Sunday, December 14, 2014

Gathering Moss on a Lazy Sunday

So…anything much going on this week? The Indians fired the first salvo during baseball’s Winter Meetings a few days ago, consummating the much-rumored Brandon Moss for Joey Wendle swap on Monday. The trade was the worst-kept secret in baseball, and occurred as part of a flurry of moves from A’s GM Billy Bean that completely revamped his roster. Following the Moss trade, the Dodgers’ Andrew Friedman put his stamp on the very expensive and defensively inept roster he inherited, and now has a very expensive and defensively proficient roster to take into the 2015 season. The White Sox got in on the A’s fire sale, acquiring front of the rotation starting pitcher Jeff Samardzija, and then shoring up their biggest weakness by signing closer David Robertson to anchor what was a very shaky bullpen. Not to be outdone by the Indians and White Sox, the Tigers sent pitcher Rick Porcello to the Red Sox in return for power hitting Cuban outfielder Yoenis Cespedes. The middle of the Tigers order just got that much better, and Miggy, Victor and Cespedes are going to wear out a lot of pitching staffs next season. Even the Twins got in on the act, inking SP Ervin Santana to a 4-year, $55 million contract. The AL Central came to play this winter, and the only team that didn’t make a splash in San Diego was the reigning AL Champion Royals.

Getting back to the Moss deal for a second; as much as I like Joey Wendle as both a player and person, this trade looks like an absolute steal for the Indians as long as Billy Beane doesn’t know something we don’t about Moss’ surgically repaired hip. Moss is a legitimate middle of the order power bat, averaging a .254/.340/.504 triple slash line with 25 HR and 73 RBI in his three seasons in Oakland. He was an all-star in 2014 when he jumped out to a .268/.349/.530 line with 21 HR in 89 1st half games, but slumped to a .173/.310/.274 2nd half, limited by a hip injury that required surgery this offseason. Moss did his best to play through the injury, and even hit 2 HR in Oakland’s Wild Card loss to Kansas City. If he’d simply sat out after suffering the injury, it’s possible he wouldn’t have even been available this offseason. The trade is confusing enough that A’s fan sites are writing entire articles trying to rationalize exactly what Billy Beane was thinking, and really not coming up with much to go on other than “Trust in Billy”:
Don't get me wrong. I hadn't heard of Wendle before we got him, and I am as shocked as you are that he's all we got for Moss. But that doesn't mean he's automatically a bad return, and indeed the Indians seemed quite high on him. Billy has turned so many nobodies into quality players that I just can't get myself to give up on one of his prizes before I've even seen him play….
…It sucks to see yet another fan favorite go, and it sucks to feel underwhelmed by the return, but let's give Billy the benefit of the doubt before we assume he's absolutely lost it. There's a better chance than you might realize that this trade turns out to be a good one, and it wouldn't be the first time Billy proved the world wrong.
Speaking of Joey Wendle, I did want to talk a little about the player the Indians lost in the deal. I had Wendle ranked as my #9 prospect in the Indians organization prior to the 2014 season, coming off of a season where he posted an .885 OPS for high-A Carolina. Wendle struggled with injuries last year, but still managed to put up a .253/.311/.414 line with 8 HR and 50 RBI in 87 games with AA Akron. Wendle will turn 25 in April next year, and is a high-character guy who is always going to get the most out of his tools. He was a 6th round pick in 2012 out of Division II West Chester University, and was seen as a signability pick at the time. He was given just a $10,000 bonus, and the Indians were able to save over $100,000 of their bonus pool to take a run at high-upside high schoolers later in the draft like Nelson Rodriguez. Wendle has the potential to be an offense-oriented 2B in the major leagues at some point, but he doesn’t project to be an all-star. And regardless of his overall upside, turning a $10,000 investment into an all-star 1B/OF is a pretty solid flip by GM Chris Antonetti.

Over on Fangraphs, local writer August Fagerstrom put together an extremely comprehensive breakdown of the Moss trade and what it means for the Indians. Fagerstrom looks at both Moss and Wendle’s injuries in 2014 and how they could affect both players moving forward, then goes on to overlay Progressive Field with the Oakland Coliseum and Moss’ batted ball spray chart to try and see how his production could improve with the change in ballparks. Like pretty much everyone else, Fagerstrom likes the trade for the Indians and thinks Moss could be as good or better than he was in the first half of 2014 with the Indians next year. He sees the Indians as legitimate contenders in 2015, and feels like Moss could be the player that gets the Indians over the hump and into the playoffs. His bottom line on the deal:
Wendle could turn into a useful major league player, but the Indians are set up the middle for the foreseeable future, and Wendle is far from an elite talent. Moss’ second-half production and ensuing hip surgery could be worrisome, but the extreme change in parks could help offset any potential loss in production due to his Moss’ injury and age, and the history of players with similar hip procedures isn’t particularly concerning. And given what the Indians traded away, this is almost a no-risk deal. If Moss, for whatever reason, doesn’t hit, he’ll make just $7 million in 2015 and has the option to be non-tendered before the 2016 season. If he hits like Brandon Moss, a team that was already close to contending just added perhaps the best hitter on the team for two seasons in exchange for a fringe-level prospect.
I’ve seen some people on the interwebs (not many, but some) complaining because Moss plies his craft from the left side of the plate. These people are silly and need to start woodworking, fishing, gardening, basket weaving or some other relaxing hobby to try and occupy their clearly cynical and misguided minds. Yes, the Indians have several left handed hitters in their lineup. But Progressive Field favors left handed power over right handed power (as evidenced by the very large wall in left field). Jordan Bastian did a predictably outstanding job detailing how Moss might look in the Cleveland lineup (if you haven’t read this already, please do so now), and dissected and rejected any argument that his left handedness will somehow hinder the Indians moving forward. The Indians needed to improve their lineup going into next season, and fans have been clamoring non-stop for a “Big Bat”™. Now that the Indians have gone out and acquired a Big Bat™, some of those same fans are complaining because he’s not a Right Handed Big Bat™, or because he’s not Victor Martinez. The fickle, fringe elements of this fanbase will never cease to amaze and frustrate me.

The bigger takeaway is that the Indians could be dangerous contenders in 2015. This team won 92 games and earned a playoff berth in 2013, then followed up with 85 more victories in 2014. Though moderate pullbacks for breakout stars Corey Kluber and Michael Brantley are possible, and maybe even likely, those could be countered by a positive reversal of fortune for All-Star second baseman turned 2014 slumper Jason Kipnis. It’s also hard to imagine the Indians failing to improve on Murphy (who posted league-average offensive numbers, but played miserable defense that made him a replacement-level player) and Swisher (who hit a paltry .208/.278/.331), whether through bounce-backs for one of those guys or another lineup upgrade to pair with Moss.
Between their strong finish to the 2014 season, young and talented starting rotation, and solid start to the offseason, the Indians are becoming one of the media favorites heading into 2015. It’s a strange position to be in, and the rest of the Central Division isn’t going to make it easy for the Indians to make it to the playoffs, but I’ll take it.

One of the other significant moves that came out of the winter meetings last week was the blockbuster deal that saw the Dodgers send former MVP OF Matt Kemp to San Diego in return for catcher Yasmani Grandal and prospects Joe Wieland and Zach Eflin. Prior to the Kemp trade, Fangraphs’ Dave Cameron took a side-by-side look at Kemp and Moss and found that they were a lot more similar than their respective asking prices would indicate:
Steamer forecasts a 128 wRC+ and +2.3 WAR per 600 PAs for Kemp versus a 121 wRC+ and +1.9 WAR per 600 PAs for Moss. Toss in the risk associated with Moss’ hip problems, and maybe you think the gap is even a little bit bigger than that. And perhaps Kemp’s handedness is worth a premium, given how much more teams are paying for right-handed power than their left-handed equivalents.
But man, it’s hard to not like the Indians picking up Moss for a song when you see what the asking price for Matt Kemp is.
I could continue to link to national writers who love the Moss deal from the Indians perspective (both Baseball Prospectus and Keith Law think the Indians did well to acquire Moss), but I think you get the idea at this point. Needless to say, I like the trade as well. It creates a situation where Tito Francona is going to have to get creative in getting at bats for Moss, Swisher, Santana and Murphy, but that’s a good problem to have (as long as Swisher is healthy and better than last year’s disaster of a season). It also leaves plenty of time for Murphy or Swisher to be moved in a separate deal, if the Indians can find a taker for Swisher’s contract (which I still doubt). Francona is nothing if not creative though, and I’m confident that he’ll find a way to keep those guys as happy and effective as possible, even if it means he can only carry 20 bullpen arms instead of 21 (kidding, but only sort of).

Taking a break from the flurry of activity to look at players who are and have been on the Indians roster, Jonah Keri put out his always-fantastic Trade Value column this week, and three Indians are featured prominently featured on the list. Catcher Yan Gomes comes in at the #25 slot, and he’s behind both Michael Brantley and Corey Kluber (#’s 16 and 15, respectively). Jason Kipnis came in at #25 in the 2013 version of the column, but fell off of Keri’s list after his injury-plagued 2014. Keri has minor leaguers eligible for the list for the first time this season, but doesn’t list shortstop prospect Francisco Lindor on his top-50 or as an honorable mention. This might be the last list like this that doesn’t mention Lindor, at least until he signs a contract extension in 2018 or so. It’s one thing to have talented players contenting for (and winning) postseason awards like Cy Young, MVP and Silver Slugger. But those players are not only talented, but signed to team friendly deals (Gomes/Brantley) or still pre-arbitration (Kluber). Having those players, and the rest of the talented starting rotation, for that matter, under contract at such team-friendly rates helps allow for a move like the Indians made with Moss. Flipping a player like Wendle who wasn’t even on the 40-man roster for an arbitration-eligible all-star who projects to make at least $7 million wouldn’t be possible without the savvy exhibited by the front office prior to this offseason.

The winter meetings might be over, but the Indians aren’t done working to improve the ballclub this offseason. As I suggested earlier this offseason when I put on my GM hat for the day, Paul Hoynes reports that the Indians are showing interest in free agent pitcher Brett Anderson. Nothing has really changed with Anderson since my breakdown on him back in early November, and Hoynes doesn’t speculate on potential contract terms that the Indians may be discussing with the big lefty. He’s certainly nowhere near the Lester/Scherzer/Shields tax bracket, and will likely settle for a short term deal to rebuild his value.

Speaking of short term deals, former Indians ace Justin Masterson agreed to a one-year, $9.5 million deal with the team that drafted him, the Boston Red Sox. Masty was another guy that I thought would look good back in Cleveland, and there was reportedly some level of mutual interest in a reunion with Terry Francona and the Indians earlier this offseason. But if Masterson had signed with the Indians, he’d have had to win a spot in the somewhat crowded and talented rotation in spring training. With Boston, he’ll slide right into a spot in their depleted starting five and have a definite chance to show he can be healthy and effective over 200+ innings again. I’m pulling for Masterson to put together a solid season, even if it is back in Boston. If he helps pitch them to the playoffs (losing games 1 and 4 in a 4-game Indians sweep in the ALCS, of course), then so much the better. 

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