Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Jon & Paul Plus Baseball: To 3B or Not to 3B

Since the off-season thus far has been filled with visions of Manny Acta in a winter hat and an innertube, memories of Andy Marte toeing the rubber, and watching former Indians receive generational wealth from various MLB teams that don’t call the corner of Carnegie and Ontario home, perhaps now represents a tremendous new wrinkle to what we do here. While most of the pieces that you will read on the Indians represent one viewpoint or a specific expert answering questions presented to them, one exploration of the Indians that has always been lacking on front pages and in main articles is discourse and disagreement between two people who think far too much about the Indians.

With that in mind, I’m pleased to announce a new feature here with a back-and-forth conversation between myself and Jon Steiner of WFNY. While I’ll stop short of saying that we’re attempting to replicate the old “Rob and Rany” days when Neyer and Jazayerli would wax poetic on their Royals, the concept is the same as we may agree on a given topic or may take wildly divergent approaches to a particular aspect of the Indians. After this initial run-through, I’m hoping that you find it as thought-provoking and enjoyable as we did as it attempts to crystallize specific viewpoints and serves as the back-and-forth banter that many enjoy…just at a little higher level of obsession and expertise.

That all being said, the first topic that Jon and I decided to delve into is the oft-discussed 3B “issue” for the Indians (which has been covered nearly ad nauseum and nowhere more in depth than by TCF’s own Steve Buffum, who is now up to 8 pieces JUST ON THIS TOPIC, all of which you access on his writer page on TCF) , with Jon taking the stance that the Indians don’t necessarily need to add anything significant to their 3B mix and me standing at the other podium.


JON: I just don’t see the point in adding a third baseman. It’s not that we don’t need one--we certainly do. Rather, I’m not sure what appreciable good a “stopgap” does us during the nadir of a rebuild. So sure, K-squared might be able to shore up the defense at third (though I’m not totally sold on even that), but to what end? This seems to be one of those “marginal improvement” type moves that doesn’t really get us any closer to where we need to be, but rather throws the masses a bone so that they stop griping about Nix et al. If we both feel--and correct me if I’m wrong--that the future third baseman is already in the system somewhere--then why add Kouz? I would argue that Kouzmanoff might add a win or two. If we were a fringe-playoff team, by all means, go for it.

But we’re not. So I say keep the spot semi-open so that if--and it’s a big if--Phelps or Chiz or even Goedert take off this spring, we have major league at bats for them to continue developing. Perhaps I’m snake-bitten, but these non-impact signings scare me. There are images of Trots and Jasons and Davids dancing through my head.

PAUL: I suppose that the impact over “marginal improvement” to me would come solely in the form of defense and would have more of an effect on the pitching staff, as opposed to strictly whose in the lineup as the 3B. With the glut of groundball pitchers (and young ones at that), I’d prefer to see the Indians load up their infield defense with great gloves (and maybe get Asdrubal on a running track to see if he can find his “great glove” among the cinders on the track) and I see the leader in the clubhose - Nix - as being more of a detriment to the development of the young pitchers. Admittedly, some of that is based on an unfairly small sample last year, when Nix was essentially playing out of position, but I’m going to have to be shown that a Winter Ball excursion at 3B is enough to make us think of him as a “2B playing 3B” on most plays to the Hot Corner to think that Nix is even a suitable “stop-gap”.

The only real cause for the K2 Train (with me throwing coal into the engine, apparently) is that he has somehow evolved into a competent defensive 3B (according to metrics I don’t trust and the Fielding Bible panel, which I do trust) and I think that if he’s non-tendered, he fits the profile of a guy that they can get on the cheap to stick in there until The Chiz is ready. If Kouzmanoff is going to cost $3M to $4M a year, then you move onto the “Blake/LaRocca/Selby” derby redux in Spring Training with Nix and Phelps and whatever other AAAA guy that they can find that has a slick glove to throw into the mix so the Tribe can bide time until The Chiz is ready. If there’s a guy who is Brooks Robinson with the glove, but can’t hit a lick, somewhere in the Minors, I’d bring him in and give him a legit shot to improve the infield defense, which is at the crux of the crusade to upgrade 3B. Trust me, I would never want “images of Trots and Jasons and Davids” to enter anyone’s head unnecessarily and I see a Kouzmanoff non-tender (assuming he’s non-tendered) more in line with the Kearns deal last year that essentially bought Mike Brantley (and the team) time to allow things to flesh out.

Another factor in this 3B situation is that most people just assume that Lonnie Chisenhall will follow the Carlos Santana path to be in Cleveland in 2011. But what if he isn’t?

The fallback options are Nix (whose better suited to be a super-utility RH bat with some pop) and Phelps (who last played 3B at Stanford...and we all saw how Nix adjusted there), so are you really all that confident in Nix and Phelps to hold down the fort if - knocking firmly on wood - Chisenhall doesn’t dominate AAA to force himself up the I-71 corridor to Cleveland next year?

JON: I actually agree with you on most counts here. Let me plagiarize them one at a time:

Infield defense benefits our pitchers, and K2 should be an upgrade.

Yes to the first. Probably yes to the second. Though if we’re talking about helping our pitchers, are we talking about making them “more confident” or “demonstrably better”? I’m dubious about these sorts of claims, though I suppose anything’s possible.

K2 (or whoever) could come in at about $3 to $4 million if he’s non-tendered. Probably, yes. And it should be said, $4 million dollars is about the going rate in free agency for a win. I tend to think this is an inefficient use of resources, especially for a team that’s not likely to contend.

If we had an internal, defensively strong 3B, this is a different story.
Sure thing. I agree that we do not.

Chiz might not be ready: don’t let Carlos Santana warp your perception of an MLB learning curve.
Indeed. I think we all were spoiled by that debut. But I would also say that I don’t like the FO telling me that Santana’s “defense wasn’t ready” when they really meant that they wanted an extra year of control. Perhaps they’ll want to manage some service clocks (something that can be done with Nix), but I don’t like the run-around. And anyway, if we’re going all-in on Chiz at some point, how much does it matter when we do it? We’ve given LaPorta a long leash because we believe he (has to be?) is the answer. At some point, you’ll have to do the same with someone at third.

But regardless, I’m talking about building a contender. And, at least to me, it’s clear that any short-term addition won’t be part of that contender. Rather, he’d be a band-aid. Now, you might say that we have to stop the bleeding. I guess that’s true, but I’m not sure why it would be. To me, the upside of a defensive stopgap at 3B is a couple wins in 2011; the downside is the hindered development of players that, rightly or wrongly, we’re going to have to sink or swim with for the next decade. I’d rather throw my chips in on the latter bet, no matter how unlikely it might be that an addition would hurt them. It’s just not a risk I want to take.

Does the advantage of an addition boil down to this: our pitchers will develop some confidence and we might win a game or two more next season? If that’s the case, I don’t want him. If there’s more, my ears are open.

PAUL: Let’s be clear as K2 at $4M is definitely not something that I’m interested in (and I’m not convinced he gets that on the open market if he’s non-tendered) as it is certainly represents the “inefficient use of resources” that you assert. My argument hinges on the development of those pitchers that “rightly or wrongly, we’re going to have to sink or swim with for the next decade” in that I’m more concerned about those guys finding MLB success as soon as possible and putting a credible infield defense behind them goes a long way to achieving that goal.

Could we have The Chiz up here on Opening Day to play 3B? Sure, but if he struggles out of the gate, we’re back to the Nix and Phelps show, with Chisenhall going to AAA to build up some career momentum again. Sure, LaPorta has struggled (and they haven’t really given him much of a long leash), but he’s a solid 5 years older than Lonnie, with a prospect pedigree that Chisenhall will probably never touch.

I think that we’re both talking about building a sustainable contender, and I guess that gets to the final question of adding a player allowing “our pitchers (to) develop some confidence” resulting in a extra “win or two more next season” as I see the long-term effect of upgrading that infield defense, even for half a year, could have a greater impact than simply a win or two next season because of that confidence gained. Again, if the price tag for that is going to be $3M or $4M, I pass...but I think that the Indians can find a player that would upgrade the left side of their infield defense for less than that and provide the insurance (and another external option) to allow Chisenhall to at least taste AAA.

JON: And yeah, I should be clear too: avoiding an acquisition is not my way of suggesting that Chisenhall--or any other minor leaguer--should start the season in Cleveland. In my plan, Nix is the primary option (what a terrible way to start a sentence!), with full knowledge that at least three guys might be able to give him some competition by June.

If, on the other hand, we sign an external guy for anything more than $2 million, the front office will likely feel the need to play that guy, regardless of whether the smarter thing to do might be give some of the younger guys some exposure/time to adjust to big league pitching.

PAUL: Let’s say that Nix is the primary option then if you’re not bringing in anyone significant. Do you basically given Phelps and Nix a shot at a two-man race in Goodyear with the idea that it’s Nix’s job to lose? Or do you bring in the Bill Selbys and...gulp, Casey Blakes (v. 2003) of the world to press these guys?

If it’s the former, I sure hope his 3B glove hasn’t left his hand this Winter...

Sunday, November 28, 2010

A Snowy Lazy Sunday and Victor

With the Indians in the third row of the Cleveland Sports car or maybe even the car top carrier in the equation (because to say they’re in the backseat doesn’t paint an accurate enough picture), the off-season rolls on in earnest and there’s still plenty to discuss and dissect even if it has little to do with the Indians and player acquisition. Unless you’re following this Zach Duke-to-Arizona “situation” as breathlessly as I am – as he could be still non-tendered by the D-Backs if they’re not able to reach an agreement with him on a reduced salary – and crossing your fingers so hard that you hope that your circulation isn’t affected, things have remained quiet on the North Coast.

In all seriousness (and, yes I’m joking on Zach Duke…sort of), the only thing occurring on the corner of Carnegie and Ontario is the Indians’ inaugural Snow Days event, which opened on Friday for “Snopening Day”, attended by yours truly with the fam and the in-laws for some winter fun. Since most have read some sort of article on the concept and the execution of it somewhere (as Tribe writers have had little else to write about), from an attendee’s standpoint who took two young boys there, Snow Days is a smashing success.

Upon arrival (and signing of a waiver for all attendees), once you determine which attractions you want to get a pass for (the “Batterhorn” is the tubing portion and the “Frozen Mile” is the skating portion that require specific passes and cost more), you enter into a fully transformed Progressive Field, with scenes from “A Christmas Story” and other holiday classics on the JumboTron, right next to a feed showing the tubing (on a 30-second delay so you can watch your “run” when you get to the bottom) and with Christmas music and decorations everywhere.

Since my sons are too small for any of the tubing or skating attractions, we simply purchased the “Entry” pass ($5 a head), which they attach to your zipper on your coat as if you were going skiing. We made our way down to the field level and made our way through the hay maze (in short left field) and climbed around on the man-made snow piles (in deeper left field) as The DiaTot took cleaner routes to his snowball target (his old man) than Trevor Crow did to his glove target (the flying ball) did all season.

It being in the low 30’s, The DiaBride took her parents and The DiaperTribe up to The Terrace Club, which was open for anyone to enjoy and warm up while overlooking the entirety of the festivities…and that is the shot from the TC on Friday night. After the 3-year-old got cold enough, we joined them in The Terrace Club and, from that vantage point, saw that there was access to the Indians’ dugout and (after finishing some hot chocolate) made our way back down to the field level and ran to the home dugout.

Once in the dugout, we did what 3-year-olds and their fathers do unencumbered and unsupervised in an MLB dugout in pretending to grab a bat from the bat rack and a helmet from the helmet cubbies, went out to the “on-deck circle”, then pretended to hit walk-off HR after walk-off HR, complete with head-pounding celebrations when running back into the other side of the dugout. When the faces became redder and the text from The DiaBride arrived from the Terrace Club that we were off to go grab dinner somewhere, we made our way out of the stadium with promises to return.

While the concept of “Snow Days” has been ridiculed in the circles that enjoy ridiculing the Indians and…well, anything that they do, the experience is one that is unique and entertaining for all ages. As downtown Cleveland sits dormant most nights in the Winter, it represents a very real attempt at livening up a sleeping city on non-Cavs nights by enticing people down to embrace their region and their weather. The execution of “Snow Days” is very well-done and, while the fire pit was not yet operational on “Snopening Day”, the prospect of sitting down at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario around a hearth with some friends and family is an appealing option for those who generally go into lock-down mode in November and December (and beyond) once the weather gets cold.

Though the wailers and teeth-gnashers will complain that the Indians should be spending money in the SUMMER and not in the WINTER, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if other cold-weather stadiums turn into similar winter wonderlands in the coming years, with the trail being blazed by the Indians. What “Snow Days” means to the bottom line of the Indians is not something that I’m even interested in taking a guess at as it represents a fun family environment in a region and at a time in which they aren’t easy to come by.

If you’re going to ask whether the proceeds from “Snow Days” mean that the Indians are going to be more active on the Free Agent market, you’re asking the wrong guy as I’m too busy planning the next trip down there to see if I can get my 3-year-old on the mini-“Batterhorn” (yes, there’s a smaller one specifically for kids) with me.

Nevertheless (and with the longest Lazy Sunday intro finally done), it is Sunday and that does mean that we turn our gaze to the Indians in this space. Of course, since nothing is happening with the Indians, perhaps it may be more instructive to (eventually) turn our attention to former Indians and soon-to-be-division-rivals.

As a segue to that and keeping with the “all the news that’s fit to link” premise, Baseball America ran an article and player breakdown detailing the devolution of the Tribe in the past 3 years in terms of player movement, specifically mapping out how the 2007 team turned into the 2010 team. As depressing as looking at all of those names is, I’ll go back to the little exercise last Sunday that put dollar amounts as to what the team that ostensibly broke 2008 Spring Training will earn this year...and it will be $113.6M that the 2008 Tribe will earn for various teams without a 5th starter, a bullpen, or a bench.

By now you know where this segue is going as one of those “cashed-in chips” is returning to the AL Central as El Capitan has joined the Detroit Tigers, where he will visit the corner of Carnegie and Ontario (with Jhonny Peralta) not only as an opponent, but as a division rival.

Any mention of Victor around these parts immediately conjure up visions of Victor sitting in his locker crying saying that he “was leaving his house” when the trade was consummated in July of 2009 while his son asked him, “are we still an Indian”. Wiping away a tear, those two images still pull at the heartstrings around the North Coast as Victor, more than any other player on those late-2000s teams felt like he was different in that he wanted to be an Indian for life…like he understood what it was to be a Clevelander.

With news that Victor will visit Cleveland representing another AL Central team, it evokes the question again that wouldn’t it be great if the Indians had kept Martinez and if he represented the bedrock of the organization, regardless of total team payroll or expectations coming into an individual season?

To that end, I’m reminded of a piece debating whether Martinez fit past 2010 that was written two weeks before he was traded in this space. As painful as the conclusion was (and it is worth a read, particularly in hindsight), it detailed how he didn’t really fit into the team’s long-term plans once Hafner signed his extension and after the CC and Blake trades were made, nor did the idea of extending him make much financial sense.

Could you say that the “mistake” of signing Hafner in 2007 and the slow start in 2008 that led to the trades of CC and Casey that resulted in Santana, LaPorta, and Brantley entering the organization essentially led us to this place, where Victor didn’t make sense as an Indian past 2010?

Of course, but we all know how this ended up and please don’t take this as a defense of moving Victor, the heart-and-soul of that late-2000s team (and, remember that this is the place that you saw the love letter saying goodbye after his departure) as emotion will continue to play a role with Victor, particularly because he’ll be playing in the AL Central.

But baseball is a business (as much as we all abhor that part of it) and to that end, also included in the aforementioned piece is a bit on Martinez’s value as a C and his diminished value as a 1B and (though I didn’t mention it in the piece) as a DH. Regardless, it appears as if DH will be where he’s plying his trade in the Motor City…at least according to them. With his new position change in mind, how about looking at Martinez’s offensive production as it relates to the rest of the AL from a positional standpoint, at least in the last two years:
Victor – .861 OPS
Average AL C – .721 OPS
Average AL 1B – .830 OPS
Average AL DH – .779 OPS

Victor – .844 OPS
Average AL C – .684 OPS
Average AL 1B – .786 OPS
Average AL DH – .757 OPS

You see now how Victor’s bat is exceptional when he’s catching and merely above-average when he’s playing 1B or merely the DH?

If you’re thinking about Vic the Stick and the Tribe, perhaps you want to make the case that LaPorta and Brantley (or even Weglarz) weren’t/aren’t promising enough to the point that the Indians shouldn’t have been able to find a place for Martinez to remain an Indian. In light of 2010 performance (particularly by LaPorta), that argument is not without merit, nor is the idea that Victor’s offensive numbers improve without the wear and tear that comes from donning the tools of ignorance.

However, he will turn 32 next month and the Indians essentially cast their lot with Santana and LaPorta at C and 1B when Blake and Sabathia were dealt and the continued presence of Hafner as DH means that paying $10M to $12M a year to a 1B/DH who will be in his 30s throughout the life of his contract just didn’t add up for the Indians.

Certainly, Victor could have been useful to Indians this past year and probably for the next couple of years, but the Red Sox let Victor walk when the years involved became too far out in the future and as the money involved went up.

Yes, THE RED SOX – not your lowly, also-ran Indians – thought that the years and money were too high! Their reasoning was articulated by Alex Speier of WEEI, who wrote:
Multiple Red Sox sources indicated they felt that, even with the strides that Martinez made this year to perform at a respectable level, he is unlikely to remain a viable everyday catcher for more than two more seasons. After that, he would likely be consigned to duty as a designated hitter and first baseman. When that happens, his value will drop precipitously.
If he does remain behind the plate, Martinez could face a steep offensive decline. Catchers do not gradually see their performance drop in their mid-30s. Instead, they see it get tied to a Looney Tunes-style anvil tossed into a canyon around the age of 35.
That being the case, the last year of Martinez’ deal stands a good chance of fair chance of being a poor investment.

Remember that whole positional value thing up above?
It’s the reason that SI.com’s Tim Marchman wrote that, “signing a 32-year-old catcher is by definition something you do because you want immediate benefit, and finishing in third place with 84 wins rather than 81 isn’t really much of a benefit” and that “the Tigers will either be sitting a talented kid (Alex Avila) or using Martinez as their main designated hitter, which would be a terrible waste, as while he’s a strong hitter for a catcher, there are several comparable hitters on the market who would cost nothing close to $50 million.”

At some point, his production will drop and the drop is palatable from a catcher (somewhat), it becomes much more pronounced when he’s going to be the 1B or DH. Yes, it’s true that drop may not come this year or next, but when Rob Neyer writes things like “If Martinez can’t (or won’t be allowed to) catch, he’s not worth the money the Tigers gave him. He’s not really worth what the Red Sox supposedly offered him, either (three years, $36 million, or four and $40 million)” as well as asserting that “If you make a list of the 100 worst moves in the last 30 years, you’re going to find a few trades and a bumper crop of contracts given to free agents in their 30s”, something the Red Sox have figured out and are now avoiding, you start to realize that the Tigers are taking a big risk with Martinez, one that they’ll have to allow to play out.

If you want to make the argument that Victor possessed a value that goes beyond numbers to Cleveland and that the Indians should have be taking an inordinate amount of risk by extending him, that’s fine as long as you acknowledge that the feeling is coming from your heart and not your head because of the positional value concept and that you’re ignoring that Santana is likely to put up better offensive numbers than Victor this year. Trust me, nobody’s questioning that it will be difficult to see him stride to the plate at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario with that Old English “D” on his hat, just as it was difficult to see him wear the polyester of that team from New England.

Victor conjures up many emotions and those emotions will continue to come as a member of the Tigers, regardless of whether his contract looks like a bargain or a bust in hindsight. What is troubling however, is the way that Victor’s signing by the Tigers and Detroit’s largesse thus far in the off-season is being presented as some sort of referendum on the Indians’ off-season.

While Terry Pluto is unsurprisingly a dissenting voice of reason in the media when he says that the Tigers are “the one team in the Central that continually spends beyond the bottom line and is not afraid to rack up financial losses”, most of the local reaction has been to frame the Victor signing as a simple math problem in that the Tigers are spending money to catch the Twins while the Indians sit on their hands.

But looking at the money that they’ve spent, would you be comfortable with the signings that they’ve made, regardless of big-market/small-market distinction?

The Victor deal, which has been largely questioned on a national level because of the committed years and dollars to a player that looks to be either their 1B or DH for the next five years...

Peralta, who will receive $11.25M in the next two years from the Tigers (and let’s all repeat this slowly) to...play...shortstop...

Joaquin Benoit, who will receive $16.5M over the course of 3 years despite the fact that he missed the entire 2009 season and posted a 1.67 WHIP and a 5.00 ERA in 2008, walking nearly as many hitters (35) as he struck out (43) in 2008...

The fact is that Detroit has been a one-team-wrecking crew on the FA market, if you simply take a look at the FA signings that are on the books so far this off-season. If it’s too early for you to do the math yourself from that link, here is the breakdown:
Detroit FA spending - $77,750,000
THE REST OF MLB FA spending - $79,700,000

Yeah, seriously…
And, we all know that Lee and Crawford and Werth and Beltre are going to add to that second total, but realize that the Tigers are probably not done yet and could add an OF (perhaps Werth) or maybe a reliever, so their spending spree may not yet be over.

Realizing that the relevance of money spent and victories is a…let’s say, sore subject around these parts, how about examining how the Tigers have fared since their WS loss in 2006, in terms of their win totals and their payrolls?
2007: 88-74 (2nd in Central) - $95,180,369 payroll

2008: 74-88 (last in Central) - $137,685,196 payroll

2009: 86-77 (2nd in Central) - $115,085,145 payroll

2010: 81-81 (3rd in Central) - $133,995,400 payroll

That’s an average of a $120,486,527 payroll and all of 82 wins a season, never hitting the 90-win mark since that 2006 season. With the addition of Victor, they’re now looking at about a $100.9M payroll as it stands right now and, as mentioned before, they may be adding Jayson Werth (Scott Boras client alert) or retaining the services of Mags Ordonez while still looking to upgrade their bullpen.

This is not all pointed out to guffaw from afar at the strategy of the Tigers and their inability to spend money wisely or even that these additions of Victor and Jhonny and Benoit aren’t going to catapult the Tigers into obvious contention for the AL Central. Rather, it’s to point out the difference in the manner by which the Tigers and the Indians attempt to go about building a winner.

Sure, the Tigers have spent more money and are certainly more aggressive (and more successful) in trading their young players and prospects, but since the 2005 season both teams have made the playoffs once. Without being catty and pointing out that the Tigers’ 2006 playoff appearance is the organization’s only since 1987, how about this:
The Tigers have won 495 games since the start of the 2005 season
The Indians have won 482 since the start of the 2005 season

In that time, the Tigers have spent $633.65M on payroll, with their best teams in 2006 and 2007 coming with the lower payrolls. Meanwhile, the Tribe has spent $339.7M on payroll, with (say it with me) their best teams in 2005 and 2007 again coming in at some of the lowest payroll numbers.

Does FA spending equal victories?
Of course not, as titles are won at the beginning of November (now)…not at the end of November.

While “titles” are not likely to be in the offing in Cleveland (or Detroit) next season, the fact that the swirling snow – and not any swirling rumors – is the most newsworthy happening at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario make this Indians’ off-season one that make it hard to enjoy for Tribe fans…unless, of course, you’re blazing down the “Batterhorn”.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Money Talks on A Lazy Sunday

An absence of activity.
No, I speak not of the news (or lack thereof) that has originated from the corner of Carnegie and Ontario this off-season; rather, I speak of The Reservation here as my brother and his wife picked up the two boys yesterday to give their sleep-deprived parents a night off from parenting. With nearly 24 hours to ourselves in our own house, let me just say that there are watershed moments in the life of an adult that force a self-realization that may not be unexpected, but may be so forceful that it cannot be avoided. That being said, we used the time to hit Pier W’s marvelous Happy Hour, then a dinner at Don’s Lighthouse…and were home on the couch by 7:30 PM. And we were thrilled about it. Gone is the idea that we need to burn the midnight oil after being given a “free pass” for a night and sitting in our laps is the fact that we are happier about getting 8 to 10 hours of uninterrupted sleep than we are about hitting any new hot spot.

Thus, it truly is a “Lazy” Sunday around these parts as we have slept in (well, 8 AM…but that is “sleeping in”) and as I write this, there is not a 3-year-old bouncing a soft Indians’ ball off of my head, begging me to see the video of Andy Marte pitching, which makes him laugh harder than any Pixar offering. However, as refreshing as the peace and tranquility is, it’s almost TOO quiet and we’re already counting down the hours until we can go down to my brother’s house and play with them this afternoon.

It’s my life…and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Nevertheless, off of the psychiatrist’s couch and into the writer’s chair, let’s get going on a Lazy Sunday, starting off with some appetizers before getting into the main course – the part of the meal when you’re checking the prices on the menu…

On the subject of player acquisition, if you remember the whole “Roadmap for the Off-Season” from a month ago…wow, a month ago, one suggestion was to add some arms that could be available if they were non-tendered, with the Pirates’ Zach Duke being the example used. Well, Zach Duke has been non-tendered in all of his LH glory from the Pirates and while the shouts will come from the rooftops that Duke has been non-tendered BY THE PIRATES and had a 5.43 ERA, realize that his peripheral stats in 2010 were more or less in line with those from his previous two seasons, when he posted ERA’s of 4.82 and 4.06.

Were the Pirates right not to want to pay Duke the $5M he would have earned in the arbitration process?
Absolutely, but if the Indians can get him on one of their low-base, incentive-laden deals and let Tim Belcher and company have at it, the Indians’ LH options could be upgraded over the likes of Dave Huff and Aaron Laffey.

As for the “Kouzmanoff Watch”, since Terry Pluto has latched onto the idea (a bit over a month from when it was first suggested here), let me be clear here on Kouzmanoff, lest anyone think that I’m wearing a cheerleader outfit and holding pom-poms for K2 specifically. The reality is that, after surveying the scene, I simply made the suggestion of K2 because I fail to see a better alternative out there in terms of upgrading the defense over the likes of Nix and Phelps.

Is K2 someone that the Indians should be looking to pencil in on the lineup card for the next 3 years?
No, but that’s also not what they’re looking for. If they’re looking for a stop-gap (and they should be) that provides better defense (and they BETTER be) while not breaking the bank (and that’s why I like Kouzmanoff ONLY as a non-tender, not a trade option because the Tribe would be paying him $4M unnecessarily if they traded for him), then K2 is the best I see out there.

From the pipe dream category of player acquisition, it seems that the Indians are on Justin Upton’s no-trade list…so those dreams of turning Huff, Crowe, and Goedert into Upton remain just that – dreams in the sky. As for the notion that the Indians will be able to turn a package like that (and “Huff, Crowe, and Goedert” is just an example), let’s realize that the rest of MLB is probably aware of what we – as Indians’ fans are – in terms of which of the Indians’ prospects are compelling and which are even just “sort of interesting”.

To that “sort-of-interesting” end, Adam Van Arsdale rolls on with his terrific prospect series over at the LGT, with an overview of the pitching prospects and a look at hitters, both high-performing and “sort-of-interesting” coming out and putting some great perspective on the Indians’ farm system. Since we’re talking prospects, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the Call to the Pen Top 100 piece that I mentioned a few days ago released their Top 10 and…the top Tribe prospect was Jason Knapp as the top ranked prospect at #11, so no Kipnis or Chisenhall in that particular Top 100 list.

Other than the acquisition speculation (much of it user-generated) and the 40-man decisions (which always seem overblown to me as we’re talking about the fringes of the roster and given the fact that the Indians have been WILDLY successful in protecting the “right” players to prevent major losses), the big news of the week remains The BLC likely earning his military exemption by leading South Korea to an Asian Games championship.

While his performance probably merits more than just that cursory mention, the most exciting thing to me about his tenure as a player for South Korea is his jersey. If I may make a suggestion, can we have the Tribe #17 jersey PLEASE read “SS CHOO” on the back starting next year?

Admitting that I have no idea as to whatever language reasons exist for the “SS CHOO” to appear on the back of his South Korean jersey, if I wore a 2X (and two of me wouldn’t), this would be on my Christmas list.

Of course, since Clevelanders are never content to simply take good news as just that (and can we get this guy to the post-season if that’s how he performs under pressure), news that Choo’s military exemption was likely to be waived resulted not in happiness or relief from most corners. No, it prompted the obligatory, “well, now the Indians can trade him” and “that will increase his trade value” from what seems to be the growing voice of discontent this off-season as it pertains to the Indians.
If you think that the discontent is overblown by some or simply a vocal minority, consider the requisite firestorm that was set off (and it should have come to no surprise to anyone) by the payroll discussion with Paul Dolan, as his unfortunate comments to the PD basically provided a few million gallons of gas to the flaming madness among the cle.commer crowd. In case you missed the comments (and I can’t imagine that you did), Dolan’s exact comments were as follows:
“It’s not the right time to spend. No question about that. It’s not the right time to spend in the cycle of this franchise. The spending is deficit spending. When New York and Boston spend, they’re spending from their profits. It’s a riskier proposition for clubs like us to spend. We’re taking a far greater financial risk than whatever it is a large-market club spends on a large free agent. It’s the unfortunate nature of our game.”

For an Indians’ organization, that has “consultants” for everything down to what kind of relish to offer, somebody’s coming up with “talking points” here if Dolan’s going to sit down with the PD on payroll in an attempt to mollify the masses. That being the case, I’m not sure who’s laying out the talking points for Dolan, but they should be fired as this talk of “cycles” and size of clubs has run it’s course over the last two years.

People get that the Indians are attempting to build back up and that they can’t (and shouldn’t) compete with the Yankees and the Red Sox, particularly on FA. Every time they bring up this inequality in MLB (which is valid, to a degree), the critics point to the Twins or the Rays or whatever small-market team (and Minnesota isn’t small-market anymore with Target Field) is currently thriving in MLB. The problem is how they’re framing it, and how they’ve been framing it…to no measure of success.

Every time the Indians open their mouths on this payroll situation, the problem is exacerbated because they’re coming out with the same lines that we’ve heard since Lee and Martinez were traded and all of it deals in very vague concepts and comes off sounding desperate and defeated. They must agree to these interviews thinking that they’ll be able to clarify why they’re not going to spend on FA or why they’re not going to be involved in major player acquisition this off-season, only to watch the flames of public opinion get fanned to the point that they get engulfed further in the inferno.

Let me be clear as I’m not blaming the PD for taking this absolute softball thrown at them by the Indians (and the PD did hit it out of the park in terms of how it was framed), because the blame doesn’t rest in a writer like Hoynes for passing along this old, tired, ill-conceived bit of salesmanship that keeps coming from the corner of Carnegie and Ontario.

If it’s not clear enough, the Indians have a MAJOR public relations issue and their endless circular explanations that, as I said, come off as “desperate” and “defeated” do nothing to change the issue as their messages feel like they’re talking down to fans and are so defensive against further criticism that it only CREATES more opportunity for criticism.

If Dolan is going to say “it’s not the right time to spend”, how about using the rationale that there aren’t options on the FA market that they feel represent a significant upgrade over their internal talent? Remember last week when I linked the Royals’ GM comment on Kansas City’s approach to FA?
“Our stance on potentially adding something (major through free agency) “is it would really have to fit long term. That guy doesn’t exist right now, and I don’t know who that would be.
“We’re not just going to add somebody to make our payroll higher for one year.”

Never would I suggest that the Indians should look to the Royals (who have had THREE winning records since 1990 and the highest win total among those THREE winning seasons is 84 in 1993) for advice on how to run their franchise or manage the public’s perception of it – but compare those two statements as one puts off a defensive and desperate and tell me which one sounds like they have confidence in their internal players and smacks of logic?

Remember the whole “Flipping the Script” idea from a couple of weeks ago, when it was suggested here that they should be trumpeting this young talent?
Use the bully pulpit from the corner of Carnegie and Ontario again to move away from the talk that “this is a rebuilding year again” and say that young in-house talent are unequivocally the players that are going to lead the Indians to their next appearance in the playoffs. If the Front Office TRULY believes it, come out and declare that the assembled young talent at all levels will prevent the team from going into this valley again.

The truth is that the Indians SHOULD NOT be spending on the FA that are going to be the mid-level FA available in this market and they should be leaning on the development of their young players, the way they did in 1991 and in 2003 to build something that could be sustainable. Wouldn’t the suggestion above go hand-in-hand with the hands-off approach that they are taking (and should be taking) on this FA market?

As mind-numbingly absurd as the “payroll message” from the Indians is, it’s not even the most frustrating aspect of this whole endeavor though, as the wailers and the teeth-gnashers are going to do just that, regardless of what comes out of anyone’s mouth whose place of “business” is at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario.

No, what gets lost in the “woe-is-me-in-MLB” tripe or the assertion that the Indians are “taking a far greater financial risk than whatever it is a large-market club spends on a large free agent” (because, you know, we get that idea when Travis Hafner lumbers to the plate 4 out of every 5 games) are the actual numbers that are in play here. By that I mean that if you take the time to read the entire PD piece regarding payroll, it proclaims that the Indians are only going to be spending between $50M and $59M on the team.
Harrumph, harrumph...I didn’t get a harrumph out of that guy, right?

Well, they spent $61.5M on the team last year and no longer count Wood, Westbrook, and Peralta (most notably) on their ledger...so, the payroll will drop between $2.5M and $11.5M despite the fact that those three aforementioned players (who “earned” $26.35M in 2010) will not be Indians next year.

Let me put that out there again, the Indians’ payroll was $61.5M last year and $26.35M was for Westbrook, Wood, and Peralta. Those three players are no longer Indians and the payroll looks to be dropping between $2.5M and $11.5M.

Is the “$50M to $59M” payroll number light years away from the $81.5 that they spent in 2009?
Of course, but that $81.5M number in 2009 also represented $17M that the team ADDED from the 2008 payroll when they acquired Wood, DeRosa, and Hot Carl Pavano in an attempt to keep that team (with Lee, Martinez, Sizemore, etc) in contention for a couple of more years…or at least that year.

Fans in Cleveland know all too well about the best-laid plans going awry in hindsight, but (and I don’t know the psychology of this) they LOVE the idea of a winner being built. The Indians should be exploiting this oddity of the psyche of the average Clevelander and should be pointing out that the Giants won the World Series because of home-grown pitchers and that the Indians are attempting to create a similar situation, one that they already did when they went into the mid-to-late 2000s with two players who would win the Cy Young Award.

Instead, the Indians put on this wall, and maybe that has something to do with the idea that they’re afraid of being wrong, but if the team REALLY wants to put forth the idea of “cycles”, maybe they should point to the same sequential listing of payrolls that I know I’ve referred to far too many times as it is instructive:
2011: $ 56,900,000
2010: $ 61,453,967
2009: $ 81,579,166
2008: $ 78,970,066
2007: $ 61,673,267
2006: $ 56,031,500
2005: $ 41,502,500
2004: $ 34,319,300
2003: $ 48,584,834
2002: $ 78,909,499
2001: $ 93,360,000

If you’re wondering where I’m coming up with that 2011 number, it comes courtesy of the fabulous breakdown of the Indians’ payroll commitments for the next few years at Baseball Reference..and while you’re there, take a look at those projected payrolls for the next few years, bumped by increasing salaries, options and arbitration.

See that incremental rise up from 2004 ($34,319,300) to the peak of 2009 ($81,579,166)?
That’s what the Indians are probably going to do for a while and if 2011 represents the lowest “valley” in that landscape, how about pointing out that the 2011 “valley” is about $25M higher than the one in 2004, the year that laid the groundwork for the 2007 AL Central Flag?

Don’t mistake this as a defense for the Dolans as they have made glaring errors in terms of promoting mediocrity and allowing the status quo to persist when the status quo is unproductive in terms of the Amateur Draft, but this prevailing notion that they should have just spent money in order to have just kept the 2007 team together, or at least the team that started 2008 ignores the whole idea of how contracts and FA works.

To wit, want to know what the team that started the 2008 season will earn in 2011 from their various (and prospective) employers?
CC - $23M
Lee – $21M
Westbrook - $8M
Carmona - $6.1M

Fangraphs’ crowdsourcing has CP making $21M per year (and I think that’s probably pretty conservative)…so, that’s $58.1M that the top four in the 2008 Opening Day rotation will earn in 2011.

While most fans view Pavano as a “lucky hit” for 2009, if you want to throw Pavano in there, crowdsourcing put a guess on Pavano at $9M per year, so if you add that guess for Pavano (and that number for Lee is a guess) to the numbers that are firm and you’re talking about a rotation that would cost $67.1M, which is a higher number than the estimated payrolls (as per B-Ref) for NINE teams in MLB in 2011.

Regardless, we’ll keep it just to the 2008 team and say that the top four in the 2008 Opening Day rotation will earn around $60M in 2011…

Want to keep going?
How about adding the salaries for the players that essentially started the 2008 season as Indians and how the payroll for that team would look:
Shoppach - $3M
Martinez - $12M
Cabrera - $2M
Peralta - $5.25M
Blake - $5.25M
Choo - $3.5M
Sizemore - $7.5M
Gutierrez - $4M
Hafner - $13M

The Cabrera guess is off of what Erick Aybar received in his first year of arbitration eligibility, the Choo number comes from a comp to what Ryan Ludwick received a couple of years ago and the Victor guess comes via Fangraphs’ crowdsourcing.

If you’re keeping score at home (and if you really are...we may need to talk), that lineup comes with a $55.5M price tag. Add that $55.5M for the 2008 lineup today with the $58.1M for the top four in the 2008 rotation (that’s without Pavano) and that’s $113.6M for your 2008 Indians in 2011...minus a 5th starter, a bullpen, and a bench.

Hefty numbers, no doubt, but let’s all remember that THOSE players compiled a record of 37-51 (14 GB) in 2008 when CC was traded and 45-58 (14 GB) when Lacey Cake was dealt...those two players will earn $28.5M this year.

The Tribe lost CC and Blake in 2008 and added Wood, DeRosa, and Pavano before 2009 and THOSE players compiled a record of 43-60 (11 GB) in 2009 when CP Lee and El Capitan exited stage right and were 47-62 (11.5 GB) when Pavano became a Twin...and those three players could earn $42M this year.

With the majority of those 2008 and 2009 teams out the door (and Gutz and ShopVac were off-season deals), the Indians were 42-59 (14.5 GB) last year when they dealt Peralta and were 43-61 (15.5 GB) a couple of days later when Westbrook made his way to St. Louis...those players will earn $13.25M this year.

As much as “keeping the band together” from Opening Day of 2008 may look like it was a certain recipe for consistent contention, there was never a “White Flag” deal done as the Indians made trades when they were more than 10 games back of the division leader.

While this is all sobering to analyze in the downswing of where the Indians are, if you’re going back to look at those payrolls though and looking at the build-up from 2011 to whenever (2016?) the same way that it increased from 2004 to 2009 – because the Indians’ young players are developing and have earned bigger paychecks – THAT is what the Dolans should be out in front touting, the development of their own players and the resulting money that will be spent as this group of youngsters congeals and matures.

Despite the fact that those SHOULD be the “talking points”, the Indians are reticent (or unaware) of how to manage the public perception nightmare that they have on their hand. As a result, short of them rattling off a sudden and consistent winner on the field for the next few years that energizes their fans in spite of their feelings toward ownership or the Front Office, if they’re continually reading those “talking points” out of the same book from which they’ve been reading in an attempt to engage their fan base…the end of the story is going to remain the same, with apathy and an empty ballpark being the result.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Into the Crystal Ball

While the North Coast rejoices South Korea defeating Taiwan in the Asian Games...you know, because it means that The BLC is now officially exempt from his military obligation, and in lieu of anything substantial to talk about in terms of player acquisition for the parent club, let's keep that attention turned to the internal development that is so important to the development of the Indians in the coming years.

With that in mind, since Top Prospect Lists are going to start arriving en masse here (and the Baseball Prospectus one is probably coming next week), let's start off with the Top 10 list for the Tribe that was released by Baseball America earlier in the week:
1. Lonnie Chisenhall, 3b
2. Alex White, rhp
3. Jason Kipnis, 2b
4. Drew Pomeranz, lhp
5. Nick Weglarz, of
6. Jason Knapp, rhp
7. Levon Washington, of
8. Tony Wolters, ss
9. Joe Gardner, rhp
10. Nick Hagadone, lhp

Essentially ten names you've probably seen before with a ranking to them as these are always interesting to a point as the names are all generally familiar, although a number of these rankings that don't include some sort of contextualizing criteria (like B-Pro's “Star System”) always makes these cursory lists feel like they're in a vacuum. Fun to look at for a moment...but that's about it because it offers no great insight or context.

To that end (and we're not done with the BA piece yet), Call to the Pen provides some context as they reveal what I assume to be the first Top 100 Prospect list of the season. I'll admit this straight off as I have no idea who Nathaniel Stoltz (the author) is and that my eyes were directed there a few weeks ago by Ed Carroll's “Deep Left Field”, so take that Top 100 listing however you want, but realize that it's coming from an author that looks to be based in California, with no great agenda to hype up Tribe prospects.

While there may not have been an agenda to hype up Tribe prospects, check out where different Indians' prospects fit in this Top 100 (and he's only posted #11 to #100), with a little quote from the write-up of each (linked in the name) accompanying the individual player:
#11 – Jason Knapp - “Few pitchers have more upside” and, yes...that's #11 in all of MLB

#29 – Drew Pomeranz - “He could evolve into one of baseball’s top lefties.”

#43 – Chun Chen - “Chen looks to be a true two-way stud behind the plate.”

#70 – Alex White - “It’s pretty tough to turn into a front-of-the-line starter in the majors when your Double-A whiff numbers don’t impress...he could be a poor man’s Dan Haren and a fine #2/#3 starter for a playoff team.”

#73 – Nick Weglarz - “Weglarz doesn’t have much defensive value either, but he’s essentially Jack Cust with fewer strikeouts, and that’s valuable.”

#77 – Felix Sterling - “Big and projectable, Sterling features advanced velocity for his age and already touches 94-95 mph at age 17. Both his offspeed pitches are advanced as well, and he could end up a truly dominating force.”

#90 – Matt Packer - “Indians fans sick of finesse lefties may be cautious, but Packer could be the sort of durable strikethrower who works as a great complement to a flamethrowing ace.”

Honorable Mention – Cord Phelps - “I feel confident in saying he could be a well-above-average second-base starter, but there’s not enough about him that stands out to quite get him into the top 100.”

You'll notice that Kipnis and Chisenhall don't appear on this list and, as I said, this particular list has not yet posted the Top 10 prospects, so I'll guess we'll have to wait and see if the Indians would really have three in the top 11, five in the top 50 and 9 in the top 100, with an honorable mention to boot if, in fact, Kipnis and The Chiz are among the Top 10.

Again, the source of this is purely a Top 100 list that I stumbled upon, and you can head down to one of those giant piles of salt that you see on the shores of Lake Erie when you're enjoying a Guinness on the patio of The Harp if you want to when digest that, but...well, take it as you will.

Regardless, let's get back to the BA piece as the only real compelling part of the annual BA prospect ranking to me is the indulgence of predicting what a team is going to look like 3 years into the future, with BA's best guess of the 2014 Tribe looking like this:
C - Carlos Santana
1B - Matt LaPorta
2B - Jason Kipnis
SS - Asdrubal Cabrera
3B - Lonnie Chisenhall
LF - LeVon Washington
CF - Grady Sizemore
RF - Shin-Soo Choo
DH - Nick Weglarz
SP - Alex White
SP - Drew Pomeranz
SP - Carlos Carrasco
SP - Fausto Carmona
SP - Jason Knapp
Closer - Chris Perez

At a cursory glance, you notice that Choo, Cabrera, and Sizemore are all listed on their 2014 lineup (and Mike Brantley isn't), despite the fact that the current contracts for all three will run out prior to the 2014 season. Additionally, you see that BA thinks that 2011 Draftee LaVon Washington will be moving AWFULLY fast to arrive in 2014. Of course, BA is notorious for overestimating the most fruits of the most recent draft, as evidenced by the inclusion of Beau Mills as the 2011 3B in the 2008 projection...and that's an interesting one to look at in hindsight. But that overestimation is neither here nor there as the real “fun” comes when we execute this little exercise for ourselves.

For the purposes of projecting the 2014 lineup with the status of current contracts in play, keep in mind here that Hafner's guaranteed years end after the 2012 season while Sizemore's club option also runs through the 2012 season, which is the last season that Rafael Perez is under club control. Players that will be FA after the 2013 season (as of right now) will be The BLC, Cabrera, and a couple of uninteresting relievers (Joe Smith and Jenny Lewis). So for this little exercise, I'm going to assume that all of those players have moved on, something that Baseball America doesn't generally do...as you'll notice CC at the top of the 2011 predicted rotation a few years back.

Cleveland Indians – v.2014
C – Chun Chen
1B – Carlos Santana
2B – Jason Kipnis
SS – Josh Rodriguez
3B – Lonnie Chisenhall
LF – Nick Weglarz
CF – Mike Brantley
RF – Abner Abreu
DH – Matt LaPorta

SP – Jason Knapp
SP – Drew Pomeranz
SP – Alex White
SP – Carlos Carrasco
SP – Fausto Carmona

RP – Zach Putnam
RP – Josh Judy
RP – Rob Bryson
RP – Hector Rondon
RP – Nick Hagadone
RP – Tony Sipp
RP – Justin Masterson
Closer – Chris Perez

Starting off with the pitching, I'd agree with the five starters projected by BA, just in a different order and with the caveat that There Is No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect, that rotation is pretty solid looking, from a projection standpoint. Past those five, Matt Packer would be a name that could factor into the rotation, though perhaps more as a depth starter whose left-handedness could balance out the rotation. Additionally, Joe Gardner, TJ House, and others could certainly factor in here...but a lot can happen in three years in terms of those arms as it's possible that a surprise emerges or one (or two) of those starters sees Dr. James Andrews.

In terms of the bullpen, relievers are a total crapshoot, particularly if you're trying to project a solid three years into the future (Ferd Cabrera anyone?)...so those 8 names could be completely different when 2014 rolls around.

Back to the lineup though, please note what two names stand out like sore thumbs there if we're using only players that are under club control through 2014?

Yeah, that would be Josh Rodriguez, a soon-to-be-26-year-old with 86 total games over AA at SS, and Abner Abreu, a just-turned-21-year-old outfielder who just put the finishing touches on an injury-marred season in which he posted a...wait for it, .651 OPS in Kinston. If anyone has any other obvious suggestions that I missed...I'm all ears. Certainly, 2014 would be an optimistic timetable for arrival guys like for LaVon Washington (although BA doesn't think so) and Tony Wolters (another 2011 draftee), but look at those two positions that I had such trouble filling (albeit three years from now) if I'm taking current contracts into account – SS and RF.

This is tough because, well...Choo and Cabrera are obviously not included on this list. If you add The BLC and Asdrubal to that list – yeah that looks like a team that could basically be the offense going into 2012 or thereabouts, with the ability to be around for a couple of years together as a group to mature and excel as they evolve as a unit.

Given the cost certainty of the rest of that lineup (even three years from now) and the organizational holes beneath them at their respective positions, maybe the Indians SHOULD be considering long-term deals with these two this off-season, as much as the Scott Boras Factor starts to come into play...but that payroll discussion becomes another topic for another (Lazy Sun)day.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Zipping Into the Future

Throughout the off-season, the idea of “internal improvement” will become the phrase most often uttered at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario, as the Indians are unlikely to delve too deeply (or at all) into the FA market and with the trade market being the only likely avenue in terms of adding talent from outside of the organization. While some dreamed of a return by Westbrook (officially dashed, thanks to 2 guaranteed years and $16.5M guaranteed from the Cardinals), the reality of the off-season is that the Indians will be looking for some ancillary pieces to augment what they already have in place.

In terms of what they already have in place, the Indians are quick to point to Choo, Santana and C. Perez, the (assumed) return of Sizemore, the continued recovery of Hafner and Carmona, and (most importantly) the opportunity for young players to adapt and mature at the MLB level. That last point, of course, is where the Indians hope to see the most improvement as the young players that they have acquired over the years (Santana, LaPorta, Brantley, Donald, Carrasco, Masterson, Talbot, Marson, and Perez) had varying degrees of success and failure in 2010.

While it’s nice to dream on Carrasco’s September, Talbot’s first half, Brantley’s second half, Santana’s June, Perez’s dominance as the closer, or the adjustments that Masterson seemed to make as the season wore on, the reality of the 2011 Tribe is that they remain a young and unproven team, as much as we’d all like to predict the best-case scenario happening for each player…and that best-case scenario happening right now.

With that in mind, perhaps it is instructive to look at the first of the 2011 Projections that has been released, this one from The Baseball Think Factory, in projections that are known as ZiPS projections. ZiPS is a computer-based projection for performance that BTF runs for every team in MLB in an attempt to project performance for each individual player and, as a result, each team.

While some are more than a little hesitant to allow computers to go all SkyNet on them in terms of how they watch and enjoy baseball, let’s consider this a fun little foray into what could be for 2011. Before we look forward however, maybe we should look back to see how the 2010 Tribe Projections from ZiPS compared to actual 2010 production from members of the Indians.

Since all of this can start to feel like you’re entering into some calculus class (and for the purposes of sanity), I’m just using the OPS+ and ERA+ numbers as posting triple slash lines and K/BB numbers for all of these guys is akin to lunacy and because OPS+ and ERA+ are a way to get to the quick and dirty projections and production for every player without devolving into crunching numbers that are, frankly, over my head.

Again, for my own sanity, I’m limiting this comparison to guys with 175 or more PA and 40 or more IP and am including total year OPS+ totals for players that split time between two teams and only for players that were included in last year’s projections, which means no Branyan, Kearns, Duncan, or Nix. So, with all of those “ground rules” finally out there, let’s see how the ZiPS 2010 projections compared to the Real 2010 Production for the Indians:
2010 Real Production vs. 2010 ZiPS Projections – Position Players
Choo (Real) – 148 OPS+
Choo (ZiPS) – 121 OPS+

Santana (Real) – 144 OPS+
Santana (ZiPS) – 105 OPS+

Hafner (Real) – 131 OPS+
Hafner (ZiPS) – 114 OPS+

Peralta (Real) – 94 OPS+
Peralta (ZiPS) – 96 OPS+

Donald (Real) – 94 OPS+
Donald (ZiPS) – 69 OPS+

Cabrera (Real) – 90 OPS+
Cabrera (ZiPS) – 97 OPS+

Marte (Real) – 90 OPS+
Marte (ZiPS) – 90 OPS+

LaPorta (Real) – 88 OPS+
LaPorta (ZiPS) – 104 OPS+

Crowe (Real) – 79 OPS+
Crowe (ZiPS) – 74 OPS+

Brantley (Real) – 76 OPS+
Brantley (ZiPS) – 88 OPS+

Marson (Real) – 59 OPS+
Marson (ZiPS) – 77 OPS+

Valbuena (Real) – 51 OPS+
Valbuena (ZiPS) – 85 OPS+

Looking at those projections and actual production falls in line how the expectations for the players resulted in some pleasant surprises (Choo, Santana, Hafner, and, to a lesser extent, Donald), some major disappointments (LaPorta, Marson, Valbuena, and Brantley) and some players whose performance was pretty much on par with the projections (Cabrera, Marte, and Crowe) as poor as those projections may have been. By the way, Sizemore doesn’t appear on the list (despite having the highest projected OPS+ on BTF’s list at 122 OPS+) because he had only 140 PA

Now, with all of those numbers fresh in your eyes and in an easy-to-scroll-to position, here’s how ZiPS sees the OPS+ for the players that figure in most obviously for the 2011 Tribe:
2011 ZiPS Projections – Position Players
Choo – 131 OPS+
Santana – 120 OPS+
Sizemore – 115 OPS+
Hafner – 109 OPS+
LaPorta – 105 OPS+
Cabrera – 99 OPS+
Brantley – 96 OPS+
Donald – 88 OPS+
Nix – 84 OPS+
With the caveat that we all thought the offense would be pretty good last year and simply wasn’t, that’s a decent looking offense with Choo and Santana doing most of the heavy lifting and nearly every player on this list has higher projected numbers than ZiPS predicted for them last year.

Past that nine, the guys that spent significant time with the parent club this past year, with the majority of these players look rather underwhelming, even as depth or bench options:
Duncan – 97 OPS+
Valbuena – 85 OPS+
Marson – 83 OPS+
Crowe – 79 OPS+

After what would be assumed to be the starting 9 and the players that are most likely to come to Spring Training with a chance to make a club in some capacity, you have players that may or may not be with the team, either because they may be moved or because they may spend most (or part) of the year in the Minors:
Weglarz – 96 OPS+
Brown – 95 OPS+
Kipnis – 94 OPS+
Phelps – 92 OPS+
Rodriguez – 91 OPS+
Carrerra – 85 OPS+
The Chiz – 85 OPS+
Is it surprising to anyone else that Weglarz projects with a higher OPS+ than Brown despite the difference in age and advancement?
Yeah, me neither...

Although it is interesting that both Kipnis, Phelps, and even Rodriguez project higher than Donald, that both Phelps, The Chiz, and Rodriguez project better than Nix and that Ezequiel Carrera projects with a better OPS+ than Crowe. If the Indians are looking to make improvements to what look to be some weaknesses in their lineup and on their bench, internal options may not be far off.

If you’re looking for projections that look positive, a 96 OPS+ for Brantley would be a HUGE improvement and the idea that Choo and Santana would be elite offensive players would certainly make the 2011 offense much more potent. On the flip side, a projected OPS+ of 105 for Matt LaPorta, as a 26-year-old 1B would just solidify LaPorta as a bust and as a player who proved to be not much of an upgrade over Ryan Garko.

If there are more positives to be taken than negatives – and not to let the air out of anyone’s balloons (assuming someone is blowing up balloons) – let’s move over to the pitching staffs. Starting off, we’ll take a quick look at what ZiPS projected for the 2010 Indians’ pitching staff, compared to how the individual players actually fared, again, using composite numbers for players that spent time with two teams in 2010:
2010 Real Production vs. 2010 ZiPS Projections – Starters
Carmona (Real) – 102 ERA+
Carmona (ZiPS) – 89 ERA+

Carrasco (Real) – 101 ERA+
Carrasco (ZiPS) – 76 ERA+

Westbrook (Real) – 92 ERA+
Westbrook (ZiPS) – 96 ERA+

Talbot (Real) – 88 ERA+
Talbot (ZiPS) – 84 ERA+

Laffey (Real) – 86 ERA+
Laffey (ZiPS) – 95 ERA+

Gomez (Real) – 83 ERA+
Gomez (ZiPS) – 72 ERA+

Masterson (Real) – 82 ERA+
Masterson (ZiPS) – 101 ERA+

Huff (Real) – 62 ERA+
Huff (ZiPS) – 86 ERA+

You’ll notice that Josh Tomlin (Real ERA+ of 85) does not appear as ZiPS excluded him last year because...well, who would have thought that Josh Tomlin would have started as many games as he did when 2010 started.

As for the projections, ZiPS really thought very little of the Tribe rotation going into last year (and just wait for the projections for 2011), with Masterson being projected to be the only starter with an ERA+ over 100 (which didn’t happen) and while Carmona and Carrasco didn’t finish well above 100, they did outpace their projections pretty significantly. Ultimately, some of that ZiPS pessimism ended up being overstated (Carmona, Carrasco, and Gomez), some of it ended up being spot-on (Talbot, Westbrook), and some of the projections wildly overshot the actual performance of a particular pitcher (Masterson, Huff, and Laffey)...which sounds about right in terms of expectations versus reality.

As for the 2011 Projections, let’s just say that the piece actually includes a tongue-in-cheek warning before looking at the projections because…well, let’s just look at the projections:
2011 ZiPS Projections – Starters
Masterson – 97 ERA+
Carmona – 93 ERA+
Talbot – 89 ERA+
Carrasco – 87 ERA+
Laffey – 82 ERA+
Tomlin – 81 ERA+
Huff – 76 ERA+
Gomez – 75 ERA+

Before everyone has to remove their shoelaces (as per instructions of the warden) after seeing those projections, let’s remember what last year’s projections looked like, as they were just as gory with Masterson at the top of last year’s list as well. While the actual results of the 2010 starting rotation did nothing to evoke memories of the 1954 Tribe staff, Carmona and Carrasco (most notably) SIGNIFICANTLY outperformed their projections last year and, at first glance, if there were to be two pitchers to do it again on this list, those two would be my picks.

Interesting how those projections for Tomlin, Huff, and Gomez (thought to be the troika that will be given the first shot at that 5th spot) are all below Aaron Laffey and even JERRY SOWERS (ZiPS ERA+ of 83), even if just by a little bit. The trio’s projections are actually below those of Alex White (ZiPS ERA+ of 81), who may emerge at some point to the parent club in 2011, but certainly not to begin the season.

If the perspective of looking last year was enough to convince you to keep reading and you’re not running for the Pepto for the nausea caused by those 2011 projections for the rotation, let’s cast our eye out to the bullpen, starting again by comparing last year’s projections to real production:
2010 Real Production vs. 2010 ZiPS Projections – Relievers
C. Perez (Real) – 226 ERA+
C. Perez (ZiPS) – 116 ERA+

Wood (Real) – 133 ERA+
Wood (ZiPS) – 115 ERA+

R. Perez (Real) – 119 ERA+
R. Perez (ZiPS) – 108 ERA+

Smith (Real) – 102 ERA+
Smith (ZiPS) – 108 ERA+

Sipp (Real) – 94 ERA+
Sipp (ZiPS) – 108 ERA+

Remember, I’m combining the total numbers for players (Wood) that played for more than just the Indians and the minimum amount of innings here is 40, so guys like Jenny Lewis (Real – 131 ERA+, ZiPS – 110 ERA+), Jess Todd, and Justin Germano aren’t included on the list. Additionally, Frank Herrman (Real 96 ERA+) and Heck Ambriz (Real 70 ERA+) weren’t on the ZiPS projections for either the Tribe or the D-Backs last Winter, so neither makes the comparative list. As for players that are on the list, C. Perez drastically outperformed the projections with Wood (mostly on the strength of his time in the Bronx) and Raffy Perez outpacing their projections as well.

As for what ZiPS sees for the 2011 bullpen, here are the relievers of note listed in their compilation:
2011 ZiPS Projections – Relievers
C. Perez – 135 ERA+
Sipp – 103 ERA+
Smith – 101 ERA+
Lewis – 99 ERA+
Todd – 97 ERA+
R. Perez – 95 ERA+
Pestano – 92 ERA+
Herrmann – 92 ERA+
Judy – 92 ERA+

Past Chris F. Perez, ZiPS doesn’t think much of the Tribe’s young arms and the projections for Sipp, Smith, and R. Perez are all lower than they were in last year’s projections. It goes without saying, but this group, more than any other, is going to be a lot of trial-and-error in 2011 with the arms likely coming pretty consistently (which, of course, means arms go down consistently) until the Indians can hopefully separate the wheat from the chaff.

All told, there is nothing too surprising in the ZiPS projections as the starting pitching remains the major wild card for the 2011 Tribe and ZiPS (like last year) is not too optimistic that the starting pitchers are even league average, either individually or as a group. Certainly, there are some disappointing projections for some of the young position players (LaPorta and Donald, most notably) and the gaggle of young arms that figure to populate the bullpen all year are not all that highly-regarded by ZiPS.

What it all means is that a computer program put out some projections as it does every year, with the promise that some players will outperform those projections, some will hit them almost exactly, and some will fall well short of them. Which players fall into which category won’t be answered for another 8 to 10 months, but with the off-season shaping up like it is, projecting performance of internal players may be as exciting, or as in-depth, as this Hot Stove Season promises to be.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Winterizing on a Lazy Sunday

Just because an Indian Summer has descended on the North Coast doesn’t mean that there’s all that much news related to the “Indians” or “Summer” as all remains quiet on the North Coast…or at least at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario. While this was to be expected, it hasn’t prevented the Hot Stove from putting off a little heat, even if that heat barely moves the thermometer or if it goes noticed by more than a couple of hundred people. Nevertheless, it is Sunday and while most of Cleveland is waiting to see if their new “McCoy” jersey fits (and if it doesn’t, the “Hillis” one is a nice fall-back), let’s get loose on a Lazy Sunday…

As mentioned above, as the Hot Stove seems to be humming for most teams, news about the Indians (or even marginally related to the Indians) remains mostly non-existent. As a result, you have a “debate” (term used as loosely as possible) over Kevin Kouzmanoff and whether the Indians could handle his atrocious OBP in the name of defense…and remember K2 is NOT a Free Agent, just a guy who fits the “profile” of what the Indians should be targeting. Combine that “debate” with the news that Oakland signed 3B Edwin Encarnacion...which (and I write this breathlessly) means that Kouzmanoff may be available, unless the A’s are looking at Encarnacion as a DH candidate and we have ourselves a manufactured storyline to follow.

It’s true that we can read about the Indians touting their middle infield and relief pitching depth (and, remember that Pluto’s Sunday Notes column is always what he’s hearting directly from the club), but creating a “Kevin Kouzmanoff Watch” is about where we’re at with the Indians’ off-season – essentially reading too much into every situation, as remote as any possibility of some action might be. Lists of possible trade targets from around MLB can be parsed through (and Sizemore oddly appears on Nick Cafardo’s list as a possible mid-season trade target despite the fact that Sizemore’s 2012 team option voids if he is traded, meaning a team would be only getting ½ of a season for Grady, who would become a FA after this season if traded) and different suggestions can be made for Pablo Sandoval or Juan Rivera, but the speculation is just that.

Would the Indians be interested in Brian Bannister or Kenshin Kawakami…and where were they on the Cameron Maybin trade talks?

Yes, get ready for a winter not so much of “discontent”…more of “detachment”, as the Indians figure to remain largely under-the-radar, waiting for things to shake out with the rest of FA before they place a couple of strategic long shot bets as they attempt to improve the team in some key areas of concern.

While this was to be expected, don’t let the quiet off-season prevent the local scribes (or at least one of them) from, as my friend says, “stirring the pot with an outboard motor” in terms of unfairly framing the team as being unnecessarily inactive in the off-season by injecting familiar (if unrelated to the team’s course of action) names into the mix, to the point that it’s not to hard to see through an thinly veiled attempt to create an agenda and or a controversy…or maybe it’s just an attempt at creating interest.

If you’re not sure what I’m getting at, here are the first two sentences in a piece that showed up at my front door on Friday morning as a “preview” for the Indians’ off-season:
Just so everyone knows where the Indians stand this off-season when it comes to getting external help to improve a product that lost 93 games last season, read the following paragraph.
While Yankees GM Brian Cashman flew to Arkansas on Wednesday to entice top free agent pitcher Cliff Lee, Indians GM Chris Antonetti was in an all-day meeting at Progressive Field with the organization’s scouts to see if they may be able to turn water into wine at any point this winter.

While you might think that the intro is meant to point out the disparity in MLB, reading further in the piece reveals that the point was more to point out how everybody else is going to be active except for the Indians and invokes the names of Peralta and Westbrook and Lee and Martinez, seemingly to merely fan the flames of an obviously frustrated fanbase.

The overall premise is necessary, but the piece strays from informative (areas of need, projected payroll, etc.) to inconsequential (the courting of Lee affects Cleveland’s off-season plans…how?) to simply incendiary as the piece is littered with mentions of other teams spending money, even if it is on obvious FA mistakes that just happened. Most notably, the piece points out that Jhonny recently received 2 years and $11.5M from Detroit to play SS with Hoynes adding that SS is “a position he was deemed unfit for in Cleveland”, failing to mention that he was “deemed unfit” for exceptional reasons and that the media clamored for him to be moved off of SS as far back as 2008.

The transaction (Peralta to Detroit) however is painted in such a manner to show that other teams are spending money…and the Indians sit at home trying to figure out “how to turn water into wine” on the FA market. In reality, if the Indians gave Peralta a 2-year deal (much less a 2-year deal to play SS), people would be marching to the corner of Carnegie and Ontario with torches and pitchforks, out for somebody’s blood to spill over the decision…and with good reason, I might add.

Again, this piece needs to be written to provide an overview of what is to be expected, but compare it to what Castrovince wrote (a SOLID two weeks ago I might add) and note how AC’s piece is informative and enlightening while not catering to the lowest common denominator by unnecessarily dredging up names that have no bearing on the Indians’ off-season and giving a starting point to the cynics that usually don’t even need that much of a head start to wail and gnash teeth.

If you think that I’m overanalyzing this unsurprisingly incongruous piece, realize that even an impartial observer like Craig Calcaterra of Hardball Talk sees the inconsistency in the flow of the piece, specifically as to how Jake Westbrook’s name is mentioned and, more importantly, how the Indians are portrayed in the situation. To wit, Hoynes brings up Jake as an option for adding a veteran starting pitcher, but leaves it at “Westbrook pitched well for the Cardinals and there is little chance that he would return to Cleveland”. All of this is technically relevant and moderately accurate, but it fails to mention that Ken Rosenthal is reporting that Jake Westbrook is unlikely to return to ST. LOUIS because he’s looking to secure a contract with a guaranteed third year, which the Cardinals are balking at.

Given that “rest of the story”, in that Westbrook is probably going to get three guaranteed years from somebody, do you really blame the Indians for kicking the tires on Jake and moving on down the used-car lot after looking at the asking price on the sticker in the window?

Lest you forget, the Indians just finished paying the bulk of Westbrook’s 3-year, $33M deal from 2008 to this past July. During that deal, the Indians paid for 162 1/3 IP over three years ($204,545 per inning pitched for the Tribe) when Jake was 30 to 32 years old. So…do you think that they’re anxious to give him a 3-year deal when he’s going to be 33 to 35 years old?

This is certainly pointed out here to demonize Westbrook, whose injuries were out of his control, but more to point out that once the bidding on a guy like Jake gets to a guaranteed third year (or even a guaranteed second year) is when the Indians should send their well wishes and move on to a target that better fits the profile of what they need.

When Westbrook signs, there will be the contingent that simply looks at him being inked to a deal and bemoans that the Indians “let another one get away” while missing the forest for the trees. What they won’t realize is that Westbrook is seen as the second most attractive FA starting pitcher on the market and that he’s going to get a deal from a team that feels that they’re one pitcher away from legitimately contending and will be paid as such.

As a quick aside, check out that list in a piece from Jerry Crasnick (which also gauges GM opinions on reclamation arms), with Lee, Westbrook, and Pavano being three of the four most attractive FA pitchers on the market. Remember that whole idea that the Indians should be touting their ability to find these players (if not keep them) and that Sabathia, Lee, Westbrook, Pavano, and others were all on teams in either 2008 or 2009 – neither of which were winning teams.

If anything, the Indians should be spending their time pointing out that many of the prime FA on the market were players that either made their debut with the Indians, or established themselves in Cleveland or re-established themselves in Cleveland and that the current focus of the organization is to recognize that SAME TYPE OF TALENT, just on the way up in their careers…not on their way down.

While they’d never do it, they should use the moment when Victor Martinez signs the inevitable 5-year deal with the Tigers or Rangers (which will end when he is 36 years old) will be completed before Carlos Santana’s years of club control expire. In a similar vein, they should meet the signing of Peralta to a 2-year deal (TO PLAY SS) with some sort of press release pointing out that Peralta’s contract will run out before Asdrubal Cabrera (the player that displaced Peralta at SS) is through with his arbitration years.

As I said, they’d never do it and because of that, the vocal minority sing their chorus that the Dolans are sitting on their dust-covered checkbook because they don’t want to improve the team by adding a FA that’s going to cost too much. Realistically, does Chris Antonetti need to spoon-feed the fans the obviousness of this line that came from of Kansas City’s GM this week, when Dayton Moore had this to say to the Kansas City Star:
“It’s not cost effective at this time for us to be real aggressive with major-league free agents.”
“Our stance on potentially adding something (major through free agency) “is it would really have to fit long term. That guy doesn’t exist right now, and I don’t know who that would be.
“We’re not just going to add somebody to make our payroll higher for one year.”

To most, that goes without saying for a team that lost 90 games in consecutive seasons, and both the Royals and Indians have. For the Tribe however, a major contributing factor in the mix should be the lack of a return on investment on big money contracts given out their own players (Jake and Hafner, most notably), much less when they ventured into the swamp of FA for external options, like Kerry Wood, when the team was much closer to contention than the current club is.

Going back to Dayton Moore reciting a line from “Team Building for Dummies”, find me a fit on the FA market that makes baseball and financial sense for the Indians, and I’m all ears. Short of that, simply looking over the whole MLB landscape in a vacuum and picking players that would help the Indians is simply not rational thinking and anyone who has been paying attention knows this and really shouldn’t fault the Indians (or the Royals) for believing that staying away from the FA market is in most teams’ best interests.

Would Jake Westbrook look great back in the Tribe rotation?
Of course, just like Adrian Beltre would certainly solve the black hole that has existed at 3B…and Paul Konerko and Rafael Soriano would be perfect to solve the lack of a RH bat and the need for a RH back-end reliever.

But there are 29 other teams in this mix, many of whom see themselves as closer to contention than the Indians with more of a stomach for the risk that comes with FA, that are not excluded from FA discussions. So for anyone to think that the Indians were going to make a splash (or even a couple of ripples) in FA this off-season simply wasn’t around (or wasn’t paying attention to the organizational about-face) when CP Lee and El Capitan were traded a couple of months after the Indians DID make their splash (via a bellyflop) in FA with Kerry Wood.

Any “big” move is going to come via trade and just to attempt to bring some (relative) constructiveness to this whole monologue, while I already laid out one team that the Indians could perhaps be a trade partner with (Oakland), how about Toronto and their “glut” of arms?

Their GM told B-Pro’s John Perrotto that he “vows to be more aggressive in his second offseason as he seeks to fills holes at catcher, first base, and the bullpen for a team that finished a surprising 85-77” and admits that he’s “talking to GMs right now, canvassing what everyone’s needs are,” and that he’s “been doing that the last little while on and off, and making my way through the 29 GMs to see where their priorities are to see if we line up in trade.”

Of course, every GM could make that last statement, but given that the Blue Jays do have some Indians’ ties with new manager John Farrell and new 1B coach Torey Lovullo, perhaps one of those former Indians’ execs/coaches has a particular player in the Tribe organization that strikes their fancy and the Indians could net some of the young pitchers from Toronto in the exchange. Then again, the same rationale existed when Neal Huntington made his way to Pittsburgh and the only players with ties to the Pirates that have donned the Chief that I can think of recently are Luke Carlin and Brian Bullington...so that idea that Farrell or Lovullo may be looking to extract some of their organizational favorites may be reading too much into the situation.

Which gets us back to where we started, as the silence coming from the corner of Carnegie and Ontario has left us to not only attempt to read the tea leaves, but to conduct extensive scientific studies on those tea leaves to glean something…anything from the happenings around MLB and how it may be affecting the actions/inactions of the Tribe this off-season.

So, while we take a hard look at Oakland acquiring Ed Encarnacion or the ties of some of the Blue Jays’ coaching staff to Cleveland, the Indians remain so far off of the radar, in terms of player movement, that 40-man decisions, new uniforms, and a Winter Wonderland at the ballpark have been the basis for most of the off-season articles about the Tribe…aside from the occasional snarky diversion.

While that may be disappointing to some, examining where the organization is in their attempt to re-build a contender (and, since they’re not trumpeting it, I will…yes, RE-BUILD a contender) in short order, that Winter of Detachment may actually be what’s best for the Indians this off-season. As boring as that may be while Free Agents (and many former Indians) order new address labels, that doesn’t mean that there won’t be more MLB tea leaves to be sent to the lab for further examination all Winter long.