Tuesday, August 04, 2009

As the Dust Settles – Position Players

With the earth-moving trades of last week finally settling in as the Indians quickly moved past 2009 (and likely 2010) with their flurry of movement, perhaps now might be a good time to take a look at where we stand in terms of upper-level depth now residing in the Indians’ organization. Moves have been made seemingly with 2011 in mind as the time that the team begins to mature and gel together (hopefully as a contender), but what will the team look like until that point?

Position player-wise, where the Indians are unquestionably deeper than their pitching talent, it would seem that Grady, Asdrubal, and The BLC are the only obvious locks to hold down their positions for the foreseeable future with a part-time Hafner ostensibly remaining in the lineup if only because of money owed to him. Beyond that though, there are a lot of plausible scenarios and moving pieces and parts that are going to evolve into the next “version” of an Indians’ team thought to contend.

What are those scenarios and who are those pieces and parts?

Catcher
On Opening Day of 2010, the Indians will have a catcher other than Victor Martinez for the first time since 2003 (Josh Bard started the 2003 opener) and at this point, the name that fills that “C” spot in the 2010 lineup card remains a bit of a mystery. Despite the fact that the position certainly looks to be crowded as the acquisition of Marson muddies the water even more (whether Shapiro was aware of his inclusion in the deal or not, as my fellow TCF writer Steve Buffum brilliantly “asserts” as he pinch-hits for ESPN’s Rob Neyer earlier in the week) behind the dish. Marson’s inclusion in the deal however, may be telling in terms of the direction that the Indians go for Martinez’s de facto replacement for 2010.

That is to say, the inclusion of Marson, a AAA catcher with a likelihood of being “ready” for MLB in 2010 on a roster that already includes Kelly Shoppach and Wyatt Toregas, would certainly seem to intimate either that the Indians don’t feel that Shoppach will be their starting catcher in 2010 or they don’t think that Toregas will be their back-up catcher in 2010. Since Marson was explicitly included in this deal, I tend to think the former as the rationale in obtaining a catcher to be your back-up catcher (even if it is just a throw-in) on a deal for 1 ½ years of the reigning Cy Young winner for next year would be beyond baffling unless the thought that Marson would play a role more important than just being a back-up catcher (when the Indians already have a back-up catcher on the 40-man in the soon-to-be 27-year-old Toregas) in 2010. Marson is not without his resume as he sat at #66 in Baseball America’s preseason rankings of the prospects in all of baseball, based on the strength of a 2008 season (at the age of 22) where he posted a .314 BA / .433 OBP / .416 SLG / .849 OPS for AA Reading. The thought that Marson, while lacking in much discernable power, could start in 2010 is not without merit and his downturn in 2009 may simply have allowed the Indians to add him to the deal with the idea that he could factor in as the 2009 Opening Day catcher, holding that spot until Carlos Santana (the unquestioned catcher of the future) is deemed to be ready.

This brings us to the curious case of what the Indians plan on doing with the player thought to benefit most from the catching spot opening up from the trade of Victor – Kelly Shoppach. “Thought to benefit” because in the three games since Martinez has left for Boston, Show Pack has started 1 of the 4 games, splitting time with Chris Gimenez (another “catcher”…or at least a Utility Player that can catch similar to a Chris Coste) and the aforementioned Toregas. Shoppach, of course, is less than a year away than the 76 game stretch (out of the possible 84 played by the team) to close out the season after he was installed as the everyday catcher, posting a .273 BA / .364 OBP / .571 SLG / .935 OPS line with 24 2B and 20 HR over the second half of 2008.

Since that revelation, Shoppach’s salary took a healthy hike while the frequency of his playing time saw a sharp nosedive. It’s been said here before, but it bears repeating that Shoppach has yet to play 4 games in a row for the Indians and has only started 52 of the 105 games the Indians have played this year. His numbers have been unquestionably worse, posting a .208 BA / .340 OBP / .382 SLG / .772 OPS line in his sporadic playing time. But again, are his struggles the result of the infrequency of his playing time or vice versa?

We’ll likely never know as the Indians certainly seem to be making plans for life without Shoppach (scheduled to hit his second year of arbitration after 2009) with the possible idea that a Marson as starter, Toregas as back-up combination would start 2010 as those donning the tools of ignorance, serving as placeholders until Carlos Santana, who is likely to be a Top 10 prospect in all of baseball heading into 2010, works out the kinks of his game (defensively, mainly) in AAA with a possibility that Santana could elevate to the parent club at some point in 2010 with only Marson and Toregas “blocking” the plate for him.

First Base
Suddenly going from a combination of Victor Martinez and Ryan Garko, with a logjam beneath the surface of the parent club, to the idea that Andy Marte is likely the everyday 1B for the remainder of 2009 shows just how quickly things can change in an organization. Don’t take that as a rip job on Marte, who definitely earned his way back into the organization’s potential plans with a terrific season in Columbus; rather, it’s the crazy idea that the Indians now find themselves looking at a 25-year-old converted 3B playing the position that is one of the deepest in terms of talent in the organization.

Interestingly, the long-term future of 1B may not be tied to what happens among First Basemen at all and may be affected more by what happens among the Indians triumvirate of prospects in LaPorta, Brantley, and Weglarz – two of whom have logged innings at 1B and LF and the other whose body type (Nicky Wegz) may result in an eventual move to 1B – in terms of who ends up fitting where.

For now, Andy Marte should (and hopefully will) be put in the lineup everyday at 1B to see what the Indians have in him, against non-September call-up pitching for sure, to allow them to make a more informed decision as to where (or even whether) he fits on the club going forward. The possibility that Matt LaPorta could play some 1B (if he, in fact, ever makes the return trip to Cleveland…but more on that later) is out there as is the likelihood that Utility Player Chris Gimenez (who certainly has some merit on the team as a “fill in the cracks” guy more than an everyday player who can play multiple positions) could spell Marte at 1B from time to time.

Next year is not as clear as Marte may assert himself into the mix (but he may also find himself back over at 3B if a move is made with Peralta) or LaPorta could find himself manning 1B in 2010 if the Indians decide to play Brantley on an everyday basis (which should be the ONLY role for Brantley on the parent club) when the team breaks camp in Goodyear next year. It’s also possible that the Indians could simply pass the mantle of “placeholder” at 1B to Jordan Brown, who has placed himself back on the map with a strong 2009, though his lack of power puts him on par with what Ryan Garko put forth for the last few years in Cleveland and both look to be similarly skilled players, based on their MiLB numbers:
Jordan Brown – MiLB numbers through age 25
.306 BA / .372 OBP / .469 SLG / .841 OPS in 2,022 plate appearances

Ryan Garko – MiLB numbers through age 25
.293 BA / .379 OBP / .488 SLG / .867 OPS in 1,637 plate appearance

Certainly not bad overall numbers for either player, but it’s meant to illustrate what Jordan Brown likely is in terms of MLB projection – he’s not unlike Garko as he hits for average, but not a lot of power from what is traditionally a power position at 1B. Perhaps his defense is a shade better, but looking at Brown as a long-term option feels a lot more like looking at a continuation with what we had in Garko. Maybe that’s not a bad thing or one that isn’t an acceptable option for a bit of 2010, but as this team evolves into its next combination of players, I’m looking for a little more than just a Garko-type player to be manning 1B.

Eventually, I think that’s LaPorta (now sitting on a .932 OPS in his MiLB career) but maybe not until mid-way through 2010 or even in 2011, depending upon the development of the LF that would force the move.
Whenever that may be, the waters around 1B got a lot muddier over the last two weeks.

Second Base
Heading into the week of the Trading Deadline, one of the positions which the Indians looked to be rather set upon in terms of a future fixture at a position was 2B as Luis Valbuena had showed enough promise as a 23-year-old getting his first MLB exposure to assert the idea that Louie VB looked to be the 2B of not only the future, but also the present. While his overall numbers (.236 BA / .293 OBP / .403 SLG / .696 OPS in 208 plate appearances) didn’t put him on anybody’s All-Star radar, the pop in his bat and his nifty defense around 2B (while manning SS as Cabrera mended on the DL) portended some success for the young Venezuelan.

Even if Valbuena’s first extended look in MLB didn’t stir the ghosts of Robbie Alomar manning 2B for the Indians, the needs at 2B looked to be further down the list of the Indians’ needs as they looked for potential packages for Cliff Lee and Victor Martinez. Despite this, the Indians received Jason Donald from the Phillies, a soon-to-be-25 2B/SS combo player in AAA, whose overall MiLB numbers (.284 BA / .368 OBP / .434 SLG / .803 OPS) suggest that he belongs in MLB, perhaps even as early as late 2009.

Interestingly on Donald though, is the fact that coming into this season he was ranked as the 69th best prospect in all of baseball by Baseball America and 48th best by Keith Law, a startling realization when you consider that Nick Weglarz was ranked 58th best by Baseball America and 61st by Law prior to the season starting. It’s interesting because you will not find Luis Valbuena’s name anywhere on these lists and while the youth of Valbuena is obviously appealing, Donald’s attractiveness as a potential MLB player in the very near future put him on both of these Top 100 lists prior to the season.

Donald has obviously struggled this year as he recovers from knee trouble, which may have taken some of the luster off of his prospect star, but he may very well factor into the 2B mix just as significantly as Valbuena, even down the backstretch of 2009 (as Valbuena could find himself demoted at a certain point to manage his service time clock) with the idea that the Indians could open up 2010 Spring Training with Valbuena and Donald fighting for the everyday 2B job with the “loser” essentially becoming Jamey Carroll’s replacement as a Utility IF as both Donald and Valbuena’s ability to play 2B, SS, and 3B mirror Carroll’s defensive repertoire, coming at a much lower price tag in 2010.

Shortstop
Enough with the question marks and the fluidity of what could happen, right?
Consider for a moment that there are 10 players that are 23 or younger that have logged 300 or more plate appearances in 2009 in MLB, 5 of them have posted an OPS of .800 or higher…Asdrubal Cabrera is one of them and the only middle infielder of that elite group as Justin Upton, Pablo Sandoval, Evan Longoria, and Adam Jones are the others if you don’t want to click the link.

Many want to portray Cabrera as the next coming of Omar Vizquel, but at the risk of sounding like I’m besmirching the legacy of a likely Hall of Fame player and one of Cleveland’s best, doing so actually sells Asdrubal short, given his offensive success at his young age. In his first 3 full seasons (and 1,198 plate appearances), Little O posted a line of .230 BA / .290 OBP / .283 SLG / .572 OPS, 60 OPS+ with 26 2B, 4 HR, and 12 SB. In comparison, Cabrera’s first not-yet-full 3 seasons to start his career (968 plate appearances) have seen him post a line .280 BA / .351 OBP / .409 SLG / .760 OPS, 98 OPS+ with 54 2B, 14 HR, and 15 SB.

Blasphemy…I know, even intimating that a SS could be better than Omar, particularly in an Indians’ uniform; but Cabrera’s preternatural abilities, and slick glove (now that he’s playing his natural position of SS, presumably behind what could be 4 groundball starters in Westbrook, Masterson, Carmona, and Laffey next year) suggest that the Indians have something special in him and his name should be written in permanent marker at SS for 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013 and maybe beyond depending upon the Indians likely approaching Cabrera to discuss an extension sometime in the near future.

Third Base
From the topic of how exciting the current shortstop is, moving on to the uncertainty now facing the former shortstop as Jhonny Peralta has seemingly dropped out of the ranks of the known quantities to some area on the outskirts, unquestionably on the periphery of the “core”, a quick descent for a player that as recently as the second half of last year carried a large portion of the offensive burden for the Indians as he posted a .306 BA / .356 OBP / .512 SLG / .877 OPS with 28 2B, 12 HR, and 59 RBI in 86 games after being moved to the clean-up spot in mid-June.

Now, half of a season into a year that saw him suddenly change positions while he regressed offensively during that transition, Peralta’s future with the team certainly seems as up in the air as it ever has as he and the manager exchange barbs through the media as the target on his back grows for fans searching for reasons that 2009 has gone as poorly as it has. Of course, Peralta has not made the argument for his detractors too difficult as he struggled out of the gate, posting a 30-game line of .246 BA / .303 OBP / .320 SLG / .623 OPS with only 6 extra base hits in 132 plate appearances, which resulted in his overdue move to 3B…a move that should have been decided upon in the off-season if it was going to come to pass in May.

Regardless of the move, Peralta’s season has represented nothing new for Peralta in terms of his streakiness as a hitter:
April/May OPS – Career - .678
April/May OPS – 2009 - .570
May OPS – Career - .848
May OPS – 2009 - .788
June OPS – Career - .730
June OPS – 2009 - .741
July OPS – Career - .831
July OPS – 2009 - 840

He’s up, he’s down…he’s hot, he’s cold - this simply is who Peralta is as a hitter.
The question becomes though, whether the Indians want that hitter as their de facto 3B going into these next few years (while paying him $4.6M in 2010 and considering the $7M club option for 2011 with a $250K buyout) or if they want to allow Peralta to hopefully get on a hot streak to close out the year to increase his trade value in the off-season with the idea that Andy Marte (assuming his audition over the next two months goes even remotely well) can hold the fort down until Lonnie Chisenhall is ready to emerge as the 3B of the future, which may be more than a couple of years of as The Chiz is raking…but down in Kinston as a 20-year-old.

Peralta is still only 27 years old (17 months older than Marte and 28 months older than Wes Hodges, who really isn’t legitimately in the picture at this point with his career MiLB of .811 as a 24-year-old) with a track record of performing at or above the league average for 3 out of his 4 completed big-league seasons. In those 4 completed big-league seasons, he has averaged a .273 BA / .339 OBP / .450 SLG / .789 OPS line (106 OPS+) with an average of 20 HR and 33 2B as a SS, great numbers for a SS and even acceptable ones for a 3B with the idea that Peralta, with a year to get ready for the transition (both mentally and physically as he could add some weight) might result in a nice fit with Peralta at 3B.

Ultimately, there's little question that Peralta hasn't developed the way the Indians thought he would, but trading him would remove any thought that he may transition well to 3B (with foreknowledge that he’s doing it) and remain as inconsistently consistent as he’s been as a player for years now.

Perhaps the Indians feel that Peralta has regressed (and there is certainly evidence to back that up) or reached his plateau as a player, and if that is the case this off-season would represent the time to move him and hand the reins to Marte at 3B in 2010 and maybe beyond. If they feel that Peralta has earned a chance to prepare to play 3B throughout an off-season and Marte thrives in his extended look at 1B (where he hasn’t embarrassed himself in the field to date), the Indians can simply hang onto Peralta for 2010, play Marte at 1B and see where each stands.

Left Field
If the situation at 3B seems to be up in the air going forward, how does one reasonably begin to analyze the Indians’ LF situation? For an organization that has lived through the Dellichaels Era and the Ben Francisco Treat Era, it just seems to be more of a continuation of a mess as Trevor Crowe has now inexplicably become the Indians’ LF because…say it with me – “he can also play CF in case Grady needs a day off”.

While that may be true, let’s go back to the whole notion that I had no problem with the Frisco Kid being on the roster as he was a fine, cheap 4th OF, just as Crowe (soon-to-be-26-years old and the owner of a career MiLB .760 OPS) looks to be. But Trevor Crowe, like Frisco before him is not an everyday OF in MLB and no amount of versatility is going to change that. He may get hot for a while, as he has since his latest promotion; but isn’t that what fooled some people on Francisco, intent only to pay attention when he was going well and casting a blind eye to the fact that the cold stretches made the hot stretches impossible to wait for?

This isn’t breaking any new ground as the calls for this move came out in May, but Matt LaPorta should be the Indians’ starting LF today and probably should have been the starting LF back in mid-June. If the Indians were “showcasing” Francisco (which would mean he faces Andy Sonnanstine once a week) to trade him, that’s fine; but with Francisco gone and the roster full of flotsam and jetsam, the rationale behind not bringing up LaPorta and allowing Trevor Crowe to fill his eventual position of 4th OF today is lost on anyone who follows the Indians…that is, with the exception of the people who actually make the decisions.

The reason for LaPorta to be playing LF on an everyday basis right now is painfully obvious as he figures into the long-term future of the team, all service time issues are behind him, and he plays what have been the weakest two positions (LF and 1B) on the team for multiple years now. He was purported to be near-MLB-ready when the Indians netted him in the CC deal and the Indians allegedly passed on a pair of corner OF for Cliff Lee because they felt they had enough upper-level corner OF…of whom LaPorta is the best (with his .932 career MiLB OPS) and closest to MLB, having now played 80 games in AAA.

Calling LaPorta up now (and not in September) allows him to face MLB pitching in 2009 and not just the watered-down version that appears in September after rosters expand while getting him used to doing what the Indians hope he’s going to do for the next six or so years…play every day in MLB.

The handling of LaPorta in this lost season has been among the most puzzling and troubling in terms of handling prospects in recent memory as he represented an upgrade (even if it was a slight one as a young player and not even getting into the botched 19-game stretch when he was actually topside) over the current options at 1B and LF in Garko and Francisco throughout the year and when those two players were moved, lesser-thought-of players in Marte and Crowe ascended to assume their AB for the parent club.

Since he can’t fill both of those positions (and because Andy Marte has shown at least a couple of years of promise in the Minors…even if they were 4 years apart), I’m all for letting Marte give a shot at 1B for the rest of the year to see what the Indians have in him. However, the Indians know what they have in Crowe and it fits on the 2010 roster – it’s just not in the way he’s playing today as the starting LF. The simple fact is that LaPorta is likely to break 2010 as the Indians starting LF as Mike Brantley and Nick Weglarz likely will need more MiLB seasoning and LaPorta’s ability to play LF should get his bat in the lineup until he’s eventually forced by one of the aforementioned LF to 1B, if that ever in fact happens.

Until that does happen (and again, LaPorta should be closing in on his 200th MLB plate appearance if he was handled the way that he should have been), the baffling days, weeks, and months drag on and Matt LaPorta remains in Columbus without a legitimate roadblock in front of him still.

Center Field
With CP Lee and El Capitan gone on the heels of the aCCe donning the pinstripes and Pronk turning into “merely Travis”, there is little question as to who the most identifiable player on the Indians has become. While it could be argued that Grady was the “Face of the Franchise” prior to this season, just looking around the rest of the 25-man roster confirms that he has little in-house competition in terms of being the Indians most recognizable, and still most popular, player.

His accomplishments and talent are unquestioned as over his numbers over his first four full seasons - .281 BA / .372 OBP / .496 SLG / .868 OPS averaging 40 2B, 27 HR and 28 SB in those seasons, all while playing a spectacular defensive CF – attest with the downturn of this year coming on the heels of a stretch of baseball that placed him among historical names in terms of development at the end of the 2008 season. At the end of last year, Sizemore’s most comparable players through their age-25 seasons were Barry Bonds (pre-BALCO), Duke Snider, Bobby Bonds, Andre Dawson, Carlos Beltran, and Harold Baines to name a few.

While his season has certainly been a disappointment, the role that his elbow “discomfort” has played may never be known in terms of how long he played through the injury and extent of the elbow’s effect on his swing. Certainly his defense was unaffected, but his offense slipped to merely average levels (current OPS+ of 97) in spite of an injury that may have plagued his swing to force his output to dip to sub-Sizemorean levels.

The answer to whether 2009 represents a blip on the screen for Sizemore’s career (like Vic’s 2008) or something much more sinister (like Hafner’s 2007) isn’t likely to be answered this year. But his importance to the team has never been higher as, if it was thought that he would assume more of a leadership role after Sabathia and Blake were moved, the burden of providing leadership (be it by example or otherwise) is certainly on him with Vic and Clifton Phifer gone. That leadership though, extends well beyond the clubhouse as Grady’s presence and return to excellence in the lineup and on the field is tantamount to success in this next stage of the “rebuild/reload/restock” that the Indians now find themselves.

Right Field

In a season full of disappointments and unfulfilled potential, Big League Choo stands head and shoulders above the rest of the 2009 Indians in terms of taking the next step as a legitimate middle-of-the-order presence for an MLB team as he has continued the success of the second half of 2008 right into a bona-fide breakout year in RF.

Consider that The BLC currently stands 5th in the AL in OBP, 3rd in AL in pitches per plate appearance, and 19th in AL in OPS, nestled between Evan Longoria and Jason Bay and you begin to get a sense of what the Indians may have found something special in exchange for an about-to-hit arbitration Ben Broussard.

For even more optimism on BLC, in terms of some more advanced valuation metrics, Choo ranks 10th in the AL in Runs Created Per 27 Outs (RC/27), behind Miguel Cabrera and ahead of Mark Teixeira and has the 7th highest Park Adjust Runs above Average based on wOBA, this time just behind Cabrera and Teixeira.

While all of that may be getting a little too technical with obscure stats for some, the mention of both Cabrera and Teixeira there is not without reason as the combined salaries of those two players this year is $35 M, with Choo making the MLB minimum. Next year, the Tiger and the Yankee (the then-27-year-old Cabrera and the then-30-year-old Teixeira) will combine to make $40 M; as for the then-28-year-old Choo next year?
Yep…the MLB minimum.

Which is to say, in a roundabout way, that even as a late bloomer, Choo has entered an elite stratosphere of hitters fairly quickly as an Indian and (pending the outcome of this military service obligation thing from Korea), he will likely be compensated as such with perhaps the possibility of a long-term deal to extend his time past the end of 2013, when he is currently scheduled to become a Free Agent.

Designated Hitter
Just as there is little question as to who figures to play SS, CF, and RF for the present and future for the Indians, the question has an equally obvious answer at DH…just not for the same reason. Whereas Cabrera, Sizemore, and Choo all represent what is likely to be the core of the offensive team for 2009 and 2010 with other players slotting in around them based on their performance to date, the answer as to who will be DH’ing has less to do with performance to date and more to do with salary owed to Travis Hafner.

Before getting into the albatross that is firmly wrapped around the organization’s neck, let’s at least acknowledge that Hafner is posting his best numbers since 2006, but (you knew that the caveat intro was coming) it comes with the obvious news that Hafner’s chronic shoulder ailment has limited him to play basically in about 2/3 of the games he’s available for. After Hafner began the season starting 15 of the first 21 games resulting in another DL stint, his usage has dropped to the point that he’s started 33 of the 48 games that he’s been “healthy” for. Some of those games came in NL parks, but it effectively illustrates what we might be looking at in terms of expectations for Hafner going forward.

In those 33 starts since returning from the DL, he’s posted a .276 BA / .366 OBP / .488 SLG / .854 OPS line in 142 plate appearances and while those numbers are encouraging in comparison to where he’s been, it certainly isn’t the type of player (particularly when you consider the part-time role) that you’re looking at for these guaranteed salary numbers:
2010 - $11.5M
2011 - $13M
2012 - $13M
2013 - $13M club option ($2.75M buyout)

Trade him and that contract, isn’t that the answer?
Well, beyond his limited no-trade clause…does anybody have any interested parties for a player that cannot play the field (that means AL-only destinations) who has an .800 OPS cumulatively over his last three seasons, while playing in only 263 games?

As we all listen to the crickets, let’s just accept that Hafner’s going to see the end of the 2012 season as an Indian, with no question that he’s going to be around, and at this point all the Indians can do is hope for the best performance they can get for him when he’s able to be in the lineup. When he’s not in the lineup, the Indians can ensure that another young bat (LaPorta and Marte being on the short list) continues to see AB if they’re not playing a position, but outside of those days (which hopefully become fewer and farther between…though I’m not optimistic of that), Hafner will continue to de the Indians’ DH for another three full seasons after this one.

Overall, the offense of the Indians looks to be in fairly good hands with Grady, Choo, Cabrera, even a part-time Hafner making up the backbone of the offense with the idea that youngsters like LaPorta (if he ever comes up) and Valbuena will join a group of players (eventually joined by Marson, Donald, Santana, Brantley, Weglarz, and eventually Chisenhall) fighting their way into that mix while Peralta and Marte try to find some even footing.

The offense of this amalgamation of the Indians hasn’t, of course, been the problem and at the risk of sounding myopic, the pipeline looks to be rather full in terms of position player-talent in the upper levels of the organization to augment what’s already in Cleveland.

The pitchers going forward?
Well…

3 comments:

Cy Slapnicka said...

one more comment about our last debate and then i'll leave it alone. a friend emailed me an awesome line about the events of the past week: "The Indians are further proof that sports franchises should be owned by people with “F*&K YOU” money and not those who are in it for their livelihood. The Dolans are ATTORNEYS from CHARDON for God’s sake."

Rockdawg said...

Well said Cy....glad to see you still care, at least enough to post that.

kagat said...

Wonderful article with great analysis. Always enjoy reading you.