Springtime Storylines: Will the Cleveland Indians build on last season or take a step backward?

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Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2012 season. Up next: Cleveland Indians.

The Big Question: Will the Cleveland Indians build on last season or take a step backward?

Cleveland got off to an unexpectedly tremendous start last season only to fade badly down the stretch, finishing below .500 and 15 games behind a Detroit team they actually led as late as mid-July. Despite going 33-40 after the All-Star break the Indians still improved by 11 games compared to 2010 and 15 games compared to 2009, which seemingly makes them a strong candidate for another step forward this season.

However, there’s reason to be skeptical. For one thing Asdrubal Cabrera is an even stronger candidate to come back down to earth, at least a little bit, following an out of nowhere power breakout, and midseason blockbuster pickup Ubaldo Jimenez hasn’t looked like himself since early 2010. Beyond that the Indians’ runs scored and runs allowed totals suggest they were more like a 75-win team last season instead of their actual 80-82 record.

Toss in the now-annual hope that Grady Sizemore can return to his previous stardom having already been dashed by knee surgery and Fausto Carmona’s status being totally up in the air thanks to the revelation that he’s not actually Fausto Carmona and … well, the Indians have some big question marks. Fortunately they also have several players capable of much bigger things than last season, chief among them star-in-the-making Carlos Santana, star-who-was-injured Shin-Soo Choo, and promising second baseman Jason Kipnis.

What else is going on?

  • Kipnis has secured the starting second base gig, but the Indians opted not to hand third base to Lonnie Chisenhall and instead gave the job to veteran Jack Hannahan. He’s an excellent defender at third base, but Hannahan is a 32-year-old career .231 hitter with just 24 homers and a measly .358 slugging percentage in 400 games. Presumably he’s just keeping the position warm for Chisenhall, but if Hannahan playing everyday is combined with Cabrera and Casey Kotchman regressing the Indians may struggle to score runs.
  • Chris Perez was brilliant while emerging as the Indians’ closer in 2010 and at first glance he was excellent last season as well, converting 36-of-40 save opportunities with a 3.32 ERA. However, his strikeouts per nine innings plummeted from 8.7 to 5.9 and his average fastball velocity dipped 1.2 miles per hour, which is a worrisome combination. If he gets back to missing more bats the Indians’ bullpen has the potential to be very strong with Vinnie Pestano, Rafael Perez, Dan Wheeler, Joe Smith, and Tony Sipp in setup roles, but Perez is trending in the wrong direction.
  • Sizemore and Travis Hafner returning to their former glory is wishful thinking at this point, but Choo should be able to bounce back after missing 77 games and performing poorly in a season filled with multiple injuries and a DUI arrest. Prior to last season Choo was one of the best, most underrated all-around outfielders in baseball, hitting .302 with a .397 on-base percentage and .500 slugging percentage from 2008-2010.
  • Cleveland gave up top prospect Drew Pomeranz and solid prospect Alex White to get Jimenez from the Rockies at midseason, only to see him struggle down the stretch while showing significantly diminished velocity. Between his contract and the cost to acquire him the Indians paid for Jimenez to be an ace, but since going 15-1 with a 2.20 ERA in the first half of 2010 he’s 14-20 with a 4.39 ERA in 283 innings spread over 47 starts and his fastball was missing 2-3 miles per hour last year.

How are they gonna do?

Based on the progression from 65-97 to 69-93 to 80-82 the Indians look ready to make another big jump this season, but instead their question mark-filled roster makes me think another season around .500 seems more likely. That should be enough to make another run at second place and perhaps even remain in contention for the division title into the second half, but it’s tough to see the Indians hanging with the Tigers all year long unless just about everything breaks right.

Myles Garrett and Mason Rudolph: meet Juan Marichal and John Roseboro

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Last night the Pittsburgh Steelers lost to the Cleveland Browns. No one is gonna be talking nearly as much about the outcome today, however, as they are the carnage.

Specifically, the carnage that led to Browns defensive end Myles Garrett getting ejected from the game after ripping Steelers’ quarterback Mason Rudolph’s helmet off, swinging it at him and connecting with Rudolph’s skull as the game came to a close. Things were already chippy as all get-out, but that obviously led to a brawl which will lead to a ton of suspensions, including a possibly record-breaking one for Garrett. For all your analysis on that, check out PFT, obviously.

The incident will dominate the sports shows today because malicious attempts to injure another player with a piece of equipment are pretty rare in professional sports. There was at least one incident in baseball history, however, that was analogous to what went down in Cleveland last night.

It took place on August 22, 1965 at Candlestick Park in San Francisco during a Dodgers-Giants game. That’s when Giants ace Juan Marichal, playing the role of Garrett, took a baseball bat to the head of Dodgers catcher John Roseboro, standing in for Rudolph.

The Dodgers and Giants are rivals, of course, and in 1965 the two teams were in a pitched battle for the N.L. pennant, with the Dodgers leading San Francisco by a game and a half as the day began.

Pitchers in 1965 were a bit more aggressive about claiming the inside part of the plate than they are today, and on that day, everyone seemed cranky. Marichal knocked Dodgers shortstop Maury Wills down with some chin music in the top of the second for, it appears, committing the terrible transgression of bunting for a single in his first at bat of the game. In response Koufax fired a fastball over Willie Mays’ head, sending the ball to the backstop. So everyone was even, yeah?

Nah. Marichal responded in the top of third with an inside fastball that sent Dodgers first baseman Ron Fairly sprawling to the dirt. At that point home plate umpire Shag Crawford issued a warning, indicating that that the next close pitch from either team would result in an ejection. Walter Alston’s Dodgers, though, were a clever bunch. Sure, maybe a close pitch was going to get an ace ejected in a pennant race, but there are other ways to buzz someone’s tower, right?

Pitchers batted in every game back then, of course, and Marichal came to bat in the bottom of the third. Koufax didn’t throw at him, though. Instead, Roseboro, catching for L.A., threw the ball back to Koufax in such a way as to have it sail close to Marichal’s head as he stood in the batter’s box. He later admitted in his autobiography that it was no accident, he was trying to intimidate Marichal.

Marichal flipped out, clubbing Roseboro with his bat, after which all hell broke loose (all photos, and the original caption from 1965, are from Getty Images):

 

Juan Marichal holding bat, John Roseboro attacked, and Sandy Koufax closes in.

 

Roseboro throws a punch at Marichal while latter swings bat and Koufax comes in to try and break it up.

 

On deck batter Giant Tito Fuentes pulls Roseboro away while Marichal wields bat at Koufax while umpire Shag Crawford and Giant coach Charlie Fox try to break it up.

 

Umpire Shag Crawford wrestles with Marichal while Dodgers Jim Gilliam (19) and Koufax come in. Rear is Giants coach Charlie Fox. Marichal falls to the ground on top of Shag Crawford while Giants Orlando Cepeda joins the melee.

 

Umpire Shag Crawford is shown here wrestling with Marichal as Dodgers Jim Gilliam (#19) and Sandy Koufax join in. In the rear is Giants’ coach Charlie Fox.

 

Identifiable L-R: Dodger Jim Gilliam (19); John Roseboro (with chest protector); Giants Orlando Cepeda (30); Cap Peterson (17); Warren Spahn; and Mgr. Herman Franks (3).

Willie Mays was credited with keeping the brawl from getting worse. Roseboro had military and martial arts training and, as you can see in the second photo, he was not slowed by his head injury — an injury that would require 14 stitches — from trying to take Marichal apart. Mays was the one who ultimately pulled Roseboro away and out of the fracas. He even held a towel to Roseboro’s head which by then had begun to bleed profusely. The fight eventually ended, with several players sustaining injuries due to kicks and accidental spikings of hands and legs and stuff.

The incident delayed the game for 14 minutes but the fallout beyond that was pretty tame compared to today’s standards. Marichal got an eight day suspension which, because of scheduled doubleheaders, caused him to miss ten games. He was also fined $1,750, which is around $15,000 today. Roseboro only missed two games due to his injury. The Dodgers would lose this game thanks to a big homer from Mays off of Koufax, but the Dodgers would go on to win the pennant and defeat the Minnesota Twins in the World Series.

There was additional fallout: Roseboro sued Marichal for $110,000 in damages. They’d eventually settle, with Roseboro receiving $7,500 from Marichal.

But there was no lingering bad blood. In interviews after the incident both players admitted that there was much more on their minds in 1965 that might’ve contributed to their aggression on that day. There was the rivalry, of course, and the pennant race. But Marichal had been much more personally distracted by a civil war in his native Dominican Republic that raged in 1965 and would not end until September. Roseboro had been, understandably, affected by the Watts Riots in Los Angeles which had taken place just over a week before this game. When you feel helpless about situation A, you often channel your feelings into situation B and both men said that something like that was probably simmering.

Marichal would play for the Dodgers for two games in 1975, the final year of his career. Roseboro had already retired, but Marichal’s cup of coffee with L.A. allowed them to meet up at a Dodgers old-timers game in 1982. There they posed for this photo: 

Getty Images

“There were no hard feelings on my part,” Roseboro told the L.A. Times in 1990. Roseboro died in 2002. Marichal was an honorary pallbearer at his funeral.

Let’s check in with Garrett and Ruldolph in 37 years to see how they’re doing.