Sunday, January 09, 2011

Stockpiling Arms on A Lazy Sunday

The holidays have passed and the New Year is upon us as the North Coast’s wintry grip starts to squeeze a collective populace that has no football to watch, presides over a basketball team with the NBA’s worst record, and is in the midst of a “Rebuild/Reload/Whatever” at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario. While it already seems like months since we’ve seen the sun and long for the warmer, brighter days of Spring and the promise that it brings with it, it does become difficult to have that optimism translate to Cleveland sports. Making it worse is the tone taken by those who are largely responsible for the coverage of those sports as, just for today’s example, the city’s last major paper uses 238 words to announce that Jordan Brown has been removed from the 40-man roster, but uses a ¼ of them to drop this snide bit of “commentary” just to editorialize the Tribe’s off-season in a largely unjustified setting:
The Indians designated him for assignment to make room for outfielder Austin Kearns, the only big-league free agent the Indians have signed this winter. If that’s discouraging, look at it this way. The Indians are paying Kearns $1.3 million. At this time last year, the only big-league free agent they’d signed was Mike Redmond for $850,000. The Tribe is on a spending spree.

Anyone got a towel to dry that last line off…it’s dripping with unmerited sarcasm.
And the flames of discontent are unnecessarily fanned higher (while the position that the Indians are approaching the off-season exactly as they should is ignored) as that little aside was in the body of a piece announcing the removal of a 27-year-old player from the 40-man roster, a player that is likely to stay in the organization because (this being the first time he’s been designated for assignment) Brown remains in the Tribe organization if he clears waivers, which is likely. Brown being removed is really a non-story (so apparently the PD beat writer took the opportunity to take a swipe at the organization) as he has fallen far enough on the depth chart at enough positions that he’s likely never going to see his way back to Cleveland, unless something goes horribly wrong in the next couple of years…even worse than 2010.

Between the troika a Sizemore, Brantley, and Choo with Kearns in the outfield and Zeke Carrera on the 40-man giving the Indians 5-man depth (and…um, Trevor Crowe…you’re next on this DFA thing as Zeke’s presence makes you more than expendable), Hafner, LaPorta, Duncan, Weglarz, and Goedert all on the 40-man roster, the LH Brown – who is a man without a position and has yet to display much more than a high BA in the upper levels of the Minors – was simply the odd man out. An argument could be made that Brown should have stuck around ahead of Duncan or Goedert, but I’d take both of those players as RH compliments to Hafner or as insurance against MaTola starting slowly again over keeping Brown on the 40-man.

As I said, the Brown DFA is largely a non-story (despite the fact that I just spent all of that time on it) and with that finally out of the way and me off of my little MSM soapbox, let’s get going on a Lazy Sunday that features some of the best Indians’ writers out there (and I would encourage you to click on the links provided as I may be utilizing particular assertions or paragraphs from some of these pieces, but all merit a look of their own volition) all somehow hitting on the same topic…well, kind of.

That topic is one that hasn’t gone unnoticed here as the amount of pieces written in this space that play off of an “Arms Race” or “Arms Debate” or “Bearing Arms” are nearly too many to count (and please note the new “Stockpiling Arms” in today’s title as I may have finally exhausted every pun involving “Arms” in military terms), but that doesn’t mean that there isn’t new ground to tread upon and lots of tremendous articles to get us there.

Besides, it is Sunday and what else are you going to do this today look up Pat Shurmur’s underwhelming resume online again?

Unless you really plan to, let’s get it going…
Back in the saddle after the holidays, Anthony Castrovince starts it off by reviewing the returns for CC and Cliff, taking into consideration the timeframe of when the players should be contributing at the MLB level saying that “it’s not all that unreasonable to suggest that 2011, three years removed from the trade, is a time when LaPorta and Brantley ought to prove their long-term value” and taking it further that “we’ll know a lot more about the Lee trade after 2011, when we get a full-season look at Carrasco in the rotation and we have more definitive answers on whether Jason Donald is a full-time second baseman and Lou Marson, playing in a backup role behind the dish, can hit in the bigs.”

The timeframe that AC points out is more than valid, particularly considering where the players acquired were in their advanced stages development as (most notably) LaPorta, Brantley, Carrasco, Donald, and Marson all arrived to the Indians playing at AA or above. That being said, AC is absolutely correct in asserting that 2011 is a huge year for the evaluation of these trades and while final judgment on either trade at the end of 2011 will still be too early (remember how long it took a certain Arkansan to turn into Clifton Phifer), the performance of the players acquired in the CC and Lee deals (as well as the Victor deal, as all 3 pitchers acquired from the Red Sox arrived at a level of AA or higher) in the coming year will begin to determine not only whether those deals will be viewed as boons or busts, but more importantly, the performance of the players acquired will determine how close/far away the Indians are from legitimately competing.

While the trades of CC, Lee, and Victor find themselves under scrutiny entering the season, WFNY’s Jon Steiner takes a fascinating look back at what the Indians targeted – specifically in the Lee and Martinez deals – in that they added a number of potential impact arms, something that is not always easy to do on the trade market, as Steiner points out with the help of some fascinating charts and lists.

Steiner defends the arms acquired, calling the manner in which they added players resembling “a buckshot approach” and finishes the piece with a challenge to find that one trade whose return looks better that has happened in recent years that looks better than the arms netted for Cliff and Vic because high-impact, young pitching generally isn’t traded:
The deck is stacked, especially when it comes to pitching, and you get what you can, not what you deserve. Or, to put it another way: where are all these impact pitchers that have been acquired via trade? If the market doesn’t deliver them up, it’s hard to fault the organization for not acquiring them.
So if you think we could have gotten more, you’ll have to show me a team that did get more.

Interestingly, you know who the best pitcher in recent memory acquired via trade when he was still in the Minors has been?
Um…Cliff Lee, acquired back when he was a soon-to-be-24-year-old Harrisburg Senator that was moved from the Expos’ AA team to the Indians’ AA team back in 2002.

Not since Randy Johnson with Seattle has there been a Cy Young Award winner (and I know that’s a fairly arbitrary criteria) that had been traded as a prospect and won with the team that acquired him as a prospect. But isn’t that exactly what happened with Lee, the one that had only 62 1/3 MLB IP before his age 25 season…the one that didn’t emerge as a legitimate ace until he had spent 4 full seasons in MLB and parts of 2 more, with 129 games started under his belt before his 2008 season, when he was 29 years old?

The one who was acquired by THIS FRONT OFFICE (or some amalgamation of it) nine years ago?

Lest anyone think that Lee was this hotshot prospect who was viewed as much more than an auxiliary piece to the Colon deal, here’s ESPN’s write-up of Lee at the time of the trade...and please click on that link to see how the Colon deal in its entirety was viewed real-time by the WWL:
Cliff Lee, LHP, 23 - Lee, ranked only as Montreal’s 11th-best prospect at the start of the year, blossomed into one of the top pitchers in the Eastern League, going 7-2 with a 3.23 ERA (7th) and 105 strikeouts (1st) in 86.1 innings. He relies on control, with just 23 walks, but has allowed 12 home runs.

That’s the whole description and, if you’re curious, that “11th best prospect” ranking prior to 2001 comes from Baseball America prior to 2002 and the 10 players ranked ahead of Lee were Brandon Phillips, Brad Wilkerson, Grady Sizemore, Donnie Bridges, Josh Karp, Justin Wayne, Rich Rundles, Zach Day, Luke Lockwood and Eric Good.

If you’re still not convinced, realize that Baseball Prospectus said at the time that Lee would be joining Akron along with “fellow left-handed pitching prospects Billy Traber, Brian Tallet and Alex Herrera” continuing that “Lee figures to be ready for the majors at the end of the 2003 season. His upside is that of a #3 starter.”

Is that supposed to lead us to believe that Corey Kluber is your 2016 AL Cy Young Award Winner?
Certainly not, but it speaks to the idea that these prospects (and particularly pitchers) are difficult to quantify in terms of floors and ceilings, even by the most astute publication or scout as even the very top prospects often flame out. To that end, the Indians trusted their internal scouting and asked for Lee as part of the deal, for which they would be vindicated, even if the ultimate vindication didn’t come until 2008. Whether the volume of pitchers that they now count as their own in the system (ranked as 3rd best and probably the deepest by an interesting new measure) pan out to that degree is certainly up for debate…but time is the only argument that will settle that debate.

Back to the Colon deal briefly, the aforementioned B-Pro piece, written on July 2nd of 2002, is absolutely fascinating to read in terms of how history repeated itself at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario and two most interesting parts of it, particularly pertaining to today’s topic, come at the end...and remember, this is about the Colon deal in 2002:
Some fans wondered why the Indians didn’t receive more pitching in return, or try to get a player that could contribute right now. Shapiro made inquiries along those fronts, but teams simply weren’t willing to part with players that they felt were instrumental in their continued run for the division.
The Colon and Alomar trades have not gone over well with Tribe fans. Winning breeds expectations, and right now, those expectations are not being met. The radio talk shows have been bombarded with negativism and attendance has already taken a hit. Most teams in all four major sports have periods in which they have to re-tool; now, it’s the Indians’ turn. Shapiro knows that the remainder of the 2002 season will be a tough time. Cleveland fans should at least feel comfort in that the men in charge have a plan and intend to stick to it. If everyone involved just shows a little patience, there should be a reward at the end.

Check out that first line in particular and how it relates to the Steiner piece, in that young pitchers generally don’t get traded and read that second part again and realize that if the Indians were currently handling themselves in the press with that sentiment, while the critics who are quick to blame Shapiro for everything (and have since 2006) aren’t going to be convinced, that their perception among the fanbase would be held in much higher regard.

Regardless, back to this idea of evaluating the deals of the past two-and-a-half years and the focus on adding pitchers at multiple levels, let’s take a look at the deals that the Indians consummated from 2009 to now. I’m not including the CC or Blake deals as I think that it is important to remember that the Indians still thought contention was possible in 2009 when they added DeRosa and Wood, so the returns on the CC and Blake deals were more designed to augment the pieces in place than they were to usher in a full blown reconstruction project.

Conversely, when DeRosa was moved, followed by the Lee deal that signaled (pretty definitively) that the “Rebuild/Reload/Whatever” was truly underway, take a look at the players acquired in order of trade:
DeRosa Trade
RHP Chris Perez
RHP Jess Todd

Betancourt Trade
RHP Connor Graham

Garko Trade
LHP Scott Barnes

Lee Trade
RHP Carlos Carrasco
RHP Jason Knapp
C Lou Marson
2B Jason Donald

Victor Trade
RHP Justin Masterson
LHP Nick Hagadone
RHP Bryan Price

Picking up a trend yet with 11 players acquired and 9 of them being pitchers?
On we go...
Pavano Trade
RHP Yohan Pino

Shoppach Trade
RHP Mitch Talbot

Branyan Trade
OF Ezequiel Carrera
SS Juan Diaz

Peralta Trade
LHP Geovanni Soto

Kearns Trade
RHP Zach McAllister

Westbrook Trade
RHP Corey Kluber

Since I’m not including the Wood trade because it was a straight salary dump, with the exception of the Branyan trade when they added Zeke Carrera (whose presence makes Trevor Crowe extremely expendable), THEY’RE NEARLY ALL PITCHERS…that’s 18 players added since the DeRosa deal and 14 of them are pitchers of various pedigree and at various levels.

Some of these guys contributed immediately to the parent club with various degrees of success ranging from high-impact (C. Perez) to steady contributors (Masterson and Talbot) while some were not far off from contributing and were either highly-thought of like Carlos Carrasco (and here’s another of the pieces from Adam Van Arsdale at LGT about the most important players going forward on Car Car and if you’ve not been reading all of these, which also now includes Santana...well, shame on you) or represented decent, near-term options like Jess Todd.

Others were mid-level prospects around AA or AAA who were either thought to be starters (Barnes, Pino, McAllister, Kluber) or potential relievers (Hagadone, Price, Graham) with the final grouping coming in the form of the arms that were furthest away, as players that still can’t legally drink with either a great amount of upside (Knapp) or who represented a possible diamond in the rough, posting a 2.93 cumulative ERA in low-A (Soto).

That cumulative return doesn’t yield the immediate returns that most Indians’ fans seem to be looking for (and this guy puts the Indians’ 2011 rotation as the 10th worst in MLB…and also interestingly the 3rd best in the AL Central), but you start to see how these arms acquired via trade start to line up from Cleveland to Lake County.

Throw those on top of the players added via the draft in the past two years (Pomeranz, White, and Gardner most notably in the near-term) - who were added for some serious cash as Pomeranz’s $2.65M bonus ranks as the 3rd highest signing bonus in club history after Danys Baez and Jeremy Guthrie while White’s $2.25M bonus slots him with the 5th highest signing bonus after Baez, Guthrie, Pomeranz, and Jerry Sowers - and you start to see this idea of trying to pull together a depth in arms that puts those famous “Waves of Arms” (that never arrived) to shame by sheer volume.

Actually, the inclusion of Baez, Guthrie, and Sowers on that Top 5 Amateur Signing Bonus list is instructive to not get too excited about any of these guys, whether it be a lack of time or talent that catches up to them, seeing those names and remembering the hopes…no, assumptions that once existed for them gets back to the idea that the Indians are attempting to take the attrition rate for pitchers and bludgeon it away with arm after arm.

A good friend e-mailed this to me earlier in the week on this very topic, saying that “it’s possible the Indians are ahead of the game again. They’re not doing a sabermetric end run around the small market catch-22. They’re lining up in the power-I with fifteen guys on the field. I mean does anybody even approach this organization in depth?”

To his point, the Indians learned what happens when attrition, injury, and regression take out the players (and, most notably, the pitchers) that the organization is counting on to simply continue to fill holes. Hell, most of us thought that the pipeline was full back in 2007 with Carmona excelling in MLB and Miller waiting in the wings with a whole gaggle of LHP to fill the back-end of the rotation around Lee and Westbrook after CC was going to leave. Much to our chagrin, but we found out that when Fausto sprouts a spare tire, when Atom Miller’s finger protests, and the gaggle of LHP turn out to be “Sowersian”, we were left with scraps, opting for Hot Carl Pavano and dipping too deeply into depth that wasn’t there.

Perhaps if TINSTAAPP (There Is No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect) rules the day, maybe the only way to counteract that (particularly for small-market teams that can’t buy depth on the open market) is to just load up on players at an unprecedented rate…and isn’t that kind of what we’ve seen since the DeRosa deal?

As my aforementioned good friend continued in his e-mail earlier this week, he thinks that “you’d have to spend a fortune on the draft in this model - like, enough that you’d forsake even some modest free agent signings. And make a lot of Zach McAllister / Scott Barnes type mid level pitching acquisitions to provide some insurance for your more valuable arms. And you need a roster with a lot of flexibility in terms of veteran flotsam and guys with options”…and again, doesn’t this sound exactly like what they seem to be doing?

In no place is it as obvious as in the bullpen going up and down the system, with TCF’s Al Ciammiachella illustrating the net effect of this very clearly in a great piece on bullpen options that exist below the surface and how the Indians have not only targeted potentially high-impact arms for the bullpen, but that they’ve done it en masse. Certainly not all of these guys are going to pan out, be it relievers or starters, as everyone should carry a card in their wallet that says “Remember Atom Miller” whenever it is assumed that a certain player or players will simply assume the mantle of starting pitcher or 2B or closer or 3B.

However (and just to keep this with the pitchers), if the Indians attempt to add (via trade or via the draft) arm after arm that can be neatly slotted one after another, to the point that there looks to be almost too much depth (and legitimate depth, not depth created by homerism), then the Indians will be able to perhaps achieve what they were ultimately unable to do in the first “Rebuild/Reload/Whatever” and sustain that pipeline of arms.

Let’s be honest in that they started out with a TON of arms back around 2002 or 2003 that sorted themselves out (Traber, Tallet, Lee, Davis, Cruceta, Rodriguez, Westbrook, among others) in the rotation, but the bullpen always remained the Achilles’ Heel as for every Dave Riske (relievers who contribute to the parent club), there seemed to be 5 Fernando Cabreras, promising arms that flame out. Maybe that is still the case, in terms of attrition, and maybe the Indians are planning for 10 to 20 Fernando Cabreras, knowing that they just have to get 2 or 3 Dave Riskes out of the equation to accomplish what they were never able to in 2006 and 2008 as a lack of internal depth (particularly in the bullpen) put the best-laid plans under the blade of the guillotine.

As a quick aside here, did everyone see that Chris Archer (a Tribe 5th Round Pick in 2006 and one of the 3 Minor League arms involved in the DeRosa deal) was just sent by the Cubs to the Rays and was called the “most significant chip” the player that most compelled the Rays to make the deal with the Cubs, according to TR Sullivan of

You know, Garza...the starting pitcher with 3 straight seasons of sub-4.00 ERA who isn’t a Free Agent until after the 2013 season, same time Choo becomes a Free Agent? Yeah, that whole “the Rays are a small-market success story” may have been a bit premature as they have now lost or will lose Crawford, Pena, Garza, Soriano, Benoit, Navarro, and Choate this off-season as they attempt to fill holes internally and on the fly, acknowledging that the 2011 season “will be very difficult”.

With the Indians having recently occupied where the Rays sit at this point in their development (with 2 good seasons and more supposedly on the way, do you notice what the Rays’ Front Office – you know that “brilliant” Andrew Friedman and his counterparts in the Front Office – is doing?

Yep, they’re loading up on prospects to go on top of their own prospects in an attempt to outpace attrition and to build a team that doesn’t just has the possibility to maybe contend for a division title, but rather to load up for a run of a couple of years when they can legitimately compete in the playoffs, as they recently have…it’s just that the “load up” isn’t going to come in 2011.

Keeping it with the Garza trade and today’s topic, Kevin Kaduk of Yahoo’s Big League Stew has an interesting take on this from a Cubs’ perspective saying that the trade doesn’t make much sense on the North Side, unless they’re trying to create some fan interest with the move, perhaps at the expense of the best long-term plans:
I would have rather the Cubs kept on the path of the first long-term plan that's been spotted on the North Side since Mark Grace was chain smoking in the minors. The continuation of that plan should have looked like this: Write off 2011, stock the prospect pool further by trying to move Carlos Zambrano and Aramis Ramirez near the trade deadline and sell, sell, sell the idea that these sacrifices will all pay off big dividends in the years ahead.

This is for the large-market Cubs, whose likely best path back to relevance (and I’ll remind you that they were in the playoffs in 2007 AND 2008) is to punt on 2011 and maybe 2012 and live to fight another day. If that represents the most prudent strategy for the Cubs at this point in their organization, how does it relate to what the Indians are doing, having punted on 2010 and probably 2011 when they traded Lee and Martinez (among others), attempting to live to fight another day?

Whether they’ll ultimately have the muscle to bring to that fight remains to be seen, but what happens in 2011 (particularly on the mound) is going to go a long way in setting a fight date…


milwaukeeTribe said...

Great stuff Paul. A couple of quick-hit media observations...
1. It still eludes me how Hoynes keeps his job.

2. Speaking of writers I'm not all that fond of, the funniest thing that caught my eye on that ESPN/Colon story from 2002 was a link on the right side:
"Neyer: Good move for Expos"

3. I predict that as the dust settles on the Rays rebuild, the media proponents that had declared them a "small market success story" to undermine arguments for changing the unbalanced baseball economic system will be quick to blame fan turnout in Tampa as the real cause of the breakup of their world-series team.

scotto313 said...

Great as usual Paul! You manage a perfect balance between fanboy and cynic. I loved the ESPN/Colon link. That was one of the kinder articles about the deal. I remember quite a few very harsh criticisms of the Tribe front office back then. Even if the Tribe doesn’t fare nearly as well with their more recent trades as they did with the Colon deal, I am willing to give the team credit for trying. The plan they have laid out is sound in my opinion given the limitations that exist. What we need is some luck with regards to player development in order for things to pan out well for this team.

Elia said...

Was go into email you but couldnt find a way. Saw this on ESPN this morning:

He sites old, tired media lines to start before talking straight. Same old same old for the most part -- Royals are doin things right by trading Greinke when Indians are the lost cause even though the Royals are following Tribe blueprints and his insinuation that the Indians traded Thome so many years ago when he wasn't -- but there it is for next Sunday's column.

Mitchell Below said...

@milwaukeeTribe: Never trust a headline. Neyer said that "It's a good move for the Expos, though ... or it would be if they really had a legitimate shot at the postseason," which he doubted.

He went on to say that if the Expos were really to be contracted (which he also doubted), then why not trade all their prospects in one last bid for glory?

Thankfully for the Indians, Omar Minaya apparently believed both counts.

Paul Cousineau said...

Saw that Elia...yuck.
I should have something up on it (and more) tomorrow.