What went wrong: Cleveland Indians

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The following is the first in a series profiling of some of 2009’s biggest disappointments.

Cleveland Indians



Record: 59-76 (4th in AL Central)



How It Happened:



With
the one of the top all-around talents in the game in Grady Sizemore,
the defending American League Cy Young award winner Cliff Lee, a
fully-healthy Victor Martinez, and the additions of a valuable
utilityman in Mark DeRosa and a capable closer in Kerry Wood, it
appeared as though the stars were aligned for the Indians to compete in
2009, but they have suffered through a perfect storm of misfortune.




Despite a return to form by Martinez, the offense simply failed to
take off. Sizemore, who has played in at least 157 games every year
since 2005, was limited to 106 games due to inflammation in his left
elbow. Helped by a strong August, Sizemore managed a .248/.343/.445
line to go along with 18 homers, 64 RBI and 13 stolen bases. The
Indians finally shut him down on Friday, with a pair of surgeries on
the docket in the coming days. He should be ready for the start of the
2010 season.




After consecutive 20-homer seasons, Jhonny Peralta is batting
.275/.335/.412 with just 11 homers and 72 RBI. An April injury to his
left elbow effectively zapped his power output in what should have been
his age-27 breakout year. It doesn’t help that manager Eric Wedge has
been unable to lean on Travis Hafner’s sore shoulders, either. Despite
a .272/.358/.487 line to go along with 14 homers and 40 RBI and a .844
OPS (highest since 2006), Pronk can’t play more than back-to-back
games, thus he only has 265 at-bats this season. And while Franklin
Gutierrez is blossoming into a star in Seattle, Luis Valbuena has been
underwhelming at second base.




While the offense has been inconsistent, the pitching has been even
worse, putting up a 4.97 staff ERA (third worst in the majors),
including a 5.09 ERA for their starters (fourth worst) and a 4.78 ERA
in their revolving-door bullpen (again, third worst). Wood imploded in
the first-half, compiling a 5.28 ERA and four blown saves while serving
up six bombs in just 30 2/3 innings. Fausto Carmona was demoted on June
5 after pitching to a miserable 7.42 ERA and 36/41 K/BB ratio in 60 2/3
innings. Anthony Reyes was expected to be the No. 4 starter behind Carl
Pavano, but he underwent elbow surgery in May and will likely never see
a mound with the Tribe again. And after missing the second half of the
2008 season with Tommy John surgery, Jake Westbrook hasn’t thrown a
pitch in the big leagues this season. He was shut down after
complaining of elbow soreness during a rehab stint in August.




Add it all up and the Indians were 14 games out of first place at the All-Star break.



Silver Linings:



– Shin-Soo
Choo continues to be one of the game’s most underrated players, batting
.302/.396/.476 with 14 home runs, 74 RBI, 33 doubles and 18 stolen
bases. The 27-year-old South Korean is about league average against
lefties (.426 career slugging percentage), but he is a steady weapon
against right-handers (.505 slugging percentage). Throw in his cannon
from right field you have a very capable partner alongside Sizemore for
years to come.




– Asdrubal Cabrera missed nearly a month with a sprained left
shoulder, but it hasn’t derailed his breakthrough season. The
23-year-old shortstop is batting .310/.362/.438 with five home runs, 56
RBI, 16 stolen bases and 71 runs scored in 110 games. With more speed
than expected (he had just 53 stolen bases over 430 games in the
minors) and an adequate glove, Cabrera is a fine building block for the
future.




– While the Indians traded away Lee, Martinez, Mark DeRosa, Ben
Francisco and Ryan Garko, they have managed to acquire an impressive
haul of prospects including RHP Carlos Carrasco, RHP Chris Perez, RHP
Jess Todd, LHP Nick Hagadone, RHP Jason Knapp, SS Jason Donald, C Lou
Marson and LHP Scott Barnes, all ranked in their team’s top ten
prospects, according to Baseball America.




Sometimes it’s tough to bite the bullet and rebuild, but general
manager Mark Shapiro has done it in a very creative and savvy way,
namely taking advantage of a situation in which Blue Jays general
manager J.P. Ricciardi was asking the moon for Roy Halladay. The trades
weren’t popular, especially with rumors of Knapp being damaged goods,
but in truth, Shapiro has laid a groundwork for contention in the long
run.




Looking ahead:



– The Indians are expected to evaluate Wedge
and his staff in the weeks to come. Many believe a managerial change is
inevitable given the high expectations of the past two seasons. Wedge
has guided the Indians to a 555-551 record over six seasons.




– The trades of Martinez and Garko will finally allow young stud Matt
LaPorta (51 homers and .944 OPS over 224 games in the minors) to get a
full season under his belt in 2010.





– The Indians already have roughly $50 million in contact commitments for
2010 including $11.5 million for Hafner, $11 million for Westbrook and
$10.5 million for Wood, contracts that will be very tough, if not
impossible to move. In turn, they won’t have much payroll flexibility
headed into 2010. They’ll sink or swim with an infusion of youth.

The Cubs are in desperate need of relief

Associated Press
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Tonight in Chicago Yu Darvish of the Dodgers will face off against Kyle Hendricks of the Cubs. If this were Game 1, we’d have a lot to say about the Dodgers’ trade deadline pickup and the Cubs’ budding ace. If this series continues on the way it’s been going, however, each of them will be footnotes because it has been all about the bullpens.

The Cubs, you may have heard, are having tremendous problems with relief pitching. Both their own and with the opposition’s. Cubs relievers have a 7.03 ERA this postseason, and have allowed six runs on eight hits and have walked six batters in seven innings of work. And no, the relief struggles aren’t just a matter of Joe Maddon pushing the wrong buttons (even though, yeah, he has pushed the wrong buttons).

Maddon pushed Wade Davis for 44 pitches in Game 5 of the NLDS, limiting his availability in Games 1 and 2. That pushing is a result of a lack of relief depth on the Cubs. Brian Duensing, Pedro Strop and Carl Edwards Jr. all have talent and all have had their moments, but none of them are the sort of relievers we have come to see in the past few postseasons. The guys who, when your starter tosses 80 pitches in four innings like Jon Lester did the other night, can be relied upon to shut down the opposition for three and a half more until your lights-out closer can get the four-out save.

In contrast, the Dodgers bullpen has been dominant, tossing eight scoreless innings. Indeed, Dodgers relievers have tossed eight almost perfect innings, allowing zero hits and zero walks while striking out nine Cubs batters. The only imperfection came when Kenley Jansen hit Anthony Rizzo in Game 2. That’s it. Compare this to the past couple of postseasons where the only truly reliable arm down there was Jansen, and in which Dodgers managers have had to rely on Clayton Kershaw to come on in relief. That has not been a temptation at all as the revamped L.A. pen, featuring newcomers Brandon Morrow and Tony Watson. Suffice it to say, Joe Blanton is not missed.

Which brings us back to Kyle Hendricks. He has pitched twice this postseason, pitching seven shutout innings in Game 1 of the NLDS but getting touched for four runs on nine hits while allowing a couple of dingers in Game 5. If the good Hendricks shows up, Maddon will be able to ride him until late in the game in which a now-rested Davis and maybe either Strop or Edwards can close things out in conventional fashion, returning this series to competitiveness. If the bad Hendricks does, he’ll have to do what he did in that NLDS Game 5, using multiple relievers and, perhaps, a repurposed starter in relief while grinding Davis into dust again. That was lucky to work there and doing it without Davis didn’t work in Game 2 on Sunday night.

So it all falls to Hendricks. The Dodgers have shown how soft the underbelly of the Cubs pen truly is. If they get to Hendricks early and get into that pen, you have to like L.A’s chances, not just in this game, but for the rest of the series, as bullpen wear-and-tear builds up quickly. It’s pretty simple: Hendricks has to give the Cubs some innings tonight. There is no other option available.

Just ask Joe Maddon. He’s tried.