Sunday, January 31, 2010

Prospecting on a Lazy Sunday

With no football on this Sunday (and no, the Pro Bowl does not count) and before you go off and order your official 10-cent Beer Night shirt, let’s get loose right off the bat on a Lazy One with plenty to cover from prospects rankings to a market inefficiency and from an absurd argument getting watered down to a guest-hosting debut.
So, without further ado, we’re off…

The biggest baseball-related news to come out this week that had anything to do with the Indians was the release of Keith Law’s organizational rankings for prospects and his individual prospect rankings at ESPN, which generally present a good measuring stick (along with BA, B-Pro) for how the Indians stack up against the rest of MLB in terms of prospects. To nobody’s surprise, the Indians came in ranked at #4 with Law explaining his reasoning thusly:
They continue to build depth without a ton of impact prospects, although Carlos Santana and Lonnie Chisenhall are exceptions to that rule, and they have a handful of low-A/short-season guys who could break away from the pack. There's still value in a system that can keep pumping out average or fringe-average big leaguers, simply because it keeps you away from the Jason Kendalls of the free-agent market.

It should be noted that in his individual player rankings, Law has Santana rated as the #3 prospect in all of baseball (top catching prospect, one slot ahead of the Giants’ Buster Posey), The Chiz as the 26th best prospect (top 3B prospect on the list), then ranks Hector Rondon at #51, Michael Brantley at #71, and Nick Hagadone at #100.

While certainly appreciating the message that Law’s attempting to convey in two sentences, I’m not sure how the overview and the specific rankings match up if he’s saying that they don’t have a “ton of impact prospects” and “a handful of low-A/short-season guys that could break away from the pack”, then lists a AAA starting pitcher in Rondon at #51 (who’s not yet 22 years old) and the Indians’ likely LF for 2010 (who doesn’t turn 23 until this May) in Mike Brantley at #71.

If “impact prospects” have to be in the Top 50, for example (if Rondon’s #51 and doesn’t make his list as an “exception to the rule”), then how many teams have two or more “impact prospects”? The answer (if you’re following Law’s Top 50 as “impact prospects”) is 4. The Rangers, the Cubs, the Rays, and the Rockies have three players that are in the Top 50 prospects, with the Rockies’ third prospect in the Top 50 at #48 (three ahead of Rondon) and the Cubs’ third prospect in the Top 50 AT #50 (one ahead of Rondon).

So the Rangers (#7, #9, and #13) and the Rays (#6, #15, and #17) would have more “impact prospects” than the Indians with the Indians counting three more from #51 to #100. I know that these rankings are fairly arbitrary, but Law’s intimation that “there’s still value in a system that can keep pumping out average or fringe-average big leaguers” is misleading if you’re looking at where he’s ranking the three players in the organization PAST Santana and Chisenhall.

It sounds dismissive on the part of Law (that the prospects beyond Santana and The Chiz are almost like these Jason Kendall replacement-level players), but isn’t that really how most organizations line up, touting a few top-flight prospects (and it is interesting to note that all 30 MLB teams are represented by at least one player in Law’s Top 50…so do what you want with that), then hoping that a couple of guys in the lower levels “break away from the pack”?

Would it be great to have MORE potential impact players?
No question, but just to bring the pitching “situation” facing the Indians right now, in light of how it was predicted (not too long ago) that the Indians’ rotation these days would consist of Carmona, Miller, Lofgren, and a couple of soft-tossing lefties filling out the back end of the rotation…with mainly soft-tossing lefties and a trainwreck of Carmona still around making up a mish-mash rotation, isn’t the prudent path to take to build that depth as long as quality isn’t compromised? Maybe none of the arms that make up the current Indians’ depth pan out and maybe injuries and regressions take guys like Hagadone or Knapp or Alex White off of the radar, but isn’t the idea that there is some strength in numbers in terms of attempting to overwhelm the attrition rate for prospects, particularly for pitching prospects?

Law says himself that “they have a handful of low-A/short-season guys who could break away from the pack” and isn’t that what’s been discussed here before, not necessarily placing all of the prospect eggs in one basket and building up that “depth” with the idea that not all of these players are going to pan out, but that there are more players around them that (ideally) somebody will?
Remember the whole “Layers of Arms” idea of guys that probably figure to start the 2010 season below the parent club?
1st Layer
Hector Rondon – 22
Carlos Carrasco – 23
Dave Huff – 25
Jeanmar Gomez – 22
Zach Putnam – 22

2nd Layer
Scott Barnes – 22
Bryan Price – 23
Nick Hagadone – 24
Eric Berger – 24
Connor Graham – 24

3rd Layer
Jason Knapp – 19
Alex White – 21
Alexander Perez – 20
TJ House – 20
Joe Gardner – 21


Do all of those guys pan out?
No chance, but if one or two out of the four or five in each group can fill a hole in the rotation or in the bullpen, then there’s your pipeline getting filled again. Looking at those ages within each of those “layers”, it’s also important to remember these ages of players who figure in on the 25-man roster more prominently in 2010:
Justin Masterson – 24
Aaron Laffey – 24
Hurricane Perez – 23
Jesse Ray Todd – 23
Tony Sipp – 25
Joe Smith – 25

That’s a lot of arms under the age of 25 in the system and, while the idea that not all of these pitchers are going to legitimately contribute at any point in their career is valid, quantity may not be a foolish strategy to take, assuming that the quantity is not simply in lieu of overall quality.

Off the soapbox and back to the topic of rankings (which got this whole thing started), I'd be remiss if I didn’t mention Jonathon Mayo’s rankings at MLB.com, where he listed many of the same Tribe players as Law, just in different spots:
Carlos Santana – #11
Mike Brantley – #46
The Chiz – #55
Nicky Hagadone – #56

Putting Mayo’s list of Indians’ prospects up against Law’s is interesting because it shows how variant these lists can be and how they can be taken any number of ways. And it’s not just for the Tribe, if you compare the players listed by Law in his Top 100 and by Mayo in his Top 50 for our AL Central brethren Royals:
Law
Eric Hosmer - #34

Mayo
Mike Moustakas - #32
Wil Myers - #33
Aaron Crow - #41
Mike Montgomery - #43

So…if you’re a KC fan, are you encouraged by having 4 prospects in the Top 50 according to MLB.com, or discouraged by having 1 prospect (who was not included in MLB.com’s list at all) in Law’s Top 100?

These overall MLB rankings can always be taken with a grain of salt as you wonder what forces Chisenhall to be one slot ahead of Hagadone in MLB.com’s ranking and a full 74 slots ahead of him in ESPN. Ultimately, it’s a lot of conjecture and presents some nice jumping points for debate and whether you think that the Indians are well-positioned, prospect-wise, to shorten that rebuilding timeframe (as they did from 2002 to 2005) or if simply you ascribe to the credo that Carleton Douglas Ridenour once preached and simply “Don’t Believe the Hype”, well that’s up to you.

What is interesting to me is to watch the avenues that some mid-market teams are taking this offseason in an attempt to field competitive teams, with the most recent example being the Athletics’ signing of Ben Sheets for $10M. The signing strikes me as fascinating because the move can be taken for one of two ways – either that the A’s feel that their young pitching is close to being ready to mature to the level of consistency with a need for a veteran at the top of the rotation to shepherd them to the next level (remember Kevin Millwood inking an $7M deal seen as risky by most before the 2005 season with a certain team to “impart some wisdom” on CC and CP and Jake) or they signed Sheets as a sort of lottery ticket that they hope to turn into more young talent, just as they did with Matt Holliday last July.

On the possibility of the latter, this is from The Hardball Times on the Sheets acquisition:
It’s possible the club might only be on the hook for half the salary as well, as there’s a school of thought that GM Billy Beane would flip Sheets for prospects at the trading deadline, if (or when) the team is out of contention. Assuming Sheets stays healthy, there’s a great chance of that happening.

Suddenly, are we seeing the next wave of how small-to-mid-market teams catch up with some of the teams with deeper pockets in terms of player acquisition WHILE avoiding committing signing bonus money in the draft? That is to say, if the A’s signed Sheets with the idea that they can flip him for prospects to a contender (assuming he’s healthy) at the middle of the season and the A’s are out of the race, the A’s are able to choose from a list of prospects (from multiple suitors) who have a track record in MiLB, with their signing bonuses already paid, at levels much closer to MLB than those available in the Amateur Draft. The A’s pay half of a season of Sheets’ 2010 salary to essentially acquire prospects that are more advanced than players available in the draft and gain control of those prospects for six MLB seasons with half of those seasons coming at the MLB minimum.

Is that what’s to be made of the Orlando Hudson-to-Cleveland rumors…which make zero sense otherwise with a 24-year-old Valbuena still adjusting to MLB, not to mention in the context of selling lower than low on Carmona that Rosenthal intimates?
Would the Indians sign a guy like Hudson with the idea that they think that his trade value by the middle of the season would net them more prospects to plug into the pipeline with the idea that quantity AND quality is preferable to just the latter?

Remember all of that talk about “market inefficiency” being OBP or defense or whatever a team who finds success (even if it’s one year of success) focused on to outsmart everyone in constructing a winner?
Is this the new “market inefficiency” for small-to-mid-market teams to exploit?

Unquestionably, it’s been established that the lifeblood of these small-to-mid-market teams is young (read: cheap) talent that can continuously be filtered through to consistently put a competitive team on the field. When that lifeblood of prospects being churned out runs dry or slows to a trickle, the process starts all over again.

Ultimately, it goes back to the draft and to prospects and how the large-market teams are starting to use the rules in place to stack their organizations from top to bottom because of their deep pockets and their ability to take risks because of those deep pockets. And to that end, Kevin Goldstein at Baseball Prospectus has an interesting piece on how the Red Sox have built a strong farm system (Law rated them as #2 in his organizational rankings) because they are taking advantage of the rules and procedures in place.
Realistically, they’re not doing anything but choosing prudent uses for their money and building a dynasty at the top, but also from the ground up and the way they’re accomplishing it is something that should worry any team not located in major markets:
It’s important to note that while there is a slotting system for the draft, it’s not etched in stone. It’s merely numbers that are suggested by the powers that be at MLB, and if a team is willing to have some people from central office yell and claim it is ruining the game via a few phone calls, a team can skirt the suggestions whenever it wants. Money, as much as talent, defines the draft order. Can you imagine Kevin Durant or LeBron James dropping to the end of the first round, and therefore to what is already a good team, because those drafting early fear their contract demands? It happens all of the time in baseball, and no team takes advantage of this more—or better—than the Red Sox.

--snip--

So, by taking advantage of the situation presented to them, the Red Sox, who are always drafting towards the end of the first round, and often losing first-round picks due to free-agent compensation, have been able to pick up the equivalent of seven first-rounders in the past four years, while adding 15 second-round talents, if we go purely by bonus. That’s why the system is always so loaded, as this year’s squad at Triple-A Pawtucket will be filled young, big-league ready talents should the need arise via injury, while the lower levels of the system have some of the most intriguing high-ceiling prospects in the game.


The money line (which is brilliant in terms of putting it into the proper outrageous context) is bolded here, but there’s something more than that because the Red Sox have instituted a system that not only recognizes talent (with the money there to back it up), but also puts other teams’ money spent on the MLB draft to shame, over-slot or not.

Unfortunately for teams like the Indians, they’re now caught in a vicious game of catch-up with the only path back to contention (albeit short-lived contention) is to have all of the aspects of player acquisition and player development firing on all cylinders to get that steady stream of talent flowing onto the parent club, with no contract “mistakes” made in retaining that talent.

Moving on (if only because I can’t stomach the previous topic for much longer), while realizing that prospect lists and projections and predictions are just that (particularly at the end of January), I thought I would pass along some projected CAIRO standings, which are generated by Diamond Mind’s player projections, for the AL Central (brought to my attention by Rob Neyer’s Sweet Spot) which may surprise some people:
White Sox – 88-74
Twins – 82-80
Indians – 76-86
Tigers – 75-87
Royals – 71-91

As long as we’re looking at how the AL Central will look eight months from now, here’s how Baseball Prospectus’ projections see the division shaking out:
Twins – 82-80
White Sox – 79-83
Tigers – 79-83
Indians – 77-85
Royals – 66-96

For the most part, both see the divisions as pretty tightly clustered (with the exception of the White Sox running away with it according to CAIRO and the Royals being…well, the Royals in B-Pro’s), but the interesting thing to me is how these projections come about, which is to project Runs Scored and Runs Against for each team. These projections then essentially rank how each team’s offense and defense stacks up against the rest of the American League.

Looking at it from that standpoint, here’s how the Indians and the rest of the AL Central teams rank among the 14 AL teams in each category in each projection:
Indians’ Runs Scored
CAIRO – 8th of 14
B-Pro – 10th of 14

Indians’ Runs Against
CAIRO – 10th of 14
B-Pro – 8th of 14

Twins’ Runs Scored
CAIRO – 5th of 14
B-Pro – 6th of 14

Twins’ Runs Against
CAIRO – 8th of 14
B-Pro – 9th of 14

White Sox Runs Scored
CAIRO – 6th of 14
B-Pro – 11th of 14

White Sox Runs Against
CAIRO – 5th of 14
B-Pro – 6th of 14

Tigers’ Runs Scored
CAIRO – 7th of 14
B-Pro – 12th of 14

Tigers’ Runs Against
CAIRO – 12th of 14
B-Pro – 7th of 14

Royals’ Runs Scored
CAIRO – 11th of 14
B-Pro – 8th of 14

Royals’ Runs Against
CAIRO – 14th of 14
B-Pro – 13th of 14

Why do I find this so fascinating?
It’s the topic I addressed at the top (when the butterflies were still fluttering) of the “All Bets Are Off” show that I guest-hosted on Thursday, in that (it’s not new ground here) looking at those projected runs scored and runs against for each of the Central teams, which unit, offense or pitching, stands out in the division?

The Twins’ offense and the White Sox pitching?
Figure in that Joe Mauer and Miguel Cabrera could find themselves elsewhere this July or next offseason and the Central looks weak…and getting weaker.

You wouldn’t know that though if you simply took today’s PD as Paul Hoynes took his weekly opportunity to point out that the Indians haven’t done much this off-season. Maybe I’m mistaken, but didn’t he write about this two weeks ago? He did, and did it not already cause this response to point out the absurdity of the premise?

For anyone who REALLY is upset about this offseason and what it means to the chances of contention in 2010, here’s a news flash – the Indians effectively made it known that they weren’t going to contend in 2010 last July and any moves made to simply put warm bodies on the roster in an attempt to pacify the fan base is counter-productive.

Does anyone REALLY not remember the 2002 team that was designed to “compete while rebuilding”?
Do the lessons of Matt Lawton and Ricky Gutierrez mean nothing anymore?

Teams in MLB are either contending or they’re building toward contention…the Indians aren’t contending (and neither are the Royals or likely the Tigers), so why should they spend uselessly to pretend like they’re going to?

I wrote this two weeks ago in summation to this faulty logic that the inactivity Indians’ offseason is “startling” (as is written today), but just to reiterate in response to this continued lunacy from Hoynes (who it seems is just writing to enrage the masses these days, which is right in the PD’s wheelhouse, I suppose)…“there’s plenty to complain about with the Indians’ performance over the past two years, but their inactivity in Free Agency this off-season falls so far down the list that it doesn’t even merit a second thought. Maybe their inactivity ranks a little higher than the irrationally fanned outrage over Luis Isaac’s dismissal, but it’s pretty far down the list of organizations issues since the end of 2007.”

Additionally, the assertion that “complements” the argument that the Indians are being out-spent again comes from Hoynes (print edition only, not online) as this:
The scope of the Indians’ activity is startling. In preparation for their 97-loss season last year, the spent over $20M on free agents Kerry Wood and Pavano. In 2007, the most recent time they made the postseason, they spent almost $29 million on free agents David Dellucci (three years, $11.5 million), Aaron Fultz (one year, $1.65 million), Joe Borowski (one year, $4.25 million), Keith Foulke (one year, $5 million), Roberto Hernandez (one year, $3.5 million), and Trot Nixon (one year, $3 million).

Pardon me while I attempt to take a step back here, but seeing THESE names along with the players being signed elsewhere in the Central is the argument for the Indians to make moves and to not simply let their young talent get exposed to MLB with the idea that the team needs more answers than questions past 2010?

If anything, the argument that the Indians should be needlessly spending money is so flimsy (and getting flimsier) that it brings more credence to the very topic was something that was discussed in detail when I guest-hosted this past Thursday’s edition of “All Bets are Off” on Sportstime Ohio in that the Indians’ offseason has gone about as expected, given the moves of last July and any assertion that the Indians should be doing “more” only conveys ignorance of the events of the last two seasons.

While I don’t have the complete video to prove that the topic is what I talked about on the show and put the whole argument that the “offseason has been a disappointment” into its proper place, Tony Lastoria (who joined me in studio for an hour) has posted up the 60 minutes of the show, with help from Michael Taylor of past Tribe Report and Baseball Digest fame, in which he and I talk.

Those segments can be found here, here, here, here, here, here, and…wait for it…here.

A lot of the topics that we covered are not going to be anything new if you’re to this point in the column or if you’ve been reading here for a while, but there’s your humble host hacking it up on STO on a random Thursday afternoon, taking phone calls from people whose biggest concern that afternoon was to wonder whether a Workmans’ Comp claim can be filed if an NFL player doesn’t wear knee pads….no, seriously. If you don’t want to click all of those YouTube links, Tony did embed all of the clips over at his site in an easier to watch format, where he also admits to some…um, issues with his earpiece.

I’m still looking to see if I can get the whole show, which also included Cavs’ beat writer Sam Amico as an in-studio guest and a call-in from Anthony Castrovince from Columbus (where he was as part of the Winter Press Tour), to stream somewhere and may link that at some point, but for now we’ll give a hearty thanks to Tony and Michael Taylor for posting these.
Enjoy!

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

A Friendly Programming Reminder

As noted in the close of this past weekend’s Lazy Sunday, I will be guest-hosting this Thursday’s edition of “All Bets are Off”, which airs live from 3:00 to 6:00 on STO. While I realize that many of you are outside of the viewing area or are working at that time, the call-in number is 1-866-786-8551 and the e-mail to contact the show is bruce@sportstimeohio.com.

Since I’m hoping to raise the level of discourse past “why did the Indians include Ben Francisco in the Lee deal” and “why didn’t the Indians sign Omar AND Thome this off-season”, feel free to participate as much as you’d like. While the show will likely be Indians-centric in terms of my topics, since the show covers all the major Cleveland sports, you’ll never know how in-depth I can get on Florida CB Joe Haden until somebody asks me.

Regardless…as of right now, it looks like we’ll have TheClevelandFan.com Cavs’ writer Sam Amico (who also contributes at NBA.com) in studio at 3:30, then will be joined at 4:30 for an hour in the studio with Tony Lastoria (with a kind of “Smoke Signals” on TV feel), then will close it out with Anthony Castrovince calling in from the Indians’ Winter Press tour at 5:30.

Set those DVR’s or tune in live, but don’t miss ABAO with your humble host taking a turn at the host’s desk.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

A Lazy Sunday Spent Wondering How We Got Here

As 50 degree weather inexplicably makes its way to the North Coast on a January morning and since there are errands to run before football starts let’s get rolling right into a Lazy Sunday, starting off with a piece from Yahoo’s Jeff Passan on why he thinks the Indians find themselves where they do. While the article in neither revolutionary nor wholly accurate, it does present some great starting points on a Sunday that actually doesn’t look to be too Lazy for me:

Equal parts of the blame go to Indians ownership and management. The Dolan family runs the team on a tight budget. It doesn’t spend much in the draft. Not quite the flowerbed for prosperity. And yet general manager Mark Shapiro is the one who gave Travis Hafner – a designated hitter – a contract extension that runs $11.5 million this year and $13 million the next two years, plus a $2.75 million buyout for 2013. And he traded CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee the season after each won the AL Cy Young award for a grab bag of prospects, none of whom has come close to distinguishing himself.

All of which is to say: The Indians are in one of those awful spirals that never seems to stop, one issue begetting another. They locked up all that money in Hafner, which means they can’t spend elsewhere, which increases the chances of a rough season, which makes the Dolans wonder why they’re spending any money in the first place. It’s vicious.

--snip--

Low-revenue franchises like Cleveland cannot afford wholly miserable contracts. It torpedoes them. The New Yorks and Bostons of the world aren’t the best because they spend the most on players but because they can afford to take chances, completely whiff and write it off like a businessman does an expensive dinner. That cost a lot, huh? Oh, well.

The Indians will devote more than half their payroll to Hafner, Kerry Wood and Jake Westbrook this season. Such is not the formula for Rust Belt success. The Indians must develop players (which they’ve done) and engage in the fine art of flipping them for a new crop of young players (which they had done prior to the Sabathia-Lee miscalculations).


I highlighted the money line here (and it’s not the “awful spiral” one, which feels a little premature given that the Indians are two years removed from an ALCS appearance and that two of the three contracts he mentions are coming off the books after this year…if not sooner), which is where Passan puts most of his focus on the article. This is nothing new, but despite the incendiary portion of the fan base thinking that the Indians are left with an owner “unwilling to spend money”, the issues that put the Indians where they are now is that the money that WAS spent ended up being committed to players whose production dropped precipitously after inking their deals, either due to injuries or regressions caused by injuries (allegedly) as well as a lack of home-grown talent to fill the voids created in trades.

As for that home-grown talent void, I found it interesting that Passan writes “the Indians must develop players (which they’ve done) and engage in the fine art of flipping them for a new crop of young players (which they had done prior to the Sabathia-Lee miscalculations)”. All of that means that they are actually doing things RIGHT in terms of player development, only to be handcuffed by their place in the MLB pecking order. While Passan asserts that the team “doesn’t spend much on the draft”, I found this little snippet from FanGraphs as they were doing a recap of the Red Sox 2009 draft:
Despite the possibility of being hamstrung during each amateur draft due to consistently-late picks from finishing with such a good record each season, this first-class organization uses its considerable finances to award above-slot contacts to deserving talents. Over the past four drafts, the club has handed out 19 above-slot deals worth $200,000 or more, the highest number from any one club.

Realizing that you’re tired of hearing about the disparity in MLB from me recently (and I’ve just as tired of thinking about it), it puts into context what the Indians are up against here. With large-market clubs getting smarter at all levels of organizational development the Indians have struggled to keep up in terms of “out-smarting” large-market teams in the areas that the small-market teams used to still be able to utilize for player acquisition and development.

Going back to the piece, I’m not sure what Passan is intimating in the “Sabathia-Lee miscalculations”, if he’s ready to dub both of those deals as failures by the Indians in terms of player acquisition. He writes that CC and Clifton Phifer were dealt for “a grab bag of prospects, none of whom has come close to distinguishing himself “, despite 2 players from the CC deal likely getting the majority of AB at 1B and in LF this year (a year and a half after the deal) and the fact that the Lee deal was just consummated 6 months ago, meaning it’s still wildly early to denounce the trade, regardless of early returns.

Additionally, doesn’t it strike you as odd that small market teams can to perennially succeed in development AND master the fine art of flipping players (as Passan says the Indians have done)…and still they can be undone by a couple of “misjudgments” to the point that a particular fan base has tuned them out just two years after nearly making the World Series?

It’s been said time and time again since the middle of the 2009 season, but teams in markets like Cleveland attempt to build a group of players that develop and compete together, get good for a couple of years (with the hope that they get some hardware to show for their trouble), then watch a couple of those developed players go off via trade or FA as the team blows it all up and attempts to build it all over again.

Fans may not want to hear that, but that’s the reality of MLB these days…and if you’re looking for teams and GM’s that have thrived given their team’s specific economic standing in MLB, you may find this piece from Baseball Prospectus rather interesting as Shawn Hoffman did a comprehensive analysis of the performance of each MLB GM through the decade that has just passed, using a criteria based on team revenue and performance.

You’ll have to read the story to get to Hoffman’s criteria, but after all of the computations to rank all of the General Managers of the “Aughts”, Shapiro comes in at #6, with Jocketty, Hunsicker, Gillick, Friedman, and Beane all grading out higher in this particular grading system which takes available resources (hence the exclusion of Cashman and Epstein) and results into consideration in ranking the 40 GM’s evaluated.

Interestingly, the Indians are pegged as the 3rd best run organization over the past decade (behind the Athletics and the Cardinals) in the piece using Hoffman’s criteria and while everyone will be quick to point out that the Indians are coming off of a 97-loss season and are looking at an approaching season of uncertainty (to be charitable), the Indians compiled four 90+ win seasons in the “Aughts” (two under Shapiro) and have two playoff appearances (one under Shapiro) to show for the decade.

Using 90+ win seasons and playoff appearances as a barometer then, how did the Indians stack up in the 2000s compared to their Central rivals?
Twins – four 90+ win seasons, five playoff appearances
White Sox – three 90+ win seasons, three playoff appearances
Indians – four 90+ win seasons, two playoff appearances
Tigers – one 90+ win season, one playoff appearance
Royals – zero 90+ win seasons, zero playoff appearances
It should be noted that the last time the Royals had a 90+ win season was 1989. To put that in perspective, that was the same year that John Hart replaced Doc Edwards in the Tribe dugout to manage the last 20 games of the season.

But I digress…back to the “best-run organization” piece, did anyone else notice that the Athletics (who came in at #1 in the article) have been attempting to open their next “window of contention” over the last three or four years, stockpiling young arms just like another team you may know?

The A’s have turned the pieces and parts from their success of the early-to-mid-90s (6 of 7 seasons with 90+ win seasons) into a talented group of youngsters. While those teams haven’t been above .500 for the past 3 years, the seeds sewn from their trades of the past few years has finally started to blossom, most notably in their starting rotation as all but 15 of their games last year were started by players that were 25 or younger on a staff that had an identical team ERA in 2009 (4.26) as the Yankees did.

Both the Indians and Athletics realize what they are and while the off-season may be boring for Indians’ fans and may cause an inordinate amount of hand-wringing over Mike Redmond and his ilk (present company included), how does the alternative look for teams that aren’t nearly as self-aware of their place in the MLB pecking order?

Would you prefer an off-season where our team “adds” a guy like Rick Ankiel (who posted a .285 OBP last year…Trevor Crowe’s was .278) for $3.25M, leading Joe Posnanski to evaluate his Royals-related stages of grief?

It goes back to the Passan piece in that he asserts that “the disconnect between the Cleveland Indians and their fans has spread from fissure to full-fledged canyon, and this offseason is doing nothing to heal a relationship gone rocky” and while I don’t disagree with that, it points to the idea that people want activity for a team to point to in an attempt to show that the team is improving, even incrementally. However, the quiet offseason that “is doing nothing to heal a relationship gone rocky” shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who was around last July when Lee and Victor were dealt with a club option for 2010 on their contract. Debate all you like about whether adding those two to the 2010 Indians’ team makes it a contender, but in the case of Lee, there’s no question what he has his eyes on this coming offseason, at least according to Jayson Stark’s sources:
“Everyone in baseball knows,” said one AL executive, “that the two things Cliff Lee and Darek Braunecker will want next winter are a lot of years and a lot of dollars. This guy just played with a Cy Young (CC Sabathia) who got seven years on the open market. So why would anyone think he wouldn't be saying, ‘Why shouldn't I get that, too?’”

If that was the Lee’s position when he approached the Indians before 2009 about a contract extension and the Indians were sitting at 42-60 at the time he was dealt, is there any question that Lee wasn’t going to be around for 2010?

That being said, did the Indians get enough for him?
We’re not going to know for a while, though people are quick to forget that Carrasco, Marson, and Donald were among Baseball America’s top 100 prospects entering 2009 with Carrasco at 52, Marson at 66, and Donald at 69. While each started 2009 off slowly in the Phillies’ system (causing much of the consternation when the trade was made), the bodies of work that put them at that level in prospect rankings still exist.

In terms of why the Indians included Lou Marson and Jason Donald in the deal (in the context of the addition of Mike Redmond and, to a lesser extent, Brian Bixler and Mark Grudzielanek), I had an e-mail exchange with a consistently insightful reader (who asked not to be named) who had some interesting thoughts as to why the Indians opted to acquire Marson and Donald instead of OF Michael Taylor, who was reportedly available to them and has now been traded twice this off-season, once to the Blue Jays in the Halladay deal, then to the Athletics for Brett Wallace last month.

His thoughts on the inclusion of Marson and Donald (as well as perhaps why the Indians chose Carrasco) do make sense on a number of levels and it goes a little something like this…hit it:
The Lee trade ... I've been saving this one, but as a very belated baby shower gift, I'll give it to you...

A-21(A-): 227/300/365, 23:53 BB/K
B-21(A-): 263/347/362, 23:42 BB/K

A-22(A/A+): 346/412/557, 50:89 BB/K (671 mleOPS)
B-22(A/A+): 304/395/473, 64:109 BB/K (603 mleOPS)

A-23(AA/AAA): 320/395/549, 48:70 BB/K (730 mleOPS)
B-23(AA): 307/391/497, 47:86 BB/K (689 mleOPS)

You probably guessed: Player A is Michael Taylor, Player B is Jason Donald. The grains of salt here are that Donald is about 15 months older, and spent all of last year hurt. On the other hand, Donald is a middle infielder. Taylor's a left fielder. Taylor's numbers are gaudy, for sure, but his viability as a major leaguer will be contingent on his making the power translate; otherwise, he's Ben Francisco the Younger. Donald's defensive value -- and, look closely, his roughly equal effectiveness as a baserunner -- mean that even if his pop falls off a little against MLB pitching, he's still pulling his weight.

And remember the Andy Marte Rule: Do not get worked up because a minor leaguer hits 20 home runs.

So how's this for a trade narrative: The Phils offer Taylor, and the Tribe counters with Donald -- a legitimately better prospect but for the injury -- and Marson to make up the difference, thereby filling the need for a right-handed, MLB-ready middle infielder, and getting a young, solid, cost-controlled catcher who serves as Santana insurance, and whose presence allows the Indians to clear payroll and beef up the starting depth by moving Shoppach.

You could make a similar case for Carrasco/Knapp over Drabek, except, of course, for the fact that Carrasco compares favorably to Drabek already, as you've pointed out plenty.

So, Dave Cameron at FanGraphs (who ripped the deal saying Shapiro got “taken to the cleaners” or something to that effect) would be happy if we'd hauled in Drabek/Taylor. But the reality is, we needed two pitchers more than we needed one, and we needed skill position players more than we needed Yet Another GD Left-fielder, and Cameron, bless his heart, wouldn’t have to live with the Lee trade failing to equate to long-term MLB production.


Perhaps it was that idea of quantity in light of the attrition rate of these prospects (particularly the pitchers) and perhaps the Indians have put more stock into the idea that Carrasco, Marson, and Donald were “undervalued” a bit because they didn’t positively light up AAA Lehigh Valley in their first 3 months there. Perhaps it was the idea that a body of work longer than 3 months could be leaned upon more heavily in terms of taking a guy like previous flavor-of-the-month Carrasco over current flavor-of-the-month Drabek and likewise with Marson and Donald over Taylor (who did not appear among Baseball America’s Top 100 prospects entering 2009) in that they put more stock in three years of performance over three months of performance.

At this point, only time will tell if the Indians chose the prudent path…

Changing lanes and apropos of nothing, but attempting to leave this on a positive point, news that Andy Tveekrem is returning to the North Coast hit recently and if you don’t know who Andy Tveekrem is, allow this to enlighten you:
Tveekrem, 46, has moved back from Delaware, where he was the brewmaster for Dogfish Head Craft Brewery for the last five years. He and his wife, Vickie, who was a waitress at the Great Lakes Brewing Co. when he began his brewing career there, are renting in the Tremont neighborhood for the time being.
--snip--
He began with Great Lakes Brewing Co. in 1991 and was brewmaster when he left in 2000. During his time there, Great Lakes went from producing 850 barrels a year to 18,000.


Even if you’re not familiar with what Dogfish Head Craft Brewery has been putting out for the last five years (Esquire Magazine called their 90-minute Imperial IPA “perhaps the best IPA in America”), that timeframe of when Tveekrem was brewmaster at GLBC would mean that he was the brewmaster when Dortmunder and Christmas Ale were first put into production.

Anywho, Tveekrem is teaming up with the owner of McNulty’s Bier Market/Bar Cento to create a microbrewery “directly across from McNulty's Bier Markt, just north of the West Side Market”, it’s safe to say that the West 25th Street/Lorain area is quickly becoming quite a hub for phenomenal craft beers (call it “The Brewery District”)…something that can keep us warm throughout our North Coast winters.

Finally, it should be mentioned that I’ve been asked to guest host this Thursday’s “All Bets Are Off”, sitting in for the vacationing Bruce Drennan. The show will air from 3 PM to 6 PM, so be sure to set those DVR’s (if you happen to work at those times) or watch live and interact as much as you’d like as I’ll be talking Tribe, Browns, and Cavs while welcoming Tony Lastoria and others as guests for the 3-hour live show.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

A New Voice on Disparity

Since the only pertinent topics of conversation on the corner of Carnegie and Ontario these days consist of the traits a back-up catcher brings to the table and how the Indians are adept at avoiding arbitration, let’s cast the gaze back to the disparity in MLB that was touched on (OK, more than touched on) right after the new year. Prompted by Peter Gammons’ superb article that appears at MLB.com (his new home, in case you didn’t know), I thought it was worthwhile to take a couple of snippets from the piece (which is definitely worth your time) and relate it to what’s now been on my mind for the better part of three weeks.

Gammons introduces the idea of disparity in the sense that while the sport’s competitive balance may look solid on the surface, strong currents exist just below the surface that portend a deeper separation between the “haves” and “have nots”:

“The way the system is right now, there really is no difference between a $75 million and $40 million payroll,” said Oakland GM Billy Beane. “I think a lot of small-market clubs look at that and ask, ‘Why pay $75 million when $40 million will buy me as many wins?’”

One of the reasons Bud Selig ascended to Commissioner is that he was and remains a strong advocate for revenue sharing, and the plans he has pushed through have greatly contributed to the sport’s growth. Yes, in the past 29 years, 19 of the 30 clubs have won a World Series (five for the Yankees, and two apiece for the Blue Jays, Twins, Marlins and Red Sox). The Rays and Rockies have won pennants in the past three years, and Colorado has been in the playoffs twice in that time.

But the dichotomy between large- and small-revenue franchises is again widening.

“When [GM] Theo Epstein took over in Boston, he changed the industry,” said Indians GM Mark Shapiro. “Now we see the Red Sox and Yankees operating as if they’re creative mid- to small-market teams, and it’s widened the gap between them and some of the other franchises.”


This is the issue for me as the Red Sox are the prime example of a team that has made the transition to not simply being able to throw money at problems, but how to work the system as well. There is much talk of modifying the amateur player acquisition process in Gammons’ piece and there’s no question that the acquisition of amateur talent is a start, but my fear is that the Red Sox and the like have figured out so skillfully how to take advantage of the means to acquire amateur talent that it simply becomes the next aspect of the structure that they dominate. Once they have the advantage secure, they’ll be just as reticent to give it up as what they already have.

Essentially, we’re looking at a slow progression by which the Red Sox (just to use them as an example) use talented youngsters acquired with their economic advantages (but again, within the rules) through the draft and international signings to trade for players (or, more accurately, contracts) that other teams don’t want in trades because they have more young talent to step into the pipeline and it avoids the whole competition of the FA market. That is, the Red Sox can put together a package of prospects to get Victor and maybe Adrian Gonzalez to fill holes on their MLB roster and just use the inherent advantages in the draft and internationally to just replace those increasingly-fungible parts in their farm system.

Those advantages at all levels are what’s really become troubling to me as evidenced by the fact that the Red Sox got Victor without even dipping into their (allegedly) better arms and the Yankees get Granderson without giving up much more than players they can easily replace by manipulating the draft and amateur signings to their favor. When other large-market teams “figure it out” like the Red Sox have, the disparity is only going to grow, particularly in the context of the economic struggles in certain cities...like Cleveland.

Back to Gammons on the idea that maybe change is coming:
“I heard a stream of great ideas from the general managers,” Selig said. “They will be at our next Owners Meetings, in May. We want everyone involved in fixing whatever needs to be done to move our game forward and make it better.”

Selig also met with his newly formed committee of owners, GM, managers and outsiders, such as George Will.

“Our sport is prospering,” said Selig, “but we cannot ignore problems.”

Attendees discussed the situations in Cleveland, Oakland, Tampa and Pittsburgh, and other issues.

“I went there expecting it to be the same old thing,” one NL GM said. “I was stunned. I think every one of us feels much better than we did three months ago.”

Leveling the playing field is not just taking central funds and handing them to players. It’s about scouting and bringing the development of 16-to-24-year-olds into the 21st century. It is not going to happen quickly, although Selig constantly reminds the owners of the Red Sox and Yankees that they need competitive teams playing in their sold-out parks every night. Executives from two teams projected both the Yankees and Red Sox to win 110 games this season. However, ask Cashman or Epstein and they'll tell you that they genuinely fear the Rays because of the organization and creativity of Andrew Friedman, the team's executive vice president of labor relations and human resources, and they see the Orioles being restored to the power they enjoyed in the mid-1990s, before CEO Peter Angelos ran out Pat Gillick.


While “leveling the playing field is not just taking central funds and handing them to players…and is about scouting and development”, there is a point in that “development” process that certain teams aren’t sitting at the same card table. For as much as the Yankees and Red Sox “genuinely fear the Rays because of the organization and creativity of Andrew Friedman”, ultimately the difference in the margin for error for teams like the Yankees and Red Sox versus the margin of error for a team like the Rays will catch up to this “creativity” as the Rays being sabotaged by an albatross of a contract (see Hafner, Travis) or by injuries without the ability to simply add more pieces without concern for dollars eventually makes this “fear” short-lived.

Look no further than the Diamondbacks’ recent designation for assignment of Eric Byrnes with one year remaining on his 3-year, $33M deal and GM Josh Byrnes comments on it to get a sense of what the teams that can’t just eat bad contracts or essentially make big mistakes in spending that larger revenue teams can absorb. Byrnes explained the situation in Arizona as such, “Teams are either philosophically or economically more built to take bigger risks. We’re not. We have to take either proactive measures on contracts or medium-size risks. In the scope of baseball, this was probably a medium-size risk and it didn't work out, and it hurt us.”

How many teams does that statement apply to?
Once you come up with an answer to make that statement not so for that number of teams, then progress is being made. Until then, it’s just a waiting game for the larger revenue teams to wait for a team (like the Indians or Diamondbacks or, perhaps in the future, the Rays) to make that debilitating mistake and reap the benefits of being able to add the payroll that the smaller revenue team can’t handle.

Back to Sweet Pete one last time for the big finish:
I’m like you…I’d like to think that baseball realizes it needs to find a way to ensure that not only can Mauer, Gonzalez, Zack Greinke and Sizemore play where they belong for what they deserve, but that in 2018, Stanton and Strasburg can be the faces of the Marlins and Nationals, not further chapters in the Hundred-Year War between the Yankees and Red Sox.

It is worth noting that Gammons was in town last week for the Indians’ Winter Development program (which explains the oddly placed mention of Jason Donald at the start of the article), so I wouldn’t be surprised if some of this came from conversations with the Polo Shirt Mafia down at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario, who allowed the CC-Lee match-up in Game 1 of the Fall Classic (the perfect moment to talk about the disparity of baseball) to pass with only the sound of crickets coming from the Indians.

Regardless of where Gammons had this revelation, perhaps the small-market teams have finally found their mouthpiece to level the playing field in some manner, to plead the case that these “chapters in the Hundred-Year War between the Yankees and Red Sox” is not good for the long-term health of baseball. If they have found that voice in Peter Gammons, perhaps something will be done about this with Gammons carrying the torch at the front of the crusade. In fact, having Gammons out front on a topic like this is a prudent path to take so as not to have the explanation of disparity come off as moaning from the small market clubs and having it come instead from the keyboard of a universally respected journalist who has only the best interests of the game in mind.

I’m not going to pretend to know how this happens, but I’ll be damned if I still don’t think that the idea put forth here could work. Sure it may not be bulletproof, but it would at least represent a jumping off point for this thing to find a happy medium where players can “play where they belong for what they deserve”.

Until we’ll just have to enjoy the beauty of the game while attempting to avoid the ugliness of the sport.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

A Lazy Sunday With Permission to Approach the Bench

Since I was probably the only person in the world thinking about market sizes in the NFL games yesterday (Indianapolis is the 33rd largest market in the US, ahead of only Milwaukee among cities with MLB teams and New Orleans is the 46th largest market in the US, smaller than any MLB market…even in 2000 before Katrina) in terms of how the NFL and MLB operate in such different universes, competitively-speaking, and since I’m not in the mood to unleash another 6,000 word opus on what’s wrong with baseball, let’s just roll right into a Lazy Sunday on a foggy morning here on the North Coast.

And, away we go…
The only real news coming off of The Reservation this week is a couple of largely insignificant veteran signings that potentially fill out the Indians’ 2010 bench, the more “prominent” being that Mike Redmond has been signed (at a cost of $850,000) to serve as the back-up catcher for the 2010 Indians and while this addition makes a lot of sense in terms of adding some experience to the catching corps, the signing confuses me as you get a little further down the line in the catching depth…and I don’t mean how it affects Wyatt Toregas or even Chris Gimenez.

I’ll get to that in a moment, but on the topic of Redmond as the player, he’s a 38-year-old veteran back-up catcher with a respectable .345 OBP over his career, during which he’s never compiled 300 plate appearances in a single season. Redmond will get a chance to work with a young pitching staff in the AL Central that he knows intimately (having spent the last 5 years as the backup in the Twin Cities) and will work with Sandy Alomar in breaking in Lou Marson and Carlos Santana in an effort to finish off both young backstops’ catching skills. Sure, the Indians could have simply held on to Kelly Shoppach (thereby saving me from ever typing the words “Mitch Talbot”) as their back-up catcher, but Shoppach just signed a deal in Tampa that will pay him $5.5M for the next two years (with an option for a third) and if we’re talking about a catcher that figures to start probably around 35 to 45 games at the VERY high end (Redmond gets an extra $10K for his 40th, 45th, 50th, 60th, and 70th game started), I’ll take paying $850,000 to a guy like Redmond over paying $2.75M to a guy like Shoppach.

All off-season, the Indians had this oft-stated need of “experience” behind the plate and Redmond certainly brings that attribute (along with a high-OBP) to the club. There really isn’t an issue with bringing a guy like Redmond, who can provide some guidance to the young backstops and, at the very least, his signing certainly means that Wyatt Toregas is not long for the parent club (or even the 40-man) and likely heads down to Columbus to back-up Carlos Santana. As a catcher who turns 27 this July and has a career MiLB OPS of .739, Toregas moves back down the food chain and his once somewhat clear role as a back-up option to both Marson and eventually Santana certainly just got a lot cloudier.

Toregas’ future however isn’t the aspect of this signing that perplexes me though. Rather, color me as a little confused then as to how this whole transition from Marson as starter/Redmond as back-up is going to be affected by the imminent arrival of Carl Santana. That is, most people saw Lou Marson starting the season as the Indians’ catcher (with Toregas as the back-up), and then moving into more of a back-up role himself (with Toregas going back to Columbus) after Santana was called up sometime in June. Now, with the Redmond signing, if you assume that Redmond is here to spend the year in Cleveland, the role of Lou Marson doesn’t exactly make a lot of sense as he’ll essentially start for the parent club (with Redmond backing him up) until Santana is ready to become the everyday catcher (with Redmond again, apparently backing HIM up), meaning Marson probably goes back to Columbus when Santana is called up.

Again, that isn’t the issue though, as the problem when you’re talking about Marson past this year is that if the Indians are going to need that “veteran” back-up catcher to tutor Santana while he adjusts to MLB this year or next year or beyond that, that guy isn’t Marson. It wouldn’t be Marson this year (particularly now with Redmond in the fold) and it won’t be Marson next year as he isn’t going to suddenly become that grizzled backup catcher that may serve as the best complement to Santana for the next few years. If Marson then doesn’t even figure in as the ideal backup catcher, or more specifically as the ideal backup catcher for Carlos Santana, then why was he included in the Lee deal?

Maybe the Indians are more concerned about Santana’s hand injury than they’re letting on and see Marson getting everyday AB (with Redmond as Lou’s back-up) until Santana is fully healthy and raking for a while in AAA…but wouldn’t that almost be the worst-case scenario that we saw play out last year with LaPorta as the club was reticent to call him up and play him regularly until nearly the end of August?

Back to Sweet Lou, there was some thought when he was included in the Lee deal that Marson could simply represent trade bait in the near future for the Indians, given the presence of Santana, but could he become trade bait earlier than we all think?

If not, does Marson (turning 24 this June), with a moderately impressive track record in MiLB really go back to AAA if Santana (a month and a half OLDER than Marson) is called up?

If he does and his usefulness for the team is to get two months of everyday at-bats, followed by (possibly) a couple of years as a decent-to-good back-up catcher, what was the purpose of insisting that he be included in the Lee deal? That is, the Indians moved Lee for prospects (all of whom are profiled in a great piece by Al Ciammaichella at IPI) with the idea that 3 of the 4 would be contributors at the MLB level sooner rather than later. The strategy, it seemed, was that Carrasco, Marson, and Donald were high enough on the MiLB ladder that, although some of their warts and shortcomings may have been exposed, their arrival time to the North Coast would be sometime in 2010 at the very latest, with the trio making some contributions (at a fixed rate) for the Indians less than a year after CP Lee headed to Philly.

Now, with arms being added ahead of Carrasco (with some of those arms being out of options), Marson’s short and long-term future with the team in question and the Indians already preparing for life BEFORE Jason Donald with guys like Mark Grudzielanek entering the fold, how soon can any of these players reasonably be expected to play regularly for the Indians, much less make an impact?

Since the Grudzielanek signing came up in passing, and because I’m loathe to get too in-depth on the addition of a 40-year-old Utility infielder (to a minor-league deal, which is actually the significant part of the news in that it does not guarantee a roster spot), let’s just characterize Grudz joining the fold as not that much different than Austin Kearns and Shell Duncan inking minor-league deals. That is, just as Kearns and Duncan add some depth options for the team in Spring Training (with no guaranteed roster spot) in case Brantley starts out slow or LaPorta’s injury does prove to be more serious than it looks right now, Grudz provides the Indians an option ahead of Jason Donald as a RH Utility IF with the idea that Donald will likely need more time to rehabilitate his injuries as the 2010 season dawns.

Don’t take that to mean that Grudzielanek makes a LOT of sense as he is soon to be 40 years old and hasn’t logged significant innings in the last two years, but he’s a serviceable fill-in who can spell Valbuena at 2B (most notably) as well as moving around the diamond until Donald is deemed healthy and ready to take what looks to be same spot on the 25-man roster. I’m not nearly as optimistic on Grudz’s ability to significantly contribute as Terry Pluto is, who writes that “I plead guilty to being a Tribe fan who actually can be a little excited about the team signing a 39-year-old second baseman who didn't play in the majors last season” and “Grudzielanek could easily platoon with Luis Valbuena at second base” if only because Grudzielanek really hasn’t played in MLB since the beginning of August in 2008 and has posted an OPS+ over 100 only three times in his 14-year career. All told, if it works out fine…if it doesn’t, fine.

However, the Indians seem to be making plans outside of expecting contributions from Carrasco, Donald, and Marson this year after the idea that each would be relatively close to contributing at the MLB level when the Lee deal was made. This whole line of thinking is probably looking too deeply into a couple of minor moves and it shouldn’t be taken as moaning that the Indians are “blocking” guys like Marson and Donald. Rather, it calls into question why the Indians decided to acquire guys like Marson and Donald in the Lee deal if they weren’t thought to contribute significantly any time soon. Perhaps patience is needed on the whole venture, to not get too worked up over a couple of veteran signings, but the additions are coming at positions that seemed to be filled (with inexpensive, club-controlled players) in short order when the Lee deal was made.

Moving on (but staying in the same FA vein), I’m not sure if you saw the Florida Marlins essentially getting called out by MLBPA for pocketing the revenue sharing money in an attempt embarrass the Marlins into spending money on the Free Agent market. Putting aside the absurdity that the small-market teams are the ones that are being put under the bright lights in this Age of Inequality, the very public stance obviously represented a ploy by the players’ union to put more cash into the pockets of their members (and the Marlins had a great little response to it by prudently inking their own homegrown ace Josh Johnson to a deal that buys out his first two years of Free Agency), but am I alone in the lifeboat in thinking that Free Agency is not always the best way to build a consistent contender?

Sure, adding CC, Burnett, and Teixiera is a nice little coup in FA for an off-season, but why is there this outrage when teams don’t spend in FA to add marginal players at absurd contracts, both in terms of committed years and dollars?

Conversely, why is there a belief that FA activity equates to future success or a generation of excitement for a fanbase? To wit, Paul Hoynes’ piece on the Redmond signing in Saturday’s paper had this backhanded swipe at the Indians not making waves in FA by putting in the “context” of what the rest of the AL Central teams are doing:

The Indians are taking little risk with such contracts, but they're not doing much to stir ticket sales.

The White Sox, a division rival, have signed free agents Omar Vizquel, JJ Putz, Andruw Jones, Mark Kotsay and Ramon Castro to one-year big league contracts worth a combined $7.36 million since the end of last season. They also took on Juan Pierre's two-year, $8 million contract in a trade with the Dodgers and gave Mark Teahen a three-year, $14 million extension after acquiring him from Kansas City.

In Detroit, the Tigers said goodbye to big-money free agents Placido Polanco, Brandon Lyon and Fernando Rodney. They continued to dump payroll by trading Curtis Granderson and Edwin Jackson, but they still came to terms on a reported two-year, $14 million contract with free agent closer Jose Valverde.

The Royals gave free agent catcher Jason Kendall a two-year, $6 million deal and spent $2.45 million on free agent outfielders Scott Podsednik and Brian Anderson.

Even the frugal Twins, no doubt saving money to try to keep AL MVP Joe Mauer, have spent more this winter than the Tribe. Carl Pavano, who accepted arbitration from Minnesota, will probably make between $5 million and $7 million. They also signed reliever Clay Condrey to a one-year, big-league deal.


Wait a minute…which team am I supposed to be impressed by in their Free Agent activity or point to as what the Indians should be doing?

Let’s take a look at what each AL Central rival added (as mentioned by Hoynes and we won’t delve into the additions of Hardy or Scherzer since he didn’t) by putting some ages (for the 2010 season), 2009 performance, and committed dollars for some proper context:
White Sox - $29.36M committed
Omar Vizquel – 43 years old in 2010
.266 BA / .316 OBP / .345 SLG / .660 OPS in 195 plate appearances in 2009

JJ Putz – 33 years old in 2010
5.22 ERA, 1.64 WHIP with 19 K and 19 BB in 29 1/3 IP in 2009

Andruw Jones – 33 years old in 2010
.214 BA / .323 OBP / .459 SLG / .782 OPS in 331 plate appearances in 2009

Mark Kotsay – 34 years old in 2010
.278 BA / .327 OBP / .390 SLG / .717 OPS in 206 plate appearances in 2009

Ramon Castro – 34 years old in 2010
.219 BA / .292 OBP / .406 SLG / .699 OPS in 171 plate appearances in 2009

Juan Pierre – 32 years old in 2010
.308 BA / .365 OBP / .392 SLG / .757 OPS in 425 plate appearances in 2009

Mark Teahen – 28 years old in 2010
.271 BA / .325 OBP / .498 SLG / .734 OPS in 571 plate appearances in 2009

Tigers - $14M committed
Jose Valverde – 30 years old in 2010
2.33 ERA, 1.13 WHIP with 56 K and 21 BB in 54 IP in 2009

Royals - $8.45M committed
Jason Kendall – 36 years old in 2010
.241 BA / .331 OBP / .305 SLG / .636 OPS in 526 plate appearances in 2009

Scott Podsednik – 34 years old in 2010
.304 BA / .354 OBP / .412 SLG / .764 OPS in 587 plate appearances in 2009

Brian Anderson – 28 years old in 2010
.243 BA / .328 OBP / .347 SLG / .674 OPS in 231 plate appearances in 2009

Twins – between $6M and $8M committed
Carl Pavano – 34 years old in 2010
5.10 ERA, 1.38 WHIP with 147 K and 39 BB in 199 1/3 IP in 2009

Clay Condrey – 34 years old in 2010
3.00 ERA, 1.21 WHIP with 25 K and 14 BB in 42 IP in 2009

So…where’s that team that is “stirring up ticket sales” or even making good decisions with their FA dollars?

Is it the White Sox, who committed nearly $30M this off-season to a mixed bag of flotsam and jetsam (with only one or two of them looking like everyday players) and who also assumed the nearly $60M remaining on the contract of Alex Rios (he of the .691 OPS last year) contract last summer, or maybe the Tigers who traded the young, talented, and affordable Granderson and Jackson for cost concerns, then signed Valverde (giving up their #1 draft pick for next year in the process) for a dollar amount next year ($7M) that’s on par with what Granderson and Jackson figure to earn ($7.7M) in 2010.

Maybe he means the Royals, who have been roundly ridiculed for their handling of their catching situation, among just about every other move they’ve made this off-season. No, it must be the team that made the “big splash” in that the Twins are likely to pay Hot Carl Pavano “between $5M and $7M” after he proved to be a competent innings-eater that can sit at the back of the rotation and added a middle reliever in his mid-30s.

That’s what the complaint is – that the Indians are being outspent this off-season in FA in the Central?

If the attempt is to put the inactivity of the Indians this off-season into context, can we at least put more thought into it than just putting dollar signs on every team and intimating that money spent in Free Agency (about as inefficient as it gets in terms of player acquisition) leads to success in the following year?

The Indians made the “big splash” last off-season in the Central with the Wood signing.
How does that deal look in hindsight?

There’s plenty to complain about with the Indians’ performance over the past two years, but their inactivity in Free Agency this off-season falls so far down the list that it doesn’t even merit a second thought. Maybe their inactivity ranks a little higher than the irrationally fanned outrage over Luis Isaac’s dismissal, but it’s pretty far down the list of organizations issues since the end of 2007.

Additionally, somebody please make the argument to me that there was that one (or even two) player available in Free Agency that was going to make the difference in the Indians’ 2010 season. If you really thought that the team was going to make significant additions via FA this off-season after the die for the 2010 season was cast when Lee and Martinez were traded and the rebuild/reload/whatever began in earnest, then you just haven’t been paying attention.

How long that rebuild/reload/whatever takes to bear fruit is the only pertinent question on the North Coast these days (not complaining about a lack of FA activity or moaning about minor-league deals given out to retreads) and the only items of interest coming from the corner of Carnegie and Ontario are these clues that the young players acquired in the deals of the last two years may not be ready to contribute at the MLB level (much less excel) as quickly as previously thought.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Uniformly Yours

With really nothing happening on the corner of Carnegie and Ontario all off-season, I thought that the lull presented a nice opportunity to tackle a mild obsession of mine – uniforms and, more notably, uniforms worn by the Cleveland Indians. Through the years, the Indians have always struggled to find the balance between history and freshness as, unlike most franchises, the Indians’ uniforms have undergone monumental changes with no one singular aspect remaining the same as fonts, color schemes, and even the Chief has seen major adjustments from era to era and year to year.

They’ve had pinstripes and every different “C” and font that you could think of. They’ve seen the blue in their uniforms change colors more frequently than the seasons and even dabbled (a couple of times) with making red their primary color. They’ve regrettably gone sleeveless and, more regrettably, made Boog Powell refer to himself as “the world’s largest bloody mary”, and through it all, they have yet to find that perfect combination of past and present, always stuck either attempting too hard to re-capture the past or to quick to look into the future.

Thus, allow me to make a few suggestions as to what I would like to see the Indians’ uniforms look like with some of the changes being minimal as I do like the script INDIANS and just feel that the formula needs a little bit of tweaking. The most monumental change would come about in the hat that the Indians wore with their regular home and away uniforms with the return of the “Block C” hat, worn from 1978 to 1985 before the Indians went to all Chief, all the time. Lest anyone think that this is an attempt to remove the Chief altogether from the uniforms, fear not…it’s just one change that has always bothered me in that most of the Indians’ uniforms contain no mention or contain any symbol signifying the city that the team represents. That is, there is the obvious script “CLEVELAND” on the road jerseys (which is too much script for my taste, but we’ll get to that), but otherwise the Indians have Chief Wahoo and the stylized “I” that’s supposed to look like a feather…and that’s it.


Nowhere is the “C” for Cleveland or any other symbol that represents our fair city. To that end, let’s introduce the first proposal to return to the “Block C” hat. The hat with the red brim would be worn with the current home whites and a new hat with a blue brim that would be worn with the new road uniforms, which I’ll get to momentarily.

For starters then, we’re looking at essentially the same home white uniforms but with a new “C” on the hat in an attempt to place “Cleveland” or at least the first letter on the hat. The “Block C” hat would also replace any more of the stylized “I” (meant to look like a feather) hats and would convey at least some city recognition as it would fall more in line with the “B” on the Red Sox hat or the “D” on the Tigers hat as it would be hard to imagine either of those teams wearing an “RS” in Boston or a “T” on their hats in Detroit. Similarly, let’s do away with the featheresque “I”, keeping it on the jersey in the context of the whole word and incorporate some hometown pride into the mix with the net result (with apologies for my admittedly poor PhotoShop skills) looking something like this, with Mr. Jeremy Sowers modeling:


Nothing too radical or earth-shattering, but rather simply an attempt to get the “Block C” back into circulation on the home whites, something that could also be done with the road uniforms. That being said, and before building a new road uni, this is what the current ones look like on a reliever who has just likely given up a long HR:


As I said before, the script “Cleveland” on the road jerseys always felt like a little overkill to me as the script “Indians” is great in that it harkens back to the old uniforms of the 1940’s and 1950’s (to the right), but the script Cleveland comes off as a little forced. To me (and maybe just because I’m a child of the 1980s), I still think that the block “CLEVELAND” looked a lot better and cleaner, particularly in gray, before they fouled up the whole look with those racing stripes going up and down the arms and legs. Thus, I'd go with the “Block C” hat with the blue brim and the plain gray road uniforms with the Block “Cleveland”, with each looking something like this:



While these could certainly be taken as “boring” or nothing too fancy, I think that they’d represent an upgrade over the current road uniforms and if the Indians wanted to dress them up at all, perhaps they could incorporate the full Chief Wahoo (not just the face) in his batting stance that famously looked out from Municipal Stadium:


That might improve the look of the sleeve and give the uniform a little more flavor and the Chief getting ready for the pitch could be incorporated on the sleeves of both the home and road jerseys if it accomplished a little more variety than that big face smiling up from every bicep on the team.

As for the road alternates (that would also work as Sunday alternates to the new yellow…I mean cream uniforms that I do like), the Indians could replace the current blue road jerseys with the complementary top with the block Indians (shown below) to go along with the Block font and utilize the Chief Wahoo hat with the red brim as the complement to it, as it appears here (again, with apologies for the poor PhotoShop skills) on CP Lee a few years back:





Finally, given that the Block C hat would have worked itself back into steady rotation, I would incorporate the Chief hat into the current Sunday uniforms with the result looking something like this:



While some may immediately point to this as some sort of acknowledgment that a return to these uniforms is apropos as it signals a return to the type of baseball seen on the Lakefront in the 1980s. Rather, this exercise isn't meant to mean that a return to mediocrity is at hand at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario and embracing the mediocre past is just another step to that end. Instead, it’s a little shake-up and an attempt to incorporate the name of the city represented by the team into what the team wears.

What the team wears on the field is secondary to how it performs on the field, but in lieu of anything constructive to discuss concerning the performance-related questions this off-season, a discussion of the polyester-related questions is as good as anything these days.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

A Late Lazy Sunday...with Good Reason

Since my Sunday was not “Lazy” in any sense of the word (what with the 1:30 AM delivery of a new baby boy, the ensuing maelstrom of activity, and the subsequent visitors that accompany the birth of a child), we’ll roll out slowly into a late Lazy Sunday, if only because I put some stuff together while we were still waiting to make the trip to Fairview for the delivery and figured I should post it before it became too dated. While that perhaps should have come with a spoiler alert (that the Lazy Sunday is not necessarily all pounded out on a Sunday morning in a reaction to what’s in the Sunday paper…mainly because what’s in the Sunday paper is rarely the most compelling piece of the week on the Indians), we’ll wrap up this sleep-deprived introduction and let it loose.
And…we’re off…

The big “news” (term used very loosely) of the week was the signing of Shelley Duncan and Austin Kearns to minor league deals and before intonations of The Looch or even Dellichaels begin, let’s all realize that both of these signings (which again, are to minor league deals) are just insurance against Brantley starting slow in MLB and LaPorta’s injury keeping him out of action into the regular season. It’s possible that either usurp Marte or Crowe for bench spots with their ability to play 1B or DH (in Duncan’s case) and multiple outfield positions (in Kearns’ case), but is throwing more options (given that there’s no guaranteed MLB roster spot) out there or sending Crowe back down to AAA necessarily a bad thing?

Yes, Duncan is a 30-year-old 4A player (who may or may not REALLY enjoy Baby Ruth bars) and who has compiled a .701 OPS and 8 MLB HR in his career and Kearns’ career has completely fallen off the map, but let’s look at this for what it is – an attempt to get some RH bats into the organization to balance out an increasingly LH-heavy lineup. Are these two the ideal candidates to do that? No chance, but if we’re looking for RH bats off of the bench who can spell Hafner at DH (like Duncan presumably would) or play some OF for a team that looks to have 3 starting OF, all of whom are LH (as Kearns presumably would), a minor league deal isn’t too bad of an idea, particularly in the context that there’s no guarantee of a roster spot.

While many are loathe to discuss the idea splits after the train wreck that was Dellichaels, just take a look at what the two newest Columbus Clippers (oops…did I really just write that) have done against LHP in their careers, with Duncan’s MiLB totals also listed because he has just 163 MLB plate appearances:
Duncan MLB vs. LHP
.259 BA / .330 OBP / .457 SLG / .786 OPS

Duncan MiLB vs. LHP
.260 BA / .349 OBP / .518 SLG / .857 OPS

Kearns MLB vs. LHP
.262 BA / .389 OBP / .420 SLG / .809 OPS

Certainly nobody’s catching the world on fire there and I can make a pretty compelling argument that Marte should be given an opportunity ahead of Duncan (sorry Trevor, the argument for you over Kearns isn’t nearly as compelling), but we’re talking about minor league deals and the presence of either of these two on the 25-man roster (or in Columbus to start the season) isn’t really that big of a nugget of news.

That being said, there exists the very real possibility that the Indians decide that Brantley needs more seasoning in AAA (a point that I’d like to see justified, if only to make a case that a better option exists than just giving Brantley the job and letting him mature into it) or that LaPorta’s injury keeps him from starting the season on the 25-man roster. If either of those things were to happen, Duncan or Kearns (or both, as AC asserts) could find themselves breaking camp with the Tribe next Spring. Again, that scenario wouldn’t present that much of an issue to me, but if either of them (or, shuddering at the thought, both) are logging significant AB for the parent club into June instead of the obviously better options available (notably LaPorta and Brantley and, to a lesser degree Andy Marte), then we’re just running around in circles with this thing and lessons are going unlearned at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario.

Outside of that deplorable scenario (the one where Duncan and Kearns take AB away from Brantley or a healthy Laporta…or even Marte into June) occurring, let’s keep the cracks to Shelley Duncan’s resemblance to the mutant biker from “Weird Science” or marveling at the fact that the Nationals are paying $1M to Austin Kearns this season by declining his $10M club option.

On the topic of team’s not wanting to foot the bill to keep a player around and dumping them for peanuts, Kelly Shoppach signed a 2-year, $5.55M deal with the Rays with a club option for a third year (for $3.2M with a $300K buyout) as the Rays not only put set values to his two remaining arbitration years, but also gave themselves the opportunity to keep Show Pack around in 2012 if he’s able to recapture some semblance of that second half of 2008.

With Carl Santana probably coming to Cleveland in the middle of this season, moving Shoppach made sense particularly with the idea that he wasn’t going to be worth the dollars associated with retaining his services. That being said, it certainly doesn’t remove the festering idea that the Indians sold low (and late) on Shoppach and that the Rays could have really stolen Shoppach from the Indians, whether he was useful to the 2010 and 2011 Indians or not.

On the topic of the player who came to Cleveland in exchange for ShopVac, Harry Pavlidis at THT has a piece titled “Pitching Prospects who could be Keepers” looking for arms that don’t immediately jump off of the page as stud prospects, but instead who are “strike-throwing, bat-missing, groundball pitchers who don't give-up home runs”. After a brief explanation of how he fine-tuned the criteria, he came up with 29 pitchers who exceeded the minimums that he was looking for and among them was a name that may just “Unleash the Fury”:
Mitch Talbot
K100 114
BH100 128
GB 118
HRFL 139

Talbot had a cup of coffee with the Rays in 2008, and was sent to Cleveland to complete the Kelly Shoppach deal over the winter. Talbot projects fairly well and has one of the best lines of this group of 29. We'll see how that translates, but Indians fans should pay attention to Talbot this March.


I still hold my irrational contempt for Talbot, mainly because of his status as being out of options and his lack of MLB experience (which are wildly related), but it’s an interesting counterpoint to those (ahem…me) who were so quick to dismiss Talbot. My irrational contempt for all things related to Mitch Talbot has less to do however, with Talbot and more to do with something I hope to explain once I ever get around to posting the third part of the “Forward Thinking” series (remember that…oh, 2 months ago) on the rotation. As a little appetizer, trust me that part of it has to do with the players who show up as the Indians 7th and 8th best prospects (as determined by Baseball America this week) in Hector Rondon and Carlos Carrasco and how I'd prefer to see innings go to them over the likes of Talbot and even Sowers and Ambriz, all three of whom are out of options and figure to be on a long MLB leash, or even in the rotation coming out of Goodyear, as Castrovince imagines.

On the BA list, there were not too many surprises among the Top 10 when you realize that BA has always been higher on upside (read Alex White at #9 without having thrown a pitch as a professional) and what “could be” than what really is. The most exciting news, by far, is that the BA folks are VERY high on both Santana (#1) and Chisenhall (#2), with author Ben Badler saying later in the subsequent chat that he sees Santana as the second best catching prospect in MLB (behind only the Giants’ Buster Posey, the 5th overall pick in the 2008 draft), and sees The Chiz as the second best 3B prospect in MLB (behind only the Pirates’ Pedro Alvarez, the 2nd overall pick in the 2008 draft). Seeing as how the team is just waiting to promote Santana to the parent club (probably sometime in June) and figure to have a void at 3B after 2010, when Peralta’s option isn’t picked up, they’re some nice prospects to dream on.

Past those two exceptional positional prospects, BA ranks the two power arms netted this summer (Nick Hagadone and Jason Knapp) as #3 and #4, injury-history considered, which is likely more of an indication of these two players having high ceilings as much as anything else. There’s a lot of good stuff in the list, but beyond those top 4, I’m not going to look too deeply into the rankings as that’s not generally my area of expertise and because, frankly, much of the ranking and the information on the Tribe top prospects comes as nothing too new as it is covered so extensively by Tony Lastoria on a nearly everyday basis.

Finally, a big thank you goes out to eagle-eyed reader Andy Francis, who caught some math errors on the previous MLB column, which despite not gaining too much traction, I have hope for in changing the MLB landscape FOREVER.

OK, those delusions of grandeur represent a pretty good sign that sleep is needed and that it’s time to put the new baby boy’s mitt under my bed as I attempt to break it in for him so it’s ready to go when he and The DiaBride get home from the hospital.

Monday, January 04, 2010

Results Based on Merit, Not Market

As the calendar turns and all eyes are either cast in the past or into the future, the events of 2009 continue to fester for me in terms of how the lessons of 2009 don’t necessarily point to a clearer future in 2010 and beyond in MLB. When Game 1 of the World Series pitted two former teammates, both former Cy Young Award winners, neither of them wearing the uniform that they donned in their Cy Young Award winning season (and neither of them having reached their 31st birthday), the ugliness that has been lurking under the surface in terms of MLB and the disparity created in the current structure reared not just an ugly head, it revealed itself for all to see on a cold October night in the Bronx.

While fans in Cleveland were left to take the body blows from the national media (prodded on by FOX’s graphic titled “At Least You Have LeBron while showing both CC and CP Lee in their Cleveland uniforms), it was hard not to wonder if this seemingly chance occurrence was simply the appetizer for what is to come as MLB improbably gets less balanced and more weighted towards teams with bigger markets, with larger margins for error, and ultimately larger payrolls. The CC-Lee matchup brutally exposed the problems within MLB, where certain teams not only have to continue to be adept at developing young, cost-controlled players, but now have to hope that those players develop within the same timeframe allowing contention, if albeit brief contention. What prevents Josh Johnson taking on Ricky Nolasco in the Fall Classic (not involving the Marlins) or even a Tim Lincecum v. Matt Cain match-up in October (with those still playing for the Giants sitting at home) at some point in the future?

Gone are the days when prudent decisions made in baseball allowed teams to compete based upon their own decisions, and growing more obvious is the notion that teams have to compete with a laundry list of factors coming before anything even related to baseball. Much of the blame has been placed at the feet of the large market teams and on the shoulders of the Bud Selig, who has presided over the sordid state of affairs as the disparity among MLB teams to be growing instead of shrinking.

With that in mind, let’s go to the interview posted at MLB.com with Selig regarding how the league has weathered the economic storm of the past year and what kind of state he sees baseball in today compared to how he took it over:

“On the field, it was fabulous. A great year, beginning to end. We had more competitive balance. It was just a terrific year, under the worst circumstances since the Great Depression. That’s the point you have to keep in mind.”
--snip--
Selig’s tenure has been characterized by economic reforms such as revenue sharing and the luxury tax that are intended to improve competitive balance. With the wide variations among franchises’ ability to generate revenue, and without a salary cap, baseball’s economic playing field cannot be completely level. But the movement toward greater competitive balance has changed the competitive character of the game.
--snip--
“But the economic reforms have been remarkable. When you think of what baseball’s economic system was in 1992 and what it is today, nobody could have ever believed that we would have this kind of revenue sharing and the luxury tax. People talk about the system, it needs this and that, and I don’t deny that it needs some work. But I think of the pain that we went through in the 1990s and the evolution since then, it’s sort of stunning. I’m proud of the change.”


Truthfully, the most relevant sentences have been bolded by me, but Selig speaks extensively of the changes that have been made to the economic structure of the game from the time he took over in 1992 to where it sits today in the article and, since he brought up the comparison, let’s take a look at MLB Payrolls by team in 1992 and in the just-completed 2009 season:
MLB Payrolls – 1992
1) Mets - $44,352,002
2) Dodgers - $43,788,166
3) Blue Jays - $43,663,666
4) Red Sox - $42,203,584
5) Athletics - $39,957,834
6) Yankees - $35,966,834
7) Reds - $35,203,999
8) Royals - $33,643,834
9) Angels - $33,529,854
10) Giants - $33,126,168
11) Braves - $32,975,333
12) Pirates - $32,589,167
13) Brewers - $30,253,668
14) Rangers - $29,740,667
15) Cubs - $29,060,833
16) Tigers - $28,413,500
17) White Sox - $28,413,500
18) Padres - $27,584,167
19) Twins - $27,432,834
20) Cardinals - $26,889,836
21) Phillies - $23,804,834
22) Mariners - $22,483,834
23) Orioles - $20,997,667
24) Expos - $15,869,667
25) Astros - $13,352,000
26) Indians - $8,236,166
For comparison's sake going forward, realize that the median salary in 1992 was $29,997,188 with 15 of the 26 teams (those below the A's and above the Phillies) spending a number that was either less than 20% above that figure or 20% below that figure. The highest payroll represented a 48% higher payroll than the median and the lowest payroll (the Dick Jacobs-owned Indians, I might add) spent 72% less than the median.

MLB Payrolls – 2009
1) Yankees - $220,024,917
2) Mets - $142,229,759
3) Cubs - $141,632,703
4) Red Sox - $140,454,683
5) Tigers - $139,429,408
6) Phillies - $138,286,499
7) Dodgers - $131,507,197
8) Angels - $121,947,524
9) Astros - $108,059,086
10) White Sox - $105,287,384
11) Cardinals - $102,678,475
12) Mariners - $102,343,617
13) Braves - $100,078,591
14) Giants - $95,202,185
15) Brewers - $90,006,172
16) Rockies - $84,450,797
17) Blue Jays - $84,130,513
18) Royals - $81,917,563
19) Orioles - $79,308,066
20) Rangers - $77,208,810
21) Indians - $77,192,253
22) Diamondbacks - $73,800,852
23) Twins - $73,068,407
24) Reds - $72,693,206
25) Rays - $71,222,532
26) Nationals - $69,321,137
27) Athletics - $61,688,124
28) Pirates - $47,991,132
29) Padres - $43,210,258
30) Marlins - $37,532,482

The median salary in 2009 was $87,228,485 with 15 of the 30 teams (all below the White Socks and above the Nationals) spending a number that was either less than 20% above that figure or 20% below that figure. The highest payroll represented a 252% higher payroll than the median and the lowest payroll was 57% lower than the median.

Is Selig correct in saying that there has been economic reform in the past 17 years?
Absolutely, but the most noticeable change has not come in bringing the payrolls of teams much closer together as the disparity is widening. Rather, the big change has come in an absolutely stunning increase in revenue, made obvious by the fact that that median salary has nearly TRIPLED in 17 years. The issue that Selig fails to point out is that the revenue sharing and the luxury tax have not been able to prevent a still-evolving system that sways favor to large markets because of the exponential increase of revenue. In 1992, the Athletics and Reds counted themselves among the top 7 payrolls in MLB and 17 years later, they both find themselves among the bottom 7 payrolls in MLB.

What Selig assisted in creating is an unquestionable money-making machine (and let’s not be na├»ve enough to think that all of these teams aren’t making money hand over fist in some fashion), but also one that tilts the scales in favor of the large market teams where a larger population base has more or less equated into a larger payroll.

Prompted by Tim Marchman of SI.com’s suggestion that a 3rd team should be added to the NY-NJ area in an attempt to loosen the stranglehold that the Yankees and, to a lesser degree, the Mets have on simply buying the best players (or, more recently, trading for hefty contracts that teams were looking to unload, giving up only fungible parts, easily replaceable by simply paying over slot in future drafts), perhaps it’s relevant to examine the size of the markets in MLB and how they relate to 2009 payroll in the system currently in place. Using the Combined Statistical Areas and the Metropolitan Statistical Areas (with a little foray into the Great White North), here’s a more comprehensive look at population distribution among MLB cities and how many people are tied to each team, using the data from 2008 that takes into account neighboring cities for a truer sense of an extended metropolitan area’s population.

Listed parenthetically is where the teams that find those particular areas their home rank among the 30 MLB teams in 2009 payroll:
NY – 22,154,752 (Yankees #1 payroll, Mets #2 payroll)
LA – 17,786,419 (Dodgers #7 payroll, Angels #8 payroll)
Chicago – 9,793,036 (Cubs #3 payroll, White Sox #10 payroll)
Baltimore/Washington – 8,295,397 (Orioles #19 payroll, Nationals #26 payroll)
Boston – 7,514,759 (Red Sox #4 payroll)
San Francisco/Oakland – 7,354,555 (Giants #14 payroll, Athletics #27 payroll)
Dallas – 6,655,261 (Rangers #20 payroll)
Philadelphia – 6,398,896 (Phillies #6 payroll)
Houston – 5,829,620 (Astros #9 payroll)
Atlanta – 5,729,304 (Braves #13 payroll)
Miami – 5,463,857 (Marlins #30 payroll)
Detroit – 5,354,225 (Tigers #5 payroll)
Toronto – 5,113,149 (Blue Jays #17 payroll)
Phoenix – 4,281,899 (Diamondbacks #22 payroll)
Seattle – 4,087,033 (Mariners #12 payroll)
Minneapolis/St. Paul – 3,562,284 (Twins #23 payroll)
Denver – 3,049,562 (Rockies #16 payroll)
San Diego – 3,208,466 (Padres #29 payroll)
Cleveland – 2,887,492 (Indians #21 payroll)
St. Louis – 2,879,924 (Cardinals #11 payroll)
Tampa/St. Petersburg – 2,733,761 (Rays #25 payroll)
Pittsburgh – 2,441,464 (Pirates #28 payroll)
Cincinnati – 2,198,337 (Reds #24 payroll)
Kansas City – 2,070,544 (Royals #18 payroll)
Milwaukee – 1,748,818 (Brewers #15 payroll)
That would be 7 of the top 10 payrolls coming from 4 of the 5 biggest cities with an MLB team or teams, with the rest of the teams more or less falling in line with their payrolls being tied to the size of the metropolitan area which they cover. Sure, there are the exceptions (Baltimore/Washington with low payrolls at the top end of the population ladder, Milwaukee and St. Louis spending more than their population rank would dictate), but for the most part, the teams existing in larger cities have a built-in competitive advantage over team in mid-sized or smaller cities based in large part because of the size of their prospective customer base.

The problem with this set-up, in that the rich are able to get richer and the poor are left to attempt to build a better mousetrap to level the playing field, is that it shows no sign of changing. Very few teams have a chance to legitimately contend for the World Series from year to year because of the current system and the current make-up of MLB economics rewards the market of a team instead of the merit of that team.

What’s the solution?
Is it really to add another team to the Metro NY area or to Boston in an attempt to defray the base that the Yankees, Mets, and Red Sox draw from? Not even getting into the fact that the Steinbrenners, the Wilpons, and John Henry would cry bloody murder (louder and with more to back it up than Peter Angelos did when the Expos moved to DC), doesn’t that really just add another big market team to the mix?

So is the idea just to load up LA, NY, Boston, Dallas, Philly with another team to average these things out? If that’s the formula, where does it stop…4 teams in NY and LA, 3 in Chicago and Baltimore/Washington/Northern Virginia or just lumping a whole bunch of teams either into the megalopolis that extends from Southern New Hampshire down to Northern Virginia and to Chicago, Northern/Southern California, and Texas, since that’s where a vast amount of people live?

Rather, wouldn’t it be prudent to examine what makes the other pro sports in America able to avoid this disparity and, in turn, make them compelling…to find out how NFL maintains its stranglehold on the sporting interests of American and to find out how the NBA is able to offer a competitive balance based on the wisdom of a teams’ personnel decisions and not on the size of an individual team’s market?

It’s been beaten to death, I know, but the NFL playoffs this year boast Indianapolis, Cincinnati, San Diego, New England, Minnesota, Green Bay, New Orleans, Baltimore, New York, Philadelphia, Dallas, and Arizona and the common thread among all of those teams has nothing to do with the size of Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Green Bay, or Minneapolis as metropolitan areas just as it has nothing to do with the size of New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Dallas and their outlying communities. The common thread among all of those teams is that they’ve succeeded at drafting and developing players, fit them into a successful system, and allowed that system to foster winning to the point that market size or payroll has very little bearing on wins and losses. In the NFL, teams are rewarded for intelligent drafting and development and have the tools in place to keep their home-grown players to allow continuity to reveal the wisdom of their best-laid plans. If a team succeeds, it is because the Front Office made prudent decisions and because the players performed at a level that resulted in consistent winning. On the flip side, if a team fails year in and year out, it is largely because of shortcomings within their organization and not reliant on factors outside of football decisions.

In the NBA, the system is also in place to reward wisdom in player acquisition and development and the procedures are in place to foster that continuity that puts the onus of winning on the Front Office, the coaching staff, and the players as the league makes it easier for teams to retain their stars. The NBA features winning teams that build through smart drafting and player development (witness what the Hawks and Trail Blazers are currently doing) and watches teams intent on finding a way to “beat the system” by buying players on the open market (see Knicks, New York) flounder in the mess that they’ve created, unable to simply buy their way out of the mud. To put it in very tangible terms, I’m not sure if you’ve heard this yet or not, but the Cavs can offer LBJ more money in NBA salary than any other team, just as Toronto can offer Chris Bosh more than any other team, just as Miami can offer Dwayne Wade more money than anyone else this upcoming off-season.
Compared to the system in place in MLB, how alien is that concept?

In MLB, most teams now are left to rely on the idea that they have to develop players that arrive and thrive at the same time to open their window of contention, see if they can use their increased revenue brought on by winning to keep that window open a little longer (see the Brewers’ off-season signings as an example of how a team is trying keep that window propped until Prince Fielder heads to the East Coast after the 2011 season), and attempt to have everything go right for them in one magical year to vault themselves past teams without their constraints before they have to tear everything down all over again to wait for that next window to open.

How is it that every other league has figured out a way to reward prudent SPORTS decisions (not business decisions) by individual franchises, while Cleveland fans are left to watch two Cy Young winners under the age of 30 face off against each other in Game 1 of the World Series while another rebuild/reload/whatever is underway on the North Coast?

Don’t take this to be sour grapes (OK…maybe it is a little bit after seeing the events of 2008 and 2009 unfold in Cleveland), but how is it that Karl Malone and John Stockton are able to spend essentially their entire NBA careers in Salt Lake City (smaller than every MLB market) and little question exists that Peyton Manning will spend his NFL career in Indianapolis (larger than only Milwaukee among MLB cities) while the Twins struggle to convince Joe Mauer (a St. Paul native, no less) to ignore the extra years and zeroes on the check that awaits him in Boston or New York after this season to stay in Minnesota?

A solution to the burgeoning issue is needed and, while the owners may not have an interest in doing this as they all line their pockets, flush with the economic boon to the sport that has transpired since Selig took over, perhaps they should if they’re looking at the long-term viability as their sport to be viewed as much more than a imbalanced joke. Reason being, the public has taken notice of the current structure and if a Seton Hall poll from November 5th of this year is any indication, public perception about their sport is essentially a David vs. Goliath tale, with their popularity dropping since 1985, when it ran neck and neck with NFL as America’s most popular sport:

Sixty percent of Americans who follow sports feel that teams located in bigger markets have an advantage in producing winning seasons, according to a poll conducted this week by the Seton Hall Sports Poll. Twenty-six percent felt the bigger market teams did not have an advantage.

The polling took place this week as the New York Yankees, representing the nation’s biggest market, played the Philadelphia Phillies, representing the nation’s fourth largest market.

Seventy percent of fans feel that Major League Baseball should make a bigger effort to equalize revenue for all teams, as the NFL has done.
--snip--
“While occasionally a small market team like Minnesota or Tampa Bay will break through and win a division or a playoff round, the big markets continue to prevail in the later rounds, and the fans clearly link that success to the ability to generate bigger revenue,” noted Rick Gentile, director of the Seton Hall Sports Poll, conducted by The Sharkey Institute.


To be clear on this, what the public is looking for is not for every team to finish at or around 81-81 every season – what they’re looking for is a legitimate competitive balance. Competitive balance doesn’t mean parity, nor does it mean that each team necessarily has an equal shot at winning every year. Rather it means that the competitiveness of a team should be based upon the baseball decisions that a team makes and not decisions made where putting the best baseball team on the field falls somewhere down the list of factors.

If the Royals or Pirates draft poorly and are unable to develop their own talent, there’s no question that they should find themselves in the cellar; but if the Twins or Rays draft and develop talent on a consistent basis, that talent should coalesce as the team sees fit, not within the parameters of their market and their payroll. If teams make a roster decision via trade, the prevailing reason should be baseball-related, above all other factors related to revenue or payroll or attendance, in an effort to foster the continuity that the other sports have already figured out.

What has happened instead of seeing these prudent teams focused on development grow into perennial powers is that the larger market teams have made great strides in recent years that have improved their baseball decisions (the Raul Mondesi-to-the-Bronx days aren’t coming back) and that fact has put most other teams further behind the 8-ball as the large market teams have started to understand that they can’t just dole out every big contract while they build a team (well, maybe the Mets haven’t) and have started to develop their own young players. The issue arises however, when a team like the Yankees doesn’t see their young players develop like they’re supposed to or as quickly as they’re supposed to (using Chamberlain and Hughes as examples) and they simply plug those holes via FA (Sabathia and Burnett) or, more recently, by trade (Granderson replaces Melky) as trading their prospects does not affect the Yankees as it does other teams. In this New World Order, where young, under-club-control, cheap talent is the most desired commodity, the Yankees and Red Sox (just to name two) can use their prospects to trade for other teams’ desired commodities with the idea that once they enter the Bronx or Yawkey Way, the Yankees or Red Sox have them under their collective thumb in terms of negotiation.

On the flip side, the smaller market teams are forced to take calculated risks in an attempt to narrow the margin between the larger market teams and themselves. In these attempts, they expose themselves to monetary risks that have the capability to sink the team if the risky venture turns out poorly. Forget the idea that small market teams don’t want to “pay the going rate” or “pony up” for their homegrown stars, the simpler fact is that the likes of Boston and New York have the margin of error that allow them to buy their way out of mistakes. While Travis Hafner’s 4-year, $57M contract (signed in 2007) sits around the Indians’ neck like an albatross, paying “cash considerations” to the Cardinals to take Julio Lugo (signed a 4-year, $36M deal in 2006) certainly didn’t seem to have affected the ability of the Red Sox to give John Lackey $82.5M this off-season. As the Brewers are paying $7.15M of Bill Hall’s $8.4M salary in 2010 after designating him for assignment last season, and because a team like the Brewers is not able to simply absorb that cost without it affecting the rest of their operation, they work under a different set of guidelines than the large-market teams like the Yankees who are still in the midst of paying Kei Igawa $20M from 2006 through the end of 2011, yet happily committed to paying $423,500,000 to Sabathia, Teixeira, and Burnett last off-season, which ultimately resulted in their 27th World Series Championship.

On the surface, it seems that large market teams are rewarded for their market, not for their merit while the teams that call smaller cities home are left to attempt to find new ways to win. Apparently though, it depends on who you ask as Red Sox owner John Henry complained that smaller market teams aren’t necessarily interested in winning and using their revenue sharing money to win and are instead simply pocketing it. His idea is to remove the notion of revenue sharing and to instead institute a “Competitive Balanced Payroll Tax” system:

“If the Yankees and the Mets spend a billion dollars plus of their investment dollars to build new ballparks, they should be allowed to keep their revenues from that,” Henry wrote. “But if they want to spend $200,000,000 annually on payroll, they should be heavily taxed directly on that – and if they want to spend more than that, they should be even more heavily taxed. So should all clubs who spend heavily on payroll – to the extent necessary – to bring the system into balance.”

While Henry’s idea certainly has some merit, it still doesn’t correct the fundamental problem in the current system as the teams in MLB are playing on different fields when it comes to being rewarded (or punished) for their baseball decisions in the won-loss column. That is, the Phillies developed the likes of Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Cole Hamels, and Ryan Howard and should unquestionably in the mix for the MLB title. The problem is that the Phillies ran into a team in the World Series with an ace who cut his teeth in Cleveland, a 1B who came up with the Rangers, a 3B who was drafted by the Mariners, a LF who was originally a Royal, and a #2 starter who began his career as a Marlin. You could argue all day long about what circumstances put those players in the pinstripes last Fall (just as you could point to the Phillies’ roster for a former Indian in Lee and a former Royal in Ibanez), but the public has grown weary of the idea that it’s only a matter of time before every exceptional player in MLB becomes a member of the Yankees, the Red Sox, the Mets, or some other large market team.

So is there a solution?
Perhaps there is, and while I’m not calling for a return to the reserve clause or some sort of other form of indentured service, the 2 other major sports have figured it out to some degree, so there must be some way to do this to align consistency and competitiveness. Is it possible to satisfy the concerns of small market teams, quick to employ the “we can’t afford to take those risks to keep our homegrown players” card as well as the large market teams, who feel that they are lining the pockets of small market team owners who have no interest in competing, much less winning, so long as they are making money?

Going back to John Henry’s idea for a “Competitive Balanced Payroll Tax”, wouldn’t it make sense to use the funds created by this “tax” (and the revenue sharing number in 2009 was allegedly $400M that was “distributed from high revenue making clubs such as the Yankees and Red Sox to those at the low end of the spectrum, such as the Marlins, Pirates, Rays, and Royals”) to enable the smaller market teams to compete with the large market teams, in respect to keeping their homegrown players as members of their organization?

That is to say, if funds existed specifically to assist teams to keep their own players, it becomes less of an unbalanced field as to who can go out and “buy” the best players and more of an idea of developing the best players and keeping them to build around them and to allow them to congeal as a team as MLB teams once did. This idea shouldn’t take money out of players’ pockets however as the players should be fairly compensated for “what the market will bear” for their services, but perhaps a solution to that problem could be found.

A possible solution could go something like this – once a player hits Free Agency, allow said player to go out on the open market to see what deals exist for him out there. When the bidding has concluded and an offer sheet is signed by the player and his agent, his current team has 10 days to match the offer, much like Restricted Free Agency in the NBA. Now here’s where that pool of money created by the “Competitive Balanced Payroll Tax” come in – the player’s current team can decide to match the offer sheet while only footing the bill for half of the contract with the other half of the money coming from the pool of money created by the Competitive Tax Pool that John Henry argues for. To put that in tangible terms, if the Brewers wanted to match the Yankees’ 7-year, $161M contract offer from the Yankees last off-season, they would be responsible for $80.5M of the deal with the other $80.5M coming from the Tax Pool.

Thus, the large market teams can still bid for the services of the players they desire and, if their offers are matched, they have effectively ensured that the money that they pay into the “Competitive Balanced Payroll Tax” is going strictly for MLB players (not for other small market “expenses”) and the smaller market teams don’t have to assume as much risk in signing their own players to their contracts to keep them. The large market teams may not like the idea of bidding against their own money or subsidizing the contracts of players not playing for them, but their concerns about throwing money into other owners’ pockets would be allayed and they would be left to strive for the same excellence in player development that every other team would be chasing.

If teams don’t elect to utilize this Tax Pool to keep their own players, the onus is strictly on them for either not developing players internally compelling enough that they want to keep them or they are exposed for being more concerned with the bottom line than they are the product on the field. If a team develops players prudently, the machinations would be in place to keep those players as long as they wish to, with the players being compensated dollars equivalent to “what the market will bear”.

Certainly some teams would attempt to find ways around this structure by simply overpaying for young players or outspending other teams at a lower level in an attempt to develop their own players to take advantage of the Tax Pool. While that is a legitimate concern, it would bring a brighter focus on the need to create a worldwide draft or, at the very least, finalize some form of payment tied to draft position so teams with deeper pockets can’t pay over slot to select better players later in the rounds because they’re willing to throw more money at a riskier venture.

While some would argue that this would drive down salaries, I would argue the opposite and that, in the process, it could even indirectly even out the amount of risk large market teams would assume by signing Free Agents because of the escalating salaries that large market teams would be willing to dole out in an attempt to make even half of an offer sheet too daunting for another organization to assume.

For that, let’s take a look at the very real Joe Mauer situation in Minnesota and assume that the Twins don’t sign Mauer to a long-term deal this off-season. In the scenario, Mauer hits the open market with the Yankees and Red Sox both in need of catchers and salivating at the prospect of adding Mauer to their roster. Let’s say that after all of the negotiating, the Red Sox trump the Yankees’ best efforts by offering Mauer an 8-year deal worth $25M per year to come to Boston. In the newly proposed situation, the Twins would have the right to match the Red Sox offer, but pay only half of the salary with the other $12.5M annually being paid from the Tax Pool. If the number of $400M in revenue sharing being paid out last year is anywhere close to being true, subsidizing half of Mauer’s salary would represent only a drop (actually a little over 3%) in the Tax Pool bucket. In the end, Mauer gets paid what the market will bear, the Twins keep Mauer without assuming all of the salary risk, and the large market teams know that the money put into the Competitive Balanced Tax Pool is actually being used to foster competitive balance and not simply being added onto the bottom line of the small market teams.

Certainly, one would have to assume that the likes of the Yankees and Red Sox would counter this new set-up by increasing the size of their contract offers, in an attempt to make even half of their offer give smaller market teams pause in accepting the risk, even with the Tax Pool money subsidizing half of the contract. To put it in the Mauer situation again, let’s say that the Red Sox final offer came to 8 years and $40M annually in an attempt to scare the Twins away from accepting the risk associated with the Minnesota organization carrying the burden of a 8-year, $20M annual commitment. If the Twins decide to accept the risk, Mauer gets paid an even higher amount in the same manner as the previous scenario. If the Twins pass on the opportunity, Mauer still gets the money as he joins the Red Sox, who now have accepted a comparable amount of risk that small-market teams do in committing a large percentage of their payroll to one player and have essentially ensured themselves that they will continue to pay into the Competitive Balanced Tax Pool because of the annual salary necessary to net the player that they were willing to pay for.

Another argument that could be made is that it would severely limit the trade market because teams would not be willing to trade their own players with the machinations in place for them to have half of their own players’ contracts subsidized by the Tax Pool. I would argue that the opposite again may be true as trade values for pending Free Agents would actually skyrocket as not only would the soon-to-be-Free-Agent be traded, but also his status as a team’s own player and, as a result, the ability of a team to have half of that player’s next contract subsidized by the Tax Pool. That is, when the Indians traded Victor Martinez in July of 2009, they would be trading not only Martinez under his current contract, but also the right to have half of Martinez’s contract after the 2010 season subsidized by the Tax Pool, whether he would be a member of the Red Sox or whatever other team would have acquired him and those rights. Trades would be made for baseball reasons only and organizations would not be able to cite payroll constraints as reasons for making a deal, left to justify the idea that their team is better off with the trade completed.

A common misconception would be that the system would benefit only small market teams, but the use of the Tax Pool money wouldn’t be restricted from helping ANY team keep their own players. The large market teams wouldn’t be excluded from sharing in this Tax Pool, so if the Angels wanted to keep John Lackey and Chone Figgins this off-season, they wouldn’t be exempted from sharing in the Tax Pool (even if they contribute to it) as each player was a member of the Angels when they entered Free Agency. It would place a greater emphasis on player development and continuity with the idea that teams that made intelligent baseball decisions would field the best teams, regardless of how many people called their metro area home.

If the sport is so flush in revenue (and it is, as MLB has generated nearly $13B in revenue in the past two years), spread the money around to the players and to reward the teams that are prudent baseball minds, not business minds. Utilize the “Tax Pool” (or “Central Fund” or whatever you want to call it) and the shared profits in a manner that they’re supposed to be used, to even the playing field by not punishing teams for being in markets that are large or markets that are small, but rather for not making the best baseball decisions to put the best team on the field.

If all of the Tax Pool money isn’t used to effectively subsidize contracts, allow the remainder to be distributed evenly back to the 30 teams for “performance-related” expenditures, meaning that if a team like the Royals or Pirates don’t develop talent compelling enough to generate interest on the open market that they don’t get any more shared money than the larger market teams do. In doing so, it would place an even greater emphasis on teams developing their own players and creating the continuity necessary for ANY team to sustain contention, not just those with fatter wallets.

How this would affect salaries prior to the Free Agent process or arbitration hearings as well as how it would affect the movement of lower levels of Free Agents would play itself out over the course of time, but the familiar complaints from both the large and small market teams would be wiped away. No longer could John Henry say that small market teams aren’t using the shared profits of the league to create more competitive teams, just as small market teams would no longer to be able to cry foul that they were outbid by the “haves” while the “have-nots” were left lacking for funds to keep their homegrown players in an effort to consistently contend as the system is currently constructed to only allow a few teams to accomplish.

In the new system, the Rays could keep Longoria, Upton, Crawford, Pena, Shields, Garza, and Price as long as they’d like to without diminishing the amount of money that those players would receive just as the Phillies should not have to decide whether they have the wherewithal to keep Jayson Werth, who they prudently signed to a one-year, $850,000 deal back in December of 2006, when he becomes a Free Agent after this season.

Whether the math works or how the ultimate distribution of funds shakes out, it would certainly seem that the money is there to institute this modification on the use of funds for all of MLB to potentially benefit all 30 MLB teams. The caveat would be that the teams that it would benefit would be the teams that developed players and created an environment for players to develop as a cohesive unit into a perennial contender.

The modification would reward teams for the merit of their baseball-related decisions, not simply the market in which they made those decisions. It could potentially bring back the days when a player spent his career with one team (without compromising his earning power) and, more importantly, even the playing field to legitimately renew the idea that MLB wasn’t going forward with a flawed system weighted towards particular organizations.
While that may not represent the panacea, it would certainly represent a start.