Saturday, February 05, 2011

A Lazy Sunday with a Long Leash

In the midst of a pretty dark stretch of Cleveland sports, the brightening news that pitchers and catchers report in just over a week should be enough to get us past the Steelers in the Super Bowl (again), right? Since the Milwaukee-born-and-bred DiaBride has turned The Reservation gold and green for the day and as the DiaTot runs around in his Packer gear, pretending to be Aaron Rodgers (well, alternately with Grady Sizemore), let’s all don our cheeseheads (and we have them here), sip either High Life or PBR (there is plenty of both here) and root for a team that many on the North Coast can relate to, if not through recent success.

That lack of recent success on the shores of Lake Erie is something that has become a focal point in the printed word as of late, with Steve Buffum interviewing Scott Raab on...well, on a number of topics, but mainly LeBron, and a couple of the guys at LGT putting out some great pieces first, from Andrew Humphries, on why Indians’ fans are well aware of where their organization stands and why the continued beating that the team and city have taken nationally (and there’s another cheap shot from Heymann in the middle of another “WHAT WILL THE YANKEES DO WITH NO ANDY?!? piece) is unnecessary, then, from Adam Van Arsdale why hope springs eternal in the heart of every baseball fan around this time of year in the context of getting past Groundhog Day.

If you haven’t read all of them yet, they are all worth your time (well, not Heymann’s) because...really, what else are you going to do before 6:30 PM today besides attempt to remove whatever amount of inches of ice (and now snow after yesterday…at least here) have accumulated on your driveway/sidewalk over the past week...

With that, let’s get going on a Lazy Sunday as I have to get the summer sausage cut and the cheese curds to room temperature before the “Packer Party” begins in earnest as I attempt to allow my sons to enjoy a championship season from one of their “teams” (remember, their mother is from Wisconsin and their grandparents shower them with green and gold gifts) because...well, a championship season may not be in the offing on the North Coast for a while.

That’s not to say that brighter days may not be ahead and we’ll start there with (of all people) Paul Hoynes, who actually looks to be coming around to some perspective and logic (if intermittently) after all of the doom-and-gloom and potshots of the Indians’ off-season. Exhibit A of perhaps a different tone from the beat writer of the town’s only newspaper comes as a response in last week’s “Hey Hoynsie” that (once you get past the requisite idiocy), actually conveys a message worth pasting after a “question” comes about that the Dolans should sell and that fans should not go to games until they do.

Hoynes responds, in part, thusly:
You can go to the ballpark and watch this young team go through a developmental stage and see if they can turn themselves into a contender. Even the Indians great teams from 1995 through 2001 stumbled in the early 1990s.
If they do emerge as a contender, ownership has showed in the past it will spend to improve the team.
You can stop going to the ballpark, thus sending ownership a message of your disapproval of their operating plan. Believe me, it will make an impression.
Or you can keep writing me and complaining as if Indians fans are the only fans going through this situation. Check out Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Baltimore and Toronto.

Admittedly that line was bolded by me, but I do find it fascinating that people can complain about the Dolans’ cheapness, then wonder when Hafner’s albatross of a contract is set to expire as if those two issues are mutually exclusive.

That’s another topic (and probably one I hit on some time ago) for another day, but it is worth mentioning that the answer to the aforementioned “question” did not appear in the print edition of the PD that arrived on my doorstep last Sunday morning, just in the online version...and let’s just say that I don’t think that it’s a coincidence.

Regardless, what Hoynes writes in response to that “question” is something that you’ve been reading about here for the better part of a year, in that the Indians have positioned themselves with similarly-aged and similarly-advanced players once again to see if the success of 1995 to 2001 and 2005 to well, 2007 can be replicated, perhaps with sustainability closer to that of the first incarnation of the “new” Indians.

Without question, there are many answers that need to come in 2011 and much of the focus leading up to Spring Training has been on some of the more important pieces that figure to reveal themselves (good or bad) as 2011 marches on. It should come as no surprise (if you’ve been around here) that chief among those pieces is Matt LaPorta who, along with Carlos Carrasco, represents the biggest question mark whose answer is going to go the furthest in determining how quickly/slowly the Indians get back to an advanced level of competition and contention.

That being said, Jordan Bastian made MaTola the focus of his infield preview at the official site (and rightfully so) pointing out MaTola’s prospect pedigree and providing a quote from his manager:
When the Indians acquired LaPorta as the primary piece in the July 2008 trade that sent CC Sabathia to Milwaukee, the hope was that they landed the power-hitting first baseman who tore through the Minor Leagues. In 242 career games in the Minors, LaPorta has hit .296 with 56 homers, 181 RBIs and a .953 OPS.
“He’s done everything people were expecting him to do through the Minor Leagues,” Acta said. “He’s not rehabbing any injuries now. He’s just training for baseball. Hopefully he learned from 2010 and he can help us out this year.”

A lot of people likely forget what a monster LaPorta has been in the Minors and, realizing that there’s a big difference between Dunn Tire Park and Yankee Stadium (hello, Jeff Manto) and acknowledging that MaTola turned 26 last month, it leads us into a thoroughly-informational piece from Hoynes, in which he compiles snippets of quotes from MLB scouts (as well as the Indians’ GM, who is unsurprisingly optimistic on all counts) on some of the principals acquired in the CC, Lee, and Victor deal.

Hoynes leads the piece off with an acknowledgment that he hears the drum beat that I’ve been laying down since last off-season, once the notion that they punted on 2009 and 2010 with the Lee and Vic deals had been processed:
The idea behind these trades was to remake the Indians with talented young players who had as little big-league service time as possible. That way the team could develop and, theoretically, win together before the approach of free agency repeated the Sabathia, Lee and Martinez trifecta.
The Indians did all right with part of that equation. Brantley, Carrasco and Donald will enter this season with less than a year of service time. LaPorta and Marson have fewer than two years. Masterson has two years and 108 days.

Not too difficult to grasp and something you probably realized a solid 18 months ago, particularly if you’re coming around these parts…

Obviously, the Lowest Common Denominator crowd at didn’t take too kindly to Hoynes assertion (even that they “did all right”), so don’t wade into the comments section of the piece unless you want to lose time off of your life that you’ll never get back, an endeavor that Andrew Humphries of LGT puts out fair warning.

Regardless, the most fascinating part of the piece comes when Hoynes polls a couple of MLB scouts on those very players, with the opinions of the scouts on LaPorta jumping off of the page:
Scout 1: “Good effort guy, but defensive liability so he has to play a corner position. Has to impact the game with his bat. The power is there, but there are some holes in it. I wouldn’t give up on him.
“He had some injuries to his lower half [hip and toe] and that may have caused him to commit [start his swing] early. That will open some holes. Maybe he couldn’t stay strong through his swing because of his lower half.”
Scout 2: “He hasn’t developed quite as quickly as people thought. But a healthy LaPorta would be worth seeing.”

Remember last year, when it looked like LaPorta was swinging only with his arms and how he induced too much weak contact for the player that we had heard about?
There’s a pretty good explanation for it from Scout 1...

By no means is that to say that LaPorta is suddenly going to turn into a Jim Thome in his prime, but it certainly tempers the assumption that LaPorta is Pete O’Brien redux.

Again, the whole Hoynes piece is worth a read as there is glowing praise for Brantley from the scouts and some serious optimism for Carrasco putting it together and seeing his talent translate to success. Of course, not all of it is great news (in particular, Masterson as a starter seems to draw some skepticism from the scouts...probably deservedly so) but that line from Scout 1 on LaPorta that “I wouldn’t give up on him” is the one that struck me in terms of what 2011 ultimately will reveal.

Oftentimes, 2011 has been painted as a make-or-break year for LaPorta and the whole Hoynes piece is predicated on the idea that 2011 will be the year that we find out a lot about the players received for (most notably) CC, Lee, and Victor. However, if what this scout is saying is true, LaPorta should be on an awfully long leash from the Indians in 2011 and probably past it, based on his draft position, his prospect pedigree, and his cumulative MiLB numbers.

That idea of a “long leash” is an interesting narrative for the 2011 season as a whole as, if you go back to the manner in which the Indians assembled this group of young talent (starting with the CC trade and up to and including the 2010 Draft, headed by Drew Pomz), it’s not too difficult to see how these pieces line up on the board. More importantly, those pieces are starting to appear on said board with the idea that they’re not far off from what would be the presumed roster in, let’s say 2013, could be.
Remember that the Indians did this not too long ago or how optimistic this photo made you feel?

But back to the present tense, it’s not to hard to see how the Indians are lining these guys up, particularly with the lineup, and how (assuming health and some long leashes) how the lineup that is likely to be in place for what the Indians hope will be the next incarnation of a contender is close:
C – Santana
1B – LaPorta
2B – Kipnis
SS – Cabrera
3B – Chisenhall
LF – Brantley
CF – Sizemore
RF – Choo
DH – Hafner
Yes, I know that Sizemore is an “X” factor here and there’s a possibility that Brantley slides over to CF, perhaps with Nick Weglarz slotting in at LF for a short time, but that’s the lineup that most people have had in their mind since Kipnis burst on the prospect scene last May or so, right?

Sure, there’s a Donald here and a Phelps there with some Marson and Zeke Carrera sprinkled in as auxiliary pieces, but once the CC deal was done, with the CP Lee and Vic deals that followed, and as The Chiz continued his nice, linear path later joined by Kipnis, the pieces pretty much set themselves around the diamond.

Look at that lineup again and realize that 7 of 9 of those players will be in the Opening Day lineup (OK, maybe not Grady), with The Chiz and Kipnis likely to ascend at some point to a lineup that figures to be together for some time. Obviously, this is not breaking news, but it is interesting as to how the organization seemingly formulated a way to assemble a lineup and executed it to the point that we see today or at least how we’ll see it in August or so, presumably.

Of course, as has been discussed before, organizational depth or legitimate options past those 9 are not abundant at the upper levels in case of injury, but it bears mentioning again that, if those are the players that the organization identified to be a cog in a contending team, they should be afforded every opportunity to ingratiate themselves into MLB and potentially succeed. That may sound obvious in theory, but it presupposes a pretty strong stomach to get through the inevitable growing pains that will accompany those long leashes.

Remember how bad Brantley looked to start 2010, when he was pushed into extended duty after Sizemore went down?
How about Valbuena last year?
Yeah, those are the stretches that the Indians are going to have to (and should) endure with the players that they’ve already identified as potential “core” players going forward. While Valbuena looked to have some promise in 2009, he completely fell apart last year and now finds himself on the outside looking in at that list above. Seeing as how 7 of those guys will start the year in Cleveland (OK...6 with Grady’s knee), the Indians need to put those names into the lineup every day and allow them to evolve as they’re going to mature and develop as MLB players. When The Chiz and Kipnis are deemed worthy of a promotion (or when, you know, that Super-2 cut-off date passes), the Indians should handle them similarly.

There are going to be ups and downs and some of these guys might fall off the map the way that Valbuena did last year (though hopefully not as quickly), but all of those names have a track record in MLB or have been highly-rated prospects in the past few years, so the idea that those specific players (who again, looked to have been considered part of the future “core” for some time now) should have room to fail as well as (hopefully) succeed should rule the day in 2011.

As for the pitchers, it’s not quite as cut-and-dry of a list as you can certainly see that Carrasco and Masterson are going to be afforded the long leash that Carmona (who Jon Paul Morosi cannot let go of as a great fit for...wait for it...the Yankees) and Talbot (out of options) figure to be on as both CarCar and Masterson were targeted as impact arms when they were acquired and neither has anything left to prove below the parent club.

Certainly, there’s plenty for them to prove in Cleveland, like whether they can achieve consistent results to merit their inclusion in the rotation (and not the bullpen in the case of Masterson), much less at the top of said rotation.

Beyond those two obvious cases and Talbot because he projects as a 5th starter eventually...well, the Tribe could do a lot worse for a guy with just one year of service time accrued, there is the group of AAA (Tomlin and Gomez and Huff) who are going to get their chances, but feel more like placeholders for the high draft picks of the past few years (most notably Al White and Pomz, but also Joe Gardner) who the Indians have to hope will start to fill some rotational gaps (particularly if Masterson is better-suited for the bullpen) pretty quickly. Other than those recent draft picks, they have those secondary arms that they’ve accumulated via trade the last few years (Kluber, McAllister, Barnes, and further down Soto) that they’ll hope they can parlay into some effectiveness at the MLB level.

It looks more than likely that they’re going to add an arm before Spring Training (and I’m loving this public posturing to pressure Bonderman and Millwood to agree to deals, with the Indians fully aware that they’re probably the only team offering either player a MLB deal) and that arm likely buys some time for the likes of White to assert himself in AAA or at least for the “depth” starters to sort themselves out, but the likelihood of a veteran arm heading out to Goodyear is growing. Whether it be an arm with upside (albeit limited) like Bonderman as the Indians hope to pick the winning lottery numbers or if it’s simply an inning-eating body (which is all Millwood is at this point) to buy time, the starting five is likely to be known prior to Goodyear with many questions to be answered going forward.

Beyond the rotation, the bullpen figures to be in flux with bodies and arms figuring to arrive pretty constantly to fill in the rest of the bullpen around C.F. Perez. The names and ceilings are known and unknown and I gave up trying to predict bullpen performance long enough ago that I’m not going to assert much more than that there certainly seem to be a lot of big-bodied, hard-throwing reliever types that strike a lot of guys out up and down the organization. Though the piece is “old”, a great overview of what I’m referring to comes from TCF’s Al Ciammiachella, whose Prospect Rankings will start tomorrow at TCF, by the by.

Realizing that a lot of this feels like a long-winded way of saying “let the kids play”, I think that what gets lost a lot in the “let the kids play” strategy is that “letting the kids play” is going to come with some serious growing pains. This doesn’t need to be repeated to anyone who was paying attention last year and this piece may merely offer a bit of a simple overview of the organization that’s been hashed and re-hashed over again and again in this off-season of inactivity. However, it is worth repeating that the Indians seem to have the players that they assume to be the foundation of the next incarnation of the Indians in place at the MLB level (or at least close to it) with the only thing left to do is to see how these guys perform and ultimately see how this all plays out.

Stay tuned, the baseballs start flying under the Arizona sun next week…
Oh, and of course scream from the top of our lungs later today - dum-dum-da-da-dum...Go Pack Go!!

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