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
Balance
30
55
Momentum
70
60
Torque
60
65
Posture
30
50
Release Distance
65
65
Repetition
30
50
Overall
C
B

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 Brooksbaseball.net 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. 

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Goodyear Notebook on a Lazy Sunday

Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
Another fantastic trip to Goodyear, Arizona is in my rear-view mirror, and the start of the season is upon us. This was my 4th consecutive trip to the desert for spring training, and every year it gets better and better. If you love baseball, you owe it to yourself to make the trip at least once in your lifetime. Between work-outs, minor league games, B games and big league games, you can watch over 10 hours of baseball a day in 80+ degree weather. And if that gets boring, there’s plenty of golf, bars/restaurants and other fun stuff to keep you occupied. Did I mention it is 85 degrees and sunny down there this time of year? Enough of my gloating, let me get into what you really came here for. These are some of my observations from spending six days in Indians camp this year, primarily on the minor league fields.

  • Tony Wolters, converted from middle infield to catcher around this time last year, has made enormous strides behind the plate. He looks like he’s been catching his entire life. His hands are strong, and he’s doing a great job receiving. He still has a ball go off his mitt for a passed ball every once in a while, but the strides he’s made in just one year of catching are remarkable. Some of the credit goes to Dave Wallace, Wolters’ manager in Carolina last year and a fantastic defensive catcher during his playing days. Wallace will move up to AA Akron this season, and so will Wolters, moves that work quite nicely together.
  • Dillon Howard and Jake Sisco have retired. Howard is 21, and was the Indians 2nd round pick in the 2011 draft, a pick that was widely praised outside of the organization at the time. He went 1-7 with a 7.90 ERA for the AZL Indians in 2012, never pitching outside of the complex leagues. Sisco, 22, was the Indians 3rd round pick in the 2011 draft. He went a combined 7-21 with a 4.98 ERA over three seasons between the AZL Indians, Mahoning Valley Scrappers and Lake County Captains. Good thing they got Lindor in the 1st round that year.
Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
  • Francisco Mejia…wow. I ranked Mejia as the organization’s #4 overall prospect this offseason despite never having seen him play. Now that I have seen him in action, I feel like that might have been a spot too low. Mejia is just 18 years old, and won’t turn 19 until after the 2014 season. He has extremely strong hands/wrists, and generates plus bat speed from both sides of the plate. His swing is a little long, and his hands are very loud with almost a Sheffield-level bat twitch before loading his hands high and deep. He’s extremely aggressive at the plate, swinging at nearly anything around the strike zone and frequently attacking the first pitch of the AB. He makes it all work, as he reached base 7 times in the 9 AB’s I saw him take this spring in game action (5 hits and 2 BB). Both of the walks he took were on four pitches nowhere near the strike zone, and Mejia actually seemed disgusted by the fact that he had to take a walk rather than hit.
  • Mejia’s arm gets its own bullet point. Poems will be written about Francisco Mejia’s arm. We’ll tell our grandchildren about the times we saw Mejia throw down to second base. Singers will sing of it long after all of us are gone from this Earth. I didn’t see Mejia catch in the first couple of days because he was dealing with a minor elbow issue. Thankfully, that cleared up in time for me to watch him behind the plate my last couple of days in camp. I’ve watched a lot of baseball over the years, and never in my life have I heard fans and players ooh and ahh over a throw down to 2B between innings. But that’s exactly what happened nearly every time Mejia fired a ball to second. He never popped more than 1.9, and I had him in the 1.7 range a couple of times. I cannot possibly do it justice with the written word. You have to see it in action for yourself. He’s still a little raw as a receiver, but the tools are there for Mejia to be a Gold Glove catcher in the major leagues someday. That’s high praise for an 18-year old who’s never played in a full-season league, but that’s how impressed I was by Francisco Mejia.
  • Francisco Lindor looks pretty much ready. He’s added a little bit of muscle to his frame, but not enough to slow him down at SS. Defensively, he could play in the major leagues right now. He only has 91 plate appearances above high-A, so it’s tough to say that his bat is ready, but it wouldn’t be valueless. SSS alarms and ST alarms both blaring, Lindor did hit .316/.350/.579 with a HR, 2 2B and 5 RBI in 19 AB with the big club in spring training this year. I see growth at the plate from last year to this year, and he’ll continue to improve as he gets experience against top-flight competition. In 10 swings in BP, I saw him hit 6 HR; three from each side of the plate. His bat is going to have value on its own, and when you combine it with his Gold Glove potential in the field, Francisco Lindor is going to be a star. He’s going to start the season back in AA Akron, but you’d better get out and see him there while you can, because he could easily finish the 2014 season at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario.
  • 3B Gio Urshela has added some size and strength to his frame, and is showing off more power than in previous years. He showcased excellent pull side power in BP, and in one of the games I was watching he did a nice job extending his arms on a pitch on the outer half and driving it off the right-centerfield fence for a long double. He’s an elite defender at 3B, and if he can hit even a little, he has a major league future.
  • I saw one Cody Anderson start, and he was solid if unspectacular. The fastball sat between 90-92, and he was locating it well. He mixed in a slider hat was between 81-84, a curve that was 76-78 and an occasional change at around 78. The slider was more consistent than his curveball. The curve flashed plus, as he broke off a couple of really nice ones, but it was inconsistent. He bounced a couple of curves and really hung one, and looked like he was having a little trouble finding the release point on the pitch.
Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
  • LeVon Washington was dealing with some minor injury issues early in camp, but was back on the field by the time I got down there. When he’s healthy, #WASHTIME is productive. He’s got a solid approach at the plate, and feasts on fastballs up in the zone. He struggles with quality breaking balls, and needs to stay healthy and on the field so he can simply see more pitches to improve his pitch recognition/selection skills. He’s slated to open the 2014 season as a Carolina Mudcat, and at this point I’m just hoping that he can play 100+ games this year for the first time in his professional career.
  • It took some people (myself included) a little bit by surprise when Erik Gonzalez was added to the 40-man roster, but I have to say that I now see why the Indians made the move. Gonzalez is a big, athletic kid who still moves well enough to play an outstanding shortstop. His bat has been lagging behind his defense, but the Indians hitting coaches have been working with him to shorten his stride and lower his big, high leg lift that he’d been using to help with his timing. The big leg kick (almost Ruben Sierra level) made it difficult for Gonzalez to adjust and forced him to commit to his swing before he was able to recognize what pitch was being thrown and whether or not it was a strike. Reducing the stride and kick should help him with balance as well as pitch recognition/selection. I don’t expect him to become a Silver Slugger or anything, but the bat shouldn’t hold back his overall game as much as it did last season.
  • One of the coolest things I got to see in spring training this year was the AAA Columbus infield practice during BP. Lindor, Ronny Rodriguez, Jose Ramirez and Joey Wendle rotated between 2B/SS with Travis Fryman hitting them groundballs. The four athletic middle infielders competed to try and turn the most acrobatic double plays, with Fryman assigning grades after each turn. This went on for at least 20 min, and getting to see those guys (especially Lindor!) showcasing their entire range of defensive skills was a lot of fun. Fryman challenged them with a little bit of everything, hitting balls up the middle, deep in the hole, choppers, soft rollers and rockets. That display alone was worth the price of the hotel in Goodyear last week.
  • I got to see Austin Adams pitch twice, and he did Austin Adams things. He’s a pretty known quantity at this point, as he’s going to challenge hitters with a 97-99 MPH fastball, mixing in the occasional bat-breaking slider or curveball. He’s ready to pitch in the major leagues right now, and will be one of the first arms (along with C.C. Lee) that the Indians call on from Columbus in the event of injury or ineffectiveness in the 2014 version of the Bullpen Mafia.
  • Carlos Melo was a guy that I had zero background on, but seeing him hit 96 on his first pitch made me do a little research. Melo was released by the Rangers last year, and the Indians picked him up on the cheap. He’s 23 years old, although that figure was in dispute at one time and caused Melo some visa problems while he was in the Rangers org. He’s never pitched above A ball, and has struck out 283 hitters in 243 innings of work. He’s also walked 163. He sits comfortably in the high-90’s with his fastball, and has touched triple digits in the past. Unfortunately, he has poor command and no breaking ball to speak of. I’m not counting on getting anything out of Melo, but the pure velocity in his arm makes him worth keeping an eye on.
Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
  • I got to see lefty Kyle Crockett in action for the first time, and he came as advertised. He’s going to be awfully tough on lefties, coming at the hitter from a variety of arm angles with a lot of deception in his delivery. It was really tough to pick up the ball on Crockett, something that helps his average velocity play up. He’s going to pound the strike zone, attack hitters and induce a lot of weak contact. He could be a big-league bullpen piece as soon as this year (although there's no reason to rush him), and I think he can have success against hitters from both sides of the plate.
  • At every level of their organization, from low-A to the big leagues, the Indians do a fun and interesting game during batting practice. In the last round for each group of hitters, they play a game where ghost runners start on 1st and 2nd with no outs, and each hitter gets an “at-bat” until 3 outs are made. The hitting coach is the sole decider of whether a ball goes for a hit or an out. It makes for a fun competition, some lively debates between hitter and coach, and a lot of ribbing from teammates based on final scores. The day I watched ML BP, Swisher and Kipnis’ group stuck around in the dugout after they hit, yelling at the other groups as they tried to match their score. It’s clearly a lot of fun for the players and coaches, and was pretty cool to watch up close.
  • I finally got to see left-handed starter Luis Lugo pitch, and he was okay. Nothing incredible, but showed a feel for pitching and broke off a couple of nice breaking balls. His fastball sat between 88-91 MPH. He definitely has a projectable body, as he’s already every bit of his listed 6’5” and 200lbs. It’s possible there’s more velocity in there that Lugo will pick up as he continues to add strength to his frame. He just turned 20 earlier this month, so there’s still quite a bit of time on the developmental curve.
  • Another big lefty from Venezuela, Elvis Araujo, showcased a bump in velocity of his own. Araujo sat between 93-95 MPH, touching 97 once. His slider was around 85, and flashed above-average although still needs consistency. At this point, the Indians are just looking for a healthy season from the 6’6” southpaw, as he was only able to throw 9 2/3 innings in 2013.
Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
  • Mitch Brown flashed the impressive stuff that caused the Indians to pick him in the 2nd round of the 2012 draft. His fastball was sitting between 93-95, touching as high as 97. He was moving the ball around in the strike zone, and gave hitters trouble with his big, 77-79 MPH curveball. He threw a couple of really impressive changeups as well, but also left one up in the zone against Emmanuel Tapia that Tapia deposited over the right field fence. The raw stuff is impressive, he just needs to refine his secondary stuff and improve his fastball command.
  •  One of the guys that I didn’t get to see in action was last year’s 1st round draft pick, Clint Frazier. Frazier was dealing with a minor hamstring issue, and the organization is understandably playing it slow with the talented young outfielder. Frazier did some base coaching, some light running and could be frequently spotted running his fingers through his luxurious red hair. I’m guessing he’ll start off the season in extended spring training before moving up to low-A Lake County after the weather warms up a little bit. Cleveland area fans will still get to see Frazier’s ginger afro patrolling the shores of Lake Erie this season, it’ll just be a little later than anticipated.
  • Jordan Cooper is back on the mound after “minor” offseason surgery (if surgery on a pitcher’s arm can ever be considered minor) to clean up some loose bodies in his arm. He looked like the Coop of old, attacking hitters with a variety of quality offspeed stuff and inducing soft contact. He’s a tough guy to square up, and someone I think can have success eating innings in the back end of a major league rotation.
Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
  • Venezuelan OF Anthony Santander added significant weight this offseason, and profiles best in LF moving forward. He had some at-bats in AA/AAA games against guys like Aaron Harang and held his own, showing an impressive approach for a kid his age. I think the bat will play, but the defensive profile limits his overall prospect ceiling a little bit.
  • Eric Haase continues to impress every time I see him. He’s at least a backup catcher in the majors for me, and has a chance to be more. He does a nice job handling a pitching staff, calls his own game and really takes charge of the diamond from behind the plate. His bat is solid, and it seems like he gets two hits in every game I watch. He does a really nice job staying back on the baseball and using all fields. I’ve seen him turn on balls on the inner half and rip them down the 3B line for extra bases, and stay back on a breaking ball on the outer half and shoot it past the 2B for a single. I love the approach, the attitude and the work ethic behind the plate.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Lazy Sunday with the President, v. 2014

For the second year in a row, Indians team president Mark Shapiro was kind enough to take an hour out of his very busy spring training schedule and sit down for an interview with me in beautiful Goodyear, Arizona. Here’s a link to last year’s interview in case you missed it. We covered a wide variety of topics, including the difference in the 2013 and 2014 free agent market, Yan Gomes, ticket pricing, promotions, Francisco Lindor and of course, Justin Masterson and the breakdown in his long-term contract negotiations. The following is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation this past Friday.

Al Ciammaichella: This offseason was much quieter/different than last offseason. Were the moves you made last year looking forward to this year’s free agent class where you signed guys like Swisher and Bourn knowing this offseason would be quieter?

Mark Shapiro: We always have to take an opportunistic lens when it comes to free agency. When we look at free agency, if we’re dependent upon it to build our team, then we’re in a very difficult, if not impossible, spot. The reality is that we’re either looking for where the value is in the market or looking to be opportunistic. Last offseason there happened to be two guys that fit multiple year, positional needs for us at values we thought we could afford and who have some other special attributes, especially in the case of Swish, but really Bourne too, as a leader as well. They filled gaps we had in our system, where we felt like we didn’t have anyone coming up at all. And we also knew that this offseason there was a lot national TV money coming into the system and a lot less guys, so there were going to be more resources available, greater demand and less supply. So while it’s already a tough market, that was going to make it nearly an impossible market. So I look at last year as our chance to make a bigger splash in free agency, and this year was going to be “are there little things we can do?” I think we studied David Murphy, who I think is a good pick up for us. He’s going to improve both the defense, and give us a really good platoon and depth in the outfield.

AC: We talked a lot about levers last year, which became one of my new favorite buzzwords. How did you decide what levers to pull this year, with Murphy, and how did you decide which not to pull, with not bringing back guys like Ubaldo and Kazmir?

MS: Those decisions are never as simple as “do you want the player or not?” I think that the fan tends to look at it as “you didn’t want the guy.” We loved what Kaz did for us, we wanted him, but the level of risk involved with multiple years and the level of risk involved with those dollars just didn’t fit our payroll parameters this year with the natural, built in escalation of contracts. I think with Ubaldo, same thing. It ended up being a good deal for us, particularly in light of what we gave up, but it wasn’t the right fit for us this year. When you talk about levers, I think the neat things to think about from last spring to this spring are the evolution of a guy like Yan Gomes. Where all of a sudden, you look at Gomes and there’s a guy who leverages his ability to impact a game at more than just his position because of what he means defensively, what he means for his passion for making pitchers better, for helping to call a game. So I always like to think about, “where are the guys that can impact a game beyond objective statistics? Beyond just their own performance?” And Gomes is a guy who when he started to catch last year, I think that was one of the keys to our team really taking off.

AC: So when you traded for Gomes, and I could sit here all day and talk to you about Gomes, but when you traded for him, did you have any idea he’d be that much of an impact defensively? I’ve talked to some Blue Jays guys, and they were of the opinion that he was maybe a 3rd catcher while he was with the Jays.

MS: Any GM or front office guy who tells you he knows exactly what he was getting when he traded for a guy is just pounding his own chest. What you do is you try and find something you like, a defined attribute that you like about a guy. Even when we traded for Asdrubal or Shin-Soo Choo, there were always questions. We never thought they’d both be as good as they were, never. So when we traded for Yan Gomes, we thought that maybe he could catch, but really what he was, was right handed power, and a guy who could play multiple positions. That’s what we thought. When we got him, I think we did a smart thing, similar to when we traded for Justin Masterson. We didn’t know Masterson could start, but we knew he could be a dominant bullpen guy. But in our situation it’s important to maximize the value because we can’t go out and buy those things. So we put Yan back there, and right away Tito and the staff said “this guy’s got pretty special hands, he’s got some strength behind the plate.” When you go back and look at his career, whether it’s in Tennessee (in college) or in the Toronto system, he played behind Arrencebia both places, and they had D’Arnaud there as well. So he was behind two of the best young catchers in the game and he never got to catch much. He just took right to it. He got better and better. He’s a worker, he’s smart, he’s tough, he has a lot of the attributes you look for in a catcher.

AC: It’s nice having guys like Sandy (Alomar) and Wally (AA manager Dave Wallace) around who can help young catchers develop. I’m sure they spent a decent amount of time with him.

MS: Yeah, and he’s a sponge too. He wants more.

AC: You can tell. Just the framing metrics, things that were probably previously proprietary stats that are now out in the public showing just how many runs a catcher can save just by framing pitches helps show why he’s so valuable.

MS: Yeah, like Molina. I think there are just some things that you can’t measure, like his game calling and the way pitchers feel about him being a student of the advanced (scouting) report.

AC: And we haven’t even talked about his bat yet.

MS: Yeah, he’s got right-handed pop, which was the one thing we thought when we got him. He’s got right-handed power, which is hard to find.

AC: Last September was great experience, but such a roller coaster, winning 10 in a row to claim the 1st Wild Card and having it all end in just one day against the Rays. What was that like?

MS: Backing off the emotion, and looking at it from a more intellectual level, my take on that game in general was, we had just won ten in a row, and the nature of regressing to the mean was that we actually played a decent game. I thought we had more hard-hit balls than Tampa had. We could’ve won that game. But the odds just reversed on us. We had won ten in a row, and the time came for us not to have balls fall in. Two hard-hit balls right at people, and our ten game streak came to an end. It just happened to come to an end in a time where we were playing a single-elimination game. My thoughts, bigger picture reflecting were, “hey, I was on the committee that put that structure in place.” I was a little reluctant to go to a one-game playoff, but the managers lobbied hard for it in the intent to make it more difficult for a Wild Card team to advance. My takeaway was that it is definitely more difficult for a Wild Card team to advance.

AC: Right, a couple of years ago, you’re planning for the Red Sox as the Wild Card team. That had to creep into the back of your mind a little bit.

MS: A little bit. In the end, I still think it’s better for us and better for the game that more teams are involved in the playoffs, but yeah, what an abrupt halt to an incredible run. A little bit of an improbable run, so just to get in and play playoff baseball again in Progressive Field was pretty cool.

Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
AC: Last year you had guys like Danny Salazar and Corey Kluber really step up to fill big question marks in the rotation. Can you talk about how important those guys were, and who do you see being those guys this year? Whether it’s a starting pitcher, position player or bullpen arm, someone who can step up and fill a question mark going into the 2014 season.

MS: I think that Tomlin is an interesting guy to keep an eye on, Tomlin or Carrasco. I was really excited about Carlos coming in because of some of the changes he made this offseason, but the reality is that we’re going to need starters to step up. Carlos has got probably the highest ceiling and the most weapons and really has worked hard on some delivery changes that have shown extremely well early in camp. Obviously he’s struggled the last two times out. Josh is a guy that you’ve followed a little bit…I love the guy. Getting back to my earlier comments to you, looking for things you know about a guy? I know he competes. I know he’s an athlete, I know he throws strikes. I know he’s going to make you beat him. He is an extra infielder there in the infield, and you can’t run on him. Look at the numbers, you just cannot run on him. Is he going to give up some homers? Yeah, he’s going to give up some homers, but this spring there’s been some swing and miss with him, he’s had some more weapons. He’s a good guy to bet on, a good guy to win or lose with. And Carlos is a guy who is one step away from everything clicking, and you don’t want to give up on that. I think that can come from those guys. The bullpen…it’s hard to say. We’ve got some depth there. C.C. Lee is a guy that we feel strongly about, that he can have an impact soon.

AC: Austin Adams is another guy…

MS: Yeah, a good guy, a battler, competitor, hard thrower. Yesterday he was 97-98.

AC: Since we’re talking about pitching, let’s talk about Mickey Callaway. What a lever that guy has been, effecting the whole organization from top to bottom. You see what he was able to do with Ubaldo, and what he’s done with a lot of the young kids on the way up in Lake County, Carolina. How important is he to the club, and can he work his magic on other talented guys like Trevor Bauer and Carlos Carrasco, those high-ceiling, high talent guys who haven’t quite made that last step yet?

MS: One of the things to think about with Trevor is that he’s only 23 years old. So he’s still so young, but his path was almost artificially sped up just because of where he was drafted. Ross Atkins did a marvelous job in identifying Mickey, and hiring Mickey, and knowing that he had something special when he hired him. I remember vividly Ross telling me when he hired him. I’ve always told every farm director we’ve had, from John Farrell, Neil Huntington, Ross Atkins, all of the guys who’ve followed me in that job, “every time a job comes open, you need to think that pitching coach you’re hiring, that could be the next major league pitching coach.” You can’t just fill the job. You’ve got to look for impact guys, and Ross did that with Mickey, obviously, but he’s done that with numerous guys that he’s hired. But what makes Mickey special is his ability to communicate, and his openness to adapt to whoever he’s teaching. It’s not that he has some sort of sage insight into pitching mechanics or crazy proprietary philosophies, it’s more of the ability to connect, communicate, and individualize instruction. Develop trust and respect and help guys get better. Ensure that they know that he’s there for them. Mickey does that at a really elite level. His magic secret is his ability to communicate that other guys don’t have, and his ability to be selfless and really be there for the player.

AC: Positional flexibility is something that this team has, and not Garko in the outfield type of flexibility. But Santanta at 3B/1B/C, Raburn pretty much anywhere on the field, Swish 1B/OF, Aviles can play anywhere. How important is that to Tito and the club?

MS: I think that we look at having a nimble roster, having the ability to withstand the fact that not all guys can play 162 (games) as being important. One of the separators for us was having a bench with Raburn and Aviles on it last year. You look at a guy like Elliott Johnson, having a good camp, extremely versatile, a guy who can play all three outfield positions in addition to two or three infield positions, he’s another guy like that. So having good big-league players who are also versatile helps you in the endurance test of a 162 game season. And it may give you an opportunity to make up some ground on some higher revenue teams with superstar type players. It’s inevitable that most players are not going to play all 162.

AC: The Qualifying Offer. You’ve been on both sides of the Qualifying Offer now. Last year you were able to get a couple of guys who had that QO, with maybe a little less interest in a guy like Bourn than if he had not been under the QO protection. Then this year, with Ubaldo, getting an extra first round pick back after losing him. What are your feelings on the QO? Do you think that’s a positive aspect of the current CBA?

MS: I think it’s worked in the way that clubs have hoped it would work. It provides some compensation for losing a free agent, and I think we have a better understanding of the value of what those picks are worth now, and we can put a cash value on that. We factor that in to a free agent offer and we determine whether to offer the player something beyond the Qualifying Offer or not. To hear people on the other side diminish the value of the QO…we offered those guys $14.1 million for a one-year deal. That’s a whole lot of money. So it’s hard to feel like anyone is being take advantage of. They make the decision that they’ve earned the right to make, whether to accept it or not.

AC: So talking about whether or not to make that very large financial commitment, did you consider extending a QO to Kazmir?

MS: We never take anything lightly, and we walk very carefully through everything.

AC: So 2005 and 2007, the last two really great years of Cleveland baseball, the next years after 
those, in 2006 and 2008 the team started pretty slow out of the gate, being forced to trade C.C. in 2008 because you were out of it before the all-star break. Is there anything that the 2014 team can or has learned from that to try not to backslide?

MS: I wouldn’t say that we learned much from that, other than just how fragile it is which I think we already knew. I think we all understand that there’s still some good fortune that has to factor in to us being that team. Last spring training we were trying to figure out who three of our starters were. Now we’re agonizing over three or four good choices for one spot, our last spot. But we may end up worse this year than last year, starting pitching wise. Some things really hit for us last year, with Ubaldo and Scotty Kazmir. In our situation, we’re never going to build the perfect team. We’re always going to have some question marks heading in. Our job is to reduce the number of “ifs.” If this happens, if that happens…have as few of those “ifs” as possible heading into the season. And I think this year’s team has less “ifs” than last year’s team. The question is whether we can build off of what we did last year. Not, can we improve? Because 92 wins is pretty tough, but to build off of that and play good baseball. Part of the way we got to 92 wins was by winning ten in a row at the end. I don’t want to have to do that again.

AC: Going 4-15 against the Tigers last year essentially killed your chances to win the division. Other than having better luck, what can you do to close that gap specifically against the Tigers this year?

MS: That’s true. They’re objectively the best team in baseball, so I’m not sure that we were able to close the gap on them. I just think we need to focus on being as good as we can be. I think we’re going to be better than 4-15 against them this year. But the reality is the Royals are going to be better, and regardless of how good they’re going to be both the White Sox and the Twins are going to be better than they were last year. It’s a hard division, and the Tigers are still objectively either #1 or #2 in all of major league baseball. And they should be, with the resources they’ve got. So we’re going to have a challenge, a real battle. It wasn’t easy last year. You could argue that Kansas City, down the stretch, was the best team we played in September last year. They beat us more than anyone else beat us in September.

AC: We talked a little about TV money last year, and again today already. When you saw the contract that Kershaw got (7 years, $215 million), what was the first thing that flashed through your mind?

MS: First thing that flashed through my mind is that is one of the most special, most unique players and people that exists in the game. And if we were in similar circumstances, we would probably do the same thing. He represents not just a talent, but a man of character and work ethic, and I think those things factor in when you stretch and make big decisions. That being said, if you scale revenue and the resources to our market, that offer in our market gets a lot smaller.

AC: The season ticket base is not at the level that you want it right now.

MS: Our single biggest challenge.

AC: Still, revenue did go up last year. Is that from dynamic pricing?

MS: It’s a factor of more efficient pricing in general. I think we got ourselves into a position because of reflexively discounting and promoting for a period of years, which is pretty standard sports marketing, instead of focusing and understanding where the most important fans are and how we effectively price and what we’re doing to our business by just discounting year after year. The ultimate challenge is, and I always tell people this, is the concert analogy. If Pearl Jam is playing in Boston, they’re getting paid the same thing as if they were playing in Cleveland. But they can charge a lot more for the tickets in Boston. The talent in baseball gets paid no matter what city it plays in, but tickets cost a lot more in cities other than they do in Cleveland. That’s because of the size of the market and the wealth of the market. So we’re in a tough spot. But I think that what we need to do, more than raise prices, is just to get people to buy in advance. That’s the most important thing for us. Try to change behaviors. Any more in today’s world, when you have a ballpark in a downtown where there are only 170,000 people working downtown, if the decision is left up to the last minute then weather is a significant variable. Really the home TV product is a significant variable. You’re tired at the end of your day, you didn’t buy already and make that decision already, it’s not so bad to sit down on the couch and watch with your surround sound on your 60” screen. I think our fans are out there. It’s just, how do we make it more compelling to come to the ballpark, and how do we shift that behavior to buy in advance, to commit earlier.

AC: Talking about enticing people to come to the ballpark, you’ve got a lot of really neat promotions this year, new food items, cheaper beer…what are you most excited about on that front?

MS: I’m actually most excited about one that we haven’t announced yet, one that we’re going to announce after opening day. We’ve got a big technology driven one that we’re really excited about.

AC: Free iPad day at the ballpark?

MS: Haha, exactly, right. I do think it will be a platform for us to do a lot more technologically at our ballpark.

Photo Credit: Colorado Rockies
AC: Coors Field has a rooftop deck in the stands, something that they came out withthis year. Is that something that Cleveland would ever entertain?

MS: We’ve been looking at concepts a lot like that, not that exact same one. But I think, as you and I talked about last year, we’re very intensely involved in the evolution of our ballpark in two levels. One, it’s 20 years old, so there’s just infrastructure that we have to think about. Second, is how do we help the ballpark without ever violating the incredible architectural integrity of it, how do we help it evolve for the next generation of fans, the next 20 years. Because we do have some things that are outdated, some things that don’t fit our market or fit today’s fans. So how do we make it a compelling entertainment environment. We are quietly working on those things, very closely, and I think when we get to the point where we have firm plans you’ll start to see us roll those out. It could be as soon as this year, we’re getting closer on some of those things. It’s a lot of work.

AC: Last year we talked a little bit about the draft, and you stressed how important it was going to be with a top-5 pick to hit on a star. Do you think you hit on that guy with Clint Frazier?

MS: Well, we hit on a guy with big-time pop, big-time power who loves to play the game of baseball and who is still learning to play his position defensively. When you take a high school position player, one that has a pretty good profile, pretty good pedigree, there’s upside there. You have the chance to have a star. But the draft business in general is highly speculative, so for me to say we hit on that…we have a talent. Now we have to help make him a talented professional player. Because it’s difficult for any 19-year old to come into this environment…this is not the right environment for everyone. For a guy like Francisco Lindor, he’s a baseball rat, he was made to play baseball. It’s what he’s always thinking about, it’s what he wants to do, he’s very at ease in this environment. I’ve seen other 18-year old kids come in and it’s just uncomfortable for them from day one.

AC: Two of your top starting pitching prospects, Cody Anderson and Dace Kime, were relievers in college. Is that an under-exploited market? Are college RP a new market inefficiency?

MS: We haven’t looked at it that way. We have some very specific things we’re looking for as we’ve evolved in our amateur scouting, and really our pitching scouting in general. We have a checklist of things we think about, and those guys were guys who happened to not be starting based on what their college coaches saw that we think have the capability to be starters. When we look at college relievers, some of them are relievers for a reason. Some of them are guys like Cody Allen that we’ll bring in here and put in the bullpen because we feel like that’s the right role for them because of either arm action or pitch development. Other guys we think can maybe start, and we’ll give them a chance to start.

AC: Two big rule changes this year with expanded instant replay and catcher collisions rule. I refuse to call it a ban on homeplate collisions, because it isn’t that.

MS: Not this year, no. Hopefully next year it will be.

AC: You’re in favor of that one then, obviously.

MS: I’m in favor of it. I’m not sure I’m in favor of the incremental step, but that was part of the negotiation 
with the union. I think the rule has worked pretty efficiently and pretty effectively at the NCAA level. When we talked to those umpires and those coaches, they were surprised at how quickly it was adapted to. But the union had some concerns, understandably, that these guys have been away from that for so long that it could be a big adjustment, so they put an incremental step in place with the intent of having it go all the way next year, so we’ll see how that works.

AC: And with replay, I saw you hired a replay coordinator, a former coach (Gregg Langbehn), a guy who really knows the game and will be able to help out on what calls should be challenged. Do you see replay as being a big thing this year?

MS: I love the fact that we’re moving in that direction. I think that it was positioned extremely appropriately, that it’s going to be a learning process, that there’s no way, as (Braves Team President) John Schuerholz said, that we’re going to be able to peel all the layers back from the onion. We’re going to have to adjust as we go. I think that admitting that up front, that saying that we expect that within three years we’ll have a more perfect system but that it’s going to be a work in progress. I see some issues that might need some adjustment pretty quickly, but that’ll bear out and we’ll adjust as time goes on. I think that in the end, it’s a step in the right direction. We can’t have people in the stands watching it on their hand held devices, their phones and tablets, watching it and saying “how could that happen?” Sooner or later that’s going to happen in a World Series game or a pennant stretch game, and that would be a bad thing for the industry to not have the ability to reverse that call.

AC: This offseason, you guys hired (Baseball Prospectus reporter and author) MaxMarchi, who literally wrote the book on baseball analytics? How big of a hire is that for you guys?

MS: Mike or Chris would probably be better to talk about that, but he’s a guy who we’ve been very aware of for a long period of time, obviously his work, like you, and respect it, and we feel like as we continue to grow and evolve analytically that he has a chance to make an impact for us. I think it’s an area where we continue to grow in.

AC: Looking down south in Atlanta, John Hart gets hired and you see them start buying out a slew of arbitration and free agent years for their young guys. That can’t be a coincidence.

MS: (Smiling broadly) I just got off the phone with him an hour ago. Multi-year deals. When I talked to him today, I said, “hey, Scott Scudder, Dave Otto, sign ‘em all up!” (laughing). John is an incredible influence in my career, an incredibly wise guy, an astute evaluator of talent and a strong leader. John Schuerholz knows that, I think he’s also probably John’s best friend. So John Schuerholz is going to clearly take advantage of John Hart’s wisdom, as is Frank Wren, and one of those things is probably that philosophy, although not the same parameters, not the same operating conditions with the insurance industry being different, still has its advantages, particularly in the first generation of contracts.

AC: So how has your perspective, your approach to contracts evolved since those Scott Scudder and Dave Otto contracts?

MS: It’s just a much harder, more finite window on the multi-year contract process. Trying to find that value, where the shared risk aligns. It’s just a lot more difficult.  

AC: When looking at contracts, do you ever factor in WAR/$ (Wins Over Replacement)?
That’s certainly something that goes in…we’re looking at measuring the value of the player. The replacement value of the player and what that costs. So absolutely, we factor that in. I’m not saying that’s the only stat we use, we have our own proprietary stats. But we are making clear valuations on the player, and cash is the easiest way to measure that value.

AC: So, I have to ask about Justin Masterson. Obviously, he’s a very important part of the ballclub, and it was reported last night that talks on a multi-year deal broke down. Any thoughts on Masty’s future in Cleveland?

MS: We make it a habit not to negotiate in public. That’s never constructive, it’s never respectful for the other side and it never results in a good outcome. The things that I will say about Masty are that we appreciate him, we like him as a player, we respect him as a person and we want to keep him here. That’s never the question. The question is, can we do it at a level and still effectively build a team around him. So that’s more the challenge for us, when you look at a guy who has accomplished as much as he has accomplished and is staring free agency in the face.

Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
AC: I can’t leave without asking about Francisco Lindor. I know we talked about him a little bit, but every time I watch him I come away more and more impressed. I watched him in BP yesterday, and he hit 3 HR from each side of the plate in two rounds of BP. And defense is his calling card! How excited are you for him to play in Cleveland?

MS: I try to temper that, putting my player development hat on and just knowing that, and Ross and I have talked about this, that he (Lindor) needs to focus on his clock ticking. Using every single at bat, every single ground ball and every single inning in the minor leagues as a pearl that’s going to be going away pretty quickly. So we need to make sure he’s as prepared as he can humanly be when he comes up and gets a chance to play up here. So I’m trying to put that aside to get him to focus on not where he’s going, but where he is. And the best thing for his major league career is going to be for him to focus on those limited opportunities he has in those minor league at bats where he’s not going to get overly scrutinized, or hurt his earning potential, and focus on getting developmentally squared away so that his foundation is strong when he gets to the big leagues. That’s kind of where I’m trying to stay, where all of us are trying to stay right now.

AC: So Swisher’s “Unfinished Business” t-shirts…do you have one? Is that something the organization is really getting behind?

MS: I do…but it took me a while to get one! Limited edition (laughs). I’m going to have to tweet out here, I have a couple to give a couple away, I managed to get ahold of some extras.

AC: Thanks a lot for taking the time to talk with me, I know how busy you are this time of year.

MS: Any time, I enjoyed it!