Sunday, January 18, 2015

Still Celebrating on a Lazy Sunday

If you’re anything like me, this Lazy Sunday finds you still riding a bit of a high following Ohio State’s 42-20 victory over the Oregon Ducks in the first-ever College Football Playoff on Monday night. No, this is not a “Cleveland Championship” and no, I did not attend The Ohio State University. But I grew up a die-hard Buckeye fan, to the point that I skipped trick-or-treating as an eight-year old in favor of watching the Buckeyes game with my dad (they won, it was worth it, and I stole some of my younger brothers’ candy). But I recognize that not all of you reading this blog are Ohio State fans, and you’re probably wondering when one of your teams is going to finally break through and win it all (provided you’re a straight Cleveland ticket on the professional scene, as I am). The Browns, despite looking like the Browns! for the season’s first half, fizzled to be the same old Browns by the end of the season. The Cavs, who drew national (if not worldwide) attention with the return of LeBron and trading for Kevin Love, are floundering around .500 with a media frenzy surrounding the uncertain future of their first-year head coach. That leaves us with the Indians, who are a combined 30 games over .500 the past two years and employ the reigning AL Cy Young Award winner, a top-3 2014 AL MVP finisher, and one of the best managers in the game (2013 AL Manager of the Year Terry Francona). Maybe Johnny Football takes football seriously and enters 2015 ready to play. Maybe LeBron switches off “chill mode” and goes off on the NBA playoffs the way he did against Detroit in 2007. But personally, I’m going to turn the majority of my sporting attention to what remains the best-run franchise in town (since at least 1993), our very own Cleveland Indians. I still feel like they represent this city’s best chance for a championship in the near term, and hopefully we all get to enjoy that feeling together very soon.

ESPN’s Buster Olney has been progressing through a seemingly never-ending list of top-10’s this offseason. He started off by going position-by-position around the diamond, recognizing Michael Brantley as the best LF in the game, but slighting CyKluber (in my humble and biased opinion) by naming him the game’s 8th-best SP behind three (very good) pitchers he beat out for the AL Cy Young Award in 2014. He called Cody Allen the 9th-best RP in the game today, a pretty nice honor for a guy who’s pitched in relative anonymity throughout his career (at least on the national scene, having only been a Closer© for part of one season). He pegged Jason Kipnis as the #6 2B, even coming off of an injury-plagued season (that probably says more about the state of the position than Kipnis). Yan Gomes clocks in as the 7th-best catcher, which seems low for the future 1st-ballot HOF’er (kidding…kinda). Interestingly, the Indians best hitter isn’t even mentioned in Olney’s rankings, as Carlos Santana didn’t rate even an honorable mention at 1B. Not sure if that’s due to the depth of the position or a simple oversight by Olney, as I’d prefer Santana to his 9th ranked 1B, Boston’s Mike Napoli.

The individual rankings are a fun offseason exercise, but I wanted to focus more on Buster’s group rankings, where he looks at teams’ bullpen, rotation, lineup and defense as a whole. No MLB team appeared in the top-10 of all four lists. Only two teams appeared in the top-10 of three out of the four categories; the Washingon Nationals and the Cleveland Indians. The Indians clocked in with Buster’s 9th-best lineup, then at #10 for both the bullpen and rotation. If you’re anything like me, you’re excited that the club is recognized by a leading, independent baseball writer, but a little miffed that he tagged the rotation as “only” the 10th best in baseball. Buster’s reasoning behind that ranking:

This would seem an aggressive ranking for the Indians, who finished 18th in starters' ERA last season, but after talking with rival evaluators, I think this spot might be too low for the Indians, whose staff ranked third in the majors in ERA in the second half. They just kept getting better and better, with Corey Kluber becoming a Cy Young Award winner at the front end of the rotation. The difference-maker could be Carlos Carrasco, as he was in the second half last season, when he lowered his ERA by two runs. Trevor Bauer and Danny Salazar are high-end talents, and the Indians are hopeful Gavin Floyd can help after being limited to just 14 starts combined in 2013 and 2014.
Olney is correct that Carrasco is a potential difference-maker, as he’s a legit #2 behind Kluber if you get 2nd-half Carlos. If Cookie can play the Fausto to Kluber’s Sabathia (to use a 2007 analogy), the Indians have the potential to have the best rotation in the AL. But the fact that Buster has the Indians with the 3rd best rotation in the AL Central speaks volumes to the uncertainty surrounding the #2-5 slots in the rotation, and helps reflect GM Chris Antonetti’s mindset in signing Gavin Floyd to his incentive-laden deal earlier this offseason. Bauer and Salazar remain enigmatic talents who could still boom or bust in 2015. T.J. House, who Buster didn’t even mention, is a guy who found a lot more success last year than most talent evaluators predicted. NEW I think Buster is a little low with this ranking, but I can understand his reasoning. Hopefully at the end of the year, the Tribe will finish closer to #1 on this list than #10.

Speaking of Carrasco, the Indians avoided arbitration with all of their eligible players this week, including their potential #2 starter. Carrasco, Scrabble and Lonnie Chisenhall all agreed to deals between $2.25 and $2.5 million for next season. Then on Friday, Brandon Moss ($6.5 million), Bryan Shaw ($1.55 mil) and Josh Tomlin ($1.5 mil) agreed to terms as well. The Indians have re-started their streak of seasons without an arbitration hearing, which now stands at one (1). Per Jordan Bastian’s math (which I have no cause to doubt), the Indians 2015 payroll now stands at approximately $83 million, factoring in all pre-arbitration deals still to be handed out. I’ll again use this as a chance to remind you that Corey Kluber, a pre-arbitration player, cannot be a free agent until AFTER the 2018 season.

Baseball Prospecuts released their top-10 Indians prospects article this week, and there were a couple of surprises. BP is my go-to independent resource for stuff like this, and I was really interested to see how the 2015 iteration of the prospect countdowns would shake out. This is the first year that neither Kevin Goldstein (now in the Astros front office) nor Jason Parks (crosschecker for the Cubs) aren’t part of the prospect team, and BP has really tried to get a lot of up and coming baseball minds involved in what has become a collaborative process. So, first, let’s talk about the top-10 itself (free even to non-subscribers):

1.SS Francisco Lindor
2.C Francisco Mejia
3.OF Clint Frazier
4.OF Bradley Zimmer
5.CF Tyler Naquin
6.LHP Justus Sheffield
7.OF/1B Mike Papi
8.3B Giovanny Urshela
9.1B Bobby Bradley
10.RHP Mitch Brown

For starters, I’m surprised that Mejia is ahead of Frazier on this list. I (SPOILER ALERT) have them flipped on my list, because I think that they have similar ceilings but Frazier is less of a risk due to age, experience and the position they play. I also have Erik Gonzalez in my top-10, as I think he’s a potential impact defender with the age/frame/athleticism to suggest that he could take a step forward with the bat. But these are relatively minor issues. I’m just surprised and a little saddened that someone is higher on Mejia than I am. BP’s Mark Anderson handled the “Top 10 Under-25” portion of the list, and one of his comments really caught my eye:

The emergence of Lonnie Chisenhall in 2014 would have ranked him highly on this list had he not missed the eligibility criteria, and his breakout campaign serves as notice of his impending arrival in the earlier-mentioned group of core talents.

That’s pretty high praise for Chisenhall. Anderson is an experienced scout who also writes for a Tigers website, so you can be sure that he saw plenty of Chiz last year. I’m not sure if he built that opinion off of Lonnie’s big first half or if he just thinks that the post-June swoon wasn’t the Chiz that we’ll see moving forward. Either way, it’s nice to see someone outside the organization praising a guy that most see as a 2nd-division starter at best as a “core talent” on a quality baseball team.

Fox Sports Jon Morosi tweeted yesterday that the Indians were one of a few teams still “looking for a closer.” That seems odd on the surface, given that they have young power reliever Cody Allen anchoring the back end of a solid (and deep) bullpen. Morosi’s article made a little more sense than the tweet, clarifying that the Indians were looking for a backend reliever, not specifically a closer. Still, the Indians have Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw, Scott Atchison, C.C. Lee, Kyle Crockett, Austin Adams, Nick Hagadone, and Scrabble already established as bullpen options, with Zach McAllister and Josh Tomlin likely to be out of the rotation, and Shawn Armstrong on the cusp of the big league roster. So it would seem like the last thing the Indians need is another bullpen arm. But I’d like to draw your attention to this article from Jordan Bastian on Friday talking about bullpen usage. Bastian points out just how much primary setup man Bryan Shaw has been used over the past couple of seasons relative to the rest of the league, and it’s a little concerning:

The fact of the matter, however, is no pitcher has a rubber arm. A high volume of pitches, innings and games can have a toll on any pitcher. Over the 2013-14 seasons, Shaw has given the Indians a 2.91 ERA over 150 games and 151.1 innings. In that span, he ranks second in the AL (third in the Majors) in games pitched and second in the Majors (first in the AL) in innings for pitchers with zero starts logged…
…Dating back to 2007, there have been 29 instances, excluding Shaw, where a pitcher has logged at least 150 games and 140 innings over a two-year span. Consider this: Cody Allen and Shaw were the only pitchers in baseball over the past two years to meet that criteria. At least in Allen’s case, his future as Cleveland’s closer should naturally lead to a decrease in innings in 2015 and beyond.
Bastian goes on to look at relievers who’ve experienced similar workloads, and the results are not pretty. I’ll let you read the rest of Bastian’s fantastic work for yourself, but the list is full of regression (in terms of both stuff and stats) and injuries, with only a couple of exceptions. So even if Shaw bucks the trend and pitches effectively in 2015, the Indians need to find a way to manage his workload. This isn’t a surprise to most Indians fans, and Jason Lukehart from Let’s Go Tribe was writing about the problem back in August of 2014. Offsetting his usage with another effective backend arm, whether it’s an internal option or a move to acquire another arm from outside the organization, has to be a goal for GM Chris Antonetti and manager Terry Francona. Tito loves managing his bullpen, so getting him another toy to play with out there should only serve to make him happy. Antonetti has basically said that he doesn’t see the club making any major additions before spring training, but are open to finding “depth” or someone to “compliment the players we already have.” A relief arm probably fits that bill, and while I don’t expect them to sign or trade for a big name, I wouldn’t be surprised if they went out and found another depth option or two.

The Milwaukee Brewers are doing something pretty cool for the 2015 season and beyond, offering fans a chance to buy a “timeless ticket” for $1000. What does Joe Brewer Fan get for his $1k investment? Well, for starters, you get this sharp-looking bronze commemorative ticket and certificate of authenticity. Then, you get a ticket to any 9 Brewer games (non-opening day or postseason) between now and…well, forever. But the real kicker here is this:

This unique opportunity allows the owner to redeem their Timeless Ticket for an actual ticket to any single future Brewers game at Miller Park, whether it’s in 2015 or 2050, or whether it’s Opening Day or the 7th game of the World Series…In addition, Timeless Ticket holders may purchase up to three additional companion tickets for the redeemed game at the single game box office price.
So you get a ticket to a potential future World Series game (because really, who’s going to use this on opening day?) and the chance to be a hero to three of your best friends by scoring face value tickets to that same World Series game. And you get to keep the bronze ticket to boot, which would be a pretty awesome souvenir if it came from your favorite teams’ World Series win. I’m shocked the Indians didn’t think of this, because it’s really the ultimate in dynamic pricing. If they came out with this, I’d buy one in a heartbeat. But can you imagine the stress over when to use the ticket? Say the Indians have home field advantage in the World Series (I know, I know, bear with me here). Game Six, and the Tribe hold a 3-2 advantage over the Dodgers. Kershaw is scheduled to pitch against Kluber in game 7, if necessary. Do you pull the trigger and go to game 6, knowing it might not be the clincher? Or save it for the potential game 7, knowing that Cookie Carrasco might shut out the Dodgers and you miss the series-winning game 6? Additionally, I’m not sure how the club handles this if, say, 3,000 people buy the ticket in 2015, and the Brewers go to the WS this year (unlikely but possible). Hypothetically, all 3,000 people could try to exercise their right to buy tickets to game 1, plus the 3 extras for their friends. I guess that’s what the fine print is for (*subject to availability*) but I’d hate to have to explain to a fan that shelled out a grand for this timeless ticket that his/her ticket is not in fact timeless and they can’t actually go to the game they selected. Still, I think overall it’s a really neat idea and I wouldn’t be shocked if the Indians decided to copy it at some point in the future.

I’m really happy to link to this article from the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders (yes, the AAA affiliate of the New York Yankees) because it directly impacts the life of a good friend. Former Carolina Mudcats broadcaster and 2013 Carolina League Broadcaster of the Year Darren Headrick was hired by the RailRiders to join their broadcast team, a well-deserved call-up to AAA if there ever was one. Headrick is an SEC football fan from Tennessee, but other than that is a fantastic guy. He’s an outstanding broadcaster who got along well with the players, coaches and media. He always had time to help me out whenever I was attending a Mudcats game, and I’ll be forever grateful. No disrespect to Al Palowski, but I’d love to see the Indians pick up Headrick and put him in the booth with Hammy. Congrats to Darren, and if you see him in Columbus when Scranton comes to town to play the Clippers, be sure and say hello (and remind him that THE Ohio State Buckeyes are the reigning national champions of the college football universe).

I’m going to close this weekend with this incredible piece from Anthony Castrovice on MLB umpire John Hirschbeck and his family. It was published on Tuesday, and hopefully most of you have already had a chance to read it. If you haven’t, please do so today. There’s nothing I can possibly add to Castro’s words here, so I’m not going to try. Just make sure you have a box of tissues nearby for this one. 


Jeff E said...

Thanks Al, great write-up!!

Richard Schumacher said...

I was disappointed with Olney's rankings in general, and with pitching rotations in general.

He didn't reference any advance stats, seemingly relying only on ERA to establish his rankings.

He ranked a number of rotations above the Indians that either had injury or depth issues. A rotation is 5 pitchers, not 3 or 4. The Indians' pitchers are all healthy and the rotation is deep.

The Indians' 2nd half rotation dominated its competition. It was #1 in WAR, xFIP, FIP, K/9, and HR/9, #2 in ERA (because of substandard defense), #4 in BB/9, all while having the 4th worst BABIP. See this Fangraphs article for a discussion of the Indians rotation.

In my opinion, notwithstanding the youth and uncertainty surrounding Bauer and Salazar, the Indians have a top 5 rotation, maybe higher. It's the youngest in baseball, has the highest ceiling, and more likely to improve or remain consistent then regress.


Al Ciammaichella said...

Thanks Jeff!

Yeah, I don't Buster's rankings were that great either, but it's still interesting to look at a neutral, outside observers take on things.