Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Arizona Dreamin’ – “I Don’t Know…Third Base!”

As I finally pull this “Spring Training Preview” series that unintentionally morphed into a full-blown roster analysis into the garage, only one portion of the team remains - the infield positions and the players involved in 2B/SS/3B. So, since I’m not going to throw up links to the other four sections (you can find them on your own), let’s get right into it.

The Indians entered the off-season with an oft-stated goal to upgrade their infield, specifically at 2B or 3B as the two players who factored most prominently in the second-to-third-side-of-the infield plans, Asdrubal and Jhonny, looked to have the flexibility to cover the other two spots not addressed by the new acquisition. Much was discussed about whether Peralta would be willing (or able) to make the transition to 3B and whether the Indians became a better team with Cabrera manning SS.

Regardless of what the Indians did, it seemed that Cabrera and Peralta (who was instructed to play 3B in the Winter League to prepare for such a move) were seen as two parts, able to fill either 2B and SS or SS and 3B, depending upon the landscape of available players for the Tribe. While Cabrera still remained a bit of an enigma offensively (due to his regression to start 2008), Peralta was ever steady as a player regardless of the position he eventually manned.

If questions remain about Cabrera’s offensive potential for some, let’s take a moment and remember something – Asdrubal turned 23 last November and has posted an OPS of .765 as a 21-year-old and an OPS of .712 as a 22-year-old. While those numbers seem pedestrian at first glance, realize that he was the youngest player on the Tribe last year with more than 350 AB by 2 years and 9 months…and the second youngest player on the team with more than 350 AB (Frank the Tank) posted an OPS worse than Cabrera’s “sophomore slump”. While I would never want to throw a comparison at a young player, do you know how old Omar Vizquel was when he topped even a .700 OPS? How about as a 26-year-old in his 5th full season in Seattle.

But even more promising than those numbers are the cumulative numbers that Cabrera posted prior to him being sent to the minors and those he posted after being recalled:
Prior to Being Demoted
.184 BA / .282 OBP / .247 SLG / .529 OPS in 158 AB over 52 games

After Being Recalled
.320 BA / .398 OBP / .464 SLG / .862 OPS in 194 AB over 62 games

What that conveys is that Cabrera, after being recalled to the parent club, made the proper adjustments as a hitter and posted good numbers for any player and phenomenal results for a middle infielder. Whether that momentum carries into 2009 for Asdrubal at the plate remains to be seen (as he certainly didn’t ride the wave from his 2007 season into 2008), but even in Cabrera falls somewhere between those two numbers (and I think that he’s closer to the second set due to his age and level of advancement), the Indians can carry him in the lineup because of the defense that he provides.

While a natural SS, Cabrera made the transition to 2B seamlessly, turning the DP as quick as anyone in MLB, with terrific range (a necessary skill due to the fact that Garko and Peralta don’t get to many balls), and establishing himself as an elite defensive 2B at the tender age of 23.

But the question is always out there – if Cabrera is the Indians’ best defensive infielder and is a natural SS, what’s to prevent them from moving him there?
Is it really just Jhonny Peralta?

To a degree, yes as Peralta used the 2008 season as a reminder of what he did in 2005, when he burst on the scene as a 23-year-old everyday SS with power, as he posted career bests in 2B, extra-base hits, and RBI while posting his lowest strikeout total (despite a career high in AB) since becoming a regular in 2005. While other pillars of the team dropped around him, Peralta stayed the course that he has for 3 out of his 4 years in MLB, providing power and consistency from SS. As the need arose, Peralta found himself in the clean-up spot and (not unlike the way the offense took off in 2005 when he was the #3 hitter) set the tone for the offense as he posted a .306 BA / .365 OBP / .512 SLG / .877 OPS line with 43 extra-base hits in 340 AB over the last 86 games of the season. Because of Peralta’s contributions, the offense found its footing in the second half with Jhonny, always steady never spectacular, leading the way…if quietly.

Now, with some of the principals that were missing in 2008 (namely Martinez and Hafner) slated to return and with the emergence of some of the young middle-of-the-order talent (namely Choo and Show Pack), Peralta can continue to provide his steady offense from a little further down in the lineup, lengthening the depth and quality from one to nine.

What position he plays while making those offensive contributions, though, is where the debate comes in with Peralta as his much-maligned lack of range becomes an endless exchange of “Zone Ratings” and comments that he “makes the routine play better than anyone” as a SS. The Indians’ “suggestion” to Peralta to play 3B in the Winter League and the comments by The Atomic Wedgie that “eventually Jhonny will slide to 3B” leave no doubt that Peralta will move to the hot corner at some point (or maybe even 1B, as some have suggested) eventually clearing a path for Cabrera to play his natural position of SS.

So, why didn’t it happen this off-season?
At the risk of oversimplifying things, because a player whose best position (allegedly) is 3B in Mark DeRosa was the most attractive player for the Indians to acquire on the FA/trade front. While Rafael Furcal and Orlando Hudson (who is still a FA with P & C ready to report) were names thrown around that would have resulted in Cabrera and Peralta shifting to their right to accommodate a 2B, the Indians looked to set their sets initially on re-signing Casey Blake and (thankfully) realizing that the deal that the Dodgers gave Lacey Cake was about 2 years too long, turned their attention on a short-term answer at either of the two positions.

The reason that a short-term answer (and not a player that the Tribe could pencil into their infield for multiple years) became the aim was that the acquisition of Luis Valbuena suddenly gave the Indians depth at the upper levels of their farm system with Valbuena, who had played only 58 games above AA in his career (though he did play 18 games in Seattle last year) and figured to start the season in AAA to fill out his game, and Wes Hodges, who remained on the radar after a solid, if unspectacular, season in Akron. Both players figured to be fighting for a long-term spot in the Indians’ future, though neither seemed to be finished products, much less ready to contribute to the parent club from Day 1 in 2009.

Thus, the reasoning emerged that finding a short-term fix in the infield was the preferred method to bridge the gap between the failed experiments of Andy Marte and Josh Barfield to the next two in line, Valbuena and Hodges. That area, which no longer looked to be a gaping organizational hole, found its band-aid with the acquisition of Mark DeRosa on New Year’s Eve.

DeRosa arrives to the Indians as a similarly skilled player as the oft-criticized and underappreciated Casey Blake (who was often seen for what he was NOT instead of being recognized for what he WAS), in that he can play multiple positions on the field (namely 3B, 2B, and both corner OF spots) while providing better on-base skills, if less power, than Blake. If the ideal for a stop-gap was getting Blake back for one year (remember, he got three years from LA), DeRosa brings even more to the table as his on-base skills allow him to slot at the top of the lineup as Blake never could and by giving the Indians some insurance for multiple positions on the field, namely LF, while being able to play every day, regardless of position.

To wit, DeRosa’s OBP over the last three years has been .357, .371, and .376, quite an upgrade at the #2 hole in the lineup (where on-base skills are so important) as Indians’ hitters from the #2 hole posted OBP of .326, .328, and .317 over those same last three years. While that is certainly an organizational upgrade in terms of improving the lineup, the more important aspect of DeRosa’s presence is the flexibility that it gives the Indians in terms of maximizing the talent in the lineup and in the organization.

What DeRosa’s versatility allows the Indians to do is let the lineup evolve as the season progresses with the idea that DeRosa’s ability to play 3B, 2B, or (perhaps most importantly) both corner OF spots allows them to use DeRosa to plug holes that may emerge on the team and move the players around accordingly. Because of Peralta’s ability to play 3B (and putting him out there during the season won’t be a shocking move as he played there all Winter…putting Garko in the OF is a shocking move) and Carroll’s presence beneath DeRosa on the Utility ladder, the Indians can allow their Opening Day lineup to morph into a more effective unit, with DeRosa filling in wherever he needs to. That is, if Ben Francisco struggles out of the gate and Luis Valbuena starts the season as a house afire in Columbus, the Indians can rotate DeRosa into LF, slide Peralta and Cabrera over and call up Valbuena to play some games at 2B. Obviously, that’s just one scenario, but it gets to the point of what DeRosa’s versatility can do for the Tribe. It’s just as likely, however, that DeRosa remains ensconced as the 3B for the season, allowing the players below the surface in the organization to fight for positioning for 2010 as DeRosa on the roster doesn’t ostensibly block anyone, his presence just lengthens the transition time.

Also serving as insurance against injury and filling holes where needed, Jamey Carroll returns to the Tribe, albeit in a more limited role than he saw last year. Carroll’s never going to dazzle on the field on in the batter’s box, but given the carousel of Futility Infielders that have graced us with their presence on the Indians in the past few years, it’s actually kind of a nice feeling to have Carroll and his decent on-base skills and his ability to avoid strikeouts back in the fray. Due to the versatility of DeRosa, Carroll’s appearances are likely to be fewer and farther between (particularly if anyone has the notion to give Josh Barfield another chance), but Carroll’s the versatile veteran that many good teams rely on to fill holes and rest players throughout the course of the 162-game grind, without the significant drop-off of…say, Mike Rouse.

Interestingly, while Carroll would figure to look like the final position player on the Indians, he actually counts as the 12th, leaving one final spot open for the Indians to play with. Since the "Good Ship Andy Marte" has presumably sailed (or is at the very least sitting in the dock waiting for the end of Spring Training, ready to go as soon as the Tribe makes it out of Goodyear with most of their infielders healthy) it would appear that Josh Barfield is slated to take that 13th spot among position players.

If Barfield does, in fact, make the team out of Spring Training (as he is expected to do), it’s actually for the opposite reason that most players make a 25-man roster, in that he’ll make the team essentially so he doesn’t block Valbuena in Columbus at 2B and because he represents a cheap, under-club-control player that the Indians aren’t concerned with decelerating his development…as he’s done that all on his own. Rather than piling on Barfield or even Marte for that matter, since neither figures to be big parts of the Indians this year or going forward as contingency plans are in place to move on without them, here’s the bit that I wrote about Barfield and Marte and how each steadily came down the mountain established by both at a young age, either as an MLB rookie (in the case of Barfield) or in the minors (in the case of Marte).

Why will Barfield make the team instead of Marte, as each is on similarly slippery footing with the organization? Very simply, options remaining – as Barfield can be sent down to Columbus to keep a roster spot in flux as the season matures as Marte would have to clear waivers, which he’ll most certainly be exposed to without any guarantee that he’ll have a spot in the organization if he does clear waivers, given the glut of 3B/DH/1B that figure to populate Columbus. Barfield, unlike Marte, can be used as a pinch runner and, if reports are true, the Indians are thinking of moving him to the OF to increase his versatility as the likelihood that he’ll ever see regular AB in Cleveland is quickly diminishing.

Now, before you go thinking that perhaps Barfield is salvageable, just know that last year in Buffalo, a then-25-year-old Barfield posted the worst OPS (.660 OPS in 299 AB) for any Bison player with more than 240 AB. Above him were Aaron Herr (age 27, .696 OPS in 241 AB), Andy Gonzalez (age 26, .700 OPS in 289 AB), and Brad Snyder (age 26, .723 OPS in 411 AB). Unless you see one of those guys as a long-term option for the Indians and in that context, you start to see Barfield’s 2008 season (much less his 2007) doesn’t remove him too much from that level of expectancy. Maybe the Indians are holding out hope that Barfield can re-capture the success that he experienced in that rookie year in San Diego, but everything that he’s done since then (regardless of level) tells a different story and the Indians’ acquisition of Valbuena certainly shows that they’re thinking the same thing.

With Valbuena, the Indians have a 2B in Columbus on the cusp of MLB, if not quite ready for it right now. In 2008, Valbuena burst on the scene as a 22-year-old in the Mariners’ organization, posting an OPS of .864 in AA, then continuing his success in AAA, to the tune of a .302 BA / .383 OBP / .373 SLG / .756 OPS at Tacoma over 58 games before ascending to the Bigs for a cup of coffee at the end of the season. After a down year in AA in 2007 as a 21-year-old (.689 OPS), Valbuena rebounded by getting back to the on-base skills that he had exhibited early in his career as a Mariner. His strength is his batting eye, accumulating 197 BB in his minor-league career over 1,675 AB, which looks pretty good compared to Barfield’s 208 career 2,725 BB in career MiLB AB.

At this point, though, Valbuena looks to go into 2009 essentially fighting for position for the 2010 team. Sure, it’s possible that Valbuena performs at a level in Columbus that merits a promotion to the parent club; but for that to happen, an opportunity on said parent club has to present itself. If DeRosa makes a move off of 3B and Cabrera and Peralta slide over, it’s possible that Valbuena makes an appearance topside in 2009, but Valbuena is really slotting himself against the other players in Columbus (LaPorta, Crowe, Brantley in the OF, Gimenez, Torregas, and Hodges in the IF) to fill the holes that are going to present themselves this season, and specifically for Valbuena when DeRosa’s contract runs out and the Indians look to fill their infield hole from within.

Principal among Valbuena’s direct competition for the Indians’ long-term future, however, is Wes Hodges. Hodges, as a 23-year-old in Akron last year, continued his steady, if undistinguished, climb up the minor-league ladder as he posted comparable numbers to those he had posted in 2007 in Kinston. While his .290 BA / .354 OBP / .466 SLG / .820 OPS with 18 HR and 29 2B in 2008 kept him on the prospect map, it didn’t represent the break-out that some were hoping for as his numbers regressed (albeit slightly) from his A+ numbers in Kinston. Consistency has never been Hodges’ problem and while that’s certainly not a bad thing, the issue with him is that the potential that can be seen in more highly-thought-of prospects isn’t as apparent with Hodges. If slow and steady wins the race, Hodges is in a great position to perform well enough in Columbus to merit a look at the 3B job in 2010.

But that’s what confounds me about Hodges’ situation, as despite the fact that he still figures as the top 3B prospect in the system, the Indians have made clear (in no uncertain terms) that Peralta is going to end up at 3B and Hodges (whose defense has been called into question this off-season by some reports, right or wrong) really doesn’t have another path to the Bigs as the only other position he’s played in the minors is DH. Maybe Hodges goes out and lights up Columbus and forces the Indians to re-think their plans with Jhonny going forward, but the overwhelming talk out of Carnegie and Ontario seems to focus on the idea that Peralta will eventually slide to 3B, allowing Cabrera to move to his natural position of SS, seemingly opening a position for Valbuena to assume 2B in the long-term plans. Thus, it’s really a matter of Hodges attempting to outperform Valbuena in Columbus, and overwhelmingly enough that the Indians don’t simply assume that the aforementioned “Peralta to 3B” plans will go into motion at some point.

When the whole 2B/SS/3B situation is looked at as a whole, it’s not unlike the other portions of the Indians’ team in that there are a number of parts that can be moved and massaged for different fielding configurations and lineups with the idea that evolutions will become obvious as the season shakes out. Whether that means DeRosa playing more in the OF and Peralta logging some innings at SS or if it means the Indians giving Barfield one more try at resuscitating his once promising career before he goes the way of Andy Marte are certainly questions that will be answered as 2009 rolls on.

For now, however, enough with these questions…it’s time for those sweetest of words to pass through these fingers to your eyes:
Wait for it…Pitchers and Catchers report!

Finally, after months of debate and conjecture and projections, there will be cleats on the field and balls in the air. And while the photos and videos of activities are likely to be limited to a bunch of guys in uniforms laughing and stretching, it represents something bigger – because they will be Cleveland Indians in Cleveland Indians uniforms doing all of that laughing and all of that stretching under the Arizona sun.

Spring Training is upon us, which means the 2009 season isn’t far behind.

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