Sunday, December 23, 2012

Getting Busy on a Lazy Sunday

“Your boys have been busy lately.” A pretty simple, seemingly innocuous one-line e-mail that I received from a friend of mine earlier this week. With no context attached, the mind is left to wonder exactly what he was referring to, but being that I don’t have kids and the friend is a big baseball fan (albeit a Mets fan), it was crystal clear to me exactly what he was getting at; the Indians are making an uncharacteristic amount of noise this offseason. The Indians have been linked, at one time or another, to Justin Upton, Dee Gordon, Kevin Youkilis, Shane Victorino, Edwin Jackson, Jason Bay and others from outside the organization, and speculation is rampant that everyone from Justin Masterson to Asdrubal Cabrera to Vinnie Pestano could make their way off of the North Shore during the silly season© (copyright Paul Cousineau). Unlike years past, there has also been actual player movement, as the Indians have inked Mark Reynolds to a free agent deal and of course made the blockbuster trade that sent the S.S. Choo steaming south to Cincy in return for Drew Stubbs and Trevor Bauer. At press time, nothing was settled on the Nick Swisher front but the Indians have reportedly made him an offer somewhere in the neighborhood of 4 years and $50+ million to settle their current RF dilema. They’ve also recruited him with an unorthodox series of stunts to include a video pitch featuring Thad Matta, Jim Tressel and Urban Meyer imploring the former Buckeye to “come home” to play in Cleveland. No word on whether or not hologram Woody Hayes was available. So with my crazy international travel schedule finally winding down for the foreseeable future, let’s take a look at some of the Indians related links here on the last Lazy Sunday before Christmas.

The biggest news of course was the three-team trade that sent Choo, Tony Sipp, Jason Donald and Lars Anderson out of the organization with Trevor Bauer, Drew Stubbs, Bryan Shaw and Matt Albers heading to Cleveland. Learning about the trade only after it was completed, my first thought was to wonder what else the Indians gave up. I assumed that the reports were inaccurate, as I’d have been happy if the Indians were able to acquire Bauer for Choo straight up. The fact that they added a talented defender with potential at the plate in Stubbs was pure gravy. It’s nearly impossible to look at this trade as it stands today as anything but a win for the Indians. They were able to take an asset that they were clearly not going to be in control of beyond 2013 (Choo) and flip it for 9 years’ worth of control of two talented players, one of which is a young pitcher with top of the rotation potential. A young pitcher under club control with top of the rotation potential just happened to be the #1 item on every rational Indians fan’s shopping list this offseason, so the fact that Antonetti was able to check that off without dealing his most valuable asset (Asdrubal) has to be considered a major coup. The deal was almost universally regarded as a big win for the Indians in the media, something you rarely see these days. Ben Lindbergh of Baseball Prospectus broke down the deal for all three teams, and had no hesitation in considering the Indians the big winner:

This isn’t Colon for Lee, Phillips, and Sizemore, but it might be one of the best swaps the Indians—who have a somewhat spotty recent trade record—have made since. It’s rare that I have no reservations about pronouncing a trade an unqualified win for one team—there’s so much info we’re missing about most transactions that I get twitchy just typing that—but this is one of those times. Cleveland just made the kind of move that should help shorten the dry spell between competitive Indians teams.

ESPN’s Keith Law feels similarly that the Indians came out on top on the deal, and he’s a guy who’s been critical of the front office in the past. The decision to deal Bauer was so unpopular in Arizona, GM Kevin Towers had his Wikipedia page altered by an angry fan to reflect Towers’ supposed “secret mission to destroy the Diamondbacks.” If you’re looking for a slightly more educated (but less funny) perspective from someone who knows the Diamondbacks organization well, beat writer Nick Piecoro breaks down the trade from Arizona’s perspective, and he’s downright confused by the deal. The bottom line is that the Indians are a better team today than they were before the trade went down, to say nothing of 2014 and beyond.
This all begs the question as to why exactly the Diamondbacks were willing to part with the #3 pick in the 2011 draft, a draft that was universally lauded as one of the more loaded in recent memory. Why would Arizona give up 6 years of club control over their organizational pitcher of the year in 2012? The 21-year old Bauer has already made his major league debut, going 1-2 in his 4 starts in the desert last year with 17 K, 13 BB and 11 ER allowed in 16 1/3 IP. Those numbers aren’t pretty, but when you look at his overall minor league line (13-4 with a 3.00 ERA, 200 K and 73 BB in 156 IP) and also consider that he strained his groin in his first major league start and tried to pitch through it, the brief MLB struggles can be overlooked. But Bauer’s problems with the big league club in Arizona went beyond his poor showing on the mound. Bauer has been thrown under the bus by his former teammates and coaches going back to last season, where he was criticized about everything from wearing his headphones to warm up to throwing too much long-toss on game days to shaking off his catcher too often. Bauer was labeled as a malcontent, someone who didn’t fit it with his teammates for one reason or another and was thus doomed to failure in the Diamondbacks clubhouse. Arizona seemed downright eager to rid themselves of their talented young righty, and the last time an organization seemed a little too eager to dump a talented pitcher the Indians ended up with Ubaldo Jimenez. Arizona manager Kirk Gibson soured on Bauer early on in the process, calling him out publicly last March during spring training less than a year after Bauer was drafted into the organization. Could Bauer really be that difficult of a personality that he managed to alienate an entire organization in less than a year?

Obviously, I’ve not spent time in the Arizona Diamondbacks locker room. I’ve seen Trevor Bauer pitch a couple of times on TV and I follow him on twitter. It seems that much of the trouble Bauer ran into stems from locking horns with the veterans in the clubhouse, and I’m guessing that much of that comes from his dealings with catcher Miguel Montero. Bauer famously shook off Montero on the first pitch of his professional career, and proceeded to repeat that process a number of times throughout the game. Montero didn’t like that and voiced his dislike to Bauer and the rest of the team, and things seemed to run downhill from there. So while I’m far from an expert on the inner workings of the Arizona clubhouse, I do have a significant amount of experience as a catcher when it comes to stubborn pitchers who have their own way of doing things. And I can speak from that experience when I say that Montero shares the blame in this situation, and probably is more responsible for the friction than Bauer. Bauer is known as a very cerebral guy, someone who has a very good idea about what he wants to do on the mound and how he wants to do it. It’s on Montero, the veteran catcher, to sit with Bauer and formulate a game plan, not just go out and call the pitches he sees fit to call and expect the rookie to fall in line. Bauer has ten (10!) pitches that he can throw, including a number that he more or less invented himself. If Bauer feels like he’s got a hitter set up for his inverted-gyroball-screwball-knuckler or whatever, he should have a chance to throw it. If the pitch gets hammered over the leftfield fence or sails to the backstop, then it’s time for Montero and Bauer to sit down and talk about scrapping the IGSK in favor of the more traditional curveball. But for Montero to just go out and say “listen Meat, throw what I call when I call it and we’ll all go home happy” is incredibly arrogant and obstinate. Even if Montero is calling the right pitch in the right situation, it’s important for Bauer to understand why that is the right pitch in the right situation, and that’s a discussion best had in the clubhouse while breaking down video. It’s not a conversation suited for the mound in the middle of a game, and it is certainly not a conversation that Montero should be having with members of the Arizona media.

The pitcher-catcher relationship is a delicate one that can take entire seasons to develop, and for Montero to assume that he has Bauer’s repertoire and psyche all figured out before Bauer throws a major league pitch is simply not realistic. Now, if this was the middle of Bauer’s 2nd season and he was still continually clashing with his catcher, I’d say there’s a more serious problem at work. But until proven otherwise, I’m going to go out on a limb and hold the veteran catcher responsible for his actions, because if there’s one guy in this situation with the experience to know better, it’s Montero. Some lessons are harder to learn than others. If Bauer goes out and ignores the scouting report on a particular hitter and gets lit up, I bet he’ll be listening to his catcher the next time around. Being 21 and talented (for those young enough to remember) is usually accompanied by a feeling of invincibility, and sometimes that feeling isn’t shaken until the player is proven to be a mere mortal. Nothing I’m hearing out of Bauer’s brief tenure in Arizona screams “malcontent” to me. What I hear suggests that he was a 21-year old rookie with a couple of personality quirks in a veteran clubhouse. Until proven otherwise, I’m going to assume that he can not only fit in but thrive in Cleveland, and all it will take is some good coaching and some patience from his teammates. I’m all-in on Trevor Bauer, a guy who immediately becomes the #2 prospect in the Indians organization and the most talented pitcher in Cleveland. But it must be a chilly day in Hell, because I can’t believe I’m sitting here defending a pitcher who shakes off his catcher, but here we are.

The second player of note that the Indians acquired in the deal is centerfielder Drew Stubbs from Cincinnati. Stubbs is a 28-year old former 1st round pick who has been up and down with the bat in his 3+ year major league career, but is universally lauded for his glove in CF. In Stubbs’ first full major league season back in 2010, he hit .255/.329/.444 with 22 HR and 30 SB, and looked like he had “future star” written all over him. But the 105 OPS+ he put up that season represents his career high, as he regressed to a 86 OPS+ in 2011 and then down to just a 61 OPS+ last year. He’s striking out more, walking less and hitting fewer home runs. Stubbs baserunning and defense helps make him a less than useless player, but less than useless is hardly the benchmark we would like set for centerfield at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario. At the very least, Stubbs will play a more than capable centerfield, allowing leadoff hitter Michael Brantley to slide over to LF where his plus range will help make up for his below-average arm, and the Indians suddenly have two above-average outfielders roaming the grass in Progressive field. There’s still hope for Stubbs’ bat, as his BABIP of .290 last year was more than 30 points lower than his current career mark of .323. There’s still a lot of swing and miss in his game, but his underlying raw power offers an opportunity for a bounceback season if he can put the bat on the ball with a little more consistency. Even if his BABIP just progresses back to his career average he’ll be better than last year, and if he can be just average with the bat, his defense and baserunning will help make him a solid addition to the club. Adding Stubbs in addition to Bauer in the Choo deal really makes the trade a home run for Chris Antonetti.  

So this all begs the question…are the Indians done trading their veterans? Are Chris Perez, Asdrubal Cabrera and company safe for at least one more season? The market for Perez seems somewhat less than enthusiastic, but Cabrera should still have a number of suitors if he’s put on the market. To that end, I’m again going to reference Diamondbacks beat writer Nick Piecoro who penned an article “rationalizing” the Bauer trade. Piecoro feels like giving up on Bauer was a difficult and unfortunate decision, but when looking around at the shortstop landscape the Diamondbacks had virtually no choice. The talented SS’s around the league are either locked up with their respective teams or would be too expensive in an open market, so trading for a guy like Gregorious was the only option available to Arizona. Even if the Indians end up signing Nick Swisher, they’re still not a good bet to make the playoffs. If someone comes along with a “Godfather” offer for Asdrubal, I still think the Indians should take it. They were reportedly asking for more for Asdrubal than for Choo, a demand that makes perfect sense in terms of club control and positional scarcity, so I see absolutely no reason to back down from that bargaining stance. If the right offer isn’t on the table, there’s no hurry to move him. But if a team comes along offering multiple elite prospects who are close to big league ready, especially if at least one of those prospects is a starting pitcher, I think Antonetti needs to be ready to pull the trigger on another deal. That’s saying nothing about Chris Perez, who should be out of town on the first thing moving as soon as a remotely viable offer is put on the table. So are the Indians done dealing? Maybe, but if so it won’t be for lack of trying.

For those who didn’t notice, the Rule 5 Draft took place back on December 6. The Indians selected a position player, but lost a pair of arms as well. With the 5th pick in the draft, the Indians selected 1B Chris McGuiness from the Texas Rangers. McGuiness will turn 25 in April and hit .268/.366/.474 with 23 HR and 77 RBI for AA Frisco last season. He went on to tear up the Arizona Fall League, hitting .283/.370/.467 with 4 HR and 27 RBI en route to the offseason league’s MVP award. I’d be lying if I told you that I’d ever seen him swing a bat, so I’m going entirely off of scouting reports from others here. The overall book on him is that he has a good eye at the plate and at least gap power, but it’s unlikely that he’ll hit enough to be an everyday 1B in the major leagues. Then again, Casey Kotchman doesn’t hit enough to be an everyday 1B in the major leagues, and yet that’s who the Indians trotted out most of the time in 2012. McGuiness has a career minor league OPS of .814, and will join Matt LaPorta, Yan Gomes and Mike McDade in the fight for at bats at DH and 1B behind starter Mark Reynolds. He hits from the left side, does a nice job getting on base and has a little pop, but if McGuiness is on the 25-man roster for the entire season it’s because something went wrong at the big league level for the Indians in 2013.

The two players the Indians lost are both pitchers, one a starter and one a reliever. Hector Rondon was the 2nd overall pick by the Chicago Cubs, and the Orioles tabbed southpaw starter T.J. McFarland with the 12th selection. Rondon of course was one of the top prospects in the Indians organization back in 2009, when the 21-year old was coming off of a solid season spent between AA Akron and AAA Columbus. The wheels fell off for Rondon after that season though, as he went down early in 2010 with a torn ligament requiring Tommy John surgery, and followed that up with a fractured elbow that conspired to limit him to just 10 innings of work in the past two seasons. Rondon has been mounting a comeback as a reliever though, and has worked 20 innings in the Venezuelan Winter League this offseason, posting a 4.50 ERA while striking out 17 and walking 6. His fastball velocity is back up in the low-90’s, and he’s getting a feel for his changeup again. I always thought that without his curveball taking a significant step forward that he’d end up in the bullpen eventually, so the move to the pen may have been inevitable regardless of the injury issues. The Cubs can start him off in a long relief role to help build up his arm strength, and if he succeeds there then they can start getting him into more high leverage situations. I can’t see Rondon ever starting at this point in his career, but he can still be an effective reliever and stands a better than average chance of remaining on the Cubs 25-man roster for the entire season.

In addition to Rondon, the Indians had lefthanded starter T.J. McFarland selected in the Rule 5 Draft. McFarland split his 2012 season between Akron and Columbus, going a combined 16-8 with a 4.03 ERA, 96 K and 45 BB in 163 IP. As those raw numbers would indicate, McFarland is more of a command and control guy than a big strikeout pitcher. He keeps the ball on the ground and in the ballpark, and is a good athlete with a clean, easily repeatable delivery. He projects as an innings-eating #4 or #5 at the major league level, and while he may get knocked around a little initially I think there’s a good chance he can stick in the show for all of 2013. The former 4th round pick won’t turn 24 until June, and he’s the guy that I predicted that the Indians would lose in the Rule 5 Draft this year. The talent evaluators in the organization clearly saw McFarland’s potential as lower than that of fellow southpaw T.J. House, as House was added to the 40-man over McFarland despite being younger than McFarland and having pitched 2012 primarily in AA Akron. Time will tell if the Indians made the right decision, as McFarland and House will inevitably be compared against one another throughout the rest of their respective careers.

Late Friday night, the Indians announced that they had signed lefthanded pitcher Scott Kazmir to a minor league deal. Kazmir is currently pitching in the Puerto Rican Winter League, and in 5 starts has gone 0-2 with a 4.37 ERA, 27 K and just 8 BB in 22 2/3 IP. I love the K/BB ratio, and while I’m not exactly penciling Kazmir into a spot in the rotation just yet there’s really no downside here. It’s a minor league deal for very little money, so if Kazmir is able to recapture any of the magic that helped him lead the league in strikeouts back in 2007, great. If not, no big deal. Kazmir has thrown just 1 2/3 inning since 2010, and if he does make the club it’s probably as a matchup lefty out of the bullpen. With both Tony Sipp and Raffy Perez having departed the North Shore, there just happens to be an opening for a southpaw out of the bullpen. Ideally, the talented Nick Hagadone seizes the job out of spring training and never looks back. But if not, Kazmir has a shot not only to make the team but to contribute in a key role. Not bad for a minor league signing in December.

The last personnel move we’re going to discuss today is the free agent acquisition of 1B Mark Reynolds. Reynolds is famous for two things; prodigious power and insanely high strikeout totals. He led the NL in K’s for three straight seasons while with the Diamondbacks (over 200 K’s each time) and then came over to the junior circuit in 2011 and again led the league with 196 punchouts. He’s also averaged nearly 33 bombs from the right side of the plate over the last 5 seasons, bringing some badly-needed righthanded power to the middle of the Indians lineup. Fans that look at Reynolds and see nothing more than a whiff machine are shortsighted; he walks quite a bit in addition to the strikeouts, and the lowest OPS+ he’s ever posted in a full season is 96. Even back in 2010 when Reynolds failed to bat even .200, he still posted a .320 OBP and .433 SLG by virtue of his 83 BB and 32 HR. Would I prefer fewer strikeouts? Sure, who wouldn’t? But if Reynolds steps in and goes for a .225/.335/.480 line with 30 HR, I’m going to be pretty happy with how Antonetti spent $6 million of Larry Dolan’s dollars this offseason. He’s an average to slightly below average fielder at one of the least important defensive positions on the field, and I have no trouble seeing him as a net upgrade from Casey Kotchman no matter how many times he strikes out.

Everyone around here likes to look back to the glory days of Indians history, and Anthony Castrovice is no different. Castro decided to reach back to the grand old year of 1988, when the 6th-place Indians went 78-84 the year before “Major League” was released. Not exactly the glory days you were thinking of? Castro’s entertaining trip down memory lane was prompted by the fact that the ’88 club included no fewer than five present-day managers in the dugout, including current Tribe skipper Terry Francona (the team’s primary DH). Rangers manager Ron Washington played in 69 games as a utility infielder, Charlie Manuel of the Phillies was the hitting coach, Boston’s John Farrell won 14 games in the rotation and current Padres skipper Buddy Black pitched out of both the rotation and the bullpen. For those of you foolishly harboring any doubt regarding Castrovice’s childhood love of the Tribe, I implore you to read the 1,400 words poured out from a special place in his heart on that 1988 team. If you’re anything like me and names like Cory Snyder, Tom Candiotti, Greg Swindell, Brook Jacoby and Pat Tabler put a smile on your face, you’ll enjoy the piece on one of the classic Indians teams of the 1980’s. I actually have a long and somewhat entertaining story about my irrational dislike for Ron Washington that stems from the August 11, 1988 contest, but that’s a story best left for another day. Anyway, prepare to lose about 4 hrs on looking up players and stats from those awful, horrible, bungling but somehow memorable 1980’s Indians squads. So with that time waster out there, apologize to your bosses and significant others for me and enjoy the rest of your Lazy Sunday.

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