Thursday, February 25, 2010

Tomahawks with Balls in the Air

The first full-squad workout is scheduled for Friday and Figure Skating is about to leave my universe for the next 4 years, so the reasons to celebrate are many and more than just a little pleasing as the snow continues to fall on the North Coast. Thus, between the snowflakes and amongst the winter wind, let’s release some quick tomahawks to celebrate the arrival of “competition” in Goodyear…
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If you haven’t seen it…and I’m sure you have, allow me to clear my throat for my public announcer’s voice and be the first to say it – “Ladies and Gentlemen, Russell Branyan, the starting 1B for YOUR 2010 Cleveland Indians”!
And the crowd goes…well…

Yes, indeed it is true that Branyan will be the 1B for the majority of his time here in Cleveland, as per both the GM and the Field Manager via Castrovince:
Also, Shapiro and Manny Acta confirmed our expectations that Branyan will be the regular at first base, though they stopped short of saying that confirms that Matt LaPorta will be a regular in left. They said both LaPorta and Brantley will be playing every day “somewhere.”
I’d still expect LaPorta in left and Brantley in Columbus on Opening Day.


The “somewhere” term is a great vague anomaly, as it could mean “somewhere” around the diamond in Cleveland, just as easily as it could mean “somewhere” on a baseball team within the state of Ohio. The “Branyan will be the regular at 1B” goes along with how I saw the dominoes falling after the deal was announced, and the issue that I still have with it has to do with the way that LaPorta suddenly becomes a man without a position in a year in which he should be settling into MLB as a 25-year-old with fewer than 200 MLB PA.

Maybe there’s some as-yet-undetermined amalgamation of players at different positions that affords the plate appearances to keep LaPorta and Brantley playing every day “somewhere”, but it’s much more likely that the Indians simply send Brantley to AAA to start the season and send LaPorta to LF, with an occasional stop for him at 1B and DH as Branyan and Hafner get days off. If we’re working under that assumption, Brantley goes to Columbus to play LF “everyday” and either forces his way onto the team by his own merit or gets the call-up when Branyan gets traded or Hafner gets hurt or any number of scenarios that would open up 1B again for LaPorta and allow Brantley to settle in covering LF in Cleveland after getting his sea legs beneath him in AAA.

That issue of opening up 1B eventually for LaPorta remains the sticking point for me in that he’s now entering the season in which he’ll be 25, having accumulated less than 200 MLB PA to this point in his career. If LaPorta is that potential middle-of-the-lineup thumper that he was purported to be when the CC deal was made (and if you’ll remember, his bat was allegedly “nearly-MLB-ready”), it’s time to put him in the lineup everyday at the position that the Indians see him occupying in 2012 and 2013 (which is 1B…I think) and let him have at it.

As for the idea that Brantley figures to start the season in AAA, it really may not be the worst thing in the world as Brantley still did only post a .267 BA / .350 OBP / .361 SLG / .711 OPS in Columbus last year and he could probably use some more seasoning, not to mention spending some time in AAA to prevent his service clock from advancing unnecessarily.

Would I like the “future” to start tomorrow?
Absolutely, but if I’m given the choice of a 25-year-old LaPorta playing part-time or a 22-year-old Brantley spending ½ of a season in AAA, I’m choosing the latter. Of course, I'd probably have picked “C – None of the above” and left Branyan to his own devices, but if the Indians can manage Brantley’s service time (and that is an important factor at play) giving them one more year of control of Brantley 6 or 7 years from now, I'd struggle to find fault in it. With Brantley starting the season in AAA, it forces him to assert himself onto the MLB roster in 2010 instead of a spot being handed to him on the basis of 121 MLB plate appearances last year, during which he looked the part of a MLB hitter, but only posted a .707 OPS in 28 games.

While the LaPorta-to-LF endeavor makes little sense to me as I think that he’s eventually slated for 1B and I’m frankly tired of this versatility card being perpetually at the top of the Indians’ deck, the set-up does seem to be there to get LaPorta his “everyday” AB playing LF, 1B, and DH. While he does that, Branyan plays as the everyday 1B and protects Hafner (who may just need more protection than they’re letting on) at DH. Brantley goes to AAA to start the season in an attempt to see him improve on a .711 OPS in AAA and to manage his service clock to give the Indians one more year of Brantley down the road. All of this for the low, low price of $2M for Russell Branyan…or whatever the pro-rated amount of his salary that they pay him before he’s traded.
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An interesting scene unfolded here at The Reservation tonight as The DiaTot (formerly known as The DiaperTribe) was paging through the old man’s new issue of Sports Illustrated as dinner was being prepared. He came into the kitchen opened to the article on the Mariners in the new issue and asked (as innocently as a 3-year-old can), “hey Daddy, how come Cliff Lee’s not wearing an Indians’ shirt in this picture”.

The DiaBride (after telling me that this explanation was all mine, which I accomplished after swallowing hard) then noted that she had been cleaning out some of her dresser that day and found that all of her Indians’ T-Shirt jerseys that have been collected over the course of the last 5 to 6 years were no longer viable for the corner of Carnegie and Ontario. The Lee jersey (bought BY HER in 2004, back when he was still #34), the Blake jersey from 2006, the Victor jersey from 2007…I found all of them lying on the bed, mocking me as I went up to start up the bath for the boy later in the evening.

Despite Spring Training being in full bloom, it’s impossible to erase the memories of the last few years and the “what-ifs” from the corner of Carnegie and Ontario, making this coming season even more difficult to get excited for as the grieving period over the 2005-2009 teams is not yet complete.
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Just as an addendum to that “Ten Little Indians” series, I thought it was worth mentioning how I'd like to see innings divvied up between starting pitchers this year. That idea of managing innings for the prospective starters counts because, if you’ll remember, we’re not necessarily shooting for contention in 2010 here and answering questions about pitchers that project to contribute past 2010 is tantamount to the Indians’ rebuild/reload/whatever period being as short as possible.

For starters, let’s take a look at what’s being projected (at least by CHONE and PECOTA, which have proven to be the most effective projection tools) for the starting rotation, to see if it starts to bear out the idea of where the majority of the innings should go:
CHONE Projections
Masterson – 4.36 ERA, 1.52 WHIP, 1.85 K/BB
Westbrook – 4.38 ERA, 1.51 WHIP, 1.53 K/BB
Laffey – 4.68 ERA, 1.57 WHIP, 1.37 K/BB
Carmona – 4.72 ERA, 1.59 WHIP, 1.42 K/BB
Huff – 4.87 ERA, 1.47 WHIP, 1.85 K/BB
Sowers – 4.94 ERA, 1.52 WHIP, 1.40 K/BB
Rondon – 5.08 ERA, 1.53 WHIP, 1.98 K/BB
Talbot – 5.25 ERA, 1.62 WHIP, 1.64 K/BB
Carrasco – 5.26 ERA, 1.59 WHIP, 1.68 K/BB

PECOTA Projections
Masterson – 4.20 ERA, 1.39 WHIP, 2.03 K/BB
Rondon – 4.54 ERA, 1.40 WHIP, 2.40 K/BB
Carrasco – 4.85 ERA, 1.44 WHIP, 2.03 K/BB
Huff – 4.96 ERA, 1.47 WHIP, 1.84 K/BB
Carmona – 4.99 ERA, 1.51 WHIP, 1.49 K/BB
Westbrook – 5.00 ERA, 1.53 WHIP, 1.47 K/BB
Sowers – 5.02 ERA, 1.49 WHIP, 1.34 K/BB
Talbot – 5.13 ERA, 1.52 WHIP, 1.91 K/BB
Laffey – 5.34 ERA, 1.59 WHIP, 1.22 K/BB

Yes, these are only projections (and I’m not including Scott Lewis or Ant Reyes here, for reasons, if only obvious to me), but looks about right, doesn’t it?

That being said, MLB teams averaged 942 innings pitched by their starters in 2009, so let’s round that number down to 940 just to keep it as a nice round number. Tell me if this inning breakdown doesn’t look too far off in terms of divvying up innings, strictly in terms of innings as a starter with the idea that you don’t want to stretch any one pitcher too far in terms of innings while attempting to answer questions:
Westbrook – 100 IP (Lee had 22 starts before being traded, so 5 IP x 20 = 100 IP)
Carmona – 200 IP (he threw 171 2/3 combined innings last year)
Masterson – 160 IP (he threw 129 1/3 innings last year)
Huff – 180 IP (he threw 167 2/3 combined innings last year)
Laffey – 140 IP (he threw 139 1/3 combined innings last year)

That combined number is 800 innings, and 700 of those innings would be pitched by starters that could factor into the team past 2010. While that’s obviously on the optimistic side and assumes health and effectiveness throughout the season, it’s a pretty nice chunk of innings from the 4 pitchers that the Indians need to have answers on going into 2010. If we’re going off of that wildly optimistic assumption on those 5, it would mean that the Indians would have about 140 innings to play with in starting roles to be divided up between the prospective long men/spot starters Jeremy Sowers and Mitch Talbot (who, it is worth noting, threw only 68 1/3 innings last year in the Minors), as well as the two young pitchers who figure to start the year in AAA, Hector Rondon and Carlos Carrasco.

Do I really think that there will only be 140 innings available in the starting rotation if the Indians go with the above guidelines?

No chance as there will certainly be more, and it’s important to remember that Tomo Ohka had 70 innings pitched for the 2009 Tribe and Ant Reyes threw 38 1/3 innings (no, seriously), as much as we’d like to forget those 100+ innings. Thus, divvying up 140 innings in starts between Sowers or Talbot (as the situation dictates from time to time) and Rondon and Carrasco (towards the middle to end of the year) isn’t going to be rocket science as the innings will be there for the taking.

Maybe one of those guys (ahem, Fausto) blows up and is not deserving of those innings or maybe injuries and trades force those inning totals to be moved around, which could cause the season ending with the most promising looking arms in terms of projected WHIP and K/BB (Masterson, Huff, Rondon, and I’ll even throw Carrasco in there because of his K/BB line, his PECOTA projection, and the fact that he’s not yet 23) could be where the Indians end up in terms of their 2010 rotation.

However, the Indians need to answer questions most importantly on Carmona, Masterson, and Huff in 2010 with less pressing answers needed on Laffey, Sowers, and Talbot and just a taste of what could be expected from Carrasco and Rondon going forward. The distribution of innings for starters this season should reflect those priorities accordingly.
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Now, if you’ll pardon me…I need to go snowblow the driveway while I dream of flying baseballs under the Arizona sun.

4 comments:

t-bone said...

I was pretty "meh" on the Branyan talk until the presser when they said he'd be starting at first. Then T-Bone got angry.

Pretty much echo your thoughts on the matter from there, and pray we don't turn into the AL version of the Pirates [with signings like this, with trading in mind].

Jacob said...

I tend to view the 2010 season as a "preparation" year for the future team that should be contending in 2012 (or maybe even 2011, depending on how things go this year). In that vein, I think that those who we see as some of the key pieces to our success in those years, should be preparing themselves for the roles that they will hopefully be playing in 2012.

So, If LaPorta is seen as our first baseman of 2012, we really need to be preparing him defensively for such. To me, he needs more than just getting in the lineup everyday. The way I see it, Branyan isn't really a defensive upgrade to anyone, and we know that his upside is his bat, albeit a run-in-to-one sort. With his ability to play all four corner positions, plus DH, it would seem to me that he is the one that should be bouncing around in order to get his bat in the lineup, not LaPorta.

Branyan's value should be just that. Although he could be a defensive liability, he is a good place holder at nearly every position in which we have questions this season. Will LaPorta be ready in time at first base at the outset of the season? Will Peralta get traded? Will Brantley be ready for everyday MLB playing time? Will Hafner truly be back to form, or is his shoulder be a continuing problem? To me, Branyan serves as an alternative that could provide more of an offensive answer than Marte, Kerns, or Duncan could.

Why he would get starting time over our guys that need development is beyond me.

Jeff said...

Clearly, I'm out in left field (it's suddenly crowded out here!), but to me the Branyan signing means two things primarily.

One is negative in that it seems clear now that the organization has pretty serious concerns about the bats of Hafner and Brown. Regardless of grand pronouncements made at his introductory press conference, Branyan would seem to be insurance against the very real possibility that neither of those guys represents a serious power threat from the left side going forward.

The second is positive in that LaPorta seems to be recovered enough from his surgeries that LF remains a viable option for him. I'd hate for Acta to pigeonhole him near the end of the defensive spectrum prematurely and permanently. If 2010 is all about answering questions, why can't the season be used to hash out once and for all Matt's positional ceiling?

Paul Cousineau said...

Jeff,
I think the organizations' feelings on Brown are pretty well known at this point, but Hafner's health is unquestionably a reason that Branyan finds himself in Cleveland.

I suppose I've been so quick to put LaPorta at 1B just because of the presence of Brantley, but what you say is absolutely true. There's no guarantee that Brantley (or LaPorta) is a sure thing and limiting LaPorta to 1B right now may not be in the Indians' best interests.
Well put...