Sunday, April 12, 2015

Looking at Lynchburg on a Lazy Sunday

Regrettably, I did not have time to work up a proper Lazy Sunday for you all this week. I was busy building my backyard shrine to Jerry Sands. We have a popular pre-season playoff pick struggling despite a strong showing by their highly-regarded rotation (with one exception). The defense has been scuffling, and the lineup just isn’t producing, and it’s tough to pinpoint exactly why. The bullpen has been touched up a little, and it’s unclear who can be the 8th inning bridge to the young, talented closer. But enough about the 1-4 Washington Nationals, you’re here to read about the 2-3 Cleveland Indians.

Judging solely by the twitterverse, it may surprise some of you to learn that the Indians are 2-3 and not 2-30. Frustrating losses to the Tigers seem to be a foregone conclusion at this point, and yesterday’s was particularly galling. Corey Kluber deserved better than a no-decision, and the Indians were leading against the Tigers ace before the bullpen gave it back and then some. The Tribe battled back to tie it on the heroics of Little Jerry Sands, and then Cody Allen of all people got touched up in the 9th to finally put the game out of reach. Worst of all, the 9th inning saw Yan Gomes hit the deck in pain, with a sprained knee at least and an MRI today to determine if there’s any serious structural damage. Knees are important for catchers (#analysis!), and if Gomes misses an extended amount of time, the Indians lose their best right-handed hitter and a crucial defender behind the dish. All is not lost at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario, but it’s also tough to imagine the first homestand going much worse.

I was in Woodbridge, VA on Thursday for a cold and wet MiLB opening day. The Indians new high-A affiliate, the Lynchburg Hillcats, were in town to take on the Potomac Nationals. Dylan Baker started on the mound for the Hillcats, and was backed by a stacked lineup featuring Clint Frazier, Mike Papi, Bradley Zimmer, Nellie Rodriguez, Eric Haase and more. Some quick-hit thoughts on the game:

  I’ve seen two of Dylan Baker’s starts as a professional, spanning 11 innings of work, and I’ve yet to see him allow a hit. He walked Jayson Werth in the first inning on Thursday, and didn’t allow another baserunner after that. Baker was sitting comfortably in the 94-96 MPH range with his fastball, touching 97. He was up in the zone in the 1st inning, but settled down and spotted the pith effectively in the zone after that. His slider was a little inconsistent but flashed plus, and he mixed in a few curveballs as well. He only threw a handful of changeups, but saved the best one for the rehabbing Werth’s 2nd AB. He had Werth way out front on a CH to run the count to 1-2, then came back with a 96 MPH fastball on the inside corner for a called strike 3. Baker struck out a career-high 9, and the 23-year old looks to be ready for AA Akron sooner rather than later.

·         Clint Frazier is back to his toe-tapping ways, similar to his plate approach in high school. He played around with a leg kick last year, going with a big leg kick, small leg kick and finally settling back on the toe-tap as a timing mechanism. The bat speed is electric no matter how he triggers his swing, and the power potential is evident even when you’re watching him take swings in the cage. Frazier collected a pair of hits last night, both on line-drives up the middle. The first was a liner just to the right of the second baseman, and the second was a hard line drive to the right of the shortstop. Frazier still has a very aggressive approach, attacking the first pitch in 2 of his 5 AB, and got caught out on his front foot a couple of times. His 5th AB was his best of the night, as he was able to stay back on a pitch on the outer half and line a hard single through the 5.5 hole to the right of the shortstop. I think that having a consistent mechanical approach to hitting will help Frazier in 2015, as constant swing tinkering can make things tough on a young hitter. I still expect him to collect his fair share of strikeouts, especially in the pitcher-friendly Carolina League, but he’s going to hit some home runs as well. He’s a talented, confident young kid, and he’s going to be a big part of the Indians future.

·         Eric Haase has long been a favorite of mine, and last night did nothing to change that. Haase was consistently popping sub-2.0 in his throws to 2B between innings, showing off a plus arm and excellent footwork. His receiving is still a little raw, as he was stabbing at breaking pitches a little more than I’d like, but that’s something that should improve with time. At the plate, Haase was 1-5, but the hit was a triple that he smoked into the gap and then flashed his above-average (especially for a catcher!) speed in legging out the three-bagger.

·         Yesterday was the first time I’ve seen Bradley Zimmer live and in person, and he did not disappoint. Zimmer went 1-3 with two walks and a K, and I came away impressed with his size and swing mechanics. Zimmer starts with a slightly open stance and triggers with a short stride to close himself up and brings his hands quickly down through the zone. He has a little more leverage in the swing than I expected, and I can definitely see 20 HR in his bat once he adds a little more weight to his 6’4” frame. There’s no wasted movement in his swing, and he should be able to make consistent contact throughout his career. He’s a plus runner and a very good athlete, and really looks smooth out in CF.

·         Mike Papi struck out once and drew three walks in 5 plate appearances last night. He wasn’t passive at the plate, he just didn’t get much worth swinging at. He has a compact swing that should generate plenty of contact, and I’m excited to see more of him in game action.

·         Robbie Aviles pitched better than his score line would indicate (1 2/3 IP, 5 R (4 ER), 4 H, 3 K, BB). Only one of the hits he allowed was a hard-hit ball, and he was a victim of the BABIP gods on the other three. He was working mostly in the 90-92 MPH range and showing nice arm-side run on his 2-seamer. It was the first time I’d seen Aviles pitch, and he gets some deception with his cross-body delivery. He had a 2.55 ERA in 84 2/3 IP for Lake County last year, and is an intriguing potential bullpen arm.

·         Nellie Rodriguez went 1-5 with a double down the LF line last night, and his swing looks a little shorter than the last time I saw him. The weather robbed us of an opportunity to see his raw power displayed in BP, but I should be able to see he and Frazier duel for BP supremacy next week in Frederick.

·         The #MiLBProblems hashtag was in full effect last night. It was a chilly day that turned into a cold (~40 degrees) night, and there was a steady drizzle that fell throughout the game. That was miserable enough, but to make things worse, the power in the LF lights went out with 2 outs in the bottom of the 9th inning. I’m told there was a 40 min delay, but I wasn’t going to stick around to see it. Even with the subpar weather, it was great to get back out to the fields and check out some of the Indians up-and-coming talent on opening day. I’ll be out in Frederick next week to see Lynchburg take on the Frederick Keys, and here’s hoping the sun will be out this time around

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Off and Running on a Lazy Sunday

Photo Credit: Dale Omori
Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the last Lazy Sunday before baseball. Real, actual, regular season baseball. Michael Bourn will dig in the box and The Klubot will toe the rubber Monday night in Texas, and the most anticipated Indians season since…well, since last season…will begin in earnest. Expectations for this year’s Indians club are sky-high, with a series of national outlets and writers picking the Indians to dethrone the Tigers atop the AL Central, and some picking them to go even further than that. Putting the jokes about curses and jinxes aside (they are jokes, right?), it’s great to see the team that the Indians have built getting recognition as a potential AL powerhouse. Especially when you consider they sport the lowest payroll in the division, and that by a healthy margin. The Indians have less money committed to their 2015 roster ($86 million) than the Tigers have committed to their 2018 roster ($92 million). That’s just crazy, especially when you consider that $92 million will pay for just three players to actually play for the Tigers in 2018. Justin Verlander (who will be 35 in 2018), Miguel Cabrera (34) and Victor Martinez (39) all combine to make $82 million, and the Tigers are on the hook for at least a $5 million buyout for Ian Kinsler (35) and Anibal Sanchez (34). Those are talented players, but their best days are likely behind them right now, and they’ll continue to decline over the next 3+ years. Meanwhile, the Indians have an impressive collection of young talent under control through the 2017 season (and beyond, in most cases), including Corey Kluber, Michael Brantley, Yan Gomes, Carlos Santana, Trevor Bauer, Cookie Carrasco, Jose Ramirez, Francisco Lindor and more. The Indians are well-positioned to contend this year, and are built to last. Unlike our neighbors to the northwest.

Jumping in our Delorean and flying back to 2015 for a moment; the Tigers are still going to be a really good baseball team this year. As I discussed in this space a couple of weeks ago with Mark Shapiro, the Tigers have actually underperformed relative to their talent level on the way to winning 183 games over the past two seasons. This team still has Miggy Cabrera, Victor Martinez (sigh), David Price, Ian Kinsler and other really, really good baseball players. They also have Joe Nathan, who is a baseball player. Will this collection of experienced talent be able to hold off the young, upstart Indians (and the White Sox, and the Royals) for another year? Grantland’s Michael Baumann takes an in-depth look at an aging Detroit roster, and as a fan of a Phillies team that fell apart under similar circumstances, he seems uniquely qualified to predict when Rome might be collapsing:

Given that the season hasn’t started yet, I feel comfortable saying three things: (1) I agree with the projections insofar as they think the AL Central race is going to be close; (2) if everything goes right for every team, the Tigers are still the best squad in the division; (3) I don’t think everything’s going to go right for the Tigers this year…
…Like individual human beings, baseball teams can temporarily stave off the ravages of time if they try hard enough. So, maybe the Tigers have another run in them. They certainly deserve another shot, considering that unlike those Phillies, Braves, and Yankees teams, they haven’t won a World Series in this stretch of success. But any respite would be temporary, because only time is undefeated.
Things are already starting to go wrong for the Tigers, as Justin Verlander is set to open the season on the DL. This is the first time in his career he’s made a trip to the disabled list, and it’s for a triceps, not an elbow, so it’s entirely possible that Verlander will be back and starting when the Tigers come to Cleveland for the first home stand of the season. But even if healthy, which Verlander are the Tigers going to get moving forward? The 120 ERA+ guy who threw 218 innings in 2013? Or the 88 ERA+ guy who threw 206 innings last year. Verlander churned out an AL-high 1172 regular-season innings from 2009-2013, and was one of the best pitchers in baseball during that time. Will we look back on his subpar 2014 as a blip on the radar similar to his 2008 (92 ERA+)? Or will we see it as the beginning of the end for a now-32 year old warhorse (who is still owed $140 million over the next 5 years)? Time will tell, but the fact that we’re even asking the question shows you that the Tigers aren’t their usual, invincible selves heading into 2015.

Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
Staying in the AL Central for now, Anthony Castrovice took a look around the division in an attempt to identify the keys for each club headed into 2015. There are few (if any) reporters in the baseball universe that know the division better than Castro, so if you haven’t read the entire piece, that’s something you should remedy as soon as possible. Unsurprisingly, Castro singles out defensive improvement as the Indians key to success in 2015, particularly from infielders Lonnie Chisenhall and Jason Kipnis. Kipnis’ health is a huge story going into 2015, as the Indians are a completely different team with 2013 Kip in the #2 slot in the lineup and in the field than they are with 2014 Kip. 

Don’t believe me? Well, 2013 Kipnis was an all-star, 11th in MVP voting and was worth 5.9 WAR per Baseball Reference. Meanwhile, 2014 Kipnis missed 33 games, played injured in many of the rest of those games, and was worth 0.9 WAR. It’s entirely reasonable to look at that and say if Kipnis were healthy and effective last year, the Indians would’ve made the playoffs (they finished just 3 games out of the 2nd Wild Card). He’s as important as any player on the roster right now, and is hopefully healthy out of spring training this year.

As you no doubt know by now, I missed out on a trip to spring training this year for the first time since 2009. The absence of that trip really made the offseason drag on, and more importantly it prevented me from getting looks at any of the youngsters the way I usually do. Missing out on my first look at the 2014 draftees is bad enough, but not getting a chance to see the improvements and mechanical tweaks made by some of the more established players might be even more disappointing. Fortunately, we have access to the next best thing, as the Baseball Prospectus prospect team made a group trip to AZ and wrote up their thoughts on several Indians prospects. Tucker Blair spent a day in Goodyear, and came away particularly impressed with RHP Dylan Baker (video in the link):

He has a sturdy frame with a power bottom, which he uses for heavy drive towards home. In this outing, Baker was pumping his fastball 95-98 mph, steamrolling through the Reds’ lineup. The fastball was a tick higher than in the past, displaying explosion and coming off a good plane. The curveball was also improved since my last viewing, displaying hard bite and depth at 81-84 mph.
Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
Blair also wrote up his thoughts on 2014 1st round pick Bradley Zimmer (good!) and power 1B prospect Nellie Rodriguez (not as good!) in that article, so it’s more than worth your time. In addition to Tucker’s fine work, BP fantasy/prospect experts Ben Carsley and Craig Goldstein had a back-and-forth regarding Indians catching prospect Francisco Mejia. Goldstein has long loved Mejia, and this was Carsley’s first look at the diminutive young backstop. Carsley came away underwhelmed (SSS alert!) and that caused a bit of a visceral reaction from Craig (who does visceral reactions better than most). Carsley listed Mejia as the player that he came away from spring training liking less than he did before, resulting in Goldstein listing Carsley in that same “disappointment” category. Carsley did caveat his write-up by saying that Mejia is a better real-life prospect than he is a fantasy prospect (mainly because of the defense), so no need to attack him in the twitterverse for being a hack of a talent evaluator and an unabashed Red Sox homer. However, if you did want to do that, here’s his twitter page.

More bad rotation news for the Indians this week, as it was revealed that Josh Tomlin will be on the shelf for at least 3-4 months after surgery on the AC joint in his shoulder. Tomlin’s shoulder was apparently bothering him early in camp, but he was able to get back on the mound after a cortisone shot in March. The injury kept bothering him though, and it eventually became too much to overcome. The Indians vaunted SP depth takes another hit, as the number of contenders for the rotation dips down to 8, and that includes Shawn Marcum and Bruce Chen. Danny Salazar is the clear #6 guy now, and will be the first called to Cleveland if injury or ineffectiveness strikes a member of the Indians rotation. I still feel like Zach McAllister will eventually end up in the bullpen with Salazar taking his slot in the rotation, as Salazar just has too much upside not to work his way up to the North Coast at some point in 2015.

Stepping outside our Indians-centric focus for a moment, Craig Goldstein of Vice Sports and 
Baseball Prospectus took an insightful look at the Kris Bryant-Cubs disagreement this week. Goldstein looks at Bryant, the Cubs, and the system in general, and comes to the conclusion that the Cubs are keeping Bryant in the minors to open the 2015 season to exercise an additional year of control over him and thus save ownership some money. He also says (rightly) that this is the correct decision and one that pretty much every team in baseball should/would make. From Goldstein’s article:

It's important to note that when people talk about control, what they're really talking about is money. The Cubs have the opportunity to retain Bryant for a seventh year without keeping him in the minors—it's simply a more expensive option. So keep in mind that when your favorite team doesn't promote a top prospect, it's because somewhere along the line, someone decided that saving money was the priority. Also keep in mind that the way the system is set up, the team is almost certainly making the smart decision. And that's the whole damn problem.
Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
This applies to the Indians as well, in the context of top prospect Francisco Lindor. Like the Cubs, the Indians have a player in place with MLB experience (Mike Olt for the Cubs, Jose  Ramirez for the Indians) and no real reason to start the clock on their player on opening day. If (when) Olt or Ramirez falter, the club can bring up their uber-prospect to take the place of the MLB guy, and not lose a year of team control. Superagent Scott Boras argues that this is the wrong thing to do from a moral perspective (conveniently, Bryant is a client of his), but that’s not what we’re here to argue. It’s the best business decision for the Cubs, a team that has money coming out of their ears. For a small market club like the Indians, it’s an absolute no-brainer. Lindor is pretty much ready to contribute at the major league level, especially with the glove. That’ll almost certainly happen at some point in 2015. But it’d be silly for that to happen on April 6, or really anytime before May 1 unless someone gets hurt.

The Indians put out the opening day rosters for all of their full-season affiliates on Friday, which is always one of the most anticipated events of the spring (for me at least). There weren’t too many surprises, and all four of the clubs will have some intriguing talent. Lindor, Urshela, Danny Salazar and James Ramsey are all in AAA Columbus, an injury away from Cleveland. Erik Gonzalez replaces Lindor at SS for Akron, and will be joined by two of my personal favorites in Tony Wolters and Justin Toole. High-A Lynchburg is probably the most loaded affiliate, as their outfield of Clint Frazier, Bradley Zimmer and Mike Papi will bring scouts from miles around, and their starting rotation of Dylan Baker, Mitch Brown, Luis Lugo and Adam Plutko will be fun to watch as well. Low-A Lake County has Francisco Mejia, which is more than enough for me. Joining Mejia will be Justus Sheffield, Bobby Bradley, Sean Brady, Dace Kime and Yu-Cheng Chang. No matter which minor league affiliate you go out and watch, you’re going to get to look at players who are going to be a big part of the Indians future. I get to see Lynchburg next week on minor league opening day when they come to Potomac, and watching Zimmer and Frazier dig into the batter’s box against Lucas Giolito is going to be a LOT of fun.

As I alluded to in the introduction, lots of people outside the friendly confines of NE Ohio are picking the Indians to do well this year. Some are predicting a wild card, some have them winning the division, and a few are even going out on a limb and calling for a World Series championship, which would of course be the first since 1948. Predictions, plus $3, can usually get you a medium cup of black coffee at Starbucks, but they’re fun to look at nonetheless. To save time and space, we’re going to go lighting round with many of these predictions in an effort to knock out as many as possible.

Grantland’s Jonah Keri picks the Indians to dethrone the Tigers, predicting them to win more than 84 games on the strength of their young pitching and a bounce back season from Jason Kipnis.

Fangraphs’ prediction model has the Indians beating out the Tigers for the Central by one game.  I’m not sure my heart can handle a do-or-die game 162, so hopefully they clinch before the last day of the season. They give the Indians a 43% change at the division, 14% chance for the wild card, and a 7% chance to win the World Series. By my (usually bad) math, that means they have a better than even (57%) shot at the playoffs. They do caveat their prediction with a warning though; “But despite the old proverb, the road to hell is actually paved with teams who built their rosters around young pitching; this could also go really, really wrong.”

In addition to Fangraphs computer projections picking the Indians, their writers seem to be big fans as well. Of their 38 writers, 24 pick the Indians to claim the AL Central crown. Another 11 peg them as a Wild Card, making that 35 out of 38 possible votes for the Indians in the playoffs in one form or another. That puts them at the top of the American League, one ahead of Boston’s 34.

Mike Ferrin from Sirius/XM’s MLB Network Radio is calling an Indians-Nationals World Series. Living as I do in the Washington DC metro area, this would be a dream come true for mean and a nightmare for my bank account, as I’d have to find a way to attend not only the games in Cleveland but the matchups in DC as well. If it does come to fruition though, you’re all welcome to crash at my place during the series.

All 45 members of the Baseball Prospectus staff made their predictions on Friday, with 22 of those 45 picking the Indians to win the Central Division. Two of them, sandwich guru Craig Goldstein and pitching guru Doug Thorburn, are picking the Tribe to win it all. That doesn’t sound like many, but consider that the Indians are one of only 3 teams to get more than one vote to take home the hardware at the end of the season. A whopping 24 of 45 writers picked the Nationals, and 14 are taking the Dodgers. The cumulative voting from BP has Corey Kluber 4th in the AL Cy Young race (3 1st place votes) and Michael Brantley tied for 9th in MVP voting (1 1st place vote). Shadev Sharma, a man after my own heart, gives Yan Gomes his 3rd place AL MVP vote.

ESPN’s David Schoenfield is calling the Indians the top team in the AL, and the #4 overall team in baseball. This despite predicting some regression from 2014 AL MVP candidate Michael Brantley. Schoenfield sees a bounce back year for Kipnis and better defense in 2015, and thinks you should go down to the stadium and see for yourself.

Fourteen staff members at Beyond the Box Score made their predictions, with 100% of responded picking the Indians to make the playoffs in some fashion. Six writers have the Tribe taking the division, and the other eight are slotting them in as Wild Cards. That’s pretty good.

The crew over at’s “Big League Stew” make their predictions, and noted White Sox fan Chris Cwik has the Indians at the top of the division. So does Mark Townsend. Mike Oz tries to temper our expectations by picking them third, but I’m way beyond tempering at this point. They also look at the Lindor question and examine whether Cookie Carrasco’s newfound slider will translate to success in 2015.

Jason Lukehart did an extremely in-depth preview of this year’s club over at Let’s Go Tribe, and it is predictably outstanding. Lukehart admits that he’s more of a glass half-empty type of guy when it comes to pre-season predictions, jaded as only a longtime Cleveland fan can be. But even he sees this team in contention throughout 2015, and sees them fighting the Tigers down to the wire for the division.

Saving the best(?) for last; none other than Sports Illustrated picked the Indians to win not only the division, but the World Series this year. They were nice enough to put CyKluber and Michael Brantley on the cover of their fine publication, which naturally caused the population of NE Ohio to have a collective minor meltdown. SI themselves found this amusing enough to post an article, complete with some of the more colorful tweets on the subject (including one from yours truly). Let me briefly clarify my stance on the subject; there’s no such thing as curses. There’s no Cleveland Curse. There’s no Curse of Rocky Colavito. There is no SI Cover Jinx. I think it’s funny that SI picked the Indians as the best team in baseball the same year they lost 101 games, and I still love Corey Snyder. That pretty much sums it up. The Indians have a young, talented, exciting roster that’s built to contend in 2015 and beyond. If they don’t win it all, it’ll be because another team was better, not because of some jinx (or even jixes). Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to tweak those last-min fantasy lineups, double-check to make sure my MLBTV account is up and running, and sit and stare at the clock, willing it to speed up and get to 7pm on Monday already…

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Lazy Sunday with the President, v.2015

It’s everyone’s favorite time of year again (well, my favorite time of year at least), as I was fortunate enough to have my annual March talk with Indians team President Mark Shapiro earlier this week. Mark and I usually talk at the team’s spring training facility in Goodyear, but owing to some extenuating circumstances, I was unable to make my traditional pilgrimage to Arizona this winter. Still, he was gracious enough to take an hour out of his very busy spring schedule to talk with me over the phone, and that’s the next best thing. If you missed the previous installments of this tradition, here’s a link to the 2013 and a link the 2014 editions. The following is a (lightly edited) transcript of our conversation this week.

Al Ciammaichella: Looking at the offseason progression of the stadium, how excited are you for the new Progressive Field experience in 2015?

Mark Shapiro: I’m extremely excited. That week I came home from spring training, about a week ago, and walked the space, it struck me just how dramatic the changes are, and I think just how unaware most fans are, that have been coming to the ballpark for over 20 years, how different that area in centerfield and rightfield is going to seem to them. How much more improved it’s going to be, and how excited they’re going to be about the opportunity to have new experiences in the ballpark.

AC: The tickets are certainly a great deal. $13 and you get your first beer paid for.

MS: Yeah, that special ticket that’s meant to really activate the bar in the corner, and people that have more of an interest in standing up and not necessarily having a fixed seat. We have a ton of standing room, with drink rails that allow people to watch the game and move all around in that rightfield bar.

AC: I know it was a rough winter in Cleveland, is everything on schedule to be completed by opening day?

MS: Remarkably, even with the winter we’ve had, at the moment we’re on schedule. I haven’t looked at the weather, but if it stays decent the rest of the way and we don’t get another big snowfall…but it’s Cleveland, and it’s weather. Anytime you’re dealing in that realm, there’s some unpredictability. I would say the one thing we’re certain of at this point is that we will have substantial completion, and the majority of the project will be done by opening day. The one thing I cannot tell you with certainty, because there is no certainty when it comes to weather in Cleveland, is that it’ll be totally complete. Just like when we moved into the ballpark 21 years ago there were still things that had to be done during the first road trip. Small things that were not complete.

AC: Were there any ideas left on the drawing board when it came to that space? Anything that you looked at doing but didn’t make it into the final plans?

MS: Absolutely. Any time that you do a project like that it’s the financial realities of having to stay within a budget. You start with the concepts. Start by researching the market, and testing it. Then you take the concepts to paper and start looking at a bunch of alternatives. And some of those alternatives that you love eliminate themselves because they’re just too expensive and they would limit the scope of the project. So there were plenty of things that I won’t dwell on that we considered doing that we did not do. But overall, I’m extremely excited, extremely happy about how the project looks when I look at it.

Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
AC: Shifting to the on-field product, Jose Ramirez came up last year, a guy who was more of a utility guy in the minors. Played a lot of 2B, was on the same team with Francisco Lindor a lot in the minors. Obviously Lindor is a special SS, so Ramirez played a lot of 2B and some 3B. He came up last year and really solidified the SS position at the major league level. Did you see him as a guy who could come up and be that good of a defensive SS right away at such a young age?

MS: Jose is an interesting guy. He’s a guy who’s not conventional in much that he does. You can’t teach the game the way he plays it. He’s got a great motor, incredible hands, good instincts, he picks great hops. He’s fearless in the way he plays the game. He’s obviously got well-above average speed. So he’s a guy that adds a dimension to our lineup and to our team that we really haven’t had, and I think a jolt of youth and energy to our team last year when he came up and did a great job.

AC: Does having him at SS give you a little luxury as far as leaving Lindor down in AAA to finish his development? You don’t have quite the same rush to promote him as if there were a free agent hole at short.

MS: At this point, we’re looking at those guys exclusive of each other. There may be a time when that doesn’t happen, but at this point Francisco Lindor’s development path says he should be in AAA completing his development and his foundation. Jose Ramirez, with his major league debut last year, justifies his opportunity to be our everyday shortstop. So although things can change; that’s the nature of professional sports and major league baseball, at the moment their trajectory doesn’t impact each other.

AC: So, speaking of Lindor, I think all fans want to know, with this top-5 prospect in all of baseball, what’s going to finish off his developmental curve? What will you see that makes him ready to come up to Cleveland and compete?

MS: I think consistency. Continuing to build the foundation of his routine and his preparation. I think the quality and consistency of both his at bats and his preparation are probably the keys. He’s got very limited time left in the minor leagues, and what he has, he has to use to prepare himself to have a foundation to handle both the mental and physical side up here. As a 21-year old there’s still some maturation both physically and mentally that he’s going through.

AC: So there’s no at bat threshold, certain amount of time you want for him in AAA or anything; when he’s ready, he’s ready?

MS: Yeah, I mean, I think I’ve said it before, but having seen it over decades, with players who are very good players, they set the timeframe for you. You don’t have to make decisions on them. It becomes very clear, very quickly that they’re not being challenged at the level they’re at, and that they’re ready to contribute up here or at least transition up here.

AC: Another thing in the 2nd half of last season was the incredible run that really the entire pitching staff put together. You tried to shore that up this offseason by picking up Gavin Floyd; obviously that didn’t work out when he re-injured his arm. Are you concerned at all about the starting pitching depth, even with 7 or 8 guys competing for 5 slots in the rotation? Is that something you wish you’d done more to address this offseason?

MS: Yeah, that’s why we signed Gavin Floyd. But the financial reality of the parameters that we have and the reality of starting pitching being such an inefficient market; I would point to this, Al…Brett Anderson, who hasn’t pitched more than 75 innings in the last four years got $10 million (from the Dodgers). Just stop and ponder that for a moment. Brett Anderson hasn’t pitched more than 75 innings in the last four years and got $10 million. So we took a guy who we thought was a little better risk than Brett, and gave him $4 million in the hope that he could pitch some or all of the season for us in the rotation and alleviate some depth concern and provide some veteran presence, all the while knowing it was very high risk, but that’s the nature of starting pitching, free agent starting pitching in particular. But we still have good options, particularly the way TJ has been throwing the ball.

Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
AC: TJ is another guy I wanted to talk about. Did you see him coming up and pitching that well? He probably pitched better in the major leagues last year than he did at any stop in the minors on his way up. Is there anything in particular that keyed that success at the major league level?

MS: You know, that’s a good question. He’s an interesting guy to look at, because he’s not the prospect that came up and didn’t struggle, he’s a guy that struggled, and I think it’s his struggles that helped him to define both the pitcher he is and the mental approach he takes to the game. So when I look at him, having a tough and unconventional path to the major leagues, he’s a guy that was forced to confront some significant challenges along the way. And I think those things helped him to define how he’d be successful in both approach and his repertoire.

AC: Speaking of struggles, you have three guys at the major league level that had really tough years last year due to injury, three guys who you thought coming into last season were really going to be key guys in Kipnis, Swisher and Bourn. What are you looking for from those three guys this season? Do you see them as being able to get back to the level they were at pre-2014?

MS: I’d probably separate Swish out from those other two guys. But the one thing I can say about all three guys together, Al, is that the upside with our club lies in those three players.

AC: Right. There’s almost some course correction, some improvement, that you can hope for out of those three if they are healthy:

MS: Right. And then shifting to Kip, talking to every single player that I know about what they’ve gone through when they’ve strained an oblique, particularly during spring training, that is an extremely, extremely tough injury to battle back from. And in some ways it never truly heals, particularly when you do it right at the beginning of spring training. I think that impacted his swing, his mechanics. I would say among the things we’ve seen in camp this spring, his play and his physical level of preparedness is probably the most exciting thing I’ve seen this spring. I mean, he’s rifling balls to left and right field, he’s ran extremely well.

AC: Yeah, he’s going the other way better, and when he’s going the other way that’s a sign he’s really going good.

MS: Yeah, I’d say that, and just hard contact. He’s impacting the baseball, and running extremely well.

AC: The competition in the AL Central this year…Chicago went out and got a lot better this year, Detroit is probably slipping a little with losing Scherzer and getting a little older, but what’s the challenge in the Central this year? That’s a tough division to be in right now.

MS: It can pretty much be summed up as the best division in baseball. I think there’s a lot of parity throughout the game but it’s hard to argue that the Central isn’t the best division. There are four teams that you can make a compelling case to win the division. The interesting thing is that you can probably also say here are the flaws in those teams and the reasons why they won’t win the division. But as you noted, Chicago may be the most improved team in all of major league baseball, and they were probably a lot better than most people realize last year as well. The Tigers, while they could be termed as “declining” simply because of age, they’re declining from an elite level where they were probably capable of winning 115 games. That’s probably something people don’t realize there, different things have led to them underperforming relative to their talent level over the last few years, so they could easily go out and win 100 games this year. That’s how good they still are. Kansas City, obviously, has some challenges that we fight. They’re a very young, very talented core group of players, but they’ve also lost some guys.

Photo Credit: Lianna Holub
AC: One good thing to look at is the 2014 draft. It’s being roundly accepted as one of the best drafts in all of baseball, getting a guy like Bradley Zimmer that a lot of people saw going in the top 10-15. Did you have a plan to get guys like that, or did they just fall to you? How did that all work out?

MS: I think what we really try to challenge ourselves to do is to have our org slotted as well as we can possibly slot it. Over the years, probably over the past 5 or 6 drafts, we’ve gotten better each year at understanding about how to position our board most effectively, and I think that allows us to react to what happens in front of you without having to target specific players. Our goal and our intent is to get the best player available at the time we pick, each time we pick. There may be other variables like signability that factor into it, particularly in later rounds, but initially we just want to be in position to get the best player available. We have a set of criteria that’s constantly evolving that allows us to slot the board that factors in scouting information and every other piece of analytical data that we can possibly get our hands on.

AC: It has to be good to see guys like Zimmer and even Bobby Bradley, a kid who came right out of high school, already fitting in spring training games at the major league level, holding their own, showing that they belong there.

MS: Those are exciting guys. Both Zimmer and Bobby Bradley…Bradley may be one of the most exciting high school position players that I can remember. We’re excited about the draft. I’m hesitant to pay attention to what people talk about, judging draft classes too early. Judging draft classes should be 5 or 6 years later.

AC: You see a big explosion, seems like every year around this time, of pitchers going down with Tommy John, pitchers getting hurt, needing season-ending surgery. Is there anything the organization is doing to try to protect themselves against that? Obviously there’s no way to completely eliminate it, but is there anything you’re doing to try and reduce arm injuries? Are you avoiding young pitching prospects?

MS: No (not avoiding pitching prospects). We have certain things we look at that are somewhat predictive in terms of ability to stay healthy, ranging from arm action to delivery to usage…other physical parameters. But they’re not perfect. Human beings are far from perfect. We’re constantly seeking to learn and understand, there are adjustments kids have to make to keep guys healthy once we get them. Matt Harvey is a good example. He’s a guy we thought profiled to stay healthy and he still got hurt. Pitching is a tough, tough area. It’s an area where you never feel completely confident and secure. You do the best you can to control what you can control.

AC: Right, there’s clearly no magic bullet that says “this guy will have TJ, and this guy will never get hurt.”

MS: The likelihood with pitching is that at some point guys are probably going to have some type of arm injury. There may be some freaks of nature that don’t, but it’s an unnatural movement and motion, one that gets repeated a lot over a career.

AC: Seeing the opening of Cuba as a market, more so that before with defectors, as both the Indians President and a guy on the competition committee, what do you think of some of the big deals that are getting thrown to the Cuban guys that are coming over? Do you ever see an international draft because of some of the factors in the market down there?

MS: Well, it’s a little bit, probably, Indians-centric of me as a judgement, but I’d like to see some adjustment that allows access to that talent. As it’s currently being distributed, we are going to be marginal to non-players in that area just because of the level of risk, and that risk comes from lack of information. We just don’t know much about these guys. Unless there’s information being illegally obtained, they’re being signed largely from a tryout environment. I understand, and I’d probably take that risk if I ran a large-market team, but we don’t have that luxury. It’s not an area we can play in. We can’t risk tens of millions of dollars on players that we have far less information on than players in the draft that cost a lot less. So it’s just a very tough market for us to play in. I would like to see something that allows access to that talent on a more proportional basis, that’s not so market-based.

AC: Does it at least offer you an opportunity, with the big-market guys paying the Cuban players? The Red Sox can’t spend international money (bonus over $300k per the CBA) next year. Does that give you a little more of a market share with the Dominican, Venezuelan and Colombian kids?

MS: Slight. They’re going to do what they did this year. It might free us up a little for that one year, but they’ve already spend the money. For the next year maybe, maybe, for one team it takes them out of it. But that’s just one team, so it’s not going to dramatically change it.

AC: Looking at some of the excitement around the team this year, you have a lot of national guys, ESPN, Baseball Prospectus, picking the Indians as a dark horse for the AL pennant. Some guys picking you to win the Central despite that tough competition we talked about earlier. Do you like being more of a dark horse or in the favorite role?

MS: If I had my preference, I’d probably prefer to fly under the radar. But I also like the credit, like seeing the credibility generated by the way we’re going about our business. People are starting to recognize the talent we have in our clubhouse, how we have some of the best players in major league baseball on our team. I like to see that recognized. But internally, very few people pay attention to that stuff. Our players probably have no idea, other than that there’s been a little more attention this spring.

AC: Ok, I can’t possibly go an entire interview with the Indians team President without talking about Yan Gomes. How happy are you with the contract that you were able to sign him to, and how good does that look moving forward?

MS: You and I have talked about that a lot (laughs). I love Yan. I love Yan the player, I love what he represents. He’s a winning player, the kind of guy, the kind of player that I’d prefer to have represent the Indians. The fact that we can control him, and the fact that he’s so happy to be a part of the long-term plan here. I think it’s empowered a guy like him, and Michael Brantley, to take even more of a leadership role here. Leadership gets asserted in different ways by different guys, but those are both guys who, the way they go about their business, is a form of leadership and is inspirational in some ways. I’m excited to watch Yan continue to mature, and there’s not much doubt at this point, already, that he’s one of the best catchers in the American League.

AC: Speaking of Brantley, his 2014 was one of the best seasons by an Indians position player in recent years. Do we think that 2014 Brantley is the new normal? Or is that going to be a little bit of an outlier for him, with him coming back to earth a little bit?

MS: Obviously, there’s an analytical case to be made that he will regress some. But I think what offsets some of the analytical concern is knowing the guy. He’s a determined guy, extremely committed to his level of preparation. So while I wouldn’t be surprised to see him regress some…but look, guys like Kluber and Brantley, the years they had, some regression is not unexpected, but that would not mean they had a bad year.

AC: Thanks again so much, I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me again, and good luck this year. 

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Running the Bases on a Lazy Sunday

Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
I’ll start off this week by begging your pardon for the brevity of this week’s Lazy…an over-aggressive work/travel schedule this week plus friends from out of town prevented me from getting any sort of meaningful writing time. But there were some great Tribe-centric articles floating around the interwebs this week that I wanted to be sure to highlight here, so I wanted to get something on to virtual paper even if it’s not the usual 5-6,000 word effort. I promise that next week will more than make up for it, as I have something special in store to help cure your post-St. Patty’s Day hangovers. If not though, please send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to The DiaTribe, Corner of Carnegie and Ontario, Cleveland, OH to receive your full refund (purchase price minus small convenience and restocking fees, of course). With that bit of housecleaning out of the way, let’s jump right in to all (ok, most) of the news that’s fit to link…

Francisco Lindor is a guy who I’ve spent plenty of time talking about for the last few years, so I’m not going to spend a lot of space on him this week. But I did want to highlight an article from ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick that focused on Lindor, because Crasnick is normally a guy who covers the MLB beat. It’s a little unusual to see him write an article focusing solely on a prospect. Crasnick (a closet Indians fan) includes a pretty telling quote from veteran infielder Mike Aviles:

"He's a cocky kid, a confident kid, and that's good," Aviles said. "You want that. But sometimes when you get that much hype, it's easy to let it go to your head. He's also a very humble kid, to the point where none of that gets to him. He's so willing to learn and so appreciative of any information you give him, it's actually a joy to be around him. He doesn't believe the hype -- he wants to prove the hype.
Cocky, confident, but humble and willing to learn. More indications on how special Lindor’s makeup is, and this from the guy who will essentially be out of a job when Lindor comes up to the major league roster. If Lindor takes over at SS, Ramirez will likely slide to the utility role, leaving Aviles to scratch and claw for playing time and provide depth in case of injury. Despite this, Aviles has nothing but good things to say about Lindor, and is playing a significant role in mentoring the young uber-prospect.

I’ve often linked to Grantland’s Jonah Keri, in this space, and today will be no different. Keri has been high on the Indians for the past couple of years, and features no less than three Sons of Geronimo in his “Breakout Players of 2015” piece this week. To absolutely no one’s surprise, those three players are pitchers Carlos Carrasco, Trevor Bauer and Danny Salazar. Salazar was in Keri’s 2014 edition of the breakout players list, and he makes a repeat appearance this year after his solid 2nd half last season. Keri even mentions Yan Gomes (a sure way to get me to link to your article, BTW) as a reason to be optimistic when looking at the entire Indians pitching staff. Music to my ears, especially when Keri provides his justification for predicting breakouts for those three pitchers:

The soon-to-be-28-year-old Carrasco hails from the Hutchison camp, coming to 2014 off of a strong final 10 starts: 69 innings pitched, 78 strikeouts, 11 walks, 45 hits and two homers allowed, and a 1.30 ERA. The third-overall pick in the 2011 draft, Bauer owns an eclectic and at times electric eight-pitch repertoire that helped the 24-year-old fan 143 batters in 153 innings last year. He is also one of the most fascinating characters in the game. As for Salazar, we’re going back to the well after an erratic season that included an extended demotion to the minors, but 120 punch-outs in 110 innings hint at the potential that the 25-year-old’s fastball-slider-splitter combination possesses.
Keri’s effort was far from the only article this week that looked at the Indians starting rotation. We’ll go back to our ESPN friend Jerry Crasnick for a minute, as he penned a nice piece on the Indians starting 5. Crasnick didn’t really break much new ground for those of us who have been devoted fans of the Tribe over the past few years, but he did write a really solid article pulling together the strides that the Indians staff made last year under the tutelage of The Pitcher Whisperer™ and also gave a shout out to Indians minor league pitching coordinator Ruben Niebla for his work with the young arms throughout the org. Niebla is one of those guys who most fans probably don’t know, but he has an impact from Arizona all the way up to Cleveland, and it’s nice to see him get some of the attention he deserves for his tireless work in the organization. Niebla is an experienced guy who has the respect of players and coaches throughout baseball, and plays a significant role in the development of the Indians arms. Crasnick’s article also helps highlight the quiet but steady leadership provided by Corey Kluber, who helped with the enigma that is Trevor Bauer this offseason. Bauer, Carrasco, Salazar, House and Kluber all made significant strides in their development last year, and it’s a credit to the Indians coaching staff that they can work to improve their players while still allowing them the freedom to work things out in their own way. What works with Carlos Carrasco (simplifying his delivery, coming up with a bullpen to mound routine) isn’t going to work with a thinker/tinkerer like Bauer. The Indians didn’t try to copy the Carrasco model with Bauer this offseason, allowing him to pitch in the dark, build drones and do basically whatever he felt he needed to do to get ready for spring training. We’ll still have to wait and see if last season’s performance gains were legitimate and sustainable, but if not, it won’t be for lack of solid coaching throughout the organization.

Both Anthony Castrovince and Matthew Trueblood of Baseball Prospectus wrote similar articles focusing on the volatility of the Indians rotation this week, and both are well-worth the time it takes to read. Castro used a Seinfeld approach (shocking, I know), harkening back to George Costanza’s insanely inconsistent sight without his glasses. George could spot a dime from across Jerry’s apartment, but also managed to accidentally bite into an onion from the fridge, believing it to be an apple. The native Clevelander knows not to get too out over his skis when it comes to the Indians rotation; once bitten, twice shy and all:
I love the enthusiasm about this unit, but, at the same time, I’m a Clevelander who knows how it so often goes, and I’ll admit to being a little more pessimistic about things, sans Floyd.
This rotation could amaze. It could completely unravel. Either possibility is 100 percent realistic. That’s what makes it one of the most fascinating rotations in baseball.
Trueblood doesn’t have the built-in Cleveland fandom (nor impending sense of doom), but is equally fascinated with the Indians rotation. He first looks at how insanely cheap the Indians starting pitching is this year, and he even included Gavin Floyd’s (more on him in a minute) $4 million in the very helpful chart below:

Trueblood goes on to look at the boom-or-bust nature of the Cleveland staff, using Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projection system to look at the 90% through 10% performance predictions for the Indians 5 likely starting pitchers come April and beyond. What he finds is that while the Indians staff could be among the very best in baseball, it could also wind up down in the dumps:

What does this tell us, other than that the Indians are one of the toughest teams in baseball about whom to prognosticate this spring? Well, for one thing, when it comes to pitchers, ceiling comes cheap. The Indians employ the reigning Cy Young champion, a former third-overall draft pick, three guys who struck out at least a quarter of opposing batters last season and three who throw at least 95 miles per hour regularly. The five pitchers in this proposed rotation will make a combined $6.2 million and change this season. Part of that is, again, that the Indians were excruciatingly patient with the development of these arms, gave them more chances than most organizations would have given, and are now reaping the benefits (while also maintaining many years of team control over the group). Part, though, is that the front office’s appetite for risk here has been stunningly high. Most teams simply wouldn’t allow this much variance to build within one segment of its roster.
When you’re dealing with the financial realities that the Indians face (small payroll, small TV deal, lots of money committed to Swisher/Bourn), you’re going to have to take some chances throughout your roster. If a lot of those chances (we called them “ifs” in this space about a year ago) pay out, then even with a bottom-10 payroll you can contend for a division and even a World Series title. If a lot of those chances go bust, then you’re planning for a top-5 draft pick next June. The Indians aren’t unique in that they have to take risks, but they are a little unique in that they have so much volatility in one specific area of their roster (SP). But the price is certainly right, and if you’re going to load up one segment of your roster with boom-or-bust guys, it might as well be the segment of your roster that is coached by The Pitcher Whisperer™. Having Yan Gomes behind the plate doing the framing for these guys won’t hurt either.

The rotation news wasn’t all sunshine and roses this week, as Gavin Floyd looks to have re-injured his elbow, possibly in the same fashion that prematurely ended his 2014 season with the Braves. Floyd had Tommy John in May of 2013, then another procedure in June of 2014 to stabilize a fracture in the same elbow. Here we are in March of 2015, and it’s looking like Floyd will need yet another procedure in the very same joint that’s given him so many problems over the past few years. Floyd was a $4 million lottery ticket that was signed to give the Indians depth in their young rotation, and it’s looking like that ticket was a bust. It’s hardly the worst injury that could strike this spring, as the rotation is deep and talented even without the veteran Floyd. The Indians still have seven (eight if you count Bruce Chen) legitimate starting pitching options, but their depth took a serious hit with the Floyd re-injury.

Even after the Floyd injury, Jeff Long of Baseball Prospectus ranked the Indians as having “Doomsday Prepper” level depth with their starting rotation. Long took a look at the projected WARP (if they each pitched 165 innings) of MLB clubs’ 6th and 7th starters, using Josh Tomlin and Zach McAllister for the Indians. That duo projects to a 2.6 WARP, 3rd highest in all of baseball. Also, I can sorta picture Josh Tomlin in a survivalist store purchasing bulk MREs to store in his underground bunker in case the North Koreans decide to take out our power grid, so the category fits. For comparison’s sake, the Indians AL Central rivals clock in at “Outdoor Enthusiast” (Royals) and the lowly “Millennial” (White Sox and Tigers), suggesting that the Indians are still in better shape to weather a potential injury to a starting pitcher than their direct competitors for the divisional crown.

In his start against the Chicago Cubs earlier this week, Trevor Bauer gave up back-to-back-to-back HR against three of the Cubs young prospects in Jorge Soler, Javier Baez and Kris Bryant. All three of those guys have prodigious power potential, and there’s really no shame in giving up HR in the thin Arizona air. Tito Francona and Brad Mills decided to have some fun with Bauer after the game, enlisting the Goodyear PD to come into the locker room with three baseballs to return to Bauer, saying they had contributed to a traffic incident on Estrella Parkway outside of the stadium. Bauer took it in stride, posting pictures of the baseballs on his twitter account, and laughing about the gag along with the rest of his teammates. Bauer infamously clashed with his teammates and coaching staff in Arizona before being traded to Cleveland, and he can sometimes get a little bogged down in minutiae of individual results, so it’s especially good to see him laughing off his less than ideal results on the diamond. Spring training stats don’t mean anything, and baseball is still supposed to be fun. Hopefully, this Indians team is still laughing together deep into the postseason in the fall of 2015.