Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Bait Shop – Part III: Fish or Cut Bait

In the throes of Trading Deadline week, after hitting on all those expendable pieces and parts (some of whom have already been assigned new laundry to wear), it’s finally time to talk about the two prettiest lures in the Indians’ tackle box of bait – it’s time to…gulp, talk a little CP Lee and Vic.

Whereas in the case of Mark DeRosa, Senor Slo-Mo, and Garko…Polo, questions as to where they fit (or didn’t fit) into the Indians’ plans after this year (either by virtue of their contract running out, an absurdly high number on a club option for a 34-year-old middle reliever, or a player about to hit arbitration with younger players behind him) do not apply to Clifton Phifer and El Capitan. Both are elite players in MLB, working under the last year deal of their current contracts, with the Indians holding affordable options on each player for 2010.

If they’re ostensibly under club control through the end of next season, why in the world would the Indians trade these players then, right?

For these two, the question as to why they’re being shopped have less to do with them as players and more to do with the Indians and their outlook for the 2010 season and beyond. For each player, there are questions as to the wisdom of extending them past 2010 (as there are with Vic in terms of similarly skilled players in the pipeline and the dollars committed to Hafner to DH) or simply the fact that they will not be Indians when presented with Free Agency after the 2010 season as is the case with Lee, who is sure to command a multi-year deal after the 2010 season for an annual salary with eight digits associated with it, something the Indians are rightfully reticent to shy away from given that Lee will be 32 when his next contract starts in the 2011 season.

Nobody’s questioning either player’s importance to the team as Martinez’s recent slump is the only thing that prevents him from being the most valuable position player this year (as determined by Fangraphs…hello, Mr. BLC), a category in which Lee’s value to the team is equal to that of the 5 next most valuable pitchers (as determined again by Fangraphs) on the Indians’ 2009 pitching staff…one of whom is Jeremy Sowers.
No, seriously.

As two of the probably three best players on the team, both are vitally important to any success that the Indians hope to achieve this year without question. But the question really becomes, rather quickly, what are the Indians’ expectations for 2010 and what role to Clifton Phifer and Vic the Stick play in those expectations

An even better question to ask would be is whether contention with Victor and Clifton is possible in 2010, seeing as how each of the two players in question is performing exceptionally this year and the team still finds itself with the third worst record in the AL. If the team has posted the third worst record in the AL with the two of them (and with their recent start to a second-half surge the only thing pulling them ahead of the Royals in the woebegone Central), what point is there to keeping them around for 2010 on a bad team?

And now both seemingly rhetorical questions are out there – “if they’re ostensibly under club control through the end of next season, why in the world would the Indians trade these players” versus “on the team that has posted the third worst record in the AL with the two of them, what is the point of keeping them around for 2010 on a bad team” – and suddenly, we get into the crux of the argument…more of a “State of the Organization” question than anything else.

Forgive me if this is revisiting “news” that isn’t new to anyone, but the real issue facing the organization in regard to possibly moving Lee and Martinez is whether right now (with 1 ½ affordable years remaining on each of their deals) represents the point of greatest value in terms of netting a return for either or both to augment the talent already in the organization to strengthen the quality and depth of the organization for a sustained run…just not necessarily a run that would include next year.

Is 2010 a legitimate year for contention, made more likely by keeping Lee and Vic, or is 2010 a “year to build upon” because the team is not close to contending (even with CP and El Capitan) with the eye on a longer timeframe in terms of sustained contention?

From the two schools of thought – one in which the Indians can contend in 2010 with Lee and Martinez versus the one that sees a more realistic timeframe of contention starting in 2011 when LaPorta, Huff, Rondon, Santana, Brantley, and Weglarz are all ready to contribute – the Indians’ Front Office has about 3 days to decide which one they find themselves more firmly in as the value for Lee or Martinez will likely never be higher (1 ½ years under contract for each and two pennant races for an acquiring team) and contention next year without one or both seems rather unlikely, taking into account the adjustment period for the young players thought to be in line for Martinez’s AB (if he is to be moved) and depending upon the MLB-readiness of the arms acquired for either (again, if either are moved) in terms of immediate impact.

Looking then, at these two schools of thought, if the idea is that the Indians CAN contend with Victor and Lee in 2010, how important is each to that idea of contention?

Starting with Victor, while the idea is out there that there are prospects that figure in eventually at C and 1B (Santana and LaPorta and maybe Weglarz) and DH is filled for the foreseeable future by Hafner meaning that Victor past 2010 isn’t as crucial to the Indians’ long-term success, moving Martinez PRIOR to 2010 assumes quite a bit in terms of the development of the young players in the Indians’ system. Without Martinez on the Indians in 2010, the offensive burden would have to be carried by some combination of ShopVac (assuming he’s around), LaPorta, and maybe even Andy Marte until the likes of Santana and Weglarz are able to contribute, perhaps later in 2010. That group of players assuming that offensive burden would have to combine to come close to Victor’s production and provide some semblance of stability past Grady, Asdrubal, and Choo at the top of the lineup. Perhaps the offense is strong enough to make up for the loss of Martinez’s bat next year, but it would take a number of players adjusting quickly to MLB as well as another batch of players not falling prey to regressions or lingering injuries for that to happen.

If Martinez’s presence in the 2010 lineup certainly allows the case for contention more compelling on the offensive side, Lee’s presence in 2010 virtually dictates whether the Indians have a chance of contending or not, pitching-wise.

Consider this while pondering Lee’s importance to the team for next year:
Starters 2009 – Cliff Lee Division
22 starts, 152 IP, 3.14 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 6.34 K/9, 1.95 BB/9, 3.25 K/BB

Starters 2009 – Non-Cliff Lee Division
78 starts, 422 1/3 IP, 6.07 ERA, 1.56 WHIP, 5.32 K/9, 3.62 K/BB, 1.46 K/BB

Take Cliff Lee out of the equation for this year and the results for the 2009 rotation go from “not so pretty” to “girls in the hallway of ‘The Shining’ terrifying” rather quickly. Sure, Jake Westbrook is still coming back this season and Fausto Carmona is still in search of his 2007 self, but look at the two rotations possible for 2010 (not taking into account the player coming back IF Lee were to be traded) with and without Lee:
Lee
Westbrook
Carmona
Laffey
Huff

Westbrook
Carmona
Laffey
Huff
Sowers

Is it even really necessary to look at the rotation without Lee to know what a year without him at the top would mean?
Not a real rosy picture, right?

However, the camp that asserts that 2010 will amount to nothing more than this year even with the rotation looking like it does in the top version. And that may be true, but the variable in the whole “contention in 2010” hinges on the effectiveness of Carmona and, to a lesser extent, the health of Westbrook. The notion of Carmona (in some version close to his 2007 self) and Westbrook (eating innings in the middle of the rotation) pitching behind Lee and in front of Laffey and Huff with Rondon as the 6th starter holds water for me as a viable rotation for contention in 2010. But with the version of Carmona that we’ve been “treated” to now for 2 years and with Westbrook still not pitching an inning in MLB, how much of a leap of faith is that assumption?

The “no chance of contention in 2010” crowd will crow that the idea of contention in 2010 takes some healthy assumptions that Carmona will return to form, that Westbrook and Sizemore will be fully healthy, that Hafner can play more than 3 games in a row, that the bullpen can somehow…somehow…evolve into an effective unit from Day 1, and that Lee and Martinez will be on the team when the club breaks camp next April.

Could all of those things happen?
Certainly, and the Indians as they are constructed right now surely won’t be the way that the team leaves Goodyear in 2010 (not even taking Lee and Martinez into account), so contention in 2010 in the AL Central simply can’t be written off as a pipe dream. If the idea that the Indians could contend in 2009 was out there with the thought that they would work in some of their young players along the way existed at the beginning of the season, with the augmentation of those young players to what would essentially be the same group of “core” players (assuming again, that Lee and Martinez stay put), has this season put that much of a sour taste in everyone’s mouth to assert that the organization is entering the desert of non-contention, only to be saved by flipping Lee and Martinez for young talent?

On the flip side, so many assumptions are necessary and as 2009 has shown some cracks in what was thought to be the Indians’ foundation going forward, how much validity is there to chalking up 2010, jettisoning both Lee and Martinez and building this thing with the same focus on a multitude of arms that it was supposed to be?

If 2010 is, in fact, a pipe dream or built on assumptions, wouldn’t now be the time to strike when the proverbial iron is hot and capitalize on dangling 1 ½ years of Lee and Martinez for a maximum return?

Perhaps it is, but only for that deal that gives the Indians the arms that are past that adjustment period in terms of acclimating themselves to MLB. And therein lies the rub for the Indians as few, if any, teams are willing to part with the type of arms that legitimately make sense in terms of giving up 1 ½ years of Martinez and, more obviously, Lee as the arms added would have to ostensibly replace Lee in the rotation in short order before chalking up 2010 turned into chalking up 2011 and so on.

Why are teams reticent to make moves to give up those arms?
Consider the since-shot-down rumor of both Lee and Martinez going to Chavez Ravine because Joe Torre wants to “win now”, with the return for the duo allegedly being Chad Billingsley or Clayton Kershaw, James Loney, and one or two high-end Dodger prospects. Take Loney out of the equation as his acquisition would make little sense for a team that just traded a fair-to-middling 1B about to hit arbitration in Garko only to add another in Loney.

Rather, look at what would be the centerpiece of the deal coming back to the Indians – Billingsley or Kershaw – those young, MLB-ready arms that no team wants to part with
Cliff Lee 2009 – Age 30
3.14 ERA, 3.21 FIP, 1.30 WHIP, 6.34 K/9, 1.95 BB/9, 3.24 K/BB
Free Agent after 2010 season

Clayton Kershaw 2009 – Age 21
2.96 ERA, 3.38 FIP, 1.26 WHIP, 8.79 K/9, 5.03 BB/9, 1.75 K/BB
Arbitration-eligible after 2011 season
Free Agent after 2014 season

Chad Billingsley 2009 – Age 24
3.72 ERA, 3.54 FIP, 1.29 WHIP, 8.53 K/9, 3.79 BB/9, 2.25 K/BB
Arbitration-eligible after 2009 season
Free Agent after 2012 season

Why in the world would a team like the Dodgers make that deal, giving up multiple years of club control (at a lower price) of a younger pitcher performing at a level close to the 2008 AL Cy Young Award winner?

If they would, certainly that’s the perfect deal; but can the Indians sit and wait out that perfect deal?
At this point, that’s the move as they sit in the proverbial catbird’s seat where they’re not compelled to absolutely move CP or Vic because of oncoming Free Agency and because both will be playing under club-friendly deals in 2010. If, in 2010, the Indians find themselves similarly out of contention in late-July, an opportunity will have been missed as the value for ½ of a season (and one pennant race) pales in comparison and perceived value for 1 ½ of a season (and two pennant races) for any team that would net Lee or Victor.

To me, contention with Lee and Martinez in 2010 isn’t a pipe dream and while it may be banking on a multitude of assumptions, it also assumes that the Indians will figure to have a better team than the one that broke camp in 2009…the same one that was thought to be in contention for the AL Central with this season dawned. If, however, that deal is out there that doesn’t completely take 2010 out of the equation and doesn’t set the Indians contention clock back to “hopefully 2011” if everyone matures as expected, the Indians would be foolish not to entertain those deals if only to maximize that return on Lee and/or Martinez.

For all intents and purposes the balance of the Indians’ season and perhaps all of next year, in terms of expectations, figure to go one way or the other in the next three days. The bait is in the water and the Indians are feeling the nibbles. Whether the original bait or the catch of the day is at the other end of that line come Friday remains to be seen.

10 comments:

Elia said...

The team as constructed is not a bad team. It's a team that had a bad year. If we go back a year and insert the name "Detroit" in place of "Cleveland", we've got the same thing. And in this division, contention is 85-90 wins.

The real question for next year is the "ifs". We went into 2009 with way too many ifs:
- IF Cliff Lee can do it again (check)
- IF Pavano can stay healthy and effective (half check)
- IF Carmona can find the strike zone
- IF Westbrook can come back on schedule
- IF Martinez is healthy (check)
- IF Hafner is healthy (half check)
- IF platooning every position on the planet works
- IF the bullpen figures out how to pitch

And I'm sure I missed one or two. It's just too many ifs to overcome, and they all needed to break our way. They didn't.

We should know far more of these ifs, especially if Westbrook and Carmona can get 5-8 starts topside.

For 2010, the Tribe big thinkers need to solidify the every day lineup (almost there except C, 1B and LF and even that may be fine depending on how Marte does for the next two months with Martinez behind the dish and LaPorta in left), get Sizemore healthy, solidify the bullpen and make a decision about Carmona and Westbrook in the rotation.

Call me an optimist, but I don't think we are that far off from contention.

Trebek said...

I agree with you Elia, I think we should be the best team in the division next year. We have the best farm system in the division by far and have reinforcements for the rotation on the way (Rondon, Gomez and Todd-if he's put in a starter's role). I hope that we don't trade Lee because our starting rotation next year will be fairly deep and should be about average next year. Lee, Westbrook, Laffey, Huff, Carmona, Rondon, Gomez etc doesn't look bad on paper. Thankfully we have plenty of options. Hopefully some of our good young arms in the pen can find some control and consistency. With arms like J. Smith, R. Perez, Sipp, J. Lewis, C. Perez, J. Todd etc to compliment Wood the bullpen hopefully will have enough depth to be at least decent. The offense should be excellent next year and I think that if we could get the right package, we can trade Victor and still absorb the blow. Also, Andy Marte and his 1.417 OPS sure helps this offense.... This season has sucked, but we still have hope.

rodells said...

Anyone hearing word that we've aquired Clement from the M's?

Paul Cousineau said...

Elia and Alex (Trebek),
I'm with you guys that contention in 2010 is possible and if they move one of these guys, it had better be for a piece (or pieces) that fills the holes adequately and rather quickly.

dells,
According to Rosenthal, the Indians have said that they're NOT in on Clement as of last night.

Les Savy Ferd said...

@Paul

the only thing I would correct in your most recent baitshop article is that the 2010 rotation wouldn't necessarily be:

Westbrook
Carmona
Laffey
Huff
Sowers

if Lee were traded seeing as if what the brass have said is true, we'd only move the Phifer if we're getting a MLB ready SP in return. So that would presumably nix Sowers (who, despite my pre-season championing, should be throwing long relief anyway)

Although the fodder I've ready about the latest Phillies' offer doesn't seem to include a MLB ready SP...

Paul Cousineau said...

LSF,
I tried to imply that the rotation doesn't take into consideration what they'd get for Lee and if a MLB-ready SP is involved than it makes the deal much more palatable for me.

My fear though is what the Phillies are talking about, where that "MLB-ready arm" is a guy like Carrasco (and not someone who slots into the top-of-the-rotation legitimately by 2010 and the centerpiece is a high-ceiling guy like Knapp who is years away.

That...um, no thanks.

Spills said...

Castro better be wrong with the trade he's reporting. No way you make that trade when you have a legitimate shot at the playoffs next year.

Hyde said...

I actually agree with you, Elia. And I imagine Tigers fans are pleased that their front office didn't use finishing last in 2008 as a reason to give up on 2009 ahead of time.

The apparent trade with the Phillies means that my fears expressed in here a few days ago have come to pass: this is a salary dump, plain and simple. How in the world can you trade the defending Cy Young Award winner for 4 guys (2 of whom seem to future major league reserves), where the centerpiece is someone in A ball? I didn't much care for the Sabathia trade, but at least LaPorta had shown he could play in AA.

If Shapiro tries to sell this on the baseball merits, I would hope he'd lose every ounce of credibility he still has with some of you--he lost it with me a while back.

Learning to Swim said...

Looks like next year will be another summer for me to save money by not going out to watch satellite. Sad to see CP go.

Joshua Whitman said...

Knee jerk reaction to the deal -- why must the description of the players acquired for Lee include the terms "shoulder soreness" and "back from knee surgery".

Oh well, maybe season tickets will be buy one get three free next year.