Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Quick thoughts on the Lee trade
So let me get this right: Cliff Lee won the Cy Young last year, has pitched very well this year, and has an option left on his deal.

And the Indians get ... no Major League-ready talent.

-I'm not upset the Indians traded Lee. They're going nowhere fast and it's best to get some young players for him to replenish the system. But was this really the best GM Mark Shapiro could do?

- People always talk about the Bartolo Colon deal. But here's why this one is different: The Phillies aren't owned by Major League Baseball (you know, like the Expos were) and thus, Ruben Amaro actually gives a damn what he gives up. Omar Minaya (in the news this week for something completely different but just as ridiculous) knew his future wasn't in Montreal, or Washington. He was just trying to snare a Cy Young contender (Colon) to help his team contend and impress a potential suitor. Mark Shapiro was able to take advantage of the situation, snaring three talented players. Of course, he gave one away for no reason.

- Here's a big reason why we're writing about the Indians trading for youth again: They can't draft.

Who are the Indians best players right now? Sizemore? A trade. Asdrubal Cabrera? Trade. Shin Soo Choo? Trade.

The Indians drafts have produced such winners as Trevor Crowe, Michael Aubrey and Brad Snyder. Even the talent we trade away (Franklin Gutierrez) aren't home grown.

A team that can't draft almost has to be bad every other year. How else to be in a position to trade for young talent.

Even now, the ONLY two players in Columbus people seem to talk about are Michael Brantley and Matt LaPorta. They were acquired after the Indians woefully underachieved in 2008.

- Can the guys the Indians received in this deal pan out? Sure. Carlos Carrasco is struggling in AAA. Jason Knapp is an intriguing prospect, but he's super young. Catcher Lou Marson? Do they not like Carlos Santana? Shortstop Jason Donald? The HAVE a shortstop.

But the Indians probably won't contend next year. By 2011, Shapiro will be approaching a decade as the GM, with only one playoff appearance on his resume.

That might fly with the owners. The fans? That's another story.


Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Obama and Hawaii
While not being particularly thrilled with the direction in which President Barack Obama is taking this country, I fail to see the point of questioning whether he was born in this country.

Today, Hawaii's health director said he'd seen the birth certificate, and that should close the matter.

Good enough for me. What's the alternative, force out the country's first black president because of some technicality that really should have been off the books years ago?

That'd make the country look outstanding.

Like most right-leaning people in this country, I'm against much of what the president is doing, from his health care bill to cap and trade to the stimulus.

But I don't hate Obama. I don't wish for the man to fail. I don't have to hope for his policies to fail, because I'm pretty sure they will, and me feeling one way or the other won't change anything.

The point is, the president was elected legally, and he is fit to run this country for the rest of his term. Then there's an election.

Those yelling about where Obama was born are falling into a trap of making conservatives seem crazy and paranoid to the centrists in this country.

Some conservatives are crazy. But not most of us.

Focus on policy.


Saturday, July 25, 2009

The summers of my youth were like this ...
The Indians have won three out of four games, which I think answers the following question:

"If the 2009 Indians win back-to-back series, and no one is there to care, does it make a difference?"

Not to us fans, and probably not to many in the Cleveland media. But it probably does matter to Indians General Manager Mark Shapiro, who could use a strong but meaningless second half as a reason not to dismiss manager Eric Wedge and not to bring some new voices into the organization.

As a fan, it seems easier and more simplistic than it is. I know that Wedge and Shapiro aren't trying to destroy this once-proud franchise, and in fact have each done some very good things while a part of it.

But 2007 was two years ago. For seven years, the Indians' front office and its coaching staff have spoke with one voice coming from two throats.

After seven years and five non-contending seasons, one has to develop a filter listening to Wedge and Shapiro talk. Wedge goes on and on about "grinding." But as Tom Selleck said in the rather mundane film Mr. Baseball: "Baseball's a game, and game's are supposed to be fun."

Maybe Willie Mays had his grinding days. Maybe Ernie Banks didn't really mean it when he said "Let's play two."

Maybe Pete Rose only hustled while keeping in the back of his mind the realities of the market in which he was playing.

Anyone else think Wedge might have benched Babe Ruth for calling his shot?

The more I see him and hear him, Shapiro comes across as someone who came to baseball because Harvard Business rejected his resume. I get the sense that some of the guys the Indians have signed were not signed because they had great talent or a ridiculous will to win. They were hired because the front office multiplied the player's OPS by some other statistic they made up and the line came out OK.

I know this sounds harsh and it's probably not true. But it seems like that. In a losing baseball season, perception is reality in the time it takes to break a bat.

The bottom line is that Indians baseball isn't just a grind for the players, it's one for the fans as well.

As time passes, I become convinced that it's not just the manager that needs to be replaced. It's the whole system.


Thursday, July 16, 2009

Great moments in Indians' broadcasting
"Grady Sizemore back in the leadoff spot and that's where he'll stay. That's where he best helps this ballclub." -- Indians broadcaster/Eric Wedge Kool-Aid drinker Tom Hamilton.

Is there anyone other than Eric Wedge (or an Indians' broadcaster) who believes Sizemore best helps the Indians in the leadoff spot?

Hamilton then talks about what a great trade it was between the Indians and Mariners that brought the Tribe Luis Valbuena and lost them Franklin Gutierrez. First of all, Hamilton never mentioned the name "Joe Smith." Second, Gutierrez is starting while Valbuena's a part time player hitting .210.

Also, the Indians wouldn't have needed Asdrubal Cabrera (a trade Hamilton also was raving about) or Valbena if they'd just held on to Brandon Phillips.


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Five questions with Erik Cassano
The man behind Papacass answers a few Indians' questions.

ZB: Is there any way Eric Wedge saves his job for 2010?

EC: Yes. The Indians can have a second-half push and finish somewhere around .500, much like they did last season. That will convince Mark Shapiro and Co. that the club is still on the right track, and they just need to get healthy and have a few breakout performances to get back on track in 2010. Never underestimate the straw-grasping ability of the Indians front office.

ZB: Is there any hope that the Indians can compete again in the next three years?

EC: The chances of the Indians competing in 2010 are actually stronger than their chances of competing in 2012 or '13. At the outset of '10, there is at least a chance they will still have Cliff Lee and Victor Martinez on the roster. Kerry Wood has a dominant arm and could rebound from his shaky '09. Fausto Carmona still has upside at this point. In '12 or '13, the full force of the Indians' lackluster drafting record in the 2000s could finally make itself apparent at the major league level.

Certainly, there are some potential hitting studs waiting in the wings like Matt LaPorta, Michael Brantley and Carlos Santana. But as far as pitching is concerned, David Huff and Hector Rondon might be it, unless a Lee or Martinez trade yields a young ace. Carmona might have emerged as a staff ace by that point. Or he might be a bust. Regardless, with his control problems, it's a roll of the dice.

ZB: Cliff Lee: Trade him now, later or re-sign him? (Sorry, that last part was a joke.)

EC:I'm a bit biased because I'm a Cliff Lee fan. I don't want to see him traded. But the Indians won't be able to afford his next contract, so it's inevitable that they will have to deal him at some point. The only scenario in which they'd let him walk is if they kept him and climbed back into contention next season. But there is no realistic scenario in which he's still an Indian in 2011.

There is no pressure to deal Lee right now, though there is a school of thought that says his trade value is maximized at this point because he'd be more than a one-season rental if traded now. But a lot of midmarket teams are actually attracted to the idea of a one-season or half-season rental because they would have to pay less in prospects and the financial commitment would be relatively small.

I guess it boils down to this: If the Yankees, Dodgers or Red Sox are willing to give Shapiro the Sun, Moon and stars for Lee right now, trade him now. But if they want to increase the bidding war to include fringe playoff teams, they need to wait until the winter or next summer, if the Indians are once again not in contention.

ZB: Is Mark Shapiro in trouble? Should he be?

If the buck stops with the general manager, Shapiro should indeed be feeling a great deal of heat. Shapiro might have armies of scouts and farmhands to handle the prep work on drafts, trades and free agent signings, but he's the one who hires the help and keeps them employed. If the Indians drafts consistently yield little to nothing in the way of star-level talent, if that talent is not cultivated correctly, if players regress once they arrive at the big league level due to inadequate tutoring from the big league coaching staff, all of that falls on Shapiro.

Ultimately, I think we're eight years into the Shapiro Era, and the cracks are starting to show. The farm system isn't as plentiful as we might want to believe, the years of misspending free agent dollars is taking a toll, Eric Wedge was recently voted one of the least-liked managers in baseball among players, and in general, Shapiro might be getting exposed as an executive who might be an intelligent businessman, but he might be lacking in a baseball sense.

Ultimately, I think Shapiro has a fatal flaw as a leader: He equates groupthink with cohesion. Any business leader worth their weight in salt goes out of their way to bring in people with different, outside perspectives. It's one of the keys to problem solving in any organizational setting. But Shapiro doesn't go out of his way to do that. Either he fears conflict, or he truly believes that all the answers lie within the organization as it now stands.

That's why, when and if Wedge is fired, you know the new manager will come from within the organization. It's almost a given, and I don't think it's healthy for the organization as a whole.

ZB: Most people seem to view the Dolans as cheap. In light of some of the moves this winter (Wood, DeRosa), is this fair?

EC: The Dolans have the least blood on their hands of any party involved in this mess. With few exceptions, sports owners spend relative to what they make in revenue. Some are willing to go into the red to boost payroll, some hoard their revenue like misers. But most will spend more when revenues are up and spend less when revenues are down.

The Dolans have committed money to farm system scouting and development. They've committed money to keep players like Grady Sizemore here long term. They've given Shapiro more than a token amount of free agent dollars to spend. They footed an extensive bill for Kerry Wood in a down economy. No, they didn't fork over the money to re-sign C.C., and they probably aren't going to greenlight a Manny Ramirez free agent signing so that he can finish his career where he started it. But does that make them any different from any other baseball owners in a similar-sized market?


Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Andy Barch Interview
Frequent VZ contributor Andy Barch, the voice of the West Virginia Power and one of the made men over at the Pigskin Podcast (check it out, by the way, you'll thank me)sits down for an interview about the wild and sometimes tragic NFL offseason.

ZB: Steve McNair, Dante Stallworth, the Minnesota Steroid story, Burris ... is this the worst NFL offseason you remember?

AB: This has been an awful offseason, the problem is, it doesnt seem like these offseasons ever get any better. There will always be individuals who have problems, and these situations will continue to pop up. The steroid story doesnt bother me as much as the other two. When you're dealing with death, you enter a completely different dimension, that's why this offseason will have a bigger black eye than some of the others.

The McNair story is very sad, regardless of the guy's preference to carry on multiple relationships, I feel awful for his wife and kids who are left behind only to wonder. As for Stallworth, look, the guy made a huge mistake and we will make what we will of his penalty, but the guy has to live with this the rest of his life, and that is something he will always feel guilty about and never be able to live down, therefore, he'll be punished and ridiculed the rest of his life.

So having said all of that, this indeed has been one of the worst off the field off seasons in years.

ZB: I know you are a big Green Bay fan. Why is Brett Favre probably returning to the Vikings? Will it hurt his legacy in Green Bay?

AB: I think Favre still hates Ted Thompson and the way he handled the situation last year. Favre needs to make up his mind. He's like a groom with cold feet on wedding day, either crap or get off the pot. That's a problem Minnesota must deal with right now. It's not fair to that organization what he's doing right now. His legacy won't be completely tarnished in Green Bay, but it will ruin his image quite a bit because last year people were willing to forgive him for wanting to come back, but now he wants to come back to Lambeau as the enemy, and cheeseheads do not like that.

People in Green Bay have learned to hate the Vikings more than the Bears, which is impressive. It's also why people will turn on him quickly if he comes back.

ZB: From the Vikings' perspective, isn't getting Favre a roll of the dice? How much does he have left?

AB: Absolutely it's a roll of the dice, Rosenfels and Jackson were competing against each other, but now, they may be competing for the backup role. It's a roll of the dice because he's still not 100 percent sure if he wants to come back, and even if he returns, how can you be sure he's in it 100 percent given his indecisiveness over the years? That team had to replace Matt Birk in the off season, and that will be a big challege in itself, having to figure out who will be under center and learning his style will also be a challenge, so yes, it is indeed a roll of the dice.

ZB: Matt Cassell got a big contract from KC. Is he ready to be a franchise guy, and did it make sense for the Chiefs to pay him like one?

AB: Cassel reaks of Scott Mitchell to me. I think he played in a great system in New England, but who knows whats in store in Kansas City where there appear to be more questions than answers. What is Larry Johnson going to do? Who is his security blanket now that Gonzalez is gone? Can he keep Dwayne Bowe happy? I think they would have been fine with the kid they had last year who took some serious steps forward toward the end of last year. That contract was a bit premature, but who knows, maybe he will shine in his first chance to be the face of a franchise.

5. Which of the head coaches will have the toughest time as training camps get rolling?

I believe Marvin Lewis will have a very difficult time juggling Carson Palmer and Chad Johnson. There is another team with more questions than answers. He's been on the hot seat for a very long time, and it sure seems like that situation is getting ready to pop like a frog on a hot plate. They havent done a ton this offseason to show me that they've significantly improved, so Marvin Lewis has to be one.

Rex Ryan (who I like) has ran his mouth quite a bit, and there is a lot of pressure on him to put his money where his mouth is, though I think that team will be fine. Ken Whisenhunt has endured a lot with the contract situation of Boldin, the loss of two coordinators, and of course he's trying to avoid the curse that has plagued the last few Super Bowl losers. There will be a little pressure in the desert as well to try and get those guys to return to form from one year ago.


Sunday, July 12, 2009

Indians first-half report card
This is my third-straight one. Much like a Brock Lesnar victory celebration, it won't be pretty. Unlike a Lesnar celebration, the owners won't be able to make money off it.


Winston Abreu (0-0, 2.45): It's not really fair to grade him yet.

Rafael Betancourt (1-1, 3.45, 1 save): He's been injured, but has been decent. He gets a B.

Mike Gosling (0-0, 8.00): I have no idea who this guy is, so I won't grade him.

David Huff (4-3, 6.71): Has had good starts and bad starts. He's only 24, but you worry about him being another Jeremy Sowers. C.

Aaron Laffey (3-2, 4.24, 1 save): He's been OK, even if the Indians haven't seemed entirely sure what to do with him. He's also been hurt. B.

Cliff Lee (4-9, 3.47): He should have at least 10 wins and be in the All Star Game. He doesn't, and will probably be traded either before the deadline or in the offseason. A.

Tomo Ohka (0-3, 6.40): You can't expect too much here. C.

Carl Pavano (8-7, 5.13): His numbers don't show how effective he's been. His first start in Texas was a disaster, but since then (with a few exceptions) he's been as good or better than anyone could have hoped. B.

Chris Perez (0-0, 12.46): Usually when you trade with a well-run organization, they win. Too early to grade this wild man.

Tony Sipp (1-0, 2.77): I still can't figure out how his ERA is so low. C.

Joe Smith (0-0, 4.58): Major disappointment. D.

Jose Veras (3-1, 5.96): Like Abreu, a guy traded here who has yet to really establish himself here. Too early to grade.

Kerry Wood (2-3, 5.28 12 saves): The Indians shelled out big bucks for him, but so far, it hasn't worked out. Part of it is that the Indians haven't given him many save opportunities. But Wood has to convert the ones he gets, and 12 saves in 16 opportunities isn't a good ratio. C-.

Jensen Lewis and Rafael Perez pitched themselves to Columbus, so I can't grade them. Oh, what the heck. F and F. Sowers, too.

Victor Martinez (.294, 14 homers, 59 RBIs): Great numbers, especially considering he heads into the break in a slump. He should be a candidate for Comeback Player of the Year, and is the only hitter who has been healthy and good all year long. He's not a great defensive catcher, but no one who puts on the Indians' equipment seems to be, which may be a bigger reflection on the pitchers than anything else. A.

Kelly Shoppach (.194, 7, 24): What a disastrous year for Shoppach, who took all of his negative qualities from a decent 2008 season and enhanced them. Fifty-eight strikeouts in 155 at-bats is enough to make Rob Deer cringe. His defense behind the plate has been suspect, making him almost entirely worthless. Too bad, cause he seems like a neat guy. F.

Asdrubal Cabrera (.300, 2, 34): It says something for Cabrera's talent that he was able to shift from second to short without missing a beat, move to the leadoff spot and keep hitting, and recover from an injury and be what he was before it. Had Cabrera not landed on the DL, he might be in St. Louis and the Indians might be out of the cellar. OK, that last part isn't true. But I am on a roll. A.

Jamey Carroll (.273, 0, 10): A National League bench player stuck on a horrible American League team, it's not hard to see why manager Eric Wedge likes him. He is a grinder, doesn't overswing and seems to actually get what the team needs when he comes up. But Wedge has overused him at times, and there's a reason why Carroll has been a bench player his entire career. It'd probably be best for Carroll to get traded to a contending NL team in the coming weeks. B.

Ryan Garko (.274, 9, 34): Aside from maybe Josh Barfield, Garko has had perhaps the strangest on-field issues with Wedge. Put him in the lineup consistently, and he hits and drives in runs. But Garko has found himself as the odd man out numerous times. Shoppach caught more in the first half, giving Martinez first base and Hafner the DH spot. Wedge tried to give the converted catcher time in the outfield, which has had some positive results -- after watching Garko I am starting to believe Albert Belle was underrated when he played out there. The good news is Shoppach went in the tank and Garko should see more playing time in the second half. B.

Chris Gimenez (.229, 2, 2): Apparently the guy can catch. That's all I got. C.

Jhonny Peralta (.257, 6, 38): I have no clue what happened to Peralta after last season. Even worse than the power dropoff has been the lack of run production. He was moved to third, probably three years to late, and has been hitting like a 1960s second baseman. D.

Luis Valbuena (.219, 4, 11): I like Valbuena's hustle and defense, but I'm not sold on his bat. Wedge seems to like him, but I can't imagine Barfield wouldn't do better with the at-bats Valbuena is getting.

Shin-Soo Choo (.292, 13, 54):He's been really solid, though some big individual games have inflated his numbers (his two homer, 7-RBI game against Oakland stands out). One hopes he can be a fixture in the outfield for years to come. B+

Ben Francisco (.242, 6, 25): I like Ben, but given a chance to prove he's an everyday player, he's dropped the ball. D.

Grady Sizemore (.235, 13, 47): It's obvious Sizmore still is hurting, and it's been said he needs surgery. I know he wants to play, but if he comes back next year short on rehab time, it could hurt the team. I think he and the Indians should think about him having the surgery now and giving himself a few more months to rehab. C.

Travis Hafner (.289, 9, 22): If only he were really healthy. B.

Eric Wedge: In my mind, Wedge should have been fired a month ago. General manager Mark Shapiro said he's going nowhere until at least the end of the season. When a team picked by some to contend is 35-54, there's nowhere else to go. F.

General Manager
Mark Shapiro: Without question his worst season. He's far more to blame than Wedge for what the Indians are, which he has come out and said. F.


Friday, July 10, 2009

Bret Hart's Book: Hitman: My Real Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling
Bret Hart played the hero for much of his professional wrestling career.

He was born in a family full of wrestlers, the son of the legendary Stu Hart. He went on to become a big star, but then faced a fall that few could have predicted.

His family fell apart. His brother Owen fell to his death in a ridiculous and needless stunt. He lost friends and co-workers left and right, and he suffered a stroke after his career ended.

That story is all here, presented with honesty and detail. I have read a number of wrestling books, including autobiographies of Mick Foley, Ric Flair and Tom Billington. Hart's book is far and away the best.

Foley's was just as interesting, but this book had a far different tone. God bless Mick Foley, but his book was filled with comedy. Just like with the movies, comedy rarely wins the top prize.

Hart has some funny stories, but for the most part, this was a story of pain, triumph and tragedy. There were some very enjoyable parts -- his start in Stampede Wrestling and the characters that occupied the territory was interesting if only because it's a period that rarely gets talked about.

His start in the WWF and his climb from jobber to tag wrestler to mid-carder to star was fun to read, with a number of backstage stories. Who would have guessed The Barbarian and Warlord were nice guys?

Hulk Hogan, Ric Flair, Shawn Michaels and of course, Vince McMahon don't come off so well. Undertaker, Steve Austin, Harley Race, Rick Rude and Curt Hennig do.

Of course, if certain parts are enjoyable, the section on Owen's death is tough. Bret's book makes it clear his large family (Stu and Bret's mother Helen had 12 kids) always had some issues. But Owen's death essentially split the family.

Bret's continuing pain over the accident is still apparent, and you really feel for him. But he is more honest than most, at one point wondering why he -- someone with so many flaws still is around while a great human being like Owen is gone.

It's this candor that makes the book a must-read for even casual wrestling fans. I'm not sure someone who hates wrestling and has always hated wrestling will get all of it.

But for current and former fans, you have to read this.


Sunday, July 05, 2009

It's hard for me to be a fan of any football player who doesn't or didn't play for the Browns.

But I was a fan of Steve McNair.

He represented everyone who came from a small college. Most people couldn't tell you where Alcorn State was, and there were skeptics when the big-stat quarterback moved to the NFL. The school is too small, the competition not good enough.

McNair faced critics and answered them, putting together a strong career with the Oilers/Titans and Ravens. When he led the Ravens to 13 wins in 2006, I pulled for him, if not for his team.

I loved McNair's guts. Like most quarterbacks who have a long career, he was beat up and wasn't able to run towards the end. But he still found ways to make his team win. In 2005, I watched him lead the Titans in a final drive at Cleveland Browns Stadium, the Titans' losing on an interception in the end zone.

By now, though, we know that we don't know athletes. We may see them on the field for three hours every Sunday, but there's much more to a person, most of which fans will never know.

So when the news broke on Saturday that McNair and a woman had been found dead, I wasn't shocked. Not because of any other reason that these things have happened before. Darrent Williams and Sean Taylor, each an NFL star, had been shot within the past three years. McNair was retired, but he played his last game in 2007 and was just 36. Suddenly, the prevailing thought is sadness, not shock.

We still don't know what exactly happened. What is apparent is that McNair is the victim of a homicide. The evidence released seems to point to a murder-suicide.

There may be some who will ask what a man who is married and has children is doing with a a 20-year old woman. I'm tempted to ask the same question, but the reality is, it's none of my business.

My heart goes out to his family, as well as the family of Sahel Kazemi. Let's not forget there are two families grieving here.

I hope people remember McNair for his play on the field before remembering his tragic end. That may not be possible, but one can at least hope.

From my 2006 season preview of the Baltimore Ravens:

Steve McNair will start for Baltimore. I’ve long been a fan of McNair. Last season, he almost single-handedly willed Tennessee to a win over the Browns in a game I attended. It just confirmed what I have always believed, that McNair has as much guts as talent.

And though McNair is no longer the multi-dimensional quarterback he once was (his days of rushing for over 600 yards in a season are long gone), only a fool would believe he is done.

Rest in peace.


Saturday, July 04, 2009

Alaska Governor Sarah Palin announced she is resigning from office at the end of the month.

Not too long after her announcement, I received a pair of messages from somewhat liberal friends, asking me if I was in "mourning" over the decision.

OK, here's the truth: I'm not now, and have never really been crazy about Sarah Palin. I liked that she drove my liberal friends crazy. I liked that she wasn't afraid to fight back against unfair attacks (of which, there were plenty).

But as a politician, I found myself underwhelmed. She seemed to be an interesting and entertaining candidate, but once you stripped away all the soundbytes and the show, there didn't seem to be a whole lot there. I don't mean that as an attack on her character or her intelligence. She just seemed to be a governor thrust into the national spotlight who didn't seem completely ready for it.

I feel the same way about President Obama. He's an interesting and intelligent guy, but I think he's in over his head and it's starting to show.

All that said, I'm disappointed by Palin's decision to resign. If one believes her reasoning for resigning, it doesn't make sense.

When a person runs for governor, they are running for the complete term. It not a college class where if you finish the exam early, you get to go home.

She made a promise to the people of Alaska, and by leaving office early, she hasn't fullfilled that promise. It would have been understandable if she was about to become Vice President, but to leave under these circumstances may haunt her.

If Palin wants to run again for national office, it would be difficult for me to support her, remembering how she left her constituents somewhat high and dry. You can't do that as president (unless you are about to be impeached) and you shouldn't do it as governor.

Of course, there is always the chance that there is more to the story. But on the surface, Palin seems to have made a bad choice.