Sunday, February 16, 2014

Dreaming of Spring on a Lazy Sunday

Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
The light at the end of the tunnel is becoming clearer by the day. The long, cold winter that began on October 2 when Lonnie Chisenhall struck out against Fernando Rodney is nearly over. We will finally have something to dream on besides Danny Salazar’s electric start to the AL Wild Card game. Something to agonize over besides Asdrubal Cabrera’s GIDP in the bottom of the 4th when it looked like the Indians were primed to answer Tampa Bay’s rally in the top of the inning. Something to scout besides grainy Trevor Bauer YouTube videos, trying to discern the movement on his reverse slider. The weatherman might not agree, but winter is almost over. Pitchers and catchers reported on the 11th. The full squad arrived just yesterday. The first spring training game is just ten days away. The golden voice of Tom Hamilton will soon be streaming over the airways from the desert. Winter is no longer coming. Spring is nearly here.

With the baseballs finally flying around the Goodyear complex, Jordan Bastian put together a nice spring training primer that covers pretty much everything from the projected lineup to the bullpen to important dates on the calendar to keep an eye on. He looks at the newcomers who will almost certainly have a home on the 25-man roster (Josh Outman and David Murphy) as well as spring invitees who are long shots to make it on the opening day club (Tony Plush and Scott Atchison). It’s a comprehensive look at the entire organization, and if you’re looking for a handy reference guide as to who’s who before games start, it’s a one-stop shop for that and more.

Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
For the first time in over 20 years, the Indians went to salary arbitration with a player last week. Vinnie Pestano was asking for about half a million dollars more than the Indians wanted to pay him, so the longest-running streak in baseball came to an end. The Indians won the arbitration hearing, and Pestano will make $975,000 in 2014. By their very nature, arbitration hearings are contentious affairs. There can be some resentment and hard feelings coming out of the process, particularly on the player’s side after they have to sit and listen to their employer explain why they shouldn’t get paid commensurate with what the player feels he is worth. This is nothing new. What seemed to take Pestano by surprise though, is that the club made use of Pestano’s own comments to the media in an effort to show how Pestano struggled in 2013. As told to Jordan Bastian:

"You're being honest and accountable and saying the right things and being there," Pestano said, "and then later you find your own words in the paper, and somebody is trying to use your words against you to drive your value down. Whether that played a big role in the decision, I don't know.
"That was the only thing that I didn't care for. I definitely think it'll affect how I see things going forward. I don't really know if I can be as honest and up-front anymore. I've got three more years of arbitration left. I don't know what they'll pick to use against me next year or two years from now."
Pestano is one of the most fan and media-friendly players in a clubhouse that is full of fan and media friendly players. He routinely interacts with his followers on twitter, and has never been known to shy away from the assembled media, even after a poor outing. Will that change in 2014? Probably, at least towards the beginning of the season. It’s a depressing side effect to the arbitration process, but hopefully one that will only affect Pestano and the Indians this year. I don’t see this as a long-term issue between Pestano and the Indians, especially if they can come to terms on contracts in the next couple of years without having to go through another arbitration process. If the Indians offer the then-32 year old Pestano the most money in free agency in 2017, he’ll likely remain a Cleveland Indian. If another team offers him more money in free agency, he’ll probably leave. This would be the exact scenario whether the Indians used Pestano’s quotes in arbitration or not, and the same would be true if there was no arbitration hearing at all. There’s no evidence that other players around MLB have held grudges against their teams due to contentious arbitration hearings come free agency, and there’s no reason to think that trend will change with Pestano.

The Indians did come to terms with one of their young players on a long term deal this week, inking LF Michael Brantley to a deal that guarantees him at least $25 million over the next four years. The deal buys out all of Brantley’s arbitration seasons and one year of free agency, as well as giving the Indians an $11 million option ($1 million buyout) for a 5th year at the end of the deal. It’s a pretty average deal all around. Brantley is a perfectly average outfielder (his career OPS+ is, naturally, an even 100) who is going to be neither overpaid nor underpaid with this deal. The Indians didn’t really get any sort of discount, nor did they shell out too much to lock up a young player for several years. I like Michael Brantley, especially how his defense has turned from a liability in CF to an asset in LF. But I’m having trouble getting excited about this contract. Earlier this week, Jon over at WFNY did a nice write-up on the deal, talking about how the Indians LF futility in the past has put us in a place where consistently average an upgrade:

If you’ve lived through Vinnie Rottino and Ezequiel Carrerra and Thomas Neal and Russ Canzler and Aaron Cunningham and Johnny Damon and Shelley Duncan and Travis Buck and Jerad Head and Austin Kearns and Trevor Crowe (and that’s only since 2011), well, then I can see how you talk yourself into the panacea that is the perfectly average Michael Brantley, on a perfectly reasonable average annual value.
To me, this deal was completed so the Indians can have something that is near and dear to the hearts of those in the front office; cost certainty. GM Chris Antonetti now knows exactly how much Michael Brantley will cost him until 2018. He can plan his budgets knowing what he will be paying his LF, not making and educated guess based on arbitration. It also provides the Indians an insurance of sorts in case Brantley does break out and have a season where he hits 20 HR and gets on base at a .390 clip. For a team with the Indians’ resources and budget, cost certainty is a big deal. So while it doesn’t provide the Indians significant savings over what arbitration would’ve likely paid Brantley, it at least provides them with the ability to budget the rest of their free agent signings as well as spending in the draft and international free agent market.

Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
The Baseball Prospectus team combined on a (free!) article earlier this week looking at prospects who could make a case this spring to break camp with their respective clubs. The always-entertaining and informative Jason Parks, BP’s lead prospect guy, chose to talk about Francisco Lindor. Parks has always been high on Lindor, ranking him as the #6 prospect in all of baseball when he lined up his top 101 a couple of weeks ago. He took the opportunity to wax poetic on Lindor as only he can, and…well, I’m just going to post a snippet of Parks’ eloquence here for your enjoyment:

Fast-forward to modern times, and the man that offered the sun and the stars has his spiritual hands on major-league baseballs. His defensive chops so sincere; his arm a protector, a defender of a community; Omar Vizquel with a softer smile and far less geographic Venezuelanism. A switch-hitting myth turned miracle, born from leather and sand, Lindor the Lord is here. Ignore the logistics; the depth chart is a faith-based note from the past, a reminder that figures named Asdrubal once existed and offered comfort to those that look to shortstops for security and strength. Seek no more, for in the spring of 2014, Lindor will step forward into the public light, the son of all shortstops, rejoice and call his name. Lindor is here to save you, Cleveland. He is here to save us all.
So, yeah. He kinda likes Francisco Lindor. In addition to Parks’ soliloquy on Lindor, Cleveland native Russell Carleton in the same article pleads with the Pirates to promote St. Ed’s graduate Stetson Allie to The Show in an effort to start balancing out the Ed’s/Ignatius rivalry. It’s entertaining for Cleveland natives only, and pretty funny to read on a national site like Baseball Prospectus.

One of the biggest disappointments in what was a very successful 2013 Indians season was the performance of Trevor Bauer. A top-20 prospect heading into the season, Bauer was thought to be ready to contribute to the major league rotation. He made 4 starts for the Indians, struggled mightily, and then saw his numbers slip in AAA as well. Bauer is a very cerebral guy, constantly tinkering with his delivery, arm speed and spin on his various pitches. He made some changes following a groin injury suffered with the Diamondbacks in 2012, shortening his stride and reducing the torque on his lower half in order to reduce the chance of another injury. He didn’t re-injure the groin, but he also lost some of the zip on his stuff that made him so effective. ESPN’s Alex Speier took a very in-depth look at Bauer’s struggles in 2013 and the changes he’s making in 2014 under the watchful eye of Indians pitching coach Mickey Callaway. There’s some great stuff in that (insider required) article, as Speier talks to Ross Atkins and Callaway about the changes Bauer has made this offseason, and what they expect from him in 2014:

"We could not be more encouraged about what makes Trevor tick and what motivates him, what drives him," said Indians VP of player development Ross Atkins. "He is internally driven, extremely focused, extremely thoughtful about his craft and about being great. So the transition to our organization went extremely well."
"He never felt comfortable with his mechanics [in 2013]. He never felt they were repeatable. It led to command issues. He just couldn't throw the ball where he wanted to," Callaway said of 2013. "He got that tilt back. He's using his body the right way. His stuff was better than I saw it throughout the season last year. Even this early, before spring training starts, his stuff is back, and that's really what we wanted to see, and his command was really good.
It’ll be interesting to see where Bauer’s stuff is in spring training this year. If his fastball velocity is back up in the upper-90’s, that’ll be a good sign that he’s struck the right balance between stride length and hip tilt. Callaway spent a lot more time with Ubaldo than with Bauer last year, and the increased attention from the “pitcher whisperer” should only serve to help the young Bauer find his delivery. If he can find his way back to being the guy he was as a junior at UCLA (Golden Spikes winner, leading the nation in K’s, sub-2.00 ERA), the Indians 5th starter will go from a question mark to a strength of the team.

Since we’re talking about Bauer, I’m going to give you a sneak preview of my Indians top prospects countdown. Bauer checks in at #3 on my list, and here’s my write-up on him as a teaser of sorts to tide everyone over until the full list comes out.

Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
3. Trevor Bauer, SP
DOB: 1/17/1991
Height/Weight: 6-1/185
Bats/Throws: Right/Right
Acquired: Via trade from Arizona in a three-team deal involving Shin Soo-Choo
2013 Stats: 1-2 with a 5.29 ERA, 11 K and 16 BB in 17 IP for Cleveland; 6-7 with a 4.15 ERA, 106 K and 73 BB in 121 1/3 IP for AAA Columbus

Scouting Report: Those are some pretty ugly numbers that Bauer posted in 2013, so I can understand if you’re scratching your head a little at his place on this list. Bauer posted a career high ERA, walk rate and WHIP last year, and a career low strikeout rate and SO/BB ratio. His walk rate jumped to 5.4 per 9 innings pitched, which is difficult to live with even for a big strikeout guy. But when you combine that with a strikeout rate of just 7.9 per 9 IP (previous low was 10.8/9 in 2012), that really spells bad news for a pitcher. Bauer had a terrible 2013 season no matter how you look at it, and Indians fans were left wondering why the club gave up OF Shin Soo-Choo in a deal with Bauer as the centerpiece.

Bauer still has plus stuff. He throws a 4-seam and 2-seam fastball, cutter, curveball, slider and changeup (which he can also cut). He mixes in an occasional splitter, and even thrown a “reverse slider” in the past, which has action similar to a screwball when it works properly. It’s a deep and impressive arsenal, and Bauer is constantly tweaking factors like grip, arm speed and arm angle to get the most out of his many pitches. The fastball sits in the mid-90’s with arm-side run, and can set up the hitter for his collection of secondary offerings. The curveball is his best offspeed pitch, a mid-80’s hammer that falls off a table as it reaches the plate. The rest of his offerings range from slightly below average to plus, and he feels comfortable going to nearly any pitch in any situation.

Bauer has been accused in the past of being both a nibbler and a tinkerer, both trends that can lead to a higher than ideal walk rate. He tries to rack up as many strikeouts as possible rather than trusting his stuff in the strike zone and the defense behind him, and that can lead to a base on balls as he tries to be too fine on the outer edges of the strike zone. Bauer and the Indians have been making minor mechanical adjustments to his high-effort delivery ever since he came over from Arizona, and those changes can be difficult to adjust to on the fly during a season. For comparison’s sake, how many of you have tried to adjust your golf swing in the middle of a round? It usually results in over-thinking and under-performing as you try to get your body to adjust to a completely new motion from the muscle memory you’ve been ingraining into yourself for many, many years. A pitching motion is similar to a golf swing in this case. Making even subtle changes can throw the whole thing off, and it takes time to incorporate these changes into the overall package. To Bauer’s credit, he took the Indians changes in stride, knowing that while they could result in a temporary setback in 2013, they were designed to make him a better and more durable pitcher moving forward.

Time will tell whether Bauer’s 2013 was merely a blip on the radar of an otherwise successfully big league career or a harbinger of more struggles ahead. Talent-wise, Bauer is one of the three best pitchers in the entire organization. If he really has incorporated pitching guru Mickey Callaway’s instruction into his approach and delivery, I think we’re going to see very good things from Bauer in 2014 and forward. He’s going to have a shot at the 5th starter role coming out of Goodyear this spring, although Carlos Carrasco’s lack of options will likely see Cookie breaking camp in that role. But Bauer will be the first arm called on in case of injury or ineffectiveness in the rotation, something that is sure to take place at some point in 2014. If he can get off to a hot start for AAA Columbus, it’d be a very good sign that the 23-year old has turned a corner and is back on track to be a #1 or #2 starting pitcher at the major league level. I still believe in Bauer, and think he’s a big part of the Indians plans going forward.

Glass half-full: Still a front of the rotation, dominant starting pitcher.
Glass half-empty: Basically, his 2013 season. If last year was the beginning of a trend rather than an aberration, Bauer will never become a consistent starter in a major league rotation.

Finally, it’s not Indians news per se, but team president Mark Shaprio did an interview with on the role of a parent, coach and mentor for young players in little league baseball. If you have kids playing baseball, it’s definitely worth a read. I grew up very lucky in that my Dad was always involved in my little league teams, doing everything from head coach to umpire to the president of our entire youth baseball organization in Aurora, Ohio. For those parents out there who are looking to get involved, my advice would be to go for it. Shapiro has some good advice for the little league parents and coaches out there, and with summer baseball right around the corner, it’s a pretty good read. Baseball is just around the corner for everyone from the little leaguers up to the Indians, and I can’t wait until we’re talking about baseball that counts once again. It’s hard to believe it, but we’re just 43 days from Opening Day…

1 comment:

Jeff E said...

Ahhh Spring!! Thanks for the great article!