Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Holiday Tomahawks

With Christmas rapidly approaching and the Family Truckster getting packed up soon enough for some Holiday goodness in Wisconsin, since a Lazy Sunday will not be forthcoming this weekend – you know, day after Christmas and all – I thought I’d put some Tomahawks in the air up amongst the snowflakes.
And with that, let ‘em loose...

Starting off with the newest Minor League signing on the Reservation, the Indians inked former A’s prospect Travis Buck to a Minor League deal earlier in the week and, while this signing seems to have been received more “huzzahs” than the deals meted out to Jack Hannahan and Adam Everett, I’d put Buck on the same par as Hannahan and Everett as “depth signing”, in the hopes that it improves the overall talent level at the upper levels, however unlikely Buck is to make an impact.

Some optimism exists that a healthy Buck can re-capture some of the career momentum that he established as a 23-year-old rookie in 2007, when he posted a .805 OPS (127 OPS+) and hit 22 2B in 82 games. However, since Buck’s rookie season, he has posted a cumulative .662 OPS (77 OPS+) at the Big League level in 335 PA over 3 years and while that rookie season seemed to portend a bright future for Buck, he has been undone by injuries and inconsistency since bursting onto the scene. What Buck represents is a reclamation project for the Indians – one who probably isn’t going to see time in Cleveland in 2011 with Choo, Brantley, Sizemore, and Kearns in the fold – who doesn’t cost the Indians anything more than AAA PA at this point.

While some would ask what the point is of even adding Buck, I suppose that it goes along with the idea that having Austin Kearns on the roster over Trevor Crowe on the roster makes the team better. To that end, I would say that having Travis Buck around as an option as an OF probably makes the 40-man better, as opposed to keeping some of the other 40-man options, like Jordan Brown, around into 2011 or beyond.

Since the name of Jordan Brown has been invoked, while Brown has long been the object of much affection (some of it misguided), take a look at how the two players compare, particularly last year:
LH Travis Buck turned 27 in November
LH Jordan Brown turned 27 last Saturday

2010 in MLB
Buck - .167 BA / .255 OBP / .286 SLG / .541 OPS with 1 HR in 48 PA
Brown - .230 BA / .272 OBP / .310 SLG / .582 OPS with 0 HR in 92 PA

2010 in AAA

Buck - .298 BA / .364 OBP / .463 SLG / .827 OPS with 3 HR in 141 PA
Brown - .298 BA / .341 OBP / .463 SLG / .804 OPS with 8 HR in 355 PA

2009 in AAA

Buck - .285 BA / .366 OBP / .438 SLG / .804 OPS with 5 HR in 266 PA
Brown - .336 BA / .381 OBP / .532 SLG / .913 OPS with 15 HR in 455 PA

Sure, Brown had better numbers in 2009 in AAA, but can we establish that we’re not looking at players that are all that dissimilar, as neither of them have displayed the power that you would like to see from a corner OF or from a 1B/DH and both are now entering the “prime” years of their career?

The biggest difference would be that Buck has proven that he can play the OF capably, something Brown (who has always been a 1B) has not. And to that end, assuming that he shows some aptitude with the bat, Buck is likely a better depth option than Brown going forward because of that versatility and because of the promise of that age-23 season, when he was healthy and thriving.

If “a better option than Jordan Brown” is all Buck amounts to, there’s still not a lot lost in terms of taking a chance on Buck getting healthy and justifying his former status as a top prospect. Interestingly, in going through Buck’s page at B-Ref, one of his closest comps through his age 26 season is the newly-minted $126M man, Jayson Werth. Werth struggled through his early-to-mid-20s with injuries, changing organizations and missing the entire 2006 season before the Phillies took a 1-year, $850K gamble on that obviously paid off for the better part of three seasons.

Am I saying that Travis Buck is going to do what Jayson Werth did?
Certainly not as the number of former top prospects who succumb to injury and ineffectiveness is too long to even begin to compile, but Buck had the prospect pedigree and limited success at the start of his career as Werth did, only to see his career deep-sixed by his own fragility.

If the Indians can hit on resurrecting Travis Buck’s career to the point that he becomes a useful MLB player, bully for them. Even if he upgrades roster depth and represents a more versatile and valuable option than a guy like Jordan Brown, it still represents a decent find. At the very worst, he flames out, spends the year in AAA and makes his way out of the organization.

Regardless of the ultimate outcome, signing him doesn’t cost them much in terms of a Minor League deal with a non-roster invitation to Goodyear.

Outside of the corner of Carnegie and Ontario, since much of the baseball world has been consumed with the Grienke-to-Milwaukee move last weekend, here’s an interesting diversion that you can think of while you’re wrapping Christmas gifts. It comes from the terrific John Perrotto of Baseball Prospectus and how Zach Grienke actually did Royals’ GM Dayton Moore a favor by requesting a trade, at least in terms of public perception:
Dayton Moore faced the decision that all small-market general managers seem to eventually be forced to make: do you hold on to your most marketable player, or do you trade him for young and affordable players in bulk?
This time, though, Moore was a GM who had help in the decision. That help, ironically, came from the player.
Greinke told the Kansas City Star in August that he was tired of losing and felt the Royals’ much-anticipated crop of top prospects would fail to make an impact at the major-league level until after his contract expired following the 2012 season. Greinke continued to push for a trade behind the scenes, and his demand grew stronger last week when he changed agents with the objective of forcing a deal.
That worked out well for Moore in many regards. Unlike most GMs in his position, he does not have to bear the brunt of negativity from the media, public, and even his own players for trading a star player.

Whether Moore got enough for two years of Grienke is up for debate (and Joe Posnanski initially hated it, then warmed to it...somewhat, until he read that Melky Cabrera could keep Lorenzo Cain on the bench) and certainly comparisons are going to be drawn to the players received for Cliff Lee from Philly, as each deal contained “ready-for-MLB” position players that had struggled to date in MLB, an “almost-ready-for-MLB” pitcher with issues, and a low-Minors arm to dream on.

Since I’m not going to spend my days analyzing the Grienke return, what I’m initially interested in is the fact that Perrotto acknowledges that the Royals’ GM “faced the decision that all small-market general managers seem to eventually be forced to make: do you hold on to your most marketable player, or do you trade him for young and affordable players in bulk”, which perpetually makes me wonder – in what universe does this acceptance of an obviously flawed system continue?

This off-season, we’ve seen both Adrian Gonzalez and Zach Grienke moved for packages and Matt Garza and/or James Shields may not be that far behind as the Padres and the Royals made the same decisions that the Indians did in 2009, essentially punting on a season (or two) well in advance of the start of a season in the best interests of the health of the organization in the long-term view.

That frustration is not new nor is it going to be easily solved by MLB, but the crux of Perrotto’s piece intrigues me as he asserts that Grienke basically took the onus of being the “bad guy” off of Dayton Moore in terms of making a decision. Moore’s tenure in KC has not earned him the “benefit of the doubt” as future success still looks a few years off with a stacked Farm System, but Grienke demanding a trade publicly freed Moore to a degree, in that he didn’t have to come off as the “guy who decided to trade Grienke” (which was in the best interest of Kansas City), and rather is simply the GM who accommodated the trade wishes of Grienke and attempted to maximize value in a return for him.

It’s logistics...I know, but it’s also tied to public perception and since we’ve gone around and around about this Indians’ PR “problem” (self-created as it may be), it got me wondering as to how things would have played out if the Indians hadn’t traded Lee (most notably) when they did and whether the situation that took place in Kansas City over the past few weeks would have transpired last off-season for the Tribe with Lee.

Truthfully, I have no advance knowledge that Lee was going to demand a trade as he certainly has been traded enough in the last 2 years without ever demanding a trade, and the whole discussion is really akin to attempting to jump into the Silver DeLorean.

However, how would the Indians be perceived today if CC had left via FA for the biggest contract ever signed by a starting pitcher instead of being traded? What if it was Lee who forced the Indians’ hand in trading him and his departure was not compelled by the sudden change in stance from the Front Office and ownership that saw him make his way to Philly...the first time? Would the Indians have been saved from the “brunt of negativity from the media, public, and even his own players for trading a star player”, as Perrotto puts it?

Ultimately, we’ll never know as the moves that were made on the North Coast were made when they were and were all initiated by the Front Office. Whether they turn out to represent the right moves for the organization remains to be seen, but with Grienke “forcing” his way out of Kansas City this week, it is interesting to think about the situation in comparison to the Indians in the summer of 2008 and 2009.

Keeping the topic with the Grienke trade and attempting to find some relevance to that trading post at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario that was open from July of 2008 until this past August, Dave Cameron of Fangraphs takes a look at the “buyers-and-sellers” aspect of the trades consummated this off-season and concludes that it is “almost universally agreed that the buyers did better on the rest of the deals, as established major league players have simply not been generating the types of returns in trade that we’ve seen in prior years” chalking up that trend to the fact that “teams are reacting to the rise in prices in free agency by increasing their valuations of cost-controlled players”.

Now think about this in the context of how the Lee and Martinez deals, in particular, are viewed today and how the Indians’ last “tear-down”, mainly the Colon deal in 2002, seems to almost be the exception to the rule, and an antiquated exception at that. If what Cameron writes is true, the Indians’ decision to tear it down in July of 2009 and since has coincided with those increased “valuations of cost-controlled players”, which may speak to how their returns on Lee and Martinez underwhelm many.

While I think it is still extremely early to judge the majority of these deals (as Sizemore and Lee weren’t contributors for a solid 2 ½ seasons after the Colon deal), the importance of 2011 to guys like LaPorta, Carrasco, and Masterson (all of whom were, let’s be honest, the big “prizes” in those deals based on age, advancement, and prospect standing) cannot be understated as the excuse that “it’s still too early to judge these deals” has an expiration date and (particularly for LaPorta) it is not a terribly long way off.

As for the other Midwestern team involved in the Grienke deal, there has been some scuttlebutt about how the Brewers getting Grienke debunks the notion that only large-market teams are at the card table for these players, which is patently absurd as Grienke was acquired VIA TRADE and not on the FA market. While a good deal of attention has been paid to how the Red Sox have figured out a way to work the system to their advantage by stockpiling that valuable commodity – young, cheap talent – what the Brewers have done is actually more impressive.

By that I mean that the Brewers’ player development system has allowed them to pull the deal for Grienke (and for Marcum...which is a deal I LOVE for Milwaukee) in that they had a pipeline full of mainly position players, with established position players ahead of them at the MLB level, and some intriguing low-level arms, ultimately turning those “prospects” into trading chips.

Don’t take this to mean that the Brewers are this model franchise (as they’ve finished with 80 and 77 wins in a weak NL Central the last two years with some serious talent in place), but they had an organizational deficiency in pitching and an abundance of corner players in 2008 and snatched CC from Cleveland. Going into this off-season, they still had that organizational deficiency in starting pitching, but were more or less set up the middle of the diamond with pitchers in their organization that were promising, but unlikely to contribute in the near future, which allowed them to move those fungible assets to add Grienke and Marcum.

At this point, the Brewers should be lauded for their aggressiveness at this time in their franchise’s history...and, as a quick aside, I do hope this works out for them with Prince about to leave in FA after this year and them really putting everything out there for this year. However, more admirable than their aggressiveness in the here and now is the slow and steady player development that put them in this position, where they had highly-sought-after young players outside of their “core” group of players already in MLB and they have now flipped those younger players to help the parent club for the 2011 season.

To bring that idea to the events of the last few years in Cleveland, if there is one main segment of the “The Plan” that failed miserably it was unquestionably that of player development. The idea that the prospects would come to fill holes and other prospects who represented redundancies in the system could be flipped to fill other holes never took shape because...well, because those prospects turned out to be sub-par players, unable to crack the Indians’ starting lineup, much less generate much interest on the trade market.

This is not breaking new ground, I know, but to see the manner in which the Brewers utilized their young, expendable players brings it back to the continued failure of the Indians’ player development, which led the organization to make the Vic and CP Lee deals as they acknowledged that the team’s internal prospects would cause a drop-off of biblical proportions, not difficult to see if you take away the players acquired for the likes of CC, Blake, Victor, Lee, DeRosa, and others from the current roster and see what remains.

It’s a scary prospect (thinking of what 2011 would look like without Santana, Perez, Masterson, Carrasco, LaPorta, and Brantley) and it speaks to the undoing of the organization from 2008 to today, on display as Minor League FA represents upgrades over former 1st Round Picks (like last year with Kearns and Crowe) or players who were once highly thought of in some circles (like this year with Buck and Brown...potentially).

As the player development in place in Milwaukee has allowed them to extend their look at realistically making the playoffs (and the Brewers have won ONE playoff game since 1982), the failure of the Indians to continually augment their system with players that could either help the parent club OR be used as trade bait to improve the parent club (Max Ramirez being the lone exception) is what the Grienke-to-Milwaukee deal brings into sharper focus.

With that final thought to keep you warm on these cold winter nights…you know, because your blood pressure is rising, let me take the time to wish everyone out there a very Merry Christmas, wherever you and yours may be this weekend.

Merry Christmas everyone…

Monday, December 20, 2010

Kearns Returns

There is an old saying that “if the shoe fits, wear it” that conveys a level of self-realization that escapes many. The off-season for the Cleveland Indians has been quiet as they have pointed to the fact that they have made an almost-nauseating number of moves over the past 30 months that they need to shake out to determine where they are in their next quest for contention.

Rather than exploring (or even pretending to explore) the FA market, the Indians' activity has been relegated to Minor-League deals, which has drawn either howls of disapproval or overall apathy from their fanbase...the latter being the more troubling. Regardless, the Indians have stuck to their guns, knowing where they are in their “contention cycle” and putting forth an air of self-awareness that may turn off many fans, but likely represents their best strategy for this off-season.

Like the Indians, Austin Kearns went into the off-season likely not expecting much, self-aware enough to know that he wasn't going to get a multi-year deal or even a guaranteed starting spot from any team, despite resurrecting his career with a 2010 season that showed (at the very least) that his career was not completely over.

Consider what happened on Monday to be akin to finding that old pair of slippers in the back of the closet and slipping them on as Kearns is returning to the North Coast to assume the role of the RH OF that the Indians had targeted in the off-season, coming back to the Tribe on a $1.3M contract with incentives. Lest anyone forget, Kearns posted the 3rd highest OPS+ among qualified Indians' hitters last year before he was flipped to the Yankees for 22-year-old RHP Zach McAllister, who led the Eastern League in ERA in 2009 and who figures to start 2011 in AAA Columbus.

Now, Kearns returns and given that the Tribe's assumed OF and DH are all LH hitters, Kearns should be able to find AB around the diamond as needed to fill in for Sizemore, Choo, Brantley, and Hafner on a as-needed basis. While it was suggested that the Indians should target a RH OF who could double as a quasi-platoon partner for Hafner at DH (meaning he would have to crush LHP...because Hafner doesn't anymore), Kearns' splits don't really represent that much of an improvement over Hafner, in terms of facing LHP:
Kearns vs. LHP (2010)
.252 BA / .345 OBP / .395 SLG / .740 OPS in 168 PA

Hafner vs. LHP (2020)
.272 BA / .342 OBP / .364 SLG / .706 OPS in 111 PA

Although Kearns' career OPS vs. LHP is .798, neither of them have ANY power against LHP, but it could be that the Indians have different ideas in terms of protecting Hafner against LHP – maybe having Santana move to 1B and having MaTola DH against particular LHP?

Nevertheless, having Kearns around as insurance for Sizemore's injury recovery and in case Mike Brantley struggles once more represents a nice depth move which should work out for the Indians as Kearns will offer the same versatility and offense that he provided in the first half of the 2010 season. Adding Kearns nearly certainly saves us from “Trevor Crowe – Erstwhile 4th OF, ill-equipped MLB player” in 2011 and could actually result in Crowe's usefulness to the team coming to an end.

It was an under-the-radar signing that worked for the Indians last year and is likely to have the same result as Kearns knows what he's getting in his 2011 situation and the Indians are familiar enough with what Kearns brings to the table as a RH OF. The money isn't big (Rick Ankiel inked a contract with a higher base salary) and the move won't cause any recalibration of AL Central expectations, but it improves the Indians around the periphery of the young group of players that are going to be the ones counted upon to bring the Indians back to contention.

Plus, it is a homecoming of sorts of Kearns in more ways than one as he now makes his off-season home in, seriously.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Toeing the Rubber on A Lazy Sunday

With the big news of the week obviously coming with the passing of Bob Feller, your required reading (other than this, of course) is contained in a piece that I threw up over at Hitting the Fan the day after Feller’s death. Most of the reading you probably did on your own (and I’ll link Joe Posnanski’s again because it is that good), but the HTF piece also has a photo of the Commemorative Patch that will be worn this season by the Indians. If I may make a suggestion to further honor Feller it would be that the Indians’ players honor Feller on specific days by wearing their socks as Feller does in the picture to the right, in addition to donning the patch. You just can’t beat that look from Rapid Robert, still toeing the slab in his Ponys and vintage stirrups. Regardless, if you feel like you’ve read every Feller piece possible...let me suggest one more as Chris Jaffe of the Hardball Times put out a tremendous piece that you may have missed on your required reading list, as it contextualizes the greatness of Feller as a player better than anywhere else I’ve seen.

Since all of the talk has been about the greatness of the Greatest Indians’ Pitcher of All Time, let’s use the opportunity to segue into a little discussion about the starting pitchers currently on the roster and expectations for 2011. While the 2011 staff doesn’t figure to evoke comparisons to the 1954 Tribe staff (and here’s a great read comparing that 1954 staff with the soon-to-be-unveiled Quartet from the Quaker State that everyone is so quick to anoint the best rotation ever), that doesn’t mean that the principals of the staff haven’t been in the news, even if their inclusion feels forced and ultimately inconsequential.

When I say “forced and ultimately inconsequential”, I mean the Fausto Carmona trade rumors of course, as Jon-Paul Morosi had a little bit about Carmona generating interest on the trade market, along with Zach Grienke, with CP Lee off of the proverbial market. I suppose there could be some fire with this smoke, but doesn’t this strike anyone else as a report that teams are “calling about the availability” of a particular player, with the team being called listening to any offers?

The Morosi blurb doesn’t strike me as anything more than a writer’s speculation of “who else might be out there that people that would be interested in and might be available” and being confirmed by some MLB sources that conversations did take place. Dismissing it as conjecture and, you know, acknowledging that conversations take place all the time in MLB, particularly in the off-season, I’m not sure how seriously I’m taking this “report”, particularly given that the other name in the piece (Grienke) has actually requested a trade or that there are other starting pitchers who may legitimately be available because of contract impasses, like Ricky Nolasco. Interestingly, it is worth noting that both of those linked pieces are from Morosi of FOX Sports, so maybe he’s on the “which SP will the Yankees acquire” beat for the next few weeks.

Regardless of other situations out there, if the Indians are going to simply hear out proposals to wait to see if someone (like the Rangers and Yankees) are going to over-react to not getting Lee and vastly overpay for a guy like Carmona...yeah, I’m all for that. If a team chooses to act irrationally to pacify a large and demanding fan-base watching the rest of their division improve while they swing and miss, I’m all for seeing the Indians as the beneficiary of another team’s irrational decisions.

However, dependent upon what would come back and remembering that Carmona was sent to Arizona in 2009 because he was such a mess, let’s all acknowledge that Carmona is probably the best pitcher and the closest thing that they have to a “sure thing” in their rotation. If you don’t buy the “sure thing” assertion, remember the career highs for MLB innings for the other players that legitimately figure into the 2011 rotation – Masterson (180 IP), Talbot (159 2/3 IP), Carrasco (44 2/3 IP). Those totals all came last year and if you want to include Gomez (57 2/3 IP), Tomlin (73 IP), or even Huff (128 1/3 IP) and consider their career highs for MLB innings in one year, it still doesn’t elicit much confidence.

In contrast to that, Carmona has thrown more than 210 MLB innings twice in his career and while his career was on life support at this time last year, but if the Indians think that he’s fixed and that he can continue to improve, let’s remember that Fausto finished 24th in the AL in ERA last year.

As I’ve said too many times, I don’t think that Fausto v.2007 is ever coming back, but consider what Fausto’s numbers looked when you compare 2007 to 2010:

2007 3.06 3.94 215.0 8.3 0.7 2.6 5.7 .281
2010 3.77 4.11 210.1 8.7 0.7 3.1 5.3 .284

Yes, his ERA+ is significantly lower as the rest of MLB pitchers posted much better lines in 2010, then they did in 2007 and ERA+ is a comparative stat. Going further than that, his GB% is down from 2007, but couldn’t that mean that he’s evolved into more of a PITCHER than simply a THROWER of sinking fastballs, as hangover-inducing as they may have been at one time?

To wit, Carmona threw fastballs (either two-or-four-seam fastballs) for 88% of his pitches in 2007, utilizing those two fastballs and a slider (thrown the other 12%) exclusively. In 2010, his pitch mix was more varied as he threw his fastball 68% of the time, that slider 18% of the time, and incorporating a change-up for the remaining 14% of his offerings.

Again, maybe Fausto never gets back to the success that he saw in 2007 in terms of dominance, but the most compelling reason to keep Carmona is tied to his performance from year-to-year, but not for the reason that you may think. The best case for keeping Carmona around is the value of his contract, particularly to a team like the Indians.

Lest you forget, Carmona is guaranteed a $6.1M salary this year…and that completes the guaranteed portion of his contract. Unlike players with contracts that outlive their usefulness (ahem…Hafner), Carmona’s contract after this year moves into a series of club options that the team has no obligation to exercise UNLESS Carmona’s performance justifies the option being picked up from year to year.

That is to say, that after the 2011 season, the Indians can cut Carmona loose after any given year with no financial ramifications or they can decide to keep Carmona around through the end of 2014 on affordable options (2012:$7M club option, 2013:$9M club option, 2014:$12M club option) as long as his performance dictates his worth to the club the next year.

With that arrangement, the onus is on Carmona EVERY SINGLE YEAR to compel the Indians to keep him around for the following year by picking up that club option. If he falls apart as he did in 2009 and the Indians find themselves at their wit’s end once again with him, they can simply decline the club option and move past Carmona. For a team like the Tribe, whose margin of error on long-term deals is razor thin, Carmona’s contract really presents them with the best of both worlds, where a player’s performance will determine whether he will be worth his next year’s salary every year and where, if Carmona puts up suitable numbers, the Indians can gauge his value against those contract numbers from year to year.

Looking at potential suitors for Carmona, the contract may not be that much of a factor in NY (where they just…you know, “write it off”), but it could be for Texas, who would have to be interested with the groundball-inducing Fausto and that bandbox they play in. However, Carmona’s contract is overwhelmingly more valuable to the Indians, who are not tied into long-term money with Carmona after this year and can use him as they see fit for the next three seasons AFTER this year.

Back to the fundamental question at hand in all of this though - could trading Carmona benefit the Indians in the long-term?
Of course and it will be interesting to see what the Royals are able to procure for Grienke, and if this Brewers rumor is true, the Royals are getting a defensive specialist SS who posted a .614 OPS for the Brew Crew last year, a 24-year-old OF who could be no more than a 4th OF, and a AA reliever who missed 100 games in 2009 because of a suspension for “drug abuse”, which has been chalked up to marijuana use.

Regardless of what happens with Grienke, after experiencing about 2 ½ years of “long-term” decisions at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario, isn’t it about time to start to line up some pieces and parts that are going to be contributing in 2011 AND in 2014?

Obviously, Carmona remains a wild card and the case could be made that if he’s going to be moved, that he should be traded a close to peak value and coming off of a reclamation 2010, that this is the time to move him. That being said, given what is currently around Carmona in the rotation and the (relative) stability that he provides compared to the rest of the assumed rotation, keeping Carmona and that contract around would make sense for the Indians at this juncture.

If Carmona is going to stick around, an upgrade of their infield defense is certainly in order, right?

Of course, particularly when you consider that among AL starters with more than 40 IP, the Indians had the pitcher with the highest GB% (Masterson at 60.3%), the 2nd highest (Carrasco at 56.8%), and the 4th highest (Carmona at 55.6%), with the 26th highest (Talbot at 47.8%) and 30th highest (Gomez at 46.8%).

Look at that again, #1, #2, and #4 on that list of highest GB% among AL starters with more than 40 IP last year…and from the three pitchers who probably factor most obviously into the 2011 rotation – mind-blowing, right?

Now do you start to see some logic in adding Adam Everett and Jack Hannahan on Minor League deals, even if these are largely insignificant “additions” (term used loosely) as both Everett and Hannahan have reputations of being above-average defensively?

To wit, Everett received the 9th most votes as a SS in 2009 in The Fielding Bible tally and Hannahan finished 4th in The Fielding Bible voting for 3B in 2008, the last time he spent significant time in MLB. While neither of them can hit, they can both field very well and if you remember how Sonny Nix stumbled around 3B last year and how Jay Donald looked at SS last year when Asdrubal was missing, not to mention how Louie the Fifth took a butcher’s knife into the field with him, some upgrade of defensive ability is welcome.

Certainly I’m not saying that you’re looking at the left side of the infield for 2011 as – say this with me here – both have merely been signed to MINOR-LEAGUE deals with no roster spot guarantee. However, with Josh Rodriguez and Carlos Rivero exiting the organization in the past month, it looks as if they’re serious in upgrading the infield defense to some degree at the very least.

That degree may be down in Columbus or simply in terms of depth out in Goodyear or a gentle prodding for Cabrera and Nix that better defensive options are in camp with them, but given the GB tendencies of the rotation, shoring up the infield defense, even marginally, isn’t such a bad idea.

Back to that rotation, there was reportedly some Tribe interest in Bart Colon, who has thrown 100 1/3 innings in MLB since the beginning of the 2008 season and didn’t pitch in MLB last year. However, this rumor was dismissed by Paul Hoynes vehemently enough that you would think that the Indians aren’t really interested in Colon, if Hoynes is working his sources.

However, peeling back the layers of this “Acta in the DR to watch Colon” thing though, here’s what a newspaper in Santo Domingo reported (and forgive the awkward language as it is a translated page) as the needs of the Indians, according to Acta – “sign a third baseman, a starting pitcher right, a veteran reliever and an outfielder”. Later in the piece, the three players identified as piquing Acta’s interest in the game that he attended were “third baseman Edwin Encarnacion, Bartolo Colon, who was even observed in Tuesday’s game between the Eagles-Bulls, as well as Miguel Batista, a veteran of 16 seasons in the majors.”

Now, if Encarnacion had been picked up by the A’s at the time of this attended game (and he’s now made his way back to Toronto, where he’ll make $2.5M next year) and Hoynes vociferously denounces Colon as an option, what are we left with…is it a “veteran reliever” like Miguel Batista?

Batista will be 40 in February, who posted a 3.70 ERA (109 ERA+) and a 1.33 WHIP for the Nationals last year. After the Diamondbacks and the Mariners attempted to use him as a starter from 2006 to 2008, he transitioned back to being a reliever, a role that he thrived in as the Blue Jays’ closer in 2005, saving 31 games.

Does mentioning Batista as the real reason that Acta went to watch that game in the DR feel like dumpster diving?

Sure, he walks too many guys and HE’LL BE FORTY in February, but in a world in the three-year contract for the set-up man has become accepted practice again (in the face of precedent and reason), I could think of worse ideas for a team whose young RH relievers still need to sort themselves out and to assert themselves in either Goodyear or Columbus in 2011.

Going back to the rotation but keeping it in the bargain bin, scrap heap guys like CM Wang ($1M with $5M in incentives from the Nationals, after having not pitched since mid-2009) and even Ryan Rowland-Smith ($725K with the Astros after posting a 6.75 ERA and 1.67 WHIP with the M’s last year) have started to come off of the board, so that “veteran” addition is going to have to come from somewhere else and it probably isn’t going to come cheaply. Then again, the Indians are the team that mined Carl Pavano out of a deep hole in the ground a few years back when no other team wanted anything to do with him.

According to Terry Pluto, the Indians have had discussions about Kevin Millwood, who would make sense on some level, just like a guy like Freddy Garcia would, but when a team like the Yankees is asking for Garcia’s medical records and is likely to guarantee a roster spot and a rotation spot, when one may not be deserved, that gives you a sense of the starting pitching market. Which is another way to put across the idea that if teams are asking about Carmona, then they’re going to give too many years and too much money to ANYONE that can start every five games, expected results seemingly be damned.

If nobody is added, perhaps the Indians are content to go with the Gomez, Tomlin, and Huff troika to see if any of them can separate themselves in Goodyear next year and get a leg up on that 5th spot. For a long while, I was under the belief that Dave Huff had spent his nine lives (or was using them up) in the Indians’ organization, via the Twitter misstep or Acta calling Huff out on multiple occasions for not following the gameplan laid out for him by the coaches.

If you were like me and thought that Huff was not long for the Indians’ organization or that he was destined to be buried in Columbus, take a look at the recent comments by Tribe pitching coach Tim Belcher on Huff:
“I love David Huff. I think he has a chance to be a big league starter, and a big league starter for a long time. I just hope it’s with us -- soon. I’ve been wrong before. We’ve all been wrong before. But, man, you just can’t look at David Huff, look at the total package and total picture, and think anything but that.”

Look, I’ve been holding the pom-poms for Dave Huff for some time now, back to the time when he was, in fact, a legitimate prospect and wasn’t Jeremy Sowers seriously. Going further, I was the one preaching patience and a long leash with Huff, but he was so maddeningly awful in 2010, obviously bickering with the Indians and blissfully unaware that prospects with lesser resumes (ahem…Tomlin) were leapfrogging him on the organizational depth chart.

And now THIS from Belcher?
Maybe it is a “vote of confidence” or an indication that somebody is in his corner in the organization (because, trust me, others aren’t), but the reality with Huff is that he simply hasn’t turned the corner into being even marginally effective and he was, in fact, WORSE in 2010 than he had been in 2009 when some sort of progress was to be expected from Huff, who turned 26 last August.

The progress was non-existent in 2010 and Huff had the 4th worst ERA+ in MLB last year among the 154 pitchers who started 15 or more games. Granted, Kevin Correia had the 6th worst ERA+ last year by the same criteria and he just inked a 2-year, $8M deal with the Pirates...but that’s a different discussion for another day. The topic is Huff and as long as we’re bringing out the dirty laundry on his 2010 season, realize during the previous season (which he was “successful”, because he was the teams’ “wins” leader), Huff had the 7th worst ERA+ in MLB in 2009 among the 117 pitchers who started 20 games or more. That’s two bottom ten finishes in ERA+ (which, again is a comparative stat), meaning that Huff has been among the worst starters in MLB for two years running. The fact is that Huff doesn’t miss enough bats in MLB, with only 5.5% of his pitches resulting in swinging strikes in 2010, a percentage that puts him among the worst in MLB, a year after his 5.7% of swinging strikes put him at the bottom of the league as well.

If Belcher really believes what he said on Huff, here’s hoping that he’s willing to take Huff on as his pet project as he had a hand in resuscitating the career of Carmona last year and probably played a role in Masterson’s improvement down the stretch. It’s been said a couple of times, but with Carmona, Masterson, Carrasco, and Talbot as the “top” 4, all of those pitchers are RH and, ideally (though not necessarily) a LH arm would be a nice addition to that rotation. I suppose that Tomlin and Gomez could get that look, but wouldn’t all three parties be best served by Huff being given an extended look out of the gate, with Gomez and Tomlin going to AAA to gain some momentum and slot themselves to be the first arm to be called up?

There’s plenty of time to argue all of that as the off-season winds on and the possibility that the Indians add a rotational option still exists (though these pickings are slim and don’t guarantee any more success than the internal options), but during a week in which the Greatest Indians’ Pitcher of All Time passes on and while rumors (created or real) swirl around the Indians’ “best” starting pitcher currently on the roster, things are going to be interesting from that spot 60 feet and 6 inches away from home plate at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario…and I don’t mean just because Bob Feller won’t be firing his fastballs from that rubber anymore.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

"Goodbye Bob"

A few years ago, as my eldest son and I were making our way into the ballpark for an Indians' game, we passed a giant bronze statue and my son (being the inquisitive type) asked who the man was who was pitching the ball. After informing the 2 ½ year old that it was Bob Feller, my son spent the better part of the game asking questions about “Bob”...perhaps because it was a name that he could say easily. While I spared him the stats and the details of Rapid Robert's life and career, he wouldn't stop asking me about “Bob” and why he was standing outside of the stadium. Eventually, he stopped asking questions and became fascinated by some other aspect going on during that summer evening.

On the way out of the park that night, my son passed by the statue again and said “Goodbye Bob...see you next time”, setting what would become a precedent for a father and son for whenever we have passed by the RH pitcher, leg in the air, arm holding the ball, ready to make his delivery. Moments before entering the ballpark since that day, my son and I have always said our hellos to “Bob” and, after making our exit from the ballpark, we would be sure to say our farewells to the greatest Indians' player that ever lived, with a simple “Goodbye Bob”.

Baseball being a game of fathers and sons and generational connections, the significance of those moments – brief and insignificant as they may be on the way in and out of the stadium – have been my greatest connection with Bob Feller, simply words passing through our mouths, honoring the player whose accomplishments on and off the baseball diamond merited a monument in his honor.

In light of his passing, much has been written and much will be written about the Iowa farmboy who had lightning in his right arm and whose life and opinions were never held from the public's gaze. The main source of my impressions of Feller are largely based on grainy photos and footage, parsing through lifeless numbers, and through the annual quotes that were attributed to him whenever a sportswriter approached Feller for his opinion on the Hall of Fame or steroids or whatever else was pertinent – with Feller never shying away from sharing his opinion.

That being said, Feller elicited different feelings among baseball fans and Clevelanders alike, largely dependent upon their interaction or knowledge with the baseball legend. To one generation, he was the high school phenom, “The Natural” who became the greatest RHP they'd ever seen, and (most importantly to Feller) a national war hero. To the next, he was a cantankerous former player, ready to tell anyone who would listen that he was a great baseball player and that today's players didn't stack up with his body of work. To the latest generation, he was most identifiable as that bronze statue in the plaza, which became more of a meeting place than a monument to his accomplishments.

With the benefit of hindsight, the life cycle of Bob Feller looks to be emblematic of the arc of our fair city, how it perceives itself and how it attempts to change those perceptions by shouting from the rooftops, extolling itself and asking for an opportunity to show how unappreciated and misunderstood we really are in comparison to peers. Like Feller, Clevelanders remember the “glory days”, but remain somewhat confused and fearful of an uncertain future while remaining eager to tell anyone who will listen to avoid conventional wisdom and statistics and base opinion of a man or of a city upon first-hand accounts or personal experience or research.

Now that he has passed on and the obits are coming out with misty edges around them, attempting to get to the core of the man and the baseball player, I'm not going to pretend to make some grand pronouncement about the life of a man I know only through old photos, numbers, and cantankerous quotes.

Rather, though certainly not for the last time, as the tradition at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario will continue with my sons and I in perpetuity, let me say...“Goodbye Bob”.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Jon & Paul Plus Baseball: Decisions During the Descent

With Clifton Phifer Lee deciding upon a return to his “old team” (or at least one of his four old teams), it would seem that the majority of those Indians that have departed stage left from the organization (that would be via trade) have found new homes for themselves. Thus, while the young players that emerged in the early-to-mid-2000s for the Tribe move on to cash larger paychecks and to enjoy the spotlights of the bright lights and the big cities, the Indians continue to sort through where exactly they stand in this new incarnation of “Rebuild/Reload/Whatever”.

Now that the music has stopped, everyone seems to have a seat…that is, except for Tribe fans.

With that in mind, it’s time to explore the topic of whether the Indians acted prudently in the past 2 ½ years, trading off their major parts for prospects and whether the “collateral damage” done by those actions – though they may have been the best idea in the long-term – is going to haunt this team in the short-term.

For some help and some compelling “conversation”, let’s welcome Jon Steiner of WFNY back in and let “Jon & Paul Talk Baseball” once more…

JON: If there’s anything we’ve learned over the last decade as Indians’ fans, it’s that the front office believes that trading its (most valuable) assets is the most productive method of adding talent to the organization. They seem to feel that, when the team isn’t contending, the best course of action is to use the existing talent to reload the system at all levels. Let’s run down a few of our infamous and not so infamous trades, shall we?
• CC Sabathia became: Matt LaPorta, Michael Brantley, Rob Bryson, and Zach Jackson
• Cliff Lee and Ben Francisco became: Jason Donald, Lou Marson, Jason Knapp, and Carlos Carrasco
• Victor Martinez became: Justin Masterson, Nick Hagadone, and Bryan Price.
And there’s more: Rafael Betancourt and Ryan Garko and Franklin Gutierrez and Kelly Shoppach and Austin Kearns and Kerry Wood and on and on all became new, young faces in this organization.

It’s almost enough to give a fan tunnel vision. If it’s clear that we wouldn’t be able to (or shouldn’t) re-sign these players, then we might conclude that trading players who are about to become expensive is the best course of action for a team on a budget.

But we forget: there’s another option. What if we kept these players for the full life of their contracts, and then let them walk in free agency? There’s a system in place in the MLB the compensates teams who lose productive free agents with draft picks. Yes, the system for determining a “productive free agent” is a bit fishy (I’m looking at you, Elias), but consider this:
• Over the last five years, the Boston Red Sox (you remember them, right? Those small market darlings) have been so ravaged by free agents leaving for greener pastures that they’ve been able to corral 17 picks in the first and supplemental rounds of the draft! This season, once Adrian Beltre signs elsewhere, they’ll get five picks (two for Victor leaving, two for Beltre, and one for Bill Hall)! Some of these picks became Nick Hagadone, Clay Bucholz, Bryan Price, and Daniel Bard.
• Since 2001, those scrappy New York Yankees have had 17 of these sorts of picks. Let me repeat: they’ve had seven extra first round picks in the last decade because they’ve been decimated by free agent departures.

So my question is whether the Indians would have been wise--and yes, I’m in full-hindsight-mode here--to have held onto their big pieces and allowed them to leave via free agency? Not only would the front office not be dealing with a full-blown PR disaster created by the trades, but they could’ve used the compensatory draft picks to restock their system rather than targeting those glorious MLB-ready additions like Lou Marson and Jason Donald.

I’m not sure there’s a right answer to this, but I feel like the question at least has to be asked. What say you?

PAUL: As to the manner in which these prospects make their way to the Indians as prospective FA are dealt or as draft picks are awarded for FA that leave, I suppose that I would say that the strategy to trade the veterans for MiLB prospects instead of stockpiling draft picks has more to do with can be learned about young players from the time that they are drafted to the time that they make the Big Leagues. Certainly, both unproven prospects and unproven draft picks are just that – unproven – and there’s going to be a high percentage of them that flame out before reaching MLB and in both scenarios, you’re getting unproven talent with the hopes that potential will reach a level of production commensurate with either a draft position or as a return for a particular player.

The choice that the Indians made (trading for MiLB players instead of getting the compensatory picks) essentially boils down to the track record that would exist in MiLB for the prospects they trade for instead of the prospects that they would draft. By that I mean that the players acquired via trade over the last 2 ½ years all had a “track record” in MiLB to the point that they were more of a “known quantity” (term cannot be used more loosely) than a player that was drafted and whose only “track record” consisted of competition in high school or college.

Essentially, the guys that they traded for are further along in their development than the guys that would have been taken in the 2009 draft (CC was a Type A and Blake and Byrd were Type B FA), in last year’s draft (Betancourt was a Type A and DeRosa and Pavano were Type B FA), or that would be taken in the upcoming the 2011 draft (CP and Vic are Type A, Peralta and Wood are Type B FA), meaning that the Indians had a body of work for the prospects they acquired that was more than just college stats or high school stats.

Just to use the principal acquisitions from the three deals, guys like LaPorta (496 MiLB PA when he was traded by the Brewers), Masterson (233 MiLB innings and 160 1/3 more innings in MLB with Boston) and Carrasco (696 1/3 MiLB innings in the Phillies organization before his 23rd birthday) all had a track record of success in the Minors and, in most cases, had excelled at the upper levels of the Minors or in MLB at a young age. If the Indians were to simply restock the cupboards with draft picks, they wouldn’t have those comparative MiLB (or even MLB) numbers upon which to base their decision.

Additionally, if you think back to when the CC deal was made, the Indians success in drafting versus acquiring young talent via trade didn’t put much doubt as to where the strength of player acquisition had been for the last decade. Comparing Sowers, Huff, Crowe, and Mills to Choo, Cabrera, and the Colon haul left little doubt as to where the Indians’ Front Office had been successful…and where they had not.

Certainly some of that poor drafting (and a likely hesitance to rely on the draft) is self-inflicted and more of an indictment of the Front Office than most care to acknowledge, but what I find interesting about the return for a number of the players that were dealt is their high draft position when they were drafted by their original teams. When examining the players that have been added via trade over the last two years, it’s almost like the Indians were trying to make amends, or make up for, some terrible in-house drafting by picking up some high draft picks who had succeeded at some level of MiLB.

By that I mean that, just using CC, CP, and Vic, realize that Price, Hagadone, and LaPorta were all 1st Round Picks and Masterson and Knapp were 2nd Round Picks from 2006 to 2008, whereas the supplemental picks received from that trio would come in the 2009 draft and the upcoming 2011 draft. If you go further as to the players added in the past 2 ½ years, consider the draft pedigree of some of these players:
Chris Perez - 1st Round (#42 overall)
Justin Masterson - 2nd Round
Jason Donald - 3rd Round

Matt LaPorta - 1st Round (#7 overall)
Nick Hagadone - 1st Round (#55 overall)
Jess Todd - 2nd Round

Bryan Price - 1st Round (#45 overall)
Jason Knapp - 2nd Round

All were top picks, but they were selected earlier than the Indians could have drafted had they waited for draft compensation from CC or as they would still be waiting for Lee and Vic draft compensation. This chart also doesn’t take into account players like Carrasco or Santana, who were amateur FA.

As much as we get excited about Alex White and Jason Kipnis (2009 draft picks) and how they’ve been fast-tracked, remember the names Kentrail Davis and Maxwell Walla and their relevancy to this discussion.
Who in the world are Kentrail Davis and Maxwell Walla?

Why, the two players selected by the Brewers with their compensatory picks for losing CC in the 2009 draft. Kentrail Davis (#39 overall) is a 22-year-old OF who just posted a cumulative .866 OPS in low-A and high-A ball in 2010 and Maxwell Walla (2nd Round compensatory pick) is a 19-year-old OF who spent the 2010 season in the Arizona Rookie League, posting a .699 OPS. As disappointing as Matt MaTola has been and as choppy as Mike Brantley’s transition to MLB has been, there’s the alternative and what the Brewers have to show for finishing the 2008 season with the Hefty Lefty.
What the Red Sox and Rangers end up with for Vic and Cliff remains to be seen, but those compensatory picks aren’t coming until this June and with the crevasse in the Indians’ organization (self-created, I might add), there was a need to infuse the farm system with upper level talent that the team wouldn’t have to wait 4 to 5 years to develop. It’s a luxury that teams like the Red Sox and the Yankees can afford, which is why the draft compensation makes sense for them as their parent clubs are constantly loaded. In the case of the late-2000 Indians, the sense of urgency is greater.

JON: I think you’ve probably convinced me that, at least from an organizational perspective, the trades netted us a more immediate (and likely more productive) haul than the compensatory draft picks would have. And I say this after having watched the fairly pathetic 2010 performances of Matt LaPorta and Lou Marson. As I said, nicely done.

I should also admit that my question was, at best, disingenuous. You’re right to point out that draft picks are the only thing that’s less of a sure thing than MiLB prospects. I was more interested in pointing out the idiocy of a system that feels the need to compensate teams like Boston and New York for “losing” free agents.

But there was a second part to my question that we haven’t yet addressed, dealing with a subject I’ve spent a good deal of time writing about recently. Namely, what did those trades--especially the trades of Sabathia, Martinez, and Lee--do to the team from a PR perspective? And why should this even matter?

As analysts primarily of wins and losses, some would argue that we shouldn’t concern ourselves too much with these sorts of issues, and I think that warning makes some sense. If you get too carried away with what Joe Schmoe thinks, you might miss what the team is actually trying to accomplish. On the other hand when you see a team that boasts the lowest attendance in MLB, I think it’s fair to at least wonder about the effects some of these decisions had on the fanbase at large--something certain politicians call “collateral damage.”

After all, a team’s competitiveness is tied directly to its revenue stream, which is tied in large part to a club’s ability to market its product to a fanbase. I would argue that the three trades mentioned above damaged the team, perhaps irrevocably, from a PR standpoint. Rightly or wrongly, those trades sent a message to the majority of fans that the Indians not only weren’t willing to invest in the team, but that they couldn’t even pay their bills. (Let me be clear that I don’t believe this. But let me also be clear: what I believe is irrelevant.) This crisis of confidence--initiated by the Sabathia trade--sent ticket sales and revenue streams down the toilet, which, in turn, has hamstrung the club’s ability to spend moving forward.

I’m probably a bit eager to connect some of the dots here that don’t necessarily correlate and I might be over-emphasizing the deleterious after-shocks of the trades of the 2008 and 2009. But I wonder: would any of this antipathy toward the Indians be dulled or diminished had we allowed the players to leave of their own volition? Or would the pitchfork crowd just complain, in a grass-is-always-greener way, that we should have traded them when we still could? I honestly don’t know. But I hope the club has a plan to get these people buying tickets again, and I’m not sure that dollar dogs is the answer.

Maybe it’s just this simple: not many fans like a loser--and the consequences of the Hafner contract ensured that we’d be losers for awhile. Nevertheless, I still think that those trades cost the club in ways that Carlos Carrasco and Justin Masterson can never repay--at least not in the hearts and minds of some fans I’ve met. I wish it weren’t so, but I’m afraid it probably is.

PAUL: This is the most frightening part of the trades of the last 2 ½ years to me as I have that same fear that the PR damage already done is not all that easily undone, if it can be undone at all. It has been referred to as the “Spiral of Death” in some places as you can follow the progression where the the fans don’t show up because the team isn’t winning, the team doesn’t spend money to improve the team because of decreased revenues, and the fans don’t show up because the team isn’t...well, you get the idea.

Where the Indians currently sit in that “Spiral” is up for debate as the team HAS in fact spent in years past to extend their veterans (Hafner and Westbrook, most notably) only to be burned by those deals and added a significant piece via FA (Wood), even when they looked to be on the decline from their apex, only to be...say it with me, burned by that deal. With the Indians now slashing prices in an effort to attract people to the ballpark by gimmicks and giveaways, one has to wonder how they’re going to end this “Death Spiral” as they never really completely pulled themselves out of it, even with the talented group of players that donned the Chief from 2005 to 2009 or so.

Winning is the panacea (or so they so), but this team is probably going to need an extended period of winning (likely 3 consecutive seasons or so) if they’re legitimately going to draw people back. The reason I say this is simply from recent history as if you want to go over the records and attendance over the last few years and how the fans never really did come out when they were winning (mainly because they were never able to piece together consecutive seasons of success), you can have at it, but I’m done taking kicks at that dead horse (record vs. attendance) that’s been laying there since 2008.

The fact is that people (well...some of them) were willing to accept the rebuild back in 2002 as it was presented very clearly and articulated very well as to what the Front Office was going to do to leap back into contention within three years. While they accomplished that, the fans didn’t exactly storm the box office, taking a Missouri approach (“Show me that you’re going to be good for a while) and the team promptly fell on its collective face in 2006 and, more importantly, 2008.

What’s happened since then is well-documented, but in the here and now, their PR is an unmitigated disaster and their place in the public’s perception couldn’t get lower as they constantly and unabashedly point to an uneven playing field in MLB (which is valid) to justify where they are, but never acknowledge their own shortcomings in the endeavor (poor drafting, most notably) or point out that the risks that they did take financially blew up in their faces (Hafner, Westbrook, Carmona...before last year) or even take the effort to put Front Office changes into place that at least give the illusion of change. Instead, they given interviews with talking points focusing on this garbage line that “we’re not going to spend money, because the time isn’t right”, which is ripe to be skewered (and rightfully so) by the local media and the “pitchfork crowd” (as you so adroitly coin them) and leaves the Indians looking defeated and desperate before a season even starts.

Don’t think that this perception of the Indians hasn’t become pervasive and nearly accepted as fact as about a month ago, our (I share a package with my parents) season ticket renewal packet came in the mail and my father said that he just didn’t see the point in going to games if they weren’t going to field a competitive team. After I reminded him that we started our season tix package together BEFORE the 2004 season (coming off of a 94-loss season in 2003) because HE was excited about Jody Gerut and Jason Davis and what the future held. Even after this reminder, he begrudgingly relented to re-upping and said that he while he was excited about Santana and some other young players, that he didn’t know if he could put his heart into believing that the current team will succeed, mainly because he knows what’s eventually coming if they do succeed.

That may have been the crushing fall-out from the CC, Lee, and Vic deals coming in such rapid succession as, when the Colon deal was made, most of the other pending FA had made their way out of Cleveland and Colon was the last remaining big chip to move. People understood the notion of knocking it down to build it back up when it was moving that one chip. After those three guys were moved, among others, and the sense that this team was going back to square one, the Indians’ fan wasn’t interested in putting themselves through the education process associated with Carlos Carrasco or Mike Brantley nor did they want to see these young players young players are wont to do because of the heartbreak that they saw as looming, regardless of how far off that heartbreak could be.

The suddenness of the tear-down after the meticulousness and growing pains of the build-up left many fans not wanting to go through that another rebuild if it’s going to eventually be torn down at some point in the future.

Now, the team is where we are today, attempting to build back up and the Front Office afraid to speak out that they have accomplished this before from 2002 to 2005 or to point out that they DID build a talented team (evidenced by the contracts handed out to a number of those players) from scratch...they just built a talented team that didn’t consistently win.

Realizing that this is all hindsight, it becomes the great question of what SHOULD the Indians have done to avoid this or if it was unavoidable and the Indians took the most prudent, if painful, path when presented with all of the alternatives, even if that path alienated a large portion of the fanbase.

What if they have played out the string with the players (just to use one incarnation) from the 2008 team and CC had left via FA...who’s the victim in the situation?

What if they would have kept Lee and Victor and attempted to keep Pavano for 2010...where would the Indians sit today, in terms of lineup and rotation with all of those players?

Right now, it’s all “what if’s”...but really, “what if”?

Sunday, December 12, 2010

A Lazy Sunday with MLB FA and The BLC

The month of December for most couldn’t be more hectic and quickly devolves into a game of “listen to how busy I’ve been”. To wit, yesterday included a Santa trip with the boys and day-long shopping for The DiaBride (who threw her back out somewhere in there) and your humble host, followed by a holiday party, with today looking like the day to decorate the outside of the house nestled around the Browns’ game before I need to start snow-throwing when the newest “Storm of the Century” arrives later tonight while catering to the needs of a wife with back trouble.

The net result of the month comes down to everyone over the age of 25 or so feeling perpetually tired and hungover, whether you’ve been drinking GLBC Christmas Ale or not. As much as I love the holidays (and, trust me, I do…particularly with a nearly-4-year-old who is lapping this stuff up), just when you think you have a moment to relax, turn on some Christmas music and look at the tree while enjoying an Anchor Steam Christmas Ale, life comes barreling at you because…well, because that’s what happens this time of year, whomever you are and wherever you may be.

That is, of course, except for the folks at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario, whose winter has remained blissfully serene. Don’t take that to mean that I wish that the Indians were going out and adding guys like Melky Cabrera and Jeff Francoeur (TO PLAY EVERY DAY…seriously), simply for the sake of adding players as I think I’m pretty firmly on the record that the quiet off-season was expected and is probably the best thing that the Indians could be doing is not much at all.

While others in the media (who need not be mentioned because everyone knows to whom I refer) are quick to pounce on the Indians for their “inactivity”, playing down to their “audience”, other Tribe scribes are penning beautiful pieces about Rapid Robert (and you should read this because Castrovince outdoes himself here) or simply passing along the activities (and even the non-activities) of the Tribe. As an aside on that second link (that you should all be already visiting), let us all now acknowledge that Jordan Bastian is the new go-to guy on the Tribe beat…and he’s been on the beat for about a month, or 30 or so fewer years than a couple of his compatriots on the beat – Statler and Waldorf…that’s Ocker on the left, Ingraham on the right.

Nevertheless, just because I’m sniping because I’m tired and am feeling the effects of two of those Troegs’ Mad Elfs creeping up on me and because most of the Tribe coverage has been much ado about nothing, that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing to discuss on this Laziest of Sundays. There’s plenty to get to with the happenings of the Winter Meetings and (promising to get there once I get down off of my soapbox) how it affects the Indians and mainly, one Big League Choo.
And, after all of that, we are off…

If the lack of activity by the Indians in the off-season has allowed you to divert your gaze from MLB and the Winter Meetings, here’s a little update on the total spending on FA for each team, with some of those numbers understated in terms of dollars that are going to be committed as the Yankees haven’t yet signed Lee (and they will as their offer on the table is nearly identical to what they gave CC, which was the largest contract ever given to a pitcher) and the Red Sox have not officially agreed to terms with Adrian Gonzalez…who really isn’t a FA to begin with.

Starting with the first team mentioned there (and the Red Sox and Yankees really are getting absurd in this “can you top this” thing), there’s a great piece from Tom Verducci at SI, who points out some startling disparities in payroll in MLB and how they relate to the Bronx Bombers. Perhaps the most accurate (and sickening) assertion in the piece comes when Verducci points out that the Yankees simply operate on a different plane and that the best hope that the other 29 teams in MLB have for the Yankees not to be the prohibitive favorite should come in…oh, about three years:
“The only thing you can hope for with the Yankees,” said one NL executive, “is that eventually adding years onto contracts leaves them with a very old and very expensive team.”
Most teams look for a window in which to win. In the Yankees, other clubs look for a window in which it’s even imaginable that they could lose.
The next such window -- at least under the old-and-expensive theory -- could be 2013. If New York signs Lee, three seasons from now they will be paying six players aged 32 through 39 more than the combined 2010 payrolls of three teams (Pirates, Padres and Athletics).

Yeah, really...but that’s not the worst thing happening in MLB nor is the fact that the recently re-signed Jeter has already been paid $205.43M (with at least $51M more coming now) and recently re-signed Mo Rivera has been paid $129.53M by the Yanks (with at least $30M en route now), you start to see how the Yankees can do something that no other team can do – retain their homegrown talent at any cost.
Remember, that’s NOT the worst thing to come out of these Winter Meetings…

No, the worst comes when you remember how the Yankees reacted to not making the playoffs in 2008, when the committed $423.5M to CC, Tex, and AJ Burnett, “vaulting” them to another WS title in 2009?

Well, the Red Sox just missed the playoffs for the first time since 2006 and for the second time since 2003, so guess how they’re approaching this off-season?

You obviously already know the answer to that, but if you’re looking for the real superstars of the Winter though, you keep it right in the Northeast and the AL East with those Red Sox, who added Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez to the offense that scored the 2nd most runs IN MLB last year and posted the highest OPS last year. By the way, the Red Sox and Gonzalez have agreed to the parameters of “a seven-year, $154 million deal” that’s $296M committed to two players this off-season for the Sawx.

While the Crawford signing certainly put the “haves” and “have-nots” into clearer focus (as the Red Sox can now outbid even the Angels when they want to), the Gonzalez deal is the one that is most troubling to me as a baseball fan, in terms of the way that it clearly outlines the manner in which Boston is using every facet of player acquisition (and namely the draft as I hit on here at Hitting the Fan last Sunday) to exploit the system to their advantage.

Truthfully, I’m not the only one who has caught onto this whole “working the system” strategy now under heavy employment by Boston, as SI’s Joe Sheehan puts all of the details out there for this week’s print edition:
Since 2005 the Sox have had 17 picks in the first and supplemental first rounds of the draft. Starter Clay Buchholz and reliever Daniel Bard, two key contributors to last year’s team, were selected with compensation picks for the loss of free agents Pedro Martinez and Johnny Damon. In 2009 the Sox used two pitchers they had taken with compensatory draft picks, Nick Hagadone and Bryan Price, to trade for Victor Martinez—who will now bring back two more picks in the draft after signing with the Tigers as a free agent. (Boston will get two more 2011 picks for third baseman Adrian Beltre, who is expected to sign elsewhere as a free agent.)

Read that last parenthetical sentence and realize that the cycle has started in Boston to turning draft picks (and particularly ones that they pay overslot) into MLB players and adding more draft picks when the FA that they don’t want anymore via the compensation system in place. While other large market teams flounder (Mets, Cubs, Dodgers, etc.) under the weight of their own misguided largesse, it would seem that Boston has figured out the system…meaning that it’s only a matter of time before other large-market franchises with deep pockets follow suit and steepen the slope of the playing field even further.

On the topic of “large-market franchises”, by now you’ve read something that ridicules the Washington Nationals for signing a 32-year-old Jayson Werth to a 7-year deal worth $126M. The consensus around MLB legitimately asked “what are the Nationals…the NATIONALS, doing here?”
Well, consider what Tim Marchman asserted in a piece examining the signing...which he does still call “silly”:
Washington is an extremely rich market. (The city is poor and small; the suburbs are neither.) By my preferred measure -- multiplying metro population by per capita income and dividing by the number of major league teams -- it is actually the third richest in baseball. This even understates things. On a scale where 1 is average and the New York teams are at 2.45, the Nationals are at 1.68. The next-best team, the Philadelphia Phillies, are at 1.38. The gap between the Nationals and the Boston Red Sox is larger than the gap between Boston and the Arizona Diamondbacks or Seattle Mariners.

With the Nationals, we’re not talking about a small-market team, as most people assume because of the way they’ve spent in the past and their struggles since arriving in DC. Rather, what we’re looking at a team in a like the Nationals (and the Rangers, who are waist-deep in this CP Lee thing) doing exactly what the Phillies did a couple of years ago and spending at a level (or promising to) commensurate with their population base. What we’re seeing here is the continuation of big-market teams (and the Nats and Rangers are both BIG markets if you’ll remember from this, playing in Top 10 population hubs with the Rangers being the 2nd largest one-team market in MLB) getting smart and taking advantage of the local media revenue that they can generate because of their larger market size and seeing that local media revenue trickle down to the payroll.

What does all of this mean for the Indians?
Watching all of this spending brings into clearer focus that the only way for the Indians (and other teams like them) is to draft or acquire young talent and watch it develop, as they did from 2002 to 2007 and as they hope to be in the midst of. Looking at the last “window of contention” (and I’m beginning to hate that phrase) incarnation and the one that is currently on the parent club or on the cusp of it, you can make the argument that they chose the wrong young talent to acquire in recent years if you’d really like…although it is premature to make those assertions and claim them as fact.

However, the fact is that this current MLB structure simply doesn’t allow teams to build and maintain a consistent contender, particularly when a small percentage of teams can “work the system” or write off bad contracts that would otherwise weigh down most baseball clubs.

To wit, Carlos Pena has left the Rays for the North Side (in a great deal for the Cubs, by the way) with Matt Garza likely to follow via trade and those assumed losses this off-season led Jayson Stark to put them in the “loser” section of his Winter Meetings “Winners and Losers” piece, although the rationale for putting them there certainly doesn’t elicit much confidence in MLB or “The System” in place going forward:
We almost feel guilty putting the Rays on this “losers” list because they’ve done just about everything right for three years, won two titles in the AL East and still were almost powerless to prevent The System from ripping apart one of baseball’s most exciting teams. That would be a difficult lot in life in any division, but it’s even more painful in the AL East, where building an 85-to-90-win team just earns you an October tee time.

Truthfully, that was bolded by me...but didn’t we all see this coming in Tampa after we watched it happen in Cleveland from July of 2008 to this past August?

Nevertheless (and off of the soapbox), if you’re looking for the immediate impact that these FA deals have on the Tribe, it is largely minimal as much as headlines like “Cleveland Indians leave Winter Meetings with Hands in Pockets and No Free Agents” from the hometown paper stir the lowest common denominator pot with an outboard motor (I love that phrase), but don’t tell us anything that we didn’t know going into the meetings.

Of course, in light of all of the FA signings, it would certainly seem to affect how young players approach signing away any FA years as one NL exec told the NY Post’s Joel Sherman, young players are going to look to maximize their full value via FA:
“If you are [NL MVP] Joey Votto and you see what [Jayson] Werth got and Crawford got, why would you ever sign now [with the Reds] rather than wait until free agency [after the 2013 season]?” an NL executive said.
“If you are [Florida ace] Josh Johnson and you signed an extension [four years at $39 million] last year that is now so undervalued, how do you feel? I really think these young players might stop signing these deals.”

Why is this relevant?
Well, nearly the whole Indians team is young players who may not be too interested in signing away FA years given that riches could await them on the FA market, a practice that the Indians employed both in the early-to-mid-90s and the early-to-mid-00s, as they extended their young players, buying out years of FA eligibility from almost any player they approached as the security of the bird in the hand was seen by most players as ultimately more valuable than the allure of two in the bush.

More immediately (if tangentially) relevant to the current Tribe team, all of these FA dollars mean that you can say farewell to Choo after the 2013 season or likely sooner, as Jon Steiner asserts in a very pertinent piece to this topic, in which he reminds us (and this is important) that:
Right now, the Indians can sign Choo to a deal—for one year, two years, three years, six years, 142 yearas, whatever—so long as Choo agrees to the deal. No other team is allowed to do that. And if the team and Choo can’t agree to a deal, then they go to arbitration for the next three seasons and pay Choo whatever some lawyer thinks he’s worth.

All of these FA dollars are horrifying to see as a Tribe fan and interesting to compare to Choo in that it makes you appreciate how truly valuable he is; but it really isn’t all that relevant in the here and now when looking at salaries and projecting that Choo is not long for Cleveland because of what happened last week in Orland. Reason being is that Choo is under the club’s control until – say this with me, and this time with feeling – AFTER THE 2013 season.

So, Choo and Scott Boras can’t simply demand what Crawford and Werth just received because...well, simply because that’s not how this whole salary structure in MLB works.

Apologizing in advance for the giant cut-and-paste to this terrific article from Baseball Prospectus, this pretty much lays out it out more clearly than I’m going to by paraphrasing:
For years, the Players Association executed a brilliant strategy. As free agency created market competition and poor payroll management, GMs would bid each other up and ink players to ridiculous contracts. In arbitration hearings, player-agents would make clear and convincing comparisons between their young stud and the mediocre talent with a ridiculously bloated contract.

The result was devastating for management. Each bad contract sent ripples through the market and forced salaries up for everyone, all the way down to two-year veterans in their first salary arbitration hearing. As John Helyar writes in The Lords of the Realm, “They couldn’t be free agents, but they could compare themselves to free agents. The rising tide of salaries in the open market would lift all boats.”

In the 1985 labor agreement, the owners were able to address that in part. The current CBA contains this clause: “The arbitration panel shall, except for a Player with five or more years of Major League service, give particular attention, for comparative salary purposes, to the contracts of Players with Major League service not exceeding one annual service group above the Player’s annual service group.”

In other words, Super Twos can be compared to Super Twos and three-year players, but not four-year players. Threes can be compared to other threes and fours, but not fives. The exception is that fives can compare themselves to anyone, just like free agents.

Again that last paragraph was bolded by me, but it clarifies why you can forget all of this talk about comparing Werth and Crawford to Choo and his arbitration situation and the deals they just inked because they’re not allowed to compare them in the arbitration process. Are the contracts that Werth and Crawford signed pertinent to what Choo can ask for prior to his final season of Indians’ control? Of course, because at that point, he and Boras “can compare themselves to anyone, just like Free Agents”…but that comes PRIOR to the 2013 season his last under club control.

However, he’ll be paid for two seasons prior to that and if you want to know what to expect for the 2011 season, you have to go back to the comparables that MLBTR put out there in September and what those players received in their 1st year of arbitration eligibility:
Three other outfielders (none of them super twos) match up reasonably well with Choo if you compare his stats to what they had accomplished heading into their first arbitration seasons. B.J. Upton ($3MM), Josh Willingham ($2.95MM) and Ryan Ludwick ($3.7MM) all signed deals worth $3MM or so for their first arbitration seasons.
Choo doesn’t head into arbitration with quite the same platform year that Ludwick did, but Choo will be coming off a second consecutive 20 homer, 20 steal season. A $3.5MM payday in 2011 seems within reach.
If Choo is making $3-4MM next year and is set to receive raises in 2012 and 2013, the Indians would likely have to be prepared to spend considerably to sign Choo for the next three seasons. Antonetti could go year to year, especially if it looks like Choo will have to serve in the South Korean military, but if the Indians do sign their right fielder for the next three years, it probably won’t be for less than $20MM.

That still stands as correct today (regardless of what you may read that contradicts it incorrectly) and the contracts that Werth and Crawford just signed don’t change those comparables that were pointed out a few months back.

So...again, everyone get off the ledges and realize that Choo’s probably going to get about $4M next year (whether he goes to arbitration or they agree before going to arbitration), $8M or so the year after that, and let’s say $12M to $16M the year after that, when he CAN be compared to anyone, including players who have signed FA deals.

Those 3 guesses at a salary come between $24M to $28M and if Nick Markakis is the best comparison (as is asserted in the MLBTR piece linked above, but not mentioned in the excerpt because he signed an extension), he got 3 years and $20M in his three arbitration years as part of his extension that did buy out 3 FA years. If you’ll remember a while back, I proposed signing Choo to an extension that front-loaded or at least evened out what he would earn in his arbitration years with the idea that more money upfront would garner enough goodwill for a big club option to be placed out there in the 2010 season…that whole “bird in the hand” idea that the Indians have used for the last 20 years.

What I mean by that (and adjusting my previous numbers) is that the Indians would have offered Choo $9M to $10M each of the next three years instead of using an escalating scale that arbitration relies upon with the idea that the extra $5M or so in 2011 and $2M or so in 2012 would buy enough goodwill from Boras and Choo to the point that they would agree to pin an option at the end of the deal because of more money and more security upfront in the deal.

With Boras being Werth’s agent and seeing, first-hand, how easy it was to get the Nationals to commit a TON of money to a comparable player (and Choo after the 2013 season will be the same age as Werth is now), the chances of that now are basically gone.

That being acknowledged, you know where I’m at on this?
Let’s see Choo earn this money from year to year by continuing to perform on the field…

We know all too well the events that can cause a player to regress or to lose significant time due to injury and if Choo and Boras are willing to pass on the security of a long-term deal and eschew an extension because of what they feel they can earn on the market three full seasons from now...well, have at it.

Remember how Ryan Ludwick was a comp for Choo in his first year of arbitration?
Well, after prior to his second year of arbitration, Ludwick had a poor year (.775 OPS) and, as a result, received “only” $5.75M in his second year because arbitration doesn’t take market factors and opposing bids into account, only those comparable players in terms of service time and performance. As a result, Ludwick wasn’t allowed to introduce the deals signed by Matt Holliday or Jason Bay last off-season, because they weren’t relevant to his situation. The same logic will apply to Choo’s case this off-season and next off-season, depending upon what happen in terms of an extension.

Don’t take all of this to mean that I’m rooting for Choo to be injured or to regress significantly to the point that he’ll earn less in his arbitration years. However, after watching players get injured or regress to the point that they become overpaid as Indians who HAVE signed long-term deals, I’d actually take a little “we’ll pay you what you earn” with Choo for a couple of years and let the onus of worrying about future performance sit in his lap and that of Boras.

The Werth and Crawford signings cemented the fact that he won’t be here after the 2013 season (or probably at some point during it), but how Choo eventually exits – and again…he is under club control for another 3 years – may come down to whether other large market teams have followed the path blazed by the Red Sox in stockpiling draft picks and paying them overslot money to add a veteran piece or if a team like the Yankees or the Tigers or the Angels is simply ready to throw crazy money at a 32-year-old OF.

Because, after this off-season, both precedents have been set…