Sunday, May 04, 2014

Lazy Sunday Down in the Minors

Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
I haven’t been able to crank out a Lazy one the past two weeks, as Easter and my wife’s birthday conspired to make things even crazier than usual around the house. Hopefully I’ll make it up to you this week, as I’m unveiling just shy of 5,000 words on the Indians minor league system and how the performances of some of the prospects in the organization stack up after the first month of the season. The below stats are only through April 30, so they won’t include Francisco Lindor’s home run from Friday, or Clint Frazier’s walk-off single. Hopefully you enjoy the in-depth look at the org, as I’ve been able to see both Carolina and Akron several times this season already, and I’ve seen a lot of interesting stuff from players at both of those levels. The Columbus and Lake County info will be primarily statistics based, but I’ll be incorporating the views of some trusted friends and colleagues who’ve gotten first-hand looks at the AAA and low-A affiliates. So without further ado, let’s get at it here on the first Lazy Sunday in the month of May.
  • Akron RubberDucks catcher Tony Wolters is hitting .286/.329/.325 with 3 2B and 6 RBI in 21 AA games. That Wolters has 22 hits in the month of April is especially encouraging, because he had just 16 hits in 28 April games in the 2012/13 seasons. The 21-year old is young for the level and still learning a new defensive position, which happens to be the most physically and mentally demanding position on the field. Wolters could hit .100 for the season with no HR and still have a productive developmental season. He’s improving every day with the glove, and talent evaluators outside the Indians organization feel confident that he can play the position at the major league level someday. Watching him catch makes you wonder if he was secretly playing the position during the offseason prior to 2013. His hands are strong, he’s already a good receiver of the baseball and he’s improving his blocking on pitches in the dirt. He’s thrown out 6 of 13 would-be basestealers (46% CS rate!) this year. Oh, and he’s still got the ability to do this if he’s called upon to play 2B (two appearances at 2B this season). Wolters has long been one of my personal favorites in the organization, and he’s got the attention of plenty of people around baseball right now as a future major league backstop.
  • Outfielder Bryson Myles is another who’s off to a solid start this season. Myles is hitting .292/.350/.444 with a HR, 4 2B, 2 3B and 6 RBI. He’s swiped three bases while also being caught three times, and provides above-average defense in LF for the RubberDucks. Myles is a career .291/.363/.405 hitter in 265 minor league games, and it’s good to see him maintaining his production despite the jump to AA this season.
  • Clippers catcher Roberto Perez has been playing out of his mind this season. Coming into 2014, Perez was a career .227/.359/.326 hitter with 14 HR in 461 minor league games. He was always an elite defender behind the plate, but struggled to do much on the offensive side of the game. It’s a small sample size, but in the season’s first month he’s broken out to a .409/.519/.727 line with 4 HR and 12 RBI. He’s walked 10 times and struck out 8 in 16 games with Columbus. It’s a remarkable line, and unprecedented in Perez’s career. He appeared in 67 games with Columbus last year, and hit just .176/.269/.241 with no homers. It was revealed earlier this week that Perez played the 2013 season while suffering from Bell’s palsy, which partially paralyzed the left side of his face (to include his left eye). As a right-handed hitter, Perez’s left eye is his lead eye, and problems with that eye would have to make it especially difficult to hit. It’s a great story, and it’s fantastic to see Perez finding success with his offensive game commensurate with his fantastic defense. If Perez can be even a competent hitter, then he could have a very long and productive major league career.
Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
  • Carolina Mudcats shortstop Erik Gonzalez has always been a solid defender, but he’s been making an impact with the bat this season as well. Gonzalez is hitting .341/.368/.495 with a HR, 5 2B, 3 3B and 11 RBI. Gonzalez is a big, athletic kid who has a very projectable frame. He should add strength as he fills out, and has the potential to be an impact player in the middle of the diamond. Gonzalez used to have a big, high leg lift that created timing issues, as he was often out on his front foot on off-speed pitches and had some trouble timing up his hands and his left leg. When I saw him in early April, the high leg lift was still there. But when I saw him last weekend in Frederick, it was much lower and less pronounced. His hands were quieter prior to loading and his timing looked much better as a result. If Gonzalez can stick with and refine these mechanical adjustments to his swing, he could be a top-10 prospect in the Indians organization this coming offseason.
  • Southpaw starter T.J. House started four games for the Clippers in April, and finished the month with a miniscule 1.59 ERA in 22 2/3 IP. House allowed 3 ER in his first start of the season, and has given up just 1 ER in his last three outings. He’s struck out 16 and walked just 5. He’s never been and will never be a guy who misses a ton of bats, but he does a nice job commanding the ball within the strike zone and keeps the ball on the ground and in the ballpark. House still projects best as a back-end starter, but can be an effective innings-eater in a major league rotation.
  • Jordan Cooper is pitching out of the Akron bullpen to start off the season after shoulder surgery this winter, and has a 2-0 record with a 3.00 ERA in 12 AA IP. He’s struck out 11 and walked just 3 so far, and looks like he’s stretching back out to move back into the starting rotation. Cooper’s last outing was on April 29, where he went 3 innings while allowing just one baserunner and striking out a pair.
  • I tried and failed to upload video straight to the site here, so to get a look at catching prospect Francisco Mejia you’ll have to hop over to youtube. Here’s video that I shot of Mejia collecting three hits in Goodyear, and here’s a slow-motion video of Mejia singling up the middle so you can get a good look at his swing mechanics. Mejia is a fun guy to dream on, and I can’t wait until the 18-year old catcher is assigned to one of the Indians affiliates so more fans can get a look at him. For now, he’s toiling away in extended spring training and will likely get another year in the complex leagues when those games start up in late-June.
  • Akron reliever Kyle Crockett is picking up right where he left off last season, opening 2014 with 9 1/3 scoreless innings pitched out of the RubberDuck bullpen. Crockett has allowed just four base runners this year (3 hits and one walk) while striking out 9. The lefty now has a career ERA of 0.26 in 34 professional innings pitched, and could find himself in Cleveland as soon as this season if the need arises. He’s not a hard thrower, working more off of a deceptive motion and pinpoint control.
  • After 18 games in AA to close out the 2013 season, CF Tyler Naquin is back in Akron this year. He’s hitting .267/.344/.384 with 4 2B and 3 3B this year, stealing 5 bases in 7 attempts. Naquin is struggling against same-side pitchers, hitting a robust .321/.400/.491 against righties but just .182/.250/.212 against lefties. I got to see Naquin’s best tool play in a game against Bowie a couple of weeks ago, as he preserved an Akron victory with a walk-off outfield assist in the bottom of the 9th inning. There were runners on 1st and 2nd with 2 outs in the 9th with Akron clinging to a one-run lead, and a Bowie hitter sent a grounder back up the middle and into CF. With any other player in CF, the game would be tied. Naquin charged the soft grounder, had a little trouble getting a handle on the ball but still managed to throw a perfect, one-hop strike to catcher Tony Wolters to send Akron home with a win. It was an incredible play, and a great opportunity to see just how much of an impact Naquin can make in the field.
Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
  • Another RubberDuck who’s been opening eyes around baseball with his play this year is 3B Gio Urshela. Urshela is hitting .302/.344/.570 with 5 HR (tied for 4th in the Eastern League), 8 doubles and 19 RBI (tied for 3rd in the EL). Urshela put up a .676 OPS in 116 AA games last season, so his .914 mark this year is a huge leap and probably not sustainable for a full season. But he’s added strength to his frame over the offseason, and is really showing an improvement in his ability to drive balls to the opposite field. He’s still a potential Gold Glove defender at 3B, so an improvement with the bat would really make him a serious prospect. In the same game that Naquin made the play I described above, Urshela turned in a highlight-level defensive play of his own. He went deep behind the 3B bag to backhand a ball and then made a strong throw across the diamond while still running away from 1B. It looked almost like Manny Machado’s web gem from last July, showing both Urshela’s incredible range and arm strength. He’s definitely a guy to keep an eye on as the season progresses.
  • Venezuelan-born 1B Jesus Aguilar is feasting on the offense-friendly environment of Clippers Huntington Park this year. Aguilar is hitting .356/.440/.667 with 7 HR, 6 2B and 16 RBI. The 7 HR are good for 2nd in the International League. The line may prove to be a little deceiving though, as Aguilar has a 1.320 OPS and 6 HR in 14 home games and just a .795 OPS and 1 HR in 10 games on the road. Some fans are clamoring for Aguilar’s promotion as a shot in the arm for a struggling Indians offense, but I still think he’ll struggle against big-league breaking balls.
  • Right-handed reliever Shawn Armstrong had a rocky 2013 season, dealing with an arm injury that limited him to 37 IP (4.14 ERA) between AA Akron and the complex leagues. Armstrong has shown no lingering effects from the arm issue so far in 2014, as he’s allowed just one earned run in 9 1/3 IP, striking out 14 and walking just 3. Armstrong has been a lights-out reliever when healthy, striking out 142 batters in 116 career IP. He’s a future late-inning arm in the Indians bullpen, and like his teammate Kyle Crockett, could be there as soon as this season if the need arises.
  • Righty Cody Anderson is the RubberDucks top SP prospect, and has been a little hot and cold this year. In his three good starts, Anderson has gone a combined 14 IP while allowing just 2 ER. In his two bad starts, Anderson has been roughed up for 8 ER in 11 IP. His strikeout rate is lower than you’d like to see, with just 13 K in 25 IP overall this season. He’s walked 9 and allowed 26 hits, and as of right now looks more like a future back-end starter than a future #3.
Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
  • Lindor Watch continues. The Indians top prospect is hitting .281/.354/.416 with 2 HR, 2 2B, 2 3B and 13 RBI in 23 games with the RubberDucks. He’s stolen 5 bases in 7 attempts, and continues to play elite defense at the SS position. Asdrubal Cabrera has been struggling at the plate and in the field, and some fans have been clamoring for the Indians to replace him with Lindor. I don’t see that happening anytime soon. It’d be unfair to Lindor to put him in that role at this stage of his development, as asking a 20-year old prospect with no experience above AA to step in and be the savior for a major league team simply isn’t realistic. Indians fans have to be patient with the major league club and with their farmhands, as we’re just one month into a 162-game season. Lindor has the total package, and could be a very, very good major league shortstop for a long time. But that time isn’t quite upon us, not just yet anyway.
  • Last year’s 1st round draft pick, outfielder Clint Frazier suffered a minor hamstring injury in spring training, causing the Indians to slow-roll their multi-million dollar investment and hold him in extended spring training for a little while. Frazier only appeared in 13 games for Lake County in April, hitting .224/.339/.327 with a double, two triples and 3 RBI. He did hit his first full-season league HR on May 1, a 2-run shot to tie the game in the bottom of the 8th inning. Frazier is a prodigious talent with elite bat speed, and it’s only a matter of time before he starts hitting the ball out of the ballpark with regularity. The Georgia native has never played in NE Ohio weather conditions before, and I have to think that he’ll start to warm up with the weather here in May/June.
  • Catcher Alex Lavisky has played only sparingly as the backup to Tony Wolters in Akron, but he’s been hitting the ball when he has been in the lineup. Lavisky has just 22 AB, but he’s hitting .318/.348/.636 with 2 HR and 5 RBI in that limited action. Lavisky is a big, strong kid who still has the potential to be a solid catcher both at and behind the plate.
  • Mudcats left-handed starter Shawn Morimando has been dominant in the early going this season, posting a 1.88 ERA and a 3-0 record in his 5 Carolina League starts. Morimando is just 21 years old, and although he’s repeating the Carolina League this year he’s still age-appropriate for the level. He struggled somewhat with his command last year, walking 76 hitters in 135 innings. I talked to Morimando in Frederick last week, and he said that controlling his walks was his main goal for 2014. That goal is going well so far, as Morimando has walked just 5 in 28 2/3 IP this season. The low walk rate has helped keep his WHIP under 1, and the former 19th round draft pick is looking like a late-round find for the Indians.
  • Although C.C. Lee got the first call to Cleveland when the big club needed a bullpen arm, I still think that flame throwing right-hander Austin Adams is the organization’s top relief prospect. A former shortstop in college, Adams is an outstanding athlete who touches triple digits with his 80-grade fastball and flashes a plus slider and curve as well. He hasn’t been as untouchable as usual so far this year, allowing 7 ER in 11 2/3 IP for the Clippers. But 6 of those 7 ER came in two outings, and he’s given up just 1 ER in the other 9 1/3 innings of work. You obviously can’t pick and choose which innings to keep and which to throw out, but I am pretty sure Adams won’t have an ERA over 5 for much longer. He’s a potential late-inning bullpen arm that is ready for major league action as soon as the Indians need another reliever.
  • Another of my personal favorites in the organization, Captains catcher Eric Haase started off the season on fire, but slumped in the 2nd half of April to finish the month with a .217/.341/.507 slash line in 19 games. As you’d guess from the SLG, Haase does lead the team (and the entire Midwest League) in HR with 5 to go along with 5 2B. But he also has just 5 singles on the season, hence the relatively low batting average. Haase has an intriguing blend of tools on both the offensive and defensive side of the game, but his hit tool is going to have to improve if he’s going to catch at the major league level.
Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
  • The Mudcats (and by extension the Indians) got a tough break, literally, when starting pitcher Dylan Baker went down with a broken fibula. Baker dealt with a nagging oblique issue in spring training, and when he was on the mound towards the end of spring he was hit in the leg by a line drive. He felt good enough to pitch, and threw 6 perfect innings in his Carolina League debut in Frederick. I was at that start, and Baker was dominant, working in the high-90’s with his fastball and flashing a plus curveball and slider. Prior to his next start though, Baker was hopping over the baseline as he always does and snapped his fibula. Baker is in extended spring training right now rehabbing the injury, and will probably not pitch again during the 2014 regular season. A really, really tough break for a talented kid and a guy who was really looking like he’d play a big role in the Indians farm system this year.
  • Versatile infielder Jose Ramirez came into 2014 with 7 career HR in 231 minor league games. He’s already hit 4 in 23 games this season, to go along with an impressive .319/.365/.484 slash line. Ramirez profiles best as a utility infielder. He can spot start anywhere on the infield, but his best defensive position is 2B. That just happens to match up with a hole that the Indians suddenly have thanks to an injury to Jason Kipnis. The Indians already have a versatile utility guy in Mike Aviles, but Ramirez can come up to help split time at 2B as well as pinch run and fill in with the occasional spot start at 3B or SS.
  • Reaching all the way down to extended spring training, Indians 2012 3rd round draft pick Kieran Lovegrove was expected to begin this season with low-A Lake County. But the 19-year old had a bout of self-described “Ankiel-itis” in spring training this year, losing complete command of his fastball midway through camp in Goodyear. Lovegrove was able to throw his changeup and slider for strikes, but couldn’t get his fastball over the plate no matter what. It was more of a mental problem than physical, as Lovegrove was healthy and still throwing in the 94-97 MPH range. Lovegrove had to stick around in Arizona for extended spring training, but has worked through the issue with his fastball and has appeared in three games in Goodyear without seeing the problem re-appear. It’s just a matter of time before the 19-year old gets assigned to a full-season league now that he’s back on track. With a fastball that sits comfortably in the mid-90’s, a wipeout slider and a solid changeup, he’s got a chance to be one of the top SP prospects in the organization.
  • Captains 1B Nellie Rodriguez has as much raw power as anyone in the Indians system, despite not turning 20 until mid-June. Rodriguez is 2nd on the team (and the Midwest League) with 4 bombs this year, and hit .225/.337/.413 in 24 April contests. Rodriguez still needs to improve his pitch recognition/selection and hit tool, but his profile at a corner IF spot is tantalizing for an organization that’s short on big power guys. He’s struck out 29 times and walked 14 this season, continuing a trend of a 2/1 K/BB ratio throughout his career. The Midwest league can be tough on hitters, but the Indians are going to be patient with the slugging young 1B and are likely to give him a full season in low-A this year no matter what the end result looks like.
  • I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the performance that Trevor Bauer has turned in this season, winning 3 of his 4 AAA starts and posting a 1.40 ERA for the Clip Show. Separate from his very good MLB spot start, Bauer has 28 K in 25 2/3 innings, and most importantly has walked just 7 hitters. I’ve written pretty extensively about Bauer already this season, so I’m not going to rehash it here. Suffice to say I expect that Bauer will be the one getting the call to replace Carlos Carrasco in the rotation, and hopefully the mechanical adjustments he’s made will stay consistent and effective over a larger sample size at the major league level this season.
  • The other pitcher competing to replace the ineffective Carrasco had a pretty good month of April himself, as the Little Cowboy Josh Tomlin went 1-1 for the Clippers with a 2.77 ERA in 26 IP. Tomlin struck out 18 and walked an uncharacteristic 9 hitters, but didn’t issue a free pass in 8 innings of work during his April 25 start against Gwinnett. Tomlin was certainly shaking some rust off after not pitching at all in 2013, and looks like he’s back to his old strike-throwing self. I still think Bauer offers more ultimate upside as a member of the rotation, but Tomlin has the ability to give this team effective innings in 2014 and beyond as well. 
Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
  • Former UCLA Bruin Adam Plutko is doing something in the pros that he really didn’t do in college; strike out a ton of batters. Plutko was the Indians 11th round pick in the 2013 draft, and he struck out 81 hitters in 124 innings of work his final year at UCLA. He’s managed to rack up 31 K in just 22 1/3 innings for Lake County, taking advantage of the over-aggressiveness of low-A batters with his advanced feel for pitching. Plutko doesn’t have front of the rotation stuff, but he’s a very intelligent pitcher with excellent command and mound presence. He’s an intense competitor and is going to be a guy who always gets the most out of his stuff. He’s going to run into much tougher challenges on his way up the organizational ladder, and a pitcher with his experience should really be in high-A sooner rather than later.
  • Judging solely by ERA, lefty starter Ryan Merritt was the best starting pitcher in the Carolina League during the month of April. Merritt went 3-0 for the Mudcats, allowing just a single earned run in 24 1/3 IP. He doesn’t have dominating stuff, getting it done more with command and control that an overpowering fastball, but a 0.37 ERA is a 0.37 ERA. Opposing batters hit just .165 off of him, and he struck out 18 and walked just 6. He put up a 3.42 ERA for the Captains last year, and is looking like he’s on track for an even better year in Carolina this season.
  • After setting the AZL on fire to the tune of a 1.015 OPS in 2012, SS Dorssys Paulino has struggled in the Midwest League the past two seasons. Paulino hit just .246/.297/.349 in 120 games for the Captains last year, and went for a .221/.275/.305 slash line in April of 2014. It’s actually an improvement for Paulino over last April when he hit just .208/.288/.208 during the first month of the season for Lake County. Paulino is another player who is much more used to playing in warm weather, having grown up in the Dominican Republic. The Midwest League in April cannot be fun for him, and hopefully he can pick up his production as the weather warms up. Paulino posted a .716 OPS in August of last season, and especially seeing as he’s repeating the level, I’d expect to see a similar uptick in production as the season wears on.
  • I didn’t know a whole lot about 3B Grant Fink before seeing him in Arizona this year, but came away impressed. He made several athletic defensive plays at 3B, flashed a strong throwing arm and demonstrated a solid approach at the plate. Fink led the Captains in batting during the month of April, slashing .280/.379/.378 with a HR, 5 2B and 11 RBI. The Indians 23rd round pick in the 2013 draft, Fink is an athletic kid that can play a very good 3B or 1B. He’s a little old for the level as a 23-year old in low-A, and is the type of player that flies under the radar and sneaks up on prospect aficionados two or three years into his career. Fink is definitely a guy that I’m keeping my eye on, and it’ll be interesting to see if he can cut down on his strikeout rate (38 in 24 games) enough to become a legitimate major league prospect.
  • Imposing 6’6” RHP D.J. Brown opened the 2014 season in the Mudcats bullpen, but moved into the starting rotation on April 13. He’s made three starts, and has a 2-0 record with a 1.89 ERA in 19 total innings this season. Brown has 13 K and just 2 BB, and the James Madison graduate has been a mainstay in a Mudcats staff that’s been the best in the Carolina League so far this season (2.78 team ERA).

That’s it for this week, as our whirlwind tour of the organization is complete (for now). Status for next week’s Lazy Sunday is currently at doubtful, as I’m flying to The Netherlands today and then Sweden on Wednesday for a work trip and won’t return until Sunday. Hopefully MLB TV works on the iPad even when I’m in Europe.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Lazy Sunday Looking at Young Pitching

Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
Another week is in the books, and the Indians starting rotation continues to remind us of Jeckyll and Hyde. Sometimes we see the dichotomy not just from game to game or inning to inning, but from at-bat to at-bat. I’ll get into Danny Salazar’s historically odd start much more later on, but the offense is not blameless in the Tribe’s less than optimal start to the season. The Indians have grounded into 11 double plays as of Saturday, 3rd highest in the league. Santana (4) and Brantley (3) are responsible for over half of those between the two of them, and while I don’t think that’ll necessarily continue for the entire season, it’s been really frustrating to watch here in the early going. Regardless of how good or bad the team is playing right now though, take a deep breath and realize that we are now just 7% of the way through a very long baseball season. There is a lot of baseball to be played, and I think the Indians are going to be in contention and playing interesting baseball throughout the season. So let’s get at it on a busy Lazy Sunday with all the news that’s fit to link…

Former minor league pitching coach Doug Thorburn knows more about pitching mechanics and instruction than anyone reading this right now, unless Mickey Callaway is a secret Lazy Sunday fan. He writes for Baseball Prospectus, and I’ve featured his stuff a number of times in the past and will continue to do so because he is so much better at breaking down mechanics and predicting whether a change is legitimate and repeatable than anyone else out there right now.  As you’ll no doubt notice this week and throughout my time here at The DiaTribe, I lean pretty heavily on the Baseball Prospectus guys for insight and analysis. They don’t pay me for promoting their stuff, and I don’t get a free subscription or anything, I just find that they’ve assembled a fantastic staff of major and minor league writers who provide a service that no other baseball site can replicate. It’s $40 to subscribe to them for a full year, and if the price was $100 I’d probably still pay it (but don’t tell them that.) I’m not here to tell you how to spend your money, but if you’re on the fence about subscribing, you can do a 1-month subscription for just $5. Give them a try, and I think you’ll be pleased with what you read.

Back to Thorburn and his “Raising Aces” series though; Thorburn was nice enough to take a look at Trevor Bauer’s mechanics this week, specifically comparing them to prior analysis from a November 2012 start. Thorburn loves breaking down Bauer’s mechanics, and is a believer that the talented young righty can get it together and succeed at the major league level. Bauer of course started in game 2 of the doubleheader against the Padres this past Wednesday, going 6 innings and allowing 2 runs (1 ER) on 4 hits and 2 walks, striking out 8 and hitting a batter. It was an impressive result, but one had to question the legitimacy of the numbers. It was against the light-hitting Padres after all, and Bauer had teased us with glimpses of excellence in the past only to regress to a mechanical mess in his next start. Would the scouting reports agree with the stat line? Was Bauer really making strides towards becoming a legitimate major league option? Thanks to Pitchf/x and Thorburn, we have some pretty encouraging signs that yes, this was a legitimate step forward for Bauer and not just a one-start aberration. First, let’s look at Thorburn’s mechanical grades from Wednesday’s start in juxtaposition with his November 2012 report card. Again, this is Doug Thorburn’s report card, not mine:
Nov 2012
April 9, 2014
Release Distance

Bauer’s overall mechanics gained a full letter grade, and he made strides or held his ground in every category but momentum. Keep in mind that this is on the 20-80 scouting scale, where 80 would be Hall of Fame level, and 50 is considered average. Nowhere on Thorburn’s card did Bauer grade any lower than average. If you click on the link (which you should’ve done already), Thorburn provides GIFs illustrating the change in Bauer’s mechanics from the 2012 version to today’s. He breaks down the changes in very clear terms, illustrating how this could be the Trevor Bauer we’ve all been waiting for since he was acquired in the Choo trade with Arizona. Thorburn’s bottom line:

He is a student of the game who studies biomechanics and utilizes strategic methods to get an edge on the competition, but his adjustments have often overcomplicated his task and deterred Bauer from the critical component of locating pitches. He made some notable adjustments again this past offseason, and the early returns suggest that he may have found the mechanical key to unlock his ceiling.
Going a step further, the Pitchf/x data available on the also-excellent shows us how much better Bauer’s stuff was Wednesday than in 2013. Bauer threw 62 fastballs, averaging 94.8 MPH and topping out at 97 MPH. While he was in the majors last year, Bauer’s fastball around 93 MPH and rarely topped 95 MPH. That 2 MPH can make a difference, especially when contrasted with his mid-70’s curveball. Brooks Baseball also shows us an interesting change from last year to this year. First, take a look at this chart showing Bauer’s release points from a 2013 start:

Then, here’s the same chart for Wednesday’s start:

Why are the 2013 release points so much more varied? Bauer used to change the side of the rubber he was pitching from based on the hitter. He’d slide from the extreme right side of the rubber to the extreme left. That’s a change he’s eliminated in 2014, something that might be responsible for the greater consistency in his delivery. Bauer has always been a tinkerer, changing his approach from start to start and even inning to inning. The fact that he “only” threw four different pitches last start (no reverse sliders) and is cutting back on the purposeful variance in his delivery are signs that he’s simplifying his approach to pitching and letting his tremendous stuff do the work.

During Bauer’s start, he was victimized by MLB’s silly tinkering with the rulebook in conjunction with replay this year. I won’t belabor this because it happened a few days ago and I’m sure everyone has seen the play by now, but if you haven’t seen it you can check out Jason Collette’s site where he put up a couple of interesting videos, including the Elliot Johnson “non-catch” from Wednesday. Collette is also confused over the new rule, although by the letter of the law (that was clarified on Tuesday, the day before the controversial play) it does appear that the umpires and video replay crew in NY interpreted it correctly. A “catch” used to be pretty simple, and I’ll quote here directly from the MLB rule book:

A CATCH is the act of a fielder in getting secure possession in his hand or glove of a ball in flight and firmly holding it; providing he does not use his cap, protector, pocket or any other part of his uniform in getting possession. It is not a catch, however, if simultaneously or immediately following his contact with the ball, he collides with a player, or with a wall, or if he falls down, and as a result of such collision or falling, drops the ball. It is not a catch if a fielder touches a fly ball which then hits a member of the offensive team or an umpire and then is caught by another defensive player. If the fielder has made the catch and drops the ball while in the act of making a throw following the catch, the ball shall be adjudged to have been caught. In establishing the validity of the catch, the fielder shall hold the ball long enough to prove that he has complete control of the ball and that his release of the ball is voluntary and intentional.
In my mind, Johnson established secure possession and dropped the ball while in the act of making the throw. He held the ball long enough with complete control, taking several steps after catching the ball and running into the wall. But again, just the day before the play, MLB put out new guidance surrounding what is/isn’t a catch. Jordan Bastian digs into it for us here:

…umpires and/or replay officials must consider whether the fielder had secured possession of the ball but dropped it during the act of the catch. An example of a catch that would not count is if a fielder loses possession of the ball during the transfer before the ball was secured by his throwing hand.
Johnson clearly lost control of the ball before securing it in his throwing hand. So by the letter of the law, that’s not a catch. The issue here isn’t with the umpires on the field or the replay officials, but with the insane caveat that a player needs to secure the ball in his throwing hand before the umpire can deem it “caught.” By the letter of the law, an OF could secure the ball in his glove for ostensibly the 3rd out of the inning, jog into the dugout before transferring it into his throwing hand and have taken the ball out of play, awarding all baserunners two free bases. That’s probably never going to be called, but I’m mystified as to why MLB feels the need to constantly shake things up seemingly for the sake of confusion. New replay rules and new catcher collision regulations (which I still hate) weren’t enough; let’s change a rule that has existed since players started wearing gloves in the late 1800’s. I’m going to move on now because I’m getting angry even as I sit here and relive the play, which of course proved to be extremely significant in the Indians 2-1 loss. Suffice to say that while I think replay in general is a good thing for baseball (getting the call right is always the end goal), this tinkering and resulting confusion on the field is an unfortunate and unnecessary byproduct.

Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
Danny Salazar started his second game of the season on Thursday night, and he produced one of the most unique stat lines I’ve ever seen from a pitcher, and it gets weirder and weirder the deeper you look at it. On the surface, it’s strange enough; L, 3 2/3 IP, 6 H, 5 ER, 2 BB, 10 K. Recording 10 strikeouts in fewer than 4 IP is something that’s been done exactly one time since 1900, so that’s remarkable in and of itself. But Salazar didn’t record a single traditional out; every batter either struck out, walked or got a hit. The only out recorded other than a strikeout was when Adam Eaton was struck out trying to stretch a single into a double. So Salazar’s BABIP (Batting Average on Balls in Play) allowed was a “perfect” 1.000. He was somehow both extremely hittable and utterly unhittable at the same time. He gave up two HR and a double on the only three balls that the White Sox put in the air against him, for a 66.7% HR/FB rate. He’s ERA for the game was 9.82, but his xFIP (expected fielding independent pitching, see here for full explanation as to how it is calculated) was 0.48. These stats come from far too small of a sample size to be significant, I’m just bringing them up because it helps illustrate just how strange the outing really was.

It’s easy to see where Salazar got into trouble against the White Sox. Looking at this strikezone plot from innings two through four on Thursday, all of the hits allowed by Salazar except one were pitches left in the middle of the plate and from the mid-thigh to the beltline of the hitter. The lone hit from outside of the strikezone came on a single that Adrian Nieto reached out and slapped through the right side for a seeing-eye single. The double and home runs (indicated by the orange and pink squares on the plot below) were all right down the heart of the plate:

That’s a recipe for disaster, even with stuff as electric as Salazar’s. He threw a couple of quality sliders and splitters, but also left a couple of spinners and hangers up in the zone that got hammered. Those mistake pitches aren’t always going to leave the yard, and sometimes there’s going to be a laser hit right at someone. That didn’t happen on Thursday, so Salazar ended up getting chased after 3 2/3’s. The good news is that Salazar has excellent stuff and can strike out 10+ on any given night. The bad news is that if he continues to locate his pitches in this manner, he’s going to continue to give up way too many HR to be an effective starting pitcher. Salazar is always going to be a guy with a higher than normal pitch count. It takes a lot of pitches to strike guys out, and adding questionable command and several walks to that equation is only going to hurt that much more. It’s way too early to panic about a guy with Salazar’s talent, as evidenced by the 10 K on Thursday. It’s also way too early to pencil him into the #2 spot of the rotation moving forward, as evidenced by the walks and 5 ER on Thursday. Salazar starts are required viewing for me (they were anyway), and it’ll be interesting to see how he responds the next time on the mound. There are adjustments to be made, and I have a feeling that Salazar and Mickey Callaway will be spending plenty of time together prior to his next start in Detroit on Wednesday.

Baseball Prospectus does a “prospect 10-pack” at the beginning of each week. During the season, the 10-pack generally features players who are performing at a high level, but will occasionally look at a highly regarded guy who is struggling. Sometimes the 10-pack has a specific theme, and this is one of those weeks. The BP prospect staff took a look at the players they are most excited to scout this season, and Nick Faleris chose to focus on none other than the Indians 2013 1st round draft pick, Clint Frazier:

Frazier is on the short list of my favorite amateur players ever scouted, with perhaps the most beautifully violent swing this side of Javier Baez. Over the years he’s shown me a little bit of everything. I’ve seen him run a sub-6.5 sixty and 4.2 home-to-first from the right side. I’ve seen plus-plus arm strength from the outfield (albeit prior to some elbow issues that stuck with him through his senior year at Loganville and first professional summer). I’ve seen him consistently square up the best of his contemporaries through the high school showcase circuit, and I saw him hit 22-plus home runs during a BP session prior to a high school game. Later that evening I saw him hit a ball so far that the second baseman congratulated him as he rounded the bases. Then he homered again. He’s set to ship to the Midwest League early this summer -- how could I not be excited to see what he has in store for me next?
So…yeah. Frazier was one of the only players I didn’t get to see in action this spring, as he was dealing with a minor hamstring issue in Goodyear and the Indians were playing it safe with their million dollar bonus baby. He was walking around the fields, coaching 1B during intersquad games, receiving instruction from coaches on situational stuff and doing some light running on the training fields. I went down there to see him hit though, so needless to say I was a little disappointed in his non-participating status. But he’ll be in Lake County before too long (likely after it warms up a little), and it’ll be interesting to see how he handles the pitcher-friendly Midwest League. He’s got a violent swing and an ultra-aggressive approach, so there’s a chance that professional pitching could exploit that early on and he’ll have to make some adjustments. He’s immensely talented and could move quickly, but he needs to learn how to be a professional baseball player, not just a really good baseball player.

Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
Lindor watch takes a special focus this week, as national prospect guru Jason Parks polled baseball insiders and his own Baseball Prospectus prospect team to see which top prospect shortstop they would choose to build their team around. Chicago Cubs prospect Javier Baez has been lighting the minor leagues on fire, hitting 20 HR in just 54 AA games last season. The Astros took prep SS Carlos Correa with the first overall pick in the 2012 MLB draft, and he’s been drawing rave reviews since his debut that year. Oakland prospect Addison Russell is a consensus top-15 prospect in the game and considered a potential force on both sides of the ball. I expected Baez to be the runaway winner of this survey, with Correa coming in second because of his offensive potential and Lindor and Russell to come in 3rd and 4th in some order. Boy was I wrong.

Lindor collected six of the ten industry votes to easily carry that poll. He also scored seven of the fourteen BP votes, to finish with 13 of the 24 possible votes. No other SS tallied more than 5 (Baez). I was both a little surprised and extremely excited after reading the article, as all of those that preferred Lindor talked about his superior defense and makeup, and his underrated potential with the bat as well. All agreed that he has the highest floor of any SS prospect in the minors, and has the defensive chops to succeed at the position at the highest level of the game. As Parks himself says about his choice of Lindor:

While I can’t speak for those who cast votes for Lindor over Baez, I can echo the preference and explain my own choice, even if it comes off a bit skewed. I think Javier Baez is the superior prospect, a player who has dazzled me with his bat speed since he signed, and pushed me to the point of Baezmania this spring with his offensive firestorm. But to the specific question being asked, as much as I love Baez and his pornographic offensive potential, the player I would look to build a franchise around is Francisco Lindor, mostly for the reasons that were so aptly articulated by Nick Faleris and Chris Mellen. Give me the guy I can pencil in at shortstop for the next decade who brings near-elite defensive skills to the position, in addition to a switch-hitting profile at the plate with on-base potential and gap power.
As for the industry vote--even though it’s just a small sample of front office opinion—it does speak to the value baseball attaches to premium defenders at premium spots, as well as the intangibles qualities that are sought in a franchise face. While not always documented in specific detail, several of the debates and discussions with industry personnel and prospect team staff centered around the safety and security of Lindor’s profile as compared to the volatility and uncertainty of Baez’s—both in terms of baseball skill and makeup—even though it was universally acknowledged that Baez held the highest ceiling and most impact potential should he maximize his physical tools. Baez has the most “come back to bite you on the ass potential” of anybody in the minors, but when it comes down to it, the majority of people were willing to accept that possibility in favor of a more stable player, despite the lower ceiling.
With the possible exception of catcher, shortstop is the most important defensive position on the field. A spectacular defensive shortstop can offset a lot of offensive deficiencies, something Indians fans should know better than most after having watched Omar Vizquel at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario for so long. Lindor is projected to offer more value with the glove than with the bat, but the bat isn’t going to be lifeless. He’s a switch hitter with a solid approach and a good command of the strike zone, and is filling out to the point where he could have slightly below average power. That’s an incredible prospect, one that I can’t wait to see in an Indians uniform. Oh, and he hit a walk-off HR in the 13th inning of Friday night’s game, giving him as many HR in 2014 (2) as he hit in all of 2013. I’m going to get to see Lindor in a few days when the RubberDucks travel to Bowie to take on the Baysox, and although I’ve watched him play over a dozen times already, I can’t wait to see what he has in store for me this time out.

Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
Speaking of minor league performances, I was in Frederick, MD this week to see the Carolina Mudcats, and was able to see Dylan Baker make the first A+ start of his career. All Baker did was set down all 18 hitters he faced, hurling 6 perfect innings to earn the victory. Baker’s fastball sat in the 94-96 MPH range with some nice arm-side run, and he flashed a plus curveball and slider as well. He did a really nice job commanding his fastball in the strike zone, getting ahead of hitters all night and inducing weak contact with his offspeed stuff. The first curveball he broke off locked up Frederick’s #3 hitter for a strikeout, and showed tight spin with excellent 11-5 movement. Baker only threw a few changeups during his start, but was clearly working on getting a feel for the pitch as he threw 2-3 in between every inning during his warm-up tosses. Baker was my #25 prospect in this offseason’s countdown, but I hadn’t seen him pitch like he did on Tuesday before. If he keeps throwing 3 potential above-average pitches, he could end up in the top-10 of next year’s list.

Last season’s extremes are already starting to show signs that they’re regressing to the mean, as the Indians 17-2 record against the White Sox last year isn’t going to be repeated in 2014. The White Sox are better in 2014 than they were last year, but there’s also a pretty significant luck factor involved when you win 17 of 19 against one opponent, and that luck is something that varies significantly from season to season. The good news is that the Indians aren’t likely to go 4-15 against the Tigers again this year, with the same caveats applying in that matchup. We’ll get to see pretty soon, as after an off-day tomorrow the Indians travel to the Motor City to renew their rivalry with the Central Division powerhouse Tigers. Will the rivalry be as one-sided as it was in 2013? I don’t think so, and here’s an early chance for the Indians to show the Tigers that it won’t be a cakewalk to the Central Division crown. It’s just a three-game series in a 162 game season, but I think it’s important for the Indians to go into Detroit and come out with a series victory. After what happened last year, the club needs to show both the Tigers and the fans that we won’t see another 4-15 record against the AL Central favorite. 

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Extending the Core on a Lazy Sunday

Photo Credit: TribeVibe
Opening week has come and gone, and the Indians sit in 2nd place in the AL Central with a 3-2 record after the season’s first five games. We’ve woken up bleary-eyed after late night wins on the west coast, seen Swisher give an O-H-I-O to the crowd after hitting a go-ahead HR, watched Tony Plush giveth and taketh away, Kluberbot struggle and Masty shine. Thundercat Salazar didn’t have his best stuff, but battled through the home opener to give the offense a change to wake up. Lever Yan Gomes did Yan Gomes things, throwing out runners foolish enough to test his arm and hitting a big HR in the opener to wake up the slumbering offense. Blake Wood impressed with his high-90’s fastball. Cookie Carrasco was his consistently inconsistent self. As Jordan Bastian tweeted last night, Indians SP other than Justin Masterson have combined for a 6.75 ERA, 2.14 WHIP and 1.42 K/BB in the early going. The fact that the Indians are 3-2 despite the spotty starting pitching the first turn through the rotation is actually a pretty encouraging sign. All in all, there’s really not a whole lot that we can really determine from such a small sample size, other than enjoyment that Indians baseball is finally back for the next 6 (or hopefully 7) months.

In addition to all of the pageantry that comes along with the first week of the regular season on the field, there was plenty of action off the field from the front office this week. And unlike the Masterson news that came out a couple of weeks ago, the recent developments from the front office have been overwhelmingly positive. Let’s start with the “smaller” of the two contract extensions that were announced this week, that of Indians catcher Yan Gomes. The Indians announced that they signed Gomes to a 6-year, $23 million extension that will keep Gomes in an Indians uniform through 2019. In addition to the guaranteed money, the Indians hold club options in 2020 ($9 million) and 2021 ($11 million). It’s the biggest pre-arbitration contract for a catcher in baseball history, and the Indians gave it to a guy with barely a full season of MLB service time. They clearly feel that Gomes was a huge part of their success last year, and that keeping him in an Indians uniform long-term will keep the organization set at the catcher position for the length of the contract. To understand why the front office did what they did with the Gomes contract, one only needs to look back a couple of weeks to my interview with Mark Shapiro. The club president came out with flowery and unsolicited praise for Gomes’ work both behind and at the plate, describing Gomes as one of the main “levers” that were pulled to improve the team last season. Not only does Gomes provide right-handed power (.826 OPS in 293 AB last season), his well-rounded defensive game helps control the opposition’s running game and his pitchers get calls around the periphery of the strike zone.

Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
Forgetting his offense for a minute, let’s take a look at the pitch framing metrics that the club was able to look at when considering this contract. Baseball Prospectus has been providing fantastic and comprehensive coverage of catcher framing for the past year or so, and have come out with their own statistics to measure catcher framing. They’re able to use the past statistics to provide a predictive model, and with that model, BP’s Harry Pavlidis predicts that Gomes will save 25.5 runs in 2014 with his framing alone.  That’s a huge impact in just one facet of the game. That 25.5 figure is 4th highest in all of baseball, and only gets better when you put it in context with the disinterested manner in which Carlos Santana received the baseball during his days as an everyday backstop. From 2008-13, Santana averaged -21.8 runs prevented per season by his horrific “framing” behind the plate. So if these numbers play out as expected in 2014, Indians pitchers will give up around 40 less runs than if Santana were still the everyday catcher based on Gomes’ framing ability alone.

The point of this article is not to rag on Carlos Santana’s defense. I’m just trying to illustrate just how much of a difference the Santana-Gomes switch behind the plate could make over an entire year. Forty runs over a season can easily be the difference between making the playoffs and not making the playoffs for a club like the Indians. And it’s not just framing; BP tells us that in 2013, Gomes saved 7 runs with his blocking ability behind the plate (Santana was exactly neutral in 2013, neither saving a run nor giving any up with his blocking). So that’s a 47 run difference between Gomes and Santana defensively. Add to that his fantastic 41% caught stealing rate in 2013 (2nd in the AL; league average was 26%, and Santana was at 18% last year), and you begin to see just how impactful Gomes can be behind the plate. Defensive metrics, especially the framing statistics, are generally much more consistent and less susceptible to regression than offensive stats. There’s no BABIP to consider (Gomes’ was .342 last year for the record; high, but not abnormally so). Defense, especially behind the plate, is something that players have a lot of control over. Even if Gomes’ offense proves to be a total fluke (which I doubt will be the case), he’ll be worth the AAV throughout the contract based on his defense alone. Oh, and in case you didn’t notice, a guy by the name of Max Marchi was one of the architects of BP’s framing data, including their predictive modeling. That would be the same Max Marchi that the Indians hired earlier this offseason. Think that’s just a random coincidence? I sure don’t. The Indians now control Gomes through at least his age 31 season, and hold club options for age 32-33. If they’re right about his ability at and behind the plate, this contract is going to be a fantastic value for the team.

In addition to the Gomes deal, the Indians extended the contract of 2013 all-star 2B Jason Kipnis on the morning of the home opener. The deal gives Kipnis $52.5 million through the 2019 season, and also includes a club option for 2020 ($16.5 million). Kipnis was scheduled to be a free agent following the 2017 season, so this deal buys out his arbitration years as well as two seasons of free agency (with a club option for a third). That means Kip will be an Indian through at least his age 32 season, so feel free to buy a #22 jersey with at least some degree of confidence that it won’t be obsolete in the near future. The contract provides cost certainty through Kip’s arbitration seasons, buys out two years of what are likely to be expensive free agency, and provides flexibility on the back end with a club option. It’s not a steal for the club, nor is it an overpay. Both sides gave a little to get Kipnis extended and to secure his future on the North Coast. As expected, Jon over at Waiting For Next Year hits the nail on the head with his take on the deal:

I think this is a really good deal for the club. It's good because Kipnis is their best player and they locked him up for what the smart money would suggest will the best years of his career (let's not forget that the aging curves suggest he's about to get better, not worse). It's good because the replacement cost for an All-Star 2B will only go up in the next four years. It's good because he's probably the third best 2B in the league, and the youngest of that group. It's good because he's a fan-favorite, and that's a real thing a team like this should occasionally care about.
Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
The deal is very similar to the contract that Cardinals 2B Matt Carpenter signed earlier this offseason (Kipnis got just $500k more overall), and the always-fantastic David Cameron over at Fangraphs was nice enough to break down the respective deals for us. Carpenter is about a year and a half older than Kipnis, and doesn’t have the track record that the Indians 2B has, but he also had a better offensive season than Kip last year. Cameron does an exhaustive rundown of the two players, trying to decide which one he likes better now and over the life of the contract. It’s a difficult decision, as both players are excellent and both are signed to contracts that provide them with long-term security at a reasonable rate for their respective clubs. In the end though, he gives the slight edge to…well, I’ll let him tell you himself:

Going forward, I think I’d take Kipnis; the age and athleticism do matter, and all things equal, I think you’d rather have a physically gifted guy than someone who has probably already maxed out his tools. But, right now, Carpenter may very well be the better player, especially if we’re viewing them outside of the context of their current organizations and give Carpenter credit for being able to play second base at a reasonable level. So, I don’t choose Kipnis with any kind of strong conviction. Both are terrific, and the Indians and Cardinals should be glad that they each have one of the game’s better young players under team control for the next six years.
The Indians now have 16 current major league players under club control through at least the 2016 season (full list can be found here). And that list doesn’t even include Francisco Lindor, Trevor Bauer, Tyler Naquin, Clint Frazier or any of the other top prospects in the Indians organization. The club has cost controlled talent locked up, and with a little influx in revenue, they’re going to be able to spend for a couple of pieces to augment the in-house talent that’s already on the North Coast. Cost certainty is a big deal for the Indians, and they can now basically pencil in the club’s payroll for the next three seasons with a pretty high degree of confidence.

While the Indians were busy locking up their core guys, Central Division nemesis Detroit came up with a contract extension of their own. The Tigers inked the 2nd best position player in baseball to a…wait for it…8-year, $248 million contract extension. They did this two full seasons prior to Miggy Cabrera reaching free agency. Just for good measure, Cabrera got a pair of $30 million vesting options at the end of the deal. The options vest if Cabrera finishes in the top-10 of the MVP voting in the season prior to the option year. It’s an insane amount of money to pay a guy through at least his age-40 season, even a guy as talented as Cabrera. Ben Lindbergh of Baseball Prospectus does a fantastic job encapsulating the concerns with the contract, so I’ll sample from his long and extremely comprehensive (no subscription required, so go read the whole thing) piece here:
The Tigers, unlike St. Louis, haven’t laid the groundwork to succeed without their superstar. Put yourself in the place of owner Mike Illitch (who’s old enough not to worry about the back-end of Cabrera’s contract) and GM Dave Dombrowski, who may have just closed the door on bringing Scherzer back, and you can see why the thought of Cabrera walking away would make them antsy.
Here’s the thing, though: He wasn’t walking away. Not now, and not after this season. Cabrera wasn’t due to hit free agency until after the 2015 season, which means that Detroit could have taken its time with these talks…
…The Tigers had two full seasons of Cabrera control remaining—two seasons (or at least one, if they didn’t want to go down to the wire) in which they could have learned more about what kind of player he’ll be at age 40. If, at any point from 2014–2015, Cabrera’s body breaks down, or his bat starts to slow, or his conditioning slips, or his problems with alcohol abuse recur, the Tigers won’t be able to adjust their offer accordingly. They’ll be forced to pay him what they thought he’d be worth in March 2013, before they had that additional info…
…For Detroit, this isn’t just buying high. It’s buying high knowing that you’re likely to have a chance to buy lower later. It’s not just the money that makes this extension a mistake. It’s not just the timing, either. It’s the combination of the two: this amount of money at this particular time…
…Even if you assume that teams are already paying $7 million per free agent win, and even if you assume that that rate will rise by five percent per season, you can’t quite get Cabrera’s expected value to equal his certain cost.
So the Tigers acted, probably prematurely, and got a premium player at a premium price, giving back some of the surplus value from Cabrera's first Detroit contract. In the process, they darkened the short-term future of the free-agent market, widened the smile on the face of Mike Trout’s financial planner, and appalled, shocked, and disgusted 29 other owners and front offices. Writing about extensions can be boring, because it usually takes time to feel their effects. In a sense, that’s true of this one, too: our projection for both Cabrera and the Tigers in 2014 are unchanged from two days ago. But in another sense, Cabrera’s extension seems significant. This is one of those moves that makes wins cost more.
Far be it for me to suggest that locking up Miguel Cabrera was a bad idea for the Tigers. But as Linbergh so artfully explained, it was an unnecessary idea, at least at this point in time. The Tigers didn’t get a discount. They didn’t prevent Cabrera from walking away, or from forcing his way out of town via trade. They handed out the highest AAV contract in sports history two full seasons prior to the player hitting free agency, every dollar of which is guaranteed. One only needs to look to the recent Albert Pujols albatross of a contract to see how this could break bad for the Tigers. It’s not going to hurt their playoff chances in 2014, but if the contract keeps the Tigers from resigning Max Scherzer, it could hurt them as soon as 2015. While Detroit is busy inflating the free agent market for everyone else (especially the big market clubs), the Indians are busy locking down their own talent at a fair and reasonable rate. It can’t help but give you a good feeling about the job that the Indians front office is doing to set up the club for 2014 and beyond.

Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
Something I’d like to make a weekly feature here during our Lazy Sunday together is a little something that I’d like to call Lindor Watch, 2014. It works better if you say it in your Bryan Fantana “PANDA WATCH” voice from Anchorman. I’ve made no secret of my love for Lindor, who’s shaping up to be one of the top prospects in all of baseball and a potential contributor on both sides of the ball when he does finally reach the major leagues. Lindor has opened the 2014 season with AA Akron as a RubberDuck, and you really should get out and try to see him play in Canal Park while he’s still there. He’s ready to contribute at the major league level as soon as this season, and will likely get at least a cup of coffee at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario at some point in 2014. So I’ll keep tabs on him for you as long as he’s in the minors, and report back to my loyal readers just what Lindor is doing from week to week. Akron opened the season this past Thursday, and they’ve played three games as of this morning. So far, Lindor is hitting an impressive .385/.385/.615, going 5-13 with a HR, 2 RBI and a stolen base in the first three Eastern League games of the season. Again, way too early to draw any sort of meaningful conclusions, but it’s good to see that the power Lindor was displaying in Arizona is already showing up in Akron.

As I’m sure all of you remember, former Indians fan-favorite Grady Sizemore signed with the Red Sox this offseason, and managed to make it through spring training unscathed and uninjured. He opened the 2014 season the Sox starting CF, and has gotten off to a hot start here in April. Sizemore is hitting a robust .300/.417/.600 (3-10 with a HR and a SB) in three games for the Red Sox. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t hurt a little to see Sizemore succeed in Boston, but I can’t help but pull for the guy. He always gave 100% as an Indian, never got into trouble, never said anything bad about the city on his way out and was a generally likeable guy throughout his tenure in Cleveland. I’m glad he’s back playing baseball again, and while I wish it was with the Indians, I’m not going to begrudge the fact that it isn’t. I hope Sizemore stays healthy and productive for the Red Sox this year, and if he takes them all the way to the ALCS, that’s fine too. Just as long as that ALCS run ends at the hands of the World Series-bound Indians, of course.

Finally, as we all know this is the 20th anniversary of the opening of Jacobs Field. I can’t think of two better people to reminisce on the memories made at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario than Tom Hamilton and Anthony Castrovice, so this is just about the perfect article. Castro and Hammy counted down their top-10 favorite moments at The Jake, beginning with Giambi’s walk-off during the playoff run last season and culminating with opening day 1994, when Wayne Kirby hit a walk-off single to send the sellout crowd home happy. Like many of you, I have very fond memories of these and other Indians moments from throughout my childhood, and taking this walk down memory lane sure was a lot of fun. It remains to be seen whether the Indians can come up with a moment or two in 2014 that will replace something on this list, but you’d better believe that a World Series victory would immediately vault to #1 before the confetti even settled on the ground. Does this team have a run like that in them? Time will tell, but I have to think they’ll be playing fun and compelling baseball throughout the season. It’s going to be a fun season, and I can’t wait to see what Tito and the crew have in store for us.