I waited at a picnic table that sat just a few steps from the outdoor batting cage. Earlier that morning, I had set up an interview with Frank Thomas and the aging slugger told me he would meet me after he finished his workout.
So I waited for the Big Hurt, who kept his word, bursting from the clubhouse door on his way out to the table for our chat. This particular table sat on the incline of a slight hill. When Thomas rested his 275-pound frame on the same side where I sat, there was a brief moment where I feared the table might flip.
It stayed put and so did we, engaging in a lengthy interview about his first Spring Training with the Blue Jays. What I remember most was the strange feeling I had during our talk. This was one of the heroes of my youth in Chicago, and here we were sitting at a picnic table talking about baseball and the art of hitting.
This story came to mind earlier this week, when MLB.com's Anthony Castrovince wrote a column about Ken Griffey Jr. earning the Commissioner's Historic Achievement Award for his amazing career. Anthony and I are about the same age, so Griffey's love for the game was a staple of our childhood.
Having the chance to cross paths with our childhood heroes is an interesting dynamic for us writers. I remember wearing my hat backwards like Griffey during backyard Home Run Derbies as a kid growing up in South Holland, Ill. I also remember, as a Little Leaguer, aiming my bat at the pitcher -- much like slugger Jim Thome did for the Tribe.
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This past season, Thome reunited with the Indians and I was once again honored to cover a star from my youth. Earlier this week, Thome spoke to the City Club of Cleveland, becoming the first active big leaguer to talk to the distinguished club since Babe Ruth in 1925. Afterwards, Thome expressed his desire to continue playing.
To be able to help document the final chapters of such great careers -- players like Thomas, Griffey or Thome -- is special in a way. I once studied the back of their baseball cards, commiting every stat and accolade to memory. Having the chance to write about what they meant for the game feels like an honor.
On to this week's Indians Inbox ...
What are your thoughts on Ubaldo Jimenez? Will he become the starter the Indians need, or will he turn into a "could have been" for them?
-- Jonny L., Cleveland
When the trade for Jimenez was made in July, before he even threw a pitch for the Indians, I said it would take roughly a full season -- or until the 2012 All-Star break -- to really form an opinion about the deal. I didn't like that Cleveland parted with both Alex White and Drew Pomeranz, but I understood why the trade was made.
One thing the deal showed immediately was that the Tribe feels its window for contention has arrived. The team likes its young core of players and adding an ace-potential arm like Jimenez solidifies the rotation. Parting ways with two top pitching prospects displayed Cleveland's strong desire to win as soon as possible.
Was Jimenez worth that price? I still think it's too early to tell. White and Pomeranz remain unestablished prospects, and they both had inconsistent results in their first taste of the National League with the Rockies. On top of that, Jimenez remains a sort of enigma after offering mixed results in the second half with the Indians.
The heart of the issue was Jimenez's diminished velocity, and he insisted -- to the team behind the scenes and also to us reporters in the clubhouse -- that the drop in pitch speed had everything to do with early-season injury issues. That said, the problem persisted for most of the year, and Jimenez battled with his command along the way.
It is worth noting that lost velocity is hardly unprecedented among star pitchers.
Consider that Tigers ace Justin Verlander saw his fastball slide to 93.6 mph on average in 2008 (he went 11-17 with a 4.84 ERA as a 25-year-old that season) after he harnessed a 94.8 mph heater the year before (when he went 18-6 with a 3.66 ERA). In the three seasons since then, Verlander has averaged 95+ on his fastball with at least 18 wins each year.
Jimenez, 27, averaged 93.5 mph on his fastball this year (he went 10-13 with a 4.68 ERA between Colorado and Cleveland) after boasting a 96.1 mph heater in each of the past two years (34-20, 3.17 ERA). Still, his fastball was the 10th-fastest in baseball this year and he has led the Majors with an average of 95.2 mph over 2008-11.
Verlander's velocity bounced back and he regained his footing as one of baseball's elite arms. The Indians are holding out hope that Jimenez can do the same. If he does, the one-two punch of Jimenez and Justin Masterson could be one of the best in the game. I think Tribe fans need to wait a little more before calling this trade a bust.
Why do people complain so much about Matt LaPorta? Do they realize he has yet to play over 110 games in a season? I was at the July 30 game where he cranked a walk-off homer (a great birthday present). I've always liked him and I think he just needs to be challenged to become a better hitter. Do you think he can do well next year?
-- Zac T., Dellroy, Ohio
Part of the reason LaPorta hasn't appeared in more games is injury, but another reason is results. I think the explanation for many fans' impatience with LaPorta is the fact that he was the centerpiece to the trade that sent ace lefty CC Sabathia to the Brewers in 2008. LaPorta is a first-round Draft pick who cruised through the Minors.
The expectation was that LaPorta could develop into a right-handed power hitter who would have a home in the heart of the Tribe's lineup. The first baseman has struggled to have his success in the Minor Leagues translate into strong results in the big leagues. He is only 26 years old, but he has not lived up to the hype.
LaPorta might still turn into the slugger Cleveland envisioned he'd become, but he is now in a position where he needs to convince the club to give him a shot. Tribe general manager Chris Antonetti and manager Manny Acta have made it clear that LaPorta will have to earn a spot on the Opening Day roster with a strong Spring Training.
Why do we keep talking about retaining players like Shelley Duncan, Grady Sizemore and Fausto Carmona? I'm tired of hearing what the Indians can't afford. The Tigers are a small-market team, yet they go out and get Miguel Cabrera and Delmon Young. Let's get a big-time hitter in here so the Tribe can turn this thing around.
-- Joseph D., New York
Duncan's name is a hot topic because he shined in a regular role over the season's final month. Sizemore and Carmona are important because their contract situations will have a direct impact on the direction taken by the Indians this winter. As for getting a big-time hitter, Acta has made it clear that he wants "more thunder" in the lineup, and the Tribe will be exploring plenty of options this offseason.
Getting to your mini-rant about the Tigers, it is worth pointing out that Detroit's average payroll has been roughly $122 million over the past four years, during which the team has averaged about 2.6 million annually in attendance. Over that same period, Cleveland has drawn an average of 1.7 fans and has worked with an average payroll of about $67 million. The teams' respective situations are not the same.
If you're going to mention Cabrera and Young, you might as well bring up Jhonny Peralta, Doug Fister and Max Scherzer, too. Those players were reeled in via trades. Cleveland isn't sitting on its hands. The team landed guys like Jimenez, Masterson, LaPorta, Chris Perez, Michael Brantley, Shin-Soo Choo, Asdrubal Cabrera and Carlos Santana that way, and it will continue to look for ways to add core players through trades this winter.
The asking price would be enormous, and he's arbitration-eligible, but wouldn't Mike Napoli be a good fit for the Indians? He's a righty and has power. Best of all, the Tribe could have him split time with Santana behind the plate and at first base. Is this even possible?
-- Federico S., University Heights, Ohio
Moving "The Year of the Napoli" to Cleveland is an interesting concept, but I don't see it being realistic. As you pointed out, the acquisition cost in terms of players would be high, and Cleveland's cupboard is pretty bare after parting ways with White and Pomeranz. Plus, Napoli has attained a kind of cult status in Texas and it is hard to imagine the Rangers trading away one of their 2011 heroes.
I've heard second baseman Jason Kipnis described as a "young Dustin Pedroia". Too soon?
-- Chris K., Perth, West Australia
Yes, too soon. Kipnis has only 150 plate appearances in the big leagues, so let's not go reserving future Most Valuable Player awards for him just yet. It is not too soon, however, to recognize that Kipnis brings an aggressive style of play that had an immediate impact on the Indians. He has shown early flashes that he can be a leader both on the field and inside Cleveland's clubhouse.
Jason Donald deserves the starting third-base job and Lonnie Chisenhall should be his backup for now. Donald is a grinder. This guy thought the starting job was his last year, got hurt, and when he came back there was not even a space for him at Triple-A. No big deal. All he did was claw his way back to the big leagues and hit over .300. Plus, he's right-handed.
-- Jason M., Gainesville, Fla.
Donald's performance -- both on and off the field -- was not lost on the Indians. Chisenhall has not been promised anything for 2012 and Donald showed he can be a solid contributor on a regular basis. Depending on what positions see upgrades this winter, Donald could very well be in the mix at third to start the year. That said, Cleveland also has comfort knowing that Donald could also be a solid utility man off the bench.
The Bullpen Mafia had a strong year overall. Do you see the Tribe picking up another arm to solidify the 'pen?
-- Steve F. Lexington, S.C.
Last offseason, the Indians added veteran Chad Durbin to help strengthen the bullpen. If anything, Cleveland might again look for a veteran arm to help eat some innings in 2012. I wouldn't anticipate the Indians adding a reliever for the sake of adding a reliever, though. The Tribe likes the wealth of relief prospects already in the team's system.
Is Mitch Talbot the odd man out of the Tribe's pitching rotation for 2012?
-- Bob E., Cedar Falls, Ohio
Talbot was outrighted from the 40-man roster last week and is now a Minor League free agent. The chances of him being back with the Indians for 2012 are slim to none. The current rotation options include Masterson, Jimenez, Josh Tomlin, Carmona, David Huff, Jeanmar Gomez and Zach McAllister. Cleveland will also be looking to add an arm or two to the mix this offseason.
Any chance of getting Prince Fielder?
-- Frank L., Mentor, Ohio
I shot down the idea of adding Albert Pujols in last week's Inbox. This week, I'm telling you that Fielder is a pipe dream as well. Next week, I'll inform you that Cleveland will not be signing lefty C.J. Wilson, either.
In closing ...
Maybe as a new twist to Snow Days at Progressive Field this winter, catchers Santana and Lou Marson can team up as Santana Clause and his sidekick elf, who will hand out Marsonmallows. What do you think?
-- Nathan M., Boca Raton, Fla.
I think your idea needs some work. What is more important is focusing on my Ubaldo idea for next season. During home games that he starts, there should be a section where fans can have their heads shaved. Once shorn, they would receive a T-shirt that says, "Ubaldo!"