Sunday, July 10, 2011

Net Asset Value on a Lazy Sunday

The All-Star Break is nearly upon us and (as usual) I’m not going to delve too deeply into the absurdity that is the All-Star Game or the manufactured “debates” over who got snubbed and which players are going to be playing in Arizona in a couple of days and who won’t as the glorified exhibition game that MLB foists upon us (while attempting to make it more meaningful than it should be) as the outrage that all of the selections and snubs seems to generate just doesn’t interest me. Perhaps there are people out there who have been DYING to see the best players from MLB play in an exhibition game in mid-July, but I’ll take the ride that the Indians have been taking me on over the manufactured pageantry and hollow story lines that accompany the All-Star Game every day and twice on Sunday.

With that out of the way (and with the word “Sunday” invoked), let’s get going on a Lazy Sunday as I have a day ahead of me that figures to be anything but lazy as The DiaBride and I continue to pack up our current house to ready The Reservation for a new address, one that fits 3 kids and 2 adults a little more realistically. Nevertheless, though you may be reading this as I huff and puff away in our sweltering attic, maybe you’ll be having a Lazy One because here comes the only part of my day that figures to be such…

Driving the pace car for the day is Anthony Castrovince, who comes correct and in full effect, examining whether or not this Indians’ team is “sponge-worthy”, a variation of the “Blonde-worthy” question a couple of weeks ago. Regardless, AC examines what the Indians are likely/unlikely to do in terms of adding a piece (which is worth the click and a full read), with quotes from Antonetti providing a real glimpse into a possible plan:
“We’re open in any way we can to improve the team, whatever that might be,” Antonetti said. “Especially with Choo suffering the injury that he suffered, we’ll probably focus most of our efforts on improving our offense and getting a little more consistency there.”
“It’s so hard to put percentages on external acquisitions because there are so many variables in play,” Antonetti said. “The benefit that we have with our internal options is we control those unilaterally, which guys we bring up, provided they’re healthy. Externally, so many things have to come together.”

Read those two quotes again from Antonetti and tell me that the Indians focus isn’t maximizing the offense in Choo’s absence by attempting to utilize internal options instead of searching for an external option that may or may not be there, and may not even be all that pressing of a need if Choo truly is going to be ready by the 2nd week of August, as he is telling “friends”. Regardless, Castro sums it up pretty well when he wraps the piece up with the idea that,“The Indians might, indeed, make a move before the July 31 deadline. But I don’t expect that move to be of much impact to either their long-term prospect pool or their short-term run-production. What you see is what you get with this injury riddled club, and what you see might very well be enough to keep hanging around in the Central standings.”

Of course, that’s not going to make the “THE DOLANS SAID THEY’D SPEND WHEN THE TIME IS RIGHT AND NOW IS THE RIGHT TIME” crowd, but does “spending” mean adding a Josh Willingham (who’s been out with an Achilles issue for nearly a month and had a .714 OPS prior to his injury) for the $2M that he’s owed or another limited player of Willingham’s ilk?

There might be fits out there (Mike Cuddyer intrigues me as a versatile RH bat with some pop), but the Indians are far from alone in looking for offensive help and would be bidding against a good number of teams with the idea that they can add someone is predicated on other teams making players available, something that has not happened to date. Don’t take this as an attempt to lower expectations or as a call for the Indians to sit on their hands while the teams around them perhaps augment their roster (though this month will be just as telling as to what the Tigers, White Sox, and Twins end up doing as it will the Tribe) as the Indians are far from a perfect team. Obviously, the Indians’ best chance of improvement is getting healthy in some places and getting back to being effective in others as a return to form from Sizemore would have the same effect that the return of Pronk has had and an early return from Choo (assuming effectiveness) could be just as uplifting for the team.

That being said, if the Indians do decide to make a move, I received a thought-provoking e-mail from reader John Woods, regarding the Indians perhaps dealing from positions of strength – namely their middle infield depth, their starting pitching, and their bullpen – to make more substantial additions at a “weak” spot on the parent club. The idea behind Woods’ premise was that there are certain players (particularly in Columbus, as noted by Adam Van Arsdale at LGT) knocking down the door that really have nowhere to go now or in the near future because of other prospects that sit higher on the organizational ladder or whose chance is unlikely to come this year…if ever.

Though many point to the recent success of Dave Huff and the (since-promoted) Luis Valbuena as guys that could be used for trades to upgrade the parent club, the question is whether the Indians could ACTUALLY sell a couple of their once-tarnished prospects as “ready to turn it around” in MLB to another team that may have a desirable piece. Frankly, I’m a little leery that other teams are scouting the likes of Huff or Valbuena (just to use them as examples) and thinking that those guys just need a shot in MLB to stick. So, the attractiveness of those types of players may not be any kind of shiny lure at the end of a fishing line that’s going to draw much interest in the waters of MLB. This idea that the Indians can turn their former prospects into impact players reeks too much Costanza going into Big Stein’s office (“I think I’ve figured out a way to get Bonds and Griffey…and it wouldn’t cost us that much”) for the next few weeks for me to handle, but that doesn’t mean that the Indians shouldn’t explore the opportunity to be bold and maybe step out of the comfort zone that they’ve already crossed with the promotions of White and Chisenhall.

To that end, I wonder if the most desirable path that the organization could take would be a different approach that still falls into their wheelhouse as the Indians have developed a reputation for identifying undervalued prospects in other organizations with their list of larcenies being well-documented. For the past few years, the Indians have seemed to part with their own flawed players at the MLB level (usually before they were about to get expensive), netting more useful organizational pieces in the process.

Of course, we know of Ben Broussard turning into Asdrubal and ½ of a season of Austin Kearns turning into Zach McAllister, but the Indians spun Ben Francisco (a 4th OF who is “earning” $1.18M in Philly) to net more prospects from Philly and flipped Kelly Shoppach (in the 2nd year of a $5.5M deal in Tampa, where he has a .593 OPS) to the Rays for a pitcher that – though he may not be in the rotation for much longer – provided the Indians with about a season-and-a-half of starts while the arms beneath him ripened. Ryan Garko had all of 165 MLB plate appearances after the Indians dealt him for a now 23-year-old pitcher in Scott Barnes who has struck out 85 hitters in the 82 1/3 innings he’s thrown for Columbus this year. But even the guys bemoaned a “great” losses have turned out to be traded with good reason as for as much hand-wringing that happened during Franklin Gutierrez’s Gold Glove season, he now has a cumulative .686 OPS in 3 years as a Mariner, with Seattle on the hook to pay him $5.5M next season and $7M in 2012.

Though there may be valid complaints about the Indians as an organization, they do seem to have a pretty good idea of their own players’ strengths and weaknesses and, more importantly, their ceilings, their attractiveness to other organizations willing to cast a blind eye to their warts, and the cost-effectiveness of keeping certain players. They may have been relatively blind-sided by one Josh Tomlin, about whom a scout gushed this to B-Pro’s John Perrotto, “He’s a surgeon, kind of like a poor man’s Greg Maddux” and while Tomlin was under the glare of the bright lights all week, with AC profiling him as well at and comparing anyone to any kind of “man’s Greg Maddux” has to be put in the column of hyperbole, most of the times the Indians are not one of these organizations that has too many of these “pleasant surprises” in terms of prospects panning out at the MLB level, particularly recently.

Regardless of anything related to Tomlin, the hope would be is that the Indians can be as honest about their current cache of upper-level prospects as they have been in the last couple of years with their former prospects. With guys like Garko, Francisco, Broussard, Gutierrez, and Shoppach, they realized their limitations and their limited future with the team (particularly in relation to salary) and acted aggressively in selling high (or at least at the right time) on nearly all of those guys. To that end, the question becomes what current prospects in AAA are perhaps overvalued by others that are in the Tribe’s organization or who may be an ancillary part down the road and whose value may be greater in what the organization could net for them instead of what that particular player figures to contribute for the Tribe in the coming years. As good as the Indians have been in identifying their own players at the MLB level whose usefulness had leveled off and whose greatest value was tied into what the organization could get for them, it now becomes a question of whether the Indians can be brutally honest with themselves about their own prospects (which they love to have stockpiled) and perhaps part with a player who may project as a useful MLB player, but whose value to the Indians could be less because of other players within the organization.

If you read that last sentence carefully, you know where I’m going with this as I’ve been in Cord Phelps’ corner more than most (even driving the bandwagon from time to time) and think that the problem with the Indians’ handling of Phelps was calling him up to mainly sit on the bench or to allegedly play a part in a platoon that never materialized, when he had never done so in his baseball career. You can point to his defensive “yips” or say that “he’ll be back…he just needs more seasoning”, but the Indians had a hole at 2B (and still have it) and Phelps represented an upgrade. With that being the case, perhaps the fact that they were so reticent to play him regularly and so quick to send him down (as I fail to see Hannahan’s value on the roster presently) may be telling as to how Phelps is viewed in terms of the team’s future.

By that I mean that Phelps performed equal to the level that Jason Kipnis had in AAA prior to his call-up (while Phelps moved all around the field in Columbus) and reportedly Phelps is the more polished fielder at 2B. By all reports, if the Indians called up Kipnis, it would be to play nearly everyday, just as The Chiz had before taking a ball off of his cheek, and since Phelps arrived to basically watch The OC sneak him dirty looks while serving as Uncle Orlando’s caddy for a couple of weeks, maybe Phelps isn’t in the Indians’ long-terms plans as much as his recent numbers in AAA would indicate. If he isn’t, and Kipnis truly is thought of as the “2B of the Future” and the Indians feel that some amalgamation of The OC/Valbuena/Donald can hold the fort down until Kipnis arrives with the latter two fighting it out for Utility spots once Kipnis does arrive, where does that leave Phelps, other than as a 24-year-old middle IF with an cumulative .886 OPS in AAA in 521 PA over the last two years? While THAT player looks like one I’d be more than happy to find a spot for in Cleveland, if Phelps is heading back to Columbus to be groomed for a Utility IF job that he’ll be competing with Jason Donald and Luis Valbuena for, is that the best use of Phelps as an asset?

Perhaps Kevin Goldstein was right at the beginning of the year when he wrote that Phelps’ “Perfect World Projection” was that of a “solid, but unspectacular everyday infielder”, but I can’t help but think that six years of club control for a player like that is valuable in this world in which Miggy Tejada and The OC still get work.

Of course, this is just talking about one player and one particular situation (and please don’t take this example to mean “TRADE CORD PHELPS”), but if the Indians have a “master plan” somewhere at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario (and I’m betting they do), they know where they have all of these chess pieces lining up. While I certainly understand the value of depth and the threat of attrition/injury to any player, if the Indians wanted to be bold this month, they would perhaps take an asset that might be more valued in places other than the Indians’ Front Office and move that piece for something that might be more valuable to the Indians’ organization, not just now but into the future. If the Indians would be looking to make that move (and I could make a similar argument that Kipnis could be the “overvalued” piece as I just did with Phelps and that the Indians could look at moving Kipnis if they feel that Phelps is on par with him as a prospect), the hope would be that they could add something that would represent more than just the rent-a-player that they are (rightfully) reticent to chase.

Don’t take this as a call for the Indians to move all of their top-tier prospects in order to make a move for 2011 (particularly if you’re moving prospects for 3 months of a flawed player like Jeff Francoeur or Ty Wigginton) and I’m not going to pretend to know how Cord Phelps or Jason Kipnis is viewed in Front Offices around the league or what they would bring in return if they were traded. But, particularly at the 2B position, the Indians have two similarly-aged players whose value needs to be maximized, with the 2011 pennant race perhaps presenting the perfect time to do so – to “sell high” on a player, as the Indians have done so well in the recent past.

To take this idea of “selling high” on particular players in another direction and onto the parent club, if the Indians have a high degree of confidence in the arms from Columbus arriving and thriving, perhaps the Indians parlay the eye-popping as the numbers for Rafael Perez and Joe Smith this year (and both of those guys are going to have higher price tags next year because of their arbitration eligibility) into another team overpaying for one of their middle relievers with great ERA’s…which is a pretty bad number to look at to judge a reliever. While generally I’d be loathe to even entertain the idea of breaking up the bullpen (one of the strengths of this team), Smith and R. Perez really have been middle relievers for the most part this year and, though they provide insurance against youngsters like Vinnie Pestano or Tony Sipp doing what so many young relievers have done in the past (which is regress…quickly), you have to wonder what Smith or Perez would net the Indians in a market desperate for relievers.

Again, don’t take this as some sort of Bobby Valentine-esque suggestion that the Indians should be selling off their bullpen arms because (despite what Valentine may think) the Tribe IS in the AL Central race, but if a guy like Chen Lee or Nick Hagadone is ready (and ready NOW) to contribute at the MLB level, the Indians could perhaps deal from a strength to fill a weakness on the roster. Obviously, I’m not suggesting that the Clippers should be promoted en masse to step into an AL Central pennant race, but if the Indians are creatively going to add to the parent club with pieces that could continue to fit into the puzzle past this year who may be made available for certain reasons (like Logan Morrison, who would cost the Indians some major pieces), they need to be honest about certain players on their own team and where they are most valuable while balancing what is available to them internally.

Truth be told, I tend to think that there are enough internal options to upgrade the roster (utilized correctly…and Phelps wasn’t), but if the Indians want to add a player that represents a LEGITIMATE upgrade and a piece that could help them down the stretch, moving Dave Huff or Luis Valbuena isn’t going to allow them to add that piece, their 2011 AAA performance considered. Castrovince is probably right when he writes that if the Indians do make a move, it won’t be “of much impact to either their long-term prospect pool or their short-term run-production”, but the Indians seem to have a glut of desirable pieces in particular spots in their roster that can be used creatively to tweak the roster for the short-term without making big dents into the plans for the short-term and the long-term.

Maybe that will lead to some surprises and bold strokes that we haven’t seen for a while from the corner of Carnegie and Ontario (though I’m not holding my breath), but what we’re starting to see at the MLB level is the fruit borne from the draft (Chiz, Tomlin, Pestano, Sipp) commingling with these players that were added in recent deals (basically everyone else on the roster) as the Indians suddenly have a logjam of players in MLB and AAA, with the Indians perhaps being able to free up that logjam by using some valuable assets that can help the team not only this year, but beyond. In terms of who would fit that profile of players that could help the Indians this year and beyond, I’m not going to even venture a guess. But if the Indians have been “cleared” to add payroll, what if they targeted players approaching arbitration whose current teams may be looking for some salary relief this year and in the next few years of who have a glut of players (like the Indians do) at a position that the Indians could upgrade?

At the end of the day, the question becomes whether the Indians could (or would be willing to try to) turn one of the legitimate prospects at 2B (Phelps or Kipnis) or the glut of relievers into something that fills an obvious need on the Indians for 2011 and beyond. The answer to that is elusive, but if the Indians really do know more about their own prospects than the ones they’ve been pilfering from across the league for the last couple of years, it could be the bold move (executed prudently and making the right decisions on players) that could build momentum for the rest of the season and into the seasons to come. Maybe “bold” moves or moves outside of their comfort zone aren’t something that we’ve come to expect from the offices of Carnegie and Ontario, but 2011 has been full of surprises.
Perhaps a couple more are still coming…


GMAC said...

OK...Is there explanation why Jeanmar Gomez isn't #1 on the list from C-Bus? Didn't he do an OK job when he came up previously? I think it's time we call Jack Zduriencik to continue our tradition of fleecing the M's.

Paul Cousineau said...

Everything that I've heard had to do with whose spot in Columbus corresponded with what they needed to replace Carmona and not much else. Seeing as how Acta has reshuffled the order of the rotation coming out of the ASB, I'm interested to see which Clippers' pitcher is pitching when in terms of keeping guys on regular rest if and when Talbot makes his way out of the rotation.

Where's Bill Bavasi these days?

Adam said...

Great column as usual. I think in order to compete down the stretch we need to add at least one dependable bat. The cool thing is we are in a place of power in that we have a surplus of good young pitching, which was simply not the case a few years ago. As trade bait, realizing that he's out of optoins I say we package Talbot and maybe another one of the mid-level minor league arms such as McCallister to the Royals for Melky Cabrera. The Royals are desperate for pitching and the "Melk Man" would fit with his versitality and ability to play anywhere in the outfield. We could put him in RF until Choo comes back and then move him to LF and possibly platoon him with Brantley and Sizemore.

Halifax said...

It's a Catch 22 with the trading idea...the only kind of deal the Indians can afford to make, both in cost of young talent and salary, is the kind that lands you Ryan Ludwick.

The only kind of deal that actually helps them is a deal for an impact player, and that will cost them dearly in both areas. They will never make that trade, nor am I sure they should.

Now, if they can get a Carlos Beltran for a bag of balls and some middling prospects, just because they take on his full salary for the rest of the season, then that's the kind of deal that will help them, and it will cause a stir in the fan base and actually help drive some gate attendance. But ownership likely won't spend their own cash on that, either.

So, it's either 1) make a useless trade that won't actually be an upgrade, or 2) trade for a guy you can't afford in money or bodies...

Looks like they do nothing but play it out, hope that guys like Choo (get healthy first), Santana and Sizemore start playing like their former selves and get stellar performances out of their young guys like Kipnis and Chiz...yes, the same Chiz who got hit in the face and hasn't played since.

Good luck, Tribe...

CLohse said...

Hey, so if Axford goes down, KRod gets his job, right, which means the Brewers are on the hook for his option next year at $17.5 mil. Scary, right?

Here's a fun question, then: shouldn't Axford figure out a way to hold the Brewers hostage for some more cash or a contract extension or something? He's got to have some leverage here, hasn't he? The Brewers don't have anybody else in the bullpen that could masquerade as a closer, so FRod would have to play, thus potentially vesting his option, and the Brewers also barely have anybody in their farm system to trade for a player that could be a more logical choice than FRod for the closer job in Axford's absence. I know it isn't... what's the word... ethical or anything, but isn't Axford very much in the driver's seat here? Just sayin'...