Sunday, February 27, 2011

A Lazy Sunday Finding Relief

After a week in which Old Man Winter took one last swipe at the North Coast (and my power for a couple of days), the sun is supposed to be shining today…and not just because the Indians play a team not named the Indians in Arizona this afternoon. With the Indians playing their Goodyear-mates, the Reds, and with the mountains of snow melting outside of my window, let’s get loose right away on a Lazy Sunday…

The big news of the week (and no, Trevor Crowe’s shoulder issues do not qualify) came late on Friday night as the Indians agreed to terms with RH relief pitcher Chad Durbin, most recently of the Phillies, to a one-year deal worth $800K guaranteed with another $1M available to Durbin in incentives. Nearly as soon as the signing was announced, the catcalls came from the gallery, wondering aloud what the point was in signing Durbin when the Indians are reportedly bursting at the seams with power arms for the bullpen.

Well, it certainly seems as if everyone’s memory of “just Chad Durbin” when he was a middling middle reliever/starter for the Indians a few years back (he appeared in 20 games for the Indians in 2003 and 2004) or as a poor back-end-of-the-rotation option in Detroit (starting 19 games of the 36 he appeared in for the Motor City Kitties in 2007) has created an overwhelmingly negative perception of Chad Durbin, essentially ignoring the player that he’s evolved into over the last three years in the Phillies’ bullpen. In fact, the initial confusion for some over whether the Indians were looking at Durbin to be a starter or a reliever is pretty indicative of the ignorance around Durbin and provides a decent explanation for the immediate dismissal of Durbin as an upgrade to the Indians bullpen.

However, since he’s become a full-time reliever at the beginning of 2008 in Philly, Durbin has posted the following line:
3.62 ERA, 117 ERA+, and a 1.37 WHIP in 226 IP over 194 games

While those numbers may not jump off of the page, realize that 17 MLB relievers in that 3-year stretch have posted a better ERA+ while throwing more than 200 innings. That criteria may seem a little convoluted, but if the issue with relievers is generally an inability to predict health from year to year as well as production, it means that Durbin has remained healthy and productive (if intermittently) in the last three years.

Given that track record of relative success, I’m not going to guess as to why Durbin still found himself on the outside looking in with teams already in camp or why he had to “settle” for an $800K deal with up to $1M in incentives from the Indians while other middle relievers backed the Brinks’ trucks up this off-season…and I’ll get to that. But let’s keep this with Durbin, who pitched in the 7th inning or later in 47 of the 64 games Durbin he threw in last year…think about that for a moment in the midst of this “Durbin is bullpen filler” talk while realizing that 29 of those appearances after the 7th inning came in either a one-run game or a tied game.

Additionally, in those 64 games, he accumulated a line of 3.80 ERA, 106 ERA+, 1.31 WHIP, 8.3 K/9, 3.5 BB/9, 2.33 K/BB in 68 2/3 IP, which meant that he posted a higher K/9 in 2010 than any Tribe reliever who threw more than 10 innings not named Chris Perez or Tony Sipp. Going further, Justin Germano and Frank Herrmann had similarly impressive K/BB ratios, but struck out fewer batters than Durbin did. If you prefer more advanced metrics, Durbin’s 4.19 xFIP in 2010 was lower than any Indians’ reliever with more than 6 IP.

Certainly that’s not meant to intimate that Chris F. Perez needs to be looking over his shoulder as the closer because Chad Durbin definitely has his flaws (the jump in the OPS vs. LH hitters in 2010 is worth watching) and I’m not going to be the one to guarantee that Durbin will achieve any measure of success in 2011, but if Durbin is a veteran arm (who they can run out there pretty regularly in a variety of roles and even ideally flip him in July) that allows the young power arms in the Tribe system to mature INTO legitimate set-up guys instead of having that crown bestowed upon their heads, it certainly doesn’t do much harm.

Yet the fact that Durbin is 33 years old and found himself still looking for a contract with teams already in camp has led to an immediate dismissal of this addition as Durbin is painted as a “long reliever”, which is more than a little misleading as he threw multiple innings in 19 of his 64 appearances last year which may look like a high number until you realize that Tony Sipp threw multiple innings in 18 of his 70 appearances for the Indians last year…would anyone categorize Tony Sipp’s usage last year as a “long reliever”?

Is this a dip into the bargain bin?
Any signing this late probably is, though as much as I can’t figure out (much less get on board with) any plan that goes to Opening Day with Sonny Nix or Paul Phillips on the 25-man instead of Jason Donald and Lou Marson, I’m fine with a bullpen addition, as long as the addition has a track record of success (even moderate) and health, which Durbin does. Reason being that there’s a big difference between Durbin coming in to pitch a couple of innings a week and Sonny Nix being the everyday 3B for the first few months of a season. Given that the effectiveness of bullpen arms is essentially a crapshoot from year to year, even with a track record of success – even recent success, adding an arm like Durbin makes sense considering that a good number of alternatives (particularly those that are RH) have either just taken their first sips of an MLB cup of coffee or have yet to grab their cup of Java in MLB.

Given that the Indians are still a very young (if promising) team, is there anything more soul-crushing to a young team than seeing leads given away in the 6th, 7th, or 8th innings? Lest anyone forget, Tony Sipp and Rafael Perez were both inconsistent last year and, while I have no problem with them pitching the 7th and 8th innings, both are LH and given that Joe Smith should NEVER FACE A LH hitter (LH hitters OPS vs. Smith was .979 last year and .992 in 2009), that would have left the Indians with Jensen Lewis as the RH arm that was going to be the 7th/8th inning bridge to Chris Perez. That would be the same Jensen Lewis who spent much of last season between Cleveland and Columbus and, while he certainly closed out the season well in 2010, who as a cumulative 106 ERA+ over the last three years.

If Lewis turns into Jensen v.2009, the Indians options for another RH set-up guy that had spent time on the parent club became…well, Frank Herrmann (44 2/3 career MLB IP), Vinnie Pestano (5 career MLB IP), and maybe a guy like Jess Todd (28 1/3 career MLB IP). As much as I might like the long-term outlook for those three (as well as guys like Stowell, Judy, Putnam and others…who have never appeared in MLB), given the uncertainty of any bullpen, do you start to see where Durbin comes in as a RH option with a track record of health and relative success?

None of this is to suggest that Chad Durbin is some sort of magical stabilizing force that will translate to the Indians bullpen DEFINITELY not driving into the ditch that captured them in 2006 or 2008 (most notably), but if you’ll remember how I was inexplicably scared by the bullpen last week, realize that I wasn’t alone in taking all of this talk that “the bullpen’s fine…finally” was premature, as no less than Castrovince asserted something similar while sitting in Bastian’s chair earlier in the week:
Beware anybody who offers assurances, positive or negative, about a Major League bullpen. Nobody really knows what they’re talking about. That's why it helps to have depth, and this is one area where - on paper, at least - the Indians possess such a luxury. Acta was asked if he thinks there's such a thing as "momentum" carrying over from one season to the next for a bullpen. After all, Tribe relievers posted a 2.95 ERA after the All-Star break last year - the second-lowest such mark in the AL and the fourth-lowest in MLB.

Of course the numbers after the All-Star Break are a positive sign, but AC’s right and the aside about “on paper” is telling because as much as we’d all like to think that Herrmann, Judy, Pestano, Stowell, and the other cast of characters is ready to step right into the Cleveland bullpen on Opening Day and thrive, the presence of Rafael Perez and Jensen Lewis (who were SO good down the stretch in 2007 and have gone through their share of career hiccups since) are instructive in terms of relying too much on any reliever from year to year, much less young ones, regardless of MiLB statistics or pedigree.

Truthfully, I’m probably more optimistic about the Indians’ pipeline of power arms than most and realize that 2011 is the year that many of them will arrive topside. However, from a realistic standpoint, success for relievers is volatile and assuming that any (or all) of these guys is going to arrive in Cleveland and dominate is delusional. While the sheer volume of arms that seems to be coming is comforting, isn’t one of the goals of the 2011 season (maybe not a publicly stated one) to get off to a fast start and perhaps even generate some interest locally to a sports scene in need of one?

Remember that idea again of how soul-crushing some bullpen implosions can be to a team, particularly to a young one, particularly early in the season?

It a main reason that one of the “suggestions” for Indians’ additions posited here back in October was for a veteran RH reliever with the reasoning for such being presented back then as such:
Though the Indians are touting the performance of the bullpen in the second half, let’s realize that the RHP that figure into the 2011 bullpen past Chris F. Perez are Joe Smith, Jensen Lewis, Justin Germano and a bunch of promising AAA pitchers, like Vinnie Pestano and Zach Putnam.

Do you really feel comfortable that one of those guys can assume that 7th or 8th inning RH role for 2011?

Maybe this is from the experience of watching the bullpen deep-six the 2006 and 2008 seasons (among other reasons), but I don’t and I think that a priority this off-season would be to add a RH reliever to the late-inning mix to assist Rafael Perez and Tony Sipp in serving as the bridge from the 6th to the 9th innings, when necessary.

I’ll still stand by that, regardless of the glowing reports that have come out of Goodyear and this intimation that the bullpen will be the “strength” of the team when Jensen Lewis and Joe Smith were tabbed as the teams’ RH set-up guys heading into Goodyear. In that piece from last October, my suggestion was to bring in a guy like Jesse Crain with those hopes being dashed when Crain signed an inexplicable THREE-YEAR DEAL with the White Sox for $13M.

Don’t think that Crain was the exception to the off-season rule however as Matt Guerrier signed a 3-year deal worth $12M with the Dodgers, Scott Downs signed a 3-year deal worth $15M with the Angels, Rafael Soriano signed a 3-year deal worth $35M with the Yankees, and Joaquin Benoit signed a 3-year deal worth $16.5M with the Tigers, the final contract providing the lead-in to a great piece in last week’s print edition of SI by Tom Verducci about how middle relievers were suddenly the prettiest belles of the ball this off-season:
Joaquin Benoit didn’t have a job last year until Feb. 15, and when he found one, it was through a minor league contract with the Rays. He was pitching filler—just another arm that was aging (he turned 33 last year), damaged (he missed 2009 because of rotator-cuff surgery), mediocre (4.79 career ERA) and not good enough to start or close games.

Instead of committing multiple years to set-up guys (who may or may not outperform Durbin) like those aforementioned teams did, the Indians took a chance that Durbin is able to sustain some level of success in 2011 while providing some rubber-armed veteran presence to a bullpen that figures to be pretty fluid throughout the year.

To that end, there’s going to be a lot of player movement in the bullpen (as there always) is and there will be a TON of opportunities for these young arms to get opportunities. For some perspective on this, the Indians used 13 relievers last year (not including Marte) and the year before that, they used 23 relievers. Chad Durbin will be one of those relievers in 2011, likely along with all of the young arms that people are (rightfully) optimistic about with the idea that those young arms can start the season in AAA, attemping to separate themselves and forcing their way onto the MLB roster, much in the way that Frank Herrmann did last year. Really, does anyone think that Chad Durbin is going to ostensibly block a gaggle of arms for the Indians all season long if he’s not performing for the Tribe?

For some context on this idea, realize that the Indians signed Jamey Wright to a minor-league deal last off-season that turned into a $900K deal when he made the 25-man roster out of Goodyear. At the end of May, he was sitting on a 5.68 ERA and do you know how many innings Jamey Wright pitched last year for the Indians?

It was 21 1/3 innings over the first two months of the season…among the 484 1/3 innings that Indians’ relievers threw in 2010, or about 4% of the innings “available” to the Tribe bullpen last year. Given that Wright (although signed to a minor-league deal) was guaranteed that $900K deal as soon as he made the 25-man roster was moved on from as quickly as he revealed himself to be an underwhelming option, isn’t a similar strategy likely to be employed in terms of Durbin?

All told, the Indians added a veteran RH arm with a track record of health and relative success (no small feat) over the last three years at a low cost with the idea that he’ll either provide some stability to the 7th and 8th innings beyond simply having Jensen Lewis as a RH option and allowing some of the young arms to slot themselves accordingly in Columbus instead of being asked to assume the role of RH set-up guy out of the gate.

If Durbin works out fabulously, the Indians can always move him to a contender in July, with the young players having spent the first half of the season jockeying for position to take a step up the bullpen ladder. On the flip side, if he completely flames out (justifying his lack of a contract with teams in camp for two weeks), the Indians can move on from him at any point in the season.

Interestingly, in thinking about the Durbin signing in terms of that old “Plan” for the off-season back in October, the other “suggestions” for the Indians’ Winter (outside of the contract talk) as past that identified “need” for a RH arm in the bullpen, I was hoping for an upgrade in the infield defense, a RH OF, and a veteran arm for the rotation.

As Bonderman and Millwood remained unsigned and still possible, the Indians pretty much checked three of those off with Durbin, The OC, and Kearns. Though my suggestion for an upgrade in the infield defense was Kouzmanoff, realize that the notion was completely contingent upon him being DFA’d and for the Indians to be able to sign him to a low-risk deal. Of course, the A’s did not designate K2 for assignment and decided to keep him in his third year of arbitration eligibility, in which they will pay him $4.75M.

Now is a good time to mention that The OC’s contract is for $1M guaranteed as well as pointing out the 2010 numbers for each:
Kouzmanoff – 2010
.247 BA / .283 OBP / .396 SLG / .679 OPS (83 OPS+) in 586 PA

O. Cabrera – 2010
.263 BA / .303 OBP / .354 SLG / .657 OPS (78 OPS+) in 537 PA

This is pointed out not to make light of the assertion that Kouzmanoff was a good idea (and remember, my interest in Kouzmanoff was ONLY if he was DFA’d, which he was not), but rather to point out that the Indians did have every intention of adding an infielder and it’s likely that after surveying the 3B possibilities, the Indians went to Plan OC, still likely keeping Jason Donald (which was in my “Plan”, just at a different position) in the lineup at 3B.

Is it the ideal situation?
Of course not with everyone playing out of position, but if the idea was to get Jason Donald into the lineup on an everyday basis and to shore up the other position with a stronger (albeit diminishing) defensive player, the Indians accomplished that with The OC. Even if I’d rather see Cord Phelps start the season as the 2B in Cleveland with The OC as the super-utility IF, the Indians did add another piece that fit their needs in Uncle Orlando with a low cost deal that brings them some relative stability.

In terms of stability, the return of Kearns as the RH OF certainly looks like a better move than my suggestion to add Matt Diaz, with the idea that Diaz was a RH who mashed LHP who could provide some protection against the all-LH OF and the LH Pronk. Of course, Matt Diaz made his way to Pittsburgh on a contract for 2 years and $4.25M, which really isn’t that bad of a deal, while the Tribe went with Kearns on a 1-year deal that will pay him $1.3M.

Although Kearns doesn’t bring the prowess vs. LHP that Diaz does, given that Grady is likely start the season on the DL with his effectiveness still in question going forward, Kearns (with his ability to be more than simply a “platoon” player, unlike Diaz) certainly looks like the more prudent addition, particularly given the fact that he knows the role that he’s being signed to fill and is comfortable in being the 4th OF, something Diaz may not have been willing to concede to.

As for the final “suggestion” to add a veteran starter, the two names that I specifically mentioned were Zach Duke and Brandon Webb, whose eventual contracts served as a microcosm of a starting pitching market gone mad – as it usually does. To wit, Duke signed a $4.25M deal with the Diamondbacks (who acquired him via trade) with club options for 2011 (for $3.5M) and 2012 (for $5.5M with a $750K buyout), this coming a year after he posted a 5.72 ERA and a 1.65 WHIP for the Pirates. Meanwhile, Webb (who has pitched 4 MLB innings since the end of the 2008 season) will make $3M guaranteed with $5M more available to him in performance and roster bonuses, with news that he will have his first bullpen session just hitting the wire this weekend.

That “opportunity” to add a starter with upside to a low-risk deal has not presented itself, but that doesn’t mean that it may not come yet. As camps roll on towards mid-March and if teams like the Cardinals and the Yankees opt to go with their “internal options” or the flotsam and jetsam they brought to camp, it will be interesting to see how the situations with Bonderman (who still interests me) and Millwood (who interests me not as much) evolve as the Indians could have either player fall into their lap on a low-risk, low-money deal with expectations for them falling in line with other players who have signed multi-year deals with other teams for millions of dollars.

While I’ll stop short of saying that that Chad Durbin fell into the Indians’ lap, inking Durbin does represent a signing that may pay dividends for them, allowing their younger arms some time to mature into their eventual roles. Whether the moves they have made with veterans to complement what they hope is their burgeoning “core” remains to be seen, but they spent $3.1M in guaranteed money to The OC, Kearns, and Durbin, with little to no risk or commitment to any of those players past their low guaranteed salaries.

Is it finally time to start playing baseball?


Mr Negative1 said...

I remember the articles about needs for the offseason. I had E5 (Encarnacion) on my list, Xavier Nady/Austin Kearns on there, and Chris Young as the Veteran Risk pitcher to sign.

I like the idea of the younger arms getting solid work in AAA as highlighted in Lastoria's interview with Ross Atkins and others over the course of a season revealed that the Nagy (who is gone now) had a set number of outinging/innings/pitches for guys and direct "stuff" to work on.

When a reliever comes up, we want them to be ready to fill a role and not yo-yo back and forth.

As you touched on in your column, Jensen Lewis is on a a short leash, J.Lew of 09 shows up and Tribe has to pull that plug quick.

Elia said...

While this is not about baseball and is not about your article today (which is well written, as usual), I thought this piece by PD basketball scribe was particularly interesting about the state of the NBA:

In many cases it is easy to pick out the word basketball and NBA and replace it with baseball and MLB, short of players dictating trades before the end of year 6 (in baseball).

My perspective is that the salary cap is not a panachia and needs to be done well. Obviously caps aren't coming to baseball any time soon, but thought it was interesting how the issues of Williams (still multiple years from free agency) and the like were having the same impact on "small market teams" in basketball as they do in baseball.

Paul Cousineau said...

I did see that and it makes me fear for "small market teams" in all markets going forward in the NBA and MLB. Whether the disparity is going to come from revenue or player influence, the rich are going to get richer until something is done. Players are going to dictate the terms of competition, whether that comes via going to the highest bidder (MLB...where there are only a few "highest bidders) or to the most desirable location (NBA).

Last January, I had that whole idea to distribute the revenue sharing money to allow teams to keep homegrown players, but I fear that MLB is too far gone (with too much influence held by the "haves" because they're the breadwinners) to ever see that radical of a change.

CLohse said...

This is the email I sent in response to this article:

I've got an idea... here it is: I'm going to base a career on following a sports team, then I'm going to indiscriminately crap all over the front office of that team for making a vain attempt at staying afloat as a business.

Why not delve a little deeper, for the sake of your reading audience, into the economics of baseball? I don't claim to have all the information that you have gleaned through your many years of covering the Tribe, but I would hazard a guess that you aren't looking at the king of all Indians spreadsheets, complete with the bottom line on the upcoming season, from which to draw all your conclusions in your most recent article.

I'll admit I have no idea where the middle ground is on the opinions surrounding the Indians this year. I would guess that the projections that have them finishing 3rd or 4th (probably 4th) are accurate, and that's where we'll see them sitting at the end of this season. But that isn't the whole story, and I think you of all people should be aware of that. The Cleveland team is up against some long odds as a franchise, and has to paddle like hell to keep its head above water. The players on the field represent that head. It's a struggle to keep breathing and hoping.

Part of that struggle has involved a fluctuating payroll. We've seen the team spend money on players. Hafner and Sizemore, and Carmona to a certain extent, are proof of this. Those players haven't always played up to the cash given them by the organization. That's the way it goes sometimes when you can't triple their salaries and pay for Texeira or Gonzalez. Can it be argued that they could try? No! Pujols is out of their price range. Of course he is. Hafner, their own player, is out of their price range. Hey, I've got another idea: go ask Hafner if he feels good about his contract. I'll bet he doesn't. He seems like a decent guy, Travis, and I'd have to bet that he takes his $13 million and wonders if he can afford to purchase the entire state of North Dakota with it. He might actually be able to, I'm not sure. Doesn't mean he's buying the state. Doesn't mean he's giving back the money, either.

Isn't that a more interesting story than something about how you speculate (wildly) that attendance will rise this season because the Indians, in this year of development, which you actually expect to go well (but that you can't due to the slant of your article, say explicitly that you think will be interesting on the field) may draw 4-5% more fans? That's the thrust of your article?

Allow me to attempt to summarize that piece as I saw it. HUGE SALARIES IN MLB! Indians don't pay squat to their team. Half of the outlandish average of other teams, in fact. Dolans are cheap even though they'll probably see an improvement in their team, which they're trying to manage in a manner that's fiscally responsible. ATTENDANCE WILL RISE ACCORDING TO THE INDIANS' RECORD! LARCENY! THE DOLANS ARE ROBBING YOU DUMB, SILLY FANS! WHY AREN'T THEY TRADING FOR PUJOLS?

Good work, Mr. Ocker.

Paul Cousineau said...

That's fantastic. It baffles me how Ocker could have written such a piece with the fact that the ABJ would print that (in a Sunday paper, no less) boggling the mind.

Pieces like that always remind me of an old (and I mean really old) SNL sketch that had a guy running a call-in talk show on TV, sitting there saying the most ridiculous things ("killing cats...I'm for it, how about you?") as the phone bank sits silent in front of him.

Guys like Ocker fight to remain relevant with this tripe, pandering to the segment of the fanbase that doesn't care to learn what you point out and is content to wail and moan at the perceived "villain" in the equation while categorically ignoring what you point out.

Please let us know if Shelly replies to your missive.

Elia said...

That was awesome, CLohse. You had me for a minute thinking you were writing that about Paul (ust woke up) and didn't catch the front end of the response that it was to an Ocker article. These Ocker articles drove me nuts, even before Pluto left the ABJ, and I stopped reading him.

Since we are on the topic of NE Ohio writers, I have to give credit to Hoynes for being a little more intellectually honest the past month or so after multiple years of junk stories blaming the Dolans for everything. It is an amazing tranformation and wonder who got to him.

pilotui said...

Wow, I just found this blog after following AC for the last few years. Paul--this is one of the best written, well researched articles I've ever read!

Nice work...I'll be tuning in


Paul Cousineau said...

Hoynes has unquestionably been better and thanks pilotui...stick around.

Halifax said...

After stumbling my way through your novel, I'm still not sure of your point -- the Dolans are cheap and should sell the team is what I got out of it.

The Indians have spent money in the past, with the highest commitments going to Hafner, Westbrook and Sizemore. Yep, that worked out great. The fact is, they can't afford to make mistakes like some teams, and the three guys they committed to came back to bite them in the butt through injuries.

We'll see how things go with the current bunch.

Halifax said...

PS -- Isn't it great talking baseball again when the players are actually on the field?

Elia said...


I don't know if I have said it before but I will second pilotui. Your analysis is top notch and makes living 2500 miles away a heck of a lot easier.


Elia said...

Halifax, cLohse is writing that to Sheldon Ocker, not to Paul. He's sharing his missive with the rest of us :-)

I missed that and had to do a double-take myself.

Paul Cousineau said...

Yeah Hal, CLohse is responding to that Ocker article (which you may want to avoid if you value your sanity) and was just sharing.

Thanks Elia, it's nice to know that there are similarly obsessed Tribe fans out there.

Halifax said...

ok, well that makes more sense then.

cLohse, my apologies, I just need to take a little more care in reading.

Elia said...

I was just thinking that with the signings of Durbin and OC to accompany Hafner and Sizemore, we have a few people who know how to play in the post season on the team. I would think that that would be helpful in teaching this young team to win or, more importantly, how to reverse skids and build a winning organization.

CLohse said...

Still no word from Shelly Ocker! I'm shocked.