March 2012

“Look to the cookie”

The tale of Manny Acta’s fortune cookie continued to make the rounds on Saturday morning at the Indians’ complex.

A couple of nights ago, Acta went to PF Changs and, at the end of his meal, he popped open his fortune cookie. Acta was stunned to see the message inside.

It read: “Your sports team will be very successful this year.”

Acta said he is not the type of person to believe in fortunes. He even stays away from using the word “luck” when asked about baseball. This cookie really blew him away, though.

Acta said he is having the fortune framed, you know, just in case.

And, as a writer, I can already envision a sidebar in my future should the Indians turn into 2012 darlings and make a run at the World Series. I can see Acta now, drenched in champagne, grinning ear to ear, shouting, “The cookie was right!”

I stopped in Acta’s office today and shared a story of good cookie fortune of my own. When I was in high school, I started dating a girl on the volleyball team who happened to wear No. 4. On one of our first dates, I cracked open an after-dinner fortune cookie that simply read, “Stick with No. 4.”

That girl who wore No. 4? Yeah, she’s now my wife.

Some notes from Saturday…

  • Where the heck was I on Friday? Well, before breaking up the Brewers’ no-hitter with a perfectly-timed jinx tweet, I went trail running in the White Tank Mountains. I did roughly 11 miles in 2 hours on steep and rocky terrain. It was a blast. A.J. Cassavell filled in for me nicely, writing about the strength of the infield defense and putting together the daily notebook. Thanks, A.J.
  •  Indians sinkerballer Justin Masterson made his second outing of the spring on Saturday, logging 43 pitches (27 strikes) in three innings. Twenty of those pitches came in a rocky first inning. In the second and third, he began mixing in sliders and changeups, which he didn’t do at all in his first spring start. Masterson is still getting a feel for his sinker. That’s normal this early in spring.
  • Chatted for a bit with infielder Jose Lopez this morning. He’s competing for a spot on the bench as a uiltity infielder. I think he’s got a decent chance of making the team. He hit .273 in the last 32 games last year, hit .310 in winter ball and is off to a nice start (5-for-9) this spring. Lopez can play first, second, third and DH. Plus, he hits righty and offers power and experience.
  • So, what would I predict the bench to look like as of right now? I’d say Shelley Duncan and Aaron Cunningham have an edge for the openings in left field and the fourth outfielder job. Being out of options essentially puts them atop the list of candidates. Duncan can serve as 1B/LF/DH. Cunningham can play all three outfield spots. Then, Jason Donald is an option for 2B/SS/3B and possibly even LF/CF. If Lopez is the third option, that adds more depth for 1B/2B/3B/DH.
  • What about Russ Canzler? Well, in a season in which the Indians believe they are a legitimate contender, I’m not so sure a guy with limited MLB experience would open the season on the roster, especially when he has options. He can fill 1B/LF/DH as a righty bat, but the Indians don’t seem too sold on the idea of trying him as a backup at 3B. He’s in the mix for a job, but I think Triple-A is most likely his destination for Opening Day.
  • Acta did not rule out the possibility of a platoon in left field. That’s where left-handed outfielder like Felix Pie and Fred Lewis come into play. While the Indians seem to be floating the idea at the very least, I think they’re going to try to find an everyday option before going down that road. We’ll see.
  • As for an outfielder assured a job, right fielder Shin-Shoo Choo is on a nice little run to start the spring. He went 2-for-2 with a double and a home run in Saturday’s game against San Diego. That’s two homers for Choo this spring. He also showed up Saturday with a buzz cut. “Korean military style,” he quipped.
  • Acta said he liked what he saw from Minor League lefty Scott Barnes in Saturday’s game. Barnes logged two shutout innings against the Padres, striking out one and scattering two hits. Acta raved about Barnes’ deception and said he was impressed with the lefty’s slider. Barnes is definitely a pitcher to keep an eye on this season.
  • Acta has not, however, been overly impressed with first baseman Matt LaPorta’s approach at the plate to this point in the spring. Said the skipper: “He’s working really hard during batting practice and in early work with [hitting coach Bruce Fields]. It just hasn’t transferred to the games yet. He has scuffled in the at-bats that he has had so far.” LaPorta went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts in Saturday’s game.
  • Roster cuts are coming soon for the Indians. Acta said that some of the “kids” will be sent back to Minor League camp in the coming days. By Thursday, the manager said there will likely be another wave of roster cuts as well. Two players he noted were in camp for experience, and not to compete for jobs, are outfielders Thomas Neal and Nick Weglarz.
  • Anyone planning on heading to Goodyear for Wednesday’s “B” game against the Angels, well, I hate to be the bearer of bad news. The teams have cancelled the exhibition game. Sorry, no refunds will be issued for what would have been a free event for fans in the area.
  • Nice gesture on the part of the Indians to invite players from the Chardon High School baseball team to tour the facilities and taking BP in the cages at Progressive Field on Friday. Owner Larry Dolan has family roots in Chardon, which saw three of its students killed, and two others wounded, in a recent shooting at CHS.
  • On Sunday, the Indians have split-squad road games at Texas and at Angels. Pitching against the Rangers: Kevin Slowey, Frank Herrmann, Corey Kluber, CC Lee, Tony Sipp. Pitching against the Angels: David Huff, Chris Ray, Danny Salazr, Chris Seddond. Acta will be attending the game against Texas.
  • Had fun meeting and hanging out with MLB.com’s Youth Reporter, Meggie Zahnies, on Saturday at the Indians’ workout. She did a handful of interviews with players and Acta. The manager was impressed with her — though everyone who meets her seems to walk away impressed — and Jason Kipnis joked that she asked better questions than I do. Check her out on Twitter @MeggieZahnies, check out some of here stuff HERE, or take a look at a video recap of her day spent at Indians camp.

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Photo of the Day

Shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera signs for some fans at Saturday’s workout.

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Make sure you’re reading Indians.com and following me on Twitter (@MLBastian). To see more of my Spring Training photos, CLICK HERE.

Stay tuned for more…

–JB

Why Ubaldo is smiling…

Ubaldo Jimenez loves being with the Indians. I mean, he really loves being with the Indians. Asked how it compared to being in the Rockies organization, Jimenez bit his tongue as much as he could, but he did offer one gem of a quote for reporters.

“This is like being in heaven for me,” he said.

Earlier this week, long-time baseball writer Tracy Ringolsby wrote of how Jimenez actually hoped to be trade last spring — not just in July. Before last season, the Rockies inked Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez to long-term contracts, but chose a wait-and-see approach with Ubaldo given his club-friendly deal than runs through 2014.

It made Jimenez feel unwanted by Colorado and he hoped for a chance to find a fresh start with a new team.

“It was kind of hard being with the Rockies,” Jimenez said. “I went through a lot. I think people outside the organization, they don’t know. But me and the people in the front office, they know. It works both ways. They’re happy and I’m happy. I’m happy to be here. And they’re happy with what they got.”

What the Rockies got was a four-player package that centered around pitchers Alex White and Drew Pomeranz. What Jimenez received was a new place to call his baseball home, and he was thrilled when he learned he’d be coming to Cleveland. He’s become even happier now that he has spent some time with his current club.

“You only hear good things about this organization,” he said of the Tribe. “The way they work, the way they prepare the players and they treat everyone the same. They try to develop evey single one. It doesn’t matter how much money you got when you signed.”

As for the Rockies? Well, Jimenez didn’t want to go into much more detail.

“There were a lot of things since the Minor Leagues,” said the pitcher. “That’s the past. I was there. I’m not there anymore. I feel happy here. I don’t have anything in my mind. I don’t have to worry about anything but going out there and pitching.”

On Thursday, Jimenez logged two inconsistent innings in a 6-5 loss to the Angels. The right-hander allowed two hits, issued two walks and threw 39 pitches (19 strikes). Of those throws, though, 31 (15) came in a long first inning. Ubaldo said he had trouble early on commanding his sinker, so he switched to four-seamers in the second.

Indians manager Manny Acta said it’s normal for pitchers like Jimenez and Justin Masterson to need time to harness a strong command and feel of the sinker.

“It’s the same thing for just about every power pitcher,” Acta explained. “The second outing out here, I don’t think any of those guys are going to be in command of their pitches. I’d be worried if power pitching guys, the last week or 10 days of the spring, are bouncing balls and throwing the ball all over the place.

“The first couple outings in Spring Training it’s totally different than a guy like [Josh] Tomlin or [Kevin] Slowey or some of those guys. Power pitchers, it takes them a little longer.”

Some notes from Thursday…

  • Center fielder Grady Sizemore chated for the first time since undergoing surgery on his lower back. Check out Indians.com for the latest on him, along with some other notebook items from Thursday. Teaser: Jason Kipnis discusses singing Adele on national television.
  •  Had a nice long discussion with infielder Cord Phelps today about his offseason journey to Jerusalem. Two of his former college teammates completed a 12,000-mile trek from South Africa to Israel and Phelps was there to meet them at the finish line. There will be a feature about this on Indians.com later tonight.
  • Tomlin piggybacked Jimenez in Thursday’s game, logging three innings in his second outing of the spring. The righty allowed four runs on six hits, but Acta still walked away pleased with Tomlin’s pitch efficiency.
  • Right-hander Jeanmar Gomez had another strong showing, turning in two shutout innings despite working with some traffic. Gomez — competing against Slowey, David Huff and Zach McAllister for the fifth spot — scattered two hits, walked two and struck out one.
  • Veteran infielder Jose Lopez — a non-roster addition to camp — belted a homer in Thursday’s game. Lopez is hitting .667 in his small Spring Training sample size to this point. Acta said Lopez could “make things interesting” if he keeps hitting well. Lopez is competing for a utility bench role.
  • Acta noted that the makeup of the bench will be influenced by left field and third base. If Lonnie Chisenhall wins the starting job at third, Jack Hannahan could slide to a utility role. Say, Shelley Duncan wins the left field job, that removes him from the bench as a first baseman/left fielder/DH. Right now, Acta said it’s too early to predict how many utility infielder or outfielders are on the bench. I think Jason Donald has a leg up for one of the three available jobs, though.
  • Right-hander Robinson Tejeda has been sidelined for much of the past week due to a strained right calf. He resumed a throwing program on Thursday, however. He is in camp as a non-roster invitee and is competing for a bullpen spot.
  • Lefty Rafael Perez — a virtual lock for a bullpen job — threw off a mound on Thursday after dealing with soreness in his throwing shoulder earlier in camp. He should be able to make his Cactus League debut soon.
  • Minor League catcher Chun Chen was wearing a protective boot on Thursday after rolling his right ankle during the morning workout. He is considered day to day with the sprained ankle.
  • Closer Chris Perez has a day off from throwing Thursday, but should resume his throwing program on Friday. If he sticks with the predicted schedule, he would advance to throwing from 90 feet. On deck would be 105 and then 120, before he would move back up a mound.
  • Scheduled to pitch on Friday against the Brewers in Maryvale are Derek Lowe, Nick Hagadone, CC Lee, Zach McAllister, Chris Ray and Dan Wheeler. Some highlights on the travel squad include: Russ Canzler, Travis Hafner, Jack Hannahan, Jason Kipnis, Casey Kotchman, Aaron Cunningham, Matt LaPorta, Michael Brantley and Ryan Spilborghs, among others.

NOTE: After 19 days of consecutive Indians coverage, the higher ups have informed me that I have a day off on Friday. I might show up early to the complex to keep my streak alive, or I may head into the Estrella Mountains for a trail run. Either way, the Tribe beat will be in capable hands for a day while I recharge the batteries. –JB

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Photo of the Day

A look at Shin-Soo Choo’s new ink.

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Make sure you’re reading Indians.com and following me on Twitter (@MLBastian). To see more of my Spring Training photos, CLICK HERE.

Stay tuned for more…

–JB

Not your average Joe

I’m not going to lie, it’s fun writing about and trying to predict the Opening Day roster. But, here’s the thing, that roster is only for April 5. It could change a day later. A couple weeks or months into the season and the 25-man roster may have already seen more than 30 players.

So, when a player “isn’t ready for Opening Day,” it isn’t always as bad as it sounds on the surface. And, in some cases, a week or two of missed time at the start of the season is the best strategy for being available for six or seven months.

Last season, Joe Smith provided an example of how being unavailable for Opening Day can work out in a player’s favor. Smith came down with an abdominal injury last spring and he was unable to break camp with the big league club. Smith was eventually activated from the disabled list on April 15.

“I really feel it was the best thing that could’ve happened,” Smith said on Wednesday morning.

Why? Because while Smith was out of the mix, Vinnie Pestano and Tony Sipp took hold of the eighth inning duties. The seventh landed in the capable hands of lefty Rafael Perez. By the time Smith returned, his role was to mainly work in either the sixth inning or the seventh inning.

Under the circumstances, manager Manny Acta began trusting Smith with more than just handling right-handed hitters. Smith was being used less as a specialist and more as a middle reliever, because he wasn’t appearing in the high-leverage, late-inning situations.

What happened was Smith showed he could finally handle lefties. From 2009-10, left-handed hitters posted a .348 (24-69) average against him, compared to .178 (36-202) for right-handers. Over that span, he had just 82 plate appearances against lefties. That grew to 90 PAs in 2011, when he held left-handed hitters to a .152 (12-79) average.

Smith made the reasoning behind his success sound simple: “getting ahead.” Last season, he pumped 65 percent of his pitches in there for strikes — up from 61 percent in the previous four years. His first-pitch strike rate jumped to 59 percent — up from 54 percent over the previous four seasons.

The end result was a 2.01 ERA and the second-best groundball percentage (70.2) among American League relievers with at least 65 innings. He held all hitts to a .217 average and a career-best .541 OPS. Smith appeared in 71 games, logged 67 innings, created 113 groundballs, posted a 1.33 grounder/flyball ratio and had a 1.09 WHIP.

For more on Smith, read today’s feature on Indians.com.

Some notes from Wednesday…

  • Indians manager Manny Acta doesn’t see it as Jack Hannahan vs. Lonnie Chisenhall for the starting third base job. Acta said Wednesday that it is more like Chisenhall vs. Chisenhall. The young third baseman needs to convince the team — with his bat and his glove — that he’s ready, at 23 years old, to be The Guy at the hot corner.
  • I took Acta’s comments to mean that Hannahan is on the team one way or another, which is what we’ve figured to this point. If he’s the starter, Chisenhall will be at Triple-A to open the year. If Chisenhall grabs the starting job this spring, Hannahan moves to the bench as a strong defender capable of handling multiple infield positions.
  • Second baseman Jason Kipnis had some fun during Wednesday’s 10-2 win over the D-backs. Kipnis homered in the first inning as part of back-to-back with Shin-Soo Choo. The second baseman (mic’d up for the TV broadcast) was later caught softly single an Adele song during MLB Network’s broadcast.
  • Center fielder Michael Brantley has enjoyed a hot start to the Cactus League slate. On Wednesday, Brantley went 3-for-4 with a double and a run scored. On the spring, all Brantley has done is go 6-for-10 out of the leadoff spot for the Tribe. Cleveland is hoping and praying this is a sign of things to come.
  • Lefty David Huff became the first Indians starter of the spring to build up to three innings. He was charged with two runs on two hits — a missed catch in left-center by Fred Lewis didn’t help — and ended with two strikeouts and one walk.
  • Huff said he had a little trouble staying back on his left leg at the start of his delivery in the second inning. The result was a chain reaction that had his front arm lower at the start and the released pitch popping higher in the zone. For Huff, keeping his delivery in fluid motion is key and it got a way from him a brief moment Wednesday.
  • One thing righty Frank Herrmann is working on this spring is his approach against left-handed hitters. It’s why he’s been developing a splitter for much of the past two years. Last year, lefties still hit .386 off Herrmann. On Wednesday, Herrmann logged two shutout innings and held lefty hitters to an 0-for-4 showing.
  • Right-hander Hector Ambriz, who missed all of last season due to Tommy John surgery, logged one shutout inning on Wednesday. Acta praised Ambriz’s willingness to move to Arizona last year to be close to the training/rehab facilities. Right now, though, Ambriz is not in the mix for one of the two bullpen jobs.
  • Injury updates: closer Chris Perez (left oblique) played catch at 75 feet on Wednesday. He’ll likely have a day off Thursday before advancing to 90 feet Friday. Raffy Perez (left shoulder) is slated to throw off a mound Thursday. Righty Austin Adams (shoulder) did throw off a mound on Wednesday.

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Photo of the Day

Pitching coach Scott Radinsky’s levitating ball trick.

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Make sure you’re reading Indians.com and following me on Twitter (@MLBastian). To see more of my Spring Training photos, CLICK HERE.

Stay tuned for more…

–JB

Another bomb, Shell

I’m a sucker for a feelgood story. I mean, it’s my job to tell stories, so why wouldn’t I gravitate towards the tales that tell of people overcoming great odds to achieve success. This is one reason why I’m a fan of Cleveland’s Shelley Duncan.

If Duncan earned a spot on the Opening Day roster as the Tribe’s left fielder this spring, it would mean he found a way to shake off a label that was stamped on him long ago. Once a ballplayer is dubbed a utility man, or a good guy for the clubhouse and a fit for his specific role, it can be a tall task for them to convince the decision makers to roll the dice on them as an everyday option.

On the final day of last season, here is what Duncan had to say about the topic.

“I personally think,” Duncan said, “that it takes someone in charge to put their neck on the line to put someone above what everyone has labeled them. If you put your neck on the line, you become accountable for the success or failure of that person. That takes a lot of guts.

“The easy thing to do is just do what everybody else has labeled a person. It takes a lot of courage for someone to really believe in a player and push for that person.”

Duncan is hoping manager Manny Acta and GM Chris Antonetti are willing to put their neck on the line at the start of this important season for the Indians. Fans have been in an uproar about the team’s need for a right-handed power bat and Duncan is trying to prove that he might be a solution to the overabundance of lefties in the lineup.

In Tuesday’s 3-2 win over the Royals, Duncan belted his second home run of the spring. Three games in, he has two blasts and six RBIs to show for it. Both were absolute bombs to deep left field. Yes, I know, SAMPLE SIZE ALERT, but it could be a sign that Duncan is picking up where he left off last season.

“We know that he’s a bat that at any moment can pop one out,” Acta said. “He’s been valuable –very valuable — for us.”

Duncan has been valuable as a bench player who can serve as a backup for first base, left field and designated hitter. That is how he has been used over the past two years with the Indians, who like him in that role. In September, though, Duncan gave a glimpse of what he feels he can do in an everyday role.

Over 26 September games, he hit .265 with seven homers, 23 RBIs and a .943 OPS. Prior to that month’s showing, Duncan had hit .235 with 23 homers, 84 RBIs and a .724 OPS over 515 career at-bats, dating back to 2007. So, which is the real Duncan? Or, has the 32-year-old career bench player turned some kind of corner?

For those who know my history, you know I covered the Blue Jays for MLB.com from 2005-2010. In my last season in Toronto, the Blue Jays took a risk, rolled the dice, put their neck on the line for a player labeled as a career utility man. They did so based on 100 September at-bats in 2009.

In that final push in the ’09 season, Jose Bautista was thrown into the lineup on an everyday basis and he blossomed to the tune of a .280 average with 10 homers and 21 RBIs down the stretch. We all know what happened next. At 29 years old, Bautista’s name suddenly carried more weight when he launched 54 homers and drove in 124 runs in 2010.

Now, don’t get me wrong here. I’m not sitting here in Goodyear Ballpark, writing that I believe Duncan has the type of power potential that Bautista has. That said, I wasn’t sitting in the press box in Dunedin, Fla., in 2010 predicting an MVP-caliber season from Bautista, either. All I’m saying is sometimes all a player needs is an opportunity.

Before his mammoth September in 2009, Bautista averaged one homer per 25.85 at-bats for his career, or a pace of 19 homers in a 500 at-bat season. He then hit one per 10 at-bats in that 100 at-bat burst in ’09. Duncan, before September last year, averaged one bomb per 22.39 at-bats, or a pace of 22 over 500 at-bats. In September, he launched one per 11.86 at-bats, which is a 42-homer pace for 500 at-bats.

Do I think Duncan can hit 40 homers? I’m not going to claim that. What I do think is that Duncan could be a 25-plus homer threat for the Indians given everyday playing time. Maybe he’d hit in the .240-.260 range, but he would be doing so in the lower half of the lineup, and possibly providing right-handed power in exchange.

This spring, Duncan is out of options, so he’s a good bet to make the team when camp breaks one way or another. The only question is whether he will make the club as a bench player or as the starter in left field. Acta made it clear that the Indians will be running the other options out there more often this spring during the evaluation process.

“We already know what we’ve got in Shelley,” Acta said. “We’re going to see all the other guys that we don’t know and at the end of camp we’ll decide whether he’s going to be the guy, or somebody else. But we dont need to be running him out there every day just to try to win that job. We’ve seen him. We need to see the other guys and find out.”

Asked how much defense will factor into the equation — Duncan is not in the same category defensively as players like Aaron Cunningham or Ryan Spilborghs — Acta said, “We’re just going to have to see. You’ve seen him in the outfield, so we’re going to have to wait and see. We’ll take a look at the other guys.

“Ideally, you’d like to have a guy who could play both ends,” Acta continued, “but at the end of the day you have to configure your roster withthe best 25 guys. At times, you’re going to have to give up some defense in order to have some offense, too, because that’s been our issue here the last couple years.”

And, hey, in the end, no matter who wins the job it will be a good little story to tell. It seems like all of the outfield candidates in camp are either coming back from something or trying to overcome some kind of obstacle. Cunningham is coming off a down year. Spilborghs is healthy after an injury-marred season. Russ Canzler is trying to prove he can be more than just a good hitter in the Minor Leagues.

There are a lot of feelgood stories in camp this year.

Some notes from Tuesday…

  • Closer Chris Perez, who strained his left oblique on Feb. 23, resumed playing catch on Tuesday. He made 45 throws from a distance of 60 feet. His program will increase in 15-foot increments up to 120 on flat ground before advancing to a mound. There is still no timetable for return, so don’t put too much stock in CP’s March 15 prediction. If the 4-6 week timeframe is accurate, Perez could be back in game action anywhere from March 22 through Opening Day on April 5.
  • This is where I remind fans that the Opening Day roster is fun to talk about and predict and all of that, but it’s only that — the Opening Day roster. Things could change a few days or weeks into the season. You never know. If Perez isn’t ready by Opening Day — meaning, if he has to miss the first week to get back to full strenghth — it’s really not a big deal. Cleveland needs him for a whole season — not just April 5.
  • Other injury notes: lefty Raffy Perez has been dealing with soreness in his throwing shoulder, but he’s back to playing catch at 120 feet. He should be on a mound soon; likewise, righty Austin Adams has resume throwing after a should issue and could be back on the bump soon; Minor League righty Tyler Sturdevant also came down with a shoulder bug and has been shut down for a few days. Indians just wanted to take a conservative approach, especially since Adams and Sturdevant are in camp more for experience than anything else.
  • Center fielder Grady Sizemore, who underwent surgery on his lower back last week, check back in to Cleveland’s camp on Tuesday. Sizemore will continue his back and knee rehab in Arizona. He is expected to be out for at least two to three months.
  • Right-hander Kevin Slowey made his debut for the Tribe on Tuesday, giving up no runs in two innings against the Royals. Slowey scattered two hits, but limited the damage. He threw 37 pitches (23 strikes). He’s competing against Jeanmar Gomez, David Huff and Zach McAllister for the fifth spot.
  • Right-hander Chris Ray was roughed up a bit in one inning against the Royals on Tuesday. The reliever — vying for a spot in the bullpen — gave up two runs on two hits, including a home run to K.C.’s Irving Falu.
  •  Vinnie Pestano, who is the Tribe’s setup man by trade and the closer in the event Perez isn’t ready for Opening Day, logged one clean inning on Tuesday. So did bullpen candidates Jeremy Accardo and Nick Hagadone.
  • Acta joked that infielder Cristian Guzman “broke a record” by having two walks in the first four games of the spring. “It takes a month sometimes for him to get two walks,” Acta quipped. “His eyesight is good.” Acta added that he thinks too much is made of the fact that Guzman missed all of last season due to injury, noting that pitchers often do the same when they have Tommy John surgery.
  • As noted in the intro to today’s entry, the Indians aren’t planning on running Duncan out to the outfield every day early on this spring. Duncan served as the DH on Tuesday, while Cunningham (LF), Spilborghs (RF) and Ezequiel Carrera (CF) manned the outfield. Cunninghame went 1-for-3, Spilborghs 0-for-3 and Carrera 1-for-3.
  • Pitchers listed as available for Wednesday’s road game against the D-backs include David Huff, Hector Ambriz, Frank Herrmann and Joe Smith. The game will be on MLB Network at 3:05 p.m. ET and players from both teams will be mic’d up on the broadcast. Acta will be mic’d up as well.

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Photo of the Day

I might never spot Bigfoot, but I can claim to have seen Pronk wearing a glove.

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Make sure you’re reading Indians.com and following me on Twitter (@MLBastian). To see more of my Spring Training photos, CLICK HERE.

Stay tuned for more…

–JB

Catching a break

Meet catcher Luke Carlin. You might remember him from the 14 at-bats he had with the Indians during the 2010 season. Or maybe you don’t. Either way, the veteran catcher is an integral piece within the Spring Training puzzle.

Third-string catchers always are. They are the forgotton men in camp every spring. This year, the Indians know they have a budding star in starting catcher Carlos Santana and a sound backup in Lou Marson. Behind them are a handful of experienced catchers helping handle the work load of the thousand arms in camp. They are the unheralded backbone of Spring Training.

It is an unglamorous job that gets nearly zero attention every year. At the end of spring, the big league team heads north and the third-sting backstops are given a pat on the back and a ticket to the Minor Leagues. They are depth. They are men charged with grooming and molding young arms. They are not expected to play big roles in the big leagues.

What’s the point? Simply that there are men in camp with stories to tell — stories that rarely are heard outside of their circle of teammates. Carlin happens to be part of a bigger story — one now on shelves in your local bookstore. Pitcher turned best-selling author Dirk Hayhurst released his second book, “Out of My League,” last week and Carlin is a prominent character within the story.

Carlin and Hayhurst were Minor League teammates and roomates with Triple-A Portland in 2008, which is the season detailed in Hayhurst’s latest baseball book. They were teammates long before that year, but it was in 2008 when they both fought hard to get a taste of The Show and finally got their first cup of coffee.

I’ve known Hayhurst since his days with the Blue Jays. He joined the Toronto organization in 2009 and ord quickly began to spread that he had a book coming out. His first book, “The Bullpen Gospels,” was a tremendous look at the often brutal life of a Minor Leaguer, especially one living as a non-prospect.

I loved “The Bullpen Gospels,” because it shed light on things the general baseball fan doesn’t see. It’s easy to say that Minor Leaguers do not live a posh life, but it’s another thing for one of them to put in writing in a detailed way that’s both touching and humorous. Hayhurst’s follow-up book takes things up a notch.

The second book discusses the tough balancing act of playing baseball, trying to make that final jump from Triple-A to the Majors and dealing with everything in between. There is the issue of poor pay in the Minors, trying to keep family life stable, and also doing anything you can to overcome self doubt, along with the built-in obstacles within baseball’s structure.

Baseball players are human, but they are often treated like pawns in a big game of chess. There are roster situations at play and the unsaid wish for some teammates to fail so you might get that elusive taste of success. Then, there are the baseball hierarchies at play among ballplayers both at the Major League and Minor League levels.

Hayhurst does a wonderful job of conveying all of these things in his books and that, to me, is why they are must-reads for any baseball fans. These aren’t baseball books. Baseball is just the backdrop.

When I got my advance copy of “Out of My League,” my wife actually read it first and had trouble putting it down until she was done. She enjoyed reading Hayhurst’s story of dealing with life as a ballplayer while working on getting engaged and planning a wedding. My wife also felt she could relate some given that she has a baseball writer for a husband.

Full disclosure, I enjoyed “The Bullpen Gospels” better than “Out of My League,” but I believe that is because the first book was so new in terms of what it offered. The second book builds on that first story and, if it stood alone, I’d probably sit here raving even more about it because I wouldn’t have the option of comparing the two. The bottom line is they are both solid reads that provide great insight to life behind the scenes.

After reading the books, you won’t view a player such as Carlin in the same light. A decade into his pro career, he’s 31 years old with only 126 at-bats in the big leagues under his belt. But he’s an important piece within Cleveland’s Minor League structure, and he’s spent his career trying to advance beyond that third-string label.

Some notes from Monday…

  • The Indians dropped their “A” game against the Reds, 12-7, on Monday afternoon. Offensive highlights for the Tribe included a three-run homer for Santana in the sixth and a leadoff triple in the first inning from center fielder Michael Brantley. Shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera went 1-for-3 with one RBI.
  • Starter Justin Masterson allowed six runs on five hits in just 1 1/3 innings for the Indians. Don’t go pressing the panic button. He only threw fastballs and it takes him some time to get a feel for his signature sinker. Masterson said he was about “halfway there” in terms of getting the sinker where it needs to be. The righty threw 45 pitches (25 strikes).
  • Masterson joked that the outing was “perfect” for him, because he got off to a rough start last spring as well. Looking back at it, Masterson gave up eight runs in his first 12 innings of Cactus League work last spring. He finished the preseason 0-2 with a 5.40 ERA. Then, all he did was go 5-0 with a 2.18 ERA out of the games in April en route to a solid season.
  • Derek Lowe turned in two innings in his spring debut for Cleveland and blanked the Reds. He created four groundouts, struck out one and only had one pitch hit beyond the infield (a Scott Rolen flyout). Lowe focused on throwing his sinker and said that relying more on that pitch again will be a key for him this year.
  • Other pitchers of note in the game against the Reds: reliever Dan Wheeler allowed four runs on four hits in one inning; reliever Tony Sipp gave up two runs on two hits in one inning; Zach McAllister logged two shutout innings. Sipp is in the bullpen. Wheeler is fighting for a bullpen spot. McAllister is in the mix for the fifth rotation job according to manager Manny Acta.
  • Acta acknowedged that he has kept in close contact with Roberto Hernandez — aka Fausto Carmona — over the past couple weeks. Cleveland has worked closely with the starter on a detailed throwing program for the time he is stuck in the Dominican dealing with visa and legal problems. Acta noted that Hernandez threw one inning against hitters at the Indians academy in the D.R. on Monday.
  • In a “B” game on Monday morning, the Indians lost 5-2 to the White Sox. Lefty Chris Seddon started for the Tribe and ended with four strikeouts in two shutout innings. Offensive players of note: Aaron Cunningham went 1-for-4 with an RBI; Trevor Crowe went 1-for-2; Andy LaRoche went 1-for-4 with a run; Fred Lewis went 0-for-2 with a walk; and Matt LaPorta went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts.
  • Minor League right-hander Austin Adams has been sidelined for much of camp early on due to soreness in his throwing shoulder. He said that he was able to resume a throwing program on Thursday. Adams one of the Indians’ better upper-level starting pitching prospects. Routinely hits high 90s on his fastball. Right now, he’s behind Kevin Slowey, Jeanmar Gomez, David Huff, McAllister, Scott Barnes, Corey Kluber and Seddon on the depth chart.
  • Chatted some with 3B Jack Hannahan this morning about the changes he made with his swing last season. He changed from a 34/31 bat to a 34.5/33.5 bat in the second half last year. Hannahan said the heavier bat forced him to step with his front foot to start his swing earlier. That adjustment in turn forced him to rely on his hands more in his swing, helping him drive the ball to all fields. The results were clear. He was hitting .213 (.637 OPS) on July 6. He then hit .327 (.890) in his final 40 games. Over his last 25 games, Hannahan hit .368 (.991).
  • On Tuesday, the Indians will host a split-squad Royals team in a 1:05 p.m. MT game at Goodyear Ballpark. Listed as available to pitch for Cleveland are Kevin Slowey, Jeremy Accardo, Scott Barnes, Nick Hagadone, Vinnie Pestano and Chris Ray.

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Photo of the Day

Indians GM Chris Antonetti & White Sox GM Kenny Williams during Monday’s “B” game

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Indians Player Twitter Power Rankings

Big shakeup this week in the (now) bi-weekly rankings. Vinnie Pestano had a strong five-week run atop these standings, but I feel it’s time to let someone else have a crack at some #tweetsfromthetop. Welcome to the No. 1 spot, outfielder Shelley Duncan. Why the jump from unranked to top dog? First, he asked me where he was going to be ranked while we were standing in the tunnel at Goodyear Ballpark today. Second, he had the guts to tweet a photo of himself with Ron Paul at a recent Republican Debate out here in the Phoenix area. Well played, Shelley. Well played.

Week 6: Major League Rankings

1. @shelldunc (Shelley Duncan) — Last rank: NR
2. @VinnieP52 (Vinnie Pestano) – Last rank: 1
3. @tcrowe4 (Trevor Crowe) – Last rank: 6
4. @TheJK_Kid (Jason Kipnis) – Last rank: 4
5. @thethree8 (Joe Smith) – Last rank: 3

Sixth Man:  @ChrisPerez54 (Chris Perez) – Last rank: 5

Top Twitter Prospects

1. @C_M_Cook (Cole Cook) – Last rank: 1
2. @TDaddyNeal (Thomas Neal) – Last rank: 2
3. @NickBartolone (Nick Bartolone) – Last rank: NR

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Make sure you’re reading Indians.com and following me on Twitter (@MLBastian). To see more of my Spring Training photos, CLICK HERE.

Stay tuned for more…

–JB

Waiting on The Big U

Ubaldo Jimenez wouldn’t advise younger pitchers to study his mechanics for ways to improve their own. The tall and lanky right-hander has an unorthodox motion that includes mometarily bringing his hand behind his back, flashing the ball to the hitter.

Ubaldo started using that technique back in 2004. He found dropping his hand down helped alleviate some discomfort he was having with his shoulder. With the pain gone, and the success piling up, he decided to stick with it.

“When I was a little kid, I was trying to be like Pedro Martinez,” Jimenez said of his delivery. “But I got these mechanics when I got hurt in 2004. I was trying to find a way for my arm not to hurt. That’s how I’ve been throwing since.”

Jimenez said he had pitching coaches trying to change his mechanics when he was still in the Rockies’ farm system.

“They tried in the Minor Leagues, but it didn’t work,” he said. “Once they let me go and said, ‘Just do how you think is good,’ I kept moving up.”

He joked that he would not “teach this” style to younger pitchers.

It has worked for Jimenez, though. He climbed steadily through Colorado’s system and earned his way to Opening Day starter heights three years in a row. In 2010, Ubaldo threw a no-hitter, started for the National League in the All-Star Game, collected 19 victories, struck out 214 and finished third in Cy Young voting.

Ubaldo fans have been waiting a while now for that ace-like pitcher to resurface. He started that magical 2010 season 15-1 with a 2.20 ERA in his first 18 turns for the Rockies. Since then, Jimenez has gone 14-20 with a 4.39 ERA over 47 appearances between Cleveland and Colorado.

This spring, Jimenez is working on his mechanics again, but the focus is on keeping his stride length consistent, especially from the stretch. On Sunday, Jimenez said he felt he did better in that regard, and he noted that he felt stronger than he has in years when he worked through his first official outing of the spring.

Here’s the thing, though. Jimenez allowed five runs and logged 37 pitches. Now, it’s only fair to note that the Indians made two errors that opened the floodgates for the Reds’ five-run first, and Jimenez was only charged with one earned run. It’s also worth noting that he threw 25 strikes and, unlike in the regular season, he only used three pitches.

On top of that, four of the five hits he gave up were either infield singles or bloopers into the outfield. Only one hitter — Willie Harris — actually squared up and connected for a line drive knock.

I know, however, that there will be a select group of fans who look at the box score and think this is a case of, “Here we go again. Jimenez wasn’t right when the Indians traded for him last July and he’s clearly not right now.” I’m here to talk you off the ledge and again provide the annual spring disclaimer of, “It’s only one inning.”

Take it from The Big U himself.

“I felt really good out there,” he said. “My arm felt good — strong. I’m ready to go. Everything is feeling 100 percent right now. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt like that.”

Some notes from Sunday…

  • Outfielder Aaron Cunningham was in the lineup for the first time this spring after sitting out due to a sore right hand for the past few days. Cunningham said his hand is back at 100 percent and he’s excited to get things going this spring with his new team. Manager Manny Acta said Cleveland plans on taking a close look at Cunningham, especially since he’s out of options.
  • In the outfield competition, Shelley Duncan got the nod in left field and Cunningham in right during Sunday’s 8-6 loss to the Reds. Duncan — working under his nickname The Dunk Tank — went 1-for-3 with a beast of a three-run homer to left field. Cunningham went 1-for-3 with a single and an RBI, but he made a throwing error in the first.
  • Third Base Watch: Jack Hannahan got the start at the hot corner one day after Lonnie Chisenhall got the nod for the Tribe. Hannahan went 1-for-2 and looked typically sound in the field. In the first inning, he made a strong backhanded grab on a sharp grounder off the bat of Zack Cozart, but the runner beat the throw and Jimenez’s rough first inning began.
  • The Pitchers Perez: Chris Perez (strained left oblique) said he hopes to be able to resume throwing catch by Tuesday or Wednesday. He thinks he’ll be able to beat his target date of March 15 for returning to game action. We’ll see if the Indians medical team agrees. Rafael Perez (sore left shoulder) resumed throwing Saturday (75 feet) and continued Sunday (90 feet) and should be back on a mound soon.
  • Josh Tomlin also pitched on Sunday, logging two clean innings against the Reds. He gave up two leadoff hits, but controlled the damage. He struck out two and created four outs on grounders — two on a double play. It was a typical performance for Tomlin, who will likely be the No. 3 or No. 4 starter.
  • The fifth starter race continued with right-hander Jeanmar Gomez turning in two inning for the Indians on Sunday. Gomez struck out three and blanked the Reds in every other category. Acta raved about Gomez’s slider, which seems to be developing into a nice little strikeout pitch.
  • I’ve written it before, I still think Kevin Slowey and Gomez are the top two candidates for the fifth job — just my opinion. David Huff threw well on Saturday and Zach McAllister (the longshot of the bunch) will pitch on Monday. Slowey is slated to pitch on Tuesday.
  • Chatted some with Shin-Soo Choo this morning to see if he was planning on making any mechanical tweaks this spring. He said the only thing he’s considered is using a toe-tap timing mechanism, but he’s thinking about just sticking with the stance and swing that has gotten him to this point.
  • Choo said the toe tap was his idea — not a suggestion by anyone else. Asked why he thought about a chance, he said, “A lot of players, a lot of coaches say, ‘Choo, you hit .300. Why are you changing things?’ I say I’m trying to get better. I hit .300, but I want to hit .320.” Choo doesn’t want to be thinking about mechanics in Spring Training at-bats, though. He wants to simply get his timing down for the start of the season.
  • The Indians will play a “B” game against the White Sox at 10 a.m. MT Monday morning at the Tribe’s player development complex. Arms from big league camp listed as available include Chris Seddon, Tyler Sturdevant, Danny Salazar and Chen-Chang Lee. The game is free to the public.
  • Monday’s “A” game against the Reds — the third tilt in a row between the clubs — will feature Indians Opening Day man Justin Masterson making his spring debut. Derek Lowe is also slated to make his Cleveland debut. Also down to pitch are Tony Sipp, Dan Wheeler and McAllister.

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Photo of the Day

Manager Manny Acta and catcher Carlos Santana chat during BP on Sunday morning.

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Make sure you’re reading Indians.com and following me on Twitter (@MLBastian). To see more of my Spring Training photos, CLICK HERE.

Stay tuned for more…

–JB

Evaluating early on

That there is Frank Herrmann. You know, the undrafted Harvard grad. The Indians tapped into that market before it became the trendy thing to do. I’m getting way off topic here, though.

On Friday, Herrmann was one among the eight pitchers that took the mound at Goodyear Ballpark during Cleveland’s Cactus League opener against the Reds. The teams played to a 6-6 tie and a big reason behind that was the four-spot that Herrmann put up in the fourth inning, erasing the Tribe’s early 4-0 lead.

Before you start shouting that “Herrmann’s a bum!” or something, though, let me refer you to a postgame quote from manager Manny Acta: “It’s one game.” Here’s the thing with Spring Training, it’s Spring Training. The offseason kinks are worked out, the pitch counts built up and the results sometimes tossed out.

Well, more to the point, the early results.

In these first few games, starters typically stay in for an inning or two — that includes the pitchers and, in some cases, the position players. That makes the evaluation process early on in camp difficult at times. And that does not apply to only the players who turn in subpar showings. It also holds true for those who get three outs and exit quickly.

“It’s to tough to evaluate guys,” Acta said. “Because sometimes they come in late in the game and the regulars are already out of there.”

Acta tries to counter that by having his go-to relievers appear early in games, as opposed to the innings you’ll see them pitch in the regular season. As for Herrmann, he’s competing for a spot in the bullpen with a handful of other pitchers. He’s also going to have plenty of time to right the wrongs of Saturday’s brief disaster.

Some notes from Saturday…

  • The fifth starter competition is officially underway. Lefty David Huff got things rolling with two shutout innings in Saturday’s game. He threw 35 pitches and landed 25 of them for strikes. Huff surrendered three hits, but limited the damage. He said he stuck mainly with fastballs and cutters in his first outing and focused on pounding hitters inside. Huff was understandably pleased with the results and his execution.
  • Beyond Herrmann, other bullpen candidates to appear included Robinson Tejeda, Jeremy Accardo and Nick Hagadone. Tejeda allowed a solo home run in his lone inning of work. Accardo and Hagadone turned in one clean frame apiece. Setup man Vinnie Pestano also logged a shutout inning that included no hits, no walks and a strikeout (Yawn).
  • Acta said one thing the Indians are trying to work on this spring is situational hitting, especially with a runner on third and less than two outs. That came up in the first inning and Carlos Santana delivered a run-scoring sac fly. In the second, Jason Kipnis singled, moved to second on a sace bunt and scored from second on a single by Chisenhall.
  • Acta said in recent days that he was hopeful that outfielder Aaron Cunningham (sore left hand) would be available for Saturday’s game. Well, Cunningham didn’t play. He did, however, take part in the morning workout. Ryan Spilborghs got the nod in left field and Fred Lewis, Felix Pie and Thomas Neal also made appearances.
  • MLBPA executive director Michael Weiner held a closed-door meeting with the Indians players on Saturday morning. Topics that came up included the new playoff format and Ryan Braun’s successful appeal of a 50-game suspension. Players have all raved about the new postseason format that has two Wild Cards in each league. Two players we talked to also said Weiner’s comments helped alleviate some concerns about the Braun situation. Predictably, no one went into much detail.
  • In the battle for third base, it was Lonnie Chisenhall who got the nod at the hot corner for the spring opener. He went 1-for-2 with an RBI single. In writing a feature on him today for Indians.com, I looked up his performance against LHP last year. He hit .200 at Triple-A and then .111 (2-18) in his early showing in the big leagues. In September, though, Chisenhall hit .344 (11-32) with four homers and 10 RBIs vs. LHP. If he can handle lefties again this spring, and show good strike zone discipline, his bat could help win the job at third over Jack Hannahan.
  •  Other highlights from Saturday’s game: Michael Brantley went 2-for-3 with a double and a run scored; Casey Kotchman went 2-for-3 with a double and one RBI; Jose Lopez went 2-for-2 with a double and a run scored; Jason Kipnis went 1-for-1 with a single and a run-scoring sac fly.
  • The Indians play the Reds again on Sunday in the second of three games in a row between the clubs. Listed as available to pitch for the Indians are Ubaldo Jimenez, Josh Tomlin, Jeanmar Gomez, Chris Ray, Joe Smith and Hector Ambriz. The Big U will get the start for the Tribe.

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Photo of the Day

First pitch of 2012 Spring Training.

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Make sure you’re reading Indians.com and following me on Twitter (@MLBastian). To see more of my Spring Training photos, CLICK HERE.

Stay tuned for more…

–JB

Justin Masterful

Justin Masterson is a beauty. The Jamaican-born, pastor’s kid is a gentle giant with a playful and laidback personality. It’s really a thing to behold at times.

I mean, who else but Masterson would immediately take to calling Roberto Hernandez — formerly Fausto Carmona — by the name “Rob,” and make it sound like he’s been calling him that for years? Or, there was the moment Friday when asked about the left shoulder injury that popped up last season, and he offered this technical explanation: “My shoulder juices were leaking out.”

When Masterson walked into the media work room on Friday morning, he grabbed WTAM reporter Nick Camino’s notepad and pen and began scribbling. “How can you expect people not to play with your stuff if you leave it laying around?” Masterson joked.

This is your Opening Day starter, folks. And, really, it’s the best choice.

Manager Manny Acta announced his pick on Friday and he’ll get no arguments from me. Masterson developed into the staff horse last season and overpowered teams at times with his sinker. With his funky delivery, and you-know-what’s-coming-but-I-bet-you-can’t-hit-it approach worked wonders in 2011 in cementing his place as one of the game’s emerging talents.

Maybe I’m just partial to having a P.K. leading the rotation. I’m one myself.

(If you don’t know what a P.K. is, consult paragraph one.)

The other choice was Ubaldo Jimenez and I wouldn’t have been opposed to him getting the Opening Day nod, either. He’s been an Opening Day man three years running and was a Cy Young contender two years ago. The Tribe did also send four players — including two prized prospects — in order to acquire him last summer.

They think Ubaldo can be an ace. Making him the No. 1 arm would’ve been another statement along those lines. The fact of the matter is, however, that Jimenez was shaky all last year and this is the season he is expected to regain his footing as a top-of-the-rotation arm. Until then, as Acta said, the hope is he’ll pitch like a No. 1 while working as a No. 2.

Masterson earned this job, though. On the field and in the clubhouse, he turned himself into a team leader last year. On the mound, specifically, Masterson logged 216 innings and went 12-10 with a 3.21 ERA. He might’ve easily notched at least 15 wins had it not been for a prolonged run of abysmal run support.

Asked if the lack of runs offered an excercise in mental toughness last season, Masterson smirked and saw his chance to crack wise with the media.

“Sometimes more of the mental toughness excercise was talking to the media afterwards,” he said with a grin. “‘Hey, you didn’t get a win. You stink now, huh?’ I thought I pitched pretty good.”

He did indeed pitch pretty good. In fact, he’s ben pitching pretty good since the later stages of the 2010 season. Including his last nine outings from that year, Masterson has gone 14-11 with a 3.05 ERA in 250 2/3 innings, covering 43 games (37 starts). Last year, he went with his strengh the most, leading the Majors with a fastball percentage of 84.4.

Masterson created 364 grounders last season — third-most in the American League. His groundball-to-flyball ratio was the second best mark in the league and his 4.1 WAR ranked 13th among AL pitchers. Acta quipped that Masterson’s two-seamer “moves like a whiffle ball.”

He’ll get to test it out on Opening Day now.

Indians fans probably don’t need to be reminded of Opening Day last season. Hernandez took the mound as Carmona and gave up 10 earned runs in three innings in a 15-10 loss to the White Sox. That was tied for the most runs allowed in an opener since 1919 and it marked the most since 1949.

“I hope I can do a little better than how Rob did,” Masterson said with a laugh.

Some notes from Friday…

  • Indians closer Chris Perez said the last real hurdle in his recovery from a left oblique injury is feeling fine when he sneezes. “You don’t realize how much you sneeze until you have this thing,” he said. No word on whether the medical staff is holding pepper under his nose in an effort to gauge his progress.
  • Jokes aside, Perez said he hopes to resume throwing some time next week and head trainer Lonnie Soloff added that the closer’s wish may come true. Don’t ask what day. It’s still very fluid and based on CP’s daily progress at this point. He’s been able to add a new excercise each day and said he’s passed every test the staff has given him.
  • As for a goal for this season, Perez said he’d like to get back to his 2010 approach. When he’d get ahead in a count that year, he’d try to strike a hitter out, even if it meant burning a pitch or two. Last year, Perez focused more on creating contact in an effort to get quick outs any way he could. Not surprisingly, his H/9 spiked to 6.9 from 5.7 the year before and his K/9 dropped to 5.9 from 8.7. His walk rate was nearly identical.
  • Ubaldo had no issues with Masterson being named the Opening Day starter and said he appreciated Acta coming to him to discuss the situation. Jimenez lauded Masterson’s efforts last season and said the honor was well deserved. Barring any setbacks, this mans Ubaldo’s run of three straight Opening Day starts is going to end.
  • Acta said Ubaldo will indeed slide into the No. 2 spot on the starting staff. As for the Nos. 3-5 slots, those will be sorted out in the final 10 days or so of camp. Josh Tomlin and Derek Lower will occupy two of the spots and the fifth job will go to one of Kevin Slowey, Jeanmar Gomez, David Huff or Zach McAllister.
  • Caught up some with righty Carlos Carrasco, who is in camp working through his lengthy rehab from Tommy John elbow surgery. He has built up to throwing from 60 feet and hopes to advance to 75 on Monday. By the end of the month, he could be throwing from 90 feet. Carrasco said he hopes to be back in game action late this season, but there is a chance he will not be back until 2013.
  • Matt LaPorta said his offseason sessions with hitting coach Bruce Fields were aimed at helping the first baseman avoid chasing pitches out of the strike zone. LaPorta also noted that he has made a slight mechanical adjustment. He’s standing a bit taller in his stance right now.
  • Newly signed first baseman Casey Kotchman has had a good chance to get to watch and know his teammates in the workouts portion of Spring Training. So far, Kotchman says he sees an “exciting and hard-working group,” adding that he was eager to get games started to continue meshing as a team.
  • Outfielder Aaron Cunningham took part in batting practice during Friday’s workout. That’s two days in a row for Cunningham, who sat out Wednesday and Thursday intrasquad games in order to rest a sore left hand. Acta sounded optimistic about Cunningham’s chances of being available on Saturday.
  • Friday’s workout was quick and to the point with the team holding its annual charity golf outing in the afternoon. It was really windy and chilly — at one point, heavy winds blew over a screen by first base — during the abbreviated workout. Might’ve made for some interesting showings out on the golf course.
  • Saturday’s opener against the Reds is scheduled for 3:05 p.m. ET. Cleveland will be the visiting team in the first of three games in a row vs. Cincinnati. On the board to tentatively pitch for the Indians were David Huff, Jeremy Accardo, Nick Hagadone, Frank Herrmann, CC Lee, Vinnie Pestano, Danny Salazar, Chris Seddon, Tyler Sturdevant and Robinson Tejeda.

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Photo of the Day

Left behind.

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Make sure you’re reading Indians.com and following me on Twitter (@MLBastian). To see more of my Spring Training photos, CLICK HERE.

Stay tuned for more…

–JB

Put me in coach…

The Indians have a hole to fill in the outfield and general manager Chris Antonetti’s challenge now is to determine whether the team should stand pat or bring in even more fresh blood.

We already knew that center fielder Grady Sizemore was not an option for Opening Day. On Thursday, we learned he’d be out at least two to three months after having surgery on his lower back.

Cleveland projects to have Shin-Soo Choo in right field and — unless Ezequiel Carrera turns into the second coming of Kenny Lofton this spring — Michael Brantley will take over in center field.

As for the third spot, well, the Indians have all of Spring Training to sort out that situation.

“We tried to build in some depth to our roster in some of the alternatives that are already in camp,” Antonetti said. “We feel like we have some quality in-house candidates who will go out and compete for some of that playing time, and our scouts will continue to be out there evaluating other camps to determine if there are potential upgrades from somewhere else.”

The in-house options are as follows:

Shelley Duncan — out of options; can play first, left, DH; right-handed.
Aaron Cunningham — out of options; can play all three spots; right-handed.
Russ Canzler — limited MLB experience; better at first base than in left; righty.
Matt LaPorta — hasn’t played LF since 2010; struggled last 2 years; righty.
Thomas Neal — no MLB experience; on 40-man roster; right-handed.
Chad Huffmann — limited MLB experience; non-roster invite; righty.
Ryan Spilborghs — coming off injury; NRI; can play all three spots; righty.
Ezequiel Carrera — limited experience; best as center fielder; on roster; lefty.
Fred Lewis — solid hitter a few years ago; left fielder; NRI; lefty.
Felix Pie — coming off a down year; can play all three spots; NRI; lefty.
Nick Weglarz — injuries hindered last two years; no MLB time; on roster; lefty.
Trevor Crowe — coming off injury; NRI; can play all three positions; switch hitter.

Simply due to their being out of options, I think Duncan and Cunningham will be looked at closely for roles on the Opening Day roster. Both could potentially be on the bench — one as a 4th outfielder and the other as a utility man. Or, one could win the starting role with the other on the bench.

There are a variety of ways the Indians could go with left field — a platoon situation even? — and this seems like a competition that will last until the final days of Spring Training.

Some notes from Thursday…

  • As has been noted for a few days, the Indians are on the verge of naming their Opening Day starter. Indians manager Manny Acta plans on revealing his choice — either Justin Masterson or Ubaldo Jimenez — before Friday’s workout. I still say my money is on Masterson to earn the honor.
  • The Indians held their second intrasquad game of the spring on Thursday and the star of the show was Canzler. He launched a bomb of a grand slam to center field and ended the afternoon with five RBIs in the abbreviated contest. Talk about making a strong first impression.
  • Cunningham did not log any playing time in either intrasquad game over the past two days. Acta said the outfielder is nursing a sore left hand from hitting. Cunningham was on the field and taking BP during Thursday’s workout and Acta said the outfielder should be fine to play in Saturday’s game.
  • Lefty reliever Raffy Perez hasn’t been on a mound in a few days. It turns out that Perez is dealing with some soreness in his throwing shoulder and he shut things down for a bit. I was told it’s not considered serious and that Perez should be able to resume a throwing program within the next few days.
  • The intrasquad game ended in a 5-5 tie when Acta motioned to end things during the home half of the fifth. Some offensive highlights — beyond Canzler’s big day — included a solo homer by Pie, an RBI double by Weglarz and a two-run double for Spilborghs. Minor League pitchers Scott Barnes and Danny Salazar absorbed the bulk of the damage.
  • A few of the starting pitcher candidates who threw in the game were solid for the Tribe. Derek Lowe only needed eight pitches (six strikes) to complete a 1-2-3 first inning. Slowey allowed a single to Asdrubal Cabrera, but got through his inning unscathed on 14 pitches. Jeanmar Gomez and Zach McAllister each logged one clean frame on eight pitches.
  • Chatted for a bit with Spilborghs, who is convinced his platar fasciitis injury is what was behind his poor 2011 showing. I’ve had it — it’s no fun — and I wasn’t being asked to try to hit Major League pitching, only watch it. Spilborghs said he couldn’t put any weight on his back leg without sharp pain in his foot and his mechanics, and then his stats took a big hit. He’s healthy now, but still wears a boot when he sleeps. “I do not want that thing to ever come back,” he said.

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Photo of the Day

Reporter Katie Witham of STO took BP today off Indians PR man Bart Swain. Gotta say, her swing wasn’t bad. Five minutes with hitting coach Bruce Fields did wonders.

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Make sure you’re reading Indians.com and following me on Twitter (@MLBastian). To see more of my Spring Training photos, CLICK HERE.

Stay tuned for more…

–JB

Play ball! Sort of…

Enough with the stretching bands, ball buckets and L-screens. On Wednesday, the Indians took part in some good old fashioned baseball in an abbreviated intrasquad game at their Spring Training complex.

Man, it felt good to be sitting in the bleachers, soaking up some sun and watching some ball again.

Josh Tomlin (pictured) got the start for Smitty’s Homers — the squad organized by third base coach Steve Smith. If you were in Goodyear and you took your eyes off the field for a few seconds, you might’ve missed his outing. Tomlin needed just three pitches to carve up Ezequiel Carrera, Jason Donald and Lonnie Chisenhall.

Pop-out foul to third base. Groundout to shortstop. Strikeout swinging on a nasty curve ball.

Yawn.

This is where I insert the annual line about the “pitchers being ahead of the hitters.” That said, Tomlin looked exceptional in the handful of minutes he needed to breeze through three batters before heading in for a shower.

“He had command, location, everything,” Indians manager Manny Acta said. “The rest of the world was just trying to get outs. That’s him. He’s in mid-season form already.”

And, see, the thing about Tomlin is he has built an early reputation for being strong out of the gates. I don’t necessarily mean at the start of a season — though that was the case in 2011. What I mean is early in his starts, and the first time through a batting order, the righty tended to be at his best.

You know me, I likes me some numbers. So let’s have a look…

First, here’s a glance at how hitters fared against Tomlin when facing him at various points throughout his outings during the 2011 season:

First plate appearance: .204 average/.591 OPS
Second plate appearance: .256 average/.733 OPS
Third plate appearance: .292 average/.823 OPS

Now, here’s a look at how hitters fared against Tomlin based on his pitch count:

Pitches 1-25: .157 average/.428 OPS
Pitches 26-50: .254 average/.756 OPS
Pitches 51-75: .285 average/.790 OPS
Pitches 76-100: .306 average/.911 OPS

There’s a clear pattern there and the Indians, and Tomlin, are more than aware of the issue. The pitcher has already brainstormed some with sinkerballer Justin Masterson, pitching coach Scott Radinsky and former pitching coach Tim Belcher to try to figure out a plan of attack for finding a way to keep hitters guessing later into an outing.

Tomlin said on Wednesday that he will probably try to talk things over some with Kevin Slowey, who has had success in the Major Leagues with a very similar style of pitching. The key, Tomlin noted, is varying his pitch patterns as the game goes on, especially against hitters who boast a bit more power.

“It’s about pitch sequences for me,” Tomlin explained. “Pitch sequences and making a hitter guess and not letting them sit on one certain pitch throughout an at-bat.”

He explained that one strategy might be to hold off on using a particular pitch — “Keeping it in my back pocket for later on,” he said —  against certain hitters early in a game. Another approach might be to come at particular hitters with completely different patterns than they saw in previous at-bats or previous starts.

It’s not so much how Tomlin starts, but how he finishes. And he’s working hard to improve.

Some notes from Wednesday…

  • Asked if there was anything new on the Grady Sizemore front, Acta said that the Indians would provide an update to the media on Thursday. As far as we could tell, Sizemore (lower back injury) did not appear to be at the complex over the past two days. It’s possible (speculating here) that he went to see a specialist. All I know is when a manager won’t come out with even a hint of information, it sounds ominous. We’ll see.
  • Had a nice discussion with Shin-Soo Choo earlier this spring about the time he spent taking part in basic training with the South Korean army over the winter. He learned to shoot a rifle and throw grenades, and he took part in 15-mile hikes with a 55-pound pack strapped to his shoulders. What Choo walked away with was a new perspective on a lot of things and he insists he has a clear mind going into 2012. That’d be great news for the Indians. CLICK HERE for the whole story.
  • Acta still has not named his Opening Day starter, but the manager said that he will reveal his choice on Friday morning. He still has to inform the two pitchers involved in the decision. It will be either Justin Masterson or Ubaldo Jimenez. My money’s on Masterson, but this could really go either way for a number of reasons.
  • Lefty reliever Tony Sipp said he is focusing on controlling the running game this spring. It’s an area he knows he needs to improve on this season. Last year, he allowed 13 stolen bases in 15 attempts and the bulk of the thefts came on sliders. Sipp said he is working right now to try to find out why that was the case, even suggesting he might have been tipping his pitches.
  • Sipp said he was told it might be beneficial to chat things over with Tomlin. Last season, not a single baserunner even attempted a stolen base off the righty starter. That marked the first time — at least since 1969 — that a pitcher who qualified for the ERA title had zero stolen base attempts against him in a season. Much like mixing up pitch sequences, Tomlin said the key for him was varying his looks to first base.
  • Acta singled out outfielder Aaron Cunningham and Minor League reliever Tyler Sturdevant as two player who have opened a few eyes in the early-spring workouts. Sturdevant tossed a scoreless inning in Wednesday’s intrasquad game and could work himself into the bullpen mix at some point this season. Cunningham is competing for a spot on the Opening Day roster, either as the left fielder or off the bench.
  • Smitty’s Homers defeated Sarby’s Visitors (run by Triple-A manager Mike Sarbaugh) 1-0 in Wednesday’s four-inning tilt. The lone run that scored came courtest of an RBI single from Jose Lopez, who is trying to win a utility bench role this spring. Acta said Lopez is an intriguing player in camp given his strong history of production a few years ago with the Mariners.
  • Closer Chris Perez is feeling much improved since tweaking his left oblique, but it’s baby steps in terms of his rehab. He’s been riding an exercise bike and doing some other light activities in his build-up toward throwing again. “A lot of really athletic stuff oing on in there,” Perez joked. “Tomorrow I might even roll over.”
  • Catcher Carlos Santana gave Acta a bit of a scare in the first inning on Wednesday. After pulling a pitch sharply down the left-field line, Santana took a few steps out of the box and pulled up. At first, Acta thought Santana was hurt. Turns out the catcher didn’t know the ball was ruled fair. With his teammates shouting at him, Santana started running again and still legged out a double.
  • Outfielder Trevor Crowe has come into camp with the right attitude, saying that “things have a funny way of working out” in relation to his situation. He missed most of last season due to injury, was knocked off the 40-man roster over the winter, was given an extremely late invite to Spring Training and saw his number rise from No. 4 to No. 80. His locker? Three stalls from the exit. Crowe is a longshot to make the Opening Day roster, but he’s doing all he can to make sure people don’t forget about him. In Wednesday’s game, he drew a walk and stole second against reliever Frank Herrmann.
  • The Indians’ second intrasquad game will be held at noon MST on Thursday at Goodyear Ballpark, which is located roughly a half-mile north of the team’s player development complex. The game is free for the pubic to attend. Pitchers scheduled to appear include Derek Lowe, Kevin Slowey, Jeanmar Gomez, Dan Wheeler, Scott Barnes, Zach McAllister, Chris Ray, Corey Kluber, Danny Salazar and Hector Ambriz.
  • Al Rosen, who played for the Indians from 1947-56, celebrated his 22nd birthday on Wednesday. Rosen — actually 88 years old — is one of only 11 Major League players who were born on Feb. 29 in a leap year in baseball history.

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Photo of the Day

Acta threw batting practice Terminator style on Wednesday.

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#LouMar Contest

The winner

@Mr_BillyTheKid #LouMar asks Santa Clause what he wants for Christmas

Runner-up

@timcyoung Lou Marson doesn’t call for a change-up; he calls for a  fastball and scares the ball into slowing down.

Honorable Mention

@shlawallace #LouMar doesn’t own a remote for his TV, DVD, or DVR because he’s always in control.

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Thanks for playing.

Make sure you’re reading Indians.com and following me on Twitter (@MLBastian). To see more of my Spring Training photos, CLICK HERE.

Stay tuned for more…

–JB

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