CLEVELAND: The Indians’ hideous 11-game losing streak is over, but the fallout should last the rest of the season and beyond.
For the most part, the reversals were attributable to a flawed roster that was destined to fail from the outset of the season.
Then why didn’t the Indians lose eight in a row or 10 in a row earlier in the season, maybe more than once? Because the rock-solid part of the team, setup man Vinnie Pestano and closer Chris Perez, and to a lesser extent Joe Smith, who pitches the seventh inning, almost never let a lead get away.
It’s a big advantage for a team whose lineup is almost bereft of run producers in the six-through-nine spots to keep the game to six innings. Couple the excellence of the back end of the bullpen with sporadic proficient starts by Justin Masterson, Zach McAllister, and less often by Ubaldo Jimenez, and the Tribe was able to win low-scoring, close games.
During the first two months of the season, Derek Lowe carried the rotation with an amazing display of pinpoint accuracy with a sinker that forced frustrated batters to beat the ball into the dirt.
But Lowe began to fade in June, not coincidentally, the same month he turned 39. Josh Tomlin’s command problems became more acute and (during the streak), McAllister showed his inexperience with an inability to handle adversity when someone made an error behind him.
The stability of the lineup has depended on mostly young players in the top five positions. The rest of the batting order has been composed of a patchwork of mediocre veterans and career bench players plus Travis Hafner, who needed to produce if the offense had any chance of working.
We know now that Hafner was unable to hold up his end of the bargain. Nagging injuries kept him sidelined too often and probably affected his swing when he did play. I wrote in spring training that if Hafner could generate runs, the offense would be effective enough to allow the team to be competitive. I thought Hafner would come through. He hasn’t, and the attack has suffered accordingly.
The Johnny Damon experiment was doomed to fail from the get-go, but that didn’t keep the Tribe’s deep thinkers from running him out to left field long after it became apparent he could no longer play.
Moreover, as soon as the club announced the signing of Damon, Shelley Duncan stopped hitting. A coincidence? Probably not. He worked hard in spring training to earn a job, which should have come with an implied promise that he would receive a chance to keep it.
Now Damon and Lowe are gone, as is pitching coach Scott Radinsky. He was chosen to be the scapegoat for the failures of the pitchers and was fired Thursday.
Lowe looked like the bargain of the century for two months, but age and the wear and tear on his body brought him down. At the end, his pitches had little movement, and he had trouble keeping his sinker down in the strike zone.
With two months left in the season, the Indians still had no answer in left field, a first baseman who is the antithesis of what they need and a third baseman who has begun to play like the backup he was before he came to Cleveland before the 2011 season.
Last year at this time, I wondered how other teams could have passed up Jack Hannahan. He was making spectacular plays at third and contributing timely RBI hits to the offense. But for whatever reason, he has taken a step backward to where he was when the Tribe rescued his career.
Like Hannahan, Casey Kotchman is a bona fide run-saver in the field, but as an offensive threat at first base, he leaves much to be desired. That was no secret of course. The Indians knew they needed a run producer at one of the corner infield positions but failed to procure one.
Hannahan and Kotchman have been two of the guys in the bottom half of a lineup that has been virtually nonproductive. They’ve had plenty of company down there with Duncan, Damon, the departed Jose Lopez and (at times) Lou Marson, Brent Lillibridge and Hafner.
It was only a matter of time that two or three guys in the upper half of the lineup would go into a slump, exacerbating the problems at the bottom half of the lineup that generated the seeds of a losing streak.
We also saw what happens when Perez has a couple of off nights. Sunday’s and Tuesday’s defeats were a product of blown saves, but it’s hardly a black mark on Perez’s record to blow four saves in two-thirds of a season.
Combined with the long-term defects of the rotation, it’s not all that surprising the Tribe tumbled into a long losing streak.
So it’s time for some soul searching as teams love to say, “re-evaluating.” Mistakes have been made, mostly in the way the roster was put together. There are too many left-handed batters; a rotation that lacks a true No. 2 starter, let alone an ace; no power at first third or left field, and a limited bench, partly because the reserves are in the lineup half the time.
General Manager Chris Antonetti is the man who filled the lineup with lefties, obtained Lowe and Damon, declined to pull the trigger on the logical signing of Josh Willingham and made a late July deal for Lillibridge to improve the 25th spot on the roster, as if that would make some sort of impact.
On the other hand, Antonetti operates under a severe handicap. Why do you think he re-signed Grady Sizemore? The GM had $13 million to work with and three positions to upgrade. Three positions can’t be fixed with $13 million, but he had to try. So he crossed his fingers and gave Sizemore $5 million, handed over $5 million to Lowe and $3 million to Kotchman.
At that point, the bank closed up shop, and Antonetti had to hope against all odds that these moves would work. Of course, they didn’t. Why would they?
If an evaluation is genuinely going to take place, the emphasis should be on how the baseball operation is funded. Only two people can do that, and nobody knows if owners Paul and Larry Dolan can or will infuse more cash into the club.
We’ll find out over the winter, but don’t get your hopes up. The Indians are destined to finish last in attendance, which can’t do anything but affect the 2012 budget in a negative way.
Sheldon Ocker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Indians blog at http://www.ohio.com/indians. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SheldonOckerABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.