Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Going Around the Developmental Curve

Despite the Indians experiencing a last bit of success as 2010 comes to a welcome finish, the overwhelming bad taste in the mouth from a season gone horribly wrong remains as there are nights when the light at the end of the tunnel seems to be getting smaller, instead of things coming into focus throughout the course of the season.

Back when the season started, lo those many days ago, the thought was that the young offensive players for the Tribe would make their way in Cleveland while the pitching would remain a work in progress. The youth of the team was unmistakable, as was the sense that 2010 represented a year that would be looked upon as providing some building blocks for the future.

Since the Indians had just undergone a massive tear-down and build-up earlier in the decade, the question emerged as to where this 2010 season would fit in that developmental curve that lasted from 2002 (the bottom) through 2005 and 2007 (the peak) and into 2009 (the bottom once more) and while some ( floated the idea that the 2010 Tribe would line up favorably to the 2004 Indians, comparing the 2010 season prior to the season with the 2004 team was presumptive and more than a little optimistic, given that the 2004 Tribe finished with an 80-82 record and chased the division lead into August.

Knowing what we know now, and with the season nearly complete, little doubt remains that the 2003 Indians (68-94) remain a much more apt comparison to the 2010 Indians (68-91) and it brings up something that needs to be done in terms of putting the proper context around this trainwreck of a season.

That context is that it needs to be asked where the Indians (as they are currently constructed) truly are in this developmental life-cycle in terms of how it relates to the build-up of the previous incarnation. Since some schools of thought existed that the Indians' offense would be able to mature and develop into a productive unit (it didn't) and that the rotation would be completely devoid of bright spots (it wasn't, with Fausto, Carrasco, and to a lesser degree, Masterson), the 2010 season is pretty much finished and the question of where this team sits, in comparison to past incarnations, is worth a look.

The review, which could be seen as an exercise in futility by attempting to tie two separate teams together, becomes necessary because the 2002 to 2005 build-up is a body of work that exists from this Front Office and it undoubtedly is being used as a blueprint to get this team back into contention in short order. Additionally, outgoing GM Mark Shapiro had this to say to the Akron Beacon Journal in terms of where he thinks the team is in the life-cycle of a small-market team:
“I try to get back to '02 and '03 and what it felt like and look at us now and think we're in a better position now than we were in '03 and probably even '04. If you go around the diamond, we've got more talent and our system is in a better position than it was then.”

Rather than reading this and simply sitting around, exchanging “harrumphs” - hey, I didn't get a “harrumph” out of that guy – how about taking a look at this from a rational standpoint and try to determine whether the Tribe is really are better off than they were in 2003 and “probably even 2004”?

The 2004 team went 80-82 and probably represents a best-case scenario for 2011 so, again, let's dismiss this as wishful thinking (and I'll show you why in a minute here) and go back to that idea that the team is “in a better position now” than they were in 2003.

To that end, here are the numbers put up by the offense and the pitching staff, in terms of runs scored and runs allowed, for each incarnation of the Tribe, with 3 games left to play in 2010:
2003 Runs Scored – 699
2010 Runs Scored (to date) – 632

2003 Runs Allowed – 778
2010 Runs Scored (to date) – 737
“Year of the Pitcher” and all...I know, but the PITCHING in 2010 is the aspect of the team that surpassed where the 2003 team was at this stage of development and lest you think that we're comparing two unrelated groups of players in terms of age, check this out:
2003 Average Age of Hitters – 27.0
2010 Average Age of Hitters – 27.3

2003 Average Age of Pitchers – 26.3
2010 Average Age of Pitchers – 26.3

Going further on this, check out the number of players used each season:
2003 – 54 Hitters, 29 Pitchers
2010 – 38 Hitters, 22 Pitchers

Why is this so interesting?
One would think that when development is the main thrust of the organization, that the number of players that cycle through the lineup and the pitching staff is going to be long and varied. Despite the fact that the Indians did battle injuries and moved a number of veterans at the Trading Deadline, the turnover and number of players used in 2010 is significantly lower than what we saw in 2003. Just to bring in the 2004 team that the Indians will aspire to next year, here are the 2004 numbers:
2004 – 52 Hitters, 30 Pitchers

What's amazing as the 2010 season draws to a close is that they didn't just continue to throw guys out there (while it certainly seemed like they were) and stuck with the players (for the most part) that they figured on when the season began. Interestingly, the number of players used in 2010 is actually closer to what the 2005 team looked like, as they used 38 hitters and 17 pitchers. Though that's the last time that you see the 2010 team and the 2005 team used in the same sentence, or even in comparable terms, let's get back to the idea that we're attempting to compare the 2010 team with the 2003 team to see if the current team really is “in a better position” than they were in 2003, when they were still two years away from winning 93 games.

Since we've already looked at the overall numbers and ages, how about taking it by hitters and pitchers, grouped into smaller designations to see how the two teams stack up. Starting off, here are the hitters listed by plate appearances (more than 150 PA), age, and OPS+ for that year, taking it position-by-position grouping for the sake of simply not listing these guys:
Catchers – 2003 Indians
Josh Bard (Age 25) – 329 PA, 78 OPS+
Tim Laker (Age 33) – 176 PA, 72 OPS+
Victor Martinez (Age 24) – 174 PA, 84 OPS+

Catchers – 2010 Indians
Lou Marson (Age 23) – 287 PA, 59 OPS+
Carlos Santana (Age 24) – 192 PA, 143 OPS+
Santana and Victor certainly represent the duo worthy of comparison and I say this while wearing my tear-stained Victor jersey, I would certainly prefer Santana v.2010 over Vic v.2003 in terms of prospect pedigree, power, and overall upside. While the injury that The Axe Man sustained tempers the enthusiasm, it is not enough to say that I would say that the Indians aren't better off now at catcher than they were in 2003...and I say that with an El Capitan-sized hole in my heart.

Corner Infielders – 2003 Indians
Casey Blake (Age 29) – 621 PA, 93 OPS+
Ben Broussard (Age 26) – 429 PA, 100 OPS+

Corner Infielders – 2010 Indians
Matt LaPorta (Age 25) – 413 PA, 88 OPS+
Jhonny Peralta (Age 28) – 373 PA, 95 OPS+
Jayson Nix (Age 27) – 291 PA, 99 OPS+
Russell Branyan (Age 34) – 190 PA, 127 OPS+
Andy Marte (Age 26) – 180 PA, 95 OPS+
This grouping is absolutely fascinating as the Indians find themselves in the same place they were in 2003 in terms of 3B, in the middle of cycling through a litany of marginal retreads (one of whom turned out to be Casey Blake) in the hopes that those “stop-gaps” could provide some time before a more compelling prospect came along. While that “more compelling” prospect didn't exist for the 2003 Tribe until Andy Marte was acquired (and is anyone else shocked that Marte has an OPS+ of 95, which is admittedly still low for a corner infielder), the Indians do have an internal stop-gap in Cord Phelps and perhaps another one in Nix (if his glove improves SUBSTANTIALLY, though his numbers compared to Blake are intriguing), who would eventually give way to the “compelling prospect” in The Chiz.

As for 1B, the inclusion of Broussard on this list and the fact that he out-performed LaPorta in these respective years points again to the disappointment in the 2010 season for LaPorta. When you figure that that Broussard was generally seen as more of a placeholder (although the team did eventually turn him into Choo) or a platoon player as MaTola has been unquestionably painted as a potential member of the next “core” group of players. While giving up on LaPorta (or taking PA away from him in 2011) is irresponsible, next year represents the year that LaPorta needs to separate himself from the Broussard/Garko mold and into what was envisioned when he was acquired back in 2008.

Middle Infielders – 2003 Indians
Brandon Phillips (Age 22) – 393 PA, 48 OPS+
Omar Vizquel (Age 36) – 250 PA, 78 OPS+
Jhonny Peralta (Age 21) – 270 PA, 67 OPS+
John McDonald (Age 28) – 233 PA, 45 OPS+

Middle Infielders – 2010 Indians
Asdrubal Cabrera (Age 24) – 412 PA, 86 OPS+
Jason Donald (Age 25) – 325 PA, 93 OPS+
Luis Valbuena (Age 24) – 294 PA, 53 OPS+
Whereas the 2003 team gave both Phillips and Peralta their first taste of MLB, both players were extremely young and showed it at the plate as each was given a pretty long leash (in Peralta's case because of an injury to Vizquel), something that was afforded in 2010 to both Donald and Valbuena. While Valbuena hung himself with the length of the rope, Donald contributed to the team, even if it was not at a level that will guarantee him anything in terms of a position for the entirety of the 2011 season. Regardless, both Donald and Cabrera outperformed their 2003 counterparts, and while the disappointment is unquestioned in terms of Cabrera's offensive output, the Indians' middle infield seems to be further along the developmental stage in 2010 (with Kipnis waiting in the wings) than they were in 2003, when promise was certainly there in Phillips and Peralta, if not results.

Outfielders – 2003 Indians
Jody Gerut (Age 25) – 525 PA, 120 OPS+
Milton Bradley (Age 25) – 471 PA, 147 OPS+
Coco Crisp (Age 23) – 447 PA, 76 OPS+
Matt Lawton (Age 31) – 429 PA, 104 OPS+
Shane Spencer (Age 31) – 232 PA, 103 OPS+

Outfielders – 2010 Indians
The BLC (Age 27) – 630 PA, 145 OPS+
Trevor Crowe (Age 26) – 460 PA, 82 OPS+
Austin Kearns (Age 30) – 342 PA, 116 OPS+
Mike Brantley (Age 23) – 304 PA, 68 OPS+
Everyone remembers when Jody Gerut and Milton Bradley were two of the “building blocks” of this organization in 2003, right? This grouping, to me, shows how quickly perceptions and realities can change as the idea that Gerut, Bradley, and Crisp represented the future quickly gave way to Bradley taking a cab home from a Spring Training game, Gerut bottoming out, and Crisp being seen as an easily-replaceable piece, dealt after the 2005 season.

What that means for the 2010 Tribe, I can't really say as Choo operates on a different plane than anyone that was on the 2003 team, in terms of realized production AND potential and Crowe and Kearns won't (or at least shouldn't) be a part of this team past this year. As for the youngsters, Brantley and Crisp are an interesting little pair here as Brantley is often touted as a future “core” player while Crisp was often dismissed as a useful, if not necessary, piece and their performance as 23-year-olds with more than 300 PA make the comparison an intriguing one as Brantley will likely do what Crisp never did next year – move Sizemore (not on this list because he only had 140 PA this year and who was the one real addition to the mix in 2004) to LF.

Designated Hitters – 2003 Indians
Travis Hafner (Age 26) – 324 PA, 115 OPS+
Ellis Burks (Age 38) – 228 PA, 109 OPS+

Designated Hitters – 2010 Indians
Travis Hafner (Age 33) – 449 PA, 129 OPS+
Shelley Duncan (Age 30) – 248 PA, 105 OPS+
If you think of Hafner's career on a bell curve, 2003 represented his path up the curve and 2010 represented another year coming down from the top…it just so happens that we have no idea where the bottom of the curve lies for Hafner. While Acta's recent comments that, “we're going into Spring Training with the hope that he has no limitations” is a song that I can't seem to get out of my head, Hafner showed in 2010 that he is, at the least, a productive part-time player. Not the level of “productive” that you'd want from the salary number going his way, but it would seem that hope springs eternal from the Indians (even if that HAS to be their public face) when Acta had this to say on Hafner:
Last year he was unable to play more than three games in a row, and this year he started the season without restriction. We were just managing him to 5-6 games a week. He hurt his shoulder and went on the DL [in August], but after that he's been able to play 4-5 games a week, which is better than what he did last year.
He was obviously expecting more production this year, but he's hit 29 doubles and 12 home runs. We've talked to Travis, and the hope for next year is he'll have had one more offseason under his belt on that shoulder.

“One more offseason under his belt on that shoulder” eventually gives way to the fact that he's going on 34 years old and that the issue doesn't seem to be simply going away. That being said, there are other positions at which the Indians seem to be better off in 2010 going forward than they were in's just that DH isn't one of them.

All told, if you had to judge the offense of the 2010 Tribe versus the 2003 Tribe in terms of future expectations (and it's here that I'll drop in that the player with the most PA from that 2003 Tribe was a 29-year-old 3B in Lacey Cake and the OPS+ leader among players with more than 150 PA was a 25-year-old player who would be traded PRIOR to the 2004 season in Milt Bradley), I'd break it down that the Indians are better off behind the plate, in the middle infield, and in RF right now with the positions of 1B, 3B, CF, and LF largely dependent upon the maturation of LaPorta, Brantley, and eventually Chisenhall as well as what type of player Sizemore (who, again, was the only real “prospect” not included in these 2003 groupings who arrived the next year and, even then, Grady had only 159 PA in 2004) returns as determining whether the Indians are truly “in a better position now than they were in 2003”

The question has been asked ad nauseum, but it comes down to whether the young players that cut their teeth in MLB this year (Santana, LaPorta, Brantley, and Donald most notably) can make the same leap that Martinez, Hafner, Peralta, and even Crisp did between the 2003 and 2004 season as the Indians went from scoring 699 runs in 2003 to scoring a whopping 858 runs in 2004, largely because of the steps taken by Hafner (OPS+ of 162 in 2004), Martinez (OPS+ of 125), and even Coco Crisp (OPS+ of 110) towards becoming known quantities. Back in 2004, even Ben Broussard (OPS+ of 127) and Casey Blake (OPS+ of 122) posted the best offensive years of their career while neither was seen at the time as much more than placeholders until something better came along.

In Choo, the Indians of 2010 have a player that didn't exist in their lineup in 2003 and when Shapiro says that the Indians “are in a better position now than” they were “in 2003 or even 2004”, the truth is that they're probably somewhere between those two and whether they continue to develop offensively relies on a number of factors, none of which would seem to be sure things.

Interestingly, the entire Shapiro quote that served as the impetus for this is that “we're in a better position now than we were in '03 and probably even '04”, which continues with “if you go around the diamond, we've got more talent and our system is in a better position than it was then” and that notion of “around the diamond” is interesting because while the 2010 offense may compare favorably to the 2003 team with the hope that some of the 2004 break-outs await particular players in 2004, the pitching remains another story.

With that little intro laid out there, here are the pitchers for both the 2003 Tribe and this season's club, listed by innings pitched (more than 35 IP), age, and ERA+ for that year
Rotation – 2003 Indians
CC Sabathia (Age 22) – 197 2/3 IP, 122 ERA+
Jason Davis (Age 23) – 165 1/3 IP, 94 ERA+
Brian Anderson (Age 31) – 148 IP, 119 ERA+
Jake Westbrook (Age 25) – 133 IP, 102 ERA+
Billy Traber (Age 23) – 111 2/3 IP, 84 ERA+
Ricardo Rodriguez (Age 25) – 81 2/3 IP, 77 ERA+
Cliff Lee (Age 24) – 52 1/3 IP, 122 ERA+
Jason Stanford (Age 26) – 50 IP, 123 ERA+

Rotation – 2010 Indians
Fausto Carmona (Age 26) – 204 1/3 IP, 103 ERA+
Justin Masterson (Age 25) – 178 IP, 82 ERA+
Mitch Talbot (Age 26) – 152 1/3 IP, 85 ERA+
Jake Westbrook (Age 32) – 127 2/3 IP, 84 ERA+
Dave Huff (Age 25) – 79 2/3 IP, 63 ERA+
Josh Tomlin (Age 25) – 68 IP, 87 ERA+
Jeanmar Gomez (Age 22) – 57 2/3 IP, 84 ERA+
Carlos Carrasco (Age 23) – 38 2/3 IP, 121 ERA+
What initially jumps out from that 2003 Rotation (other than the 2 future Cy Young Award winners) is the youth and how many innings those young pitchers threw that year as 526 2/3 innings were pitched by starters that were 24 or younger (Sabathia, Davis, Traber, and Lee) and even the pitchers that were over 24 years old weren't that much older as only Brian Anderson and Jason Stanford were starters over 25.

Additionally, 5 of the 8 starters from 2003 posted ERA+ over 100 with a 22-year-old CC posting an ERA+ of 122 in nearly 200 IP. Compare that to the 2010 version, where 2 of the 8 starters listed posted ERA+ of 100 or better and even those that were sub-100 performed at a level lower than what Jason Davis put forth in 2003. Some of this speaks to the volatile nature of pitching and trying to project success for any arm, but the fact that CC put together a nearly 200 inning season posting an ERA+ of 122 speaks to the potential that certainly seemed to exist in that young staff.

If 2010 showed the Indians anything, it was that they are currently full of back-end-of-the-rotation guys like Talbot, Tomlin, and Gomez and have a few arms that project as solid middle-of-the-rotation guys in Carmona and perhaps Masterson (assuming September shows that he realized the adjustments he needed to make), but short of Carrasco, who put up an ERA+ that was close to what CC did in 2003, albeit with nearly 160 IP and one year older, the Tribe lacks that pitching rotation that was the linchpin of those 2005 and 2007 teams. That is not meant to be overly dismissive of the current group (as I think that I have been overtly optimistic, particularly in the cases of Carmona, Carrasco, and even Masterson) as the potential has shown. Instead, it reflects on what was in place in terms of rotational arms in 2003.

This is all “old” news, I know, but if we're putting this 2010 team in the proper context in terms of development, that 2003 staff far outpaces what the 2010 staff did...and at a generally younger age. The argument could be made that the Indians currently have players in the Minors (White, Gardner, and even Pomeranz) who project to join this mix going forward, but Adam Miller and Jeremy Sowers were two names that were thought to represent re-enforcements for this 2003 group from within that either never arrived or never panned out. Whether a similar fate (knocking on any wood I can find) awaits any of the Indians' prospects (and Rondon has already undergone Tommy John) remains to be seen.

Essentially, the lack of a “CC”-type player is what separates these two groups. Certainly, it could be argued that Sabathia is the type of 22-year-old player who would separate just about group of pitchers from having an obvious “ace” from having a collection of arms who can be cobbled together to create an effective staff, but seeing as how the 2005 and 2007 teams were built on starting pitching around CC's left arm, the differences between 2003 and 2010 begin to emerge.

That being said, if the team is further ahead in terms of position players, although how far ahead will reveal itself in 2011, and behind in rotation options, where the 2010 team comes out in much better shape is in the bullpen:
Bullpen – 2003 Indians
Terry Mulholland (Age 40) – 99 IP, 90 ERA+
Danys Baez (Age 25) – 75 2/3 IP, 116 ERA+
David Riske (Age 26) – 74 2/3 IP, 193 ERA+
Jason Boyd (Age 30) – 52 1/3 IP, 103 ERA+
Jack Cressend (Age 28) – 43 IP, 176 ERA+

Bullpen – 2010 Indians
Tony Sipp (Age 26) – 62 IP, 93 ERA+
Chris Perez (Age 24) – 61 2/3 IP, 225 ERA+
Rafael Perez (Age 28) – 60 IP, 119 ERA+
Aaron Laffey (Age 25) – 54 2/3 IP, 85 ERA+
Hector Ambriz (Age 26) – 48 1/3 IP, 71 ERA+
Frank Herrmann (Age 26) – 43 2/3 IP, 96 ERA+
Joe Smith (Age 26) – 38 1/3 IP, 99 ERA+
If nothing else can be taken from 2010, at the very least, it represents the first time that the Indians can count on a young closer that became a bona-fide closer for the Indians since, well...I guess Jose Mesa, although even he was more of a failed starter (Joe Table started 33 games for the 1993 Tribe, but you knew that) than a lockdown reliever from the start. In Chris F. Perez, the Indians have the (young) player who brings the attitude AND the filth to the mound in the 9th inning that this team could have used...well, about three years ago.

Regardless of his arrival date, Perez brings some stability to the 9th inning and some pieces and parts are starting to emerge around him, albeit slowly. To simply compare the MLB 2003 relievers – of whom Riske and Baez, operating on an ill-concieved contract, are the only arms under 28 who logged more than 35 innings – to the 2010 mix with the likes Rafael Perez and Tony Sipp (interestingly both LH) establishing themselves (or re-establishing themselves) as viable relievers going forward doesn't quite do justice to the difference between the two situations. While the 2010 Indians had older relievers who may not figure into the team's future for too long, namely Jensen Lewis (ERA+ of 126) and Justin Germano (ERA+ of 178), who are not included on this list because of too few innings pitched, the bulk of innings went to young arms and while those results, mixed, in terms of guys like Heck Ambriz and Joe Smith and Frank Herrmann struggling to find consistency, much less success, the difference between 2003 and 2010 lies beneath for the bullpens.

The 2003 team had Fernando Cabrera a year away, but little else on the horizon in terms of bullpen prospects as most of the relievers that waded through the bullpen from 2003 to 2009 represented either non-prospects, lottery tickets (although Rafael Betancourt would eventually emerge as a winning lottery ticket), retreads, and lost causes as the bullpen would eventually deep-six the 2006 and 2008 seasons, or at least play a major role in the team's struggles.

If anything, the 2010 team looks to be better positioned with the likes of Perez, Sipp, and Perez already topside with the mix of Smith, Herrmann, Pestano, and even Lewis and Germano among the ranks to sift through that are already in Cleveland. Below them, arms like Bryce Stowell, Josh Judy, Zach Putnam, Jess Todd, Rob Bryson, and Bryan Price all looking like the swing-and-miss relievers that the organization failed at producing for far too many years. Attrition and injury will remove a number of those names from consideration as the years pass, but the Indians have built up a small stable of high-powered arms and designated them specifically for the bullpen, which puts the club unquestionably in a much better place going forward than where they were in 2003.

All told, if you really want to surmise where this 2010 team is on this developmental curve, they probably are somewhere between 2003 and 2004, although much of that is based on the promise and pedigree of the young hitters. The starting rotation has much larger question marks that means that it takes an awful lot of squinting through that half-full glass to see 2011 shaping up like 2004, given that so many of the young players (Carrasco, LaPorta, Brantley, and Masterson) need to take a major step towards consistency while other older players are fighting their way back from injury or ineffectiveness (Sizemore, Hafner, and Cabrera).

Beyond that, the Indians need to hope to avoid the regressions and injuries that are unforeseen in Spring Training and that have become a part of the seasons' narratives since 2008. Whether they can mature and develop while avoiding pitfalls elsewhere and plugging in more talent remains to be seen, but it has been done before as that 2003 team evolved into a contender in 2005 and again in 2007. The transformation wasn't done overnight and didn't have its surprise contributors (like Blake) and casualties (like Bradley and Gerut), but the Indians are attempting to pour the concrete again on the road that is sure to crest and dip and take many turns.

Whether that road leads anywhere better than where we've been...well, that's a question that will reveal itself as we go along for another ride.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

A Farewell Kiss on A Lazy Sunday

With another fantastic Fall weekend on our doorstep here on the North Coast and as the Indians assure themselves of a maximum of 98 losses with their little 2-game winning streak (which has pushed them back from the 4th pick in next year’s draft to currently sitting on the 6th position), the final brushstrokes are being put on the canvas of the 2010 season. Lest you think that this one is going be hanging in some gallery, much less in plain sight of anyone…it will not as it is destined for the trash bin and the end is thankfully coming near for the Tribe’s season of nightmares.

Seeing as how the end of the year is rapidly approaching, it is accompanied by the end-of-the-year recaps coming from all angles for all teams. While we’ve obviously already read the “Dear John” letter from Vince Grzegorek, another (perhaps more clinical and certainly much less entertaining) autopsy comes as the Indians go under the microscope in the “Kiss ‘Em Goodbye” series.

If you’re unfamiliar with the “Kiss ‘Em Goodbye” series that is put together by Baseball Prospectus and ESPN, the eulogy consists of a little write-up by Buster Olney giving an overview of a particular team that is (obviously) not making the playoffs, a more exhaustive analysis of “What Went Right”, “What Went Wrong”, and “What Won’t Happen Again” by a B-Pro writer, a “Rumor Central” piece by some ESPN lackey, and an “Organizational Future” piece by the consistently terrific Kevin Goldstein of B-Pro.

In the recent piece in which the collective group has puckered up and said their farewell to the Tribe, the Olney intro is pretty superficial as it notes that the Indians’ rotation is lacking (shockingly mentioning that CC and Lee are doing pretty well this year) and saying that “given that the Indians have so little margin for error, they needed production from their handful of pricey stars”, going on to mention the Sizemore injury, the Hafner shoulder “issues” and Kerry Wood’s strange tenure as an Indian.

Olney hits on what he sees as the “building blocks” with Santana, The BLC, CF Perez, and a rejuvenated !Fausto¡ (which, not so coincidentally are the same four mentioned in the “What Went Right” section), but finishes the his bit of the piece with the realistic view that the Indians need to “find more starting pitchers, and Cleveland is hopeful about what it saw from Carlos Carrasco in the last month of the season” before hitting on the big finish that, “until the Indians’ rotation stabilizes, Cleveland probably won’t be in the AL Central conversation in September.”

Of course, this is not an earth-shattering analysis as you only have to look at the players that the Indians have been targeting in trades and in the Draft for the past two years to see how they’re attempting to “find more starting pitchers”. Between Carrasco, Masterson, Talbot, White, Pomeranz, McCallister, Pino, Kluber and the litany of other arms (and those are just some of the guys who figure in as starters) added to the organization in the last two years, there’s no question that it still all goes back to the pitching issues (and specifically the rotational questions) with the Indians going forward as the needle seems to flip from “they don’t look to be all that close to cobbling together a consistent rotation” to “maybe these guys just need time to mature and thrive” on a nearly weekly basis.

This is, of course, where I drop in Carmona, Carrasco, and Masterson’s numbers for September – 2.35 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 63 K and 21 BB in 80 1/3 IP – and try to take a look at that glass and call it half-empty, attempting to avoid Gomez’s September (7.78 ERA, 2.03 WHIP) and ignoring that Tomlin has allowed nearly as many earned runs (34) as batters he has whiffed (39)…even with his most recent complete game.

This is pretty well-worn territory around these parts and for the sake of everyone involved and since this is worthy of more than just this cursory look, let’s get back to the “Kiss ‘Em Goodbye”. For the sake of everyone’s sanity, I’ll spare you what the ESPN “Insider” had to say in the “Rumor Central” category as nearly all ESPN coverage has devolved further and further into what “Entertainment Tonight” and “TMZ” are in terms of actually reporting the “news”.

Since we’ll avoid the ESPN “Insider” section (seeing as how I forgot my Haz-Mat suit to wade through the mindless toxicity for what passes as “insight”), let’s get right to the most intriguing part of the entire piece as it comes from Christina Kahrl of B-Pro, who lists the main component of “What Went Wrong” for the 2010 Indians as “injuries, injuries, and more injuries”, pointing out specifically the injuries to Sizemore, Cabrera, and Santana.

Given what we’ve seen recently from the “offensive” side of the Indians (see what I did there?), does anyone know that Cabrera played in 90 games this year, Santana played in just 46, and Sizemore played in only 33 games?

Certainly, the performance before the injuries to Cabrera (he had a .689 OPS when Jhonny broke his arm) and Sizemore (.560 OPS before being shelved) don’t merit the assertion that any promising seasons were “derailed” by injury, but the issue of when Sizemore’s injury occurred remains up for debate (as it was intimated at one point that it happened in Spring Training and he attempted to fight through it) and Cabrera’s .689 OPS is actually not that far off how he has started the last few years.

For those players a certain track record exists in MLB that justifies the “injuries, injuries, and more injuries” as a card to play for the Indians (and I’ll note that my season ticket folder had Choo, Sizemore, and Cabrera on the cover), but how about Carlos Santana?

While everyone remembers the manner in which Santana burst on the scene, with hype surrounding him unseen in these parts since…well, probably Victor or CC, Santana proved to be the first Indians’ youngster in recent memory to ascend to the parent club and actually, you know…perform right off of the bat. For an organization that constantly has to preach the virtues of “making adjustments” and “let guys ease into things” (for as long as I can remember) because nearly ALL of their prospects struggle when they arrive from the Farm, Santana came to Cleveland and showed that the talk that accompanied his arrival was justified by impacting the team immediately.

That being said, you know who has 90 more plate appearances than Santana did this year?
Luis Valbuena…hell, Rusty Branyan strode to the plate 2 fewer times than The Axe Man did this year for the Tribe. Santana, for as much as he is being counted on as a pillar in the lineup going forward, has less than 200 MLB plate appearances and while he certainly seemed to have an impact on the club in terms of record, his impact on the lineup was not as profound as you might think:
Opening Day to June 10th (Prior to Call-Up)
Team Record: 23-36

.246 BA / .325 OBP / .367 SLG / .692 OPS averaging 4.1 runs per game

June 11th to August 2nd (Santana on team)
Team Record: 22-25

.250 BA / .322 OBP / .401 SLG / .723 OPS averaging 3.9 runs per game

August 3rd to Now (After Injury)
Team Record: 18-30

.244 BA / .312 OBP / .358 SLG / .670 OPS averaging 3.7 runs per game

Certainly other factors and situations with particular players affect those batting lines and (more specifically) the runs per game that exist independent of Santana’s presence, but the Indians’ offense was not evoking memories of the 1995 lineup with Santana in it, his presence simply made it more palatable and exciting to watch.

That being said, while it is true that the Indians were 22-25 with Santana on the team and 41-66 without him on the squad, the overall offensive numbers show that the return of Carlos Santana is not a panacea for this offense and that the Indians need to count on more than Santana to escape their current offensive doldrums if they hope to be a productive offense in 2011 and beyond.

Don’t get me wrong, certainly Santana’s return will help, but looking at Santana and the other players that have been missing – and more importantly, the players that have replaced them in the lineup – starts to shed some light on how this Indians’ offense (which actually looked to be a strength of the team in Goodyear) came to the current state. Just to use Sizemore, Santana, and Cabrera as examples, here is how their replacements fared in 2010, putting their performance into the proper context:
.255 BA / .308 OBP / .341 SLG / .648 OPS in 446 PA
There are 182 players in MLB with more than 425 PA.
Among them, Crazy Eyes ranks 170th in OPS, 158th in OBP, and 168th in SLG.

.197 BA / .273 OBP / .291 SLG / .564 OPS in 284 PA
There are 279 players in MLB with more than 275 PA.
Among them, Tofu Lou ranks 275th in OPS, 274th in OBP, and 274th in SLG.

.181 BA / .268 OBP / .246 SLG / .514 OPS in 282 PA
Again, there are 279 players in MLB with more than 275 PA.
Among them, Louie the Fifth ranks second to last in OPS, 275th in OBP, and dead last in SLG.

Maybe you want to use Brantley as the replacement for Sizemore (and, trust me, you really don’t if you want to feel better about this team, given that Mike Brantley ranks 271st in that list of 279 MLB players with more than 275 PA) or think that Donald was the replacement for Cabrera (which isn’t really true as Valbuena stuck around because of Cabrera’s injury and was about to be replaced by Donald when Cabrera was hurt), but you start to see the point here. Essentially, when the team went to the Junior Varsity (or, in the cases of Marson and Valbuena, who both were the Opening Day Starters, the de facto “Varsity”), the Indians dipped into what can currently be seen as the shallow end of the talent pool.

That’s not to say that these players have no value (except for Crowe, who is indisputably without value) as Marson is a solid back-up C at the very least who is still 23 and could be mature into a defense-first starting backstop in the league and Valbuena…well, he hits RHP very well (.891 OPS vs. RHP, .446 OPS vs. LHP), but it gets to that idea that everything needs to go right for the Tribe, regardless of whether we’re talking about a year that they think that they contend or not, and when they start trotting out Plan B (much less Plan C or D) on the field, bad things are going to happen.

What is interesting is that there seems to be this pervasive idea (admittedly put forth here) that the Indians’ offense is fine and that it lines up very nicely for the future with Santana, LaPorta, Donald/Kipnis, Cabrera, The Chiz, Choo, Brantley, and Sizemore figuring in as the presumed lineup that will take shape over the course of the next year or so. However, the fact remains that while that list looks good on paper, those players need to reach the potential that’s become expected of them and they need to remain healthy or else this team devolves very quickly into the Trevor Crowe crowd.

As a quick aside on Crowe, did everyone see this from Terry Pluto this morning:
After Shin-Soo Choo, what Indian has the most at-bats? It’s Trevor Crowe, who entered the weekend hitting .256 (.651 OPS) with 2 HR and 31 RBI in 406 at-bats. He also leads the team by hitting into 13 double plays. He’s had the opportunity to establish himself as a possible regular, but he’s shown to be a backup -- especially at the age of 26.

Since Pluto stops short of saying it, inferring that Crowe is better off as a “backup”, I’ll take that next step and point out that a 26-year-old OF with a .651 OPS who has no instincts in the field and seems to be generally more concerned about HOW he looks while making a play than he is about, you know, MAKING the play shouldn’t be a viable MLB player for the Indians, affordability or not. The hope is that 2010 represented the first and perhaps last shot for players like Crowe and their ilk, where an opportunity was extended to them (despite a Minor League track record that did not justify it) and the player turned out to be the marginal MLB player who should not be counted upon to hold a spot on the 25-man roster (and probably the 40-man roster) going forward.

Back to that presumed lineup, don’t take this a cup full of mud on your cereal (as I do remain optimistic about nearly all of that “presumed” lineup), but as much as the pitching gets the teeth-gnashing and the wringing of hands, this team needs the offense that looked to be “lined up” to start producing and to improve nearly across the board. While certain bright spots may exist, there are more players that need to make that adjustment to MLB and make it in short order to make this offense viable for next year.

Unfortunately that “presumed” lineup for 2011 consists nearly completely of players that are coming off of injury (Santana, Sizemore), players coming off of disappointing years perhaps exacerbated by injury (LaPorta and Cabrera), players that are either still adjusting to MLB (Brantley and Donald), players that have barely made it to AAA (Kipnis and The Chiz), a part-time DH (Hafner), and the one bright spot – Choo.

That doesn’t take into account the idea that 3B is still a hole and that those players that are “still adjusting to MLB” are likely to do so into next year. To go further on that, and I don’t mean to continually be the bearer of bad news, Mike Brantley’s numbers since he was most recently called up to play in the everyday lineup are .283 BA / .317 OBP / .358 SLG / .675 OPS and while the SLG is not a surprise, let’s hold off on extolling Brantley’s “readiness” to be a lead-off hitter based on those 39 games (19-game hitting streak or not, because his OBP was .309 during the streak) and see if he’s able to improve that .317 OBP which, I might point out, is lower than the OBP mark put up by Jason Michaels in both 2006 and 2007.

Back to the injury front, the issue that seems to still exist is something that Kahrl addresses in the aforementioned “Kiss ‘Em Goodbye” piece when she indicates this as “What Won’t Happen Again”:
Injuries, or so you’d have to hope. The Tribe was below average offensively at eight of nine lineup slots, and while prospects like Santana, LaPorta, and Brantley should get established enough to help reverse that next year, they desperately need Sizemore to revert to the form that made him one of the game’s rising stars.

Given the uncertain nature of how Sizemore and Santana will recover from their injuries (and you would assume that Cabrera and LaPorta, assuming his injuries are lingering, would be fully healthy), the issue with recovery time and expectations now starts to affect how the Indians approach the off-season.

That is to say, if Sizemore’s recovery is going to extend into the 2011 season (and I’ve seen no indication that it is supposed to, just figuring that these are, after all, injuries to Indians…which have a history of “lingering”), do they look for a LF who could be playing every day for ½ of the season so they don’t have to leave it up to the likes of Trevor Crowe to start the 2011 season?

Additionally, how aggressive do the Indians get with finding a RH bat to augment Hafner at DH and should they be looking for a guy who can share time at 1B (because of LaPorta’s hip) or LF (because of Sizemore’s knee) or C (because of Santana’s leg) or are they confident enough in the recovery of all three to simply let it ride with those internal options and, frankly, hope for the best?

If the approach is the former, the likes of Mike Napoli jump out as a backup catcher/part-time 1B/RH partner for Hafner, but even mentioning names feels premature given the uncertain nature over the recoveries to those injured players.

Whether “injuries, injuries, and more injuries” are truly to blame for the Indians’ offensive struggles for 2010, the idea that “recoveries from injury, recoveries from ineffectiveness, and recoveries from inconsistency” are on the docket for 2011 in the Indians’ lineup. If they are not, the 2011 lineup (which looked to be moderately “set” going forward) may start to resemble the squad that’s been on display for much of this year, full of placeholders, non-prospects, and young players struggling (as usual, given that they are Indians) in their first exposure to MLB.

A widespread “recovery” is needed for the Indians’ offense to cement a turnaround for 2011 and while the names and the pedigrees may elicit confidence for the future, the performances and injures sustained by some of those names in 2010 have done little to project that the offensive trouble that’s been on display all year at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario is going to be remedied any time soon.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Diff

On a day in which the Twins’ “hungover” lineup (a day game after clinching the Central) can best the Indians…well, would you say “C” lineup for Chris Gimenez or “D” lineup for Drew Sutton and just a few days removed from the whole “the Tribe just needs to win one more game to avoid 100 losses” thing, the Indians’ season has officially bottomed out as even the most ardent fans are struggling to feign interest in playing out the string this year. Thus, while all of us would like to spend the day reveling in the triumphant return of “Fire Joe Morgan” to the Interwebs (for a day…and this is the funniest thing that you will read today), the sweep of the Indians at the hands of the Twins over the last couple of days has forced some serious reflection.

This is not “new” news, but the Twins captured their 6th AL Central crown in the past 9 years and while that was not an unexpected outcome in the Spring, how about the manner in which this 2010 Twins’ team overcame a mountain of adversity to get to this point?

The day after they clinched the Central, Craig Calcaterra summed up that “mountain of adversity” thusly:
The Twins lost their All-Star closer to Tommy John surgery in March. They lost their MVP candidate first baseman to a concussion in July. Their reigning MVP catcher’s OPS is down 150 points from a year ago. Going in and along the way there was much reason to doubt. In the end they become the first team to clinch.

Success was predicted for the Twins prior to the season, but if someone would have said that Nathan would have missed the year, Morneau would have been out since the All-Star Break and that Joe Mauer would have 9 HR with a week left in the season, where would you have placed the Twins’ chances to contend, much less clinch, even in a weak AL Central.

This is not meant to heap praise on the Twins (as the assembled Cleveland announcers and press corps has done enough of that to make me want me stick my finger down my throat) nor is it meant to proclaim that the Twins have figured out how to compete in an unbalanced marketplace, considering that they’ve won a total of two playoff games in four trips since 2003. Rather, it’s meant to put into perspective how the Twins have somehow persevered and succeeded, even with lofty expectations, when everything seemed to go against them, something that the Indians in recent memory (notably 2008) were unable to accomplish.

You remember that, right?
WAY back in 2008, when the popular WS Champion pick, YOUR Cleveland Indians were deep-sixed by injuries to Martinez and Hafner as Carmona completely fell apart and every single bullpen arm (notably Betancourt and Perez) worsened while CC counted the days until Free Agency.

Compare what the Twins are doing this season to what that 2008 Indians’ team did…and don’t you dare say that the Indians were “broken up” too soon that year because that notion is revisionist history at its very worst.

What is most intriguing about the Twins this year is how they got to this point and how, despite monumental mistakes in terms of player trades and letting players simply walk away, they have never failed at putting complementary pieces around their “core” group of players and the Twins just keep rolling on.

To look at the Twins’ offense this year, figuring that Morneau has been out since July and Mauer has been significantly less effective, consider the OPS+ numbers for what you would have to consider the the complementary Twins offensive players:
Delmon Young – 116 OPS+
Michael Cuddyer – 102 OPS+
Jason Kubel – 102 OPS +
JJ Hardy – 93 OPS+
Orlando Hudson – 93 OPS+
Denard Span – 86 OPS+

Nothing too impressive there (though I know that I’m omitting Thome), but even Delmon Young, with his “breakout season”, is sitting on that OPS+ of 116 after posting a cumulative OPS+ of 96 in his first two years as a Twin while the main player he was traded for (Matt Garza) has a 3.89 ERA (109 ERA+) in his first three years as a Ray. Even the auxiliary player dealt for Young (Jason Bartlett) had outperformed Young in his first two years (Bartlett's OPS+ for 2008 and 2009 was 109) as a Ray, so the Twins traded a front-to-middle-of-the-rotation starter and a serviceable middle infielder for a player whose “breakout” year involves 18 HR…and yet the Twins just keep rolling on.

Just to use the Young deal as an introduction here, it stands to reason that there is no “perfect” organization (and I’ll have you notice here that the Rays are about to slash payroll significantly in 2011, regardless of what happens in the playoffs), and the the Twins are by no means a “perfect” organization. To wit, the three players they acquired for Johan Santana (the winter before CC was dealt) that have played in MLB have all found their way out of Minnesota. Carlos Gomez was dealt to Milwaukee for JJ Hardy and Kevin Mulvey was the PTBNL last August when the Twins acquired Jon Rauch, meaning that the Twins have Hardy and Rauch to show for Santana not quite two years after making the deal. Beyond that, the team let Torii Hunter walk after the 2007 season, meaning that they had no return to show for him, outside of draft picks.

You wouldn’t know that from where the Twins have finished in the standings however because (and I don’t mean this to turn into a love-fest or admiration from afar of the Twins…I really don’t), but the Twins have soldiered on through the losses of Santana and Hunter (with little to nothing to show for them), the injury and long road back for Liriano and just this year have made it through Nathan’s injury, Morneau being gone for the last two months and the player that they just signed to an 8-year, $184M deal falling back to his career numbers after what could have possibly been an all-too-perfectly time career year.

As a quick aside on that “player that they just signed to an 8-year, $184M deal”, check this:
Mauer’s first 4 full years
.318 BA / .408 OBP / .451 SLG / .852 OPS with an average of 12 HR per 162 games

Mauer 2009
.365 BA / .444 OBP / .587 SLG / 1.031 OPS with 28 HR in 138 games

Mauer 2010
.331 BA / .407 OBP / .473 SLG / .880 OPS with 9 HR in 133 games

That’s not to discount Mauer as a player or his value behind the plate, but he is now 27 years old with his recent deal keeping him under contract for $23M per year through the 2018 season, at which point he will be 35 years old. While I’ll stop short of intimating any kind of Pronkian future (as we are talking about the Twins, who simply overcome adversity and the Indians, who are overcome by adversity)...they, um, they might that want that one back eventually.

But I digress and to get back to the matter at hand, the manner in which the Twins have been constructed is to rely on their middle-of-the-order presences (Mauer and Morneau) and generally complementary pieces around them to pester the opposition into defeat while generally average starting pitchers give way to a consistently outstanding lockdown bullpen, which has always been anchored by Nathan.

All of which makes this year so intriguing as the Twins have won without Mauer at full strength and simply without Nathan and Morneau for half the season. While it is true that Liriano has finally re-emerged as the pitcher that everyone was hoping that he would one day be once more, that maturation is not all that different from the roller coaster ride that has been the renaissance of Fausto Carmona. Liriano has unquestionably been much better than Carmona, but the rotation past him is a reclamation project that the Tribe pulled off the trash heap last year and a pitcher in Brian Duensing who started the year in the bullpen. Just as amazing is the fact that the bullpen consists of six (SIX!) relievers that have appeared in 40 or more games, all of whom have an ERA+ of 124 or better. Throw in the fact that a seventh (Matt Capps) was acquired mid-season and has posted a 193 ERA+ in 24 games and it becomes amazing as to how the Twins find these guys to plug in and…say it with me, just keep rolling on.

Going further, the amazing aspect of the Twins’ success this year is where those “guys” are coming from and where that production is coming from, and (just to keep this in the proper context and mildly related to the Indians) here are the Twins’ players listed by WAR (Wins Above Replacement), listing only those who have compiled a WAR above 1.5, and how each player was acquired by Minnesota:
Twins 2010
Mauer: 5.3 – Amateur Draft
Pavano: 4.8 – Free Agency
Liriano: 4.8 – Trade
Morneau: 4.0 – Amateur Draft
Duensing: 3.8 – Amateur Draft
Thome: 3.0 – Free Agency
Slowey: 2.1 – Amateur Draft
Baker: 2.1 – Amateur Draft
Valencia: 2.0 – Amateur Draft
Crain: 1.6 – Amateur Draft
Hudson: 1.5 – Free Agency

Notice a trend there, even among those “complementary pieces” that fill out the rotation and the bullpen?
You’ll notice that Cuddyer, Kubel, and Span (all also acquired the Amateur Draft) are not listed because…well, because they’re not having good years and if you’re wondering how much those three FA cost the Twins this year, that number is $13.5M, with all three players working on one-year deals and with Pavano earning the lion’s share of that money with his $7M salary.

For some (sickening) perspective, here are the Indians’ players listed by WAR (Wins Above Replacement), listing only those who have compiled a WAR above 1.5, and how each player was acquired by Cleveland:
Indians 2010
Choo: 6.4 – Trade
C. Perez: 2.6 - Trade
Santana: 2.2 – Trade
Carmona: 2.1 – Amateur Free Agency
Hafner: 2.0 – Trade
Peralta: 1.9 – Amateur Draft
Branyan: 1.6 – Free Agency

Outside of the alarming notion that there are only 7 players on this list (compared to 11 for the Twins), only 4 of the Tribe contributors are currently playing for the Tribe…but, really that’s an ancillary point. The main point lies in the idea that the Twins have somehow mastered the art of finding and developing complementary pieces that do their job and the players that they develop are kept around while they are useful (and if you’ve never noticed, the bullpen just plugs in new pieces and parts with somebody making an incredibly fortuitous decision as to when to hold onto a particular player or let one go), they are also cheap and under club control because they’ve been drafted and developed by the club.

Perhaps if the Indians of the past few years had those complementary pieces to plug in, the lifeline of the Tribe may have taken a different path, but that’s a topic that’s been beaten to death, exhumed, and given the ol’ “once over” again…

Maybe Gardenhire does have something to do with all of this (and Posnanski never hesitates to posit that opinion), but what the Twins have done is not live from one “window of contention” to the next as most other small-market teams have done. They’ve drafted well, were the beneficiaries of incredibly fortunate to draft Joe Mauer with the #1 overall pick, and added pieces and parts to what looks to be a machine capable of finding spare parts to replace what looked to be irreplaceable parts.

Whether any of the good fortune and amazing perseverance that the Twins have shown this year will translate to the playoffs (and it should be pointed out that the Twins are 46-20 against the AL Central and 38-30 against the rest of the AL this year and were 46-27 against the AL Central and 29-43 against the rest of the AL last year) remains to be seen as the Twins represent the small-market model by which a team strives to contend year with the idea that “anything can happen in the playoffs” not quite bearing fruit for them.

Meanwhile in Cleveland, the strategy seems to fall more in line with the idea to load it all up for one run, with the idea that the team will be built to succeed not only in the postseason, but to line up with the superpowers of the AL and stare them in the eye.

Ultimately, the Indians have won more playoff series (one) than the Twins in the past eight years, despite making it to the playoffs only once to the Twins’ four trips, with Minnesota’s fifth trip coming the next few weeks. While neither teams’ “strategy” has resulted in the achievement of the ultimate goal, watching the Indians and Twins (the teams, not the strategies) face off on the field this week, there should be no question as to which most fans would prefer.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

A Lazy Sunday with “The Keys”

On a morning when most red-meat eating sports fans that populate the North Coast are down near the lakefront eating…well, red-meat and quaffing away at something that will sufficiently lubricate them by 1:00 PM, Indians’ fans (all couple hundred of us these days) are left to dissect an Indians-Royals series with the cellar in the AL Central on the line.

Despite some interminable rain delays, the Indians have taken the first two from the Royals as their climb out of last place has reached the 62-win “plateau”. Of course, that means that the Indians need to win only one more game in their final 14 to be assured of avoiding a 100-loss season and (while anything is possible with the current Indians’ team) it would seem that the Indians will finish the year with a loss total somewhere in the low-to-mid-90’s.

Nevertheless, those 14 games remain and while most eyes are fixed on the Orange and Brown and/or the Scarlett and Gray, the Indians’ season…say it with me…rolls on in earnest and as long as it does and it is Sunday, we’ll keep the white sphere rolling with another Lazy one.

And with that, we’re off…
Starting from the top, whenever Anthony Castrovice has broken open the mailbag and is working the Inbox, that’s where we’re going to get started and, as usual, AC doesn’t disappoint. As a quick aside, is it wild to anyone else that Castrovince’s “Inbox” is must-read material while the “Letters” to the other beat writers are simply fodder for humor and satire because of the (borrowing a phrase here) anachronistic nature of some of the other beat writers?

Regardless, let’s all enjoy AC and the Inbox before he moves onto bigger and better things as a sports journalist, which is inevitable and deservedly so. Back to the matter at hand, the lead topic for the “Inbox” is one Matt MaTola and what can be gleaned from his 2010 season and how it relates to his future potential:
… the Indians don’t like to judge a player on his first 500 at-bats, and LaPorta will have every opportunity to show improvement next season. He has shown the raw power to hit -- and even mis-hit -- balls out of the ballpark. But his general inconsistency has clearly demonstrated his immaturity as a Major League hitter. He’s been accused of being pull-happy.

Whether LaPorta’s inconsistency is derived from a lack of focus, lingering issues with the left hip or the simple acclimation process many young hitters go through at this level is a question I can’t answer. All I know is the Indians have to hope for more from LaPorta next season, or the CC swap will receive even more scrutiny than it has already.

This is the LaPorta conundrum in a nutshell as he’s been wildly inconsistent and prone to “Peraltan” (and this should find a place in the Indians’ dictionary, along with the already-minted “Sowersian”) periods of ineffectiveness at the plate, looking bad on swings-and-misses and showing none of the power that was purported to be MLB-read a solid 2 ½ years ago. Among his hits (and there haven’t been many this year), only 6.5% of them have gone for extra bases and if you want some context on that, 6.3% of Tofu Lou Marson’s hits have gone for extra bases and 6.1% of the hits by Trevor Crowe (who should not be counted on to be much more than an easy DFA decision going forward) this season have gone for extra bases.
No, seriously…

The addendum to that is that MaTola is not far off from his 26th birthday and his season compares not too favorably with an older former top prospect that is likely seeing his last couple of weeks in an Indians uniform:
Marte – 2010 (Age 26)
.212 BA / .288 OBP / .363 SLG / .651 OPS in 163 PA
LaPorta – 2010 (Age 25)
.220 BA / .304 OBP / .361 SLG / .665 OPS in 385 PA

While I’m not going to enter the realm of calling LaPorta a “bust” at this stage in his young career, he certainly has firmed up his spot on the “disappointment” side of the ledger for 2010. Of course, there remains the possibility that his hip issues have robbed him of some of his power or have forced him into some bad habits at the plate, and if that is indeed the case, the Indians better hope that LaPorta heals quickly and can translate his AAA success to MLB in short order for next year. Going further on this, Jon Steiner has a great piece on LaPorta at WFNY, in which he paints the situation pretty accurately:
In 579 big league plate appearances (about a full season), LaPorta has a .232/.306/.384 line. Those are numbers you might tolerate from a slick-fielding SS who saves runs with his glove, but not from a lumbering first baseman with little-to-no defensive value. In short, LaPorta must adjust next season, or his big league career could be in serious jeopardy.

MaTola has shown power in the Minor Leagues, but this year his numbers have paled in comparison to even what “place-holder” Ryan Garko did in his final full year as an Indian (.273 BA / .346 OBP / .404 SLG / .750 OPS…as a 27-year-old, by the by) and if LaPorta was seen as an upgrade over the likes of Garko and Jordan Brown (whose slap-hitting tendencies simply aren’t suited to translate for a LF/1B/DH in MLB), well…that “upgrade” isn’t too evident these days.

Certainly, the pedigree is still there for LaPorta as a top pick/former top prospect who has mashed in MiLB, but his importance to the future success of this team (in the short and long-term) cannot be underestimated as a RH bat (and supposedly a power RH bat) to this lineup going forward. To that end, let’s think about what the 2011 lineup figures to look like, and I’m listing these players in order of how much confidence I have in them in 2011 and not as a proposed 2011 batting order:
Choo – Left
Santana – Switch
Hafner – Left
Cabrera – Switch
Sizemore – Left
Brantley – Left
…you picking this up yet?
LaPorta – Right
Donald – Right
Fill in the 3B – Probably Right

Sure, Santana is a switch-hitter, but everyone knows that he posted an OPS of 1.002 as a LH hitter and a .582 as a RH hitter this year, right? By no means am I saying that this will be par for the course for Santana (MiLB OPS as a LH hitter of .879 and a MiLB OPS as a RH hitter of .960), but the team is otherwise completely devoid of RH power (and Weglarz and The Chiz are both…wait for it…LEFT-HANDED), unless LaPorta is able to step into that void…something he needs to do in short order.

The LaPorta “issue” is emblematic of the MAJOR issues facing the Indians going forward as Vince Grzegorek absolutely nails (in a “Dear John” letter saying goodbye to the Indians’ season for Yahoo! in a piece that you must read) when Vince captures the importance of the recently-acquired prospects in the grand scheme of things as to how the Indians find themselves where they are and where they’re going:
We get it. You had to trade Lee, Martinez, and Sabathia. You couldn’t afford to sign them. Economic landscape of baseball... blah blah blah. We get it. (It’s here that I’d add you didn't have to fork over $57 million over four years to Travis Hafner, but whatever.)
Really, we get it though — small market team, narrow window, gotta trade and draft well, build through the minors, everyone has to stay healthy. This year wasn’t unexpected. We knew you would be bad. But...
... well, it’s almost time for those prospects and acquisitions to come through. Probably not next year, but definitely the year after. You had to unload your gaudy soon-to-be free agents but you had better show us something in return. Brantley, Santana, LaPorta, Carrasco and others need to play and produce and not turn into Trevor Crowe or Marte or Jeremy SowersPart II.

Admittedly, that last line was bolded by me for emphasis and I will say again to please click on the piece as Vince does completely nail the tenor of the season and avoids the easy cheap shots at the organization that so many of those that write about the team are so quick to simply fall back on, putting together an accurate assessment and recap of the nightmarish season that still hasn’t ended.

Again, what stands out is the realization that “Brantley, Santana, LaPorta and others need to play and produce” will ultimately determine how quickly/slowly this “Reload/Rebuild/Whatever” starts to bear fruit or dies on the vine, with the future of the Indians perhaps at stake.

Among all of the players that have been acquired over the past two years, the two most important pieces are the aforementioned LaPorta and Carlos Carrasco, mainly because the complementary pieces acquired via trade are nice (and don’t mistake that for me calling Santana or CF Perez just “complementary pieces”), but the middle-of-the-order hitter and the front-end-of-the-rotation starter are what you’re looking for when you’re trading reigning Cy Young Award winners.

As much as Jason Knapp is claimed as the “key” to the Lee deal, Carrasco’s importance to the return to contention for the Indians is much more critical and his recent success hopefully serves as a harbinger of things to come, as Terry Pluto writes, “at 23 with a 93 mph fastball, excellent control and a sharp slider he can throw at any point in the count, he seems ready to take a prominent spot in next season’s rotation.”

For the sake of the Indians and their short-and-long-term future, they had better hope so (and here’s where I drop in the fact that the collective numbers for Carmona, Carrasco, and Masterson in the month of September are a cumulative 1.72 ERA, a cumulative 0.97 WHIP, and 56 K against 16 BB in 68 innings over 10 games), and if what a scout tells B-Pro’s John Perrotto on Carlos Carrasco is true, the Indians may have a young pitcher who has turned the first proverbial corner towards effectiveness:
Indians right-hander Carlos Carrasco: “He looks a lot more confident than he did when he was up in the big leagues last September. He throws 93 mph but the big difference is that he’s throwing his curveball and changeup for strikes now. If he can keep doing that, he’s going to be a very effective starter for a long time.”

While the “going to be a very effective starter for a long time” line conveys a bit of a dismissive view of him, (and I don’t know how many times this has to be repeated, but I’ll keep repeating it) he’s 23 years old and if he’s progressed to this point and the Indians control him for 6 years as a “very effective starter”, some optimism does return in terms of Carrasco’s future, something that didn’t exist at this time last year.

The 2010 Indians find themselves in the bed that they’ve made and while the “analysts” at FanGraphs fall all over themselves over Kyle Drabek’s debut (in a piece that is interesting to note in that it mentions that Drabek really doesn’t have an effective change-up yet) and the Phillies’ return for Lee has amounted to the “key” to the trade being demoted from AA to Single-A, another player being arrested on cocaine possession, and the third player (a pitcher no less) having hip surgery after posting a 4.82 cumulative ERA as a 21-year-old in A+/AA, there’s no question that the returns for CC and Lee are going to determine where this team goes from here.

Chief among players that are going to determine the short-and-long-term future of this team are LaPorta and Carrasco and, while that may scare the pants off of you, those two players are going to be given every opportunity to justify their inclusion in those trades and the prospect pedigree that led them to be ostensibly the main players acquired for the two biggest trading chips in the breakdown of the Indians’ team of the mid-to-late-2000s.

If LaPorta turns into a middle-of-the-order presence from the right side of the plate, things get a lot easier for the Tribe going forward, just as the future of the rotation looks much brighter if Carrasco’s brief stint with the Indians this year is a glimpse as to what’s coming and isn’t remembered as simply being a tease.

That may be stating the obvious, but it cannot be stated forcefully enough that those two players are the key players for the success (or, let’s be honest…for the failure) of the Indians over the next 3 to 5 years as we’ve seen that the pipeline was essentially dry and covered in cobwebs when both were added to the organization and their presence as “ready” or “near-ready” contributors to the middle-of-the-order or the front-to-middle-of-the-rotation will go a long way in determining what the Indians’ 2011 and 2012 season looks like and whether the Indians truly are stuck in a vortex that will continue to drag them down or if the seeds of success have already been sown and simply need time to germinate and bloom.

While optimism can be gleaned from the recent performance of Carrasco, the same cannot be said for that of LaPorta (who, as Rick Manning said, “did what you’re supposed to do” to a fastball down the middle last night) and the importance of BOTH of those players to turn into more than “mistakes” or “miscalculations” on the part of the Indians will ultimately determine whether better days are on the horizon because it’s always darkest before dawn or if the Indians are on the precipice of an extended period of darkness.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Falling Tomahawks

While the calendar tells us that it is not yet Fall, that Autumn feel is pervasive in Cleveland and I, for one, couldn’t be happier about it. Give me the 2 months between Labor Day and Halloween every year to remember why I love the North Coast – flush with clambakes and weekend days filled with something simmering on the stove (chili, pasta sauce, brisket) all day, some Oktoberfest in hand from GLBC (cider from Patterson’s Fruit Farm for the kids), with the promise of a Pumpkin Roll from Heinen’s for dessert and you can count me as one happy camper.

There is no better feeling than simply throwing on a sweatshirt/sweater and a pair of jeans and enjoying the best time of the year in Cleveland, with another layer of clothing being thrown on at night to accompany some friends around a fire pit. With the Indians’ season listing to a finish, the Browns’ season spiking itself in the starting blocks, the Cavs’ pending season perhaps evoking memories of Wes Person and LaMond Murray, and the local government officials providing more embarrassment to a region in need of no more, Fall in Cleveland is a reminder as to why we brave the brutal winters, soldier through the losing sports seasons, and hope for better days ahead...when a sports championship trophy is showcased on a finally-and-fully-developed lakefront.

Sorry, that’s the Oktoberfest talking...
Nevertheless, let’s get some Tomahawks in the air before the leaves start falling and force us to remember the by-product of these beautiful Autumns – raking and more yard work.
Let ‘em fly...

In a season that has been short on bright spots (Santana’s debut, CF Perez’s recent dominance, the return of ¡Fausto!, the consistency of Choo, and the return to “effectiveness” for Hafner), a shining light shone out from the corner of Carnegie and Ontario this weekend.

That “shining light” came in the performances of Carmona, Carrasco, Masterson against the Twins as the trio (yes…Talbot “started” the Sunday game, but Masterson ostensibly served as the “starter”) put forth these performances against the playoff-bound Twinkies:
Carmona – 9 IP, 0 ER, 3 H, 7 K, 1 BB
Carrasco – 7 1/3 IP, 0 ER, 5 H, 4 K, 3 BB
Masterson – 7 IP, 1 ER, 5 H, 6 K, 0 BB

While a weekend is just a weekend is just a weekend and not too much should be gleaned from 3 games among 162, that’s a cumulative 0.38 ERA, 0.73 WHIP with 17 K and 4 BB in 23 1/3 IP for the three pitchers who obviously figure into the 2011 rotation. Most encouraging about the starts are the manner in which each player succeeded – limiting baserunners (and, most notably, walks) and missing bats – en route to limiting the team with the 5th highest OPS in MLB and the 6th most runs in MLB on the season to a lost weekend at the least against those three starters.

Obviously, the Indians lost 2 of 3 to the Twins, but if we’re looking at performances of individual players and not just tallies in the win-loss column, the performances of Carmona, Carrasco, and Masterson begin to provide some optimism (and perhaps confidence) that the Indians DO, in fact, have some internal rotation options that project to be more than just middle-to-back-end-of-the-rotation fodder.

To that end, here’s what a scout told Baseball Prospectus’ John Perrotto on Fausto Carmona, his conditioning, and his repertoire:
“You can tell he has started taking the game seriously again this year. He lost weight and got the bite back on that hard sinker. He’s also greatly improved his changeup. He doesn’t strike out as many as you’d think for a guy who throws hard but he compensates by getting lots and lots of ground balls.”

With the “taking the game seriously again this year” line, I can’t tell if I’m happy to read that or sad, given what we know about how 2008 and 2009 and how the SEVERE regression of Carmona from 2007 was a major contributing factor in where the Indians sit today.

Regardless, getting the “bite back on that hard sinker” and improving his changeup portends that better days may indeed be ahead for Carmona (signed on club options through 2014), although the idea that he had allowed his weight get away from him, affecting his performance and the direction of the franchise as a result, make this evaluation more bitter than sweet.

If you notice what the Indians’ 2011 rotation looks like (Carmona, Carrasco, Masterson, Talbot, Gomez, Tomlin), it looks decidedly RH and, unless you see a turnaround for Dave Huff in terms of organizational standing and don’t think that Aaron Laffey is destined for the bullpen (I don’t and he is), the Indians are largely bereft of LH options for the rotation for 2011 and probably for 2012.

While the handedness of the 2011 rotation may not really matter, in terms of whether the team is legitimately looking to contend in 2011 or just attempting to get a better read on pitchers like Gomez and Tomlin, while perhaps getting a look at Alex White (also RH), given that the Indians are likely to explore the open market for a veteran pitcher, should they be looking to target a LH one?

With the unfortunate exception of Jason Johnson, the Indians have built a decent track record in terms of adding and utilizing veteran pitchers when they are relatively cheap (and Millwood really wasn’t cheap when he was a “reclamation project” making $7M) or when they are looking to resurrect their career (as in the case of Hot Carl Pavano, although his success came a year after he was an Indian) and have signed them generally to harmless one-year deals in the hopes that they will either exceed expectations or buy the organization developmental time in terms of their young pitchers.

All of that being said, back to the idea that the Indians could be looking to add a veteran LHP, what would be out there in terms of options?
Given that CP Lee probably isn’t making a valiant return to Cleveland to doff his cap again for the home faithful, the types of players that likely fit into the Indians’ “needs” (in terms of expected years and dollars) are either going to come via the second tier of FA or perhaps from a group of players who could be non-tendered by their current clubs.

On the Free Agent front (and here’s the whole list of FA), as much as I’d love to say to go out and get Ted Lilly (cumulative ERA of the last 4 years of 3.60, ERA+ of 116), he is going to likely command a multi-year deal at a high annual salary, two factors the Indians probably aren’t going to be interested in at this stage in the “Reload/Rebuild/Whatever”. Beyond that, if the Indians are looking for an innings-eater and preferably one who would be LH, one option may be Bruce Chen. I know...I know...BRUCE CHEN!?! Is that what we’ve come to?

Well, perhaps – and don’t forget that I still think that the Indians’ first option is probably Westbrook, and seeing as how Jake’s another RHP, this is designed to look at LHP options – but let’s remember that Chen is still only 33 and while his ERA (4.67) and his FIP (4.58, which is a career low) aren’t going to win many beauty contests, he would provide the Indians some LH depth in their rotation.

Would he be a better option than just letting Gomez or Tomlin get a long leash?
Probably not, but if you’re looking for LH rotation options that legitimately could be on the Indians’ radar, Chen is at least a step up from other FA like Doug Davis, he of ERA of 53+ with a WHIP of 1.98 in Milwaukee this year.

On the non-tender front, perhaps the Indians look at guys like Zack Duke, Ryan Rowland-Smith, or even John Lannan, which is an interesting name because of the connection with the Nationals, although none of those guys look like anything more than shots in the dark or picking through another team’s detritus.

If anything, maybe that little trip through what might be available on the FA market and sorting through some non-tender candidates is the idea that the Indians shouldn’t be worrying about handedness and more concerned about getting a viable veteran option to plug into the rotation.

While Westbrook is the most obvious candidate of a veteran innings-eater, guys like Hiroki Kuroda, Aaron Harang, Vincente Padilla would be the guys that you could look at on the high end with the likes of Rodrigo Lopez, Freddy Garcia, Dave Bush, and Jeremy Bonderman falling more in line with the types of arms that can truly be classified as “reclamation projects” if you’re adding an external arm to the 2011 rotational mix. Past that, you’re into damaged goods territory with Brad Penny, Erik Bedard, Ben Sheets, and the like.

Perhaps the Indians have some sort of trade idea up their sleeve, but the pickings are slim in the trough that the Indians figure to feed from this off-season in terms of fattening up next year’s rotation.

If you have a remaining interest as to how the Indians finish the season and how it relates to more than just the AL Central standings, MLB Trade Rumors has a “Reverse Standings” page that shows how the projected 2011 MLB Draft order is stacking up. Go ahead, bookmark it (if anyone still does that) or do whatever you want with it, just don’t ask me who the 4th pick in the 2011 MLB Draft looks like in September of 2010.

Hey, if the NFL Draft is the most exciting thing about the Browns’ season, perhaps the Indians are just capitalizing on the town’s obsession with draft position and what may one day be...

Speaking of the NFL (and this is just slightly off-topic), the beginning of football season always has me feeling like a bit of an outsider as I’m more than happy to watch some Browns’ football (plus the requisite Packers’ game for The DiaBride) on a Sunday and Ohio State games are necessary Saturday activities. However, sitting in the barber shop yesterday listening to two guys break down the Redskins’ offensive line and the Chargers’ secondary made me realize how out of the loop I am in terms of NFL-mania that has undeniably swept across our great nation.

Thankfully, I didn’t feel quite as alone as I normally do when I read this from Craig Calcaterra on the start of the NFL season:
“Being a baseball fan these past several days has been like belonging to some tiny religious sect that worships and exalts austerity at Christmas time. Everyone in America is celebrating the return of their gambling, beer drinking and fantasy sports pretext, and I couldn’t care less.”

So….this and forgive me if I don’t know who Jamaal Charles or Arian Foster is or where they came from, but the fact that makes me feel like somewhat of a lesser American Sports Fan always bothers me this time of year.

That is, of course, until the next Oktoberfest is popped open...

Sunday, September 12, 2010

A Lazy Sunday with Old Friends and Issues

As most of the North Coast tries to find a shipping address for the flower arrangement that they’d like to send to Jacory Harris while wondering whether the Browns can put any kind of pressure on Josh Freeman, the Indians’ season rolls on in earnest…if anonymity, as they attempt to win 5 more games (among their last 20) in the season to avoid the 100-loss mark. If you’re surprised that those are the kinds of “goals” being set for the team…well, you haven’t been paying attention (and perhaps rightfully so) and have focused on wins and losses instead of what really matters down the stretch here – and that would be gaining momentum into 2011.

To that end, if you’ll remember how important Carmona, Masterson, and Carrasco are to the future of the team, here are the recent numbers for each…with the Small Sample Size siren blaring:
Carmona – 0.53 ERA, 0.76 WHIP, .390 OPS against, 13 K, 6 BB in 17 IP over 2 starts
Masterson – 2.95 ERA, 1.34 WHIP, .682 OPS against, 29 K, 20 BB in 42 2/3 IP over 7 starts
Carrasco – 2.18 ERA, 1.11 WHIP, .706 OPS against, 14 K, 6 BB in 20 2/3 IP over 3 starts

That’s obviously cherry-picking (which is easy to do this time of year, but it’s all we have for guys like Carrasco) and nothing new, if you’ll remember the piece from earlier this week (and Terry Pluto hits on it a little bit today), but we know what we’d like to see out of that trio coming down the stretch and, frankly, recently we’ve seen it. None of this is “new” news and what’s been happening on the field for the Tribe is actually going to take a backseat today in light of what’s happening with some former Tribe players whose current contracts (originally signed as Indians) are on the verge of expiring.

And with that (and the promise that I’ll compare the countering opinions Paul Hoynes and Joe Posnanski here in a little bit…in the first time those two names appear in the same sentence), we’re off on a Lazy One…

By “former Tribe players” with current contracts expiring, obviously this is going to be a bit of a glimpse into what’s happening with Victor and Clifton Phifer and, while that topic is akin to taking another couple of swipes at that horse that they’re preparing a grave for, the context of what those two players are looking for in FA and the Indians’ roster with and without those two players is where I’d like to put the focus today.

Particularly relevant is the recent news that the Red Sox put in their initial offer to Martinez, which was only a 2-year deal, something that was obviously met with contempt by Victor’s agent:
With catcher Victor Martinez’ future as a Red Sox up in the air after this season, Martinez’ agent, Alan Nero, acknowledged that the offer the team recently made -- a two-year deal - is not what his client is after.
“More than anything else, when a team comes to you and says we’ll give you a one year deal or a two year deal, they’re not telling you that they see you as a long-term piece of their organization,” Nero said.

This is all posturing by an agent and attempting to negotiate in the arena of public opinion, but it is interesting to note how positional value (that is, where Victor is likely to play) is obviously going to play a role in how many years he’s going to get, something even more pertinent than how much he’ll get in annual salary. To that end, Pete Gammons thinks that the Red Sox brings up that exact topic when commenting on the Victor as a Red Sox topic:
I do think that the whole Victor Martinez may get dragged out dramatically because I know the Red Sox aren’t going to sign him for four years as a catcher. Let’s face it, his worth as a DH is a lot less than what it is as a catcher. I think that’s going to play out to see if someone is willing to give him four years as a catcher.

This, of course, raises salient points about Victor in Cleveland past 2010, which is when his current contract, signed as an Indian, was going to expire. The question with Martinez (be it in Boston or Cleveland) is where he’s going to play and here’s what I wrote just prior to Victor being traded last year:
With emotion removed from the equation, the biggest factor in extending Vic past the 2010 season is position and the players that are currently in the organization that would seem to be jockeying for the C or 1B position that Victor would almost certainly play. This is relevant because, inarguably, the Indians’ 4 best position player prospects playing at AA or above are:
Carlos Santana - AA Catcher
Matt LaPorta - AAA 1B/LF
Mike Brantley - AAA LF/CF
Nick Weglarz - AA LF/1B

Obviously, these names represent prospects and prospects are just that, but the positions that they play may hold the key as to how prudent it is to extend Victor seeing as how all four of these players figure into 2011 plans at the very latest and each impacts a position that Victor could find himself playing.
That being said though, the Indians have to weigh the potential and projectability of these players (taking into account their affordability as young players at the same time) when determining whether committing more years and dollars to Martinez past 2010 is a sound baseball and financial decision.

We all know how this played out...or at least how it is currently playing out as Santana and Brantley have taken steps to asserting themselves into the future mix during this season while LaPorta and Weglarz remain either unsuccessful or unproven at MLB to this point as Martinez will look for a 4-year deal on the open market at a number that will probably come with a $12M to $13M annual price tag. Given that he’s 31 and that Hafner still sits squarely in the DH spot, Victor’s role on the Indians (if he hadn’t been traded) becomes murkier and (as evidenced that I wrote the piece BEFORE he was traded), it wasn’t like that should come as a surprise.

Am I suggesting that the Indians made the right move in moving Victor last year?
Not through my tear-stained Victor jersey I won’ least not definitively, but the Indians acted last July for a variety of reasons to quickly move towards another “window of contention” (and I’m starting to hate that phrase as much as you are) and Victor’s possible role in that is not any clearer now than it was last July.

Who know what Victor will get on the open market and whether he truly wanted to stay in Cleveland (as other past Indians have, then changed their minds when presented with more money), but it is important to contextualize what he’s likely to earn and what position he’s likely to play while he’s earning that money in terms of what the Indians will be doing at the same time.

What’s done is done and Victor and Lee were moved last July and when you start to read about Clifton Phifer, you start to wonder if trading El Capitan became a decision prompted somewhat by what Jason Stark has heard on one Mr. CP Lee:
One baseball man who goes back years with Cliff Lee has zero doubt that no matter how upbeat the Rangers may say they are about re-signing Lee, he will be a Yankee this winter once the free-agent fine print is written.
And why is that, you ask? Not because Lee has always wanted to live on the Upper East Side or because he’s a big fan of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It’s because the Yankees are, obviously, the best bet to outbid the rest of civilization.
“Cliff,” our source said, “would go to Siberia if they offered him the biggest contract.”

This is coming out a full year after Lee was an Indian, but this shouldn’t come as any kind of surprise as the reports that Sabathia and Lee are tight and that Sabathia has been greasing the entry way for Clifton Phifer to the Bronx is no great secret. That being said, if the Indians knew that Lee “would go to Siberia if they offered him the biggest contract” and looked at the assembled “talent” around him last July and saw the likes of Crowe and Brown as the “reinforcements”, the decision to move him becomes defensible.

Who they received is the point of contention for most, and it still remains too early to accurately frame the return, but if Lee was going at the end of 2010 and the Indians were in the “talent” shape that they were in (and that is ABSOLUTELY their own fault), the decision to move Lee sooner rather than later does start to hold up.

As a quick aside here and back to Stark’s piece, why is it that the Indians had the two top pitching guys who wanted the biggest dollar amounts instead of say, Joe Mauer or Roy Oswalt or any other player who wasn’t simply looking to go to whichever team offered (will offer) the biggest contract. I know that it’s well within their right to do so and I’ll never begrudge a player for taking more money when it is available to them, but the way that the trades of Sabathia and Lee get framed locally (if I hear “well, whenever these players get good, Dolan will just trade them like he did everyone else”, well...I don’t know what I’ll do), isn’t it worth noting the proper timeframe of these decisions?

That is, there was no way that Sabathia or Lee was staying here once they had their Cy Youngs in tow, despite all of the lip service that may present a different story. Sabathia said he wanted to stay in Cleveland, then that he said he wanted to stay in Milwaukee, then he wanted to go to the West Coast to be near his family, then he was rumored to favor the NL so he could bat and he ended up…with the Yankees and a HUGE contract, that he can opt out of next year if he so desires, despite the contract running through 2015 with guaranteed money.

Just to take another turn from the aside, I just want to point out that Paul Hoynes has a little “rant” on why “Wins” is the most important stat for a pitcher in determination of the Cy Young (something that would favor CC and his 19 wins) and, while I will let you make your own decision on that, let me just point out that Joe Posnanski wrote a piece comparing CC and Felix Hernandez which included this little gem, “the meaning of pitcher victories mostly can be summed up with one wonderful word: Bubkis.”

I’m not going to further this debate other than linking the two pieces (and JoePos has written extensively on the subject) and asking you which writer’s opinion and analysis you value more and what that means if they stand on opposite sides of the aisle on this one.

But I digress…from my digression…

Back to the matter at hand in terms of the Indians trading Sabathia and, later, Lee and Martinez and wondering whether it was truly is prudent in hindsight, without drawing conclusions on the players received for them because of the lack of a truly fair amount of time to evaluate them.

That is, the Indians could have kept Sabathia through the 2008 season and “gone for it” and kept Lee and Martinez and Lee through this season instead of placing the final sticks of dynamite to the roster last summer as they did. Unfortunately, the conversation goes back to revenue (as it always does) and goes back to the mistakes that the Indians made in terms of the dollars committed outside of these players and the lack of a supporting cast developed by the team.

However, on the issue of revenue, and more specifically revenue sharing, there is a tremendous piece from “It's About the Money” (which, in full disclosure is a Yankees’ blog) on what has been hit on ad nauseum in this space regarding the success and sustainability of the majority of MLB teams. Truthfully, I could link the whole piece and struggled not to quote it forty times in the Lazy One, but it presents a fantastic look at how the Tampa Bay Rays (used as the “Shining Example” of how small-market teams can thrive) were “built” and how Revenue Sharing had little to do with that (a decade of ineptitude and high draft picks were most “helpful”) and calls into question whether other small-market teams can reasonably build through the draft as the Rays have, stating thusly:
For one thing, few teams can afford to play losing baseball as consistently as the Rays did for a ten-year stretch in order to amass the high draft picks that are the heart of the Rays’ current team (the Pirates can and do play this badly, but other teams have occasional runs of competence).
Even given that the Rays were terrible enough for long enough to have high draft picks for many consecutive years, they still got amazingly lucky to have chosen so many good young players in the draft. The Rays’ heavy reliance on the draft (and their apparent lack of interest in signing international players outside of the draft) does not seem like a strategy that’s worthy of emulation.”

The piece goes further to frame the Rays’ ascent in the context of the Revenue Sharing debate, using some of the numbers that are now readily available to assert this about the burgeoning Rays’ roster in 2007 and the team’s bottom line:
If the 2007 Rays are a “shining example” of anything, it is that a baseball team does not need much money to build a winner. All a team needs to emulate the Rays is the kind of consistent on-the-field failure required to amass a series of high draft picks, plus a dose of the kind of luck required to consistently select championship-level players in the draft. If revenue sharing is required at all in this process, it is required in only a modest amount sufficient to prop up the team during the lean period (10 years in the case of the Rays) while the team loses ballgames and alienates a percentage of its potential fan base.

If you’re absolutely engrossed by this stuff and haven’t yet gone to the piece to read it in it’s entirety, I would encourage you to do so, but I’ll keep pulling out some of the relevant snippets and how it relates to the Indians of the 2005-2009 “Era”, if not directly:
In baseball, there’s a rule of thumb for young teams: time is money. The 2007 Rays proved that it doesn’t take much money to assemble a good young team. But the 2008 Rays prove that it can take money to keep a good young team together long enough for the team to start winning.
Unfortunately, the 2008 Rays represent the high point of our discussion of what revenue sharing is able to accomplish. Unfortunately, even when a team like the Rays gets lucky enough to break through and achieve success, revenue sharing does not provide what the team needs to sustain success.

Putting the whole thing in the context of the 2007, 2008, and 2009 Indians, the piece provides a compelling comparative look for the Indians adding payroll every year from 2004 to 2009 and how we’re now seeing what could await “shining examples” like the Rays or the Brewers just a few years from now while the upper echelon of teams rides right along the mountain top, poaching players like CC and Clifton Phifer and Carl Crawford and, eventually, the James Shields and David Prices of the MLB landscape.

The piece comes to the big finish on revenue sharing as it is currently constructed by asserting “how the system punishes success” in that it “pays more to the 2010 Pirates than it does the 2010 Rays” when the “current version of the Rays need revenue sharing more now than ever before” and continues on with the money quote (and again, think of this in the context of the Indians of the past 5 years or so) when it hammers it home:
Instead, we have a system of revenue sharing where billions of dollars have been invested in the potential success of teams like the Rays, but no one has thought about how these teams might sustain this success.

Success stories like the Rays don’t come around all that often (we’ll need another year at least to determine if the Reds and Padres are capable of repeating this year’s surprising performances). The Rays got lucky with their draft picks and built a terrific team. But baseball will do nothing (or at least, not enough) to help that team stay together.

Watching CC go for the Yankees (with Lee about to join him) and Martinez about to hit the open market, how does that last line strike you, in that “baseball will do nothing (or at least, not enough) to help that team stay together” and how does it frame the decisions made by the Indians in the past 2+ years?

The solution for Revenue Sharing is not as easy as Ken Rosenthal saying that “The Pirates and other such teams can start by signing their best homegrown talents instead of trading them the moment their salaries begin to rise” as that represents the “easy” criticism of a team already in the crosshairs. Rather, this “sustainability” idea is the one that needs to be rectified because we’ve found out all too quickly in Cleveland what happens when some of those “best homegrown talents” that were signed become anchors around the neck of a franchise or how the failures of any kind in player development can deep-six a team that seemed to have such a limitless future BECAUSE of player development.

So, it gets back to a fascinating question, which is – what if the Indians DID have the financial werewithal to keep CC, Lee, Westbrook, and Victor as long as they would have liked to?

Talk all you want about whether the Indians were right to make the trades that they did in the last 2+ years, but take a look at the projected 2011 roster (assuming that this still pretty fluid) and how each player was acquired:
C: Santana – 2008 Trade
1B: LaPorta – 2008 Trade
2B: Donald – 2009 Trade
SS: Cabrera – 2006 Trade
3B: Nix – 2010 Waiver Claim (and I’m just taking a guess here)
LF: Sizemore – 2002 Trade
CF: Brantley – 2008 Trade
RF: Choo – 2006 Trade
DH: Hafner – 2002 Trade

SP: Carmona – International Signee
SP: Masterson – 2009 Trade
SP: Carrasco – 2009 Trade
SP: Talbot – 2009 Trade
SP: Gomez/Tomlin/Huff/etc. - International Signee/Drafted
Closer: Perez – 2009 Trade

Maybe they go the FA route with the rotation, but you get the gist of it as the financial reality of MLB and the way that revenue sharing could not help the Indians, coupled with their own financial mistakes (some of which became mistakes because of injury or regression) and miscalculations were too much for this organization to overcome and leave us sitting here hoping that the team can win 5 of their last 20 games to avoid 100 losses while 2007 feels light-years away.

However, when you figure that nearly ALL of the 2011 team will be populated by players acquired in the latest talent swap-out, you can start to see that the Indians didn’t mire in this looming cycle (created both by the organization and MLB) and have already turned that page pretty decisively in the past two years to create the type of “core” that emerged from 2004 to 2007. Whether their decisions bear any success will be determined in the next two years as some of the recent trade acquisitions have been very successful (Prage Perez and The Axe Man, Carlos Santana), with the jury out on others – some leaning positively (Brantley, Masterson and Carrasco…for now, and Donald) and some not so positively (LaPorta and Marson), but the die has been cast for this franchise, as it will be in other small-markets propped up as “shining examples” of how an organization can do things correctly and “beat the system”….just like the Indians were three LONG years ago.