May 8, 2014; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Indians catcher Carlos Santana (41) reacts after he was tagged out at home plate in the first inning against the Minnesota Twins at Progressive Field. Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

Weekly Wroundtable 3.2: Key Player Scuffles


Hey readers, welcome to another edition of the Weekly Wroundtable, where our panel of writers (along with a few guest experts) give their answers to a question based on recent Indians news.  This week’s topic is as follows:

There have been struggles for the Cleveland Indians across the board so far this season, but lately things seem to be turning around.  As of Saturday morning, Tribe starting pitchers had made seven consecutive quality starts, the offense had scored 41 runs in 8 games since the start of May, the bullpen remained solid (for the most part), and the defense was beginning to pick up the slack.  Asdrubal Cabrera has broken out in a big way, Mike Aviles has been a monster in replacement of the injured Jason Kipnis, and even Nick Swisher has been hitting the ball a lot harder.  However, when a machine really starts to get going, the weak links become magnified.  Unfortunately for the Tribe, they have crippling weaknesses in perhaps two of the most important positions on their roster right now.  As of Saturday morning, their cleanup hitter, Carlos Santana, was hitting .139 on the season with just one hit in his past 25 at-bats.  He’s played below replacement level so far this season.  Closer John Axford had cost the Tribe two recent wins against division rivals, and his numbers for May were looking ugly.  As of Saturday morning, his ERA for the month of May was 11.25 to go along with a despicable 3.00 WHIP, and he’d walked a batter and a half per inning pitched.  His numbers on the year weren’t looking much better, walking 13 batters and allowing 3 home runs in 14.1 innings en route to a 4.91 ERA and a staggering 1.77 WHIP.
It’s would be idiotically brash to even consider removing either of these players from the roster, especially because they both have reasonably strong track records.  However, given their 2014 performances, it’s fair to say that their roles in the lineup/bullpen or even their amount of playing time might need to be adjusted until they can get themselves back on track.  The cleanup hitter and closer are arguably two of the most vital roles to a team’s overall success, and the Tribe needs consistently good performances from both areas if they wish to contend for a playoff spot.
You have just gained all of Terry Francona’s managerial authority.  Do you make any adjustments to the roles of these two players?  If so, how do you shuffle around the roles of the other players in the lineup and/or bullpen to compensate?  If not, why have you chosen to keep these players in their current roles?
Here’s what a few writers had to say…

Ed Carroll (Wahoo’s on First):  I’m Terry Francona? <abolishes closer role, moves Santana to leadoff>

Stephanie Liscio (It’s Pronounced Lajaway):   First of all, if I’m Terry Francona, I go to the liquor store and purchase a bottle of whiskey.  Then I start drinking said whiskey to try and forget the pain of watching John Axford pitch, and watching this offense on nights like Saturday, against Tampa Bay.

I’m actually a little surprised that they acted so quickly on the Axford situation.  His walk rate has been atrocious, but they’ve stuck with a number of “ugly” things so far this season, waiting for the player to work their way through their problems.  Personally, I’d just go with Cody Allen for now, but the situational closer scenario could end up working as well.

Carlos Santana is a trickier problem to solve.  What do you do with a guy who is hitting .136, and is 1 for his last 25, yet has a .303 OBP?  I know Francona argued that moving him out of the four hole ends up shuffling everyone else around.  Because every single other aspect of the lineup is working perfectly?   With an OBP comparatively that high (I mean seriously, it could end up three times his average soon) just move him to the top of the order and see what happens.  Can it really be any worse than what we’ve been seeing?

Jeremy Klein (Wahoo’s on First):  I’m a believer that past performance is the best predictor (not the only predictor, but the best one) of future performance, and as such I would be extremely reluctant to remove Santana from the cleanup spot. It would be one thing if Santana were an aging player, had a known injury, or some other identifiable reason existed for the struggles. But right now it seems as though this is just a talented player going through an admittedly brutal stretch. It may feel like a long time, but 37 games and 160 plate appearances doesn’t undo the past three seasons of work. Leave him alone.

Axford’s situation is different. He hasn’t been very good since 2011, so it’s not exactly shocking to see him struggling again this year. Just as Santana’s struggles over 160 plate appearances doesn’t undo his past work, Axford’s 10 1/3 innings (and 5 2/3 playoff innings) for St. Louis doesn’t undo his past work. Axford’s walked 13 in 14 1/3 innings this year, so his performance in a Tribe uniform can’t be described as fluky, certainly not more so than his stint in St. Louis. After two-plus seasons of mediocrity, Axford is what he is at this point: a mop-up guy.

The problem with removing Axford as closer is that you can’t turn around and put him in a high leverage setup role; he’s either the closer or the sixth/seventh guy out of the pen. This means the Tribe has to go with one of Cody Allen or Bryan Shaw as the closer, which is obviously suboptimal because it removes a valuable weapon in the seventh and eighth innings.

That’s why I say the Tribe should turn to Scott Atchison as the closer. Unlike Axford, Atchison has been a good pitcher over the past three seasons, and perhaps more importantly he’s been very good thus far in 2014. He doesn’t have severe platoon splits versus lefties and, at 38 years old, there shouldn’t be any worries about his ability to handle the pressure that comes with closing. People may be against this because, duh, Scott Atchison. But if the Indians are set on keeping Allen and Shaw in setup roles, as they should be, Atchison should be the closer going forward. ​

Evan Vogel (Wahoo’s on First):  I hate the saying because it isn’t always true, but guys tend to stick to what they do on the back of their baseball card – and, yes, those do still exist. With that being said, Axford’s fall from effectiveness since his dynamic 2011 season is enough to kick him to the curb. The ineffectiveness from year-to-year out of bullpen arms is what makes guys like Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman Hall of Fame relievers, it just isn’t a given. There is reason that Axford’s deal was just for one year, even after his impressive stint in St. Louis. Though Bryan Shaw earned the save on Sunday, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Cody Allen earn between 15-20 saves by the end of the season. You can’t throw away wins based on the ineffectiveness of a single pitcher, and that’s what Francona would have been doing if he continued running Axford out there. Sometimes, you just don’t have it.

Speaking of not having it…Carlos Santana. The .148/.319/.281 line is gross, especially when you consider that he has hit cleanup all season. I don’t see him putting up numbers that miserable all season, especially when you consider that he has a BABIP of .161, after his two hits on Sunday, and that the plate discipline is still there. While it may be frustrating to see him taking so many pitches, Cleveland fans have it easy – I’ve watched Joey Votto go from a 35+ HR-hitting MVP candidate to a number two hitter who would take a walk over a date with Kate Upton over the last couple of seasons in Cincinnati. Santana will be fine, and it would be a miserable, horrific, and stupid decision to give his at-bats to a lesser player due to the batting average being low. He’s still getting on base effectively.

As far as Mike Aviles, he has done this whole hot thing before, posting a .865 OPS in the first month of the 2012 season for the Boston Red Sox. He finished with a .663 OPS at the end of the season, showcasing his inability to really handle a full-time position in the majors. He has been quite valuable when used correctly – as a utility player. He is nothing more than that, and he, just like Jose Ramirez, isn’t enough to warrant an argument for playing time when Jason Kipnis returns from his injury.

Vern Morrison (It’s Pronounced Lajaway):  Well, Francona has already pulled the trigger on Axford, “temporarily” removing him from the closer role. And I agree with that move. For whatever reason, Ax simply can’t command the strike zone the way an effective closer needs to. I don’t know why he has pitched so poorly lately, but there’s something seriously wrong when you put in your closer with a 4-run lead in the ninth and he can’t get the job done. Cody Allen and Bryan Shaw can handle the closing duties. I’d use Axford only in cases where the Indians are up or down by 3 or more runs, and not in the ninth inning.

I’d keep playing Santana five or six games out of seven, but right now I can’t see keeping Chisenhall’s bat out of the lineup. I’d start Chiz at third about half the time and put him in as DH in most of the other games. And I’d definitely drop Santana down in the lineup. No way should he be batting cleanup until he busts out of his slump. I’d bat him eighth or ninth.

Katrina Putnam (Wahoo’s on First):  Axford is already on a “temporary” hiatus from the closer role, but I would love to see him regain the title. I don’t believe that it’s always wise to use your best reliever in the ninth. Cody Allen is much more valuable as an unassigned reliever who can enter in any inning to work out of a tight situation. Yes, he’d be a great closer, and when he hits free agency, he’d probably prefer the money that comes with the closer label. But the team can better utilize him if they refuse to force him into a specific role. The same goes for Bryan Shaw. (Rzepczynski and Atchison shouldn’t even be in this discussion.) However, Francona needs to have a quicker hook when it’s obvious that Axford doesn’t have his stuff. Walking guys and giving up hard contact should result in a call to the ‘pen sooner rather than later.

If Santana doesn’t start hitting regularly, he needs to move down in the lineup. Yes, eventually he will turn his season around, but until then, batting him fourth is causing a gaping hole in the lineup. Chisenhall has been hot all season, but only recently has he been slotted in where he can do some damage (see: his two RBIs). At some point, a player’s success or failure has to warrant a change. Francona’s loyalty is why players love him, but sometimes it hurts the team. This is one of those times. Lineups shouldn’t be set in stone. Move Santana down, let him figure out his swing mechanics, and wait on him to get hot. In the meantime, he can take his walks and set the table for the players at the top of the lineup who are hitting. Once he’s himself again, make the switch back to cleanup. Batting .148 over nearly a quarter of the season shouldn’t be ignored.

Adam Hintz (It’s Pronounced Lajaway):  If I was managing the Indians, I would not move Santana out of the cleanup spot just yet, and I wouldn’t even be particularly worried about it yet, either. Yes, the slump is historic, but I still tend to believe it is more bad luck than anything else. His BABIP this season is .144! And .093 for the last 28 days (not including Sunday). I think the bigger question with Santana is what voodoo witch doctor he angered in the offseason. He will break out, and I think it will be soon — let’s see if Sunday is the start of that breakout.  Besides, Santana worked his tail off adjusting to 3B and he’s been more serviceable there than I thought possible. With his track record, the team owes him at least through the month of May.

The closer position is so overrated. For a team that needs to squeeze pennies, you think they’d learn not to pay millions upon millions of dollars for some guy to be the token closer. John Axford has a career ERA+ of 119, and we’re paying him $4.5 million this season because he has a closer pedigree. Meanwhile, the team has these arms in the bullpen:

Cody Allen ($550,000), career ERA+ of 143

Bryan Shaw ($530,000), career ERA+ 129

Mark Rzepczynski ($1.3 million), career ERA+ of 107 (188 this season)

Scott Atchison ($700,000), career ERA+ of 119 (206 this season)

Total cost of these four pitchers: $3.1 million — or $1.4 million less than Axford.  So to answer the question — if I were Tito, my only action would be to march to Antonetti’s office and kindly request he stop signing “proven closers” and let me usher in a new age of small market baseball by playing matchups with my cheap, effective, and young power arms. Spend that $5 million on an impact bat, or use it to secure a worthy starter.

The Indians have done a great job of identifying pre-arbitration relievers in other organizations (Joe Smith, Bryan Shaw, and Scrabble), and the bullpen is benefiting in a major way. That should be the team’s direction, and I wonder how many Kerry Woods, Joe Borowskis, Chris Perezes, and John Axfords have to be a financial negative for the team to get it.

Tags: Carlos Santana Cleveland Indians John Axford Weekly Wroundtable

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