Cliff Lee is pitching like it's 2008 again. He's rarely throwing pitches right over the middle of the plate, and when he is, he is disguising them well.
The bigger question now is whether this will be 2008 all over again for the Indians, when they traded three veterans after a depressing start. It worked very well last year, as the Indians' trades of ace pitcher CC Sabathia plus Casey Blake and Paul Byrd netted them a haul of young prospects and didn't hurt their performance one iota, either (in fact, Cleveland staged a startling second-half turnaround to make it back to the .500 mark). They are in last place after a similarly depressing start, and the speculation regarding another trade of their ace already has begun.
Not so fast, says Indians GM Mark Shapiro. "Every facet of our decision making is about making the team better," Shapiro said by phone. "Obviously, that dynamic could shift ... but at this point, our focus is singular."
The left-handed Lee, who went 22-3 last year in an all-world Cy Young performance, is said not to be worrying about it. And his recent performances would support that. While he's 2-5, he has a 3.00 ERA and is looking like an ace lately with a 1.43 ERA in his last six starts. Speaking of a possible trade, Lee's agent Darek Braunecker said, "It's not something Cliff's given too much consideration to, but he's aware it could happen."
Shapiro certainly succeeded with his 2008 selloff (last year's incredible haul included slugger Matt LaPorta, center fielder Michael Brantley and superb catching prospect Carlos Santana), but there's a great divergence of opinion as to whether he'll try it again. Two competing executive said they wouldn't be surprised if Lee goes in trade, but two other executives said Shapiro will keep Lee. The reasoning of the latter two was the balanced and tight AL Central division, which has no clear favorite. While the Indians are 14-22 even after two straight wins, they only trail the division-leading Tigers, Royals and Twins (yes, it certainly is tight) by 4 1/2 games.
"It's a something of a luxury that nobody has put themselves in position to run away with it," Shapiro said. "That allows us to be a lot more patient with our decision making."
But even in the AL Central, the Indians' bullpen will have to improve for them to compete, and Shapiro is well aware of that. "Horrific," was Shapiro's word to describe his own bullpen. As he pointed out, besides closer Kerry Wood and Rafael Betancourt, all the other relievers are below their career-worst years, much less their career norms. He didn't mince words. "I'm extremely disappointed with our start," Shapiro said.
Another consideration in deciding whether to trade Lee would be the Indians' chances to sign the 30-year-old long term, and the chance for that seems far less than great right now. "Not during the season," Shapiro said. "But a year-and-three-quarters with a player is a lot of time. We're hoping to keep him longer. But if not, that's still a lot of good baseball."
The Indians and Lee apparently understood there was no chance to do a long-term contract last winter, either. Neither side made a single monetary proposal, suggesting both understood that common ground was nowhere to be seen. Lee was coming off a Cy Young season, and that would have meant big bucks for the small-to-mid-market team. Shapiro cited the failing economy for deciding against making Lee an offer last winter. But Shapiro also understands the price tag -- which could be in the range of the $70-80 million received by Roy Oswalt and A.J. Burnett, another Braunecker client -- probably isn't coming down the closer Lee gets to free agency (assuming the $8 million 2010 option is exercised, Lee can be free after the '10 season).
Shapiro, one of the smartest GMs in the game, also knows that Lee is a lot more valuable in trade this summer than he would be a year from now. That lesson was easily seen in the case of Mark Teixeira, when the Braves had to surrender four big-time young players to get him one year, then traded him for only Casey Kotchman a year later.
Most importantly, Shapiro isn't afraid to change course, as he did last year. So the Lee situation is worth keeping an eye on.
The federal government is pressing ahead with the long-running case against Barry Bonds, despite my suggestion that they give up. While I would make the case that Roger Clemens' lies in front of Congress are worse (and were not couched by the word "knowingly"), the federal government seems to take lying to a grand jury very seriously. And I can't necessarily fault them for that thinking.
I would point out that they've jailed Bonds' trainer Greg Anderson twice and also some lawyer who leaked info to the San Francisco Chronicle but they still don't appear close to nailing Bonds. I would also point out that six years is a long time for a case based against a guy who couched his claims with the word "knowingly" (as in, he didn't "knowingly" take steroids.) However, the feds would suggest that some of the delays were based on defense filings. Anyway, the feds are apparently very persistent fellows.
Additionally, I inquired recently as to why the feds pursued Bonds but not Gary Sheffield, even though Sheffield also used the same phrasing, claiming he didn't "knowingly" take steroids. Nobody I could find would speak about their precise cases, but what I was told is that, generally speaking, the reason they may pursue one case and not another has to do with more than a potential defendant's claims. It has to do with the evidence, which makes sense. So my conclusion was that they must feel they have more evidence against Bonds, whether it be through Victor Conte's records, the ex-girlfriend or Bonds' flighty ex-friend Stevie Hoskins. It can't be through Anderson, who I'm hoping is being paid off at this point.
Sources indicate the feds are also pursuing a case against Clemens, too, and that's only fair. He didn't couch his claim with the word "knowingly," and unlike the defiant yet more quiet (and yes, more admirable) Bonds, Clemens' extensive public rantings have led to several relative innocents being dragged into the mess, including his own wife and Andy Pettitte's father. He has also sued his ex-trainer Brian McNamee, who lied for him for years and was only forced to tell the truth when confronted by the feds. The statute of limitations for perjury is five years, so the feds have plenty of time to build their case against Clemens.
Some have suggested to me that lying to a grand jury could be considered more serious than lying before Congress. But neither is recommended.
I can understand to a degree why Clemens couldn't admit he took steroids on ESPN Radio's Mike and Mike in the Morning the other day. If he did, he'd be admitting to perjuring himself before Congress. What I can't understand is what would compel someone to tell a story under oath no one could possibly believe.
Clemens on Thursday put out a statement explaining what he meant when he said he could never take steroids because of a "family history" that included his stepfather's heart attack. His statement suggested he wasn't taking about chromosomes but circumstances there, and that he was talking about going through the death of his stepfather and not wanting to take risks with his health.
A columnist or two sympathized with Clemens (one took me to task for making fun of the "family history" claim). And that's fine. But I think to side with Clemens on this matter, you have to think he's telling the truth that he didn't take steroids or HGH, and not just using his stepfather's heart attack and death as a platform in a twisted tale of lies.
I'm getting into Twitter, and one of the Twitter traditions (if Twitter can have tradition) is to suggest whom to follow on Friday, and so here are today's Follow Fridays: @BarryZito, @si_richarddeitsch, @BenMaller, @NJ_StevePoliti, @Lenno212, @jonahfreedman. As for me, I knew I could never write a book, not because I couldn't think of any mean things to say about someone (I could) but because I don't have the patience and only think in 140 characters, anyway. You can follow me at @si_jonheyman, where you can find Tweets like this. "I asked a Mets guy what they'd like to acquire. "toughness" came the answer. Anything else? "smarts wouldn't hurt either."' One great thing about Twitter is that nobody grades for punctuation.
I will be awarding a prize to my 2,500th follower, something of little or no value to me or anyone else, like an old press pass or All-Star pin.
• Mets decision-makers discussed a possible promotion for top outfield prospect Fernando Martinez (3 HR, 17 RBIs, .273 batting average at Triple-A Buffalo), but it appears they will stick to their original plan, which was to give him until at least June, even if Carlos Delgado (hip) has to go on the disabled list in the next couple days. They do ultimately see Daniel Murphy as a potential "heir apparent" for Delgado at first base. But for now, they have decided they don't want to complicate Murphy's assimilation to left field by having him play a lot at first. It's good they have Fernando Tatis (2 HR, 8 RBIs, .328), who in the words of one scout is "better than ever."
• Struggling Mets setup man J.J. Putz told WFAN's "Boomer and Carton" show, "I'm still trying to get used to pitching in the eighth inning and trying to find some adrenaline, because it's not like pitching in the ninth, I'll tell you that." Well, turns out the Mets agreed he needed a shot of adrenaline, and they gave it to him in the form of an actual cortisone shot in his elbow. Mets manager Jerry Manuel suggested the problems of Putz (4.05 ERA) are World Baseball Classic related. But Mets ninth-inning man Francisco Rodriguez, who's been great, was a WBC guy, too.
• Johnny Damon, who had an extra-base hit in 10 straight games, has told a media member how much he wants back with the Yankees about that many days in a row, too. Damon has played superbly, but it's tough to see them repeating his $13 million salary.
• Gerardo Parra became the 100th player to homer in his first at-bat. It won't be his last, either. Parra, 21, is a big-time outfield prospect for the D-backs. "He's the real deal," one NL exec says.
• Good call not having David Ortiz (no home runs in 130 at-bats) do the "Called Shot" homer exhibition at the All-Star Game this year. Albert Pujols makes much more sense, especially in St. Louis. The next question would be when to drop Ortiz in Boston's lineup. Personally, I'd give him a little more time.
• Nice to see Rockies owner Charlie Monfort give manager Clint Hurdle public support. Now it's his players' turn to support him. Few teams have underachieved like them, or shown less energy than them.
• It almost isn't fair. The Red Sox, which already has the best 'pen in the league, recently called up 100 mph thrower Daniel Bard.
• Scary stuff seeing Reds star Joey Votto helped off the field with a bout of dizziness the other day. His batting average (.374 at last count) is up in the clouds, that's for sure.
• Jamie Moyer is one of the most amazing athletes I've ever seen, a non-steroid guy contributing into his mid-40s. (He remains stuck at win No. 249, though.) I've said I'm never going to declare who might not have used, but I've seen this guy up close in the locker room, and I'd be shocked. So congrats, Jamie, for hanging in there under impossible circumstances.
• Rays star Evan Longoria's 45 RBIs in his first 35 games is fairly historic. Here are the best RBI starts for 35 games: Roy Campanella (51, 1953); Manny Ramirez (47, 1999); Juan Gonzalez (46, 1998); Stan Musial (45, 1954); Barry Bonds (45, 1996). So Longoria gets extra credit for doing it on talent alone (though Campy's record is crazy good).
• Can we please stop asking Pete Rose who belongs in the Hall of Fame, and who doesn't? I actually think Pete belongs. I just am past the point of caring what he thinks.
• Angels rookie right-hander Matt Palmer looked like Jim Palmer in shutting out the Red Sox, 4-0. Can you say late bloomer? He's 30.
• Good to see Justin Verlander get his act back together. He has got the best stuff of any starter in baseball, and it was hard to watch him waste it. (Though a depleted Tigers bullpen wasted his 13-strikeout performance in a 6-5 defeat to the Twins Thursday.)
• Also nice to see good guy Dontrelle Willis get back onto the mound, too. Though, I wouldn't say his 4 1/3-inning comeback performance on Wednesday that included eight hits and four runs (but only two walks) proved too much.
• Ryan Zimmerman didn't get a full complement of at-bats when his hitting streak ended at 30, as he was walked twice (once intentionally) and was 0 for 3, all on groundouts. But that's what makes 56 in a row impossible.
• Five position players have gone to the mound this year. Paul Janish, Nick Swisher, Cody Ross, Jonathan Van Every and Josh Wilson all have pitched, and according to MLB.com, 107 position players have pitched since 1979.
• Rare draft note not involving phenom Stephen Strasburg: Word is getting out the Orioles are seriously considering USC shortstop Grant Green, an excellent hitter.
• And another draft note: The D-backs have the most picks within the first 111 (eight), followed by the Angels (seven), Brewers (six) and Rockies, Blue Jays and White Sox (five each).
• And another. "It may be best year ever for players from New York," according to one scout. Here are the main ones fro the NYC area: Steve Matz, LHP, Ward-Melville High School in East Setauket; James Jones, OF/LHP, Long Island University; Kyle Hanson (6-foot-8 brother of Craig), RHP, St. Dominic High School in Oyster Bay; Robert Whitenack, RHP, Old Westbury College.
• Best of luck to longtime umpire Rick Reed, who's begun his comeback with minor-league rehab games and is hoping to return to the majors May 21 in Chicago after suffering to two strokes this winter.
• After seeing the way Mavericks owner Mark Cuban taunted Kenyon Martin's mother, suggesting her son is a "thug" (apparently a term that's thrown around the NBA rather easily), baseball is lucky Cuban didn't wind up bidding too hard for the Cubs. The NBA can have him.