Sunday, April 06, 2014

Extending the Core on a Lazy Sunday

Photo Credit: TribeVibe
Opening week has come and gone, and the Indians sit in 2nd place in the AL Central with a 3-2 record after the season’s first five games. We’ve woken up bleary-eyed after late night wins on the west coast, seen Swisher give an O-H-I-O to the crowd after hitting a go-ahead HR, watched Tony Plush giveth and taketh away, Kluberbot struggle and Masty shine. Thundercat Salazar didn’t have his best stuff, but battled through the home opener to give the offense a change to wake up. Lever Yan Gomes did Yan Gomes things, throwing out runners foolish enough to test his arm and hitting a big HR in the opener to wake up the slumbering offense. Blake Wood impressed with his high-90’s fastball. Cookie Carrasco was his consistently inconsistent self. As Jordan Bastian tweeted last night, Indians SP other than Justin Masterson have combined for a 6.75 ERA, 2.14 WHIP and 1.42 K/BB in the early going. The fact that the Indians are 3-2 despite the spotty starting pitching the first turn through the rotation is actually a pretty encouraging sign. All in all, there’s really not a whole lot that we can really determine from such a small sample size, other than enjoyment that Indians baseball is finally back for the next 6 (or hopefully 7) months.

In addition to all of the pageantry that comes along with the first week of the regular season on the field, there was plenty of action off the field from the front office this week. And unlike the Masterson news that came out a couple of weeks ago, the recent developments from the front office have been overwhelmingly positive. Let’s start with the “smaller” of the two contract extensions that were announced this week, that of Indians catcher Yan Gomes. The Indians announced that they signed Gomes to a 6-year, $23 million extension that will keep Gomes in an Indians uniform through 2019. In addition to the guaranteed money, the Indians hold club options in 2020 ($9 million) and 2021 ($11 million). It’s the biggest pre-arbitration contract for a catcher in baseball history, and the Indians gave it to a guy with barely a full season of MLB service time. They clearly feel that Gomes was a huge part of their success last year, and that keeping him in an Indians uniform long-term will keep the organization set at the catcher position for the length of the contract. To understand why the front office did what they did with the Gomes contract, one only needs to look back a couple of weeks to my interview with Mark Shapiro. The club president came out with flowery and unsolicited praise for Gomes’ work both behind and at the plate, describing Gomes as one of the main “levers” that were pulled to improve the team last season. Not only does Gomes provide right-handed power (.826 OPS in 293 AB last season), his well-rounded defensive game helps control the opposition’s running game and his pitchers get calls around the periphery of the strike zone.

Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
Forgetting his offense for a minute, let’s take a look at the pitch framing metrics that the club was able to look at when considering this contract. Baseball Prospectus has been providing fantastic and comprehensive coverage of catcher framing for the past year or so, and have come out with their own statistics to measure catcher framing. They’re able to use the past statistics to provide a predictive model, and with that model, BP’s Harry Pavlidis predicts that Gomes will save 25.5 runs in 2014 with his framing alone.  That’s a huge impact in just one facet of the game. That 25.5 figure is 4th highest in all of baseball, and only gets better when you put it in context with the disinterested manner in which Carlos Santana received the baseball during his days as an everyday backstop. From 2008-13, Santana averaged -21.8 runs prevented per season by his horrific “framing” behind the plate. So if these numbers play out as expected in 2014, Indians pitchers will give up around 40 less runs than if Santana were still the everyday catcher based on Gomes’ framing ability alone.

The point of this article is not to rag on Carlos Santana’s defense. I’m just trying to illustrate just how much of a difference the Santana-Gomes switch behind the plate could make over an entire year. Forty runs over a season can easily be the difference between making the playoffs and not making the playoffs for a club like the Indians. And it’s not just framing; BP tells us that in 2013, Gomes saved 7 runs with his blocking ability behind the plate (Santana was exactly neutral in 2013, neither saving a run nor giving any up with his blocking). So that’s a 47 run difference between Gomes and Santana defensively. Add to that his fantastic 41% caught stealing rate in 2013 (2nd in the AL; league average was 26%, and Santana was at 18% last year), and you begin to see just how impactful Gomes can be behind the plate. Defensive metrics, especially the framing statistics, are generally much more consistent and less susceptible to regression than offensive stats. There’s no BABIP to consider (Gomes’ was .342 last year for the record; high, but not abnormally so). Defense, especially behind the plate, is something that players have a lot of control over. Even if Gomes’ offense proves to be a total fluke (which I doubt will be the case), he’ll be worth the AAV throughout the contract based on his defense alone. Oh, and in case you didn’t notice, a guy by the name of Max Marchi was one of the architects of BP’s framing data, including their predictive modeling. That would be the same Max Marchi that the Indians hired earlier this offseason. Think that’s just a random coincidence? I sure don’t. The Indians now control Gomes through at least his age 31 season, and hold club options for age 32-33. If they’re right about his ability at and behind the plate, this contract is going to be a fantastic value for the team.

In addition to the Gomes deal, the Indians extended the contract of 2013 all-star 2B Jason Kipnis on the morning of the home opener. The deal gives Kipnis $52.5 million through the 2019 season, and also includes a club option for 2020 ($16.5 million). Kipnis was scheduled to be a free agent following the 2017 season, so this deal buys out his arbitration years as well as two seasons of free agency (with a club option for a third). That means Kip will be an Indian through at least his age 32 season, so feel free to buy a #22 jersey with at least some degree of confidence that it won’t be obsolete in the near future. The contract provides cost certainty through Kip’s arbitration seasons, buys out two years of what are likely to be expensive free agency, and provides flexibility on the back end with a club option. It’s not a steal for the club, nor is it an overpay. Both sides gave a little to get Kipnis extended and to secure his future on the North Coast. As expected, Jon over at Waiting For Next Year hits the nail on the head with his take on the deal:

I think this is a really good deal for the club. It's good because Kipnis is their best player and they locked him up for what the smart money would suggest will the best years of his career (let's not forget that the aging curves suggest he's about to get better, not worse). It's good because the replacement cost for an All-Star 2B will only go up in the next four years. It's good because he's probably the third best 2B in the league, and the youngest of that group. It's good because he's a fan-favorite, and that's a real thing a team like this should occasionally care about.
Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
The deal is very similar to the contract that Cardinals 2B Matt Carpenter signed earlier this offseason (Kipnis got just $500k more overall), and the always-fantastic David Cameron over at Fangraphs was nice enough to break down the respective deals for us. Carpenter is about a year and a half older than Kipnis, and doesn’t have the track record that the Indians 2B has, but he also had a better offensive season than Kip last year. Cameron does an exhaustive rundown of the two players, trying to decide which one he likes better now and over the life of the contract. It’s a difficult decision, as both players are excellent and both are signed to contracts that provide them with long-term security at a reasonable rate for their respective clubs. In the end though, he gives the slight edge to…well, I’ll let him tell you himself:

Going forward, I think I’d take Kipnis; the age and athleticism do matter, and all things equal, I think you’d rather have a physically gifted guy than someone who has probably already maxed out his tools. But, right now, Carpenter may very well be the better player, especially if we’re viewing them outside of the context of their current organizations and give Carpenter credit for being able to play second base at a reasonable level. So, I don’t choose Kipnis with any kind of strong conviction. Both are terrific, and the Indians and Cardinals should be glad that they each have one of the game’s better young players under team control for the next six years.
The Indians now have 16 current major league players under club control through at least the 2016 season (full list can be found here). And that list doesn’t even include Francisco Lindor, Trevor Bauer, Tyler Naquin, Clint Frazier or any of the other top prospects in the Indians organization. The club has cost controlled talent locked up, and with a little influx in revenue, they’re going to be able to spend for a couple of pieces to augment the in-house talent that’s already on the North Coast. Cost certainty is a big deal for the Indians, and they can now basically pencil in the club’s payroll for the next three seasons with a pretty high degree of confidence.

While the Indians were busy locking up their core guys, Central Division nemesis Detroit came up with a contract extension of their own. The Tigers inked the 2nd best position player in baseball to a…wait for it…8-year, $248 million contract extension. They did this two full seasons prior to Miggy Cabrera reaching free agency. Just for good measure, Cabrera got a pair of $30 million vesting options at the end of the deal. The options vest if Cabrera finishes in the top-10 of the MVP voting in the season prior to the option year. It’s an insane amount of money to pay a guy through at least his age-40 season, even a guy as talented as Cabrera. Ben Lindbergh of Baseball Prospectus does a fantastic job encapsulating the concerns with the contract, so I’ll sample from his long and extremely comprehensive (no subscription required, so go read the whole thing) piece here:
The Tigers, unlike St. Louis, haven’t laid the groundwork to succeed without their superstar. Put yourself in the place of owner Mike Illitch (who’s old enough not to worry about the back-end of Cabrera’s contract) and GM Dave Dombrowski, who may have just closed the door on bringing Scherzer back, and you can see why the thought of Cabrera walking away would make them antsy.
Here’s the thing, though: He wasn’t walking away. Not now, and not after this season. Cabrera wasn’t due to hit free agency until after the 2015 season, which means that Detroit could have taken its time with these talks…
…The Tigers had two full seasons of Cabrera control remaining—two seasons (or at least one, if they didn’t want to go down to the wire) in which they could have learned more about what kind of player he’ll be at age 40. If, at any point from 2014–2015, Cabrera’s body breaks down, or his bat starts to slow, or his conditioning slips, or his problems with alcohol abuse recur, the Tigers won’t be able to adjust their offer accordingly. They’ll be forced to pay him what they thought he’d be worth in March 2013, before they had that additional info…
…For Detroit, this isn’t just buying high. It’s buying high knowing that you’re likely to have a chance to buy lower later. It’s not just the money that makes this extension a mistake. It’s not just the timing, either. It’s the combination of the two: this amount of money at this particular time…
…Even if you assume that teams are already paying $7 million per free agent win, and even if you assume that that rate will rise by five percent per season, you can’t quite get Cabrera’s expected value to equal his certain cost.
So the Tigers acted, probably prematurely, and got a premium player at a premium price, giving back some of the surplus value from Cabrera's first Detroit contract. In the process, they darkened the short-term future of the free-agent market, widened the smile on the face of Mike Trout’s financial planner, and appalled, shocked, and disgusted 29 other owners and front offices. Writing about extensions can be boring, because it usually takes time to feel their effects. In a sense, that’s true of this one, too: our projection for both Cabrera and the Tigers in 2014 are unchanged from two days ago. But in another sense, Cabrera’s extension seems significant. This is one of those moves that makes wins cost more.
Far be it for me to suggest that locking up Miguel Cabrera was a bad idea for the Tigers. But as Linbergh so artfully explained, it was an unnecessary idea, at least at this point in time. The Tigers didn’t get a discount. They didn’t prevent Cabrera from walking away, or from forcing his way out of town via trade. They handed out the highest AAV contract in sports history two full seasons prior to the player hitting free agency, every dollar of which is guaranteed. One only needs to look to the recent Albert Pujols albatross of a contract to see how this could break bad for the Tigers. It’s not going to hurt their playoff chances in 2014, but if the contract keeps the Tigers from resigning Max Scherzer, it could hurt them as soon as 2015. While Detroit is busy inflating the free agent market for everyone else (especially the big market clubs), the Indians are busy locking down their own talent at a fair and reasonable rate. It can’t help but give you a good feeling about the job that the Indians front office is doing to set up the club for 2014 and beyond.

Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
Something I’d like to make a weekly feature here during our Lazy Sunday together is a little something that I’d like to call Lindor Watch, 2014. It works better if you say it in your Bryan Fantana “PANDA WATCH” voice from Anchorman. I’ve made no secret of my love for Lindor, who’s shaping up to be one of the top prospects in all of baseball and a potential contributor on both sides of the ball when he does finally reach the major leagues. Lindor has opened the 2014 season with AA Akron as a RubberDuck, and you really should get out and try to see him play in Canal Park while he’s still there. He’s ready to contribute at the major league level as soon as this season, and will likely get at least a cup of coffee at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario at some point in 2014. So I’ll keep tabs on him for you as long as he’s in the minors, and report back to my loyal readers just what Lindor is doing from week to week. Akron opened the season this past Thursday, and they’ve played three games as of this morning. So far, Lindor is hitting an impressive .385/.385/.615, going 5-13 with a HR, 2 RBI and a stolen base in the first three Eastern League games of the season. Again, way too early to draw any sort of meaningful conclusions, but it’s good to see that the power Lindor was displaying in Arizona is already showing up in Akron.

As I’m sure all of you remember, former Indians fan-favorite Grady Sizemore signed with the Red Sox this offseason, and managed to make it through spring training unscathed and uninjured. He opened the 2014 season the Sox starting CF, and has gotten off to a hot start here in April. Sizemore is hitting a robust .300/.417/.600 (3-10 with a HR and a SB) in three games for the Red Sox. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t hurt a little to see Sizemore succeed in Boston, but I can’t help but pull for the guy. He always gave 100% as an Indian, never got into trouble, never said anything bad about the city on his way out and was a generally likeable guy throughout his tenure in Cleveland. I’m glad he’s back playing baseball again, and while I wish it was with the Indians, I’m not going to begrudge the fact that it isn’t. I hope Sizemore stays healthy and productive for the Red Sox this year, and if he takes them all the way to the ALCS, that’s fine too. Just as long as that ALCS run ends at the hands of the World Series-bound Indians, of course.

Finally, as we all know this is the 20th anniversary of the opening of Jacobs Field. I can’t think of two better people to reminisce on the memories made at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario than Tom Hamilton and Anthony Castrovice, so this is just about the perfect article. Castro and Hammy counted down their top-10 favorite moments at The Jake, beginning with Giambi’s walk-off during the playoff run last season and culminating with opening day 1994, when Wayne Kirby hit a walk-off single to send the sellout crowd home happy. Like many of you, I have very fond memories of these and other Indians moments from throughout my childhood, and taking this walk down memory lane sure was a lot of fun. It remains to be seen whether the Indians can come up with a moment or two in 2014 that will replace something on this list, but you’d better believe that a World Series victory would immediately vault to #1 before the confetti even settled on the ground. Does this team have a run like that in them? Time will tell, but I have to think they’ll be playing fun and compelling baseball throughout the season. It’s going to be a fun season, and I can’t wait to see what Tito and the crew have in store for us. 

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