Sunday, April 15, 2012

A Lazy Sunday on Damon, Desperation, & Drafting

As the Indians finish up their series in Kansas City, the first stop as they embark on a West Coast trip starting in Seattle on Tuesday, the season is not even two weeks old and the intrigue just keeps building. Despite a razor-thin margin for error, they dropped some games they shouldn’t have lost in their opening homestand and, while that had some rushing for the “Panic” button (including in the Front Office), the next two weeks are going to be awfully telling about where this season is going to take us. Thus far, they’re off to a solid (if, um…adventurous) start to the road trip and after the Indians leave Kansas City, they head to Seattle, then Oakland, then return to the North Coast to face these Royals once again. With those three teams coming up on the schedule, how the Indians fare in what was looked at as an “easy” part of their schedule is going to set the tone for the rest of 2012 – whether they’re able to build some early momentum as they did last year or if the tailspin begins early as it has too many times in the past few years.

Interestingly, though the Indians have signed Johnny Damon (and I’ll get to that) to potentially upgrade their offense – which has been scuffling for longer than just the beginning of 2012 – it’s possible that Damon doesn’t arrive for a couple of weeks and (since we’ve seen how much can change in the first week and a half) it’s going to be interesting to see where the Indians sit when Damon arrives. But arrive he (apparently) will and his arrival is why it’s time to get off on this Lazy Sunday, examining how Damon fits this roster/lineup, the desperation to find something/anything different that resulted in him being inked, and how we got to this point in mid-April in 2012, when a 38-year-old out of work OF was seen as an upgrade to ANYTHING that the Indians had to offer internally. So, with that, let’s get off on a Lazy one…

Strange as it may be to acknowledge, here we are in mid-April (a little over 7 months after making the Ubaldo deal that seemed to signal a new aggressiveness at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario) talking about a Johnny Damon signing that still hasn’t been formally announced, with a wildly player-friendly contract attached to it. It was merely five games into the 2012 season when the team reached out to a 38-year-old player, essentially as a rental for about a month or so, that hadn’t been signed and who is willing to accept a base salary of $1.25M because he represented something potentially better than anything else they had in the system or brought in during the off-season.

Now, don’t take that to mean that Damon isn’t an upgrade to the Tribe roster as it exists right now, but it certainly conveys the idea that the Indians are (still) unsatisfied (and rightfully so) with their LF configuration. They hate the internal options enough (both top-side and in AAA) that we’re talking about Johnny Damon, after wasting a couple of days earlier in the off-season dissecting Bobby Abreu…and I’m glad we have Damon instead of Abreu. While this signing shouldn’t come as a total surprise as we watched talk and Tweets for the latter part of Spring Training that the Tribe was attempting to find an OF anywhere, actually bringing in a player like Damon is telling about what the Indians think of the internal options and how his signing brings the organizational failure to come up with a “Plan B” past Grady this off-season and to draft/develop a suitable corner OF for too long under some pretty hot lights.

In terms of how it affects the current roster, I can’t decide if this signing is an indictment of Brantley and what they think of him, a continuation of the search to find an OF not named Shelley Duncan, or an instance of throwing something up against the wall and hoping it sticks. Regardless, it smacks of desperation and when you throw the alleged contract terms on top of that stink of desperation, as well as possibility that he won’t even be ready to play for a couple of weeks and you start to see the corner that the Indians had painted themselves into by not coming up with a “Plan B” for the inevitable Sizemore injury during the off-season. Interestingly, Damon seems to be that “Plan B” now (though it’s odd that they wouldn’t have just done this 3 weeks ago or so) as really a “rental” player until the day for when/if Sizemore is ready to return and RJ Anderson at Baseball Prospectus has a pretty good summary of the correlation between Damon’s deal and Sizemore’s availability:
Damon receives full no-trade protection and the ability to opt out once Grady Sizemore returns from the disabled list. This is no ordinary one-year deal. Damon holds all the cards; or so it appears. Think of this from the Indians’ perspective: they want Damon in the lineup for the next few weeks, but know that they can’t offer the consistent playing time he wants throughout the rest of the season. One way to get Damon now and avoid the mess later is to trade him, but it is unlikely that Damon holds much value, and he could not be traded until June without his consent. The other way is to give him a greener-grass clause, essentially telling him to pursue a better opportunity if one presents itself.

The Indians have a gaping hole and they’re bringing in Damon as a band-aid, and not the “Casey Kotchman one-year band-aid” that we’ve grown somewhat accustomed to in 1B or LF. No, this is more like a 6 to 8 week band-aid as the Indians are really plugging Damon into the lineup until Sizemore is ready to return, at which point (through what looks like a sort of handshake agreement) he can move on via what Anderson calls that “greener-grass clause”.

As for what the Indians are getting in Damon, though some will remember Damon for what he was and not acknowledge him for what he now is, Johnny Damon is not the on-base machine that he’s been in the past and Anderson writes of Damon in his aforementioned B-Pro piece that, “it is fair to write that Damon is no longer the batter he was once. His walk rate (about 8 percent) marked his lowest since 2004. He doesn’t make contact as often as he did before, though he can still keep an at-bat alive by spoiling pitches… Damon is 38 now, and a dramatic improvement is unlikely.”

Of course, while “a dramatic improvement is unlikely”, to look at this deal in the context of upgrading the roster over Aaron Cunningham (and his ilk) is to understand why the Indians are making this deal and why they’ve been scouring MLB for an option in LF since Sizemore’s (latest) injury. While inking Damon is certainly not a terrible addition as it upgrades the roster, it is worth mentioning that it does so only marginally as the Indians add a defensively-challenged “outfielder” to somehow mix in with another defensively-challenged “outfielder” in Shelley Duncan in what promises to be an interesting “platoon” in LF. If and when Damon does make his way into an Indians’ uniform, it will be interesting to see how the Indians integrate and utilize Damon in the lineup as (let’s all say this together now once and for all) Damon has played in 52 games in the OF since the beginning of the 2010 season.

While I won’t get into Damon’s throwing arm or how he’s best suited as a DH (which is how Tampa used him last year), something made difficult by Hafner’s presence on the roster, he’s a more compelling offensive option than Duncan and probably even Kotchman and certainly upgrades the Tribe’s bench at the very least as Damon can fit on the roster somehow merely by being a better offensive option in a part-time role than what the Indians are doing now in LF. That is to say, adding Damon to take some PA in LF is preferable to Duncan in a full-time role and certainly than Aaron Cunningham in an anytime role. A few months back, John Perrotto at B-Pro analyzed the players that were still available on the FA market and a scout told him this on Damon:
“He can still play, and he can still help someone. I’m really surprised the Rays didn’t bring him back, because he seemed like a good fit there. He’s getting older. He’s 38 and doesn’t have the home run power he used to, but he can still help and be a productive player. It’s just hard for me to believe he’s going to wind up as either a platoon player, a bench guy—or even out of baseball.”

Although Damon doesn’t really seem “like a good fit” here as he seemed to be in Tampa and since it looks like he’s going to be a platoon player, another aspect to this that will certainly be interesting to see will be what happens with the Indians as they wait for Damon to play himself into MLB condition over the next few weeks. That said, he’s probably going to help the team…but to understand how a 38-year-old, out-of-work-in-mid-April OF is able to help this team is to get to the crux of the issue with Damon coming to Cleveland. That is to say that Damon is coming to Cleveland instead of the Indians simply promoting two players who have gotten off to fast starts in Columbus and who (jointly) represent everything that has transpired to get us to that point. Those two players are Matt LaPorta or (gasp) Trevor Crowe, and the fact that either or both are being written about and entertained as options at this point gets to the heart of what makes this Damon signing so…well, disheartening in a big-picture way.

It’s disheartening because this team has no OF depth (still) and while some will champion the cause of LaPorta or (gasp) Crowe, let’s realize that Matt LaPorta is 27 (and is interestingly playing LF in Columbus, something he hasn’t done since 2010) and Trevor Crowe is 28 and if either of those guys represents a possible answer for the parent club…well, then I’d like to rephrase the question. Both are out to “hot” starts in AAA and have prospect pedigree (LaPorta much more than Crowe), but let’s not get too excited about Matt MaTola’s hot start in Columbus this year as we remember this:
LaPorta 2010 (AAA)
1.094 OPS with 5 HR & 4 2B in 81 PA

MaTola 2010 (MLB)
.668 OPS with 12 HR & 15 2B in 425 PA

Granted, that was two years ago, but MaTola posted a .711 OPS last year in MLB over 385 PA, so it’s not as if he’s improving or making the adjustments that he needs to in order to make his AAA success translate to MLB. He’s always crushed AAA pitching as LaPorta has a .967 OPS in 541 PA in AAA and a .701 OPS in MLB in 1,008 PA.

Look at those two numbers again (particularly with the context of PA) and you start to get why the idea that the light has suddenly gone on in a couple of weeks in Columbus to start 2012 really doesn’t apply as LaPorta is just hammering away at AAA pitching the way he always has. If he comes to Cleveland to play LF or 1B or be a RH bat off the bench, he’s likely to do what he’s always done in MLB – and that isn’t a pretty sight. To see the Indians search out and trot out OF/1B after OF/1B this Spring Training, with Shelley Duncan and Aaron Cunningham making the team over Matt LaPorta is a pretty clear indication of MaTola’s standing in the organization – a standing that’s been earned and is well-deserved.

Factor in this Damon signing and puts into pretty clear perspective what the Indians think of LaPorta or Canzler or…gulp, Crowe (whose promotion should never be a part of a serious discussion) as legitimate upgrades to the current roster. So, let’s stop with this obsession that an AAA/AAAA player represents an upgrade simply because it represents a change and maybe a 27-year-old player “figured it out” after a week in Columbus.

In fact, now that Crowe has been mentioned as an aside, I don’t mean to go off on a rant, but…
In light of the recent rash of extensions handed out to 1st Round Picks from the 2005 Draft (particularly to OF McCutchen, Gordon, and Maybin), it’s worth pointing out that 10 of the Top 30 picks in that 2005 Draft were OF or players that would be OF in MLB. They were, in order of where they were picked:
Justin Upton (#1)
Alex Gordon (#2)
Ryan Braun (#8)
Cameron Maybin (#10)
Andrew McCutchen (#11)
Jay Bruce (#12)
Trevor Crowe (#15)
John Mayberry, Jr. (#19)
Jacoby Ellsbury (#23)
Colby Rasmus (#28)

This is not meant to pile on Trevor Crowe any more than I already have in this space for too many years now, but with Gordon, Maybin, and McCutchen all signing long-term extensions this past off-season to stay where they are and with all of those players on that list being everyday players in MLB in 2012 with the exception of Crowe…yeah, that’s a pretty big miss in that Crowe isn’t even on the 40-man roster (think about that) and one that they’re feeling as Johnny Damon makes his way to the North Coast.

If you want to say that they really only missed on Ellsbury since the rest of those impact players were drafted before Crowe, that’s fine but looking longingly at a flawed player like John Mayberry, Jr. or even a player that’s been moved like Colby Rasmus speaks to the depths of the despair in looking at this list. The 2004 Indians finished the season at 80-82, putting them at #15 on the draft list, just behind the Reds (who picked Jay Bruce at #12, who hit 32 HR last year) who finished with a 76-86 record…so three wins by the Indians and three losses by the Reds made the difference in that draft. That’s not to say that the Indians would have taken Bruce as they never even had that chance; however, the Indians picked Crowe over Ellsbury and whey you realize that Ellsbury and Crowe both played in the Pac-10 (Arizona and Oregon State); it’s pretty obvious that the selection of Crowe in that spot (and HS OF John Drennen at #33 that year) played a pretty big role in where we find ourselves today.

As an aside (within an aside), Mike Brantley was a 7th round pick that year, a couple spots ahead of the Mets’ LHP Jon Niese, another player that just received a contract extension. Meanwhile, the Indians took Joe Ness in the 6th round prior to those two being drafted. Of course, you could do this all day long by examining the old draft lists, but when you miss on nearly every one of your picks for more than a couple of years (and the 2005 picks look like Hall of Famers compared to the 2007 picks), you’re going to have to augment your team with NRI’s like Hannahan and Duncan and hope for the best in finding some gas left in Johnny Damon’s tank.

Want to know why we’re here talking about Johnny Damon after wasting some time prior to the season dissecting Bobby Abreu?
Because the Indians missed on all of these OF and when the bio for the man who ran the Indians’ drafts looks like this in a Media Guide from a couple of years ago, you’re in trouble. In case you didn’t click on that link or didn’t want to read that whole bio of John Mirabelli from the Media Guide a couple of years ago because you want to keep your coffee down, the final line reads, “During his tenure as head of scouting, the Indians drafted players such as Jeremy Sowers, Ryan Garko, Trevor Crowe, Tony Sipp, Ben Francisco, Aaron Laffey, Beau Mills, Jordan Brown, Chris Gimenez, David Huff, & Jensen Lewis to name a few”.

While the “to name a few” implies that there are MLB players not listed, there are players listed that aren’t MLB players and only two of those players are on MLB rosters (a 4th OF in Francisco and a middle reliever in Sipp) and when you have 8 drafts that produce that group of players…well you get to discuss Johnny Damon as an addition and hope that Casey Kotchman can hit when all indications run counter to that.

Lest you forget (and not even revisiting the Beau Mills/Jason Heyward miss), in that ill-fated 2005 Draft, the Indians took Jordan Brown two spots ahead (#124 overall) of Marlins’ 1B Gaby Sanchez (#126) and I don’t mention that because of my crush on Gaby Sanchez so much as I do to point out (even if I know this has been pointed out so many times that we’re all out of fingers) that the Indians have very little to nothing to show for nearly a decade of drafting – a time when it was continually reported that they were dumping money into the farm system. While it is true that they did spend on the farm system in those years, there was a fundamental failure to draft and/or develop talent to become even useful MLB players, much less stars. This is nothing new…I know, but the Damon signing brings this into clearer focus and the fact that anyone’s even thinking about Trevor Crowe as an internal alternative is just depressing, as is clicking through the drafts from 2000 to 2007 (click on this 2007 link and go to each year prior to that) is a pretty depressing way to spend your time.

Maybe someone still emerges and surprises from one of those “lost” drafts the way that Tomlin and Pestano (both 2006 draftees) did last year, but I’m not holding my breath. Of course, it bears mentioning that the Indians likely saw this crevasse and augmented their farm system with the trades that netted them Santana, Masterson, and C. Perez among others and (just to bring this back to LaPorta), it should be noted that the 1st trade that they made in those dark days between June of 2008 and July of 2009 netted them what was SUPPOSED to be a 1B/LF and CF in the CC deal, which (as noted above) hasn’t worked out for LaPorta with confidence waning quickly in Brantley. The Indians (still) need a RH bat that plays either 1B or LF and the Indians put all their eggs in the LaPorta basket that he would be that guy. Remember, he was playing LF sporadically before he injured himself in Fenway in 2010, and the idea that he would occupy LF with Brantley eventually replacing Grady in CF was not a pie-in-the-sky thought as recently as two years ago.

Really, the high hopes for that duo (and particularly LaPorta) play the other major part in where we are today as I unearthed this little nugget from the past in a write-up of the Clifton Phifer deal in 2009 in terms of what was offered to the Indians and what they chose as a return:
The Indians could have gotten outfielder Dominic Brown or Michael Taylor in the deal, but at the expense of Marson or Knapp. The Indians wanted Knapp and feel they have enough corner outfielders. That’s why they agreed to trade Francisco.

Before your blood starts boiling, think of that in the context of when it was written…
In July of 2009, The BLC had nailed down RF and LaPorta and Brantley had been in the organization for less than a year. LaPorta had played about 1/2 of the games in Columbus that year as an OF and has posted a .917 OPS in AAA as a 25-year-old. Brantley was a 22-year-old in the middle of an AAA campaign in which he would walk more than he struck out. So, the optimism for putting together an OF of the Future with Choo, Sizemore, LaPorta, and eventually Brantley wasn’t as far-fetched as it seems in hindsight.

Now, just to go back to the Phillies’ trade, it should be mentioned that both Brown (for the Phillies) and Taylor (for the A’s) are still in AAA and I do (still) love me some Lou Marson, but the line that they “feel they have enough corner outfielders” is telling in terms of how they were still high on Brantley and LaPorta at that point, and how it really wasn’t that outrageous for them to be. Remember those days when it was thought that LaPorta would hold down LF until Brantley emerged and either Brantley would slot into LF around Sizemore with LaPorta at 1B or how LaPorta would stick in LF with Brantley in CF?
Yes, those were some days…

Now we’re talking about a platoon of Shelley Duncan (NRI in 2011) and Johnny Damon (unsigned to start the season in 2012) splitting time in LF and, well…that’s sad.

Maybe Acta can arrange these pieces into an effective lineup…
Maybe Damon is able to provide a spark, when he arrives that is…
Maybe Sizemore comes back and ignites the offense like he did last year…

But those are all “maybes” that will take weeks and even months to find out as the LF “situation” figures to be on display in the interim, a “situation” caused by players thought to be future OF (acquired either via draft) flaming out or hitting the proverbial wall as the Damon signing is a move that’s been coming for about 6 or 7 years…


MTF said...

Brad Grant has turned our drafting around, and I'm thankful. Having said that, we still have to work through the Mirabelli hangover, and we can only do that by saving our nickels so that we are in a position to spend money. Rather than spend drubs and drabs of money on marginal players wouldn't you prefer to save up enough to take on a younger or more significant player as a salary dump, hopefully signed through 2013 or even 14, during the season or even at the trade deadline than mess around with contracts like Damons.

Hyde said...

Good (if depressing) overview of our mid-2000s drafting. Frankly, this does more to illustrate why we've found ourselves in a "rebuild" that seems likely to max out in a succession of .500-type seasons than yet another whine about being in a small market (and the Reds are in the process of making that look like a lame excuse also).

What's bizarre about the Tribe's current situation is that the last contender had major bats at three positions where most teams struggle to find players (C, DH, CF), but kept having to plug in the likes of Ben Broussard, Trot Nixon, Jason Michaels, and Ryan Garko in at the corner outfield spots and first base--places where it's supposed to be relatively easy to find a pure bat.

And now today: we've got better than average bats at C and SS, and possibly at 2B, but first and left field are complete black holes. How did an organization that drafted five future 300-homer guys between 1987 and 1994 come to this?

MTF said...

For example, if the Twins are in last place come end of May and decide to reduce payroll, a Josh Willingham hitting anywhere close to the very hot hitter he is right now might be an attractive trade target. They can't trade their core without alienating fans and Willingham could draw a good young prospect from a team also willing, even eager, to take on that reasonable contract.

CLohse said...

That was a good one, but you should've written it for Oct. 31. Scary spooky! Trick or treating in Cleveland wearing a Mirabelli costume should be de rigeur.

If I might suggest a column for a future day of low-volume Indians news: it would be superfun to read your analysis of a team that has drafted well, preferably a "small market" one. Just sayin'.