Sunday, March 08, 2015

A Dream of Spring on a Lazy Sunday

Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
Real baseball is here! Well, spring training baseball is here, and with the rest of the country stuck in the throes of winter, spring training baseball looks pretty good right now. The sample sizes are small, the pitchers aren’t stretched out, and the stats are meaningless. But Yan Gomes is throwing runners out (and hitting home runs), Bradley Zimmer is legging out triples, and Trevor Bauer is back tinkering with his delivery. It’s baseball! Indians baseball! In the sunshine! I can’t stop using exclamation points! We’re less than a month away from the games that count, as the Indians open the season in Houston on April 6.  Then, just a few days later, the home opener on April 10, which is the first in a three-game series against the reigning AL Central Champion Detroit Tigers. It’s certainly not a must-win series or any nonsense like that, not in early April. But it sure would feel good to come roaring (pun) out of the gates and take three from the Motor City Kitties, announcing our presence with authority and making sure the Tigers know that their reign at the top of the division is crumbling beneath them like the marble columns of the Roman Empire. And if one of those games involves hanging a ten-spot on Kate Upton’s boyfriend and chasing him out of the game in the 3rd inning, so much the better. If you’re not excited for the prospect of real, actual baseball that counts in the standings, there’s something wrong with you.

My annual prospect countdown is in the rearview mirror, as the 6-part series concluded on Friday. If you missed any of the installments, here’s your chance to catch up: the intro and #30-26, #25-21, #20-16, #15-11, #10-6 and finally #5-1. It’s a system loaded with up-the-middle talent, as the list is littered with CF, C and SS prospects. If for no other reason, read it for my lengthy dissertation on shortstop and top prospect Francisco Lindor, where I do everything short of propose marriage to the young phenom (hey, don’t judge me, he’s over 18). The full list clocks in at just under 20,000 words, and if nothing else it should give you something to read during your lunch breaks at work this week. There are a couple of surprises on the list, and a couple of guys ranked lower than I anticipated when I first started sketching it out back in late-November. As always, it was a massive labor of love, and I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoy putting it together every year.

Speaking of prospects, Jordan Bastian confirmed what we all suspected when he reported that Francisco Lindor was slated to begin the 2015 season in AAA Columbus, no matter what happens this spring. Bastian talked to manager Terry Francona about Lindor, and Tito is very supportive of Lindor finishing off his development in AAA rather than in Cleveland:

"I don't think that's developing a player," Indians manager Terry Francona said. "If you [promote] a guy too quick and you get him beat up, that's not development. They've got to go through a progression, for the most part."
"Being 21 years old and being in Triple-A, he saw a lot of things for the first time," Francona said. "You're looking at some older players and guys that have been in the big leagues. He handled himself pretty well, but there was still a lot of learning going on.
"He's a really good player and, fortunately for us, he's very mature. We've seen a lot of kids that age that are good that are immature. Probably myself included. He's just a really mature kid and he is grasping things really quickly. That bodes well for us."
Photo Credit: Lianna Holub
I’ve come to terms with Lindor starting in AAA, even though I feel like he’d be able to contribute to the major league roster right away. His bat isn’t ready yet, and there’s a chance that he could struggle so badly early on that he’d end up getting sent back to Columbus anyway. Jose Ramriez outplayed expectations in his 68-game audition last year, particularly with the glove. So there’s really no reason to rush Lindor to the big league squad. But Lindor is still a better defender than Ramirez, and I think it gets a little lost in the shuffle that Ramirez posted a .646 OPS (86 OPS+) last year. So it’s not like he set the world on fire, he was just so much better than Asdrubal in the field that it felt like he was a savior. Lindor is the future, and it’ll be interesting to see how long he remains in Columbus before he forces the issue and is finally called up to the corner of Carnegie and Ontario. For his part, Lindor has confirmed to Zack Meisel that he is in fact, not God. Based on his lofty prospect ranking and near-universal praise, I can understand how some people were initially a little confused on that point. Expect to see Lindor in Cleveland at some point this year, just not before June.

Grantland’s Jonah Keri is back with “The 30,” his recurring power rankings column that takes an objective look at every team in baseball. Yes, it’s only March. And no baseball had been played prior to Keri’s rankings, even spring training baseball. Still, it’s tough to read Keri’s thoughts on the American League Central and not come away optimistic. Keri has the Kansas City Royals as his #23 team in baseball (losing Shields and signing guys like Morales and Rios did not impress him). The Chicago White Sox, on the heels of their strong offseason, come in at #14 overall. The reigning division champion Tigers slide down to 10th (losing Scherzer and Fister, plus injury concerns for Miggy and Victor, not to mention whatever the heck has happened to Justin Verlander). That leaves only the Indians, who come in at 5th overall in all of baseball. Third in the American League. First in the American League Central. That’s more or less in line with the latest Fangraphs projections that have the Indians as the 8th best team in baseball, 4th in the AL and just 3 games away from the 3rd best record in the game. I’ll let Keri tell you why himself:

Now this is a bandwagon I will not be trying to slow down. Put it this way: Last year, the Indians won 85 games despite an injury-plagued Jason Kipnis flukishly hitting like a 75-year-old Rey Ordonez and the combination of first baseman Nick Swisher, utility man Mike Aviles, and outfielders Ryan Raburn, Michael Bourn, and David Murphy providing nearly 2,000 plate appearances worth of sub-replacement-level performance. Three of those five guys have been relegated to bench duty this year, while Bourn and Swisher still look to be significant contributors, albeit on a short leash. The addition of Brandon Moss plus a healthy Kipnis could significantly boost results for a team that finished seventh in the AL in runs scored and ninth in homers last year. Meanwhile, the rotation includes defending Cy Young winner Corey Kluber alongside not one, not two, but three starting pitchers who look like prime breakout candidates: Trevor Bauer, Danny Salazar, and Carlos Carrasco. Combine the revitalized offense with a potentially fantastic group on the mound and you have an extremely dangerous club — one that might very well end Detroit’s AL Central reign.

In another of his articles this week, Keri commented that he was tempted to bet on the “over” for the Vegas-imposed 83.5 over/under win total for the Indians. These are primarily the same reasons we’ve heard from local writers and bloggers (including yours truly) when touting the Indians chances in 2015, but it’s nice to hear them from a respected, objective, national guy like Keri as well. There are still plenty of “ifs” that could go wrong with the team this year, but there’s no doubt that they’re well poised for a run at the AL Central.

Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
The Indians won 85 games and made a legitimate run at the playoffs last year in part due to dramatic and unexpected leaps in performance from some of their young, talented players. Breakouts from Brantley, Kluber, Carrasco and others helped offset injury-related regression from Swisher, Bourn and Kipnis, keeping the Indians in it until the final week. Ben Lindbergh, formerly of Baseball Prospectus and now writing for Grantland, was nice enough to do a lot of research and math in order to try and identify candidates for similar improvements in 2015. Lindbergh looked at the projections from both ZiPS and Steamer for 2014 and 2015, applied park factors to the equation and identified which pitchers could expect a lower FIP and which batters project to have a better wOBA this year. As you might expect, Michael Brantley shows up in the hitter portion of Lindbergh’s article, as he went from a league-average outfielder to an MVP candidate last year. Brantley is projected to have a .028 increase in his wOBA (and if you need a refresher on exactly what wOBA is and how it is calculated, click here). These are just projections of course, but it’s good to see the computers like 
Brantley as much as the scouts do.

When we move onto the pitching portion of Lindbergh’s article, we see no fewer than three potential members of the Indians starting rotation. Trevor Bauer, T.J. House and CyKluber himself have increased expectations coming into the 2015 season. Bauer actually picked up a tick on his fastball last year. House managed a 3.35 ERA in 2014 despite being a groundball pitcher with the league’s worst infield defense (and a .333 BABIP). And Kluber? Well, all Kluber did was post the best FIP in the AL (2nd in MLB behind Kershaw) last year en route to winning his first Cy Young award. It’s good to see the projection models see these gains as both legitimate and repeatable, and the Indians deep starting rotation should again be a strength of the club this year.

These projected improvements, combined with some backsliding from the Tigers, gives the Indians a much better chance at winning the division in 2014. According to Fangraphs projections, the Indians are 20% (ok, 19.3%) more likely to win the division right now than they were at this time last season (see below graphic). That’s the 2nd biggest jump in baseball, behind only the 28% leap made by the Seattle Mariners in the AL West. This team is built to contend, right now and in the future.

One member of the Indians aforementioned deep rotation had a minor setback in his return from injury, as 32-year old Gavin Floyd cut short a live BP session and was scratched from his scheduled spring training start against the Rangers today. The official reason given by the Indians was the very descriptive “general soreness” (please, for the love of God, no “General Soreness” twitter characters need to spring from this). I’m not overly worried about Floyd at this point, and I think that the general soreness he’s feeling is legitimate and not a cover for any specific arm issue. He’s just a 32-year old guy pitching off of a mound again for the first time since June of last year. Some muscle soreness in early spring training is understandable, if not predictable. The former 4th overall pick by the Philadelphia Phillies in 2001, Floyd was signed to a cheap, 1-year contract to eat innings in the middle of the Indians rotation, not anchor it. He was really good in the 54 innings he did pitch last year (2.65 ERA, 45 K, 13 BB) and was more than worth the $4 million shot the Indians took on him. But he’s one of eight (!) legitimate starting pitching options that the Indians have at their disposal for 2015. So if he turns into more of a Brett Meyers than a Kevin Millwood, no harm done. Floyd is going to have every shot at making the rotation as long as he’s healthy. If he’s injured or ineffective, the Indians simply move on to whichever of the impressive House/Bauer/Salazar trio initially loses out on the 5th starter job.

Photo Credit: AP
The busy Jordan Bastian put together a really nice feature on Brandon Moss earlier this week, detailing the struggles that he went through earlier in his career that nearly had him quit and apply for the Gwinnet County Fire Department (seriously). Moss was drafted as a high schooler in 2002, and didn’t make his MLB debut until 2007 when he had a cup of coffee with the Boston Red Sox. He had a shot as a regular in 2009, amassing 385 AB with the Pittsburgh Pirates, but only hit .236/.304/.364 with 7 HR. He bounced between AAA and short stints in the majors before signing with the Phillies in 2011, then with the A’s in 2012. When he got the call to Oakland from AAA in 2012, he struggled initially but suddenly became the power hitter that we know today based on the advice from his wife, Allison:

Allison was tired of seeing her husband -- an outgoing character typically beaming with enthusiasm -- coming home so dejected.

"She was like, 'Babe, this might be your last opportunity in the big leagues,'" Moss said. "'Just go and let it hang out. Just do your thing and leave with no regrets. If you struggle and can't do it, at least be able to walk away and say, no matter what I did, I couldn't do it. But don't go in there beat before you get there.'"

Her words hit Moss hard.

"I told her, 'I'm just going to go out there and try to hit home runs every at-bat,'" he said. "Just like I try to do in the Minor Leagues.'"

Moss hit five homers over the next four games and ended with 21 long balls in just 84 games with Oakland that season.

Swinging from his heels, Moss finished with a .954 OPS in 2012, then followed it up with a 30-HR, .859 OPS season in 2013. He made the AL All-Star team for the 1st time as a 30 year old last season, slugging 21 HR with a .878 OPS in 89 1st-half games before fading in the 2nd half of the season while dealing with his hip injury. Clearly hurt, Moss still managed to hit 2 HR and drive in 5 runs in Oakland’s wild card playoff loss to Kansas City, and was traded to the Indians in exchange for minor league infielder Joey Wendle this offseason. Moss may hit left-handed, which for some fans makes him next to useless, but he’s going to be an important member of the Indians this year. His power is going to look awfully good in the middle of a lineup that should hopefully be augmented by bounce-back seasons from Kipnis, Swisher and Bourn. It’s the Gwinnet County Fire Department’s loss, but the Indians gain.

Although there’s really not much we can garner from spring training games stats-wise, there are things we can focus on when it comes to individual performances and how certain players look. Doug Thorburn, the resident pitching doctor at Baseball Prospectus, penned an article looking at a few pitchers that he’s going to be focusing on this spring, and he included both Trevor Bauer (a long-time Thorburn subject) and Cookie Carrasco. I’ll sample from the article here, but the entire thing really is worth your time:


…Last season was a step in the right direction, and it will be interesting to see if the oft-tinkering Bauer has made any adjustments in the off-season. My focus will be on his balance, given his drop-and-drive delivery that features a back-side collapse as part of the strategy, a variant that stands in the way of repetition.

What to look for: Well, everything, but my main focus will be on his balance and momentum to see if he can build on last season's progress.

…His all-stretch approach took advantage of his mechanical efficiency and eliminated the needless extra motion of his windup, and Carrasco reaped the benefits with a consistent release point.

What to look for: Is he still pitching from the stretch all the time? Fingers crossed that the answer is a resounding, “Yes.”

It’s impossible to overstate how important those two are to the Indians success this year. The Indians 2nd half was fueled by their suddenly-dominant pitching staff despite a scuffling offense and the league’s worst defense. Both the offense and defense should be better this year, but the Indians can’t afford much backsliding from the 2nd half pitching they enjoyed last year, if any. Spring training stats are useless, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn anything from the contests. Both Bauer and T.J. House looked good in their initial outings of the spring, and Bauer’s back leg didn’t look like it was collapsing as much as it did in 2014. Whether that’s a temporary tweak or a long-term adjustment for the notoriously fickle Bauer is yet to be seen, but it’s definitely something we can keep an eye on as Spring Training rolls on.

I like to end things on a lighthearted note here on Lazy Sunday, so I’m going to point you in the direction of this very entertaining (and thought provoking) piece on whether or not Charlie Brown is the worst manager in the history of baseball. Yes, Charlie Brown as in Snoopy, as in the guy who represents Cleveland Browns fans by continuously falling for Lucy’s “I’ll hold the football, Charlie Brown” trick. Patrick Dubuque of the Hardball Times takes an insightful look into how Brown’s squad could lose as many games as it did despite having the Peanuts version of Mike Trout (Snoopy) playing shortstop. I won’t spoil it for you, but rest assured that player-manager Brown’s insistence in keeping himself on the mound despite the presence of a much better alternative is partially to blame for his squad’s woes. It’s a funny look at a long-running comic strip, and even manages to teach us a lesson in the end. So give it a read while you’re waiting for the Indians next spring training broadcast, and know that regular season baseball is less than a month away…


PO13 said...

Great work once again Al. I'm optimistic about this year's club, but I'm a bit concerned about many folks looking at the rotation as a real plus. Kluber almost has to regress from last year, and is Carrasco really more than a flash feasting on hitters who were waiting for the off-season? I would place the Tribe more in the 15 range overall right now, as those who say how strong our division is sometimes forget that we have to play those teams 19 times. In a situation like this you sometimes get everyone to beat up on each other, so much so that the division winner barely gets to 90 wins and the 2nd place club doesn't make the wild card.

Regardless I'm excited for the season, the new beer in right field, and your terrific articles. My grades always suffer more in April and May, with a clear reason why!


Al Ciammaichella said...

Thanks Patrick, really appreciate the kind words!

Even if Kluber regresses a little, I still think he can be one of the top pitchers in the AL. The question, as you alluded to, is whether or not we saw the "real" Carrasco and Slazar in the 2nd half last year, or if it was just a flash of brilliance that won't be repeated. I'm sure hoping it was the former, but only time will tell.