Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Tipping Their Hand

As the “Little Injuns that Could” continue to chug their way up the mountain despite the smoking engine and the dings and dents throughout their body, the Indians made a surprising move yesterday when they needed to make room for Jeanmar Gomez’s start against Oakland. While the idea that the Indians would either send Choo off to the DL (he’s out for a while with this side issue) or send the likes of Shelley Duncan or Jerad Head back down I-71 with the idea that either would return in 10 days, after the September 1st roster expansion date and after either had spent enough time in AAA in order to be recalled, the Indians instead sent their Opening Day 1B Matt MaTola off to Columbus.

While the move is entirely justified in terms of LaPorta’s performance, the timing of it is more than a little surprising as the Indians’ current offense resembles that of a AAA team as injuries have laid waste to the Tribe’s position players. At a time when it would seem that the Indians would need any able-bodied position player to be standing at the ready, they sent down LaPorta, who (not all that long ago) was a Top 30 prospect in all of baseball and was (as if you needed to be reminded of this) the BIG bat that came over in the CC deal from the Cream City.

Regardless of that pedigree and his inclusion in the Sabathia deal, there’s little question that LaPorta has “earned” this demotion, as I wrote this three weeks ago, suggesting as much:
In a position of power at 1B, LaPorta’s continued struggles at the plate and his second year of injuries perhaps affecting his performance at the plate may mean that the Indians may need to start considering some alternatives to the now-26-year-old LaPorta, who has a sub-.700 OPS in his first 245 MLB games. While the Indians are likely to re-evaluate LaPorta and the future of 1B, with the Tribe in the throes of a pennant race, waiting for the off-season may be imprudent.

Maybe that’s seems reactionary and maybe there is a rush to judgment (and I’ve been the one preaching patience and “finding out what we have in LaPorta” going back to the off-season), but LaPorta hitting HR off of mistake pitches a couple of times a week are hurting this Indians’ team that really can’t afford to take too many more punches.

Since that was written, Kipnis, Hafner, and Brantley all hit the DL (and that’s just on the offensive side of things, not to mention Choo, who is out for a couple of weeks with this side injury), with the Indians improbably absorbing these “punches” to stay relevant into September. My suggestion from the piece was to play Santana at 1B every day and for Marson to assume the full-time C duties and that looks to be the direction that the Tribe will take going forward.

If you want to continue with the “since that was written” tract, LaPorta has posted a .603 OPS in the 13 games “since that was written”, striking out 12 times in 41 plate appearance, actually striking out (not just making an out) more often than he got on base since August 10th. Maybe some of this is still injury-related and the argument can be made that he probably should have gone to Columbus on a rehab assignment after the ankle injury (I think I made that argument at one time) as since he has returned from the DL, he’s posted a .231 BA / .256 OBP / .372 SLG / .628 OPS line in 129 PA, striking out 32 times in those 129 PA…or about ¼ of the times he strode to the plate.

If you’ll remember, when LaPorta came off of the DL, the team was short-handed at the time back then and his return allowed some level of normalcy to set in for a team in need of an offensive spark. Certainly, LaPorta didn’t provide that spark (as you look at those numbers above again), and what’s striking about this demotion is that LaPorta heads down to Columbus when the team is even MORE short-handed offensively than they were when he came off of the DL in June, which brings us to this overwhelming feeling about this move, in that it would certainly seem to suggest that the Indians are not counting on Matt MaTola for much of anything, this year or beyond.

Maybe the argument can be made that the Indians are trying to send LaPorta a message, that nobody on the roster (regardless of prospect pedigree or what trade you were involved in) is above being demoted, but in light of their unprecedented need for offense right now and the fact that the Indians are…you know, IN A PENNANT RACE, his demotion speaks volumes about the faith that the have in LaPorta right now and how much (or how little) hope that they might have for LaPorta going forward.

Though LaPorta’s been under the microscope than probably any other current Indian in this space, you want a stunning fact?
Matt LaPorta’s career OPS coming into 2011 was .694 in 623 plate appearances.
In 349 plate appearances in 2011, he has a…yep, .694 OPS.

Lest you forget, MaTola turns 27 in January and now has a fairly consistent track record of posting a sub-.700 OPS (.694, to be exact) over 972 plate appearances in MLB. Those days of thinking that LaPorta was the “answer” at 1B (much less an upgrade over Garko and Broussard) seem like they were long, long ago.

For some perspective on where LaPorta has fallen in terms of standing within the organization, let’s remember again that when the Indians needed to send someone to Columbus for 10 days, they kept Jerad Head and Shelley Duncan on the team over Matt LaPorta. For all intents and purposes, they could have sent Lonnie Chisenhall down for 10 days given the way Hannahan is playing, but instead they dispatched LaPorta. Yes, the Indians need OF and LaPorta hasn’t played LF since he broke his toe in Fenway last year (which may be why he’s not playing LF anymore), but the fact that Head and Duncan – who are both older than LaPorta and are non-prospects (even if Duncan is a useful piece) and have options – start to bring into clearer focus how damning this move is in terms of the long-term future for LaPorta in Cleveland.

Even more than LaPorta going down instead of Head and Duncan is the idea that LaPorta would be sent down in the midst of a pennant race for this team, which has been making moves to maximize this roster for 2011 since they called up Alex White months ago. Seriously, if you think about the moves that the Tribe has made to make a push for 2011 (White’s call-up, Chiz and Kipnis call-up, Kosuke, the Ubaldo deal, Thome) all season long, you start to really get the idea of how much they consider LaPorta to be “helpful” to this team at this point. That said, nearly all of the moves that they’ve made all season have been just as much about the future as the present as they’ve started the adjustment period for guys like Kipnis and Chisenhall and added a top-of-the-rotation starter that helps today and tomorrow.

That brings us back to the idea of the “tomorrow” of Matt LaPorta as, to say this move brings more cloudiness to the horizon of his career as an Indian would be an understatement. His plate discipline is bad and getting worse and his reputation as a “mistake-pitch” hitter (and almost that exclusively) was being cemented as his offensive production looked to be more in line with a Futility Infielder than that of a Future Cornerstone. Though it is true that there is the possibility that injuries played a role and LaPorta just needs to get healthy, e hasn’t been able to stay healthy since he arrived to the organization, so why is there a belief that he’ll suddenly find a full season of health and productivity in 2012?

The short answer is that there isn’t any reason to think that, and I can’t think that LaPorta is being counted on to be the de facto 1B next year for the Tribe at this point, regardless of what trade he was involved in or how high hopes may have been for him at one time. At this point, the Indians (quite suddenly, at least publicly) look to be turning away from LaPorta as a viable option at 1B as, if he’s not going to be trusted to help THIS team (beset by injuries), what incarnation of the future Indians is he going to contribute mightily to?

The answer to that came with his demotion and it’s led to the speculating about the future of certain players that we’re used to doing this time of year…we’re just not used to doing it in the middle of a pennant race.

As for that speculation, one thought that immediately comes to mind in terms of exploring external options for 1B next year is that the “Thome money” earned at the gate that has started to come in (and figures to continue) could perhaps give the Indians some financial flexibility to add a 1B in the off-season. Whether or not the Indians will continue to draw at the level that they have recently (hence the “Thome money”), let’s remember what Terry Pluto wrote last weekend when he passed on that, “the Indians projected 1.3 million at the start of this season”. Right now, they’d be on pace to see between 1.7 million and 1.8 million people come through the turnstiles, with that number perhaps even going higher if the Thome Love Fest keeps playing and if the Indians can draw the casual fan down in the month of September in a pennant race…which seems odd to even write.

Let’s say that they draw 1.75 million by the end of the season (and that’s being pretty cautious) and realize that 1.75 million in attendance is about a 35% increase from their expected gate revenue. While I’m not saying that there’s your “found” Prince Fielder money (just forget that), what it might do is first-and-foremost allow the Indians to be pro-active in locking up their own players (that have proven themselves this year), then have additional funds to perhaps attempt to fill an organizational hole…and 1B certainly looks to be a hole.

Does that mean that you should go out and order a custom jersey with a “PUJOLS 5” or a “FIELDER 28” Tribe jersey for next year? Of course not, but remember how the Tribe really has $17.7M actually committed in payroll next year with decisions on Grady’s option (and I think they pick it up and try to get creative to add more years at lower money by picking up the option) and with arbitration coming for Choo, Perez, and Cabrera (again) as well as Masterson’s first year of arbitration eligibility?

Well, there’s a possibility that the Indians could approach Asdrubal with an offer similar to the contract that Troy Tulowitzi signed back in 2008 (not the 10-year deal he just inked) for 6-years and $31M just as they could go to Masterson with a deal similar to the ones that Jon Lester (5 years, $30M) and Clay Buchholz (4 years, $29.95M) recently signed to keep those two on The Reservation for the foreseeable future at set contract numbers. By locking those two up (and making the cursory call to Scott Boras…just to see what’s what), the Indians can lock down more of their new, burgeoning “core” for the foreseeable future.

However, it’s still worth noting that if they do agree to a long-term deal with Asdrubal or Masterson (or both…or more), the dollar amounts in those contracts generally ramp up as the years pass, meaning that the Indians still could have some financial flexibility for 2012 and 2013 to explore external options for 1B. In terms of those options, it’s a pretty top-heavy list and the 1B FA pickings start to thin out after Pujols and Fielder in terms of “sure things”, although the switch-hitting Lance Berkman is certainly intriguing, as are Mike Cuddyer and Carlos Pena, although those 1B will have no shortage of suitors.

Of course, the Indians have always been reticent to get into bidding wars with teams that have the ability to simply write off their mistake contracts and given that “reticence” in the FA market (although, remember this organization did add Millwood for 2005 for $7M), maybe they could go the trade route to add a 1B, even if it seems as if the Tribe fired off most of their trade ammunition. Perhaps they could move Rafael Perez and Cord Phelps for something moderately useful as for as much talk as there may be about how CHRIS Perez is about to get more expensive in arbitration, RAFAEL is actually further along in his arbitration years and is about to get more expensive…probably more expensive than he is actually worth. With Hagadone knocking on the door as another LH reliever to go with Sipp, Rafael would probably win the “Perez Most Likely to be Traded” contest for the off-season and Phelps certainly looks to be blocked in a couple of different ways in the organization.

Then again, I’m just spitballing here and wouldn’t expect any kind of “1B of the Future” to come from a trade centered around Rafael Perez and Cord Phelps and it’s worth mentioning that this is all worrying about tomorrow - something Tribe fans are used to in September - when today is more pressing and compelling in the form of a pennant race…which is certainly something Cleveland hasn’t become used to in the last decade.

For now, LaPorta is out of the Indians’ imminent plans in a move that could provide some insight as to what they plan on doing in the off-season. But the off-season is still a month (or hopefully more) away and things are getting exciting again on The Reservation, with thoughts that Grady may be returning and with the Indians doing to the Royals and A’s what they should have done to the Mariners. It is worth noting that after the A’s leave town, the Indians have 28 games left. Fourteen of those games come against the White Sox (8) and the Tigers (6), meaning that there could be some serious movement in the AL Central as all of these teams control their own destiny in their hands.

Lest anyone forget, the Tigers arrive on Monday and there’s still baseball left to be played as September is nearly upon us and a pennant race has remained on the North Coast. Regardless of what 1B in 2012 is going to look like, what’s happening in the here-and-now is unquestionably fun and the fun figures to continue with the hope that this is still only the opening act…


Halifax said...
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Halifax said...
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Halifax said...
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Halifax said...

Just to save you guys some reading on irrelevant posts, I wondered about the connection of Hafner and LaPorta getting beaned (in the face and head, respectively) to their drop off in production.

Hafner came back strong for a year and a half, while LaPorta put up good numbers in AAA after taking one off his noggin in Beijing.

Apparently, he just can't hit major league pitching. Hopefully, he gets his confidence back in Columbus.

RMC said...

Great insights Paul! Would love to hear more speculation on possible 1st basemen via trade...

Hyde said...

The similarities between LaPorta and Andy Marte (check out Marte's numbers in 2009 and 2010) would be hilarious if they were happening to some other team.

We're getting closer to being able to close the books on the big trades of '08 and '09: 1 win (Martinez--especially since his replacement was already in the high minors) and 2 losses (Sabathia and Lee). For an organization that doesn't spend and traditionally hasn't drafted all that well, that percentage isn't nearly good enough.

Scott Blake said...

MaTola just doesn't look like an MLB-caliber hitter at the plate. He may turn out to be one of the countless players over the years who were superb up through AAA ball and couldn't make the jump to the majors.

Pepe Cadena said...

At the moment when Jeanmar Gomez had his high performance , some bad Online pharmacy reviews destroyed his career!

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