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Series Preview: Tribe (7-12) @ Seattle (11-8)

2003/04/23

Tonight the Indians begin a brutal stretch of 24 games against the AL West in 27 days. The next month should be a trial by fire for many of the young Tribesmen as they face some of the best pitching and hitting the league has to offer.

Historically speaking, the Indians’ slow start has already eliminated them from playoff contention and ensured a losing season. According to Rany Jazayerli of Baseball Prospectus (premium content), only 10 of the 264 teams that opened the season either 7-13 or 8-12 were still playing baseball in October.

So with the pressure off, the Tribe can now relax and concentrate on becoming the 63rd squad to lift their record over .500 after a similarly squalid start.

The Tribe seems to defy precedent when it comes to April starts; last year’s Indians are the only team since 1901 to start a season 11-1 and still finish under .500.

Tuesday – C.C. Sabathia (0-2, 3.58) vs. Freddy Garcia (1-3, 5.40)

Peter Gammons praises the rebuilding efforts of Mark Shapiro in his column this week, but let’s focus instead on this quote from an unnamed scout buried in the Notes section: “(Garcia) throws too much garbage and doesn’t trust his fastball when he gets ahead.”

The numbers seem to bear this out, at least by one interpretation.

In the first three innings Garcia has held opposing hitters to a .565 OPS, breezing through them like so many Neifi Perezes. In the next three innings, those Perezes become Palmeiros: Garcia’s OOPS ups to .964 and his K/BB ratio goes from 9/4 to 6/7.

One explanation could be that as hitters adjust to his fastball in the middle innings, Garcia begins nibbling with off-speed pitches often outside the strike zone. Getting to Garcia in these vulnerable innings will be key to winning. Likely candidates to do damage are Karim Garcia, Omar Vizquel and Travis Hafner as the Mariners right-hander is extremely susceptible to left-handed hitters.

When the Big Chief gets into jams, more often than not Shig Hasegawa and Arthur Rhodes bail him out. The two relievers are first and eighth in the AL, respectively, in Adjusted Runs Prevented, a big reason why Garcia has received the second-most bullpen support in the league. Thus far, Kaz Sasaki and Jeff Nelson, Seattle’s Bone (Chip) Collectors, have not been effective out of the bullpen. The late innings could be a bit dicier this series if the M’s can’t rely on Daimajin’s forkball and Nelson’s mullet- uh, slider to close out the game.

Sabathia is just two weeks removed from his last MRI, not to mention the bone scan he also received. Eric Wedge has wisely kept Sabathia’s pitch counts below 100 since the injury, but two unremarkable starts have done little to quell my worries.

What I see is a 22-year-old pitcher with declining K rates who has also been worked extremely hard at a tender age for pitchers. On a positive note, he has become more efficient in the number of pitches he throws per inning. But unlike Bartolo Colon last year, Sabathia appears to be less difficult to hit as a result. With Jake Westbrook throwing well, perhaps C.C. should get a little down time when Jason Bere returns from the DL.

Wednesday – Ricardo Rodriguez (2-0, 2.08) vs. Gil Meche (1-1, 4.86)

Ricardo Rodriguez is among some elite company. According to Michael Wolverton’s Support Neutral pitching stats, Rodriguez has been as valuable so far this year as Roger Clemens, Mike Mussina and Mark Prior.

If he wants to stay in this exclusive club, he’ll have to show he can handle lineups like the Mariners with the same ease which he has dispatched the Orioles and Royals of the world. Otherwise he’ll be out on the sidewalk with Martha Burk and the protesters.

Seattle sends eight All-Stars to the plate and Carlos Guillen, who might make an All-Star team someday in a league without the Trinity and Tejada. Eight players are making positive contributions to the offense as well, the lone exception being Jeff Cirillo.

Cirillo has followed a season-opening 1-for-28 slump with one exquisite 4-for-4 game (after which the media declared his Seattle slide over) and another slump, this one 2-for-16. Though Cirillo was never that good, it’s hard to believe that he’s this bad either. He may be another player with “old man skills”, combining modest power with an acceptable walk rate to achieve sub-stardom in his prime, only to decline rapidly in his early thirties.

Thursday – Brian Anderson (2-2, 3.51) vs. Jamie Moyer (2-1, 3.09)

Last year’s Indians were the worst team in the AL at converting balls-in-play into outs. The damage was lessened by a pitching staff adept at striking people out and keeping the ball in the park.

Why is this relevant, you ask? Because these are Brian Anderson’s weaknesses. So even though the Indians defense has improved this season, the chances of Anderson getting “hit-lucky” against the Mariners seems slim.

Jamie Moyer also allows a lot of balls-in-play, but he pitches in front of a very-good infield defense and three legitimate centerfielders on most nights while striking out batters at an above-average rate.

Shane Spencer should get a spot start here for Lawton or Garcia, who still feels uncomfortable facing lefties coming off his wrist injury. Milton Bradley, Ellis Burks and Spencer will have to hit Moyer early for the Indians to have a chance because Moyer seems to get stronger as the game goes on.

Aaron Myette or Billy Traber may be a factor in middle relief if Anderson takes too much abuse in the early going.

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