Monday, March 29, 2010

Spring is here

And with it come a new and an old ritual. The newbie: a much-needed and appreciated week off. I love the new job, and am hoping to get renewed for next year. By all accounts, the first year is the worst owing to an equal mixture of inexperience and overwhelming amounts of preparation work. The latter is particularly true, since I'm teaching three different classes. Be that as it may, I'm happy to finally have a job where I feel like I'm actually doing something meaningful and worthwhile, and where (knock on wood) it doesn't appear I'm going to get royally fucked over.

The old ritual, however, is the subject at hand: spring training! Where hope springs eternal, even for the worst teams. Where a 97-loss debacle of a season is quickly cast aside if the young'uns show signs of progress. Where seasons lost to injuries and the tyranny of subservience to the big-market teams who can afford to rip the talent out of your ball club are, for the moment, forgotten. Thanks to the MLB Network and one of the greatest inventions of my lifetime, the DVR, I've been able to watch a few spring training games, and while I'm nowhere near anointing this year's ball-club as a post-season threat, there are quite a few good signs that the team won't be as atrocious as last year's edition.

Jake Westbrook finally appears to be fully recovered from Tommy John surgery. His sinker has been heavy and quite effective, and his fastball still gets up there with enough speed to keep hitters honest. He looks ready to continue the success that was derailed by injuries. Is he a legit #1 starter? Probably not, but he's tough and gritty, and if his body cooperates, he'll keep the Tribe in games. Fausto Carmona has been absolutely lights out thus far. His stuff is downright electric, and when he locates his pitches, he's practically unhittable. That wasn't the case the last couple of years, but a couple of minor adjustments to his mechanics appear to have set him right again. His last two starts, he went six and seven innings, giving up no runs, walking only two, and getting roughly 75% of his outs on weak grounders. I still remember, quite fondly, how he burst onto the scene in 2007. I don't want to jinx things, but he appears to have regained that form. The rest of the pitching staff is iffy. Lots of young arms with outstanding stuff, lots of inexperience harnessing that stuff on a consistent basis. Masterson and Carrasco, in particular, have awesome velocity, but need to locate their off-speed pitches more consistently. Huff and Talbot have potential. It's hard to believe this, but Huff actually led the staff in wins last year, even though his ERA was an absurd 5.9 something. Let's just move on before I start crying.

The bullpen can't possibly be any worse than last year's craptacular edition. Laffey's been bumped out of the rotation to start the season. It stinks for him, but he's actually better suited for this duty. I really think he'll be the Paul Assenmacher type we've been looking for since, well, my old buddy Paul Assenmacher. Raffy Perez and his wicked slider appear to be back on track now that Raffy's delivery is consistent again. I don't quite know what to make of Smith, Sipp, and Lewis, so keep'em crossed whenever they come on. The Korean reliever (Ching Chang Chung? Bink Bank Benk?) has a very live arm, so I hope he makes the roster. Chris Perez steps into the closer role now that Wood is on DL for the umpteenth time. This could work out for the best. He was brought in as the closer of the future, so why not throw him into that role? He's got the right demeanor and arsenal of pitches, so as long as he doesn't go all Wild Thing on us. Not to be a cynic, but he can't possibly be worse than Wood or Blow-worski. The only problem is that he HAS gone all Wild Thing on us before. I remember a game last year where he walked four guys in a row before Wedgie finally decided to pull him. Let's hope Acta handles him, and the rest of the staff, better.

The everyday line-up looks outstanding, especially now that some of the dead weight has been removed. Signing Branyan is crazy, but his pathetic, underachieving ass is on the DL, so he won't be leaving a small village on base while he strikes out trying to pull outside pitches anytime soon. We didn't sign any Philadelphia cast-off outfielders this year, so the Michaels / Dellucci poo-poo platter is, thankfully, a thing of the past. What we have instead is an awesome combination of young and just-entering-their-prime bad-asses.

Ass-Drivel Cabrera leads off, at least for now. He's an excellent hitter, gets on base, works the pitcher, and is a crafty baserunner. Sizemore moves down to the second spot in the line-up, at least for now. He's completely healthy, and has hit the shit out of the ball this spring. Pika-Choo hits third, and looks to go into the season even hotter than last year, where he hit .300+ with 20 HRs and 80+ RBIs. Colour me skeptical when it comes to Hafner, but he also looks completely healthy, and has hit pretty well thus far. Peralta... well, he's in shape. I just don't know what to expect from Jhonny, except that he starts the season at third base, which is where he SHOULD have started last year. Hopefully the consistency leads to more consistency at the plate. Jhonny can hit if his head is right. LaPorta gets the nod at first now that Don Quijote Branyan is whiffing away on the DL, and this is a very good thing. Thome II is about as dumb as they come, but he's been crushing everything thus far while showing OK discipline. Marson's kind of being lost in the shuffle amidst all the hoopla for catcher-in-waiting Santana, but this kid has awesome potential. I think he's going to surprise quite a few people. Valbuena showed flashes last year, and he's an outstanding fielder -- he and Cabrera have turned some fantastic DPs this spring. Considering the top half of the rotation induces an enormity of grounders, this is a very good thing. Brantley hits in the ninth spot, at least for now. He's way too good, though. I think Acta has him here so as not to pressure him, but soon enough, he'll be moved up to bat lead-off while the rest of the line-up moves down one spot. This is the line-up I can't wait to see. Brantley is a prototypical lead-off guy: average, discipline, and speed. Cabrera is a prototypical second spot guy: average, contact, fantastic bat control. Sizemore is a prototypical third spot guy: average, speed, and huge power. Pika-Choo needs to hit in the clean-up spot, where he'll be enormously productive now that a supposedly healthy Pronk can protect him. And so on.

I like what I've seen from the Tribe thus far when it comes to base-running and situational hitting. Lots of well-executed hit-and-runs, sacrifices, and steals. They actually pulled two double steals in one game! So far, so good. Acta looks like he knows how to get the most potential out of his youngsters, and appears to have infinitely better people skills than his well-meaning but sour-faced predecessor. The pitching is the weak spot here, but there are tons of live arms in the minors. Carrasco, Hagadone, Gomez, and Rondon are all top-notch prospects. There's no shortage of young talent, either: Santana, Donald, Chisenhall, Mills, Brown... these guys could (SHOULD!) spend some time in the majors this year.

So, lots of youth, lots of potential, lots of question marks... and a little bit of hope, which springs eternal.

Go Tribe!!!