Sunday, April 03, 2016

Ready for Baseball on a Lazy Sunday

Back again for the second week in a row here on a Lazy Sunday! I wanted to take a moment and thank everyone for reading and for the (universally positive) feedback I received after finally posting an article last week. You guys and gals are the reason I’m writing again this week. Knowing I’m doing a small part to fill what appears to be a void in otherwise excellent Indians coverage feels good, and the fact that people are reading and appreciating it makes it all worthwhile. Well, that and the fact that opening day is tomorrow(!) This offseason has somehow managed to both drag on and fly by. It feels like last week that I was watching the Mets fall to the Royals, and yet it feels like 10 years ago that the Indians last took the field in a meaningful contest. A lot has happened since then, both on and off the field, and I cannot wait for real, actual baseball at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario again. Through an unfortunate quirk in scheduling, I’ll actually be in Cincy on a work trip for Opening Day tomorrow, but I’ll also be in Cleveland for game two on Wednesday. If you think I’m not going to be at the stadium for that game, well, you really don’t know me very well. If anyone wants to meet up for a cold one at the Corner, I’ll be around Wednesday night. First round is on me. I should mention that I’ll be there with local television celebrity Jeff Nomina (among others), so if that makes you want to stay away, I don’t blame you. Let’s just hope it’s not raining (or snowing).

I’m eschewing the traditional “season preview” article because, well, you can find that pretty much anywhere. But I wanted to take a look at what I believe will be some of the keys to this season, a few things that will help determine whether the Indians are on the baseball diamond in October or setting up their tee times. Symmetrical lists are lazy and unoriginal, but I think it’s instructive to break down these keys into potential strengths and weaknesses. Since symmetry is bad, I’m going to look at four things that I’m excited about, and three that give me pause heading into 2016.

The first key to the season that I’m downright giddy about is Francisco Lindor. When Lindor was called up to the Indians last season, it stabilized both the infield defense (expected) and the top of the lineup (didn’t see that coming). Lindor debuted as a pinch hitter on June 14 in an 8-1 loss to the Detroit Tigers. He collected his first major league hit, tripped over 1B, and the Indians fell to 29-33. They went 52-47 the rest of the season to finish at 81-80, and Lindor is a huge reason for that improvement. If you want to play the “completely arbitrary endpoints game” (it’s fun! play along!), the Indians were a full 10 games over .500 at 36-26 from July 29 through the end of the season, a stretch during which the defensive wizard Lindor hit a robust .350/.391/.554 with 8 HR and 36 RBI. When you combine that with Gold Glove-level defense, it’s easy to see why people are so excited about Francisco Lindor’s sophomore campaign. He’s also already a leader in the clubhouse by virtue of his makeup and incredible work ethic.  His smile could power a small country. I could go on, but I’ve waxed poetic about Lindor for many years in this space, and will likely continue to do so for many years to come. Suffice to say, the 22-year old shortstop is one of the primary reasons I’m excited about this team’s chances for contention in 2016 and beyond.

I’m also really excited that we get a healthy and (hopefully) productive Yan Gomes back. Gomes was the 2nd most valuable position player on the 2014 Indians if you go by WAR (not a perfect statistic, but a nice consistent measuring stick for our purposes here). Gomes was worth 4.2 wins, behind only Michael Brantley’s 6.8. Brantley, you’ll recall, finished 3rd in the AL MVP race in 2014. Gomes was injured in April last year and missed 38 games rehabbing his knee. Knees, as you’d imagine, are somewhat important to a catcher. Gomes jumped right back into the lineup on May 24 but was never quite able to get untracked at the plate. He finished with just a .659 OPS (down from .785 in 2014) and popping a dozen HR (down from 21 in 2014).

Gomes struggled behind the dish last year as well. After assisting Indians pitching to the tune of 9.8 runs with his framing and 2.4 runs with his throwing in 2014, Gomes actually cost his staff 2.6 runs by his poor framing and 0.2 runs with his throwing last year. Again, knees are important to catchers, as is the relationship with his pitching staff. Both of those suffered with the April injury, and both Gomes and the Indians scuffled as a result. Gomes finished 2015 with just 0.8 WAR, a full 3.4 wins fewer than in 2014. If you’ll permit me to round that figure up to 4 (it’s my site now, I do what I want) and look at the final standings, adding those 4 wins that Gomes could’ve delivered to the Indians final total shows they would’ve finished with an 85-76 record. The mathematicians out there are no doubt wondering why that number adds up to 161, and the answer is because of the unfinished game against the Tigers that was never made up because it didn’t affect the final standings. That game would now need to be made up, because the AL Wild Card winning Houston Astros finished with a record of 86-76. In my fantasy world, the Indians beat the Tigers in that game, take down the Astros in the 1-game playoff for the 2nd Wild Card, beat the Yankees in a dramatic 1-game Wild Card showdown in the Bronx and go on to…well, you get the idea. Is it possible that a healthy Yan Gomes is all the Indians need to push themselves over the hump and back into the playoffs for the first time since way back in…2013 (editor’s note; that’s not that long ago)? Maybe. Either way, I sure hope we get to find out. As we were reminded last week with his sub-1.9 pop times throwing to 2nd, Yan is an awful lot of fun to watch behind the dish.

Sometimes sports fans take expected excellence for granted. The Indians 2016 rotation might be an example of that excellence turning into complacency. The rotation is led by two players who are AL Cy Young Candidates in Corey Kluber and Carlos Carrasco. The #3 starter, Danny Salazar, is a 26-year old who has more career strikeouts (380) than innings pitched (347). Sliding into the #4 slot in the rotation is a 25-year old righty who exceeded all expectations in his debut last season, going 7-3 with a 3.05 ERA in 15 starts and winning AL Pitcher of the Month in September. Anderson is also…seriously…in “the best shape of his life” and is a groundball machine on the mound. Being a groundball inducing SP at the beginning of 2015 would be a red flag in front of an Indians defense that was…well, really bad, but 2016 will open with defensive improvements at 3 of the 4 INF positions, so that’s now a positive rather than a concern with Anderson. The #5 starter is a bit of a surprise, but Josh Tomlin is what he is; an athletic strike-thrower who is prone to the longball, but they’re usually solo shots because he rarely walks anyone. He struck out 19 hitters in 17 1/3 spring IP, including 10 in his final tune-up against Seattle. That leaves Trevor Bauer headed to the bullpen to open the season. Bauer had a better spring than either Anderson or Tomlin, lowering his walk rate and picking up a tick on his already plus fastball. Personally, I’d have put Bauer in the rotation and moved Tomlin to the bullpen, but that option can always be exercised later in the season if it becomes necessary. Add to that group guys like Mike Clevinger and T.J. House, and the Indians go 8-deep when it comes to legitimate SP options. It’s a talented group that is arguably the best starting corps in the American League, and could rival the Mets group of flamethrowers for best in baseball before the 2016 season is over. The Mets made the World Series on the strength of their starting pitching last season (with help from an insane hot streak by Yoenis Cespedes and Daniel Murphy doing a Reggie Jackson impression in October), and it’s not a stretch to think that the Indians could do the same this year.

The last thing I’m going to cover in this section is something I’ve alluded to a few times above already; the vast improvement in the club’s defense from 2015 to 2016. Jonah Keri wrote a fantastic article last year chronicling the Indians rise from the worst defensive team in baseball last April/May to one of the best by the end of the season. Not coincidentally, that defensive rise coincided with the promotions of Francisco Lindor and Gio Urshela from AAA. Lindor will be around for a full season this year (God willing) and while Urshela is ticketed to begin the season in Columbus, he’s just a phone call away. Juan Uribe will start at the hot corner, and he should be at least a league-average defender this year. Lonnie Chisenhall went from a negative at 3B to an almost unbelievably effective defender in RF (although he’ll begin 2016 on the DL). Mike Napoli has saved 20 runs as a 1B, a pretty big step up from Carlos Santana’s -9. How a 1B can give away that many runs is beyond me, and speaks to Santana’s utter indifference as a defender. Tyler Naquin is going to start in CF; he’s fast and has an absolute cannon for an arm, despite lacking major league experience. Michael Bourn was a former Gold Glover with experience for days last year, but was neither fast nor had the ability to throw a baseball through a glass window. By the end of the season, I think that the Indians will be improved defensively at no fewer than 6 positions this year (CF, RF, 3B, SS, 1B and C). If they managed merely league-average defense for the entirety of 2015, the Indians may have made the playoffs. League-average is the floor for this year’s defense, and that bodes well for the prospect of playoff baseball on the North Shore.

Now that we have the sunshine and roses out of the way, let’s look at three things that concern me heading into 2016. The first, ironically, is Francisco Lindor. I’ll forgive your confusion, as you’ve seen me wax poetic about Lindor for the past several years now, including in this very article a few paragraphs above. What concerns me about Lindor are the sky-high expectations surrounding his hitting in 2016. I fully believe that no matter what happens, he’ll be a valuable member of the team by virtue of his glove alone. But Lindor hit better last year than at any stop along the way in his minor league career. He never hit more than 11 HR in any minor league season, then popped 12 in 99 MLB games. He never hit higher than .303 in the minors, but wound up with a .313 AVG in The Show. His highest MiLB OPS over a full season was .787, and he far outpaced that with an .835 mark in Cleveland. You get the idea. It’s possible that this is the new normal for Lindor; after all he’s only 22 and has added strength and size as he’s made his way up the organizational ladder. But this is Cleveland, so we’re generally expecting something to go wrong at any moment. Lindor’s BABIP (batting average on balls in play) was a robust .348 last year, a mark that’s higher than league average but not an insane outlier. That number will probably come down as luck evens out. He did strike out 69 times against just 27 walks, showing some (expected and totally understandable) struggles against major league breaking balls.

All this isn’t to say that I expect Lindor to be a weakness on the 2016 team; far from it. I just wouldn’t be shocked if his 2015 batting line didn’t carry over into 2016. If the 2015 Lindor we saw at the plate is for real, he’s going to be a legitimate MVP candidate down the road. Voters are predisposed to offense and tend to ignore defensive value when voting for awards (even the Gold Glove awards to a degree), which is probably why Carlos Correa and his 22 HR won the AL Rookie of the Year Award over Lindor despite Lindor’s higher WAR (4.6 to 4.1). So even if Lindor’s bat does regress in 2016, he’s still going to be a very important and valuable player to the Indians. I just think we should be prepared for that possibility, that the 22 year old defensive wizard isn’t ready to carry a major league lineup at this point in his career.

My second concern heading into 2016 also focuses on the offense, particularly the offense supplied by left fielder Michael Brantley. Brantley was one of the best players in the AL in 2014, posting an .890 OPS, compiling 6.8 WAR and finishing 3rd in the AL MVP voting. He was well on his way to another excellent season in 2015 before suffering a shoulder injury, and still managed to lead the league in doubles despite playing in just 137 games. He’s been their most consistent and valuable position player over the past two seasons, and when he’s in the 3-hole in the lineup, the Indians are a solid offensive team. Unfortunately, Brantley isn’t going to start the season in the lineup as he’s dealing with the lingering effects from offseason shoulder surgery. Brantley was injured diving for a ball on September 22, and after initially trying to strengthen the shoulder through rest and rehab, went under the knife in early November. Prior to the shoulder injury, Brantley had been battling back soreness throughout the season, so it’s almost remarkable he was able to put up the numbers that he did.

Brantley had a tear in the labrum of his right shoulder. As someone who has had surgery to repair a torn labrum, I can tell you firsthand that the surgery and recovery are no joke. Shoulder injuries have sapped the power and effectiveness from Indians hitters in the past. Travis Hafner’s torn labrum accelerated his decline, and Jason Kipnis dealt with a shoulder injury that derailed his 2014 season before it could even get untracked. While it was understood at the time of the surgery that Brantley was not expected back in the lineup for opening day, he teased Tribe fans earlier this month by playing (and homering!) in a Cactus League game. That had fans and teammates understandably excited, but Brantley felt discomfort in the shoulder after playing, so the Indians shut him down for the remainder of the spring. It’s tempting to call that a setback for Brantley and many did, but when you remember back in November that Brantley wasn’t expected to resume baseball activities for 4-5 months, you realize that he’s not so much behind schedule now as he was ahead of schedule when he appeared in a big league game last week. I was always afraid that Brantley would rush back too quickly and either re-injure himself or be ineffective in the lineup the way Kipnis was in 2014. Hopefully that little “setback” that he endured last week was more of a reality check than anything, and Brantley will continue to strengthen his shoulder and come back when he’s ready to perform at a high level again. Even if that’s not until mid-April or even May, I’d much rather have 130 games of 2014 Brantley than 155 games of 2014 Kipnis-type performance. If the Indians are going to contend for a championship in 2016, they’re going to need a healthy and productive Michael Brantley in LF.

The third and final area of the team I’m concerned with heading into 2016 is the bullpen. Cody Allen is more than solid in the back of the pen, coming off of a season where he saved 34 games, struck out 99 and posting a 2.99 ERA in 69 1/3 IP. Before that though, there’s a significant amount of uncertainty. Jeff Manship was otherworldly last year, allowing a miniscule 0.92 ERA in 39 1/3 IP (469 ERA+!!!), but prior to last year he was nothing short of awful as a major league reliever. His ERA in 139 1/3 IP prior to last season was a robust 6.46. I sure hope he’s the guy we saw last year, but to count on that seems silly. Bryan Shaw was solid last year with a 2.95 ERA in 64 IP, but he’s made 224 appearances over the last three seasons and the 28-year old’s right arm might actually fall off this year if he is called on to make another 70+. No one really knows what to expect out of Joba Chamberlain, but he finished last year with a 4.88 ERA (and a 5.37 FIP) in 27 IP last year. Zach McAllister has the potential to be a weapon in the back end of the bullpen, and was solid there last season with 84 K and a 3.00 ERA in 69 IP. The only lefty in the bullpen is Ross Detwiler, and he has a 5.56 ERA in the last two seasons since becoming a reliever. As much as Tito Francona loves pulling his RP levers in the late innings of games, I’m a little surprised that the Indians are breaking camp with just a single southpaw. I fully expect to see Kyle Crockett in Cleveland at some point in 2016, especially if Detwiler struggles early on.

Manship, Shaw, Detwiler, McAllister, Chamberlain and Dan Otero might pitch effectively in 2016. But that’s not something I’m comfortable counting on. I like McAllister a lot in the bullpen and think his stuff plays up there, and it sure seems like Shaw is able to bounce back year after year despite his heavy workload. But the rest of the bullpen has me a little worried, and the fact that there’s only one lefty out there can’t leave Terry Francona feeling too comfortable. The wildcard in all this is Trevor Bauer, who’s slated to start the season in the bullpen after losing out to Cody Anderson and Josh Tomlin for a slot in the rotation. There’s been some speculation that Bauer or another starter could be flipped for a bullpen arm but that seems silly as starters are much more valuable than relievers by virtue of their work rates if nothing else. Can Bauer, with his complicated and intricate warmup routine and control issues, pitch effectively out of the bullpen? How long of a leash will Tomlin (who’s pitched out of the bullpen in the past) and Anderson have with Bauer waiting in the wings? It’ll be interesting to see, and something to keep tabs on early on this season.

This is the final Lazy Sunday of the offseason, and depending on what time you’re reading this, there could be less than 24 hours until Corey Kluber toes the rubber at The Jake and takes on David Price and the Boston Red Sox. Opening Day is always full of excitement and wonder about the season to come, but the season will quickly settle into the day in and day out routine of the Indians doing what they can to win as many baseball games as possible. If they can stay healthy (always a big IF), I think they can make the playoffs in what should be a competitive AL Central. And if they can get into the playoffs, their rotation gives them a chance to compete against anyone. I’ll take Kluber/Carrasco/Salazar against any top 3 in baseball, even the Mets 3-headed monster of Harvey/Thor/DeGrom. Getting to the playoffs is going to be hard enough as it is, so hopefully the Indians can avoid another slow April start like the ones that have plagued them for years now. The 2012 Indians were 11-9, the last time the club finished over .500 in the seasons’ first month. There’s an old saying that you can’t clinch a playoff spot in April, but you can lose one, and while that’s not exactly true it sure doesn’t help to dig a hole that you spend the rest of the season trying to dig out of. So while you shouldn’t get too wrapped around the axle about one game, and try not to let the small sample sizes early in the season convince you that a player is a bum/all-star, these games do count in the standings. Here’s hoping the Indians get off on the right foot with a few wins, the fans come out to support the team, and there’s sunshine and warm weather on the North Coast this April. 

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Back in Action on a Lazy Sunday

Hi. Remember me? I used to write stuff about Indians baseball. People read it and everything, it was really great. Unfortunately, the last time I wrote anything about Indians baseball was…June of 2015. Wow, that’s embarrassing to actually see in print. When Paul Cousineau stepped away from the interwebs (for good, it turns out) in September of 2012, the one thing I wanted to do with this site is to carry on his legacy and keep the DiaTribe alive in a form that he’d be proud of. Paul hasn’t said anything to me about it, but I can’t help but feel like he’s disappointed with where the site is today. Without boring everyone with the details of my personal life, I’ve welcomed a DiaBaby of my own to the world this past November, and being a first-time parent is every bit as challenging as my wife and I expected, and more. He’s healthy and (usually) happy, and we’re incredibly blessed in that sense. I can’t imagine how parents deal with a legitimately sick child, as every time he sneezes my wife and I hold our breath, worrying that there’s something wrong (the veteran parents out there are no doubt chuckling to themselves right now). Adding the kid to a work schedule that has involved both a promotion and more travel than I ever expected makes writing at the level worthy of this site a difficult proposition at best. I already struggle to replicate the quality that you became accustomed to with the great Pauly C. in the best of circumstances. Writing with an increasingly hectic work and personal life became a difficult proposition, and whenever I did finally put virtual pen to paper, I was never satisfied that the result was worth publishing on this site. The DiaTribe has always been high quality, long form journalism. That high standard handed down by the Godfather isn’t easy to live up to, but it’s something at which I’ve always made a legitimate effort. For those that are still reading, I’d love to hear from you via e-mail, twitter or in the comments section as to whether that’s something that you still value in this day and age, or if you’re more attracted to shorter, more frequent pieces. Articles of more than a couple of pages are rare these days, and if the demand isn’t there for that, then I’ll quit worrying about satisfying the (non-existent) desire for more long-form stuff. This is all a very long-winded way for me to do three things; 1) apologize to those who frequented the site and didn’t want it to go away 2) tell you that I’m going to make a better effort to write more this season and 3) try to determine the appetite for articles on this site. Look forward to your feedback, and hopefully spending many a Lazy Sunday with you this year and in the future.

I didn’t feel comfortable writing a prospect countdown this year because I just haven’t seen the guys throughout the org the way I have in years past, so I’d primarily be regurgitating others opinions on players. If you’re looking for original prospect coverage right now, check out IBI, Baseball Prospectus and the new 2080 Baseball. I’ll get back out and start checking out the affiliates this year, but missing out on spring training makes it tough to see the new guys and also to get a read on the improvements made by the veteran players in the org. But I do want to talk about one guy that I’m really excited about this year, a guy that has flown under the radar over the past year or two due to his age and injury history. Mike Clevinger was originally a 4th round pick by the Los Angeles Angels back in 2011, and was dealt to the Indians in 2014 for Vinnie Pestano. Clevinger had thrown just 5 2/3 innings in 2013 coming off Tommy John surgery, and was getting knocked around the Cal League with high-A Inland Empire (5.37 ERA in 55 1/3 IP). But the Indians focused on his peripherals (58 K) and projection, and figured he was worth a flier. Clevinger responded with a legitimate breakout as a 24-year old in Akron last year, going 9-8 with a 2.73 ERA, 145 K and 40 BB in 158 IP for the Rubberducks.

Clevinger has a starter’s body and repertoire, throwing four pitches that project to be at least average at the major league level. His fastball sits comfortably in the mid-90s, and he compliments the fastball with a slider, curveball and split-change a-la Danny Salazar. Clevinger’s split-change is of course not in Salazar’s class just yet, but I’d be shocked if the two weren’t exchanging notes on the pitch throughout Clevinger’s time in big-league camp this spring. Adam McInturff of Baseball Prospectus saw Clevinger in action earlier this month and came away impressed:

“Clevinger’s fastball ranged between 93-97 mph, sitting consistently at 94-95. It’s a straight four-seamer, but he consistently showed the ability to power the ball past hitters and get swings and misses. He showed progressively better feel for a slider at 82-85 that flashed solid-average (if not a tick better) at its best, and looked like a reliable second pitch. His third pitch was a hard splitter at 87-90, though it was too firm (almost looking like a two-seam fastball) at the higher end of velocity band. Clevinger rattled off some better splitters during his second inning of work, though, flashing a 
handful with pretty nasty life bottoming out and running away from left-handers.”

It’s still early, but if Clevinger becomes even a serviceable back of the rotation SP, the Pestano-Clevinger deal will become another in a long line of under the radar steals by the Indians front office. If he becomes a solid #3 or even #2 (which seems possible based on his frame and stuff), it’ll fall into “Yan Gomes for Esmil Rodgers” territory.

Moving on to players who have already been contributing to the major league roster; it’s no secret that Francisco Lindor was a force in his rookie season last year. Lindor played the sparkling defense that we all expected from him upon getting the call to Cleveland, but his bat produced at a higher level than anyone expected. A career .279/.354/.384 hitter across 5 minor league seasons, Lindor hit .313/.353/.482 with 12 HR, 51 RBI and 12 SB in 99 games at the major league level last year. That’s a big leap for a 21 year old in his first exposure to major league pitching. Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports wrote a really nice piece on Lindor, and I’d like to focus on a couple of Ken’s points, if I may;

“…consider that Lindor immediately established himself as an elite defender — and that he batted .205 with a .492 OPS in his first 90 plate appearances with the Indians, .342 with a .927 OPS in his next 348.

~snip~

Indians hitting coach Ty Van Burkleo mentioned to the team's front office that Lindor's at-bats actually looked good, even if the results indicated otherwise. The front office, after examining Lindor's exit velocities, determined that he indeed was hitting into poor luck, general manager Chris Antonetti says.

Van Burkleo relayed that information to Lindor, who appreciated that the coach did not try to alter his mechanics.

~snip~

He decided that he would bunt more out of the No. 2 spot, putting runners in scoring position for No. 3 hitter Michael Brantley. Francona didn't necessarily like the idea. But he, too, declined to suggest anything different to Lindor.

"I was getting caught in between," Francona says. "I was like, 'The kid is trying to do what he thinks is right.' But he's such a good hitter, I didn't want him to give himself up.
"I never really said anything to him. I thought, 'You know what? Let's see where it goes.' Sometimes you've got to just let 'em play a little bit."

All these months later, Lindor believes that bunting was pivotal to his later success. He would track the ball, follow its progress to his bat. In subsequent plate appearances, he would see the ball better and swing.

His batting average rose. His confidence followed.”

Reading the entire article (which you should’ve done by now anyway), you can’t help but come away even more impressed with Lindor than before (which I thought was impossible, but there you go). The fact that a 21-year old could come up, struggle, be trusted by the coaching staff and organization to make his own adjustments then come out and have a borderline historic half season tells you so much about Lindor’s talent, maturity, leadership and makeup. And you really have to hand it to the Indians as well; trusting Lindor to work his way through his own struggles was absolutely the right decision. Too often a hitting coach can artificially tinker with a young player and wind up creating bad habits where none existed to begin with. The Indians know what they have with Lindor, and they (correctly) trust him to get the most out of his considerable talent. This does not mean that Lindor is infallible and will never need coaching, of course. But knowing when to coach up a player and when to leave him alone is important, and it’s a difficult line to draw when working with a 21-year old rookie.

The player who moved aside to make room for the 21-year old Lindor has been making waves this spring, as Jose Ramirez has been impressive both at the plate and at various stops around the diamond defensively. Ramirez was handed the SS job out of spring training last year, and stumbled to a .180/.247/.240 line in 46 games before being sent down to AAA Columbus. Ramirez was clearly pressing and looking over his shoulder, knowing uber-prospect Lindor lurked just behind him and that he may be getting just one shot at the SS job in Cleveland. Ramirez was recalled to Cleveland on August 3, and from then on to the end of the season he served as a super-utilityman, playing all over the diamond and producing much more effectively at the plate. He didn’t set the world on fire, but he put up a .259/.337/.438 line with 5 HR in 50 games. More importantly, he walked (19) more times than he struck out (15) over those final plate appearances.

Ramirez was never going to be a 1st-division everyday SS in the major leagues. He’s not a great defender at SS, and was never going to out-hit his defensive deficiencies enough to play the position at a high level. What he can be however is a Mike Aviles type utilityman, playing SS, 3B, 2B and even OF as needed. He’s a switch hitter, so he can give Kipnis a break against tough lefties, play 3B when there’s a good RHP on the mound, plus he can pinch hit and pinch run as necessary late in games when he doesn’t get the start. Ramirez can still be an incredibly valuable part of a major league roster, despite failing to prove he can handle SS. He’s still just 23 years old and is under club control for at least four more seasons. Take these with an enormous grain of salt, but as of Friday he was hitting .390/.422/.780 with 4 HR in spring training. If he can ride that wave into the regular season in a clearly defined utility role, Ramirez can be one of the most important position players on the roster this season.

Another player who opened some eyes in camp this spring is CF Tyler Naquin. Naquin was thrust into the competition for the opening day CF job when the Abraham Almonte suspension was announced, and he’s responded with his best stretch of production as a professional hitter. With our spring training and small sample size alarms blaring, I’ll just note that Naquin is hitting a robust .447/.500/.842 with 2 HR, 3 3B and 3 2B in 15 games (38 AB). In addition to the solid performance at the plate, Naquin is the best defensive CF on the roster right now, and will offer more defensively than his competitors for the role. Naquin has good speed and takes good routes to the ball in CF. Add to that a plus-plus arm that’s among the best in all of baseball, and you have an above average defensive CF, a guy that’s going to add value to the lineup even if he doesn’t hit. I certainly don’t expect Naquin to carry over his spring production if he does get the nod to start the season in Cleveland, but his bat won’t be completely empty. He’s not going to hit for much power, but he’ll put the bat on the ball, take a walk and (yes) he can bunt if the situation calls for it. He hit a combined .300/.381/.446 between Akron and Columbus last year, and has a career minor league OPS of .777. If I had to pick someone on the current Indians roster to start the season as the everyday CF, it’d be Naquin. The Indians have already announced that Naquin will make the opening day roster, and I doubt they’re taking him north just to sit. I expect him to be patrolling CF on April 4 when Tom Hamilton finally announces that we are UNDERway at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario.

This offseason, the Indians finally signed a pair of veterans who it feels like they’ve flirted with for a decade now. This site has advocated for the Indians to go out and get Juan Uribe and/or Marlon Byrd since Paul Cousineau himself was writing the articles. Uribe and Byrd were cheap, low-risk signings that serve to improve on areas of the team that were…let’s just say poor last season. Gio Urshela came up and showcased a fantastic glove at the hot corner, but the then-23 year old hit just .225/.279/.330, not enough to lock down the position for 2016. Uribe meanwhile has posted OPS+’s of over 100 in each of the past three seasons in the National League (116, 120, 105), meaning he was better than league average at the plate. He’s also 37 years old and very much on the downside of his career, but signed to a 1-year, $4 million contract there is really no risk here to the Indians. If it turns out he’s lost it at the plate and in the field, they release him and give Urshela another shot. If he can produce at a level even commensurate with 2015, then it’s a big step forward in filling a void at 3B. He’s a popular guy in the clubhouse and will help provide veteran leadership to a young infield. It’s a solid signing, even if it would’ve been better three years ago.

The other vet flying his way to the North Shore is outfielder Marlon Byrd. Byrd is even older than Uribe at 38, but has probably been more productive over the past few years. The right handed hitting Byrd has hit 24, 25 and 23 HR over the past three seasons, respectively. He’s posted a combined .268/.313/.469 line with a 116 OPS+ since 2013, pretty solid numbers for a guy closer to 30 than 40. Signed to a minor league deal to augment an uncertain outfield corps, Byrd carries even less risk than Uribe, and even more upside. Here’s a list of Indians players who hit more HR than Byrd last season; N/A. That’s right, Carlos Santana led the club with 19 dingers. Santana’s 27 in 2014 would’ve been more than Byrd that season, but no one else hit more than his 25. Not to belabor the point, but Byrd also would’ve led the AL Wild Card winning 2013 Indians with his 24 HR (2 more than Nick Swisher’s 22). Power has been in short supply at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario for the past few years, and especially with Brantley’s injury concerns, there’s no one in the Indians outfield that projects to hit more than 15 or so HR this year. Adding Byrd to the mix on a minor league deal could end up being a significant move. It’s entirely possible that the Indians just signed the guy who’s going to lead the 2016 club in HR, and they did it in mid-March.


Sincere thanks for those of you who are still reading, and hopefully you’ll stick with me through another year of what will likely be somewhat inconsistent posts. It’s good to be back, and I really think this could be a special season for Indians baseball. The pitching staff (which we really didn’t even talk about this week) is one of the best in all of baseball, and the lineup and defense are going to be better than they were last year. Is that going to be enough to propel the club to meaningful October baseball? Time will tell, but I think they’re built to contend this year, and potentially make a run deep into the playoffs. 

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Talent Infusion on a Lazy Sunday

Two steps forward, one step back. One step forward, two steps back. That’s what the Indians season has felt like lately. Every time they seem poised to break out and cross the .500 Rubicon and go on an extended winning streak, the offense disappears for a couple of games. Or Trevor Bauer has his worst start of the year. Or both occur in the same series. So here we sit in mid-June, and the Indians still haven’t been over .500 since they took 2 out of 3 from the Astros in the seasons’ opening series back in April. Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but the main culprit continues to be the Indians subpar defense.

To help illustrate just how bad the defense has been (and how good the starting pitching has been), I’m going to enlist some assistance from the good folks over at Beyond the Boxscore. Ryan Roman of BtB penned a helpful piece this week explaining how the Indians starting pitchers might be the unluckiest group of souls in the history of baseball. If that sounds like hyperbole to you, I don’t really blame you, but bear with me for a second and you’ll see why that is Roman’s hypothesis. As of Friday, Indians pitchers have struck out 9.96 hitters per 9 IP. That’s a remarkable number, over a full strikeout higher than the 2nd place Cubs 8.92 K/9 mark. The league leaders in 2014 were these very same Indians, who posted an 8.92 K/9 ratio over a full season, a number that they’re on pace to far surpass this year. They also lead the league in another category; BABIP against. The Indians pitchers have been victimized by a .329 BABIP, well above the league average. That isn’t just luck (although luck does have something to do with it); it’s reflective of very poor defense. If both of those numbers hold up for the rest of the season, the Indians will be the first team since William McKinley’s (an Ohioan!) election to “achieve” that feat. The 2014 Indians were close, but they had “only” the 2nd-worst BABIP against in MLB. So for the last season and a half, the Indians have been historically good at missing bats, while simultaneously historically bad (and/or unlucky) at ranging to balls hit in play.

These numbers almost can’t remain consistent, except for the fact that they have. With over 220 games of data in our sample, we’re past the point where #SSS is an issue, and we’re starting to eliminate bad luck as the primary culprit. The Indians just don’t have the range to field baseballs that other teams do at this point. Fortunately, the Indians have made one move to correct this issue, bringing up slick-fielding 3B Gio Urshela from Columbus. Urshela should have at least a playable bat (his HR that cut through the Cleveland wind on Thursday was particularly impressive) but more importantly, should have an above-average glove right away. He’s being asked to replace Lonnie Chisenhall’s poor glove and .585 OPS, so it’s not as though he has an insurmountable bar to clear. The Urshela promotion is the first move that the Indians can make to shore up their infield defense and help some of that batted ball “luck” normalize for their outstanding pitching staff. The second move is of course promoting SS Francisco Lindor (hitting .400/.429/.600 in June!), but I’m not going to beat on that dead horse this week. Let’s just enjoy the Urshela experience for what it is, and know that there are further defensive reinforcements on the horizon.

Jason Kipnis put the finishing touches on an incredible month of May a couple of weeks ago, but can we really expect that sort of production from him over a full season? Well, no. He’s not going to hit .429, and probably won’t post an OPS north of 1.200. But now that he’s back healthy, Kipnis is again an all-star caliber 2B, and we can expect him to produce like one moving forward. I’ll again refer you to Beyond the Box Score, where Murphy Powell took a deep dive into batted ball numbers to show the difference between Kip v.2014 and this year.

You may know that Kipnis lost a bit of last season with a strained right oblique. And because those often linger for a while, I’m perfectly content in finding that the May version of Kipnis was just a healthy version of Kipnis. Really, that seems like a pretty reasonable conclusion, given his batted ball distances. In 2013, his average distance was nearly 193 feet, good for 72nd in the league. There was a pretty sizable drop in 2014, however, when Kipnis saw his average batted ball distance sink to 177 feet following his oblique injury in May of that year. That average put him deep in the lower third of the league, ranking 230th out of 300 listed players on Baseball Heat Maps. Now that Kipnis is (presumably) healthy again, that number has hopped back up to 191 feet.

The 2014 Kipnis was hitting more fly balls and hitting them shorter than at any point in his career. He was pulling the ball more, hitting fewer line drives, and in general just struggling to drive the ball with any kind of authority. That all goes back to the strained oblique, and how difficult of an injury that is to recover from in mid-season. Kipnis admits that he felt pressure to live up to the big contract that he signed prior to the 2014 season, and as such he didn’t want to take enough time off to allow the injury to fully heal. Now that he’s back healthy, we can expect him to remain in all-star form for the foreseeable future.

Leaving the big league club for now, the Indians made even more headlines that one would expect with their 1st round pick last week, selecting an injured and rehabbing prep lefty by the name of Brady Aiken. Aiken was the 1st overall pick of last June’s draft by the Houston Astros, but did not sign with the Astros after a downright bizarre series of events following his selection. If you’re not familiar with the Aiken/Astros story (or just need a refresher, like I did), I highly recommend this article from our good friends over at Let’s Go Tribe. Jason Lukehart of LGT wrote up a nice synopsis (below) and also talked to Ryan Dunsmore of Crawfish Boxes, the LGT equivalent SB Nation site for the Astros (including a FANTASTIC quote from a scout that you’ll have to click on the link to read):

Two days after he was drafted, Aiken and the Astros agreed to a $6.5 million signing bonus, pending only a physical. That physical reportedly revealed a smaller than normal UCL, which is the ligament that has to be repaired by Tommy John surgery. The Astros then cut their offer all the way down to $3.1 million, which was the minimum they could offer and still receive a replacement pick in this year's draft (if Aiken declined). Many believed they wanted him to decline, preferring to get the #2 pick in this year's draft (which they did), rather than running the risk of paying millions to a pitcher they were no longer confident in. On the day of the signing deadline, the team apparently upped its offer to $5 million, but no deal was reached.

The whole thing is worth reading, as it gives pretty good perspective as to what happened, who was to “blame” for Aiken not signing, and what it might take to bring him into the fold before signing day this year.

When he’s on the mound, Aiken is a stud. He was drawing comparisons to guys like Andy Pettitte and Clayton Kershaw when the Astros were conducting their pre-draft evaluations in 2014. Aiken was considered the #1 prospect in the 2015 draft until he went down with the elbow injury in March. His sinking fastball sits 92-94 and touches 97. He has an excellent curveball that needs to be a little more consistent, and a changeup that scouts assess will be a future plus pitch. He has three potential 60-70 MLB pitches, which is crazy for a high school lefthander. I’m not going to belabor the finer points of Aiken’s arsenal, because the talent level is pretty much a known commodity at this point. It’s scouting reports like these that prompted Baseball Prospectus’ draft/prospect guru to the following assessment following the pick:

Seriously, I'm not sure anyone is better at the draft right now than Cleveland is. When healthy, Aiken is the best player—not just pitcher—in the draft, with three plus pitches and command/feel for pitching that would make a veteran envious, much less a kid who still is a teenager. There are obvious questions here that make him a high-risk selection, but the reward is a future ace. Getting one at the 17th pick is amazing. Great job, Cleveland.

Prior to the draft, I didn’t think there was any chance the Indians would take Brady Aiken. I was flashing back to my pre-season interview with Indians team President Mark Shapiro, where he stressed that the Indians were not a club who could risk millions of dollars on high-risk talent coming out of Cuba. Naturally, the Indians took Aiken, making me look even dumber than I usually do (and that’s a challenge). That’s when I went back and re-read my own interview, and realized I had missed the point of Shapiro’s original comments. I’ll re-post the relevant question and answer for clarity, and bold Shapiro’s key sentence for emphasis:

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.

This isn’t like Cuba; the Indians HAVE information on Aiken. It’s in Aiken (and his agent’s) interest to provide medicals to teams pre-draft, otherwise it looks like they are hiding something. So I’m sure the Indians had a chance to look over a pretty detailed report concerning Aiken’s surgically repaired elbow. Now that they’ve selected him, they’ll have the same opportunity that the Astros had to put him through a pre-signing physical to ensure that there are no further concerning anomalies before they offer him upwards of $2 million. If Aiken clears that final hurdle, the Indians will have a chance to bring in a potential lefthanded ace with a mid-1st round draft pick. Those chances don’t come along every year, and it’s both exciting and a little bit scary that they took that shot this year.

The best-case scenario for what the Indians are trying to do here is currently playing out in Washington, where Lucas Giolito is a top-10 pitching prospect in all of baseball. Giolito was in the mix to be the first prep righty ever selected #1 overall in the draft back in 2012 before an elbow injury and subsequent Tommy John surgery (and bonus concerns) pushed him down to the #16 overall pick. Giolito signed at the deadline for $2.925 million ($800,000 over slot) and began his rehab as a member of the Nationals organization. Giolito blew out his elbow in 2011, and pitched 2 innings with the Nats Gulf Coast affiliate in 2012. The Nationals handled him with kid gloves in 2013 (as expected), as he pitched just 36 2/3 innings between the rookie league, short season and low-A. In 2014, Giolito was allowed to throw 98 innings in low-A, striking out 110 and walking 28. He’s already pitched over 70 innings here in 2015, and could be a member of what’s already a very formidable Nationals rotation as soon as 2017 (more likely 2018).

The worst-case scenario for the Aiken selection is, ironically enough, also taking place in our nation’s capital. The Nationals selected TCU righthander Matt Purke in the 3rd round of the 2011 draft and signed him to a major league deal worth $4.15 million. Purke had a shoulder injury at the time, but had been one of the top pitchers in college baseball and was considered a potential #1 overall pick. Instead of succsessfuly rehabbing the shoulder and slowly increasing his workload as Giolito did, Purke’s shoulder got worse, eventually requiring surgery. He then hurt his elbow in 2013, which required Tommy John. Purke is now a 24-year old starter in low-A, and has pitched just 149 2/3 innings since he was drafted 4+ years ago. The Nats basically lit $4.15 million on fire, and wasted a 40-man roster spot to boot. Hopefully Aiken turns out more like Giolito than Purke.

In the 12th round of the draft, the Indians made Terry Francona the happiest man on the planet when they selected switch-pitcher Ryan Perez out of Judson University in Illinois. Oakland reliever Pat Venditte brought national attention to the existence of this phenomenon when he made his major league debut for the A’s last week. Indians media asked Tito about Venditte, and Francona responded that it was a “dream scenario” for the bullpen aficionado, adding that he’d “wear him out” if he had Venditte on the roster. As Jordan Bastian details here, Tito had a predictable reaction when Mike Chernoff informed him that the Indians had selected a switch pitcher in the draft:

"I thought he was kidding," Francona said on Wednesday. "He might not even go to the Minor Leagues. I don't care if he gets anyone out -- just the idea that he can go both sides. I thought they were messing with me."

Perez learned to switch pitch thanks to his dad, who would encourage him to skip rocks with his left arm growing up in addition to his right. This is hilarious, as my friends and I frequently joke that for any of us that have sons, we’ll tie their right arms behind their backs so they can grow up as southpaws and have a better shot at pitching in The Show (or at least getting college paid for). Perez’s dad didn’t go quite that far, but he’s given an idea to wannabe MLB dads everywhere. Don’t just make your kid switch hit, get him to switch pitch as well. Chris Crawford of Baseball Prospectus projects Perez as a middle reliever who can be effective against hitters on both sides of the plate, but does note that he’ll need some mechanical adjustments from the right side (which is ironic considering he’s a natural righty). He sits 92-94 from the left side with a solid curveball, which is probably enough to get by as a reliever. Regardless, it’s a fun story, and he’ll be an interesting guy to monitor on his way up through the system (if Tito doesn’t force him onto the MLB roster the day he signs). 

Sunday, May 24, 2015

A Memorial Lazy Sunday

Nearly two months into the 2015 major league baseball season, the Indians pretty much are who we thought they were. That “we” even encompasses those (myself included) who thought they were a playoff team in 2015. They’re a decent team with exceptional starting pitching, a solid (if unspectacular) lineup, a below-average bullpen and a dumpster fire defensively. Again, this is more or less what we saw coming into this season. If anything, the starting pitching has actually been better than expected, and a bounceback season from Jason Kipnis has helped propel the offense to the upper half of the AL. But the defense has been worse than anyone could’ve possibly imagined, dragging the club down in the AL Central standings like an anchor. To help illustrate that point, I’m going to have to throw some “advanced” stats at you, so bear with me here.

The Indians team ERA sits at a rather pedestrian 4.31 (all stats as of Friday). That is “good” for 24th in all of baseball. Pretty poor, really, and if you’d asked someone in 1994 if the Indians pitching staff was good, they’d say “absolutely not.” But you and I, we’re smarter than that. We watch the games. We see the Klubot, Cookie, Bauer and Salazar striking out hitter after hitter, only to see soft groundballs somehow leak through the infield with nary a glove nearby. We watch Mike Aviles (sorry to bring this one up) try to track down a ball in center, coming up empty and wondering what he was even doing in CF to begin with. We know that the Indians starting pitching has been outstanding, but with the team ERA being what it is, we don’t really have a way to quantify that in a single, all-encompassing stat.

Fear not, fellow frustrated fan. We DO have a stat that looks at every aspect of what a pitcher can and cannot control and assigns a value to what he and he alone does on the diamond. No, I’m not talking about WAR. WAR is nice, but it’s not really predictive and isn’t as useful in such small samples. I’m talking about cFIP, or contextual fielding independent pitching. An improvement over the traditional FIP, cFIP accounts for everything going on in a game; the pitcher, hitter, defense, umpire, catcher framing, ballpark, hot dog race participants…everything. Here’s a complete primer on cFIP from Jonathan Judge of Hardball Times if you’re interested in learning more, but I’ve snipped a couple of key excerpts here that help us understand why it’s such a useful stat:
cFIP has multiple advantages: (1) it is more predictive than other pitcher estimators, especially in smaller samples; (2) it is calculated on a batter-faced basis, rather than innings pitched; (3) it is park-, league-, and opposition-adjusted; and (4) in a particularly important development, cFIP is equally accurate as a descriptive and predictive statistic.
The last characteristic makes cFIP something we have not seen before: a true pitcher quality estimator that actually approximates the pitcher’s current ability. I recommend both its use and its further refinement.
~snip~
When is a pitcher quality estimator actually isolating true talent? My answer is this: when there is a substantial similarity between the estimator’s descriptive and predictive power. If an estimator is truly isolating a pitcher’s talent, there should not be much difference between the two. If an estimator is doing well in one aspect and poorly on another, then it is not estimating a pitcher’s true ability: rather, it is over-fitting past results to better explain what happened (primarily descriptive) or under-fitting past results to minimize future error (primarily predictive).
So now that we’ve established that cFIP is an excellent tool for both analyzing past performance and predicting future success, where do the Indians rank in terms of cFIP? Why, first in all of baseball, with a cFIP score of 82 (like OPS+, cFIP is scored so that 100 is exactly average. Lower cFIP is better than higher). That number is especially remarkable when you consider that the next-closest club is the Clayton Kershaw-led Dodgers at 92. That 10-point difference between the Indians and Dodgers is the same as the difference between the #2 Dodgers and #22 Atlanta Braves. The Indians have the best pitching in baseball, and it’s really not even close.

So why are the Indians scuffling along with fewer than 20 wins in the season’s first 40 games? Look no further than the defense, which yet again is THE WORST in all of baseball. They’re dead last in both Defensive Efficiency and Park Adjusted Defensive Efficiency. They’re last in BABIP against, with opposing offenses hitting a robust (and probably unsustainable) .331 against them when they make contact. The 2nd-worst are the Washington Nationals, all the way down at .322. The Indians are 28th (hey, progress!) in Defensive Runs Saved. This confirms all of our offseason fears about the defense. They can indeed be bad enough at fielding the ball to counteract just how great they are at pitching the ball.

There are, however, encouraging signs to be found within this sea of statistics. The Detroit Tigers, for instance, lead baseball with a .334 BABIP. Kansas City is 2nd at .322. Both of those numbers are likely to regress at some point. Kansas City has been just as lucky in the field as they have been at the plate; KC’s BABIP-against is a paltry .260, a full 71 points lower than the Indians, and a number that can’t help but rise as the season progresses. The Indians are likely to improve on their record, and the Royals (and to an extent the Tigers) will surely cool off after their sizzling start. Will the three clubs’ respective move towards the mean be enough to see the Indians pass one or both of their AL Central rivals for a playoff spot? Time will tell, but if not, we know where to place the blame; squarely on the defense.

But do we really have to wait until September to look back and curse the horrendous defense that ruined such outstanding pitching? Is there really no solution available in mid-season that could fix what ails this club? Well, it just so happens that there are reinforcements on the horizon. In the near-term, the Indians are getting Yan Gomes back today. Gomes is an above-average defensive catcher, and will slide average defensive catcher Roberto Perez back to a reserve role where he belongs. Perez has been serviceable as a fill-in for Gomes, but is far better suited to be a backup than an everyday catcher at the major league level. Gomes return to the lineup is akin to the tide coming in; the Gomes tide will lift the boats containing the defense, pitching and the lineup all in one fell swoop. That’s both the easiest and most imminent move to improve the D (and the team).

Move two is something I won’t belabor, because it’s a train I’ve been aboard for a while now. That, of course, is to promote Francisco Lindor to the major league roster and play him as the everyday shortstop. Lindor is a superlative defender who would be an immediate upgrade over Jose Ramirez, who is flat-out overmatched as an everyday shortstop. Ramirez has value, but that value is as a super-utility guy who can play 2B, SS or 3B several times a week, spotting Chiz/Kip against tough lefties and filling in at SS when the need arises. But he’s a poor defender at SS, and the 22-year old switch-hitter is hitting just .195/.265/.264 this season. Even if Lindor’s bat isn’t a finished product (which it isn’t), it’s hard to offer less value than a .526 OPS. Lindor makes this team better today by virtue of his defense alone, and that’s worth having him on the major league roster sooner rather than later.

My third idea is to move David Murphy to a club hungry for outfield help in exchange for a bullpen arm. Despite the mentality of Indians beat writer Paul Hoynes, Murphy is expendable, and with him off the roster the Indians would be able to bring up the more versatile James Ramsey. Ramsey will likely be a better defender than Murphy, and can play all 3 OF spots. He’s a better hitter than Tyler Holt, and will help prevent Mike Aviles from ever appearing in CF again. If Murphy can fetch a contributing bullpen arm, I’d do this deal in a heartbeat. Murphy is playing well right now, but he’s more or less redundant with all of the other left handed hitting OF on the roster. He’s doing a nice job this season, hitting .312/.341/.481 primarily against right handed pitching, but that .822 OPS would be the 2nd-highest of his career over a full season, and is unlikely to continue at that rate. Murphy is a good guy and a solid player, but he’s a subpar defender and I’d rather have another bullpen arm right now.

Moving on from the current team’s struggles for a moment, Joseph Werner from Beyond the Box Score has a nice write-up confirming what most of us had already concluded; the Indians “won” both the C.C. Sabathia and Cliff Lee trades. Or, at the very least, they’d pull the trigger on each of those trades again even with the benefit of hindsight. Judging a trade in the immediate aftermath is silly, especially when the deal involves acquiring prospects in return for an established major leaguer. The Indians front office was roundly roasted for not getting enough in return for their Cy Young Award-winning pitchers after Matt LaPorta flamed out and Jason Knapp reinjured his shoulder. But here we are in 2015, with an OF coming off of a 6-win season and a solid #2 starter, both under team control for the long term, and those trades are looking awfully good:
And for the first five seasons after dealing their pitching stalwarts, it looked as if all the front office had to show for their collective efforts was a league average regular left fielder, who hit like a center fielder and lacked the pop for a corner spot, and a frustratingly fringy back-of-the-rotation arm. They were, in every sense of the word, the last men standing from their respective deals as the other prospects petered out.
Something funny happened over the past season-plus – not funny in the traditional sense, mind you, but more in the way of nobody-saw-it-coming – both players took developmental leaps forward. The corner outfielder hit like a legitimate middle-of-the-order impact bat and the maddening, inconsistent right-hander suddenly became, well, consistently dominant.
The Sabathia and Lee trades, the Ubaldo deal, Casey Blake for Carlos Santana, YAN GOMES and Mike Aviles for Esmil Rodgers…the Indians front office has done a remarkable job acquiring talent via trade over the past decade.

Speaking of Carlos Carrasco, Mike Podhorzer of Fangraphs has a nice breakdown of Cookie’s 2014 vs his 2015. Carrasco lowered his ERA to 4.74 with a win against the Reds Friday night, so there may be those out there who see him as a disappointment after his electric 2nd half last year. 
Podhorzer goes deeper into Carrasco’s 2015 to show that he’s actually pitching much like he did last year, but he’s been let down by luck and the defense (surprise!) thus far. Carrasco’s K rate and walk rate are nearly identical, and he’s actually throwing more strikes this year than he did last year. His FIP is 2.62 (he finished with a 2.44 FIP last year), but his ERA is more than 2 runs higher (4.74 this year to 2.55 last year). The biggest difference is in BABIP. Cookie limited hitters to a .274 average on balls in play last year, but that’s jumped to a whopping .359 this season. There’s no way that lasts, even with the Indians horrific defense. Carrasco remains an excellent pitcher, so please don’t be “that guy” at the water cooler citing his high ERA as a reason why last year was a fluke. It wasn’t, and Carrasco’s numbers reflect that.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring up the incredible season that Jason Kipnis is having, as he’s in the midst of one of the best stretches that I’ve seen from an Indians hitter in years. As the Indians leadoff hitter, Kipnis is hitting a sizzling .387/.480/.632 with 4 HR and 15 RBI in 26 games. In 20 games during the month of May, Kip is hitting .463/.546/.732, good for a 1.278(!) OPS. In terms of wRC this month, his 259 trails only Bryce Harper’s 296 mark in all of baseball. He’s leading the American League with 57 hits, and his 2.5 WAR are more than he accumulated in all of last season. His defense has been better this year as well, as he’s been worth 0.4 dWAR (1.1 better than his -0.7 dWAR in 2014). He’s fueling an offense that ranks 5th in the AL with a combined .730 OPS, and the Indians have been a different team since he moved into the leadoff spot. The challenge for Kipnis will be to sustain this success throughout the season. He’s a career .325/.396/.554 hitter in the month of May, but has averaged a sub-.700 OPS in July-September. If Kip can maintain anything approaching this pace for the rest of the season, it’ll go a long ways towards supporting the Indians’ outstanding starting pitching down the stretch. 

It’s Memorial Day weekend here in the US, an occasion that some see as significant because of the day off work and the start of summer BBQ season. Fortunately, we have a couple of excellent articles that both tie into baseball and remind us of the significance of the holiday. Zack Meisel of the Plain Dealer wrote a fantastic piece about a local baseball star who gave up his major league dreams for pilot’s wings, becoming a Special Forces helicopter pilot in Afghanistan. He tragically perished while flying a team of US Navy SEALS into enemy territory attempting to rescue Marcus Lutrell and the other SEALS in Operation Red Wings. This op would eventually be detailed the book and movie “Lone Survivor.” As Meisel himself tweeted, if you only read one thing he’s written, make it that article.

In addition to Meisel’s fabulous effort, Graham Watson of Yahoo Sports penned an article about Chris Moon, Atlanta Braves draftee and University of Arizona baseball star who dropped out of Arizona to join the Army in 2007. Moon volunteered for the airborne, then for sniper school and wound up in Afghanistan as a sniper for the 82nd Airborne. Moon was killed by a coward with an IED near Kandahar. He was just 20 years old.

Brave men and women have been fighting and dying for America since before we were even a country. Memorial Day was established in the wake of the Civil War as a time to honor those soldiers who have made the ultimate sacrifice. So by all means, enjoy a couple of cold beers and a burger (or three) at a barbecue this weekend. But while you do, take a moment to appreciate the men and women who have fought and died over the past 250 or so years so that we can live in freedom to enjoy baseball, BBQ and apple pie.