No Relief Found As Trade Deadline Passes

The much-anticipated arrival in Cleveland of a veteran reliever at the trade deadline failed to materialize. But before you give up hope that the Indians will make the playoffs, you must remember one very important fact. History has shown, according to Indians general manager Mark Shapiro, that only about 5% of players who move just prior to the deadline have a major impact on the pennant race.

For that one-in-20 chance, would you be willing to give up two or three top prospects, including outfielder Ben Francisco? I know I wouldn't, especially for a rent-a-player who will likely be gone by the start of the 2008 season.

Granted, the Tribe's bullpen needs some help. Thus far there have only been three reliable arms . . . setup men Rafael Betancourt and Rafael Perez along with closer Joe Borowski.

There should be help arriving soon if reports on Aaron Fultz are correct. The veteran southpaw has been on the disabled list since late June, but he has been on a rehab assignment and is getting closer to returning -- possibly as soon as Wednesday, when the Indians could designate struggling right-hander Fernando Cabrera for assignment.

Any hope that top prospect Adam Miller might be of assistance either in the bullpen or the starting rotation any time soon grew dim in late July when he was shut down with inflammation in his right elbow. Knowing the way the Tribe treats its young pitchers with kid gloves, I doubt whether he will pitch again this year at Buffalo, much less for the Indians.

Speaking of the rotation, the starters might be an even bigger problem-area for the Tribe than the bullpen.

The sudden downfall of Cliff Lee, combined with Jake Westbrook's erratic performance most of the year and Jeremy Sowers' inability to get anyone out on the major league level has created a major headache for manager Eric Wedge most of the season.

Where is Jeremy Guthrie when you need him? Oh, yeah, he's pitching very well for the Baltimore Orioles.

But the news has brightened a bit in the past week. Sowers has allowed only one earned run over his past two starts at Buffalo, where Lee pitched well in his first start Tuesday since being demoted.

And there are times when Westbrook looks to be regaining his 2006 form.

But the bottom line is that thus far this year Wedge has only been able to rely upon three starters – C.C. Sabathia, Fausto Carmona and Paul Byrd – to display any consistency.

And that's why the bullpen has looked as bad as it has at times this year. If Lee, Westbrook and Sowers had lived up to their potential during the first four months of the season, no one would be concerned about the bullpen. Quality starts eliminate the need for middle and long relievers, probably the two toughest roles for every major league team to fill.

The Indians have quality at the back end of the bullpen. That's why there really was no need to rape the farm system to bring in another relief pitcher.

Later this week, prospect Aaron Laffey, who was lights-out at Buffalo throughout June and is still pitching well, will likely get his first opportunity on the major league level. It'll be interesting to see how the 22-year-old left-hander responds to the pressure of not only the big leagues but also a pennant chase.

Laffey has a "swagger," a tremendous amount of confidence in his ability. The 2003 16th-round draft choice has been an extreme ground ball pitcher throughout his five years in the Tribe's farm system.

He's currently 7-3 with a 3.28 ERA at Buffalo, where he was promoted for the first time a couple of months ago after opening the year at Double-A Akron.

If Laffey should falter, the Indians have another talented young pitcher in Sean Smith, who has also been effective at Buffalo all year. Smith is a 23-year-old right-hander who was picked in the 16th round of 2001 draft as a draft-and-follow player.

He also is in his first year at Triple-A and is 9-7 with a respectable 4.35 ERA.

The Indians would like nothing better than to have Laffey, or Smith, turn out to be this year's version of Sowers. If you recall, Sowers was 7-4 with a 3.57 ERA in 14 starts down the stretch for the Indians in 2006 before being shut down due to the number of innings he had pitched.

Between Sowers last year and Carmona this season, the Indians have received outstanding results from their young pitchers over the past year.

There also could be a little less pressure on the pitching staff if Kenny Lofton puts a spark in the offense. Lofton, back for his third turn with the Tribe, might have arrived at the precise time when the offense needs a boost of energy.

Designated hitter Travis Hafner, despite having his contract situation settled, continues to be inconsistent. That has put much of the offensive burden on Victor Martinez, who remains solid offensively. But it's asking way too much to put the full burden of the offense on your catcher's shoulders, especially at this time of year when the heat definitely takes a toll on catchers.

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