad throws. Orlando Cabrera gets the bunt down after Bard falls behind 2-0 on Cabrera. On NESN, Jerry Remy points out that Bard is getting underneath a lot of his fastballs. He throws a 2-0 fastball down the middle that Cabrera fouls off.

Squeeze! Perfect bunt. Right count, right pitch. (With Bard, you knew a fastball was coming behind in the count.) Love it. Great baseball.

Top ninth: Cleveland’s closer is Chris Perez. Why wouldn’t you leave the lefty Rafael Perez in to face Gonzalez to lead off the inning? No offense to Chris Perez, but he’s not exactly Mariano Rivera or even Jose Mesa in his good Cleveland years. As nice as the squeeze call was, this was a bad decision by Manny Acta.

Take that, Schoenfield! Gonzalez grounds out into the shift, 4 to 3.

Youkilis grounds to shortstop.

Perez works carefully to Ortiz and walks him on five pitches. Darnell McDonald in to run.

Wow ... stunning ending. This may not be Boston’s year. J.D. Drew lines the first pitch off the knee of Perez; it bounces to Everett at third base. McDonald rounds second base too sharply and slips, Everett fires back to Cabrera and McDonald is out on a bang-bang play. McDonald may have gotten his hand on the bag, but Dan Iassogna calls him out. Safe or not, it was bad baserunning.

As Remy says, "Everything that could go wrong has gone wrong. This is unbelievable."

And the mighty Red Sox fall to 0-6. I wonder what kind of reception the Fenway faithful will give their heroes in their home opener on Friday.

Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter at @dschoenfield. Follow the SweetSpot blog at @espn_sweet_spot.

Indians add Chad Durbin to bullpen

February, 26, 2011
As I prepare this post, the Indians are reported to have signed Phillies reliever Chad Durbin to a contract. On the surface, this doesn't seem all that sensible: The Indians aren't going to win this season, and they have quite a few internal candidates who would benefit from major league experience to see if they can be valuable members of Cleveland's next playoff team. Heck, Joe Smith was signed to a non-minimum deal to avoid arbitration, and he just got sent to Triple-A to make room for Orlando Cabrera. (I'm not saying I'm excited by signing O, but I understand the thinking there at least.)

[+] EnlargeChad Durbin
Jason O. Watson/US PresswireNew reliever Chad Durbin joins a crowded bullpen in Cleveland after a stint in Philadelphia.
Besides Smith, no fewer than eight right-handed candidates exist for the bullpen: Jensen Lewis, Justin Germano, Vinnie Pestano, Frank Herrmann, Jess Todd, Bryce Stowell, Zach Putnam, Joe Martinez and Andy Marte. Okay, not Andy Marte. He did have a 0.00 ERA and 9.0 K/9 rate last season, though.

(I am not including Chris Perez, who was excellent as a closer last season. He is the closer. Everyone else does … everything else.)

Still, even understanding the attrition rate of young relief pitchers (not to mention the fact that not one of these players looks to be elite), signing Durbin seems, well, kinda pointless.

There is one especially galling issue with Cleveland relievers from 2010, though:
    Lewis: 19 BB in 36.1 IP

    Pestano: 5 BB in 5 IP

    Smith: 24 BB in 40 IP

    Tony Sipp: 39 BB in 63 IP

Overall, Cleveland relievers walked 210 batters in 484 1/3 innings. This is simply too many free passes. And while Herrmann only walked nine hitters in 44 2/3 innings, he gave up six homers, negating much of the value of limiting walks. (Only Sipp with 12 and Hector Ambriz with 10 allowed more for the Tribe in relief.)

Still, a funny thing happened on the way to making a joke about the Cleveland bullpen: The bottom five guys were Aaron Laffey, Jamey Wright, Ambriz, Kerry Wood, and Todd. Laffey is kind of an ersatz starter/swingman: of the other four, Wright was waived, Ambriz blew out his UCL, Wood was traded (and subsequently signed with the Cubs), and Todd will go back to playing Luke on "Modern Family" in all likelihood. (Untrue, but he does look youthful, and he is unlikely to pitch much in the majors in 2011.)

Eveyone else in the bullpen had an ERA under 4.15.

Overall, the Indians sported a 3.83 ERA even with Woods' 8.10 ERA and Ambriz's 1.76 WHIP. In the second half, the bullpen posted an ERA near 2.50.

Still, it's probably nice to have a veteran arm: on the salary list for the Cleveland 40-man roster, two pitchers are listed as making more than $430,000, and one is Rafael Perez at $795,000. (Fausto Carmona is well-paid.) And Durbin did a better job at limiting free passes (27 in 68 2/3 IP) than most Cleveland relievers last season.

If there's a concern with Durbin, it's that he's been worked pretty hard the past three seasons. Now 33, he threw 87 2/3, 69 2/3, and 68 2/3 innings as a pure reliever over that stretch. The last time someone got aired out like that at a similar age before signing with Cleveland, he was Juan Rincon, and we did not care for the experience. On the other hand, Durbin gave up only four homers in 37 2/3 innings in Philadelphia's bandbox, so there's some hope than Rincon II is not forthcoming.

Cleveland's rotation really needs a lot to go right to be even average, and there are reasons to think there will be some extra innings for the bullpen to absorb. Keep in mind, though: this was, in all likelihood, the thinking behind signing Jamey Wright, too.

Steve Buffum writes The B-List, a blog about the Cleveland Indians.

Is walk-off bunt a breach of etiquette?

April, 29, 2010
The last play of Wednesday night's Angels-Indians game was hard to watch for at least two people: loser Chris Perez and SweetSpot blogger Steve Buffum:

With two outs and runners at the corners, Chris Perez was summoned to face Howie Kendrick. Kendrick bunted Perez’ first pitch past him toward second base, where the deep-playing Luis Valbuena could only watch helplessly as Kendrick crossed first base to win the game.

After the game, Chris Perez expressed his opinion:

"It was a bad baseball play that happened to work out," Perez said afterward. "I don't want to say it was bush league. But you never see that. Ninety-nine percent of hitters in that situation would rather win the game with a hit, not a bunt."

Now, let me say, I totally agree with Perez. This was a bad baseball play. It was a stupid baseball play. I would even go so far as to say it was a bush league baseball play.

By Chris Perez.

Steve's argument is that if Perez had been a little more aware of his surroundings, he might have made a play on Kendrick's bunt.

Well, maybe. But I watched the play a few times, and I don't know that any power pitcher in the world could have done anything about that one. Mike Mussina in his prime, maybe. Kendrick just got a little lucky, pushing the ball past the pitcher and toward a second baseman who was playing deep.

What's really bush league is Chris Perez's reaction. I know he was frustrated, but really? Kendrick's not supposed to do whatever he can (within the rules) to win the game? I'm only halfway through this book and maybe I just haven't got to the part where it says you're not supposed to bunt with a runner on third base in the ninth inning. But I'm pretty sure that Chris Perez is the first pitcher in the world who thinks even little guys without much power are supposed to swing hard every time.