The secret behind the Cleveland Indians' revival - East Valley Tribune: Sports

The secret behind the Cleveland Indians' revival

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Posted: Saturday, August 23, 2008 10:31 pm | Updated: 10:46 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

ARLINGTON, Texas — Who needs 'em? Ever since C.C. Sabathia was traded July 7, the Indians have been a winning team. Their 22-16 record (at the end of the last homestand) projects to 94 wins over the course of an entire season and a possible playoff berth. Alas, it is too little, too late.

Regardless, they have done this without Travis Hafner, Victor Martinez and Jake Westbrook, in addition to Sabathia. Moreover, after Sabathia was dispatched to the Milwaukee Brewers, Casey Blake and Paul Byrd also were traded.

Shouldn't General Manager Mark Shapiro have figured out the benefits of having less talent a long time ago and gotten rid of these players months earlier? Keep in mind, before Sabathia left, the Tribe's record was 37-51.

Of course, Hafner, Martinez and Westbrook have not been banished; they are injured and have had no positive impact on the club virtually from Day One. The question is: How can the Tribe be a stronger team without these skilled players than with them? The answer, of course, is that it's not.

It's an illusion created by the injury situation, the collapse of the bullpen and, to a lesser degree, Shapiro's failure to acquire a productive hitter in the offseason.

Hindsight tells us that Hafner and Martinez probably were feeling the effects of their injuries (Martinez has admitted as much) before they were shut down in mid-June. And because the Indians began the season with seven effective starters (counting Jeremy Sowers and Aaron Laffey in the minors), the loss of Westbrook became less than devastating, even though Fausto Carmona was out of action with a strained hip for several weeks.

What has happened recently is this: Novices Shin-Soo Choo and Ben Francisco have become everyday players. The short-term experience has raised their comfort level and sharpened their eye at the plate. Moreover, Franklin Gutierrez has been on a hot streak for a couple of weeks.

Since Ryan Garko was benched for mistakenly failing to run hard after hitting what he thought was a foul ball, he has shaken his lengthy slump. Being forced to watch from the bench probably had nothing to do with his recent surge, but the timing makes for interesting discussions.

At least equally important has been the comportment of the relief corps. For a while, Rafael Perez was the only pitcher in the bullpen manager Eric Wedge could rely on to get anybody out, and even he went through a brief skid.

The Tribe has not had a closer since cutting loose Joe Borowski. Rafael Betancourt's attempt at filling the void was short-lived, so Wedge tried Masa Kobayashi, and that didn't work, either.

Enter Jensen Lewis — with none of the credentials that Wedge and Shapiro look for in a pitcher assigned to save games. Not only does he lack a 95-mph or better fastball, but also he has struggled to throw as hard as he has in the past (89-92).

In addition, the last time Lewis' job description included closing games, he was a freshman at Vanderbilt, and there was no reason for anyone to know whether he had the mindset to succeed at the highest level of the game.

This is not to suggest that Shapiro immediately should sign Lewis to a three-year guaranteed contract with incentives for finishing games. But in a very limited number of opportunities, Lewis has performed well when asked to hold a lead in the ninth inning.

Lewis and Perez have stabilized the back of the bullpen, at least for now. From a managerial standpoint and for the morale of a team, there is nothing worse than a bullpen filled with garbage relievers. It is impossible to manage under those circumstances (the skipper might as well buy a set of darts), and few things demoralize a team faster than a bullpen that constantly blows leads.

In recent days, Betancourt has shown signs of mending his broken spirit and softening his tendency (call it stubbornness) to throw fastball after fastball after fastball. Three competent relievers is 1,000 percent better than none. (I know the math is wrong).

Some will say the reason for the team's revival is the absence of pressure, but how much pressure was there before July 7? I don't buy that explanation.

There is one cautionary note to be sounded. Just because the Indians have performed in a capable manner for six weeks doesn't mean their deficiencies have disappeared.

Shapiro's to-do list for the winter still should include finding a closer, at least one additional reliever (but probably two), a run producer who plays a corner outfield spot, a third baseman and possibly a starting pitcher, depending on how Anthony Reyes performs the rest of the season.

Aside from that, the team has championship written all over it. End of an era? Has the Tribe's flirtation with Andy Marte come to a merciful conclusion?

There was a commitment by the club's deep thinkers several weeks ago to play Marte on an everyday basis, so they finally could make a judgment about his fitness for the big leagues.

Now that Wedge has seen Marte play regularly, two things appear to be obvious: He is definitely a solid defender at third base who has a long way to go before he hits enough to be an impact major leaguer.

Marte is still struggling to raise his batting average above .200, and Wedge has shown an inclination to play him less the past week. Not only has Jamey Carroll started a couple of games at third, but also Marte has been asked to take a seat late in games when a hit might mean the difference between winning and losing.

These might be signs that the grand experiment is over. Wedge never has seemed particularly enamored with Marte, despite the enthusiasm of the front office. It was good policy to let him get everyday at-bats to determine whether Shapiro should try to find a way to keep him next year. (Marte already is out of options).

The answer appears to be no. Watching Marte hit, it is difficult to imagine why he was such a ballyhooed player when the Atlanta Braves signed him as a teenager in 2000.

By the same token, I never could understand why Shapiro traded a key player, Coco Crisp, for a kid who might be a regular in two years, when the club's immediate goal was to contend for a division title.

That being said, I'm not about to write off Marte entirely. I can imagine him becoming a workmanlike major-league hitter in another two, three or four years. But the Indians can't wait that long, and even if they could, the payoff probably wouldn't be worth it.

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