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All Out of Love

W. Ross Clites
Your City Sports-Cleveland

Kent, OHIO--I wanted to break this story yesterday, but the Ohio Bobcats just had to go and steal the headlines. On Thursday, I watched a career end right before my eyes. It was sad that it had to end in Goodyear, Arizona and not in a meaningful Major League game. The worst part is that this player has no clue it is over.

The Cleveland Indians starting rotation is not official as we enter the weekend of first big roster cuts. Yet, one thing is certain. Left-hander Jeremy Sowers will not even be considered for a spot. Jake Westbrook, Fausto Carmona, Justin Masterson, Aaron Laffey, and David Huff look like the five the Tribe will go with. Manager Manny Acta does have some things to ponder. Carlos Carrasco, who made five forgettable starts with the big club last season, is reminding every fan why he was given that opportunity. His 3.86 Spring Training ERA is nearly three times better than it was in the Majors last year.

Many fans would like to see Acta give the fifth spot to Hector Rondon. I hold the same stance on this young ace-in-the-making as I do with top prospect Carlos Santana. The future success of the Indians relies on a healthy battery of Rondon throwing to Santana. Both opened the eyes of scouts in the Cactus League this past month, but their growth could be stunted by being rushed. The two stars have combined for only 12 games played at the AAA level. That is where they will both be seen for a majority of this season. Come back to this topic next March and it will be a different story.

Perhaps the man making the biggest splash is newcomer Mitch Talbot. He has given up one run in 8 innings of spring work. Only time will tell if this is an anomaly or one of the greatest “player to be named later” acquisitions. Talbot, last piece to finalizing the Kelly Shoppach deal, will push Laffey and Huff should either struggle.

Unless the Indians want to pursue a ground-breaking technique of an eight man rotation, I just do not see Jeremy Sowers making this baseball club.

Sowers is out of Minor League options, meaning he cannot wallow around in the Tribe farm system any longer. Management has hinted that he could lock up a bullpen spot if his left shoulder injury is truly healed. I am just not buying it.

If there is a left-handed batter up, runners on second and third with two outs in the seventh inning of a one-run game, the last person I want coming out of that bullpen is Jeremy Sowers. I am sorry, but it is the truth.
First off, starting pitchers are starting pitchers. It takes a mentality and ice water in the veins to be a bullpen guy, especially a left-handed one. You have to come in and be at your best with the very first batter you face. How many starting pitchers put the leadoff hitter on base? It is a failure if a reliever allows such a fate to occur.

Starters take innings to get into a groove, not 7 warm-up pitches. They can also get away with pitching to contact, not having overpowering velocity. It is a pressure-packed environment where relief pitchers operate; sometimes inducing a routine fly-out is viewed as not getting the job done. From a bullpen guy, fans demand strikeouts.

This is not exactly Sowers’ forte; he has only one relief appearance in his career. If you want him in the pen simply for long-reliever situations, it is a waste of a roster spot. Jensen Lewis and even Mitch Talbot could be that guy--at a much higher performance level. Say a starter only lasts 1 1/3 innings; both Lewis and Talbot could bridge the gap to the seventh.

Plus, the Indians already have Tony Sipp and Rafael Perez. That is two more left-handed relievers than the Los Angeles Angels (of Anaheim of California of planet Earth) carried last season. Granted, Perez struggled mightily last season, but it may have actually helped Cleveland long-term. The uncharacteristic off-year by Perez opened the door for Sipp to prove himself. He solidified that bullpen that was a surprising bright spot of a dismal team. Now that “Raffy” seems to have returned to form, that late-game match-up lefty is crossed off Acta’s grocery list.

If the Tribe starters can give a consistent six innings--and the intention is to see Kerry Wood in the ninth--that leaves only the seventh and the eighth to use a lefty. With two established pitchers above him, there is nowhere for Sowers to squeeze in.

This writing is born out of passion, for his game is like me looking in a mirror. I am one part jealous and two parts frustrated that he does not seem to figure it out. He is the hope for all soft-tossing, scrawny left-handed starting pitchers who wear their socks high and hair on the longer side. I see him out on the mound and wish he represented us, as a collective group, better.

To get one last look at him before putting the last nail in the coffin, I tuned into the Thursday Reds vs. Indians Spring Training affair. Sowers was starting, his first time on the mound since a successful shoulder surgery and rehab.

Talk about perfect symmetry; he shared the mound with Homer Bailey of Cincinnati. These two Ohio pitchers have been given way too many opportunities by their front offices. Fans keep making excuses for them, hoping one day something will miraculously click. Neither has lived up to the first-round draft hype that they received. Lucky for Bailey, his fastball does not top out at 86 miles per hour. Ultimately, that is why he is slated for a fourth spot in the Reds rotation and why Sowers will soon not have a home.

You cannot make a Major League living with a belt-high fastball at batting practice speeds. I do not care what hand it comes out of. Watching that game Thursday only confirmed what I have seen out of Sowers for years.
As I flipped back from the end of the Murray State thrilling finish, Reds’ leftfielder Johnny Gomes hit one a country mile to right center. The 1-1 pitch was on the outer half of the plate and elevated. If you are C.C. Sabathia, you can get away with this pitch. If you are Jeremy Sowers, this pitch is in a perfect place for a Major League hitter to extend his hands. He has a 10% career swinging strike percentage (swinging strikes divided by total strikes) meaning players like Johnny Gomes do not come up empty when Sowers makes a mistake.

The top half of that second inning opened with three straight hard-hit balls. The Gomes’ homerun was sandwiched by a Scott Rolen single up the middle and Wladimir Balentien rocket passed Luis Valbuena at second.

I know it was Spring Training and I know it was his first start back from injury. I also am aware that he only gave up two runs. The problem I had was that I saw no growth whatsoever. He has not digressed, but he has definitely hit his ceiling.

For pitchers like Sowers I like to look at the strikeout-to-walk ratio. Knowing that they cannot record many punch-outs, “crafty” lefties need that walk total to be equally as low. Last year, Sowers posted one more walk than strikeout (51/52). A ratio under one is not what any GM is looking for in a Big League pitcher.

Not to hound on his stats, but another alarming number is 1.50--his 2010 WHIP. Most people think this statistic is reserved to fantasy owners and sports nerds. I feel it is very telling. Starting pitchers, as creatures of habit, are heavily affected by pitching from the stretch. Case and point: Mark Buerhle. He is not the greatest pitcher in the modern era, but he does epitomize what momentum can do for a pitcher. If he starts to develop a groove, it becomes like a basketball player that never moves from the same spot on the court. It becomes harder for the opposition to interrupt his quick pace; a skill that has earned him two career no-hitters.

Having to think about a base runner disrupts this flow completely. WHIP measures how many runners a pitcher puts on base each (on average) per inning. By the numbers, Sowers must work from the stretch at least once every inning. Consequently, he has never looked comfortable on the mound.

If you think he has trade value, ask yourself this simple question: would you want a guy with an 18-30 record, 5.18 ERA, 5.6 average innings pitched per game (below average for a starter), and a .283 opponent’s batting average?

The conclusion of this piece
is filled with sorrow. I feel for him. He is 26 years-old and his Major League baseball career is probably over. I do hope he lands on his feet; it just will not be with my team.

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