Though the last couple of weeks have certainly represented a lull on the baseball scene (though that “lull” has been largely much the entire off-season for Tribe fans), the glorious news that pitchers and catchers are reporting tomorrow is upon us. While that only means that we’ll see guys playing catch and running/sweating for a couple of weeks, it certainly represents a step in the right direction as Spring Training games are soon to follow, with the triumphant inevitability of Opening Day looming.
But before getting to Opening Day, there are many questions to be answered out in the Arizona sun and while I’m loathe to simply go through the “Here’s What to Watch For in Goodyear” piece that’s been written by too many people too many times (and assume that any of us are out in Arizona), I thought that it would be a decent opportunity to instead focus on what has been a very odd off-season throughout MLB. Certainly that doesn’t mean that I’m going to break down every transaction or how the balance of power has moved around in the respective leagues (you don’t come here for that minutiae), but instead how this off-season may have represented a departure from off-seasons of the past for many teams around MLB, as teams have started to approach team-building the off-season – and specifically in FA – a little differently than they used to.
To that end, let’s start this Lazy One focusing on “all the news that’s fit to link” off with a piece from Joe Sheehan that appeared in last week’s print edition (sorry, I’m a little behind here) of SI in which he examines why Edwin Jackson eventually ended up in Washington on only a one-year deal:
Jackson, who was the second-best starting pitcher on the free-agent market, found himself short on suitors after starting the off-season hoping for the kind of five-year deal that A.J. Burnett and John Lackey signed in recent years.
We’re seeing the evolution of the game. While experience is still valued, it’s not something teams are willing to pay for, not when they can likely get the same production with more upside from younger talent. One of the first lessons of the sabermetric era was that talent is not distributed normally, and that the further down into the pool you go, the easier it is to find replacements. So rather than spend $4 million for a DH whose best days are behind him, teams will give playing time to someone making closer to the minimum.
Seeing the names “Burnett” and “Lackey” may explain why teams aren’t that interested in long-term deals to most FA pitchers, but it’s an interesting concept (although it looks like the 2011 FA market had about as many players receiving $50M or more in guaranteed money as the last few years) as Sheehan posits that there are always frontline players that will get their largesse every off-season and that the “best way to spend cash is on stars” in terms of FA dollars. He goes further to say that those stars are the “only ones” who figure to get paid handsomely from year to year and I’m not sure that anyone will ever call Josh Willingham or Mike Cuddyer a “star” (although maybe that’s the point in that Sheehan is saying that the “best way to spend cash is on stars” is an indictment of the deals that Willingham and Cuddyer netted), it is interesting to think about in the context of this year’s market, particularly among pitchers.
Consider that Edwin Jackson signed a one-year deal in DC and Roy Oswalt is still out there looking for a landing spot. Now it is true that Oswalt has essentially told the Indians (and perhaps other teams) that he wouldn’t have an interest in coming to Cleveland, but remember that the Indians acted fast to add Derek Lowe to the staff, essentially eliminating the idea that they’d supplement the rotation via FA…at least prior to the whole Carmona/Hernandez fiasco. But the Indians weren’t alone in not waiting for the market to shake out as the Royals went out and added Jonathan Sanchez via trade and gave Bruce Chen a 2-year deal. On those additions, Royals’ GM Dayton Moore had an interesting comment recently, saying “I guess if we had known all along that Edwin Jackson or Oswalt were going to take one-year deals…maybe we would have done things a little differently or thought things through a little differently. But I don’t think so. I think we would have come to the same conclusion. Sanchez really made sense for us at one year for $5.6 million. We needed to get Bruce Chen back. We feel he’s going to continue to give us consistency.”
If Moore’s actually saying that they would still prefer Sanchez and Chen (salaries considered) to Jackson or even Oswalt after thinking about it more…well, then he’s not being completely candid. That said, remember that Prince Fielder went unsigned until the end of January, a surprising delay – particularly considering the interest in and subsequent contract for Al Pujols. But outside of the few “elite” FA, the market for the services of second-tier FA was found to be lacking as roster constructions seems to have taken a turn around the league.
In Cleveland we’ve seen that for a while and this season, that means that the Indians seem to be more willing to look at the Aaron Cunninghams and Kevin Sloweys of the world (both largely inexpensive and under club control for the foreseeable future) to see if they can find something resembling a long-term answer instead of a short-term fix. But since Johnny Damon and Vlad Guerrero remain unsigned, it’s become apparent that known “names” may mean something to a fan base, but it’s becoming apparent that they mean little to Front Offices…and it’s not just the Front Office that calls the corner of Carnegie and Ontario home. What has crystallized this off-season is the idea that a few teams pluck off the best FA, with the rest of the teams all trying to augment their current roster while attempting to minimize risk…while making their best efforts at building a winning ballclub for today and for tomorrow.
That’s overly simplistic…I know, but roster construction is evolving around MLB and that became even more jarring with the Oakland A’s signing Cuban OF Yoenis Cespedes. It was a “surprising” move for some (as the A’s generally aren’t serious players on the FA market), but as Yahoo’s Jeff Passan pointed out so adroitly, “this makes so much sense we should’ve seen it coming. When the mega-free agent is out of a team’s reach, it has to play the margins, to hunt for impact players elsewhere.” While the cognoscenti focused on Cespedes ending up anywhere else but Oakland, Passan brings up an interesting point. Since Cespedes was allegedly in the Indians’ crosshairs at one point (and it’s being reported now that the Indians are “in on” another Cuban, Jorge Soler – along with the Phillies and Yankees…which doesn’t make me feel good about the Tribe’s chances to sign him), it’s worth fleshing out the reason that Passan gives in terms of why the A’s (or the Indians) would have an interest in an unknown commodity like Cespedes:
It’s a shame the teams that can least afford to take risks have to take the biggest, though it’s not like a salary cap is the great equalizer in the other professional sports. There are still haves and have-nots in football, basketball and hockey, and always will be. When baseball’s new collective-bargaining agreement essentially robbed teams of the ability to spend big money in the draft and internationally, it stole one more way for the low-revenue teams to even the playing field.
Signing him didn’t make as much sense for the Yankees or the Rangers or any other big-payroll team. They have money. They need not use their opportunities on something so chancy. The A’s did because they had to. Because in this marketplace, with their situation, giving $36 million to a kid who hasn’t taken a single major-league at-bat is about the only way the A’s can carve that path to contention.
That final line is a bit of an overstatement in terms of Cespedes’ impact, but it does speak to the underlying issue for teams like Oakland (and Cleveland) and the dichotomy of risk vs. reward that frames every decision that they make. Teams like Cleveland (or Oakland) are never going to make that “big splash” and Kerry Wood may have been the most water that the Indians were going to/ever will displace on the FA.
Perhaps it could be argued that the Indians should have been the ones taking the risk on Cespedes, given their talent on hand (and I could easily make that argument) just as the 3-year deal with a player like Josh Willingham seemed to represent a plausible risk for the Indians this off-season, given their short-term needs and their long-term shortcomings. But for now the question for teams like the A’s – or more acutely (in this space) the Indians – is how small-to-mid-market teams acquire talent to compete even periodically and, more importantly given the talent that is about to congregate in Goodyear, retain that talent in the current market and structure.
To that end, and bringing this to the corner of Carnegie and Ontario, it’s worth looking again at how the Indians find impact players as the they’re starting to see some fruit borne of the draft (Kipnis, Chisenhall, Pestano and eventually Lindor…hopefully) and have mined other organizations’ talent through trades (Santana, Masterson, Cabrera, Choo, C. Perez…this could go on for a while) to create this group of similarly aged-similarly controlled players that figure to head Northeast from Arizona. For teams like the Indians, FA isn’t the way that they’re going to fill out their roster anymore as the impact players are out of reach (although, again, the argument could be made that this was the year to extend that reach) and the Indians have assembled a group of non-roster invitees (notably Garland, Wheeler, Spilborghs, and Ray) in the hopes that they hit on one or a couple of those players the way that they did last year with Hannahan and Duncan.
Regardless of how the bottom of the roster gets fleshed out in Goodyear, what bears watching is whether the Indians make any moves to “retain” that talent on hand as the idea that a long-term deal for Asdrubal Cabrera is sure to have some e-ink spilled on it. On that topic, I’m not sure I buy the idea that Hoynes put forth last week about Asdrubal, in terms of players entering their 5th year of service time basically entering their “walk year” He wrote that Asdrubal is “entering his fifth big-league season, which has become the new walk year for many good players. Some general managers feel that if they don’t get a quality player signed to a multiyear deal before their fifth season, they have two choices -- trade the player or watch him walk away through free agency.” While I don’t doubt that “some” GM’s feel that way, it’s impossible not to notice that Howie Kendrick just signed a multi-year extension entering his 6th year of service time and JJ Hardy inked a 3-year deal last July that extended him past the FA that he would have entered after last season.
Perhaps those are unique situations, but that’s just looking at two middle infielders who have signed deals that would seem to go against this idea of the 5th big league season being “the new walk year for many good players” that “some” GM’s subscribe to. Regardless of the semantics of the 5th year/6th year of service time and Asdrubal’s FA (which, it needs to be pointed out again, is after the 2013 season…so TWO full seasons from now), that’s not to say that the Indians and Cabrera are ABSOLUTELY going to reach an agreement as it’s possible that Cabrera’s agent is demanding a 5 or 6 year deal at outrageous numbers, with the idea that Cabrera is something that he’s not essentially setting the tone in the negotiations that Asdrubal is preparing for FA in two years.
Short of any hard numbers or solid reportage, all of this is conjecture though it is worth noting that Cabrera’s agent (Alan Nero) is the same agent that signed Victor Martinez’s extension with the Indians way back when as well as the agent who worked with the Tribe to bring Paul Byrd onto The Reservation. There is a relationship between the two entities…of course, Nero was also Choo’s agent prior to Choo signing up with Scotty Boras and the Indians were never able to lock up Choo when Nero was his agent, so maybe the Nero/Indians connection in terms of extensions isn’t as strong as the Boras/Ilitch connection to line the pockets of Boras and his clients.
The reason that the Asdrubal situation is so compelling is that it really presents the first test for the Indians (that doesn’t involve Boras) in attempting to keep the current group of talent on the field together for longer than the two years that most peg as their current “window” of contention. As wild as it sounds, these “windows” are getting tighter and tighter for small-to-mid-market teams and it’s something that B-Pro’s Kevin Goldstein wrote about in terms of the Royals’ off-season and all of their young talent on hand:
The biggest problem for the Royals just might be a matter of lining up windows. As a small-market club, players will be leaving via free agency, and to perfectly match up final club-controlled years with prospects reaching their potential is a daunting task. “Run through this for a second and just step back and think about it,” said one team official. “I love their position players, but they’re going to get expensive quickly. Alex Gordon leaves in two years, Joakim Soria will be gone, and then they lose a guy who could be a workhorse in Hochever in three years and all of a sudden it’s uh-oh time. They have some timelines that aren’t matching up right now, and that’s what I’d be concerned about.”
This is not designed to rain on anyone’s parade, and the Royals’ best bet, between players still developing and players not yet leaving for greener pastures, is the 2014 season. It’s easy and fun to root for the Davids of the world as they battle baseball’s Goliaths. But teams like the Rays are still the exception, not the rule. While there are plenty of futures to dream on, very few of them actually come true. Still, it’s a good time to be excited in Kansas City; just be realistic.
Really…Goldstein wrote that the “Royals’ best bet, between players still developing and players not yet leaving for greener pastures, is the 2014 season”. Read that again and replace “Royals” with “Indians” and “Gordon”, “Soria”, and “Hochever” with “Cabrera”, “Choo”, and “Masterson” and you start to see how these “timelines” are so vital to the presumed contention for small-to-mid-market clubs. Perhaps those last couple of lines are the best argument that the Indians should have been more active this off-season, attempting to remove as many questions as possible on their roster. But most possible “solutions” came with questions attached as well (is Willingham worth the $, should the Indians have dangled more pitching for offense) and the Indians have cast their lot with this current group.
As we’ve found since 2004, seasons will surprise and disappoint as World Series trophies (or even divisional titles) that fall from the sky in January like the winter snowflakes often disappear under the heat of the summer sun. The Indians, as presently constructed as an eclectic mix of homegrown talent and “found” diamonds are capable of competing for the AL Central if certain “surprises” occur but can slip too far back in the standings in a hurry if “disappointments” are what awaits them. That may be clichéd, but it’s realistic…and not just for the Indians as Spring Training arrives.
Thankfully, after an odd (and often quiet) off-season, cowhide is about to hit leather under the Arizona sun and the 2012 Indians’ season awaits. Whether the Indians find themselves leaping through a window or watch it slowly creep down as the season progresses will reveal itself over the course of months, not days, and projections and opinions will give way to realities and results.
This time of year, that’s always a welcome change…
Sunday, February 19, 2012