Sunday, October 05, 2014

Back in the Groove on a Lazy Sunday

They go to eleven
In the immortal words of Spinal Tap…Helllooooooo Cleveland! I never planned to take five months of from writing about the Indians, honest. But an unexpected and lengthy work trip to the UK this summer sapped pretty much all of my free time, so sitting down to put virtual pen to paper became even more difficult than usual. Combine that with a slow hotel internet connection that failed to stream live video and was rarely even able to keep up with Hammy’s audio feed, and I couldn’t help but feel out of the loop when it came to the 2014 Cleveland Indians. Highlights and box scores can only show so much, and I didn’t make it to a single minor league game after mid-May. I’m glad it was 2014 and not 1994 (or even 2004), because I did at least have the luxury of MLBTV’s condensed game replays, baseball reference, and #IndiansTwitter to help me feel somewhat connected to the team, but there’s no substitute to watching full games day in and day out. Of course, it did allow me to miss out on witnessing live the Indians defensive…challenges, so maybe there’s a silver lining in there after all. At any rate, I’m back in the U.S. for the foreseeable future, and want to try and make our time here at The DiaTribe a little more regular. So expect to see me here on the interwebs if not every Sunday, at least more often than once every equinox.

The good thing about not writing for 6 months is that we have plenty of good stuff to talk about. Putting aside the defense for a moment…how about that pitching staff! And on the offensive side, how about…well…um…Slamtana! Yan Gomes! And of course, our MVP candidate, Michael Brantley. It’s amazing that, after a season with so little turnover in terms of the roster, the 2013 and 2014 versions of the Cleveland Indians were so different in terms of the “stars” of the respective teams. When you look at 2013 by WAR (admittedly not everyone’s favorite stat, but bear with me here because it’s a useful tool for comparison in this instance), the 2013 Cleveland Indians top-10 players were, in order:
Jason Kipnis-5.9 WAR
Carlos Santana-4.3 WAR
Yan Gomes-4.2 WAR
Nick Swisher-3.8 WAR
Justin Masterson-3.4 WAR
Ubaldo Jimenez-2.7 WAR
Michael Brantley-2.4 WAR
Ryan Raburn-2.2 WAR
Michael Bourn-1.9 WAR
Joe Smith-1.8 WAR
Other than Jimenez and Smith, all of those players were on the 2014 opening day roster. Of the eight players remaining, just three (Santana, Gomes and Brantley) were in the top-10 in WAR for the club this year. Swisher, Masterson and Raburn combined to be worth -3.2 WAR. Yes, NEGATIVE 3.2 wins from three guys who were worth 9.4 wins last season. So subtract those twelve wins, and consider the biggest addition in free agency this year was Scott Atchison and his 1.7 WAR, and you begin to appreciate the fact that this team was in the playoff hunt down to the last week of the regular season. If you’d told me in March of 2014 that Masty, Asdrubal, Bourn, Swish, Murphy, Vinnie, Kipnis and Raburn would combine to be worth negative WAR in the upcoming season, I probably would’ve guessed that the Indians would win somewhere in the neighborhood of 65 games. Instead, they won 85 and missed out on a Wild Card berth by a couple of games, staying in the playoff hunt down to the final few days of the season. Would I say that I’m happy with a season that resulted in the Indians watching the playoffs from home? No, of course not. But I can recognize the progression that this roster made from 2013 to 2014, and be happy with what guys like Kluber, Brantley, Cookie and Cody Allen are turning into. I can take a step back and objectively say that I think the framework is there for the 2015 Indians to be better than the 2014 Indians, and that’s not something I could say at this time last year. Like it or not, every significant contributor (and those who were not significant contributors) to the 2014 team are team control through at least next season. Most are under team control for much, much longer. The top seven starters are either short of or just entering their arbitration years. Cy Young frontrunner(!) Corey Kluber can’t be a free agent until 2019. Freshman in high school will be in college before Corey Kluber can choose to leave the North Shore. MVP candidate Michael Brantley is signed through 2017, with an $11 million club option for 2018. That option increases by $1 million every time Brantley places in the top-5 of MVP voting, so it’ll probably be at least $12 million by then, and hopefully $16 million. I know the team fell short of what we’d hoped they would achieve in 2014, but they really are set up for success in 2015 and beyond.

Despite shattering all of my hopes and dreams for the offseason (more on that in a second), Anthony Castrovice put out his predictably fantastic season recap earlier this week. Castro continues to churn out excellent and insightful Indians content despite moving on to the national beat, and for that I am grateful. He’s the LeBron of the baseball sportswriters; both are at the top of their respective games, and we have access to their brilliance mainly because each happened to grow up in Northeast Ohio. Every word of his article is worth reading, so if you haven’t had a chance to check it out yet, please do so. I promise this column will be here when you get back.

I miss you so much. Please call me. 
When I mentioned Castro crushing my dreams for the offseason, I was referring to his tidbit on Victor Martinez:

That right there is reason enough not to entertain any dreams of a Victor Martinez return, to the extent that any of you did so anyway. Amazing that Vic, at this stage of his career, stands to be arguably the best bat available in the open market, but I don’t think the Tigers will let him reach that point anyway. I do think he’ll end his career with the Indians at some point, somehow, because that’s something he wants to do. But it’s not going to be with a long-term contract signed with Cleveland. It’s more likely to be the Jim Thome-type waiver claim at some point down the road.

I’ve been onboard the “bring Vic back to Cleveland” train for a while now, but I’m slowly coming to the realization that it is probably not in the cards this year. Victor slugged his way to an incredible .335/.409/.565 line this season, good for a league-leading .974 OPS. He finished with a career-high 32 HR, and will almost certainly in the top-5 of the MVP voting this offseason. At age 35, he’s both at the top of his game and angling for his last big contract, coming off of the 4-year, $50 million deal he signed with Detroit back in 2011. If the Indians sign a bat this offseason, it probably isn’t going to be Victor. The Tigers can’t afford to lose his presence in the lineup and in the clubhouse, especially with the unexpected “decline” of Miguel Cabrera from otherworldly to just really, really good. Mike Ilitch is going to break out his checkbook this offseason to keep Martinez in Detroit, and unless his heart is dead-set on a return to Cleveland right now, I don’t see any way the Indians can make an offer that will even be in the ballpark of what he’s going to get from Detroit.

So especially in light of what is (or isn’t, as the case may be) available when it comes to offense this offseason, should the Indians #1 priority even be adding offense? It’s easy to look back at this season and point to the offense as the problem, especially down the stretch as the team was able to waste a plethora of strong starting pitching performances in close games (31 runs as a team in 13 September losses). But as Jordan Bastian details, Tito Francona doesn’t necessarily see the club selling out for offense this winter:

Potentian Indians Free Agent Target?
Is adding a “big bat” a priority this winter?

Francona: “I think that’s the easy [answer]. It’s, ‘Hey, go get a power bat.’ OK. What we’re really trying to do is see how many runs our pitching staff we think is going to give up and how many runs we’re going to score offensively, and then where does that fit moving forward. Do we think that makes us a team that can contend? I can tell you from personal experience, I’d rather win 3-1 than 8-7, because it’s a hard way to win consistently. I agree, there are times in a season when you have to win like that, but when your pitching gives you a chance… even the last couple months, as hard as runs seemed to be for us to score, we seemed to have a chance pretty much every night.”

External solutions through free agency can be pricey and risky, as we’ve seen first-hand with the recent Swisher and Bourn signings. Tito and the front office have been on the same page since he agreed to manage the club. Is it possible they’re looking to improve in other ways via the personnel already under team control? What if they think that the offense is going to be serviceable next season via bounceback years from Kipnis, Swisher, Bourn and David Murphy? I’m not saying I think that all four of those guys are going to produce at a higher level next season, but it’s certainly within the realm of possibility.

If the rotation and bullpen are more or less set and the offense can be “fixed” with rebound seasons from key guys, then the biggest issue this offseason becomes the team’s defense. The word “atrocious” comes to mind when I think of the Indians 2014 defense. Every starting pitcher on the team, with the exception of T.J. House, had a lower FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) than ERA. Well, there just so happen to be two internal options to fix the defense as well. The first and most obvious would be to start uber-prospect Francisco Lindor at shortstop next season. Jose Ramirez did a nice job filling in at SS when the Indians traded Asdrubal Cabrera this year, but Lindor has a better glove, arm and bat than Ramirez. My feelings on Lindor are well-known, and service time be damned, I think he should be the club’s SS on opening day 2015. The second internal option would be to either trade or move to the outfield incumbent 3B Lonnie Chisenhall and use a combination of Ramirez, Mike Aviles and prospect Giovanny Urshela at 3B in 2015. Chisenhall put together his most successful season at the plate this year, hitting a solid .280/.343/.427 (120 OPS+). Per baseball reference’s version of WAR, he was worth 3.1 wins with his bat (oWAR). Unfortunately, posted a -1.5 dWAR in the field, somewhat negating his offensive contributions by giving those runs back at the hot corner. The Indians could move Chisenhall to LF, Brantley to RF and use David Murphy and Nick Swisher (sparingly) as needed to fill in. Now, I’m sure you’re all yelling at your computer screen right now that Chiz, Brantley, Bourn and Murphy are all lefthanded, which is one reason I think the Indians might elect to trade Chisenhall rather than try him in the outfield. But unless you think that his 2014 season was a stepping stone to offensive heights yet unseen by the 26 year old 3B, you can’t keep trotting him out at 3B on a daily basis.

I like Lonnie Chisenhall. I think he’s as nice of a guy as you’ll find in baseball. He’s great in the clubhouse, and a hard worker on and off the field. I also think that the spike in his offensive production in 2014 was a bit of a fluke, and that the Indians should move him if anyone shows any interest this offseason. From April 2 through July 1, the span of 68 games, Chisenhall hit .344/.399/.563 with 9 HR (224 AB). He also hit an unsustainable .382 on balls in play (BABIP). From July 2 through Sept 28 (74 games and 254 AB), Chisenhall hit just .224/.293/.307 with 4 HR. His BABIP during that timeframe was .277, a little on the low side but much closer to what we can expect than a sky-high .382. If first-half Lonnie Chisenhall is the real Chisenhall that we’ll get moving forward, then he can absolutely be an everyday 3B, even with the defensive limitations. But if he’s 2nd half Lonnie Chisenhall, or even the .770 OPS guy that we ended up with after his two halves balanced out, then I just don’t see him as a first-division 3B moving forward. Prospect Gio Urshela projects as an elite defender, and posed an .804 (13 HR) OPS in 104 games as a 22-year old with AAA Columbus this year. When considering those offensive numbers, bear in mind that the average age of the AAA International League pitchers last year was 27.9. He probably wouldn’t have that level of offensive competence right away, but he should at least be a solid defender as soon as he comes up. Fixing the defense could be easier, cheaper, and quicker than trying to find the mythical “big bat” that some fans are clamoring for, and it could be accomplished by promoting internal options Urshela and Francisco Lindor.

One of my favorite Indians related articles of 2014 was published this week, authored by longtime DiaTribe favorite Jon Steiner. Jon and I agree on a lot when it comes to our favorite baseball team, and this piece is no different. Jon sees a lot of anger in the fandom over the Indians front office, from the GM to the Team President to the ownership. He, like me, finds much of that anger silly and misplaced. A couple of Jon’s key points:

But I also think that the fact that people are even having the discussion about firing the GM again is ridiculous. The Indians have won more games in the last two years than the Yankees, the Red Sox, the Rays, the Royals, the Angels, the Rangers, the Mariners, and the Blue Jays. Of the 30 MLB teams, only seven have won more games over this span than the Indians, three of whom reside in the American League. This front office has taken a team with the worst ticket sales in baseball and a hamstrung budget, and won more games than all but three teams in the League.
They’ve also managed to acquire the following players via trade: Michael Brantley, Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Yan Gomes, Trevor Bauer, and Carlos Santana. That’s a 200-hit guy, a soon-to-be Cy Young winner, two of the best catchers in the American League, and two of the brightest young pitching talents in the game. They were smart enough not to re-sign Ubaldo or extend Justin Masterson before this season, even though they caught flack for both.  They single-handedly brought one of the most decorated managers in the game to Cleveland, to play in front of an empty house with unproven players. I think you could reasonably argue that no front office in baseball has done more with less in the last fifteen years, including the Rays and A’s.
The entire piece is filled with salient, intelligent points about the 2014 Indians, the plan for 2015 and how the Indians front office isn’t nearly as bad as some people would like to believe. Does the team need to draft better? Absolutely. But talent can be acquired from a variety of sources, and for every poor draft result, there has been a trade to make up for it. The Indians have turned Casey Blake, Jake Westbrook, Shin Soo-Choo, and Esmil Rodgers into Carlos Santana, Corey Kluber, Trevor Bauer, Yan Gomes and Mike Aviles. The Cliff Lee and C.C. Sabathia trades, long having been dismissed as abject failures, wound up producing the Indians 2nd best starter and a probable top-5 MVP position player in 2014. Shapiro and Antonetti are not batting 1.000 on every decision they’ve ever made as leaders of this organization, but to expect them to do so is ludicrous. Anyone who thinks that the GM and Team President are the only thing holding this organization back from a championship are kidding themselves. Jon says that better than I could, and if you haven’t read the piece yet, please remedy that situation immediately. And if you have read it, read it again. It’s that good.

That’s it for this week, as I’m going to ease myself back into the groove here. The only benefit of not writing for so long is that we have a LOT to talk about. I still want to check in on the performance of the organization’s farm teams, plans for 2015, the incredible breakout of Michael Brantley, YAN GOMES and the unbelievable performance of the pitching staff in the 2nd half of 2014. It’s a long offseason, and we’ll get into all that and much more as the winter drags on. I’d like to offer a sincere thanks for anyone who’s reading for sticking with me here on The DiaTribe, and look forward to spending our Lazy Sunday mornings together more often moving forward. Go Tribe. 


PO13 said...

Welcome back Al! I've really enjoyed reading this blog over a cup of coffee over the years, and as I get older I understand how time can be scarce to do the things we enjoy. Any thoughts you have on the Tribe I'll be sure to look forward to

Al Ciammaichella said...

Thanks for the kind words! Hopefully we'll be spending plenty of Sunday mornings together moving forward.