Sunday, April 29, 2012

A Lazy Sunday of Appreciation and Anticipation

While most of the North Coast takes their magnifying glass to the NFL Draft (said by many to be the Browns’ Annual Super Bowl…and one that they’ve not exactly thrived in since their return) and as another portion of Clevelanders prepare for the NBA Lottery on May 30th (as the Cavaliers finish a two-year stretch in which they posted the fewest wins since the 1982 to 1984 teams…not that I don’t “approve” of them getting the third most ping-pong balls), you may or may not have noticed, but the Indians are preparing to enter May in 1st Place in their division. 

Are they tied for 1st Place?
Yes…and it can certainly be argued that the Indians simply took advantage of a favorable schedule in the early going (and I’ll actually make that argument if you want to hear it) and that this is still ultimately a flawed team (again, no dissension on that point as they have a negative run differential), but in a town where “hope” is the operative word for sports franchises in recent years, the Indians are once again off to a hot start and – while that hasn’t been reflected at the turnstiles – they finish their April comparing favorably to the other teams in their division and…well, maybe it’s time to appreciate that.

Since so much of the conversation in the past week revolves around what young players “could be” or how they project in the NFL or NBA or how “promise” is there to build upon, maybe it’s time to take a look at a couple of players who have graduated from the “could” side of the ledger into the “are” side and whose “promise” has been realized in short order.  While the Browns and the Cavs certainly have talented young players (who may or may not live up to the projections being heaped on them), the Indians have some very exciting players that have established themselves as elite players and have positioned themselves to perhaps occupy the upper echelon among MLB players going forward and appreciating them for what they are while anticipating what’s to come is something that’s not done often enough in a world in which the negatives are examined to death (guilty here) while the positives are taken for granted to some degree.

So while the sports-talk radio crowd (when they’re not talking about how a 4th Rounder fits into a “scheme) and the Twitterverse harps away at the deficiencies of Kotchman, Brantley, Wheeler, and others, what often gets lost is that we’re watching a couple of players cement their position as the pillars that the Indians figure to be built on…and not just for 2012, but for years after this. 
Of course, I speak of Asdrubal Cabrera and Carlos Santana as we let loose on a Lazy One…

With the wonderful juxtaposition of the struggling Angels being in town as the back-drop, given their spending spree this off-season, Cabrera and Santana were the two players that inked extensions this off-season for the Tribe and, while their deals may have only “bought” out one year of FA for each of those players, Cabrera is now potentially in the fold through 2014 (with $21.05M guaranteed) and Santana under club control potentially through 2017 (with $21M guaranteed), it’s worth noting that the Angels will pay at least one player $20M or more every year until 2021, which is the year that my oldest son, now 5 years old, will be entering High School.

Though I don’t need a refresher course of service time, arbitration, FA, or even TV contracts as I know that the Indians (unlike the Angels) are never going to pay for past production and will pay for perceived future production, to see Cabrera and Santana under the Indians’ control for the next three seasons together (and through 2017 in Santana’s case) can’t help but generate some enthusiasm.  And that enthusiasm and optimism is building as 2012 begins since the Indians’statistical leaderboard starts to morph back into some semblance of normalcy, as it is worth noting that the Indians’ C and SS have continued to establish themselves as two players for whom their 2011 success seems to have carried over.

Now, I don’t know if you noticed in that link above, but Cabrera and Santana are the 3rd and 4th youngest regulars for the Indians (Brantley and Kipnis are younger) and while that may depress you to see that they have three players over 30 (with another on the way in Damon) that are getting regular time, given that they were supposed to have loaded up the farm system to get similarly-aged and similarly-controlled players, Cabrera and Santana are both 26 years old and are just hitting their years of peak production.  Given what they’ve done in the last couple of years (and so far this year) that’s exciting enough to forget that Mike Brantley has a career .315 OBP in 1,018 PA and 29 career SB in 230 games (though he’s admittedly looked better at the plate in the last 2 days than I think he ever has) or that Kotchman, Duncan, and Hannahan are taking significant AB this season.  Because complaining about the black holes on the roster is missing the bright, shining stars and complaining about the less significant portions of the team is taking for granted the development and contributions of the more important players on this team…for this year and beyond.

That’s not to say that complaining about a teams’ inability to develop a LF or the persistent black hole at 1B aren’t justifiable endeavors, but what happens while we moan and project about what the team is going to do at 3B (again, guilty in this space) or scan the rosters of other teams to find a LF to target for trade, we miss out on the development and establishment of the players who HAVE fulfilled potential or HAVE surprised us (in the pleasant way) with the player that they’ve become.  As we (inexplicably) are reminded seemingly every day how Matt MaTola is doing in AAA or how Trevor Crowe is “lining himself up for a chance” and can’t help but be depressed by this (and the fact that the Indians are playing Shelley Duncan and Casey Kotchman on a regular basis and just signed Johnny Damon should tell you everything you need to know about how likely a LaPorta or Crowe sighting is in Cleveland this year), we somehow take the burgeoning stars in the middle of the Indians’ lineup – the players that have fulfilled their potential – that constitute the “up-the-middle” talent for granted.

Often, I think about how Victor Martinez was a topic of discussion or debate as an Indian only when he was hurt or how he was fondly appreciated mainly on that day that he sat in front of his locker crying as so much time and words were put into finding a solution for 3B or LF or 1B (yes, even back then) in those years that we failed to truly appreciate Victor for the player that he became and for the Indian that he was.  Certainly, he was the favorite player for many and he was far from ignored, but too often we took his steadiness and his excellence for granted, only broaching it as a topic when he was injured or when he was…well, gone.

While that “gone” doesn’t really apply for Cabrera and Santana (with their extensions in hand), to see the way that the duo has started 2012 is to realize that their 2011 seasons may not have been aberrations or red herrings.  Lest you forget, Santana posted the 3rd highest wOBA among C in MLB last year and Asdrubal was 5th among MLB SS in wOBA.  This year (with that small sample size siren blaring), Santana ranks 7th in wOBA among C in MLB and Asdrubal ranks 4th in MLB among SS, perhaps showing that the duo is ready to pace this offense (or at least lead it) throughout the 2012 season and beyond.

With a hot start in 2012, Asdrubal continues to establish himself as an elite offensive SS, despite questions as to whether 2011 was the aberration and as whispers about his off-season conditioning grew audible.  Interestingly, he seems to have filled a leadership void in the clubhouse that has existed since El Capitan headed to Beantown, looking more and more like the heart and soul of this Indians’ team.  While his defense remains a point of contention between stats and eyes, to realize that the Indians acquired him for ½ of a season of Eduardo Perez reminds us that things have worked out in some areas for the Indians, even if the team’s main beat writer spend his Sundays answering questions about where Scott Lewis has gone…apparently because nobody asked him about the whereabouts of Anthony Reyes or Jeremy Sowers.

The Venezuelan SS (whose at-bat music is “Super Estrella”, which I believes translates to “Super Astro” or “Super Star”…and thanks to AC for dropping all of the actual walk-in music for the Tribe on us) has emerged as a perennial All-Star – not that the All-Star selection process is the most scientific way to quantify worth – and while Francisco Lindor continues to bepraised in Lake County, it’s again important to remember not what a certain player “could” be (though I’m irrationally excited about Lindor) but to appreciate a player for what he has become…and Cabrera has become a star.  Even when Asdrubal arrived in that magical 2007 season, there was hope (that at times seemed unfounded) that he would develop into the player that he is today.  But that hope has materialized into reality and, while it proves that stars can emerge from relative obscurity (and the Seattle farm system), that is something that is not appreciated enough.

As for emerging from “relative obscurity”, Santana didn’t follow that path as he was a highly-touted prospect from the time he arrived from LA for Lacey Cake and (while other “top prospects” acquired by the Indians in those dark days of 2008 and 2009 have fallen by the wayside) Santana kept climbing the Minor League ladder and every Annual Prospect ranking.  Upon arrival to the parent club, he immediately put his offensive imprint on the team and, despite an…um, harrowing night in Boston in his rookie year, his performance at the plate is something that I don’t think is truly grasped, in terms of context.

By that I mean that among players with more than 900 PA since the beginning of 2010, Santana’s OPS of 129+ puts him 27th inMLB, just ahead of Ryan Zimmerman and Andre Ethier and if you really want to get some perspective about how impressive Santana’s performance in MLB has been, look at the players ranked for their numbers from 2010 to now, onlyincluding players that are in their 1st to 5th seasons intheir career.  That is, among players who are still young and are only just starting their careers (relatively speaking), Santana’s OPS+ ranks behind only Votto, Hamilton, Braun, Longoria, and Carlos Gonzalez.

That’s it…
Those are the only players under the age of 30, early in their careers that have performed better than Santana at the plate since 2010, which is when The Axe Man arrived to MLB.  Santana is that “big bopper” that some thought (or “hoped”) he would become, the middle-of-the-order presence that gets taken for granted far too often and is noticed more for the “protection” in the lineup that he does not have more than for his excellence at the plate.  As for “behind” said plate, Santana’s defense has unquestionably improved this season and, while it remains to be seen where The Axe Man ends up on defense, his game is becoming more complete as he continues his assault on MLB pitching.

Over at LGT, Jay Levin penned a great piece dissecting the (absurd) Fangraphsian suggestion that the Indians did not get much of a discount in Santana’s extension.  After a logical foray into the “how does Johnny Damon fit” question, Jay’s piece that asserted that the Indians received what could be potentially quite a discount, comparing the money received by Derek Jeter, Ryan Howard, and Prince Fielder in arbitration to what the Indians will be paying Santana.  If those names look ambitious in terms of comparison, Levin opines thusly:
These are not logical comps for Santana, clearly. And yet, one scenario that the Indians do have to consider in their planning is the one where Santana becomes a straight-up superstar. All he has to do is hit 35 bombs — and he doesn’t even have to do it this year. He can do it in 2012, or in 2013, or in 2014. Santana’s age in those three seasons: 26, 27 and 28.

That – in a nutshell – reminds us what Santana already is and what he can (quite easily) become if he follows on his current path. “What he is” and “what he can become” are unquestionably exciting notions and, as there is much hand-wringing over Kotchman’s start or concerns over Ubaldo’s inconsistency (both legitimate gripes), let’s not take Santana’s ascension to the upper echelon of MLB hitters for granted.  Sure, the local beat writers are going to continue to harp away at The Axe Man’s batting average because…well, that’s what they do instead of attempting to contextualize his impact, but to watch Santana develop has already been a joy.  The feeling that he’s just scratching the surface is impossible to ignore and seeing him in the middle of the Indians’ lineup (potentially) through 2017 should cause some warmth on a cold Sunday morning on the North Coast.

How the Indians’ offense ultimately performs throughout the season remains (seriously) in question as it becomes more and more apparent that this offense is going to have to be paced by Santana and Cabrera with the hope that Choo can get healthy (and effective) and Hafner can STAY healthy (and effective) forming the heart of the order.  If Kipnis continues to develop as an offensive presence and Brantley’s weekend foretells of future success (and this is me not holding my breath), the top-to-middle of the Indians’ offense could excite and amaze this year. 

While much e-ink will be spilled on the other spots in the lineup and concerns in the rotation and bullpen, it’s important to not lose sight of the way that Asdrubal Cabrera and Carlos Santana have emerged as legitimate stars in the last two years or so.  Maybe the onus is on the Indians for not surrounding them with more talent at the corners of the diamond and in the corners of the outfield, but complaining about those issues (which are justified) sometimes takes away from the enjoyment of watching a young player mature and develop into an impactful star in MLB.

With both Asdrubal and The Axe Man, that enjoyment is unmistakable and – regardless of what happens around that duo in the lineup or in the field – to appreciate them for what they are and to anticipate what they can be is the reason that most of us became baseball fans.  Rather than irrationally focusing on the (continued) deficiencies of the team all season long, placing that focus on seeing what the young players that are on hand have evolved into allows one to envision an enjoyable summer.

Whether the summer is enjoyable or not, the Indians have pillars for their team up the middle of the diamond and – thanks to their newly inked extensions – those pillars can be appreciated now and into the future… 

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