Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Grady & The Alternatives

Though the news about Grady’s suddenly balky back broke late last week, the topic is sure to dominate the discussion throughout Spring Training as the Indians’ OF…um, “situation” figures to be a rather fluid one. Quite suddenly, the idea that the bevy of OF “depth” options would be fighting it out for a 4th OF spot and some sporadic playing time this season has been replaced by the reality that one of those “depth” options is likely to be the Opening Day LF, with that title perhaps not being relinquished for some time.

How long that “winner” of the new LF Derby figures to be counted on as an everyday player is the first question in all of this as, while others can moan and wail and gnash over Grady’s re-signing and the idea that the Indians were counting on him to return to the 162-game warrior that he once was (and they weren’t), the more pressing issue at hand is what to do in his absence. The Indians have been down this road before with the OF options being affected by Grady’s injuries, but this idea that Sizemore hurt his back bending over for a ground ball in the OF portends all sorts of bad news in terms of any hope for health – of any kind – for Grady this year.

If the Indians think that this back injury is just a delay to the start of Sizemore’s season (and they probably figured they’d get about 100 games out of Grady…and that is still possible, with the games missed this early injury simply representing a portion of the time that they figured he’d be unavailable), then keeping this mish-mash of players in camp involved as Plan A or Plan B to man LF for a while is fine. However, if this back injury is the harbinger for what the season holds for Grady – whose knee rehab has to go on a break while the back heals – then the Indians have to look very hard at the players that are in camp and whether they need to act to bring another body to Goodyear.

Certainly, the idea that they needed to bring another body to Goodyear existed all off-season, but if Grady’s back injury is just the start of a season spent largely rehabbing for him, a new urgency may set in for the Tribe. Perhaps it could be argued that the urgency should have been there all off-season to have a “Plan B” in mind for if/when Grady went down, but the thought that Grady’s body is betraying him and is breaking down is hard to ignore. If that is the case, the question becomes whether this group of players currently in Goodyear (Duncan, Cunningham, Spilborghs, Pie, Lewis, etc.) represents a viable level of production so the Indians could be comfortable with beginning the season with any one of them AND have the confidence that a viable level of production is a long-term possibility.

Adam Van Arsdale over at LGT has a nice round-up of some career stats for the players that figure to benefit from the opportunity afforded by Grady’s balky back, but I think that it’s worth including what some of the projections are for these players in 2012. With that in mind, here are the relevant Bill James projections in terms of LF options (with Grady in there for context), via Fangraphs:
Duncan - .800 OPS, .344 wOBA
Sizemore - .783 OPS, .334 wOBA
LaPorta - .768 OPS, .333 wOBA
Spilborghs - .755 OPS, .330 wOBA
Fred Lewis - .740 OPS, .320 wOBA
Donald - .718 OPS, .318 wOBA
Pie - .713 OPS, .312 wOBA
Brantley - .690 OPS, .309 wOBA
Carrera - .660 OPS, .305 wOBA

Cunningham did not (gulp) merit a Bill James projection, though his ZiPS projection pegs him near the bottom of the list with a .697 OPS, .305 wOBA projection. Donald is included in there despite the fact that I don’t think that he’s seen as much more than a super-utility guy…and yes, it terrifies me that the one player on that list who is guaranteed a starting spot (and is being promised the leadoff position in the lineup) is only prevented from being at the bottom of the list by Zeke. Regardless, as Mike Brantley seems to have a pretty wide berth to prove his skeptics wrong, that list of projected output is pretty depressing. Perhaps Shelley Duncan takes this opportunity and runs with it, but I’m still skeptical of the effect of his September of 2011 and how his strong finish (against watered-down competition) affected his year-end numbers. Truthfully, the inclusion of MaTola at the top of the list could be the most damning indictment of this group of players as 24th and 25th man fodder.

Perhaps a pleasant surprise is in store for the Indians – like a fully healthy Nick Weglarz or Aaron Cunningham making the most of an opportunity – the way that Brennan Boesch emerged for the Tigers (from the middle-bottom of their prospect lists) a few years back. Short of that, while the idea might exist to wait for mid-season to see what might shake loose on the Trade front, that presupposes that the Indians have a solid enough start to merit the “let’s add a piece” discussion in July. And if those are your options from Day 1 (as they exist right now) to start in LF, the question comes blazing back…
What can ACTUALLY be expected of Sizemore in terms of a return and, more importantly games played in 2012?

Most people assumed that Sizemore would be available for about 100 games or so this season, but that those games would be spread out over the course of a season, with Grady getting periodic days off as Brantley would slide to CF and one of the “depth” options would log some time in LF. But what if Sizemore’s back injury is just the beginning?

At this point, we all know that the Indians gambled on Sizemore, given his health and his potential (Castro’s piece outlines this, along with other options that the Indians may have had) and, while it may be unpopular to say, it’s still a gamble that I would have taken as well. While many can point to his voluminous recent injury history, remember that Sizemore had 16 XBH in those first 18 games back last year, with those 16 XBH coming in 84 plate appearances. Yes, he unfortunately (or is it “unsurprisingly”) sustained injuries that affected him from that point forward, but if the Indians could get any part of that dynamic player, that was the upside.

If you’re not impressed by that simple statement of XBH or can’t see the upside to a healthy Sizemore (who WAS healthy when he came back last year), here’s the context – Matt LaPorta had 35 XBH in 396 PA last year and Mike Brantley had had the same amount (35 XBH) in FOUR HUNDRED AND NINETY SIX plate appearances.
Again, Sizemore had 16 XBH in his first 84 PA’s…

Is that to say that Sizemore would have had nearly 100 XBH if he would have sniffed 500 PA last year?
Of course not, but let’s remember this quote on Grady from a scout last April via John Perrotto at B-Pro:
“He’s finally healthy for the first time in two years, and he’s back to being the dynamic player he was before he got hurt. He’s given that a club a lift, no question about it, not just with his production, but from a morale standpoint. They are playing with confidence, and I really think part of that stems from knowing he’s batting leadoff and playing center field.”

Sure…you say, but he wasn’t “finally healthy” and his body broke down just after that was written last year, just like it already has this Spring, meaning that the Indians should have gone in another direction with their gambling cash. If that’s the stance – have at it, but I still fail to see the deal that was made this off-season, or the FA that signed (that the Indians weren’t in on) that represented a more compelling gamble than Grady.

Certainly, it could be argued that they should have done more in terms of insurance policies for the eventual Sizemore injury (and I did make that argument), but if no other options offered themselves in the off-season market, you start to see the real conundrum facing the Indians if there is doubt that Sizemore will be healthy for any portion of the season in terms of still looking to acquire a viable alternative that may not be out there. Maybe the Indians REALLY think that Grady is going to come back and they aren’t just putting on a strong public face about it, figuring that they can handle some amalgamation of Duncan/Cunningham/Spilborghs/Lewis until Grady returns to settle the OF issues.

But the back injury and the recent knee injuries allow for a certain amount of skepticism as the Indians may very well be burning up the phone lines to see what it would take to get Josh Reddick out of Oakland (even if he just got there) or are thinking that the Fauxberto money could be used (if he’s not coming back any time soon and the fact the Oviedo/Nunez is still not cleared throws some doubt into the idea put forth by Hoynes this weekend that “according to sources, the Department of Homeland Security is expected to grant him a waiver to join the Indians”, as that sounds optimistic to me) to absorb some salary on a player like Marlon Byrd or even Carlos Lee.

However, all of this is predicated on what can be expected of Grady – both in terms of health and, obviously, performance – as the spectre of an underperforming LF (and CF, if those projections for Brantley come true) looms over Goodyear. Though it feels like we’ve been wondering “what can be expected of Grady” for too long now (as here’s the obit as an Indian that I wrote about him last July), the Indians need to be honest with themselves from a medical standpoint and from the reality of looking at what can reasonably be expected from the alternatives that stand to “benefit” from Sizemore’s absence.

The 2012 Indians have been full of gambles and “ifs” since the beginning of the off-season and, while the Sizemore injury may have a profound effect on how the Indians handle their lineup/roster construction or if they even STILL look to go out and add the piece that didn’t seem to be there/eluded them this off-season, keep this in mind…we haven’t even seen a Spring Training game yet.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Spring Cleaning on A Lazy Sunday

Workouts have just commenced in Goodyear under the high Arizona sky and Grady Sizemore is already hurt (cue the Late Night Talk Show band to prepare for the inevitable one-liners here, if you can hear them over the cavalcade of “I told you so’s”) as the Indians prepare themselves for a 2012 season that could go so many different directions that it almost makes one’s head spin.
Can this player do that…
Can that player stay healthy…
Which version of this player can we count on seeing this year…

The questions are numerous and the answers (right now) are few – other than this whole Grady thing, which pushes Brantley to CF to start the season and opens the door wide for Aaron Cunningham or Shelley Duncan or Ryan Spilborghs or even Fred Lewis to take advantage of an opportunity. While we don’t know how long Sizemore figures to be out because of this “back issue”, it is being reported that he’ll be out at least on Opening Day and, if you Opening Day is still a solid 6 weeks away and they’ve ALREADY ruled him out for that, this may be a while. If you figure that rehab is going to be needed after he is healthy enough to play along with the idea that Sizemore hasn’t really been healthy in…hell, I’ve forgotten how long, this is not a good first step for an Indians’ team that needed to make it through camp healthy as a starting point.

Regardless, since there’s plenty of time to ruminate on the Sizemore situation (Spring Training is going to be a while, even if Castro nails the whole risk/reward thing here and why I still think the Grady gamble was worth taking while I remind you that Tyler wrote a few months ago about Mike Brantley – erstwhile CF, something even more relevant than when it was written, given the Grady news), let’s get off on a Lazy Sunday, examining what can be gleaned from Spring Training, both in terms of performances and revelations.
And, we’re off…

Heading into camp, the goals of the Indians’ Spring Training are fairly obvious – continued and continuous health (particularly among those who have had recent…um, issues staying healthy) and getting key players prepared for the 2012 season. While that first “goal” has already taken a major hit with Grady’s injury which will sideline him for an indefinite amount of time and could have an impact on his performance when (or is it…gulp, if) he returns, the second “goal” is perhaps the more important one as the Indians have a number of players that either need to bounce back from lackluster 2011 seasons or are young players that need to keep the momentum of their 2011 seasons moving them in the right direction.

Truthfully, that second “goal” of getting key players prepared for the 2012 season may seem pedestrian to even mention, but getting – most notably – Ubaldo Jimenez and SS Choo (the two most important players this season in terms of having a track record and a potential impact for 2012) back on track to the type of production that each enjoyed before their nightmare 2011 seasons is essential to any idea that the Indians can contend in 2012. Obviously, monitoring the health of particular players is easy enough via reports from Goodyear, but in terms of that second “goal”, gleaning much from Spring Training performance is much more difficult…particularly when it comes to pitching.
Because simply looking at Spring Training numbers (and for pitchers in particular) doesn’t mean anything most of the time…

That isn’t said to burst any bubbles, but as much as Spring Training represents a welcome change from “nothing” to “something” in the baseball world, there’s really not much that can be truly learned from the numbers or even from the daily reports coming from Goodyear, even if you just go the recent past with the Indians in terms of translating Spring Training success/failure to project regular season performance.

Consider the fact that Cliff Lee had a 5.68 ERA in Spring Training prior to the 2008 season, giving up 27 hits and walking 5 in his 19 Spring innings, while striking out 16 hitters and posting a 1.68 WHIP. Remember, this was after the 2007 season in which CP Lee was not on the Tribe’s post-season roster as trade rumors swirled during that 2008 Spring Training about whether Lee would be the 5th starter to open the 2008 season or if he would perhaps be traded because he no longer had options remaining. Coming out of Spring Training, Lee’s 1st start was even delayed by a game so CC could pitch on his normal days rest as Lee unquestionably started that 2008 season as the 5th starter.
Lest you forget, Cliff Lee won the Cy Young Award that year…

That’s the exception…obviously, as nobody is expecting one of the arms fighting for the 5th spot this year to run away with the Cy Young in the way that CP Lee improbably did back then, but even more than the example of Lee’s Spring Training numbers meaning NOTHING once the regular season started, let’s remember how loose the grip can be on any of these spots out of Spring Training, once injuries and attrition show up. To wit, Scott Lewis was the 4th starter to start the 2009 season (after the Indians spent the off-season adding Wood and DeRosa) with Anthony Reyes as the 5th starter out of the gate. Those two pitchers COMBINED for 9 starts (8 of them by Reyes) and 42 2/3 innings that year…or about 3% of the innings thrown by the 2009 pitching staff.
Again, those were the pitchers that “won” the 4th and 5th starters spots out of Spring Training…

How does that mean anything for this year and this Spring Training?
Well, it’s not really meant to point out much more than that there are a bunch of guys going for the 5th starter spot and a TON of guys going for the last two bullpen spots and while these pitching staff “battles” are compelling at some level, most if not all of these guys are probably going to get a shot and whoever gets it first doesn’t really matter that much to me. How each of them performs in Arizona is obviously going to play a role in who breaks camp with the team, but it probably means very little in terms of projecting performance once the regular season starts. We will read stories (that are admittedly fun to read, in that they foster hope) about guys like Huff and his mechanics or how Ubaldo is ready to go after a “normal” off-season, but the proof is going to be in the pudding once those players make their way North for Opening Day. Regardless of what is done in or what is reported from Arizona, between Slowey, Gomez, Huff, and McAllister – most or all of those guys are going to see time in Cleveland this year as each retains options and each has upsides and downsides.

Keeping with the starting staff, things are going to change throughout Spring Training and beyond and, just to use Jeanmar (probably one of the presumed favorites, with Slowey) as an example, according to Bastian, Gomez spent the off-season resting his right knee which “gave him some trouble throughout last season” and, unless I missed it, no procedure was done to remedy that “trouble”. That’s not meant to assert that Gomez is sure to end up on the DL at some point in 2012, just that the odds are that one or two or (gasp) three of these guys is going to go down because of injury or will fall further down the pecking order just based on attrition.

Does that mean that we should all just ignore Spring Training games and results?
Of course not, as Spring Training is that glorious time when everything seems possible and hope builds upon hope. But if you’re even just talking about these arms that are slotting themselves for the first (and second…and third) shot at the 5th starter spot, I’m actually more interested in whether Scott Barnes and/or Austin Adams can make some progress in becoming more than that 5th starter/swing man fodder that the previous group seems to represent. Maybe that is simply preferring the devil I don’t know to the one that I think I do, but whoever “wins” the 5th starter spot will be on a tight leash while the other guys sort themselves out in Columbus.

Short of an injury or a sudden resolution to the Carmona/Hernandez situation (and I’m having trouble seeing that for a while, regardless of what Carmona/Hernandez and his agent may think), that last spot in the rotation could be in flux for a while. Realistically, that 4th spot could be in play as well if Josh Tomlin is not able to remedy the issues that plagued him in the second half of 2011 as he retains options, just like the pitchers that figure to be sitting in Columbus, waiting for a shot at the rotation.
As a quick aside here, one has to wonder if the money that would have been owed to Carmona/Hernandez is going to go towards a OF in light of this Grady situation. Suddenly, Marlon Byrd isn't looking so bad…

Regardless, this logic applies to the final couple of spots in the bullpen, as who comes North with the team is much less interesting to me than which players are going to have the unexpected impact that a player like Vinnie Pestano did in 2011. In a way, knowing who the 5th starter is on the Opening Day roster or who the last two guys at the front of the bullpen are fun to follow in an odd sort of way, but I’m more interested in how the Indians are going to make the talent on hand work throughout the course of the season.

This is all fairly rudimentary, but which arm will be in the Indians’ rotation in mid-July or who which reliever will surprise and climb that back-end-of-the-bullpen ladder, perhaps displacing an injured or ineffective arm that always finds his way out of the bullpen once the season gets underway, are the real “questions” that need “answers”.
Sadly, those answers aren’t going to be completely fleshed out in Arizona, as much as we’d like them to, though we will start to get a taste…

That’s not to say that Cactus League action is completely useless and isn’t meant to douse your well-deserved enthusiasm about baseball being played after a long and uneventful winter. It’s just a reminder that as much as people will pore over the numbers for a start by Kevin Slowey or an appearance by Dan Wheeler or Nick Hagadone, those final spots on the roster are tenuous at best and figure to be used throughout the season to include most, if not all, of the “competitors” in these Spring Training “battles”.

That all being said (and as you consider canceling your trip to Goodyear…although you shouldn’t), there are events that happen in Spring Training that provide a peek into what a team is going to do in the usage of talent that makes much more of an impact than how the 22nd through 25th spots on the roster get filled. Certainly, one of those “peeks” is going to come as the Indians start to mete out playing time in LF in the absence of Sizemore, but one of those moments occurred earlier in the week as Manny Acta tipped his hand (rather surprisingly) on how the Indians see the usage pattern for Carlos Santana this year in a convoluted platoon now that Kotchman is in the fold, with the explanation coming via Bastian:
“You do have a first baseman now,” Acta said. “What it does is -- probably this year more times than in the past -- we’re going to have to take a chance and probably DH Santana, and take the chance that, if [backup catcher Lou Marson] goes down during the game, that we lose the DH.”
The situation is such that the Indians want to keep Santana’s bat in the lineup as much as possible. That means that, on days he is not catching, the switch-hitter could either work as a first baseman or a DH. It is most likely that those starts would come against left-handed pitching.

If you’re following here, Acta (rightfully) doesn’t care about the possibility of losing the DH as he would have Santana slotting to DH against LHP, with Hafner sitting on the bench vs. LHP as Marson would assume the C duties in those situations. Truthfully, I think that defense plays more of a role here than you might think at first glance as Santana is probably not going to spend too much time at 1B this year (thankfully) and as Marson figures to spend more time behind the plate…which is interesting to consider when you figure that Keith Woolner (a former B-Pro writer who now works for the Indians) wrote this seminal work on the effect of catchers/game-calling over a decade ago.

But I digress…lest you forget, this “loss” of the DH was one of the main concerns that came up in response to something that I wrote in this space a few months back, proposing this exact scenario. Pardon the massive cut-and-paste, but in it, I wrote:
Starting off, this makes loads of sense from the Marson vs. LHP perspective as Marson has a .763 career OPS vs. LHP and a .529 career OPS vs. RHP. In fact, Marson’s .793 OPS vs. LHP in 2011 ranked him 3rd on the Tribe against LHP among players with more than 90 AB against LHP (Santana and Hannahan were higher)…
Truthfully, that’s the way I would handle the Marson/Santana “platoon”, by using this alignment for that duo and Hafner, dependent upon the starting pitcher:
C – Marson
DH – Santana

C – Santana
DH– Hafner

Is it ideal to have a $13M a year platoon player in Hafner?
Of course not, but as disparate as Marson’s splits have been the last couple of years, check these…
Hafner Splits 2011
.886 OPS vs. RHP
.638 OPS vs. LHP

Hafner Splits 2010
.863 OPS vs. RHP
.706 OPS vs. LHP

Hafner Splits 2009
.866 OPS vs. RHP
.696 OPS vs. LHP

If you’re saying that those numbers aren’t THAT bad against LHP, consider that Hafner has 22 XBH in his last 309 PA against LHP and has 5 HR against LHP in his last 219 PA…seriously. That’s not to say that Hafner would become a largely “part-time” player as it is worth mentioning that the average number of AB per team in MLB vs. LHP was 1,470 while the average number of AB per team in MLB vs. RHP was 4,053. So if each team has about 5,500 AB to give out per season, only about ¼ of those AB come against LHP, so Hafner would be more of a ¾-type player which, given the chance that there are only so many swings in Hafner’s shoulder every year, sounds just about right.

However, the idea behind not having to use Santana at 1B in that piece was predicated on the idea that the Indians would add an “everyday” 1B. In theory (and maybe in their public comments), they have with Kotchman…but remember Kotchman has historically struggled against LHP (.245 BA / .305 OBP / .305 OBP / .610 OPS in his last 367 AB vs. LHP), so this idea that he should be playing everyday – including against any and all LHP – looks like wishful thinking. Perhaps that’s because of a lack of an obvious compelling alternative, but in looking a little deeper, maybe an option to take those ¼ of the PA at 1B (against LHP) referenced above does exist on the current roster.

By that I mean, go back though to the top of that part in italics above where Marson’s success in 2011 vs. LHP makes him a compelling alternative for Hafner in the lineup and see that the only two players that had more success against LHP for the Tribe in 2011 (with at least 90 PA) were Santana (who should play every day, naturally) and one John Joseph Hannahan IV.

Yep, Hannahan…and here’s an interesting off-shoot to the most compelling of the Spring Training “battles” as it relates to the only real intrigue down in Goodyear in terms of who the 3B figures to be and whether Hannahan’s glove at 3B outweighs Chisenhall’s promise and his bat. Given that the Indians should be looking to bring the best team North with them (given this whole “window” thing), wouldn’t it stand to reason that the Indians could come up with a solution to use Hannahan and Chisenhall effectively, given that Hannahan has some experience at 1B and would actually serve as a decent platoon partner for Kotchman at 1B because of Kotchman’s…um, struggles against LHP?

As much as everyone wants the definitive answer to “WHO’S THE OPENING DAY 3B”, does it need to be that black-and-white, given Hannahan’s versatility and due to Kotchman’s shortcomings?

That is to say, perhaps the alignment should be Chisenhall playing in the majority of the games at 3B with Hannahan bouncing back and forth between 3B and 1B, based on the pitcher (he’d play 3rd when Masterson or Lowe pitched) and the opposing pitcher (he’d play 1B when Kotchman needed a rest against LHP) with Chisenhall perhaps slotting into some plate appearances at DH, as the Indians attempt to keep Hafner as healthy and fresh as possible throughout the season.

Certainly this is all predicated on Chisenhall having a solid Spring Training, but how the Indians work this could be pretty flexible. In terms of who plays 3B when, maybe there’s a place online that shows where batted balls go for these pitchers that I can’t find (although I imagine the Indians do and during my search, I did find this for Masterson, which is amazing) that would lend a clue as to which pitcher would benefit most from Hannahan’s glovework at 3B, but everyday AB may not have to be as “this” or “that” when it comes to Chisenhall and Hannahan at 3B.

While the argument may be that using Chisenhall in any kind of “platoon” situation doesn’t do his development any great favors, perhaps everyday AB would be there for him, particularly in the light that the Indians are going to want to keep Hafner as rested as possible in the interest of maximizing his usefulness. And that’s really what this all boils down to – maximizing the talents of an imperfect group of players to put them in the best positions possible to succeed. These numbers are overly simplistic, but why couldn’t the Indians figure out usage patterns that looked like this:
Santana – 120 (vs. RHP)
Marson – 40 (vs. LHP)

Kotchman – 120 (vs. RHP)
Hannahan – 40 (vs. LHP)

Chisenhall – 120 (based on CLE pitcher)
Hannahan – 40 (based on CLE pitcher)

Hafner – 100 (against RHP only, with other days off)
Santana – 30 (filling in around that)
Chisenhall – 30 (filling in around that)

Santana – 150
Chisenhall – 150
Kotchman – 120
Hafner – 100
Hannahan – 80
Marson – 40

Yes…the numbers wouldn’t be that “clean” on any given position (particularly DH), but you get the main idea here, which is to maximize the effectiveness of these players – keep Hafner healthy and as effective as he can be, allow Santana and Chisenhall to remain in the lineup as much as possible to continue their development while allowing their defensive-oriented back-ups to shine when asked to, prevent Kotchman and Hafner from playing against LHP, prevent Marson from playing against RHP, put the best defensive IF in there when the GB pitchers are going, etc.

Essentially, this is cobbling together a lineup as the 1995 team, this is not…when Mike Hargrove had a laminated lineup card that he took out to the ump before the game and sat back and watched the ball fly out of the park. But this is may present the best option for the Indians and while “Lonnie Baseball” and “Supermanahan” have their pros and cons (as Bastian pointed out), using their strengths to complement each other is how the Indians are going to maximize not only their offensive potency, but their defensive prowess as well.

Maybe you’ve seen the Bill James projections that put the 2012 projected numbers for each player on equal footing at Fangraphs:
Chiz – Bill James 2012 Projections
.248 BA / .302 OBP / .400 SLG / .702 OPS, .305 wOBA

Hannahan – Bill James 2012 Projections
.244 BA / .335 OBP / .360 SLG / .695 OPS, .311 wOBA

Frankly, if that’s what is really expected of the two of them, you go with Hannahan and ship Lonnie off to Columbus and don’t think twice about it, but I think those projections sell Lonnie’s offensive potential short. As does Jonah Keri, who wrote in a well-balanced season preview of the Tribe at Grantland, that “Chisenhall struggled in his rookie season, posting a .284 on-base percentage; he’s got the skills to do a lot better.”

You’d have to think that the Indians feel the same way if Acta is telling Fangraphs that Lonnie is “going to probably be the most important piece of the puzzle in our infield” (and that link is an interesting Q&A with The Chiz) and, given that the Indians are going to be looking to get out to that fast start, sending Lonnie down to Columbus so he can play everyday seems short-sighted and perhaps unnecessary, in light of the scenarios laid out above.

Essentially, there’s going to be a lot of moving parts around the lineup and around the field all season because you’re really only talking about Choo, Cabrera, and Kipnis figuring to be a true “everyday” player at one position. Some of that is predicated on a particular player’s strength (getting Hannahan’s glove into the lineup) or weakness (making sure Hafner and Kotchman don’t face LHP) and if you wanted me to do the same thing with what’s going to happen in LF and CF to protect Brantley from LHP, protect Grady from…well, himself, and how Duncan and Cunningham or Spilborghs fit into that mix, I could do it – and probably will because of this whole Grady situation which blows LF wide open.
But you get the general idea and I’ve taken too much of your time already…

That said, the Indians have to maximize their talent on hand to find the right mix of players to compete from Day 1. In terms of pitching, that may take a while to flesh out – much longer than the time under the Arizona sun allows – but in terms of finding spots for the pieces that figure around the diamond (and in the infield in particular), prudent usage of players is tantamount to the Indians remaining that yapping dogs at the heels of the Tigers all season long in the Central.

Of course, since they haven’t even played a Spring Training game and the pieces are already moving around because of the Sizemore injury, it all remains to be seen as we’ve only just begun…

Sunday, February 19, 2012

A Lazy Sunday with Team-Building Exercises

Almost there…
Almost there…
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…

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The "Experts" on the Indians System

With February every year comes snow, hope for spring, and prospect rankings. While I’m still working on my Indians top-50, most of the national writers began rolling out their rankings over the past couple of weeks. I don’t always agree with the Keith Law’s, Kevin Goldstein’s and Jonathan Mayo’s of the world, but it would be pretty silly to not at least read and try to get the most information possible out of all of their hard work. So let’s take a look at what some of these guys think about the Indians system, and how it stacks up against other minor league systems around the game.

Overall, the Indians minor league system isn’t an impressive collection of talent right now. Keith Law ranks the system 29th overall (out of 30 teams) in all of baseball. Jonathan Mayo, responding to me on twitter asking him about his rankings, quipped that the system was so thin that I nearly made the top 20. Kevin Goldstein hasn't ranked the systems yet, but he indicated that his Indians top 20 was the, “… youngest, riskiest, most volatile Top 11 I've ever done.” Baseball America, always masters of the obvious, points out that, “The Indians best prospects are years away from contributing…outfielder Luigi Rodriguez and shortstop Tony Wolters have played just 34 games in full season leagues.” It’s pretty much what you’d expect from an organization whose two best hitting prospects graduated to the bigs, and three of their top pitching prospects were traded away in the deal for Ubaldo Jiminez. I’m not going to get too much into my overall thoughts on the system here because I’m saving that for my intro to the top-50 countdown, but I agree that the system is thin right now, and likely one of the bottom 5 in baseball at this time.

One thing that absolutely everyone agrees on (myself included) is that Francisco Lindor is the top prospect in the Indians system. Last year’s 1st round pick impressed talent evaluators around baseball before the draft as a high school shortstop, and then again in limited action for Mahoning Valley after he signed. Baseball Prospectus in particular loves Lindor, with Kevin Goldstein commenting that he could end up as an all-star shortstop. He describes his tools by saying that the switch-hitting Lindor has ”…outstanding bat speed. He shocked officials by pounding balls out of Safeco Field, and projects to have as much as average power down the road (15-18 home runs annually). He's a 55-60 runner who should steal a good number of bases, and all of that is wrapped in a package of advanced shortstop skills including impressive range, hands and arm strength, and off-the-charts makeup.” In his top 101 prospects list, Goldstein ranked Lindor as the #17 prospect in all of baseball.

BP’s Jason Parks is even higher on Lindor. After watching the young shortstop play in fall instructs, Parks was left drooling, literaly:

“Rarely will a 17-year-old (now 18) shortstop showcase the type of skills to make you feel confident in their future major-league success. After watching Lindor in the Fall Instructional League, I have very little doubt that he will develop into a very good major leaguer, one that can play a premium defensive position while providing above-average offensive production… I’m slobbering all over Lindor without apology. I put a note in his locker after class. I hope he checks the box marked ‘yes.’”

Keith Law ranks Lindor as the #35 prospect in baseball, saying that “Lindor has four tools for certain, with power the only real question. He has very soft hands and easy actions at shortstop, with range in both directions, a plus arm, and quick feet that should also result in strong stolen base totals.” He goes on to comment on Lindor’s solid makeup, and indicates that Lindor is a strong candidate to jump into the top 20 overall next offseason.’s Jonathan Mayo ranks him 32nd overall, commenting that he could be a future all-star who contributes with both the glove and the bat. Folks, Francisco Lindor really has a chance to be special, and it’s not just talent evaluators within the organization who think so.

So that’s the good news. The bad news is that Lindor is the only Indians prospect to rank in the top-100 prospect lists. Pitcher Austin Adams makes Keith’ Laws “just missed” list, but that’s it. As we’ve already discussed, the system right now is young and volatile. Because of that, there isn’t much of a consensus around the industry as to just who the Indians top-10 prospects are right now. BP, BA and Mayo all have Lindor and Howard as 1/2, while Law has Howard 3rd and Austin Adams 2nd. Adams meanwhile, is 4th on BP’s list and 8th on both Mayo and BA’s. Catcher Chun Chen ranges from 6th (Law) to 19th (BP). C.C. Lee is 4th on BA’s list, but 18th on BP’s. Catcher Alex Monsalve comes in at #9 on Mayo’s list, but is nowhere on anyone else’s top 20. Personal opinion has a lot to do with rankings regardless of the organization, but this year’s Indians system has as wide of a range of opinions and rankings as I’ve ever seen. There are just so many young, raw and talented players in the system who have never played above Mahoning Valley that it makes for an extremely difficult system to rank. It will also make it a fun minor league season to follow (for me at least), because there are so many players that I’ve never even seen play who are considered top prospects in the organization. The system has ream boom-or-bust potential right now, and I’m going to enjoy seeing which way these kids end up going. It’s a sure thing that not all of them will pan out, but regardless I think it will be a fun ride to watch them develop.

With all of this comes a cautionary tale about prospects, one that most people reading this site will be intimately familiar with. This player was drafted in 2007, and here’s what Keith Law had to say about him in his 2008 prospect write-up, while ranking him as the #37 overall prospect in baseball:
“He had more raw power than anyone in the 2007 draft…has light-tower pull power, getting good extension through the ball, but he can get too pull-conscious and roll over on soft stuff away. He projects as a classic "three true outcomes" player -- drawing walks, hitting homers and striking out”

Kevin Goldstein was just as complimentary, ranking him #31 overall:
He has true impact potential offensively, with some scouts believing that he had the best power and the best pitch recognition in last June's draft. He has the patience to wait for a pitch to hit, the bat speed to let balls carry deep into the zone, the strength to power them out to all fields, and the hand/eye coordination to hit for average as well. He has the potential to be a classic No. 3 or No. 4 hitter for a first-division team.

Most Indians fans can probably guess who they were talking about, especially bearing in mind that I called this player a “cautionary tale.” The player of course is none other than our very own Matt LaPorta. My intent in digging up those old evaluations isn’t to show you that I think Goldstein and Law are idiots who can’t recognize a AAAA player when they see one, it is simply to reflect that prospect evaluation is far from an exact science. When I put "experts" in quotes, it's not because I don't believe that Law and Golstein are the best in their field; I absolutely do and I read everything they both write. It's just to reflect that even the experts call 'em wrong sometimes. I’m not even going to get into players like Adam Miller, elite talents who fell off the grid due to injuries. I’m talking about complete misses in terms of talent evaluation. Former AL MVP Dustin Pedroia appeared nowhere on these top-100’s during his time in the minors. Matt LaPorta was considered a top-40 prospect in all of baseball. So keep every prospect list you read this offseason (especially mine when it comes out) in perspective, because no one can really tell the future. Don’t get bogged down in whether LeVon Washington is ranked 5th or 15th. Take the information for what it is; an educated guess by people who love following baseball. Then get out to a few minor league games this year and make an assessment for yourself. I promise it is much more fun that way.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Extension of Contention

With so little to discuss in these slow days that connect the Super Bowl to the gloriousness of the days when pitchers and catchers report (as well as March Madness), perhaps now would be a good time to revisit a topic that’s already had some e-ink spilled on it here and in other places – the possibility of extending Asdrubal Cabrera and the overarching theme of players under contract for the Tribe going forward. This is all prompted by the reports that Asdrubal stayed in Cleveland after being named the Cleveland Athlete of the Year (or something like that) to talk to the Indians about a long-term extension as he and the organization quibble over Cabrera’s 2012 salary in his second arbitration year.

Since there is much confusion among the masses over how arbitration works and every announcement of a 1-year deal for arbitration-eligible players is met with an odd amalgamation of “huzzahs” and “why only one year” questions that show a fundamental ignorance of the process, I’ll point your eyes to how arbitration works, as put forth by B-Pro a few years back. Admittedly, it’s pretty involved stuff…so to set the stage with a Cliff’s Notes version and applying it to the current situation, here’s a synopsis of how salaries are determined for arbitration-eligible players, as summed up by Jordan Bastian in a recent Inbox:
Much of the process is based on the player’s career track record, his salary in previous seasons and comparisons to other players in similar situations. In a case like Cabrera’s -- where his 2011 production jumped considerably over his past showings -- there is a bigger pool of players to compare against in order to come up with a proposed salary for the next year. Teams, as well as the player’s representatives, will take into account things like age, Major League service time and stats in order to find other comparisons around the game. Naturally, a player’s camp will approach a team with a higher salary figure than the salary offer from that club.

At this point, we don’t know who Asdrubal or the Indians are using for comparative players as the basis for the proposed salaries as the players being used could be Alexei Ramirez, JJ Hardy, Stephen Drew, Troy Tulowitzki, Howie Kendrick (just signed a 4-year, $33.5M deal…though he was entering his final year of FA), or others. What we do know is that Asdrubal has asked for $5.2M, with the Indians’ offer coming in at $3.75M. That seems like a pretty big chasm, but it really isn’t if you figure that the team and the player could meet in the middle around $4.5M or $4.75M and not really have a “winner” or “loser” if they were to come to an agreement without an arbiter. Way back when, MLBTR predicted that Asdrubal would get $4.8M in arbitration this off-season, so it wouldn’t be all that surprising to see it end up there.

But if the Indians and Asdrubal do meet somewhere in the middle or even if they head head off to an arbitration hearing (something the Indians haven’t done since – and I know you’ve heard these two names associated with the Tribe and arbitration – The Guv’nor and Flounder), that doesn’t mean that the long-term deal that is allegedly being thrown around would be off the table as Indians’ history has shown that these extensions are often done during Spring Training.

In terms of the long-term extension, it’s something that was broached here back in September, last month by MLBTR (although their math is a little fuzzy in terms of suggesting a lower 2012 salary in a long-term extension than what they themselves predict he’d get in arbitration), and last week by Castrovince as well as FanGraphs, which uses Stephen Drew’s extension as the basis for a possible Asdrubal extension.

If you want the nuts and bolts of a couple of those projections (not put forth by me) from the pieces that put hard numbers to it, they’d look something like this:
MLBTR – 4 years, $26.5M
2012 – $4.25M
2013 – $6.5M
2014 - $8
2015 - $8M

Castro – 4 years, $26.25M or 5 years, $33.75M
2012 - $4.5M
2013 - $6.75M
2014 - $7.5M
2015 - $7.5M
2016 - $7.5M

Realizing that guessing at salary numbers is about as entertaining as following the Twitter feed for the last arbitration-eligible Indian to sign, I’m putting these down because I think that these guesses are low in terms of what would compel Asdrubal to give up a year or multiple years of FA, which is one of the main reasons to explore a long-term deal from the team’s perspective. By that I mean that Fangraphs has an Asdrubal extension somewhere in the 3-year, $22.5M range with a $4.7M salary in 2012, but points out that Asdrubal’s already asked for $5.2 in arbitration for this years. Maybe I’m being naïve here, but I would think that it would take more upfront money in 2012 to bring Asdrubal around to the idea that he should put off the FA that’s scheduled to come to him after the 2013 season. Ultimately, I would think that the Indians would have to give Asdrubal a 2012 salary above and beyond his desired arbitration number of 2012 to entice him to lock in numbers for 2013 AND give up a year (or years) of FA past the 2013 season.

The numbers that I came up with way back when looked like this:
2012 - $5.5M
2013 - $8.5M
2014 - $10M
2015 - $12M club option ($1M buyout)
2016 - $13M club option ($2M buyout)
While that admittedly looks high in hindsight in those option years (and really starting in that 2014 season…as I’d probably amend that today by dropping each annual salary in 2012 and after by $1M or more), it needs to be remembered that Asdrubal (and his agent) are looking at him hitting FA after the 2013 season and the question becomes whether he would be able to net a contract large enough at that point to put off the guaranteed money that the Indians could offer in the short term. To me, if the Indians bumped his 2012 salary OVER what he’s asking in arbitration and allow that salary to escalate accordingly, it might compel Cabrera to the negotiating table and, more specifically, to be amenable to signing away FA years. Maybe 4 years and $31M gets it done to keep him under control through the 2015 season ($5.5M, $7.5M, $9M, $9M) as Alexei Ramirez’s 4-year, $32.5M deal that was signed this time last year is an interesting starting point as the two are similar hitters.

Regardless of the numbers, there is little question that the Asdrubal situation will start to provide a sneak peek as to what the Indians are going to do with some of these young players that are approaching or are already ensconced in arbitration.By that I mean that much has been made recently of the Indians having no long-term contracts on the books past next season (although Ubaldo’s club option for $5.75M in 2013 is likely to be picked up), with the idea that the Westbrook and Hafner extensions have scared the Indians away from long-term deals or even that the Indians are somehow clearing their decks for nearly-unprecedented payroll flexibility. For whatever reason, there’s this belief out there that the Indians aren’t going to buy out arbitration years and attempt to keep players under club control into a couple of their FA years because they’re risk-averse (and Castro adroitly points out what risks would be assumed by the Indians by giving Asdrubal a long-term deal) and might be more willing to go year-to-year with these players in light of injuries and regressions to players that signed long-term deals, even those similar to the ones signed long ago by Sizemore, Peralta, and Carmona/Hernandez.

What should be noted however is that the Indians are in a unique stage in their developmental curve right now as they don’t have players that are about to hit FA at the end of THIS year, as Hafner and Westbrook were when they signed their extensions, but instead they have players that are either playing out the final years of their long-term contracts (Hafner), are working off of one year deals (Sizemore), are just now hitting arbitration or are entering their second year of arbitration like Cabrera, Masterson, Choo, C. Perez or players that are just breaking into MLB and aren’t even all that close to being arbitration-eligible, like Santana and Kipnis.

Regardless, since so much attention has been paid to how the Indians don’t have set financial commitments past this year (other than to arbitration-eligible and pre-arbitration-eligible players), it got me wondering why that was. Essentially, I think that it’s a function of the Indians not really having players over the last couple of years that would have been approached about long-term deals that bought out FA years (other than Choo) as they did in the early-to-mid-2000s. To that end - who, besides Choo, is a player on the Indians that wasn’t already working on a long-term deal that should have been locked up prior to the 2010 or 2011 season?

By that I mean that this is the first off-season that it has made much sense for the Indians to even approach Asdrubal about a long-term extension as serious questions persisted about his health and conditioning (and still may) and prior to this year, a player like Masterson was still largely an unknown quantity. According to all reports, the Indians DID approach Choo and Boras about long-term deals and were summarily rebuffed. After Choo’s 2011 season, the Indians might be happy about that, but a long-term extension is probably something that they’d still probably explore with Choo…even if they might be a little less generous in their offer, both in terms of years and dollars.

Way back when, the Indians signed CC, Victor, Peralta, Grady, CP Lee, and Fausto to deals that bought out arbitration years and FA years…which current player that’s entered arbitration with the team (other than the aforementioned Choo) in the past few years merited being approached?

Those players of the mid-2000s had accomplished much more (CC, Victor) or exhibited preternatural promise (Grady, Fausto) that we haven’t seen on a consistent basis from this group of players. Prior to the 2011 season, there was never any thought that locking up Asdrubal (coming off of an injury-riddled 2010) or Masterson (reliever or starter?) the way that Peralta and CC once were. Now, with the idea that the Indians and Asdrubal may be talking long-term deal (and this deal should include FA years…unlike the deal that Elvis Andrus just signed with the Rangers that simply put set numbers on Andrus’ arbitration years), it would seem to represent the first player (and remember, I’m excluding Choo here because of the presence of Boras) whose stay in Cleveland would be extended past that “magical” time at the end of 2013, when all of the good players disappear and the window for contention slams shut at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario.

Even if Asdrubal leaves Cleveland (and he may have already) without a long-term extension in hand, want to know why it’s not necessarily an indication that nothing will get done?

Here are the last two deals that bought up arbitration years as well as FA years:
Grady’s buy-out, lock-up deal – signed March of 2006
Fausto’s buy-out, lock-up deal – signed February of 2008

Going back further for some context on when these deals are usually announced by the Indians, there are these buy-out, lock-up deals:
CC – signed April of 2005
Victor – signed April of 2005
Peralta – signed February of 2006

All of those deals were signed in February, March, or April and while CP Lee’s extension was signed in August of 2006, that seems to be the exception to the rule of how the Indians handle their long-term deals. In all of those cases, the players that were arbitration eligible agreed to one-year deals, with the agreed-upon extensions taking the place of the one-year deals that the arbitration process resulted in. All of this is meant to point out that even if Asdrubal and the Indians come to a one-year deal in the coming days or weeks, it certainly doesn’t mean that a long-term deal couldn’t still be in the offing. So if the Indians want to lock up Cabrera and Masterson (and they should for both), those deals could come about in Spring Training or over the course of the next few months, even though Masterson has already agreed to a one-year deal and Cabrera could be holding a one-year deal (at a number determined either via agreement or arbitration), they could be inked to deals that keep them in Cleveland past 2013 (Asdrubal) or 2014 (Masterson).

Perhaps next off-season, the Indians approach Santana and Kipnis and/or Chisenhall the year after that. But even if they sign players like that trio to long-term deals, the manner in which those contracts are constructed don’t add a TON of money to the short-term payroll and really just provide the player with some security in terms of guaranteed money while the team’s assumed risk in guaranteeing the money is rewarded by extending the career of the player in Cleveland.

Just as an example (and mentioning this name always pulls at my heartstrings), Victor’s deal in April of 2005 was for 5 years and $15.5M with a $1M signing bonus with the years and salaries that it covered looking like this:
2005: $500K
2006: $800K
2007: $3M
2008: $4.25M
2009: $5.7M
2010: $7M club option ($0.25M buyout)

Want the Indians to do something similar with Santana after the 2013 season that would keep him here through the 2018 season?
Sure, no problem…but don’t mistake these long-term deals for tying up much more in terms of annual salary than what the player would earn in arbitration as the give-and-take of buying up arbitration years and FA years is that the player takes the guarantee of the money and the team gets set dollars for their payroll going forward.

The reason that the possibility of a Cabrera (or Masterson) extension becomes compelling is that the 2011 season represented the first time that Cabrera and Masterson emerged as players that could merit consideration for extensions in an effort to keep them in Cleveland longer than they are currently slated to be. Perhaps the 2012 season will reveal more players that fit that bill as well as the Indian stand at the precipice of perhaps having multiple players emerge as “core” players. Remember that it was the Spring Training prior to the 2005 season that El Capitan and The aCCe were locked up with extensions for Peralta, Grady, and Lee coming year later. Obviously players like Cabrera or Masterson may be in a different service time schedule in comparison to those players at those times, but with so many young players attempting to establish themselves in MLB and with the Indians history of locking up young players, it’s hard not to see how some extensions maybe forthcoming.

Perhaps Asdrubal is that 1st player identified among the current crop that is worthy of (and willing to sign) a long-term deal that buys out FA years and extends his time in Cleveland. Whether or not Cabrera is that first domino to fall, the Indians have plenty on the table in the 2012 season and beyond with the idea that the current group of players has now arrived and figures to mature as a group in the coming years.
How many years is what remains to be seen…

Thursday, February 02, 2012

First Priority - Indians Ink Kotchman

With Prince Fielder and Carlos Pena off the market (THE DOLANZ R CHEE…wait, the Indians offered more for Pena than the Rays did?), the Indians added a piece to the 1B picture from the FA pile as Casey Kotchman has signed a 1-year deal with the Tribe for $3M. Though it was thought (probably mostly in Kotchman’s camp) that Kotchman would be in line for a multi-year offer or at least a deal for more than $5M or so after his 2011 season – which represented his best season (by far) to date – the Indians find themselves fortunate to be able to add Kotchman at a reasonable price and on a short-term deal. While some will see this as the “solution” to the 1B issue that the Indians have attempted to address all off-season, it represents something different – a more attractive option.

By that I mean that the addition of Kotchman doesn’t mean that the Indians have found a perfect fit for their needs, in that Kotchman is LH (though I think this is overblown…even if his struggles against LHP are very real) and not RH, probably benefited from some serious luck in 2011, and is probably not even an everyday player for the Tribe in 2012. That said, Kotchman is NOT Matt LaPorta and the Indians have unquestionably upgraded the 2012 roster with Kotchman’s tremendous glove (important with the GB pitchers and two players that are pretty much rookies in the infield) and his ability to hit RHP, all without committing too much in terms of years or dollars.

Don’t take that to mean that Kotchman is a “bad” addition as just yesterday, most of the Friends of the Feather were attempting to rationalize Russ Canzler (and here are more words than have ever or will ever be written about him) as the 2012 1B, but there’s a reason that Kotchman was still available on the FA market and why the Indians were able to get him for “just” $3M. Much of that is something that I addressed a few weeks back when I wrote this:
Casey Kotchman has a .610 OPS vs. LHP since the beginning of his 2009 season and while his .709 OPS vs. LHP last year was the highest of his career, there is a very real concern with Kotchman that his 2011 offensive numbers will represent the outlier as his 2011 production took SUCH a big jump (Kotchman had a LaPortian .717 career OPS coming into the 2011 season with only 49 career HR in 645 games going into last year) perhaps paced by a supernatural BABIP in 2011 that the very real possibility that Kotchman may not be that much of an upgrade over LaPorta throws up enough red flags to fill the sky.

Granted, most of that focuses on Kotchman's offense and not his strong defense, and let’s ignore (for now) that B-Pro’s John Perrotto sent a tweet out a couple of days ago that the “Indians buying Russ Canzler from (the) Rays has a good chance of working better for Tribe than signing Casey Kotchman…Canzler has more upside”. Rather, let me expand on what I only touched on in the piece from a few weeks ago on Kotchman that “his 2011 offensive numbers will represent the outlier” because it was “paced by a supernatural BABIP”.

To expand on that, let’s jump off from a piece that appeared in FanGraphs last August that Kotchman’s 2011 was a result of “luck” and not a new approach or even…yes, his improved vision. If we’re looking at the peripherals for Kotchman’s 2010 season with the Mariners and his 2011 campaign in Tampa, the raw numbers are pretty much the same:
Strikeout rate (K/PA)
2010 - 12.5%
2011 - 11.7%

Walk rate (BB/PA)
2010 - 7.6%
2011 - 8.5%

Ground ball rate (GB/batted balls)
2010 - 55.4%
2011 - 55.8%

Line drive rate (LD/batted balls)
2010 - 17.5%
2011 - 18.3%

Home Run rate (HR/fly balls)
2010 - 9.2%
2011 - 8.8%

Isolated Patience (OBP – AVG)
2010 - .063
2011 - .072

Isolated Slugging (SLG-AVG)
2010 - .119
2011 - .116

Essentially the same guy, right?
Sure, he walked a little bit more and struck out less, but he had less power in 2011 than he did in 2010 and if Kotchman’s vision was THAT much better in 2011, shouldn’t some of that bear out over the course of 500 plate appearances?

Maybe that’s just me being snarky, as is the suggestion that the batted balls could have been the ones with improved vision, because there was one major difference between Kotchman’s last two seasons…
2010 - .229
2011 - .355

What did that difference in BABIP (largely a by-product of simple luck) mean to Kotchman’s lines for the two years?
2010 – .217 BA / .280 OBP / .336 SLG / .616 OPS / .270 wOBA
2011 - .306 BA / .378 OBP / .422 SLG / .800 OPS / .351 wOBA

Starting to see why Casey Kotchman was still a man without a contract as most of his peripherals remained the same as they were in a 2010 season, after which he settled for a minor-league deal in Tampa?
Again, that’s not to say that Kotchman does not add some much-needed depth at 1B or that finding a glove-first 1B isn’t a great idea, particularly with a GB-heavy staff and some youngsters around the infield…but let’s just put it out there that Bill James projects Matt LaPorta to have better offensive numbers in 2012 than Kotchman. Granted, some of that is based on Kotchman’s well-documented struggles against LHP (.245 BA / .305 OBP / .305 OBP / .610 OPS in his last 367 AB vs. LHP), which likely means that the Indians are going to incorporate some sort of convoluted platoon for Kotchman and Santana at 1B, with Marson catching against LHP.

That’s an arrangement that’s been alluded to for some time now, but the addition of Kotchman seems to confirm that the Indians will be shuttling The Axe Man up and down the 1B line depending on the pitcher. If you look at it in that manner, with Kotchman being a slick-fielding 1B who will play against RHP (.760 OPS vs. RHP in the last 3 years, .838 OPS vs. RHP in 2011) and serve as a late-inning defensive replacement, the addition makes a ton of sense. The other options on the roster for that role (prior to the Kotchman addition) consisted of an odd amalgamation of Hannahan (defense) or giving Duncan or LaPorta long looks at 1B. Looking at it that way, $3M to add Kotchman upgrades the Indians, simply by removing those options from the front-burner.

In that sense, Kotchman coming to Cleveland is something that isn’t going to generate a lot of vitriol…but it also shouldn’t generate any kind of true excitement as Kotchman represents an upgrade over the internal options and not much more than that. It’s a solid addition that improves the 2012 Tribe, if only incrementally. The Indians needed to add a 1B that improved the team and they did. It may not be a division-altering move or an addition that tilts the division in their favor, but those moves are costing about $214M these days.