Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Shades of Wayne Garland

Here we are 106 games into the baseball season and the Indians are not an afterthought to Cleveland sports fans.

The Browns have started training camp with a virtually new coaching staff and new hope. And yet, here are the Indians on the lips of the fans.

That, in and of itself, is quite an upset.

Not since 2007, when they came within one victory of a World Series appearance, have the Indians been so relevant this deep into the season.

Talking Tribe in August is as common as a snowstorm in the middle of the month. The wait-until-next-year syndrome usually kicks in somewhere in late May or early June.

Not this season.

This team, just when you think it’s cooked and ready for the proverbial fork, lurches back to life. Just when you think the tank is approaching empty, this team plumbs for and discovers more fuel.

Fifty-six games left in the season and only two games separate the Indians from first place. No one in his right mind would have guessed that scenario at the beginning of the season.

That despite season-wrecking injuries to two of their best players, Grady Sizemore and Shin-Soo Choo. Neither has been a major contributor to the cause.

And yet, the skeptics lurked. Maybe that’s because the Indians are just 24-37 since their 30-15 start. Maybe that’s because the early-season magic, when hitting safely with runners in scoring position was an everyday occurrence, has disappeared.

So when the trading deadline approached, General Manager Chris Antonetti needed to decide whether he was a seller or a buyer. As it turned out, he was a gambler.

In a move that would make him the envy of most gamblers, Antonetti mortgaged the future by swapping his top two minor-league pitchers for the uncertainty of the pitching enigma known as Ubaldo Jimenez.

One thing the Indians get in Jimenez is reliability. He has averaged 33 starts for the last four seasons. The big question is how far that reliability stretches.

In his five seasons with the Colorado Rockies, Jimenez has been the model of inconsistency. And yet, Antonetti allowed himself to fall in love with Jimenez’s amazing 15-1 start last season.

Therein lies the X-factor in this deal. Is the newest Indian that 15-1 guy or the 10-16 pitcher he has been since? Clearly, Antonetti believes Jimenez is the former.

Now factor in that Jimenez won’t have the luxury of facing opposing pitchers anymore and the scare factor enters the picture.

All of this brings to mind the time when the Indians fell head over heels for a Baltimore Orioles pitcher who had a fantastic season in 1976. As it turned out, it was a career season for Wayne Garland, who started the campaign in the Orioles’ bullpen, eventually worked his way into the rotation and finished with a 20-7 record.

Good enough for the Indians, who signed Garland as a free agent to a 10-year contract worth $2.3 million, a lot of money in those days. He came nowhere near that 20-7 in his five years in Cleveland. He won 28 games and lost 48 in those miserable seasons.

So is Jimenez the modern-day Wayne Garland? Or will Antonetti’s gamble pay off and help pave the way back to the postseason?

That kind of question is rare in Cleveland at this time of the year. And that’s not a bad thing.

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