Sunday, February 28, 2010

A Contractual Lazy Sunday

On a day that looks like the snow may have finally stopped and when it really doesn’t matter because USA-Canada isn’t allowing anyone to leave the house this afternoon, let’s get right off on a Lazy Sunday to hit on the high (and not so high) points having to do with YOUR Cleveland Indians…

The news that caused the biggest stir of the past few days is Manny Acta’s declaration that Grady Sizemore’s going to be moved down in the lineup. While I’ll spare you the link to the PD story (your time does mean something here), where the cause of the “Indians’ once-powerful lineup” being “reduced to a moth-eaten T-Shirt at an Army surplus store” is chalked up to the departure of “Victor Martinez, Mark DeRosa, Ryan Garko, Ben Francisco, and Casey Blake”.

No seriously, the “reason” being given as to why the Indians find themselves no longer able to field a “powerful lineup” is that DeRosa (here for ½ of a season), Garko (attempting to platoon at 1B in Seattle, where he may actually catch because they don’t know what to do with him), Francisco (a 4th OF in Philly…which he always should have been in Cleveland), and Blake (wildly unappreciated while in Cleveland and turned into Carlos Santana) are not in the lower portions of the “Indians’ once-powerful lineup”.

Complaining about the Indians’ performance and decisions over the past two years is one thing, failing to use logic or even offer compelling examples that mistakes have been made are quite another…

But I digress, as we move back to the news that Grady’s moving down the #2 hole, so if lineup construction is a point of contention, have at it…I’m not really not all that concerned about where these guys hit (as long as there’s an ounce of logic beyond it), so it doesn’t register as earth-shattering for me as it may for some.

Just for some background here, more than a few years ago, Tom Tango (and others) attempted to quantify the importance of batting lineups and optimize them, throwing out the conventional wisdom at each position in the process. Last year, Sky Kalkman at Beyond the Boxscore attempted to summarize those conclusions, to quantify and put some hard ideas together as to what each hitter in the lineup should ideally contribute. Here’s what Kalkman asserts that the #2 hitter in the lineup should be:
The #2 hitter comes to bat in situations about as important as the #3 hitter, but more often. That means the #2 hitter should be better than the #3 guy, and one of the best three hitters overall. And since he bats with the bases empty more often than the hitters behind him, he should be a high-OBP player.

Sounds like Sizemore, if you’re looking at the Indians’ roster, right?

If the idea is to see the leadoff hitter and the #2 hitter get on base, both Cabrera and Sizemore fit that bill, regardless of where they hit:
Career OBP - .355
Projected OBP (PECOTA) 2010 – .366


Career OBP - .367
Projected OBP (PECOTA) 2010 – .389

It will be interesting to see how Acta handles the left-handedness behind Sizemore at #2 in the lineup as Choo (who has been the team’s best hitter for the last 2 years) and Hafner and Branyan all likely factor in somewhere between #3 and #6, assuming all are healthy and in the lineup. However, this news does come in February and it will be interesting to see how Acta’s lineup evolves throughout the season, and not just in the #2 hole in the lineup.

In the midst of a number of topics (none of them very compelling and nearly all of them depressing), Paul Hoynes drops a couple of notes that actually mean more for the team than how much Manny Acta likes John Wooden and how The Sporting News (which I was surprised to learn was still in print) picked the Indians to be the worst team in MLB. Before getting to the points of interest and just to put a yin to the prediction of The Sporting News’ yang, it should be noted that the new PECOTA projections have the Indians finishing at 79-83, tied for 3rd with the Tigers and 2 games out of 1st place in the Central, and CHONE’s most recent projections have the Indians finishing at 82-80, 2nd in the division, 4 games back in the Central.

But back to the interesting nugget in Hoynes’ piece as he notes that “Jeremy Sowers (left shoulder), who threw a bullpen session Friday, could get into a Cactus League game before the end of spring training”.

Wait, we went from JUST finding out that Sowers had a sore shoulder earlier in the week to (assuming it’s accurate) reading that “Sowers COULD get into a Cactus League game before the end of Spring Training”?

Is that to say that there’s no guarantee that he’s even going to be ready to play in a Cactus League game all Spring? Remember that whole idea from Acta that he wanted to have his team essentially set a week to ten days before the end of Spring Training to see if it would result in a better start in 2010?

If Sowers “could” (nothing more) see some time in a Cactus League game and Acta wants to have his team in place a couple of week before camp ends to give the team some level of consistency in the hope that a better start is possible, what chances do you think Sowers has of breaking camp with the team…2%...5%?

Not that it’s going to be a surprise (as I guessed this last week), but that news (again, assuming it’s accurate) would certainly point to Sowers heading to the DL to start the season, likely heading off to some rehab assignments after that, allowing the Indians to filter through Mitch Talbot and Hector Ambriz (who would need to break camp with the team) while Sowers can be stashed on the DL and in the Minors until a roster decision is forced on the team when (or is it suddenly “if”) Sowers gets healthy.

The second little bit that Hoynes mentions in passing at the end of the piece is that “Acta said second base is ‘Luis Valbuena’s job to lose’” and while that doesn’t come as a surprise either (even after the flirtations with Orlando Hudson fell short in the off-season), the Valbuena situation will be an interesting one to watch as it relates to the way the Indians use him and manage his service time. Acta came out earlier in the Spring to say that, “we’re not in the business of developing platoon players at 23 years old” in that it looks as if the Indians don’t have an interest in protecting Valbuena against LHP in the early going, but that doesn’t mean that he’s likely to remain the 2B (or even on the roster) the whole season.

The reason for that would be the service time issue alluded to above, which is something that Tony Lastoria and I touched on in this week’s edition of “Smoke Signals”, when we discussed the infield and welcomed Jason Kipnis, the Indians’ 2nd Round Pick from last year, to the show to talk about his transition from college OF to MiLB 2B.

To that end, Tony actually wrote a must-read service time piece that he posted as it related to the likely demotion of Mike Brantley to AAA to start the season, but here’s what Tony relates about Valbuena, who has 1.012 days on MLB on his service clock:
Sending down Valbuena…to Columbus for a month at some point in the season is not a stretch as he has options remaining. While the reason would be more to get looks at other guys, it would also offer an excuse to align his service clock to where Valbuena finishes the year with under two years of service time…to essentially add another year of control to him.

If you’re confused by that, Cot’s Baseball Contracts has a spreadsheet available that shows the service time of all Indians’ players which is extremely informative, particularly when partnered with the explanation of Tony’s service-time article. Looking at both give you a great idea as to what roster moves could be in play in 2010, particularly in the case of Valbuena.

Before jumping out and asserting that this is the latest example of the Indians’ frugality, realize that this in not a practice that’s unique to Cleveland, as Tom Verducci relates in this week’s print edition of SI. Essentially, the pattern is that a top prospect going into this season doesn’t figure to get promoted until late May or so because of this service-time issue and how waiting equates to avoiding a year of arbitration and (as Tony states) an extra year of player control, at a time when the player should wildly more productive than when they are first promoted. Verducci explains the benefits of the practice, while mentioning some recent examples of non-Indians thusly:
One way for clubs to save millions on their best young players is to delay the start of their major league service clocks until at least late May, which generally leaves players with three cracks at arbitration down the road instead of four. Four impact rookies last season were promoted 10 days apart, beginning on May 29: Orioles catcher Matt Wieters, White Sox third baseman Gordon Beckham, Pirates outfielder Andrew McCutcheon and Braves righthander Tommy Hanson.

There’s more than meets the eye here and baseball decisions do not always dictate the timing of when these young players spend time on the parent club and Brantley and Valbuena (and likely Carlos Santana) are going to be examples of the Indians managing service time for young players in 2010 with the idea that they retain control over the player for one more season, instead of seeing them hit FA as a 28-year-old because they spent two weeks on the MLB roster as a 22-year-old when they could have spent time in AAA.

Of course, the other way that teams manage the salaries of young players is to avoid arbitration from year to year, extending young players with long-term deals before arbitration with the promise of financial security.

It was thought that this practice (used with players from Sabathia to Sizemore to Carmona) was thought to have the next two targets this Spring in Asdrubal Cabrera and The BLC. However (and just to illustrate how important the management of service time truly is), the idea that SS Choo remains a candidate for a long-term extension, buying out his upcoming arbitration years (2011, 2012, and 2013) just took an ENORMOUS hit as the news hit that Choo has hired Scott Boras as his agent.

Why is this “enormous”?
Mainly because Scott Boras has never had a client who chose to give a “hometown discount” in signing away his arbitration years (much less a year of Free Agency) for the security of a long-term deal, something that the Indians likely hoped to ink this Spring with Choo’s former agent Alan Nero, who signed a deal with Indians as Victor Martinez’s agent in 2005 and as Rafael Betancourt’s agent in 2008.
As a quick aside here, Nero remains Asdrubal’s agent…

Yes, Prince Fielder (a Boras client) signed a two-year deal with the Brewers, avoiding the arbitration process, but it didn’t come with any “hometown discount” and it certainly didn’t forfeit any of Fielder’s FA years, where Boras will be looking for a huge deal for Fielder on the open market. With Boras in the fold, it’s likely that the Indians are going to have to go from year-to-year with Choo contractually, facing off with Boras and his portfolio of data that says that only 6 players in MLB have outpaced Choo in the last 2 years in OPS (Pujols, Berkman, A-Rod, Teixeira, Youkilis, and Holliday) in all of MLB and ask for the moon in each arbitration year for The BLC. If I can find that out in a quick OPS search, what else do you think Boras is going to arm himself with to look for a huge amount of money for Choo in each of the three coming off-seasons?

Maybe Choo really does believe that he has the final say in making a decision on whether or not he wants to sign a deal that would keep him in Cleveland past 2013 (the final year before his FA at this point), as he said “I really want to stay long-term…I have good teammates here. A good team. Everything I like. I feel at home here. I like the Indians.”

However, the Indians like to sign players like Choo to long-term deals, if for no other reason than to set a known value on a player going forward and, with Boras in the equation, you would have to imagine that the salary situation for Choo and the Indians from 2011 to 2013 just got a lot cloudier.

Jumping off from the idea that Choo isn’t likely to settle for any type of financial security in the present at the expense of future earnings, take a look at what the Indians’ financial commitments of this team past the 2010 season, not taking into account the arbitration years of players like Choo, who (it should be noted) will be 31 going into his assumed Free Agency year of 2014.

Financial Commitments in 2011

Hafner - $13M
Sizemore - $7.667M
Carmona - $6.3M
Peralta - $250,000 buyout of 2010 option

This assumes that Wood’s vesting option does not vest (or it vests with him not on the Indians) as well as assuming that Peralta’s $7M club option for 2010 is bought out (hence the $250K on the list), but that’s your whole list…

Obviously, you have to add in the arbitration-eligible players (and Rafael Perez would be in his second year of arbitration after agreeing to an $895K deal in his first year of arbitration), but here’s the list of guys that figure to be arbitration-eligible after 2011:
Asdrubal Cabrera
SS Choo
Joe Smith
Jeremy Sowers
Jensen Lewis

Figure in that Cabrera is still going to be approached for a long-term deal (and just for comparison’s sake, the first year of Sizemore’s long-term deal was $500K) and that Sowers and Lewis become less valuable as their salary rises, meaning that they may not even be around once they hit arbitration, and the 2011 payroll number doesn’t figure to be a huge amount of money.

The total of the financial commitments listed above is a little over $27M and even if the payroll drops to $50M (and I’m not saying that it will) in 2011, the Indians have about $14M less than that committed to the players assumed to be on the team past 2011. That being said, the true indication as to where this team is heading, in a payroll sense, is coming after this season and it’s important to note what the Indians’ total payroll looked like the first time they went through this rebuilding process:
2004 Payroll - $34,319,300
2005 Payroll - $41,502,500
2006 Payroll - $56,031,500

Where the 2011 Payroll goes is anyone’s guess, but The BLC moving into Scott Boras’ stable brings the idea that the service clock “manipulation” game that the Indians play is not in vain.

Moving on from the payroll situation and just to put the last few years into some proper context (a concept that generally eludes the beat writers for the papers), Kelly Shoppach is interviewed in the Boston Globe’s Sunday Baseball Notes column. After a lead in the “Notes” that examines why 2009 went so poorly for the Rays (with many of the same reasons we saw sabotage the 2008 and 2009 seasons in Cleveland), Shoppach touched on the “exodus” in Cleveland where the blame lies:
Shoppach, traded to Tampa Bay this winter, was one of the last Indians purged in the latest rebuilding program. Watching his teammates leave was tough.

“I had a lot of friends walking out that door,’’ he said. “First C.C. [Sabathia] and then Cliff, and when Victor left, it was very hard from a personal point of view. All I really knew in the big leagues was that staff and Victor.’’

But he understood the exodus.

“We had three years to win,’’ he said. “They put a team out there that could win, and we didn’t get it done. We have nobody to blame but ourselves.’’

After the disappointments of the last two years in Cleveland, and the moves that were made as a result of those disappointments, Shoppach’s summary accurately puts the current state of MLB into proper context (“we had three years to win”) as well as how the Indians lost despite a stable of talent that has now turned into young players that Indians’ fans are left to hope can turn into another stable of talent…who hopefully have longer than “three years to win”.

Such is life among the have-nots in Cleveland, where service time management and payroll control are as important as anything that happens on the field, and while that may be a bitter pill to swallow on a morning when the ground is covered in snow and ice, the coming events on the Olympic ice this afternoon should warm Americans everywhere, regardless of location.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Tomahawks with Balls in the Air

The first full-squad workout is scheduled for Friday and Figure Skating is about to leave my universe for the next 4 years, so the reasons to celebrate are many and more than just a little pleasing as the snow continues to fall on the North Coast. Thus, between the snowflakes and amongst the winter wind, let’s release some quick tomahawks to celebrate the arrival of “competition” in Goodyear…

If you haven’t seen it…and I’m sure you have, allow me to clear my throat for my public announcer’s voice and be the first to say it – “Ladies and Gentlemen, Russell Branyan, the starting 1B for YOUR 2010 Cleveland Indians”!
And the crowd goes…well…

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

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

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

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

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

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

While the LaPorta-to-LF endeavor makes little sense to me as I think that he’s eventually slated for 1B and I’m frankly tired of this versatility card being perpetually at the top of the Indians’ deck, the set-up does seem to be there to get LaPorta his “everyday” AB playing LF, 1B, and DH. While he does that, Branyan plays as the everyday 1B and protects Hafner (who may just need more protection than they’re letting on) at DH. Brantley goes to AAA to start the season in an attempt to see him improve on a .711 OPS in AAA and to manage his service clock to give the Indians one more year of Brantley down the road. All of this for the low, low price of $2M for Russell Branyan…or whatever the pro-rated amount of his salary that they pay him before he’s traded.

An interesting scene unfolded here at The Reservation tonight as The DiaTot (formerly known as The DiaperTribe) was paging through the old man’s new issue of Sports Illustrated as dinner was being prepared. He came into the kitchen opened to the article on the Mariners in the new issue and asked (as innocently as a 3-year-old can), “hey Daddy, how come Cliff Lee’s not wearing an Indians’ shirt in this picture”.

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

Despite Spring Training being in full bloom, it’s impossible to erase the memories of the last few years and the “what-ifs” from the corner of Carnegie and Ontario, making this coming season even more difficult to get excited for as the grieving period over the 2005-2009 teams is not yet complete.

Just as an addendum to that “Ten Little Indians” series, I thought it was worth mentioning how I'd like to see innings divvied up between starting pitchers this year. That idea of managing innings for the prospective starters counts because, if you’ll remember, we’re not necessarily shooting for contention in 2010 here and answering questions about pitchers that project to contribute past 2010 is tantamount to the Indians’ rebuild/reload/whatever period being as short as possible.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

However, the Indians need to answer questions most importantly on Carmona, Masterson, and Huff in 2010 with less pressing answers needed on Laffey, Sowers, and Talbot and just a taste of what could be expected from Carrasco and Rondon going forward. The distribution of innings for starters this season should reflect those priorities accordingly.

Now, if you’ll pardon me…I need to go snowblow the driveway while I dream of flying baseballs under the Arizona sun.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Ten Little Indians – Part IV

Since pitchers and catchers have now reported to Goodyear and are preparing themselves for Spring Training, let’s finally put a nice little bow on this series that examines the most important (and most volatile) part of the 2010 team – the starting rotation. Having examined the troika that are all but certain to break camp with the team (assuming health) in Westbrook, Carmona, and Masterson, the duo that has proven themselves to be worthy of a long look in 2010 in Huff and Laffey, and the duo that figures to be the first legitimate replacements from AAA in Carrasco and Rondon, let’s close this thing out by examining the trio that need to stick on the 25-man roster this year (because of options remaining or Rule 5 machinations) and thus could find themselves starting games for the 2010 Indians, but represent little more than depth options or even inning-eating arms on a team that may be in dire need of eaten innings.

The trio that enters 2010 either are out of options or as Rule 5 draftees, meaning that they have to stay on the 25-man roster, will finish off the “Ten Little Indians” series here as today’s magnifying glass is placed over Jeremy Sowers, Mitch Talbot, and Hector Ambriz. Their inclusion wraps this thing up and, while you can argue that Ambriz projects as more of a reliever (or at least that the Indians took him in the Rule 5 with that idea in mind), I’m trying to examine pitchers that legitimately figure into the 2010 rotational mix, even if you’re talking about a spot start here or there. I suppose you can throw a couple of other names on top of those 10 if you really want like Yohan Pino (acquired for Hot Carl Pavano, though not on the 40-man) or Rafael Perez, whom Manny Acta suggested may start at some point this season depending upon inning counts, but Sowers, Talbot, and Ambriz all figure into the mix right out of the gate for the Indians either as rotational options, as long relievers, or as spot starters.

Starting off with the player that is most familiar on the North Coast, we all know about Sowers and his difficulty with multiple times through the lineup in 2010, but in the interest of attempting to find a role for Sowers this year, let’s relive the carnage once more while attempting to determine if the issue was unique to last year:
Jeremy Sowers – 2009
1st Time Facing - .576 OPS
2nd Time Facing - .806 OPS
3rd Time Facing – 1.014 OPS

Jeremy Sowers – Career
1st Time Facing - .703 OPS
2nd Time Facing - .838 OPS
3rd Time Facing – .755 OPS

So, maybe the issue with Sowers is not necessarily tied to how many times certain batters face him and maybe the shoulder issues that are just now seeing the light of day had something to do with it. As much as those 2009 numbers suggested that maybe a salvageable reliever (even a LOOGY) could be made out of Sowers, perhaps that simply was a by-product of an injury last year.

If that “times through the lineup” thing (which was the impetus for my “move Sowers to the bullpen” crusade last year) may not the issue with Sowers, here’s one – Sowers has now thrown 400 MLB innings and has posted a cumulative line of 5.18 ERA, 84 ERA+, 1.44 WHIP, with peripherals of a 3.9 K/9 rate and a 1.32 K/BB rate. Take out his 2006 numbers (remember, back when Jeremy Sowers’ future looked bright) and the numbers that he’s put up over the last 3 years (5.63 ERA, 1.51 WHIP, 76 ERA+ over 311 2/3 IP from 2007 to 2009) show that Jeremy Sowers is what he is…and it’s not a legitimate MLB starting pitcher.

The troubling thing about Sowers is that his skill level appears to be above AAA as he’s compiled a 2.60 ERA, and a 1.17 WHIP with 6.7 K/9 and 3.09 K/BB rates in his 297 2/3 innings in AAA. Seeing as how Sowers has thrown MORE innings in MLB than he has in AA and AAA combined, what you see at this point is what you get for Sowers, who turns 27 this May.

That’s not to say that Sowers is worthless to the team as he can still contribute some innings to this team, as long as there’s not an expectation that Sowers is anything more than what he’s proven himself to be over 400 innings. Given that, the idea of giving Sowers that “one last chance” at a rotation spot doesn’t hold a lot of water as he’s best suited to play the role of long reliever/spot starter for this team as essentially a depth bullpen option to eat up some innings for the team, particularly early in the season as the assumed starting five attempt to settle in. That idea then of his ability to “contribute some innings” really equates closer to just eating up innings, likely in losses that the starting pitcher gets chased early, not that those contributions are going to be unneeded in 2010.

Now, with the news that Sowers will be “a couple of weeks behind his fellow pitchers in camp” because of “left shoulder inflammation”, the possibility for him to fill that role might be more muddied and it would seem that Sowers is likely to start the season on the DL, if only to stash him somewhere to start the season. It’s possible that he may take the “Andy Marte 2009 Path” of getting DFA’d at the end, only to find himself back in the Columbus rotation for a rainy day in Cleveland or maybe the Indians explore a trade with him at the end of Spring Training to in an attempt to get something for the former 1st Round Pick.

Ultimately though, the body of work is there with Sowers in MLB and seeing as how a long reliever/spot starter without options handcuffs the team in terms of roster flexibility, the Indians shouldn’t go out of their way to attempt to find answers on Sowers that already appear to exist.

If the issue with Sowers being out of options has to do with the fact that he’s had an opportunity to pitch significant innings in MLB and has failed to distinguish himself, the issue with Mitch Talbot is that he’s thrown 905 innings in MiLB (to the overall tune of a 3.79 ERA and a 1.30 WHIP) but only 9 2/3 innings in the Big Leagues.

Yes…9 2/3 innings is the basis on which the Indians have to determine how Talbot’s stuff relates to MLB pitching after putting up a composite 4.23 ERA and a 1.36 WHIP with a 7.4 K/9 rate and a 2.82 K/BB rate in his 376 1/3 innings in AAA throughout his career in the Tampa organization.

As for putting some context around those AAA numbers, how about comparing them to the cumulative lines for Talbot, Laffey, and Huff with their ages:
Talbot (turning 27 this October) – Career AAA stats
4.23 ERA, 1.36 WHIP, 7.4 K/9, 2.82 K/BB in 376 1/3 IP over 67 starts

Laffey (turning 25 this April) – Career AAA stats
4.06 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 6.7 K/9, 2.74 K/BB in 168 1/3 IP over 29 starts

Huff (turning 26 this August) – Career AAA stats

3.45 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, 8.5 K/9, 3.65 K/BB in 120 IP over 23 starts

While Talbot and Laffey seem to exist in the same universe (and Huff’s numbers make it look like one of those Sesame Street “which of these things is not like the others), let’s remember that Laffey has thrown 264 2/3 innings in MLB with an ERA+ of 98, meaning that he (a year and a half younger than Talbot) has succeeded to some degree past AAA, with the adjustments to MLB already in process. Against that, consider again that Talbot has 9 2/3 MLB innings on his resume and those innings came in 2008.

Remember, age and level of development is important here, so…really, is there logical thought that puts Talbot in the rotation instead of Laffey or Huff to see what he’s got, simply because he’s out of options?

Why should Aaron Laffey be the long man or why should Dave Huff start the season in AAA to accommodate this guy…simply because he’s out of options?

If you want a long reliever/swing man on this team (and I want two…but I’ll get to that), make Talbot the long reliever/swing man on the team or make him compete for it with Sowers (assuming he’s healthy) and Ambriz instead of bouncing Laffey and Huff around to see if Talbot has anything to contribute at the MLB level by giving him the opportunity every 5th day that should be afforded to Laffey and Huff (at least) ahead of him.

One of the starting options (if you can really even call him that) behind Talbot would be Hector Ambriz, the Rule 5 draftee from Arizona who the Indians are attempting to transition into the bullpen as a reliever. While this transition begins in earnest this Spring, 79 of the 83 games he pitched in over the last three years have come as a starter. While the bullpen may be where his future lies, if Ambriz is used to starting and the Indians have a compelling reason to expose him to MLB hitters as much as possible to see if he can stick on the 25-man roster because of his status as a Rule 5 draftee, then long relief might be a good place to start to see how his stuff holds up against MLB hitters. Like Sowers and Talbot, Ambriz needs to make the 25-man roster out of Spring Training and needs to stick with the team, so if the Indians need an answer on his talent (or his ability to pitch out of the bullpen), let that happen in the long relief role.

To that end, considering the out-of-options/Rule 5 issues, that’s where starting the season with Talbot and Ambriz makes sense in that they should be given the first shot to succeed on the Indians before a decision is made on them. That “first shot” though doesn’t need to come in the rotation and it should come instead as a long man and a middle reliever while providing a spot start here and there. Make Sowers and Talbot work THEIR way into the rotational plans (or, in Ambriz’s case, the bullpen plans) by thriving as the long man rather than giving them a spot in the rotation from the get-go and making Aaron Laffey attempt to yo-yo between starting and relieving…because he’s already done that.

An even more important factor in allowing Talbot and Ambriz (and I’m using those two because I think Sowers’ injury just created the reason for him to start the season on the DL) is that the Indians look to have a rotation that’s full of question marks, which means that there could be more than a few innings to mop up, particularly in the early going. If you think about it, maybe that’s what the Indians are stocking up on in the form of Talbot and Ambriz, plus Jamey Wright and Saul Rivera and Jason Grilli…that mop-up guy. It was a revelation that was prompted by B-Pro’s Christina Kahrl’s comment on Jamey Wright getting a minor-league contract from the Indians that “there’s some form of sports heroism due credit for an ability to sustain oneself as a mid-game sponge, mopping up after early exits or finishing games with well-nigh unbeatable leads.”

While I’m not sure that “sports heroism” is exactly the term I would use, let’s figure that the top 5 of the bullpen is probably going to look something like this – Wood, Perez, Smith, Perez, and Sipp – meaning that there are likely 2 spots in play here. Unless you want to see guys like Sipp and Smith loading up on innings in May and June, having those (for lack of a better term) “mop-up guys” around on the roster that, very frankly, you really aren’t concerned about burning out protect arms like Sipp and Smith. If one of those “mop-up guys” turns into something more or succeeds – great…but otherwise, maybe Talbot and Ambriz are just the first two arms that are on the roster to protect the bullpen from overwork and to eat up some innings if Carmona or Masterson or Laffey…hell, if anybody in the rotation comes out after 2 or 3 innings of work.

There’s not much question that there exists the possibility that there are going to be A LOT of innings for the bullpen to eat up, particularly to start the year, so if you prefer to see Rafael Perez face mainly LH hitters as he attempts to re-capture his former dominance and would prefer to see Joe Smith face mainly RH hitters because that’s how he’s most effectively used, then a the roster spot (or spots) that Sowers, Talbot, and Ambriz are going to be given first crack at become obvious.

If you really want to talk about a “Spring Training Battle”, forget the starting rotation “battle” and slide Sowers, Talbot, and Ambriz into a competition to for two spots as long-men/middle relievers out of the gate, stockpiling relievers that retain options (Jesse Ray Todd and Jen Lewis most notably) or are in camp on minor league deals (Wright, Rivera, Gosling and Grilli) in the Columbus bullpen to be first in line to eat more innings or wait for a more substantial bullpen role (mainly in the case of Todd) to open up.

That “Spring Training Battle” then doesn’t really ever have to materialize as Sowers’ injury seems to be tailor-made for the Indians to allow Talbot and Ambriz to make the team out of Goodyear, with Sowers going to the DL then on rehab assignments where he would join the likes of Jamey Wright, Saul Rivera, and Jason Grilli as inning-eating long man options in May or June or July or whenever.

At the end of the day (and realizing that it’s not even March), this is how I'd break camp from Goodyear:


If this is what the Opening Day pitching staff looks like, Sowers starts the season on the DL, then slides into AAA (on a series of rehab assignments) to enter the mix with Wright, Rivera, Grilli, and maybe even Yohan Pino to eat those innings from the spots initially filled by Talbot and Ambriz. Guys like Jensen Lewis and Jesse Ray Todd go to Columbus to be ready for the day when (not if) one of the first 5 names on the Bullpen list get hurt or need some time outside of Cleveland.

And with that series (finally) out of the way and over 9,000 words having been written about the Indians’ starting rotation in 2010, let’s all give thanks that the first full squad workout is scheduled for Friday, if only so the discussion can turn to actual events and not simply the conjecture and projection that has kept us sane (more or less) all winter long.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

A Transitional Lazy Sunday

While everyone’s attention these days is turned to Antawn Jamison and Tiger Woods and Google Image searches of Lindsay Vonn and Julia Mancuso and Tanith Belbin, the calendar on the wall tells me that pitchers and catchers report today and that the first full-squad workout is scheduled for this Friday. That’s right, friends of the feather, Spring Training is upon us and, while that may be the biggest news some places, the bigger news on the Reservation is the official passing of the moniker of “The DiaperTribe” from the 3-year-old to the 1-month-old by virtue of having only one boy in diapers. While Spring Training is unquestionably an exciting time of year that we’ve all been waiting for, the news that there’s only one diaper-wearing boy in the house once again supersedes all other developments that could happen anywhere in the world around these parts.

Nevertheless, the long winter finally seems to be relenting (not with snow on the ground in Cleveland, but at least in terms of being able to watch baseball under the Arizona sun) and baseball season is inching closer to being a reality once more and not just something that is debated in print, on computer screens, and in projection models. No, they’re getting ready to actually throw that ball around and are getting ready to swing those bats in preparation for the 2010 season. Since they’re getting ready for the 2010 season, we probably should do the same and get going on a Lazy One.

Before starting off in the news of the week that’s worthwhile for inclusion here, let’s get the pleasantries out of the way, in that I won’t be including the weekly dissection of the lunacy that’s coming from The Three Amigos (Hoynes, Ocker, and Ingraham) in anticipation of the 2010 season, who seem to be stuck in this endless rut of ignorance and pessimism. In the best interest of everyone here, I won’t examine how absurd the process by which these guys come to their conclusions truly is nor will I allow myself to get myself all worked up about how they’re the major source for Indians’ information despite their weekly failure at attempting to remain relevant.

You can find their inane ramblings and their misuse of things like PECOTA projections and sit-on-the-fence “insight”…I know you can. The fact that you’re reading this is a pretty good indication that you harbor many of the same thoughts and feelings as I do. Just for some perspective before moving on, realize that more people are subscribed on Google Reader to this site than they are the Indians’ coverage on (no, seriously…check it out) and while I don’t mention that to beat my own chest or use that gauge as some great barometer of what people are reading, it is telling that we now find ourselves in this digital age when people are able to seek out opinions and information that they value…and the coverage from the three long-time beat reporters (and subscribers to Ocker and Ingraham combine for about 10% of the subscribers here) for the Tribe simply don’t qualify as such.

With my blood pressure in check, let’s finally get this thing going…
Outside of the return of Rusty Branyan to the Indians, the biggest “news” of the week for the Indians involved the long-expected announcement that Chris Antonetti will be ascending to the position of GM at the end of the 2010 season, with Mark Shapiro moving up the corporate ladder to Team President. The move came as a surprise to nobody, as this has been in the works since the Cardinals offered Antonetti their GM post after the 2007 season and the Indians countered to retain Antonetti with GM-type money and with the understanding that Antonetti would be Shapiro’s heir apparent as Indians’ GM. That understanding will finally come to fruition at the end of this year and, while there’s not that much of interest in this story, the timing of it does present an interesting scenario.

With 2010 looking like a certainty as a transitional year, Shapiro will be completing his tenure as GM helming the early stages of the second rebuilding process that he oversaw. Thus, does anyone else find it interesting that Shapiro’s final year (if he’s choosing when that final year is) at the GM helm is a season in which the Indians are very unlikely to compete?

That is, Shapiro could have insisting on sticking around until after the 2011 or the 2012 season, when the prospects of the team competing look to be brighter or when he could hand the reins off to Antonetti, with the team contending or at least closer to contention. Instead, the transition will come about half of a season after the second rebuild/reload/whatever began in earnest, with Antonetti coming in more or less after Shapiro will have been the point man on most unpopular decisions.

There’s no question that Antonetti has been instrumental in every move that the Indians have made with an eye past 2010 and Shapiro has on more than one occasion called him “my co-GM”, with Terry Pluto even asserting that “Antonetti has been handling much of the daily GM duties for at least a year”.

The interesting aspect of this revelation is that, if “Antonetti has been handing much of the daily GM duties for at least a year”, that would mean that Shapiro was the GM and the point man (in terms of public perception on who was pulling the trigger) when the Indians made the decision to trade Lee and Victor this past summer. Now, realize that Shapiro will still be the GM (again, at least in terms of public perception) when…not if, when the Indians trade (or at least attempt to trade) Westbrook, Wood, Peralta, and maybe even Branyan this coming season. By the time that Antonetti will assume the GM reins, all of the dirty work will have been done in the rebuild, with the roster purged and the contract situations of Lee, Victor, Wood, Westbrook, and Peralta in the rearview mirror…all completed in the “Shapiro regime”.

You can almost hear the howling this July when…again not if…the Indians trade Westbrook and Wood and Peralta – that it’s more of the same from Shapiro, who will have traded those three, along with Sabathia and overseeing the moves of the 2009 summer. After the 2010 season, with the dirt from the unpleasant portion of the rebuild on Shapiro’s hands, he steps aside (or up, more accurately) and Antonetti comes in with a fresh slate and with the idea that he’s a new man in the post, who will bring a fresh perspective for the 2011 season and beyond.

Now think about what figures to happen going into the 2011 season, with the contracts of Westbrook, Wood, and Peralta coming off of the books and with some of the questions facing the Indians now hopefully answered. Antonetti then has the opportunity to come in, identify the needs of the 2011 team and with the financial flexibility to make the moves that were not feasible or even prudent this off-season.

Remember, if you’re following the idea that the 2010 season is going to be similar to the 2004 season, the Indians made the move to sign Kevin Millwood to front a young rotation to start the 2005 season and something similar could happen prior to the 2011 season…all under the watchful eye of Antonetti.

Maybe it’s looking too deeply into the timing of this and it’s certainly not meant to assert that Shapiro is nobly willing the take the brunt of the blame for the ugly portion of the rebuild, but not interested in receiving any credit that may be coming down the line. Rather, it’s to imply that public perception is important to a team that struggling to sell tickets and if people want to believe that things are going to change after this season because Antonetti will replace Shapiro (and not attribute it to the extenuating circumstances in play), perhaps that’s by design. The way that the off-season after this year figures to run in stark contrast to this one certainly does look like the timing of the “power transition” is designed put Antonetti in charge when the team’s flexibility is greater and with the young players they’ve been stockpiling one year closer to contributing to what could be the next incarnation of a contender.

While that timing aspect may simply be for public perception, there’s not much doubt that The Polo Shirt Mafia – or as Anthony from Willoughby (who is probably in the air right now on his way to Goodyear) brilliantly calls them “Lacoste Nostra” – lives to fight another day and the Indians figure to make similar moves that we’ve seen for the past seven years or so.

That doesn’t mean that Antonetti will simply be a clone of Shapiro, if you’ll remember that Shapiro was (a long time ago) the protégé of John Hart and Hart’s hand-picked successor, and while there is a difference here as Shapiro will stay in the organization (which Hart did not), time will tell what kind of GM Antonetti will be.

Antonetti’s unquestionably highly-thought of in MLB circles and has been for quite some time if you remember that he was courted by the Cardinals and was famously the subject of a grassroots campaign (complete with campaign buttons) by to have Antonetti named the Mariners’ GM position (albeit while Bill Bavasi was still the GM, strip-mining the farm system for marginal veterans) back in late 2006, then again in mid-2008. Those links (both of them) from USS Mariner are worth the read by the way, if only to see how quickly perceptions change in MLB (fair or not) as the Indians were seen as the model franchise making all of the right moves not more than 2 to 3 years ago, an honor currently bestowed to…the Mariners.

One question that would seem to follow in this expected news would be to ask who Antonetti surrounds himself with, in that it could be telling if certain Front Office types who may be held in high regard by Shapiro may find themselves in other (less influential) places in the organization. While Shapiro and Antonetti may speak in the same dialect, with the same diction, while dressing similarly (hence, “Lacoste Nostra”), does anyone really believe that they don’t have differing opinions on matters such as which other Front Office members contribute the most to the success of the team?

As for a best guess as to who plays the role of Assistant GM (formerly occupied, to some critical acclaim, by Antonetti) in the new arrangement, a name to remember would be Mike Chernoff, the current Director of Baseball Operations. Back in June of 2008, Will Carroll put together a list of potential future GM’s with Chernoff coming in at #6 on the list with Carroll stating that:
The youngest person on the list, Chernoff has become the de facto No. 3 in Cleveland, and likely would have taken over the Assistant GM slot if Chris Antonetti had left for another organization. While having Antonetti and Shapiro above him on the organizational chart might seem like a tough ceiling, it's also giving Chernoff the chance to learn from some of the best in the business. Shapiro and the Indians have a great internship program, and have developed a number major league staffers in the past decade. Even so, Chernoff might end up being the best. The son of WFAN’s program director, no one thinks that Chernoff will be intimidated by the media, though his age will likely be held against him in the near future. “Someone's going to go after Antonetti,” a GM said, “and end up with Chernoff. That’s not a bad thing.”

From that list, 3 of the names that appear above Chernoff (Jed Hoyer - #1, Jack Zduriencik - #2, Mike Rizzo - #4) have become GMs in the past year and a half and the list was actually written based on the idea that Antonetti was being courted by St. Louis.

For a national perspective on the transition, Ken Rosenthal has an interesting piece on how the new structure appears to be part of the Indians’ “plan” for dealing with their status as a small-market club, in that it creates a new arrangement for the organization, both in terms of baseball decisions and business decisions. Rosenthal touches on the new arrangement, but also gets into each of the men whose titles will be changing:
Creativity is paramount for such clubs, particularly now that high-revenue teams such as the Yankees and Red Sox are operating with ruthless efficiency.

The Indians, at least, are trying.

Much as they appear to be going about business as usual — Shapiro and Antonetti will remain 1-2 on the executive depth chart once they assume their new positions after the 2010 season — the team's latest plan is actually fairly unique.

Shapiro will oversee baseball and business. His goal will be to fuse the two more seamlessly, helping the business side build revenue to support the baseball operation. In a market as limited as Cleveland, the Indians need such a cohesive vision.

While Shapiro admits that he has "a lot to learn" about the business of baseball, leadership is perhaps his greatest strength. He will spend part of the season attending marketing and budget meetings. Antonetti will assume an even greater role on the baseball side.


So, after this season, it will be Antonetti's turn; Shapiro still will be involved, but he, too, looks forward to the franchise being re-energized by fresh ideas, fresh energy.

The Indians' new manager, Manny Acta, is excited to be in Cleveland; he chose the Indians over the Astros. Antonetti, meanwhile, is highly regarded within the industry, and has spent years waiting for his chance.

Some of Shapiro's friends wonder if he will remain fulfilled in his new role, but for now he wants to stay in Cleveland. If he grows disenchanted with his position, he can always become GM of another team.

The Indians' position is not hopeless. Oh, Shapiro gave out his share of bad contracts, like every GM. He also drew criticism for the Indians' lack of success in the draft. But he compensated for those failures with shrewd trades, and the Indians' farm system again is ranked among the game's top five.

A rapid turnaround is possible in a division that lacks a financial behemoth, and the front-office stability should only help.

Moving on, The Hardball Times presented their compilation of prospects, with the Indians ranked as the #3 farm system behind only the Rays and the Rangers and that’s included because it goes back to the Rosenthal piece and the creativity that some of the small-market teams attempt to employ. Notably, and since the Rays are always at the top of lists like this one from THT, I thought it would be interesting to pass along this little nugget from the Rays’ owner, who appeared on a local radio show earlier in the week and had this to say:
“We did out-spend ourselves last year (at $63-million) and completely have out-spent ourselves this year…and unfortunately we’re going to feel the effect of that the next couple years for certain. … There’s no $60-million payroll next year either, let alone a $70-million payroll. It’s going to be a tough transition, but it’s something that given the economics of the game and specifically the economics of what we are in Tampa Bay and in St. Petersburg, it makes it impossible to do it for more than a couple of years.’’

Sound familiar and sound like a team that hopes to make the “transition” to perennial contender through young players who aren’t earning the salaries that FA creates?

To that end, there’s an interesting piece from Ben Reiter in this week’s print edition of SI that examines how small-market clubs may be making some headway in attempting to compete in an unbalanced system. While the piece is entitled “Hope Springs Eternal”, Reiter doesn’t mince words in pointing out the disparity at play in MLB as well as laying out how certain teams have attempted to play with the big boys:
It's a cliché to say, with pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training this week, that this is the most optimistic time on the baseball calendar. It's a moment when hope springs eternal for all 30 major league franchises, when the low-revenue have-nots dream of those long-ago days when championships didn't seem directly tied to franchise financial statements. Most of the time it's also a delusion—it has been six seasons now since a club with a payroll ranked in the majors' bottom half has won the World Series.
Small-market teams such as the Twins, Rockies (the World Series runner-up in 2007) and Rays (who lost in the Series in '08) have followed a four-part model: draft well; trade mature assets (players who are stars but who are likely to be plucked in free agency by a rich team once they become eligible) for top prospects; sign cornerstone young players to long-term deals, thereby buying out some of their arbitration and free-agent years at what might prove to be a below-market salary; and be selectively active in the free agent market, signing players to one- or two-year deals that will not handcuff a team down the road.

Look again at Reiter’s “four-part model” for small-market teams to compete and apply it to the Indians over the last 8 years or so…what did they miss, the “draft well” component?

Maybe…but more importantly, a couple of those long-term deals that they did hand out to players that they thought would be cornerstones of the franchise blew up in their face, effectively “handcuffing the team down the road”. There again, we get back to this dead horse that we’ve been beating this whole off-season, in that the universe that the Indians exist in MLB is one that forces them to be nearly perfect in their decisions, with any miscalculation forcing them to blow it up and attempt to build it back again in short order every few years.

So, we’re back to the “build it back again in short order” portion of the show and the performances on the diamond start this week in Goodyear. To that end and just to bring this all back around to pitchers and catchers reporting today, Tribe Daily continues their countdown to Spring Training, examining the pitchers, then position players, on the 40-man roster who will be under the Arizona sun, competing in Cactus League action (with their schedule available here) as the 2010 season is close.

Pitchers and catchers are in Arizona, a plan is in place for the Indians past 2010, and changing a 3-year-old’s diaper no longer looks to be on my radar…yeah, things feel right in the world on this Sunday morning.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Muscling into the Mix

The Indians finally made a “significant” foray into the FA market as they signed Russell Branyan to a one-year deal for $2M with another $1M in incentives and a $5M mutual option. He returns to the Indians after posting career highs in HR and RBI in 116 games with the Mariners last year, which he spent exclusively as a 1B. Branyan’s modus operandi is well-known and he’s a polarizing figure for nearly everyone who has watched him blast majestic HR and emulate a windmill in consecutive AB.

Everybody knows what the Indians are getting in Branyan, a guy who strikes out a lot, a guy who walks a lot, and a guy who hits the most awe-inspiring HR you’ve ever seen when he makes connection with the ball – all of this is known. Where the cloudiness starts to emerge is when you start to examine what Branyan’s role projects to be with the 2010 Tribe as the initial talk this off-season was that the Indians were looking for a veteran bat that would play the role of a reserve/bench player to complement the young lineup by being able to move around the diamond and outfield.

Despite this being the Indians’ stated desire, Branyan allegedly chose the Indians over the based on the idea that he was going to get more playing time with the Tribe. Seeing as how Tampa had a tailor-made role for him, as the LH complement to Pat Burrell as a DH, it makes me wonder how often Branyan is going to find himself in the lineup for the Indians…or at least how his role was presented to him in any negotiations that led him to believe that he’d see more playing time in Cleveland than he would in Tampa. If you believe what Ken Rosenthal reports, Branyan was sold on Cleveland with the idea that the Indians intend on getting Branyan “everyday at-bats at multiple corner positions” while “the Rays had less playing time to offer. They would have used Branyan mostly as a DH, and also in right field.”

“Everyday at-bats at multiple corner positions” causes a bit of a problem though, as it can be questioned as to whether Branyan can legitimately be considered a corner OF or even a 3B anymore at this point in his career, particularly in light of his back issues that caused him to miss the final month of the 2009 season. Just looking at Branyan’s recent usage in the field, he’s played 100 games at 3B over the course of the last four seasons in and has played LF in 34 games since the 2003 season, yet the idea is that he’s being considered as an option for 3B and the corner OF positions in 2010 for the Tribe?

Perhaps the Indians envision using him in a 4-corners role (1B/3B/LF/RF) as well as using him as a DH and maybe he’s just taking Marte’s “spot” (if that ever even existed) on the roster, but a closer look starts to reveal how the Indians figure to use Branyan and how the dominoes would fall around him.

While the Indians may be selling that 4-corners role idea, I’m just not buying Branyan at 3B (where the Indians have every reason to play Peralta everyday, if for no other reason than to attempt to increase his trade value) or in the outfield, where he has never excelled and has only played in 13 games over the last three seasons.

What does that leave him with, outside of a sporadic start (maybe) at 3B or in LF?
Ultimately, we’re talking about Branyan as a 1B and as a DH…or at least DH insurance.

Follow the line of thinking that Branyan is being brought on with the very real possibility that he’s the Indians’ 1B (at least to start the season), a notion backed up by Buster Olney:
The Indians were expected to try Matt LaPorta at first base, but there is concern that he may need more time to be groomed at the position.
Branyan presumably will have a shot at being the Indians’ regular first baseman, and be part of what is expected to be a good offense.

If you’re following this, that would mean that LaPorta would be platooning with Branyan (please Lord, no) at 1B, or would head off to LF, which doesn’t seem to be his long-term position given the presence of Brantley, for ½ of a season or a season before returning to 1B or would begin the 2010 season in AAA as a 1B because “there is concern that he may need more time to be groomed for the position”. Maybe the concern is there that LaPorta’s injuries will prevent him from starting the season healthy and effective, but he’s been cleared for full workouts after hip and toe surgeries recently and, if a concern exists about LaPorta’s health, wouldn’t 1B be a position that would cause less strain on any injuries, the same way it would Branyan’s back?

If Branyan is the sudden 1B (and sometime DH perhaps), mainly because that seems to be his only logical fit on the roster, particularly given the idea that the Indians sold him on “everyday AB”, it would certainly seem to represent a death knell for the idea that Mike Brantley’s going to be handed the starting LF job out of Spring Training. Of course, there’s no smoking gun to point to that Brantley is unquestionably ready for the lineup, much less the top of the lineup, as his AAA numbers last year were still underwhelming (.711 OPS) and while he made a nice impression on the Indians in his cup of coffee with the parent club last year, more time in AAA may benefit him.

It’s possible that the Indians are looking at Branyan as a first-half 1B (and occasional DH) with the idea that they’ll start the season with Branyan at 1B, LaPorta in LF, and Brantley in Columbus, but the issue that I have with that is the idea that LaPorta (who “may need more time to be groomed” as a 1B) is suddenly being bounced around the diamond to accommodate Russ Branyan. If nothing else, the Indians should be determining which position LaPorta eventually projects to and allow him to develop at that position, instead of allowing the presence of a guy like Branyan to be a major factor in the LaPorta’s 2010 position in the alignment.

If Branyan is that first-half 1B (while providing insurance that Hafner’s shoulder still isn’t right), maybe the idea is to play him everyday in MLB, start Brantley in AAA with the idea that he needs to “force” his way onto the team instead of being handed the LF job. The end game may be play Branyan for that first half to see if Brantley is indeed ready for MLB and, if so, the Indians could flip Branyan (assuming he’s playing well), moving LaPorta back to 1B and with Brantley ascending back to LF. The idea that Brantley needs to “earn” that spot is not the troubling one, rather it’s the notion once again that LaPorta (who is now 25-years-old) could still be bouncing around the diamond, attempting to master two positions during a season in which he’ll be trying to establish himself as the middle-of-the-order hitter he was purported to be when the Indians acquired him.

How this all shakes out and who’s still standing when the music stops in this game won’t be answered until Spring Training fleshes these questions out and innings and at-bats start being divvied up. Brantley could suddenly be the odd man out to start the season and LaPorta could be bouncing around the diamond as he attempts to find a toehold in MLB, all to add Russell Branyan to the mix. The upside with Branyan is there, but so is the confusion regarding how his presence on the team affects players that do figure into the Indians’ plans past July of 2010. All told, Branyan arrives in Cleveland as a LH hitter in a LH-laden lineup as a likely 1B (and insurance for DH) on a team that is looking for some level of stability at the position. Whether his presence helps to stabilize the lineup or throws it into a greater state of flux is another question in a season that figures to be full of them.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Ten Little Indians - Part III

Rolling on in the overview of potential arms for the linchpin of the Indians’ 2010 season (and, let’s be honest about this, past 2010 more importantly) that is the starting rotation, let’s cast our eyes to the two arms on the cusp of the parent club who may project as the missing top-of-the-rotation starters that seem to be lacking. Thus, having examined the “sure things” (and if I could use the term any more loosely, I would) and the two southpaws that should be given long leashes to establish themselves in MLB in 2010, the two highly-regarded, absurdly young for their level righthanded options that could ultimately project higher in the rotation than any of the previously examined pitchers are Carlos Carrasco and Hector Rondon.

As the 2010 season draws near, it would seem that they figure to themselves just beneath the surface for now (for entirely justifiable reasons) in that they both could probably use more time in the Minors. However, both should figure legitimately into the mix in 2010 and, given their talent and upside, each may figure in more prominently than anyone else at the upper levels of the system who figures to start a game this season past 2010.

Lest anyone think that this will be a plea to allow Carlos Carrasco and Hector Rondon to take their lumps in MLB in 2010 because that’s the only way to truly get a sense of how a pitcher eventually projects in MLB, that isn’t happening here. That’s mainly because there are some pretty stark differences between the cases of Huff and Laffey (for whom the case can be made to “take their lumps”) and Carrasco and Rondon…and I don’t just mean because Carrasco and Rondon still haven’t really had a chance with the parent club to date.

Whereas both Huff and Laffey have been exposed to MLB as starters and have experienced some success with little left to prove in the Minors (particularly given their age), Carrasco and Rondon enter the 2010 season as a 23-year-old in Carrasco (he turns 23 next month) and as a 22-year-old in Rondon (he turns 22 next week) with terrific numbers throughout their MiLB careers but with more refinement needed on their repertoire. Given the pitchers ahead of them developmentally in the organization and realizing that 2010 is all about development, the refinement of each pitchers’ arsenal should come in AAA with the idea that they’ll be called upon to contribute in the Indians’ rotation at some point in 2010 and having either closer to being a finished product (or calling either up while they’re in the midst of a “roll” in AAA) makes more sense for either of these highly-regarded young arms.

Some would scoff at the notion that either of these players is “highly-regarded” with the idea that either project as a top-to-middle-of-the rotation starter, but the body of work is there for each that have placed them in the upper echelon of pitching prospects. While it’s popular to take the stance that Carlos Carrasco is a “batting practice pitcher” on the basis of his performance with the Indians, I still have a little trouble believing that the luster came off of a not-yet-23-year-old Carrasco’s star as quickly as it did in some people’s minds. While Kyle Drabek became the “flavor of the day” in the Phillies’ organization, Carrasco became the “disappointment” and the “bust” as he suddenly went from being a 5-star prospect prior to the 2009 season (and he was, at least according to B-Pro) to a 3-star prospect (which is where B-Pro sees him this year) because of…what exactly?

Was it the 3 lousy months in AAA Lehigh Valley as a 22-year-old (when he was the youngest pitcher to throw a pitch for Lehigh Valley in 2009) or was it the “hide the women and children” cup of coffee he had with the Indians last September…you know, the 22 1/3 innings?

Lest anyone forget, Carrasco’s performance in Columbus after joining the Indians’ organization was a 3.19 ERA, a 0.90 WHIP, and 36 K to 7 BB in 42 1/3 IP and while his numbers in Lehigh Valley may count as a disappointment in that he was repeating AAA, he did strike out 112 batters in 114 2/3 innings in Lehigh Valley and posted peripherals that were pretty much in line with his career numbers, other than the 5.18 ERA. But what of that ERA, in that Carrasco’s FIP (that’s Fielding Independent Pitching, which attempts to measure the things that a pitcher is directly responsible for) was 3.96 in Lehigh Valley.

Interestingly, if you take a look at how Carrasco’s 2009 numbers compared to those of another highly-touted arm in Tampa’s Wade Davis (who is still well-regarded), more confusion sets in:
Carlos Carrasco 2009 in AAA as a 22-year-old
3.71 FIP, 1.24 WHIP, 148 K, 45 BB, 17 HR allowed in 157 IP

Wade Davis 2009 in AAA as a 23-year-old

3.82 FIP, 1.25 WHIP, 140 K, 60 BB, 14 HR allowed in 158 1/3 IP

Seeing as how Davis is still considered a top prospect (he’s #33 in B-Pro’s recent ranking heading into 2010 and #15 in Keith Law’s ranking a few weeks ago) and Carrasco is nearly summarily dismissed as a disappointment, where’s the disconnect here?

Was it unreasonable to expect Carrasco to thrive in AAA to start 2009, seeing as how he posted a 1.72 ERA, 11.3 K/9 line there in 2008 over 36 2/3 innings?
Not at all and he unquestionably got off to a rocky start (though his WHIP in Lehigh Valley in both 2008 and 2009 was identical at 1.36 and his BB/9 rate and H/9 rate stayed wildly consistent), but what exactly causes a player like Carrasco to go from the 16th highest rated pitching prospect going into 2009 by Baseball America and the 25th highest rated pitching prospect going into 2009 by Keith Law to being an unmitigated disaster (at least in terms of perception) in such a short window of time?

Prior to the 2009 season, Kevin Goldstein at B-Pro wrote that, “Carrasco is the total package, combining a power frame with three above-average pitches and plus command. His fastball sits in the low 90s and can touch 94 mph, but his best pitch is an outstanding changeup with plenty of late life. He also has a nice curveball that he can throw for strikes or use as a chase pitch.” While Goldstein continued to write that Carrasco has issues with allowing small problems into bigger ones, doesn’t the idea that “the total package” who has a low-90’s fastball and an “outstanding changeup” with a third pitch in a curveball hold some merit?

This off-season, Goldstein wrote that Carrasco “parks his fastball in the low 90s, the pitch features good movement, and he tends to stay in the strikezone with it. His changeup is a true plus offering with hard, late movement, and his curveball is solid” meaning that the arsenal is still there, but Carrasco needs to refine his pitches and mature as a pitcher...something he can still do in AAA as a soon-to-be-23-year-old and eventually in MLB.

As for his MLB stint last year, were Carrasco’s first 5 starts an absolute trainwreck?
Well, the numbers associated with those starts are almost above the level of “trainwreck” on the disaster scale as he improbably gave up 6 HR in 22 1/3 IP while posting a 2.28 WHIP over those 5 starts.

However, age does matter here as does level of development when you realize that Carrasco was taking his lumps as a 22-year-old in MLB. For some perspective on that, 13 pitchers threw more than 20 innings exclusively as a starter in MLB in 2009 that were 22 or younger and while Carrasco unquestionably performed the worst among the 13, did you know that both Bartolo Colon and Cliff Lee were pitching in High-A ball as a 22-year-olds?

Again, that’s not to suggest that Carrasco WILL be a front-of-the-rotation starter, but the tools seem to be there for him to perhaps grow into one. To start the season, the Indians should put Carrasco in the back pocket of Charles Nagy in Columbus in an attempt to get Carrasco to refine his secondary pitches and to not let little problems become big problems. Carrasco’s been a highly-touted prospect for multiple years in the Philadelphia system and the Indians should take the beginning of 2010 to rebuild his confidence and to refine that repertoire in AAA to get some momentum back for him. Once Carrasco finds that groove (hopefully) in Columbus, that should be the point when a promotion is to the parent club is considered, if only so the trainwreck of his cup of coffee would be far away from his memory.

As for the other RHP that figures into the Indians’ rotation (just not right now), Hector Rondon will go into 2010 attempting to continue the momentum of his 2009 season when he dominated hitters in Akron and, after a brief experiment as a reliever, continued his effectiveness after being promoted to Columbus. When it was all said and done in 2009, Rondon’s line in 2009 read like this:
3.38 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 8.4 K/9, 4.72 K/BB in 146 1/3 IP

I know that I’ve brought up the idea before that what Rondon did in 2009 is not all that different than what Dave Huff did in 2008 as Huff’s 2008 cumulative line (also in AA and AAA) lookd like this:
2.52 ERA, 0.96 WHIP, 8.8 K/9, 4.93 K/BB in 146 1/3 IP

However, as was discussed earlier, age is important in the development of a pitcher and if Dave Huff is thought to have a ceiling of a #3 or #4 starter at some point when he’s putting those numbers up in the Minors as a 24-year-old, what is to be made of Rondon putting them up as a 21-year-old at the same levels?

Certainly his floor looks to be higher and his adjustment to the upper levels, where hitters are more selective and feast on a fastball-heavy diet, is going to dictate what kind of success Rondon has as a legitimate MLB pitcher. That being said, let’s remember that Rondon’s 146 1/3 innings in 2009 are the only he’s made above Kinston and, while that was also true with Huff to start the 2009 season, there’s a difference in development and expected arrival time to MLB between a 24-year-old former 1st Round Pick and a 21-year-old in that time still exists for Rondon before he approaches his mid-20s to develop further and refine his secondary pitches.

That refinement of his secondary pitches is how Rondon should be spending his 2010 season (at least to start it) with him getting handed the ball every 5th day for Columbus to get him back to some semblance of a routine after his 2009 season was interrupted for a brief moment when the idea that he could have been moved to the bullpen was in play. Perhaps he eventually ends up in the bullpen when it’s all said and done, but at this juncture he could certainly benefit from increased exposure at AAA and steady work. Another reason for Rondon to remain in AAA to start the season is because, while his overall 2009 line looks good, his performance in AAA wasn’t nearly as good as it was in AA:
Rondon 2009 in Akron
2.75 ERA, 1.06 WHIP, 9.1 K/9, 4.56 K/BB in 72 IP

Rondon 2009 in Columbus

4.00 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 7.7 K/9, 4.92 K/BB in 74 1/3 IP

In terms of his repertoire, what stands out most about Rondon is his command and his reputation as a strike thrower, evidenced by the spectacularly steady K/BB rates in both AA and AAA. At this point, there’s very little question about Rondon’s fastball (which has hit 95 MPH), but like most young pitchers, his secondary pitches need refinement so more advanced hitters can’t just sit on his fastball so allowing him to start the season in AAA, under the watchful eye of Charles Nagy (who hopefully is in the organization for more than just PR and can teach both Carrasco and Rondon how to complement their fastballs) will allow Rondon to grow as a pitcher as well as allowing his confidence to grow.

Going into this season, Rondon is the 23rd highest rated pitching prospect in MLB according to Keith Law and he should get his chance to contribute some starts in Cleveland this season. Given the arms that factor in front of him (in terms of developmental level, not talent), he should start the 2010 season in AAA with Carrasco in an attempt to allow both RHP to become more finished products where MLB success is more of a possibility for each.

Now, don’t take this to mean that Carrasco and Rondon are two top-of-the-rotation certainties just waiting to be finished off in their development and that it’s only a matter of time before each is a perennial All-Star.

That’s not the purpose of this at all as it must be mentioned that just because a pitcher progresses quickly through the Minors, with success at each stop does not imply that MLB success is a given. It should be remembered that there was a time that Jason Davis, Danys Baez, Ricardo Rodriguez, and Francisco Cruceta were seen as young RH prospects who had the capability of becoming top-to-middle-of-the-rotation possibilities if they were able to…wait for it…refine their secondary pitches to complement their fastballs.

Perhaps Carrasco goes the way of Rodriguez or Cruceta (bouncing around after not being able to adjust to MLB, perpetually maddening teams with his potential), and maybe Rondon goes the way of Baez (to the bullpen) or even Jason Dangerously (into oblivion or maybe even taxidermy), but if the group ahead of Rondon and Carrasco figure to be middle-to-back-end-of-the-rotation arms in that Huff and Laffey may be what they are, here is the first organizational offering of high-risk/high-ceiling guys with each able to throw in the mid-90’s with developing secondary offerings. If the Indians are able to net a #2 or a #3 starter out of either Carrasco or Rondon, then the implications of having a young, under-club-control, and cheap arm cannot be underestimated.

Again though, don’t take this as an impassioned plea that either should be breaking camp with the Indians to start the season in the starting rotation as the quintet of Westbrook, Carmona, Masterson, Huff, and Laffey should be given that shot with some pretty long leashes. However, if Rondon and Carrasco are both sent to Columbus to start the year, allowing them to refine their secondary pitches with Charles Nagy, the moment will arrive when a spot opens up in the rotation either due to ineffectiveness, injury, or trade. That point is when the Indians should promote one of their young RH arms to take a spot in the rotation, it should be done with the idea of attaching that same long leash that should be already be attached to Masterson, Huff, and Laffey throughout all of 2010.

Development is the name of the game this year and the prudent path to take with the young RHP at the upper levels would be to start Rondon and Carrasco in AAA and to allow their success in AAA dictate when they arrive in MLB, coinciding with if (no, make that when) Westbrook is out of the rotation or if any of the principals get injured or are rendered ineffective.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

A Lazy Sunday Getting Closer

After being subjected to the Opening Ceremonies on Friday night and enjoying the Butler-CSU game on Saturday afternoon (which included my first experience with seeing a fan thrown out of a NCAA game by the refs…and him sitting next to me doing nothing incendiary enough to merit such an ejection), let’s roll right into a Lazy Sunday while I figure out what Valentine’s Day meal I’m going to make to warm The DiaBride this evening.

And with that…we’re off:
While this represents “old news” to some degree, I thought it would be worthwhile to delve into the whole offer that the Indians extended to 2B Orlando Hudson, who eventually signed with the Twins in that it represents the Indians’ first known foray (past Mike Redmond) into guaranteeing a roster spot, much less any money to a Free Agent. Before getting going on this, I should bring up that I thought that the Indians should have signed him after the 2008 season – albeit with my suggested purchase price for Hudson in November of 2008 as a (gulp) “4-year, $40M deal ($9M per with a $4M buyout of the 5th year, $10M option) – to allow the shift towards 3B for Jhonny and Asdrubal, a move that obviously was trumped by the Mark DeRosa deal.

Concerning the Hudson offer, Anthony Castrovince addresses it in his most recent “Indians’ Inbox”, particularly attempting to shed some light on the thought process of the Indians and what the offer means to how they view Louie V:
…I was told the Indians viewed Hudson as the one middle infielder on the open market worth pursuing in such a manner. In fact, he was probably the only player on the market they were willing to work out a creative, two-year contract with.

The Indians still have concerns about their infield defense and, specifically, about Valbuena’s range, as well as his ability to hit lefties. If they had their choice, they’d have Valbuena in more of a utility role where he could bounce around between second base, shortstop and third this season. But as things stand, Valbuena still projects as the regular at second, getting spelled against left-handed starters.

Concerns about their infield defense and, specifically about Valbuena’s range, are interesting when you take a look at the piece about Hudson signing with the Twins from Ken Rosenthal:
Defensively, Hudson remains outstanding on popups and above average to his glove side. He is weaker to his backhand, but again his wrist might not be the only explanation. A second executive says that even before Hudson suffered his injury, his defense was in decline.

“He used to be a difference-maker,” the exec says. “Now he’s a tick above average.”

The pursuit of Hudson is interesting in that it does seem to come a season too late and throws a cloud of uncertainty as to whether they view Valbuena as a long-term answer at 2B. If they don’t and see him “in more of a utility role where he could bounce around between second base, shortstop, and third base this season” , even if it’s just for this year, and with Hudson going to Minnesota, does that mean that the Indians going to keep looking for a 2B?

Not if you believe the notion (as AC was told above) that “the Indians viewed Hudson as the one middle infielder on the open market worth pursuing in such a manner. In fact, he was probably the only player on the market they were willing to work out a creative, two-year contract with.”

While that does explain the pursuit of Hudson, the cloud of uncertainty around the future role of Valbuena persists. While Louie V showed some glimpses of being an everyday player last year, poking laser beam line drives to all fields, if the Indians feel that his best role this season is that of a Utility IF, what does that mean for the future of 2B?

Well, not to introduce a largely-forgotten name here because of his injury-marred 2009 season, but what about Jason Donald?

If you’ll remember, the now-25-year-old IF was rated as the #4 Phillies’ prospect going in 2009 as per Baseball America and John Sickels (who had him rated as a borderline B/B- prospect), not to mention him coming in at #4 as per Phuture Phillies, #5 by Phillies’ Nation, and with Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus (who had Donald as #6 in the Phils’ system before 2009) writing this about Donald prior to the 2009 season:
The Good: Scouts are universal in their praise for the way that Donald plays the game. He has a big-league approach, a fundamentally sound swing, and he drives balls into the gaps with ease. He’s an excellent baserunner and a solid defender.
The Bad: Donald has average tools that play up due to his effort and instincts. He plays three infield positions, but does not profile well as an everyday player on the left side; he lacks range at shortstop and the arm or power profile for the hot corner.
Perfect World Projection: He'll be a solid everyday second baseman.
Glass Half Empty: He becomes a valuable utility player and an occasional starter at multiple positions.

While all of those rankings put Donald in the upper levels of the Phillies’ prospects entering last season, consider that the most glowing praise of Donald came from’s Keith Law, who had Donald as the best prospect in the Phillies’ organization going into 2009, as the 6th best 2B prospect in all of MLB going into 2009 (and take a look at how many Indians populate that list from last year), not to mention #48 among all prospects in MLB, justifying the high ranking last year thusly:
He’s a line-drive hitter who uses the whole field well and has good patience, although he can open up a little early and get on top of the ball or swing over it entirely. He has a little loft in his swing but will probably max out around 15-20 homers barring a major increase in strength. His arm is average for short, he gets good reads on ground balls, and is very good on the double play both as a shortstop and on the pivot as a second baseman.

As a quick aside here prompted by Donald’s inclusion in that 2009 prospect ranking, take a look at the players that were in Law’s Top 100 going into last year who now find themselves in the Indians’ organization:
11. Carlos Santana
27. Matt LaPorta
48. Jason Donald
60. Carlos Carrasco
61. Nick Weglarz
66. David Huff
80. Chris Perez
81. Nick Hagadone
That would be 8 of the Top 100 from last year’s list with some of those guys not on this year’s list because of injury-marred 2009 seasons or because they lost their prospect eligibility. Add The Chiz (#26 on Law’s list this year), Rondon (#51 in Law’s 2010 list), and Brantley (#71 on Law’s list for 2010) and that would be 4 potential starters (Carrasco, Huff, Rondon, and Hagadone), 1 potential closer (Perez), a C (Santana), a 1B (LaPorta), a 2B (Donald), a 3B (The Chiz), and a LF (Brantley) who have been considered among the Top 100 prospects in MLB in the past two years by Keith Law. I know the starting pitching still feels like a stretch, but just from a lineup standpoint, did you notice what positions are missing in terms of having a top prospect close to being MLB-ready?

Would it be SS, CF, and RF – where the Indians have their most ensconced position players already on hand and under club control for at least the next three years?

But I digress…just to get back to Donald and attempt to put his prospect standing into the proper perspective by bringing in a comparison to Valbuena, prior to the 2009 season (when Donald was so highly regarded on all of these lists), Louie V did not make the cut among the Mariners’ Top 10 prospects according to Baseball America (though he was tabbed for having the best strike zone discipline) and he ranked #15 on John Sickels’ list of the Indians prospects (which was compiled after the trade from Seattle) going into 2009 with a prospect grade of C+, right between Matt McBride and Bones Meloan. Valbuena does not appear on any of Keith Law’s lists going into 2009, and appeared in the “Just Missed” section of Kevin Goldstein’s list going into 2009 at Baseball Prospectus.

What can be taken from all of this, in that Donald was nearly universally perceived to be a better prospect than Valbuena heading into the 2009 season, one that was essentially a lost season for Donald as he battled injuries both in the Philadelphia organization as well as with the Indians while Valbuena was given the longest leash to a young player by Eric Wedge in recent memory?

I suppose it’s a reality check on expectations for each player as so many have been quick to assume that Valbuena is the long-term answer at 2B while Donald is just some “Utility IF” type. Maybe the opposite is true though, in that maybe Jason Donald is the long-term answer at 2B who just needs to get his sea legs back under him for ½ of a season in Columbus and maybe Valbuena (who, like Donald, can play 2B, SS, and 3B) is the future “Utility IF” for this team. Of course, this isn’t to suggest that Donald should be the starting 2B out of Goodyear however, as he still needs to add to his total of 270 plate appearances above AA and show that the injury issues that derailed his 2009 season are behind him.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say this again – 2010 is the season to find out what the Indians have with their internal options and 2B is no different as a good portion of the playing time should be devoted to find out if Valbuena can hit LHP while giving him the opportunity to show that he can improve his range around 2B. If he struggles for the first half of the season (getting steady AB, even against LHP) to improve either, you have your answer that Valbuena projects as more of a utility player; but if he’s not given the chance to improve or get consistent AB, we’re back to where we’ve been for the past few years with guys who are given a limited amount of time to prove themselves in MLB.

Maybe you take ½ of a season to see what Valbuena can do, sending him back down to rectify his service time (particularly if he struggles) to be replaced by the RH Donald (with whomever staying on as the Utility IF until Valbuena’s service time issue is fixed) in mid-summer so the oil would be on the canvas to see how both Valbuena and Donald do as the everyday 2B in Cleveland and to plan for 2011 accordingly.

Maybe one of them figures in as the 2B in the near and long-term and (just as possibly) neither of them is the answer…but the idea of the once-highly-thought-of Donald could be seen as more of a long-term option (with the fact that he would be a RH bat in a LH-laden lineup) is something to watch as the 2010 season develops.

On the same topic of that RH bat in a LH-laden lineup, the recent rumors of the Indians looking into the services of Russell Branyan and Hank Blalock make very little sense to me as each is LH and the idea of platooning with LaPorta at 1B or adding another LH bat to the bench makes me cringe. The one name however, that does make some sense in terms of adding a 1B/DH type to the mix would be Jermaine Dye.

The initial reason why can actually be seen in a Fangraphs piece from Dave Cameron examining why Dye is so undesirable on the FA market in that, at this point in his career, Dye projects as a RH 1B/DH. That may not be an attractive combination for most teams as Cameron’s rationale for Dye having difficulty finding work goes like this:
Second baseman, third baseman, and shortstop all have to throw right-handed. It’s just the nature of tossing the ball to first base – left-handed throwers are restricted to first base or the outfield. Because one of the requirements of playing the three non-1B infield spots is throwing right-handed, it follows naturally that most of those infielders also hit right-handed.
What does any of this have to do with Jermaine Dye? Well, if you’re a team that is already stocked with right-handers around the infield, you’re running out of spots to get a really good left-handed hitter to balance out your line-up. Unless you have an MVP caliber center fielder, he’s probably not that guy. You might be able to get a left-handed thumping bat in a corner outfield spot, but those guys are expensive, and a lot of teams are realizing that it’s more cost efficient to put a good defender out there anyway.

Let’s follow Cameron’s thought process in this…
The idea that Dye doesn’t work to “a team that is already stacked with right-handers around the infield” isn’t applicable in Cleveland because of Asdrubal’s ability to switch-hit and Valbuena (assuming he’s the 2B) being LH.

The idea that “unless you have an MVP caliber center fielder” would seem to have an answer as would the idea that “you might be able to get a left-handed thumping bat in a corner outfield spot” as all 3 of the Indians’ OF spots seem to be occupied by strictly LH hitters…even if Brantley is never likely to be confused with a “thumper”.

All told, it would look like the Indians are looking at 5 of their 9 everyday players batting from the left side of the plate and if LaPorta is not quite 100% to start the season, the RH options become Andy Marte and Shelly Duncan to balance out the lineup at 1B. Thus, in a LH-laden lineup, a RH bat like Dye makes some sense not only as insurance that LaPorta isn’t going to be healthy to start the season, but more importantly as insurance that Hafner is still not 100% and the trend of his ineffectiveness against LHP is going to continue.

Lest you forget, Hafner only faced LHP in 90 of his 383 plate appearances last year and posted a line of .210 BA / .289 OBP / .407 SLG / .696 OPS in those 90 plate appearances against LHP in 2009. If Hafner is going to take the occasional day off against LHP or still work at being an “everyday” DH in terms of playing multiple consecutive games, what’s wrong with the idea of bringing Dye and his OPS of .894 in 2009 against LHP (he posted a .757 OPS against RHP) into the fold?

I know…I know, I’m the one that’s been hammering away at the idea that the Indians need to figure out as much as they can about their internal options before doling out any money or guaranteed roster spots this off-season, but the RH options right now that would start the season at 1B if LaPorta is slow to recover or would provide RH protection at DH are essentially Marte and Duncan. Since Duncan was inked to a Minor League deal and Marte is on the 40-man, let’s just take a look at that most obvious internal RH option – Andy Marte. Over his career, Marte has posted only a .702 OPS vs. LHP in MLB (.597 OPS vs. RHP) and the difference in Marte’s career splits in MiLB is nominal (.867 OPS vs. LHP, .832 OPS vs. RHP), so it’s not as if Marte is some LHP masher waiting to break out.

Not that Dye is…it just becomes a question of whether Dye is really a better option than just giving Andy Marte one last chance to put some polish on his apple. Yes, maybe Marte needs more time and maybe the player that he was in AAA last year (under the tutelage of Jon Nunnally, now the Tribe hitting coach) shows that the unrequited potential still resides somewhere deep inside Marte.
But if Dye is sitting around, waiting for an opportunity (and this intimation from Frank Thomas in a recent Chicago interview that Dye’s considering retirement reeks of an attempt to drum up interest this late in the game), the question becomes – at what cost?

Dye reportedly turned down a $3.3M, one year deal from the Cubs, an offer that is no longer on the table due to that Cubs’ money making its way into Xavier Nady’s bank account and I'd be loathe to see that kind of money go to a player that ultimately counts as simply an insurance policy against LaPorta’s recovery and the possibility that Pronk is long gone. While Ken Rosenthal can sit and wonder “Why is Jermaine Dye Not Signed”, pointing out that Dye has the 2nd most RBI among MLB outfielders and the 3rd most HR for any AL player over the past 5 years, let’s remember what a contract should be paying for – future expectations, not past results.

So if the Indians can let market conditions allow them to ink Dye to an incentive-laden one-year deal where he’s only going to be asked to play 1B to give LaPorta a day off or sub for Hafner every so often…yeah, I'd sign up for that. It wouldn’t come without some caveats though, as the signing would make sense as long as his role is just that (sometime 1B and DH without taking legitimate AB away from LaPorta) and as long as there’s some sort of language in the deal that prevents him from ever stepping onto the outfield grass at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario with the intent to “play the field” as images of “Ryan Garko – LF” are just too fresh to subject anyone to Dye’s defense in the outfield.

Lest anyone forget, the last veteran 1B/DH that we signed to hit LHP (that would be Eduardo Perez) was famously flipped for a 20-year-old AAA shortstop named Asdrubal. Sure, that deal may be the exception (and does anyone else still marvel that the Indians received two All-Star caliber players for Benuardo back in 2006), but if the worst case scenario for a guy like Dye is that the team flips him in July to a team in need of a RH bat, I’m in for it…assuming the price is right and it just might be.

Moving on, with Spring Training so close you can almost taste it, Tribe Daily has started up their comprehensive look at the players that figure to be populating the fields of Goodyear this Spring Training, starting with the NRI.

Finally, it looks like Paul Hoynes finally caught up on this “when will Grady be traded” nonsense as he finally presents the proper contract terms in today’s mailbag…well, kind of.

Why is this noteworthy?
Well, because Hoynes didn’t want to let Jim Ingraham sit alone in the dark on this one for a while, here a gem from the comments section of Hoynes’ piece on Brantley where Hoynes parrots the Ingraham version (debunked here last week) of when the Indians would consider trading Grady Sizemore:
Posted by Paul Hoynes, The Plain Dealer
February 09, 2010, 6:50AM
I don't think the Indians will trade Grady this year. If you at the recent past, Lee and Martinez weren't traded until they were in their final year with the Indians holding a club option for 2010. Sizemore is signed through 2011 with a club option for 2012.

So unless ownership has a change of heart, or the Indians start playing better, Sizemore could be traded sometime in 2011.
paul hoynes

Again, not to take another swing at that dead horse lying on the ground over there (as Hoynes did get it semi-right today, albeit in his usual confusing language that “I do know they’ll trade him sometime in 2011 or in his club option year of 2012” then laying out why it wouldn’t make sense to trade him in 2011), but if you’re still relying on any of The Three Amigos (that would be Hoynes, Ingraham, or Ocker) as your go-to Tribe beat writer, you’re just wasting your time.

And I don’t just say that because of a cameo appearance in AC’s aforementioned “Indians’ Inbox” this week on the Grady contract topic:
I saw [elsewhere] a report that attempts to start the clock for Grady Sizemore leaving Cleveland. And while I don't pretend that Grady's going to be an Indian for life, this was something I have not seen. The report said the Indians have an option on Sizemore for 2012 for $10.5 million, which Sizemore can decline and thereby declare his free agency. Is this right?
-- Paul C., Cleveland, Ohio

In a word, no.
I've tried to use this space to prepare fans for the probability that Sizemore will not be with the Indians in 2013. It's a very real scenario because of the economic realities of the sport and the doubts, at this juncture, that the Indians could come up with the financial means it would take to be the top bidder for the services of a superstar-caliber player such as Sizemore when he reaches free agency.
Of course, last I checked, it's 2010, so any talk of trading Sizemore -- even when we're talking about a team that traded Cliff Lee and Victor Martinez a year and a half before they were eligible for free agency -- is premature. The Indians do hold an option on Sizemore for 2012, and it remains a club option as long as he's a member of this club. It only becomes a player option if Grady is traded. Otherwise, why would they even bother to call it a "club option"?
The Lee and Martinez examples taught us that the Indians are open to exploring the trade value of their star players well in advance of their free-agent eligibility. But the option clause in Sizemore's contract makes his situation quite a bit different than those Lee and Martinez examples. If the Indians traded Sizemore in 2011, the team acquiring him would (most likely) only be getting him through that season, as one would figure Sizemore would then decline his 2012 option because of its low value relative to his free-agent value.
Sizemore, therefore, probably won't have the trade value in 2011 that Lee and Martinez had in 2009. So the Indians, it would appear, would not have a compelling reason to trade Sizemore until 2012, which is the final year he is guaranteed to wear the Tribe uniform.

OK, so everyone clear on this?
Mr. Hoynes, get that hand all the way up like you finally do get this and somebody wake Ingraham up for goodness sake…Spring Training’s about to start!