Sunday, February 27, 2011

A Lazy Sunday Finding Relief

After a week in which Old Man Winter took one last swipe at the North Coast (and my power for a couple of days), the sun is supposed to be shining today…and not just because the Indians play a team not named the Indians in Arizona this afternoon. With the Indians playing their Goodyear-mates, the Reds, and with the mountains of snow melting outside of my window, let’s get loose right away on a Lazy Sunday…

The big news of the week (and no, Trevor Crowe’s shoulder issues do not qualify) came late on Friday night as the Indians agreed to terms with RH relief pitcher Chad Durbin, most recently of the Phillies, to a one-year deal worth $800K guaranteed with another $1M available to Durbin in incentives. Nearly as soon as the signing was announced, the catcalls came from the gallery, wondering aloud what the point was in signing Durbin when the Indians are reportedly bursting at the seams with power arms for the bullpen.

Well, it certainly seems as if everyone’s memory of “just Chad Durbin” when he was a middling middle reliever/starter for the Indians a few years back (he appeared in 20 games for the Indians in 2003 and 2004) or as a poor back-end-of-the-rotation option in Detroit (starting 19 games of the 36 he appeared in for the Motor City Kitties in 2007) has created an overwhelmingly negative perception of Chad Durbin, essentially ignoring the player that he’s evolved into over the last three years in the Phillies’ bullpen. In fact, the initial confusion for some over whether the Indians were looking at Durbin to be a starter or a reliever is pretty indicative of the ignorance around Durbin and provides a decent explanation for the immediate dismissal of Durbin as an upgrade to the Indians bullpen.

However, since he’s become a full-time reliever at the beginning of 2008 in Philly, Durbin has posted the following line:
3.62 ERA, 117 ERA+, and a 1.37 WHIP in 226 IP over 194 games

While those numbers may not jump off of the page, realize that 17 MLB relievers in that 3-year stretch have posted a better ERA+ while throwing more than 200 innings. That criteria may seem a little convoluted, but if the issue with relievers is generally an inability to predict health from year to year as well as production, it means that Durbin has remained healthy and productive (if intermittently) in the last three years.

Given that track record of relative success, I’m not going to guess as to why Durbin still found himself on the outside looking in with teams already in camp or why he had to “settle” for an $800K deal with up to $1M in incentives from the Indians while other middle relievers backed the Brinks’ trucks up this off-season…and I’ll get to that. But let’s keep this with Durbin, who pitched in the 7th inning or later in 47 of the 64 games Durbin he threw in last year…think about that for a moment in the midst of this “Durbin is bullpen filler” talk while realizing that 29 of those appearances after the 7th inning came in either a one-run game or a tied game.

Additionally, in those 64 games, he accumulated a line of 3.80 ERA, 106 ERA+, 1.31 WHIP, 8.3 K/9, 3.5 BB/9, 2.33 K/BB in 68 2/3 IP, which meant that he posted a higher K/9 in 2010 than any Tribe reliever who threw more than 10 innings not named Chris Perez or Tony Sipp. Going further, Justin Germano and Frank Herrmann had similarly impressive K/BB ratios, but struck out fewer batters than Durbin did. If you prefer more advanced metrics, Durbin’s 4.19 xFIP in 2010 was lower than any Indians’ reliever with more than 6 IP.

Certainly that’s not meant to intimate that Chris F. Perez needs to be looking over his shoulder as the closer because Chad Durbin definitely has his flaws (the jump in the OPS vs. LH hitters in 2010 is worth watching) and I’m not going to be the one to guarantee that Durbin will achieve any measure of success in 2011, but if Durbin is a veteran arm (who they can run out there pretty regularly in a variety of roles and even ideally flip him in July) that allows the young power arms in the Tribe system to mature INTO legitimate set-up guys instead of having that crown bestowed upon their heads, it certainly doesn’t do much harm.

Yet the fact that Durbin is 33 years old and found himself still looking for a contract with teams already in camp has led to an immediate dismissal of this addition as Durbin is painted as a “long reliever”, which is more than a little misleading as he threw multiple innings in 19 of his 64 appearances last year which may look like a high number until you realize that Tony Sipp threw multiple innings in 18 of his 70 appearances for the Indians last year…would anyone categorize Tony Sipp’s usage last year as a “long reliever”?

Is this a dip into the bargain bin?
Any signing this late probably is, though as much as I can’t figure out (much less get on board with) any plan that goes to Opening Day with Sonny Nix or Paul Phillips on the 25-man instead of Jason Donald and Lou Marson, I’m fine with a bullpen addition, as long as the addition has a track record of success (even moderate) and health, which Durbin does. Reason being that there’s a big difference between Durbin coming in to pitch a couple of innings a week and Sonny Nix being the everyday 3B for the first few months of a season. Given that the effectiveness of bullpen arms is essentially a crapshoot from year to year, even with a track record of success – even recent success, adding an arm like Durbin makes sense considering that a good number of alternatives (particularly those that are RH) have either just taken their first sips of an MLB cup of coffee or have yet to grab their cup of Java in MLB.

Given that the Indians are still a very young (if promising) team, is there anything more soul-crushing to a young team than seeing leads given away in the 6th, 7th, or 8th innings? Lest anyone forget, Tony Sipp and Rafael Perez were both inconsistent last year and, while I have no problem with them pitching the 7th and 8th innings, both are LH and given that Joe Smith should NEVER FACE A LH hitter (LH hitters OPS vs. Smith was .979 last year and .992 in 2009), that would have left the Indians with Jensen Lewis as the RH arm that was going to be the 7th/8th inning bridge to Chris Perez. That would be the same Jensen Lewis who spent much of last season between Cleveland and Columbus and, while he certainly closed out the season well in 2010, who as a cumulative 106 ERA+ over the last three years.

If Lewis turns into Jensen v.2009, the Indians options for another RH set-up guy that had spent time on the parent club became…well, Frank Herrmann (44 2/3 career MLB IP), Vinnie Pestano (5 career MLB IP), and maybe a guy like Jess Todd (28 1/3 career MLB IP). As much as I might like the long-term outlook for those three (as well as guys like Stowell, Judy, Putnam and others…who have never appeared in MLB), given the uncertainty of any bullpen, do you start to see where Durbin comes in as a RH option with a track record of health and relative success?

None of this is to suggest that Chad Durbin is some sort of magical stabilizing force that will translate to the Indians bullpen DEFINITELY not driving into the ditch that captured them in 2006 or 2008 (most notably), but if you’ll remember how I was inexplicably scared by the bullpen last week, realize that I wasn’t alone in taking all of this talk that “the bullpen’s fine…finally” was premature, as no less than Castrovince asserted something similar while sitting in Bastian’s chair earlier in the week:
Beware anybody who offers assurances, positive or negative, about a Major League bullpen. Nobody really knows what they’re talking about. That's why it helps to have depth, and this is one area where - on paper, at least - the Indians possess such a luxury. Acta was asked if he thinks there's such a thing as "momentum" carrying over from one season to the next for a bullpen. After all, Tribe relievers posted a 2.95 ERA after the All-Star break last year - the second-lowest such mark in the AL and the fourth-lowest in MLB.

Of course the numbers after the All-Star Break are a positive sign, but AC’s right and the aside about “on paper” is telling because as much as we’d all like to think that Herrmann, Judy, Pestano, Stowell, and the other cast of characters is ready to step right into the Cleveland bullpen on Opening Day and thrive, the presence of Rafael Perez and Jensen Lewis (who were SO good down the stretch in 2007 and have gone through their share of career hiccups since) are instructive in terms of relying too much on any reliever from year to year, much less young ones, regardless of MiLB statistics or pedigree.

Truthfully, I’m probably more optimistic about the Indians’ pipeline of power arms than most and realize that 2011 is the year that many of them will arrive topside. However, from a realistic standpoint, success for relievers is volatile and assuming that any (or all) of these guys is going to arrive in Cleveland and dominate is delusional. While the sheer volume of arms that seems to be coming is comforting, isn’t one of the goals of the 2011 season (maybe not a publicly stated one) to get off to a fast start and perhaps even generate some interest locally to a sports scene in need of one?

Remember that idea again of how soul-crushing some bullpen implosions can be to a team, particularly to a young one, particularly early in the season?

It a main reason that one of the “suggestions” for Indians’ additions posited here back in October was for a veteran RH reliever with the reasoning for such being presented back then as such:
Though the Indians are touting the performance of the bullpen in the second half, let’s realize that the RHP that figure into the 2011 bullpen past Chris F. Perez are Joe Smith, Jensen Lewis, Justin Germano and a bunch of promising AAA pitchers, like Vinnie Pestano and Zach Putnam.

Do you really feel comfortable that one of those guys can assume that 7th or 8th inning RH role for 2011?

Maybe this is from the experience of watching the bullpen deep-six the 2006 and 2008 seasons (among other reasons), but I don’t and I think that a priority this off-season would be to add a RH reliever to the late-inning mix to assist Rafael Perez and Tony Sipp in serving as the bridge from the 6th to the 9th innings, when necessary.

I’ll still stand by that, regardless of the glowing reports that have come out of Goodyear and this intimation that the bullpen will be the “strength” of the team when Jensen Lewis and Joe Smith were tabbed as the teams’ RH set-up guys heading into Goodyear. In that piece from last October, my suggestion was to bring in a guy like Jesse Crain with those hopes being dashed when Crain signed an inexplicable THREE-YEAR DEAL with the White Sox for $13M.

Don’t think that Crain was the exception to the off-season rule however as Matt Guerrier signed a 3-year deal worth $12M with the Dodgers, Scott Downs signed a 3-year deal worth $15M with the Angels, Rafael Soriano signed a 3-year deal worth $35M with the Yankees, and Joaquin Benoit signed a 3-year deal worth $16.5M with the Tigers, the final contract providing the lead-in to a great piece in last week’s print edition of SI by Tom Verducci about how middle relievers were suddenly the prettiest belles of the ball this off-season:
Joaquin Benoit didn’t have a job last year until Feb. 15, and when he found one, it was through a minor league contract with the Rays. He was pitching filler—just another arm that was aging (he turned 33 last year), damaged (he missed 2009 because of rotator-cuff surgery), mediocre (4.79 career ERA) and not good enough to start or close games.

Instead of committing multiple years to set-up guys (who may or may not outperform Durbin) like those aforementioned teams did, the Indians took a chance that Durbin is able to sustain some level of success in 2011 while providing some rubber-armed veteran presence to a bullpen that figures to be pretty fluid throughout the year.

To that end, there’s going to be a lot of player movement in the bullpen (as there always) is and there will be a TON of opportunities for these young arms to get opportunities. For some perspective on this, the Indians used 13 relievers last year (not including Marte) and the year before that, they used 23 relievers. Chad Durbin will be one of those relievers in 2011, likely along with all of the young arms that people are (rightfully) optimistic about with the idea that those young arms can start the season in AAA, attemping to separate themselves and forcing their way onto the MLB roster, much in the way that Frank Herrmann did last year. Really, does anyone think that Chad Durbin is going to ostensibly block a gaggle of arms for the Indians all season long if he’s not performing for the Tribe?

For some context on this idea, realize that the Indians signed Jamey Wright to a minor-league deal last off-season that turned into a $900K deal when he made the 25-man roster out of Goodyear. At the end of May, he was sitting on a 5.68 ERA and do you know how many innings Jamey Wright pitched last year for the Indians?

It was 21 1/3 innings over the first two months of the season…among the 484 1/3 innings that Indians’ relievers threw in 2010, or about 4% of the innings “available” to the Tribe bullpen last year. Given that Wright (although signed to a minor-league deal) was guaranteed that $900K deal as soon as he made the 25-man roster was moved on from as quickly as he revealed himself to be an underwhelming option, isn’t a similar strategy likely to be employed in terms of Durbin?

All told, the Indians added a veteran RH arm with a track record of health and relative success (no small feat) over the last three years at a low cost with the idea that he’ll either provide some stability to the 7th and 8th innings beyond simply having Jensen Lewis as a RH option and allowing some of the young arms to slot themselves accordingly in Columbus instead of being asked to assume the role of RH set-up guy out of the gate.

If Durbin works out fabulously, the Indians can always move him to a contender in July, with the young players having spent the first half of the season jockeying for position to take a step up the bullpen ladder. On the flip side, if he completely flames out (justifying his lack of a contract with teams in camp for two weeks), the Indians can move on from him at any point in the season.

Interestingly, in thinking about the Durbin signing in terms of that old “Plan” for the off-season back in October, the other “suggestions” for the Indians’ Winter (outside of the contract talk) as past that identified “need” for a RH arm in the bullpen, I was hoping for an upgrade in the infield defense, a RH OF, and a veteran arm for the rotation.

As Bonderman and Millwood remained unsigned and still possible, the Indians pretty much checked three of those off with Durbin, The OC, and Kearns. Though my suggestion for an upgrade in the infield defense was Kouzmanoff, realize that the notion was completely contingent upon him being DFA’d and for the Indians to be able to sign him to a low-risk deal. Of course, the A’s did not designate K2 for assignment and decided to keep him in his third year of arbitration eligibility, in which they will pay him $4.75M.

Now is a good time to mention that The OC’s contract is for $1M guaranteed as well as pointing out the 2010 numbers for each:
Kouzmanoff – 2010
.247 BA / .283 OBP / .396 SLG / .679 OPS (83 OPS+) in 586 PA

O. Cabrera – 2010
.263 BA / .303 OBP / .354 SLG / .657 OPS (78 OPS+) in 537 PA

This is pointed out not to make light of the assertion that Kouzmanoff was a good idea (and remember, my interest in Kouzmanoff was ONLY if he was DFA’d, which he was not), but rather to point out that the Indians did have every intention of adding an infielder and it’s likely that after surveying the 3B possibilities, the Indians went to Plan OC, still likely keeping Jason Donald (which was in my “Plan”, just at a different position) in the lineup at 3B.

Is it the ideal situation?
Of course not with everyone playing out of position, but if the idea was to get Jason Donald into the lineup on an everyday basis and to shore up the other position with a stronger (albeit diminishing) defensive player, the Indians accomplished that with The OC. Even if I’d rather see Cord Phelps start the season as the 2B in Cleveland with The OC as the super-utility IF, the Indians did add another piece that fit their needs in Uncle Orlando with a low cost deal that brings them some relative stability.

In terms of stability, the return of Kearns as the RH OF certainly looks like a better move than my suggestion to add Matt Diaz, with the idea that Diaz was a RH who mashed LHP who could provide some protection against the all-LH OF and the LH Pronk. Of course, Matt Diaz made his way to Pittsburgh on a contract for 2 years and $4.25M, which really isn’t that bad of a deal, while the Tribe went with Kearns on a 1-year deal that will pay him $1.3M.

Although Kearns doesn’t bring the prowess vs. LHP that Diaz does, given that Grady is likely start the season on the DL with his effectiveness still in question going forward, Kearns (with his ability to be more than simply a “platoon” player, unlike Diaz) certainly looks like the more prudent addition, particularly given the fact that he knows the role that he’s being signed to fill and is comfortable in being the 4th OF, something Diaz may not have been willing to concede to.

As for the final “suggestion” to add a veteran starter, the two names that I specifically mentioned were Zach Duke and Brandon Webb, whose eventual contracts served as a microcosm of a starting pitching market gone mad – as it usually does. To wit, Duke signed a $4.25M deal with the Diamondbacks (who acquired him via trade) with club options for 2011 (for $3.5M) and 2012 (for $5.5M with a $750K buyout), this coming a year after he posted a 5.72 ERA and a 1.65 WHIP for the Pirates. Meanwhile, Webb (who has pitched 4 MLB innings since the end of the 2008 season) will make $3M guaranteed with $5M more available to him in performance and roster bonuses, with news that he will have his first bullpen session just hitting the wire this weekend.

That “opportunity” to add a starter with upside to a low-risk deal has not presented itself, but that doesn’t mean that it may not come yet. As camps roll on towards mid-March and if teams like the Cardinals and the Yankees opt to go with their “internal options” or the flotsam and jetsam they brought to camp, it will be interesting to see how the situations with Bonderman (who still interests me) and Millwood (who interests me not as much) evolve as the Indians could have either player fall into their lap on a low-risk, low-money deal with expectations for them falling in line with other players who have signed multi-year deals with other teams for millions of dollars.

While I’ll stop short of saying that that Chad Durbin fell into the Indians’ lap, inking Durbin does represent a signing that may pay dividends for them, allowing their younger arms some time to mature into their eventual roles. Whether the moves they have made with veterans to complement what they hope is their burgeoning “core” remains to be seen, but they spent $3.1M in guaranteed money to The OC, Kearns, and Durbin, with little to no risk or commitment to any of those players past their low guaranteed salaries.

Is it finally time to start playing baseball?

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Sizemore Still Matters

While parsing through the “X is a candidate for the 5th starter spot” pieces before any game action has started, much of the talk under the Arizona sun has revolved around the knee of one Grady Sizemore and while the discussion of that body part is preferable to what was the um…focus of last Spring (pertaining to Grady’s pieces and parts), there certainly seems to be quite a bit of attention being paid to Sizemore’s knee, even if all of it seems to be muddying the waters of expectation.

For the most part, the rhetoric coming out of the Indians’ camp has been that Grady’s knee is fine and that he’s continuing his rehab from the microfracture surgery that took place last summer to repair the damage done last season on the basepaths. Certainly, we’ve heard enough “he’s fine” and “he’s coming along great” as well as “he’s right on schedule with where he needs to be”, and perhaps those assertions are all true and indicative of where Sizemore really is in his recovery.

However, this little nugget appeared in the AP story (among other places) about Sizemore’s Spring last week, which led to some hand-wringing on the North Coast:
Sizemore said he was still experiencing soreness and discomfort in his left knee.
“I can definitely tell I had surgery there,” he said. “Just walking or running, I’m not feeling zero pain or zero symptoms.”
There is no timetable for when Sizemore will resume full baseball activities. He concedes he’s taking baby steps and isn’t sure precisely what’s ahead for him.

Though I’m no doctor and cannot speak to the recovery from this surgery (or any surgery), this idea that he’s still experiencing pain in the knee is surprising, in that Opening Day for the Indians is about 6 weeks away. While it’s been intimated that Sizemore may be on the “Branyan Plan” for 2011 (Branyan didn’t play until mid-April and didn’t play in 3 consecutive games last year until May 9th), the bigger question shouldn’t be “when will Grady return”, but rather “how will Grady performs when he returns”.

To that end, both Will Carroll of Sports Illustrated and a couple of writers at Baseball Prospectus weighed in on that very topic, after clearing through the vagaries of the surgery and rehab. To start it off, here’s Carroll from SI on how the knee could affect Sizemore’s performance:
There’s reason to believe that Sizemore will see a significant portion of his speed gone, costing him steals and doubles. It could force him to shift out of centerfield, as well, prompting some lineup issues for manager Manny Acta. Both Michael Brantley and Shin-Soo Choo can play CF, but neither is a plus defender like Sizemore -- if Grady can be that again.

The Indians have already gone on record that Grady is likely to stay in CF because playing CF means fewer sharp cuts than playing LF would, minimizing stress on the knee, although Brantley looked more than capable in CF if it comes to that.

Going further than Carroll’s prognosis, B-Pro has a VERY technical look at Sizemore’s injury and recovery, coming to a similar conclusion as Carroll but even offering an even more sobering conclusion:
Sizemore will likely lack the same quick burst of speed that made him a special player in the past, even all this time after surgery. His pain may be gone but his range in the outfield could suffer, and his work on the basepaths could follow suit. The best way to evaluate his knee—short of looking at it—is to see how aggressive he is. If he’s aggressive in the outfield or on the bases, it means he trusts the knee. If not, the knee may not be 100 percent.

While those pieces certainly throw some cold water on any idea that the Grady that we came to take for granted (the one who donned his cape in CF) is ever going to return, it is worth mentioning how terrific Grady truly was prior to the last two seasons, both derailed by injury, in the context of the rest of the league. By that I mean that not many people realize how unbelievable Sizemore was over a 4-year stretch, from 2005 to 2008, as he was the 5th most valuable player in baseball (according to WAR) over those 4 years, which came when Grady was 22 years old to 25 years old. He’s unquestionably the most accomplished current Indian, though recent performance certainly has clouded that fact in most minds.

As a burgeoning superstar, entering what should have been his “prime” years, as a 26-year-old and as a 27-year-old however, Grady’s been as valuable as Jason Kendall, Melvin Mora, and Ben Francisco (no…seriously, and he’s been a worse hitter than The Frisco Kid) since the beginning of the 2008 season. Of course, his injuries are the main culprit in that steep decline and it could be argued forever whether his style of play begat his injuries, but there are track records of “healthy Grady” and “injured Grady”, with the performance of the two varying from that of a legitimate elite player in MLB to roster fodder.

So if those two incarnations exist, what is to be expected in 2011?
Truthfully, nobody knows what to expect and to simply assert that he’s going to be somewhere between those two incarnations of Sizemore is lazy as about 90% of the players in MLB fall somewhere between elite and roster fodder. Additionally, any conveyance from the Indians regarding Sizemore’s health or expectations is probably not worth much as the updates on Hafner’s shoulder from Springs past were consistently bright and sunny, while the usage and performance of Hafner foretold another story all together. Certainly, I’m not ready to put Grady’s knee into the same column as Hafner’s shoulder, but the only clues as to what are to be realistically expected from Sizemore (and when) are going to come from reports of how he’s hitting, how he’s patrolling the OF, and (most importantly) how frequently.

It seems pretty likely at this point that he’s going to start the season on the DL and even when he does return, the percentage of his former self that arrives to the corner of Carnegie and Ontario is what will bear watching. The reason for that is that Sizemore at even 75% of his “former self” is better than most any other option the Indians would have in 2011 and, even more pointedly, going forward.

Here arrives the second factor in Grady’s return and level of performance, as well as the effect on the team, once he does return as if Grady’s injury lingers and if their already tenuous depth in the OF is forced to absorb a blow like losing Sizemore for any stretch of time. As we saw in 2010 after Grady went down, the options once you get past Choo, Kearns, and Brantley (who still needs to greatly improve, even on his “hot streak” when he returned in August, after which he posted merely a .332 OBP) get pretty ugly and the news that Trevor Crowe still can’t throw at full strength (insert arm strength joke here) makes the Indians’ OF “depth” even more shallow.

Of course, it could be argued that Trevor Crowe shouldn’t even be considered as a “depth” option at this point, particularly based on his stunningly ridiculous excuse that his elbow trouble, which did prompt off-season surgery, last year somehow caused his poor 2010 season. In case you don’t know to what I’m referring, Crowe explained that he began “feeling it (the elbow trouble) at the All-Star break,” and that he’s “interested to see what I can do at this level when I’m healthy.”

Um…“at the All-Star break”?
Lest anyone think that the elbow had more to do with Crowe’s struggles more than a sheer lack of ability to play in MLB, here are Crowe’s numbers before and after the All-Star Break last year:
Pre-All-Star Break
.249 BA / .302 OBP / .330 SLG / .632 OPS with 10 2B and 1 HR in 227 PA in 53 games

Post-All-Star Break

.253 BA / .301 OBP / .335 SLG / .636 OPS with 14 2B and 1 HR in 252 PA in 69 games

If the belief that Crowe’s elbow somehow affected his performance, the numbers certainly don’t bear that out and those results, over nearly 500 PA, lead to no other conclusion that what was seen in 2010 simply is who Trevor Crowe is. He turned 27 last November and he’s shown himself to be a poor route-runner in the OF with little to no pop in his bat over 681 PA in two seasons…and it took Andy Marte four seasons as an Indian to compile 670 PA. Concluding my little aside, I don’t think that it’s illogical to hope for the Zeke Carrera Era to begin (as flawed as he may be) and for Trevor Crowe to go away, as well as anyone responsible for his being foisted upon us as a prospect disappear as well, Grady or no Grady.

But I digress…
Certainly an option past Crowe or Carrera would be for the Indians to see how Nick Weglarz progresses in LF in Columbus, but Wegz needs to stay healthy long enough for the Indians to get a full read on him in AAA and the ideal situation is still for Grady to enter again, stage left, and pick up at some level of performance that he attained in his past.

Ultimately, it all gets back to the Sizemore issue going forward and what could reasonably expected from Grady in 2011 but, perhaps more importantly, past that. With that in mind, can we finally forget this whole “will they trade Grady?” nonsense that categorically ignores the option ramifications of his deal?

Lest you forget, and this was touched on a while back, remember that proviso in Grady’s contract that if he’s traded during this season, his club option for 2012 (for $9M) becomes a player option, meaning that if a team acquired Sizemore during the 2011 season, the decision to exercise his 2012 would fall to Sizemore. Thus, if Grady shows some promise but is light-years away from being his former self and the Indians trade him, Sizemore could survey the FA landscape (for about a second) and exercise the $9M option that his new team would be on the hook for. Conversely, if Grady somehow turns back into the player that dominated from 2005 to 2008 (and in short order), he could decline the $9M option with the idea that he would earn more on the open market as a FA.

Thus, Grady’s “value” in July of this year could be lower than ever because of that contract language and while that will certainly not keep the “Trade Grady?” crowd at bay as I’m sure it will continue to come up throughout the season and perhaps into the off-season. However, all of that is dependent on Sizemore’s performance in 2011 and, with this assertion that he could be on the “Branyan Plan”, it could be as late as late May when Sizemore finds himself in the lineup on an everyday basis.

If he doesn’t enter the lineup until mid-to-late May, it will take a while to get his sea legs under him in MLB and we’ll finally get a look at (to borrow the suggestion from B-Pro) his “aggressiveness” on the basepaths and in the outfield, to say nothing of how the knee may affect his swing.

That all being said, something’s been sticking in my head about Sizemore returning and this admittedly optimistic idea that Sizemore will start to emerge as the season wears on to show that being an above-average player (if not an elite one) still is within his reach. If that happens, and Sizemore starts to hit his stride in July or August, what do the Indians do in terms of that player option?

This was the suggestion about a month ago, with the lack of depth listed above past Sizemore certainly playing even more of a role:
If Sizemore shows anything to start the season, the Indians could pick up that club option that represents a higher number (the club option is for $9M) than Grady would conceivably get on the open market, given his recent injury history. In exchange for that guarantee of $9M in 2011 (and remember, we’re talking about Grady showing something to justify this), the Indians could ask for Sizemore to add a couple of years to his deal just as they did with Sabathia, though they’d likely ask for a discounted rate due to Sizemore’s injury history of the past few years.

This “strategy” if you want to call it that makes even more sense to me after reading an interesting Q&A with Boston GM Theo Epstein regarding the Red Sox philosophy in dealing with arbitration-eligible players and specifically on getting years past arbitration eligibility for guaranteed money in a long-term deal:
Our philosophy, which is actually a policy in writing, is if we’re going to sign arbitration-eligible players long term, we have to get one free agent year and we have to get an option for the club. Because we’re giving the player certainty. We need to be able get some of those prime years back in exchange. That makes it a fair bargain.

Those lines were admittedly bolded by me (and this explanation of “policy” is wildly applicable to the Choo situation), but it certainly justifies the notion that if the Indians pick up that player option for Grady, that it would have to be predicated on the organization getting something from Sizemore in terms of additional years and cost control.

That’s probably a discussion for another day and an answer will likely reveal itself, just as Grady’s “aggressiveness” will generate a multitude of opinions and predicted outcomes for Sizemore in 2011 and beyond. Realizing the history for Sizemore, the focus for the Indians should be not on WHEN Sizemore eventually joins the team, but WHICH Sizemore eventually joins the team.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Armed with Optimism on a Lazy Sunday

With the sun shining on the North Coast despite low temperatures (again), the eternal hope of Spring has taken hold for most Tribe fans as the Indians are all working out under the Arizona sun, with the steady reports and pictures to prove it. While a dose of realism is applicable when evaluating the chances of the 2011 Indians in the midst of their “Rebuild/Reload/Whatever”, it is undeniable that most of the optimism surrounding the Indians has to do with the projected performances of Santana and Choo, with a sprinkling of sun possible with a healthy Sizemore and Cabrera along with an effective (albeit in part-time duty) Hafner while the development of LaPorta, Brantley and, eventually The Chiz and Kipnis provide hope for the future.

The pieces on the chess board have been lined up for the Tribe and, at most of those positions, it’s fairly easy to see an above-average player manning a position at some point in the future, perhaps even this year. While “above-average” is certainly a relative term and dependent upon the maturation and development of certain position players, there is optimism (and reason for it) regarding the future of the Indians’ offense. That being assumed, most deep thinkers and prognosticators (along with the great majority of fans) have trouble buying into the competitiveness of this incarnation of the Indians in the near future and, almost without exception, the reason that’s pointed to is the uncertainty around the pitching staff, and specifically the starting rotation.

The pitching…oh, the pitching…
That’s the question mark for everything that you read nationally, to the point that Dan Szymborski put a “disclaimer” before his 2011 ZiPS projections for Tribe pitchers to avoid sickness when perusing projected numbers for the Tribe pitchers.

Sure, the Indians can point to brighter days ahead with Al White and Pomeranz and Joe Gardner in the rotation with the gaggle of power bullpen arms that line the system (and yes, Acta used the term “the next wave” when describing some of the young arms, apparently unaware that the “Waves of Arms” from the Minors of the previous incarnation of the Indians amounted to gentle lapping at the shore), but while the future staff has the potential to contain some serious difference-makers and elite pitchers, what are we to think of 2011?

Is it actually possible that the 2011 pitching staff is being undervalued and overlooked?
Lest anyone forget (and Manny Acta is here to remind you), “the Indians were tied for fourth in the AL in the second half in ERA at 3.86” and while the All-Star Break is a largely superfluous date in the MLB season, the performance of the teams’ staff in the 2nd half is largely dismissed or outright ignored as an illusory source of hope or as a talking point for an organization in need of them.

While reservations about building up hope may be justified for each of those reasons, realize that the period of time referenced by Acta is not a 20-game or even a 40-game stretch of the season. The Indians’ pitchers put that performance up over 74 games and, just to expand on Acta’s reminder, realize that the Indians’ staff posted that cumulative 3.89 ERA while pairing it with a cumulative 1.38 WHIP, with 480 K and 231 BB in the last 74 games of the season after the All-Star Break. The team was 35-39 to close out the season (third best record in the AL Central in the second half) and that “success” was unquestionably paced by that pitching staff that was tied for the 4th best ERA after the All-Star Break, equaling the ERA of the Rangers’ staff and better than the Red Sox, the Rays, the Blue Jays, White Sox, Tigers, and Yankees…among others.

That pitching staff in the 2nd half was comprised of the arms that are out in Goodyear as we speak, yet nearly universally the Indians’ pitching staff is dismissed as a hodgepodge of marginal pitchers or pitchers still maturing and evolving. While that latter point is certainly true, since those 2nd half numbers were put up by the guys that figure to comprise the 2011 pitching staff, at the risk of sounding myopic, what am I missing here?

Certainly, the Indians’ pitching staff was a…um, “work in progress” for the better part of the 1st half of last year as, prior to the Midsummer Classic, the Indians had a 4.64 ERA, a 1.56 ERA with a 5.5 K/9 and a 3.9 BB/9 in the first 88 games of the season. For the sake of reference, the team was 34-54 in those 88 games as their team ERA ranked 12th among the 14 AL teams in ERA prior to the All-Star Break.

However, back to that 2nd half ERA and how it compares to rest of the league, before anyone goes and dismisses it as more of a mirage than as a harbinger of things to come, perhaps it would be instructive to go back and look at how it compares to the Indians’ “half-seasons” back to the beginning of 2003, when “The Plan” was set into motion, with the idea that it would be deeply-rooted in pitching.

Realizing that the All-Star Break is just a date on the calendar and not some great moment in time, it does break each season up and, frankly, make it easier to quantify performance and provide similar timeframes over multiple seasons:
Pre-All-Star – 4.64 ERA (12th in AL)
Post-All-Star – 3.89 ERA (4th in AL)

Pre-All-Star – 5.40 ERA (last in AL…with reigning Cy Young winner Cliff Lee)
Post-All-Star – 4.65 ERA (9th in AL)


Pre-All-Star – 4.25 ERA (8th in AL…with reigning Cy Young winner CC and soon-to-be Cy Young winner Lee)
Post-All-Star – 4.74 ERA (8th in AL)

Pre-All-Star – 4.47 ERA (9th in AL)
Post-All-Star – 3.56 ERA (1st in AL)

Pre-All-Star – 4.64 ERA (11th in AL)
Post-All-Star – 4.03 ERA (3rd in AL)

Pre-All-Star – 3.82 ERA (4th in AL)
Post-All-Star – 3.35 ERA (1st in AL)

Pre-All-Star – 4.91 ERA (11th in AL)
Post-All-Star – 4.69 ERA (7th in AL)


Pre-All-Star – 4.20 ERA (6th in AL)
Post-All-Star – 4.22 ERA (5th in AL)

Look at those numbers, descending from 2010 and realize that the last time the Indians’ pitching staff was in the top ½ of the AL for those time periods was in the second half of the 2007 season. Going further than that, the team ERA in the second half of 2010 finished tied for 4th in the AL and the only other times that the teams’ ERA finished in or above the top 4 of the AL since 2003 were that second half of 2007, the second half of 2006, and both halves of 2005…when that “window of contention” was wide open.

So in those 16 “half-seasons” since 2003, the performance of the 2010 staff was the 4th best and tied for 5th best in terms of comparing their performance to the rest of the AL. Did I mention that 11 of those 16 “half-seasons” contained both CC and CP Lee?

However, back to those 2nd half numbers in 2010, take a look at the entire pitching staff’s numbers after the All-Star Break last year. Considering what the top three in the rotation (in terms of performance, not the “#2/#3/#4” designation garbage) and the five main components of the bullpen that figure in most obviously in 2011, does this stand out to you at all, in terms of 2010 ERA after the All-Star Break?
C. Perez – 0.63 ERA
Lewis – 1.76 ERA
R. Perez – 2.40 ERA
Sipp – 2.81 ERA
Smith – 2.96 ERA
Carrasco – 3.83 ERA
Masterson – 3.84 ERA
Carmona – 3.93 ERA

Just to provide some historical context for a “building” team, that 2003 pitching staff (with young arms like CC, Lee, Westbrook, Betancourt, Riske, etc. and this is a great comparative read regarding that 2003/2004 team to this one from Adam Van Arsdale of LGT) doesn’t touch the performance of these 7 pitchers, who are likely to serve as the backbone of the 2011 rotation and bullpen.

Historical context perhaps provided, what we may be seeing is the building of an actual entire pitching staff as, although it certainly helps, Tribe fans have learned that having that one difference-making arm can take a team only so far. Thus the importance of a line from Hoynes in the piece linked above with Acta’s reminder on the pitching staff:
The bullpen’s ERA in the second half was 2.95, the second best in the AL next to the Yankees. In September, the pen’s ERA was 2.11, trailing only San Francisco in the big leagues.

It bears repeating, but the bulk of that 2nd half 2010 bullpen sits out in Goodyear right now, and the relievers that spent time on the 2010 staff probably aren’t even the most electric or effective arms in camp. That being said, the bullpen still inexplicably scares me – probably because every time it was thought that the Indians’ bullpen was in good shape in the past few years, it revealed itself to be the rock tied to the ankle of the team, pulling it to the bottom – and while there’s certainly hope that some of the young arms will fill in around the “established” arms of the bullpen (and the earliest a current reliever can become a FA is after the 2013 season, with R. Perez, Lewis, and Smith under control for three more seasons), I’m holding my breath on the bullpen, for reasons unknown even to me.

In stark contrast, I remain as-inexplicably optimistic about the starters, despite the fact that deep thinkers in the baseball world remain thoroughly unconvinced that the Indians’ starting staff isn’t much more than a mish-mash of intrinsically flawed and uninspiring arms without much room for obvious or immediate improvement. To wit, Baseball Prospectus projects a 72-90 season for the Tribe and much of that is predicated on B-Pro’s examination of the starting staff:
The rotation is full of question marks. PECOTA expects Justin Masterson’s ERA to resemble his stellar peripherals more this season (4.26) than last (4.70). The problem, though, is the rest of the rotation, with just two other starters (Fausto Carmona and Josh Tomlin) projected for ERAs under 4.50.

Was the rotation inconsistent and maddening at times in 2011?
Of course and none of the arms have proven that they’re going to be consistent or that they can either re-capture success, most notably Fausto (and Hoynes has a fascinating piece relaying information about a very private Carmona that I can’t remember ever seeing, despite the fact that Fausto is entering his 6th season as an Indian) or get their potential to translate to success, as is the case with both Carrasco and Masterson.

However, going back to the 2nd half ERA’s for Carrasco, Masterson and Carmona (notably), realize that there were 72 pitchers in the AL threw more than 40 innings after the All-Star Break in 2010.
Here is how #20 through #35 on the list finished:
20) Brandon Morrow – 3.69 ERA
21) Matt Garza – 3.74 ERA
22) Ricky Romero – 3.75 ERA
23) Cliff Lee – 3.79 ERA
24) Scott Baker – 3.82 ERA
25) Carlos Carrasco – 3.83 ERA
26) Justin Masterson – 3.84 ERA

27) Shawn Marcum – 3.89 ERA
27) Jon Lester – 3.89 ERA
29) Gavin Floyd – 3.91 ERA
30) Fausto Carmona – 3.93 ERA
31) Brad Bergeson – 3.94 ERA
32) Nick Blackburn – 3.94 ERA
33) Carl Pavano – 3.97 ERA
34) John Lackey – 3.97 ERA
35) Rick Porcello – 4.00 ERA
Some names you recognize amongst those names that figure to make up 60% of a “rotation full of question marks”, no?

Going deeper than that, realize that Carlos Carrasco ranked 22nd in K/9 with a 7.66 K/9 ratio and 23rd in K/BB with a 2.71 ratio. While that admittedly is for his performance over 7 starts and 44 2/3 IP, if everyone can bury the potential of Carrasco on the basis of his 2009 struggles on the parent club (8.87 ERA in 22 1/3 IP over 5 starts), why isn’t it reasonable to exhume that potential, based on his 2010 numbers, as an above-average starter in the AL, with him not turning 24 until next month?

Lest you think that this “2nd half” idea is overblown or that ERA is the only measure of success for some of these guys, realize that among AL starters with more than 40 IP in 2010 (for the whole season), Carrasco ranked 7th among the 89 pitchers in xFIP (a metric used to predict a pitcher’s future performance) with an xFIP of 3.55, just below Jared Weaver and Jon Lester and just ahead of Brandon Morrow and Justin Verlander.

Just to flesh out those xFIP rankings going, using that same 40 IP criteria and eschewing the “2nd half” only stats, realize that past Carrasco at #7, the Indians placed Masterson #26 on the list of 89 (xFIP of 4.05) and Carmona at #42 of 89 (xFIP of 4.39). That’s three pitchers in the top ½ of AL starters with more than 40 IP last year using an advanced metric, in case you think this whole exercise if cherry-picking timeframes and stats.

That all being said (and bringing Carrasco back under the microscope), while Manny Acta can sing the praises of CarCar – and he said this week that, “He has the stuff to be one of the best guys in the American League, period” – let’s attempt to give Carrasco a longer look, in the context of another young pitcher whose name you may have read about this off-season.

Certainly there’s something to be said that Carrasco is dismissed nationally despite his 2010 season, perhaps as the bad taste from his cup of coffee in 2009 has lingered a little too long. But how does one explain that Kyle Drabek has had more e-ink spilled in his direction this off-season, from the “news” that he may not have an innings limit in 2011 to The Hardball Times putting him under the microscope a few weeks back, and this all comes after Fangraphs spent a whole piece (eliciting 33 comments) analyzing Drabek’s debut last September?

Let’s start all of this by pointing out that Carrasco turns 24 at the end of this March while Drabek turns 24 next December so we’re comparing similarly-aged players at similar (if not identical) levels here, starting with their performance in AAA last year:
Carrasco – 2010 AAA
3.65 ERA, 1.23 WHIP, 8.0 K/9, 2.8 BB/9, 2.89 K/BB in 150 1/3 IP over 25 starts

Drabek – 2010 AAA
2.94 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 7.3 K/9, 3.8 BB/9, 1.94 K/BB in 162 IP over 27 starts
So, Carrasco struck more AAA batters out last year while walking fewer, with the WHIP for the duo coming in pretty comparatively. But all of the national attention goes to Drabek while none comes to Carrasco, so the difference must be when they ascended late in the season for some MLB starts, right?

Carrasco – 2010 MLB
3.83 ERA, 1.37 WHIP, 7.7 K/9, 2.8 BB/9, 2.71 K/BB in 44 2/3 IP over 7 starts

Drabek – 2010 MLB
4.76 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, 6.4 K/9, 2.6 BB/9, 2.4 K/BB in 17 IP over 3 starts
Other than the ever-so-slight disparity in the WHIP and BB/9, Carrasco bested the performance of Drabek (ranked as the 13th best prospect in all of MLB by Keith Law and the 12th best prospect in MLB by, just to use two known lists already out there) across the board…over double the innings and starts to boot.

Carrasco – 2010 Cumulative
3.70 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, 7.92 K/9, 2.8 BB/9, 2.85 K/BB in 194 1/3 IP over 32 starts

Drabek – 2010 Cumulative
3.12 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 7.24 K/9, 3.7 BB/9, 1.97 K/BB in 179 IP over 30 starts
Give points to CarCar on the peripherals here, with the higher K rate, the lower BB rate, and (obviously) the better K/BB ratio. Yet all that seems to come out about young pitchers includes Drabek being exulted in flowery terms while Carrasco is some sort of disappointment or head case…

Well, maybe not in all cases as Drabek was recently listed as the #13 player in USA Today’s “Names You Need To Know” going into the 2011 season among young players (and The Axe Man was #11), which would, at first blush, lend some credence to that pervasive “Drabek is a Future Ace” thinking until you get a little higher on the list an realize that the #10 “Name You Need To Know” on that list is one…wait for it…Carlos Carrasco.

Maybe I’m overly sensitive to the omission of Carrasco’s potential in any analysis this off-season up to this point and have been pining for this kind of justification to recognize Carrasco as a legitimate difference-making arm who still hasn’t turned 24, but the USA Today list is one of the first that hasn’t been overtly dismissive of Carrasco and actually lends some credence to his success last year and his youth, having this to say about CarCar:
Cleveland has been sorting through pitching prospects for the past few seasons, looking for consistency. It finally began to see some from Carrasco, 23, during a September call-up last year. Manager Manny Acta is counting on Carrasco, who he feels has matured since being acquired from Philadelphia in the 2009 trade of Cliff Lee, to be in this year's rotation. He thrives on his fastball-changeup combination.

Looking at the rest of that Top 10, haven’t we read about Logan Morrison (#6), Jeremy Hellickson (#7), and Domonic Brown (#9) ad nauseum this off-season from the national outlets?

Yet somehow lost has been the 2010 performance of Carrasco, when he threw the 2nd most innings of any pitcher in the Tribe organization. Throw in the fact that he turns 24 in March – and good ol’ Boogie, Bartolo Colon, didn’t make his MLB debut until he was 24, posting a 5.65 ERA and a 1.62 WHIP in 19 games as a 24-year-old in 1997 – and Carrasco’s potential and ceiling starts to come into view.

Interestingly, in that USA Today list, other than Carrasco (#10) and The Axe Man (#11), the Indians are well-represented by Josh Tomlin (#31…seriously, one spot ahead of Chris Sale, probably on the strength of Adam Van Arsdale at LGT pegging him as the prohibitive favorite for the 5th starter spot), Al White (#36), The Chiz (#57), and Kipnis (#66).

The whole series is worth a look (and Josh Rodriguez is #72) as the criteria is not tied into not having too many AB or IP that precludes one from being a rookie and focuses specifically on “young players primed to make an impact during the upcoming big-league season” instead of containing players up and down the Minor-League system. To use the words of the list’s creator Paul White, “they aren’t necessarily baseball’s best prospects but rather the ones most likely to make a mark in 2011” and there are six Indians on the list with Los Dos Carloses ranking awfully high.

How many of those players actually make an impact in 2011 remains to be seen, but if Carrasco is able to parlay the success in the 2nd half of 2010 into a 2011 season that portends top-of-the-rotation potential, the Indians’ chances at competing in the AL Central with an eye towards contention becomes a lot easier to see. It’s been said before around these parts, but as important as LaPorta is to the long-term potential of the lineup (and here are just a few of the reasons why), Carrasco is just as important to the long-term potential of the rotation, and the pitching staff as a whole.

If Carrasco legitimately projects as a top-of-the-rotation starter, the Indians have a piece to build around instead of the alternative in which Carrasco is simply one of the secondary arms that can’t be relied on as a pillar for the rotation while the Indians hope that the likes of White, Pomeranz, and Knapp not only arrive in a hurry, but arrive in a hurry riding a quick learning curve.

Perhaps the Indians’ pitching staff, and specifically their rotation, surprise some people in 2011 and show that their 2010 2nd half performance was not a mirage, but instead a harbinger of success to come. Much will rely upon the development and maturation of the young arms, and most notably CarCar, and after the performance of the pitching staff since the beginning of 2008, Indians fans are due for some “good” surprises, aren’t we?

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Tomahawks Springing Up

With the Indians finally in Goodyear, readying themselves for an actual practice, we find ourselves in that glorious time of Spring, when we search for any little nugget of information as guys play long toss and run around the outfield between taking batting practice and hanging out around the batting cage. Of course, any nugget that doesn’t simply proclaim that “X is in the best shape of his life” is handled like gold and analyzed to no end because…well, that’s what baseball fans do while their Boys of Summer mosey around practice fields a couple of time zones away.

That being said, pictures of players milling around the diamond are still a welcome change from the off-season of inactivity that we’ve endured. Of course, not being in Goodyear and since what I do here is more the “how” and the “why” and not the “what” or the “who” – and I would recommend Jordan Bastian’s blog for the “what” and the “who” as Bastian has acquitted himself quite nicely to the Tribe beat and his daily blogs offer (to my eye, at least) a little more candor and insight than the official site stories – Spring Training will still be handled with that emphasis on the “how” and the “why” instead of attempting to provide the most up-to-the-minute updates on the batting order or Grady’s knee or the 5th starter…ahem, competition.

That’s not to say that there aren’t compelling things to watch this Spring and though I haven’t used this space to do the whole “Spring Training Preview” piece in some time, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some pieces that are definitely worth reading to get you better prepared for what’s coming in the next 6 weeks. To wit, my TCF colleague Nino Colla has been running a great series over at The Tribe Daily, breaking down the non-roster invitees, the pitchers on the 40-man, the position players on the 40-man, and finishes it up with a final overview. The whole series provides a nice encapsulation of the actors in the play and the breaks down the plot that figures to unfold in Arizona.

Even our old friend Anthony Castrovince takes some time to make his Opening Day roster predictions while the emotions that are welling to the surface as camp begins are examined by Andrew Humphries of LGT, attempting to quantify what it has meant to be an Indians’ fan for the last few years and how it is likely to feel going forward.

With Indians under the Arizona sun, it means that the promise of Opening Day and meaningful baseball is not far off, and that’s enough to warm any Tribe fan this time of year, while we watch the Tomahawks fly…

With the Orlando Cabrera signing now official, the 40-man would look to be set for the time being. However, Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe took some time off from suggesting that Sizemore and Carmona are on the Trading Block and from intimating that Masterson will eventually make his way back to the Red Sox as a reliever know, the Indians are subject to the whims of the other teams in terms of making players available that would solve other teams’ problems, to provide this little nugget on Bonderman:
A National League scout says he liked the way Jeremy Bonderman was pitching toward the end of 2010. “I’m really surprised a team hasn’t jumped at him,” said the scout. “But some of that is up to the player and the agent, too. If he’s asking for too much, nobody’s going to do it no matter how desperate teams are for pitching.”

Allegedly, the Indians and Bonderman are at an impasse because of the MLB/Minor League deal hang-up and Millwood has not come down off of his asking price for a deal (and for Kevin Milwood, v.2011...let’s hope the Indians stand firm on this one), but as time goes on this Spring, it will be an interesting situation to monitor as one would have to assume that Bonderman and Millwood would like to ply their trade somewhere in 2011. If the Indians can play the waiting game with them, maybe they can ink a guy like Bonderman to a Minor-League deal that would fall into their growing low-risk bin out in Goodyear.

Back to that Cafardo piece though, as the comment from the scout that he liked the way Bonderman was pitching toward the end of 2010 is surprising when you consider what Bondo did “toward the end of 2010”. That is to say, look at the disparate nature of Bonderman’s 2010:
Bonderman - First 13 games (2010)
4.06 ERA, 1.27 WHIP with 59 K and 20 BB over his first 75 1/3 innings.

Bonderman – Last 17 games (2010)
6.68 ERA, 1.68 WHIP with 53 K to 40 BB in his final 95 1/3 innings.

His ERA totals down the stretch don’t exactly justify the scout’s feelings as in the last 3 months of the season, he posted ERA’s of 7.77 (July), 6.11 (August), and 6.55 (September/October), so his performance “toward the end of 2010” must have included some positive signs for this particular scout that certainly didn’t show up in Bonderman’s stat sheet.

That all being said, you want a crazy comparison?
Jeremy Bonderman – 2010, through July 10th
4.79 ERA, 1.36 WHIP, 68 K, 27 BB in 97 2/3 IP over 17 games

Jake Westbrook – 2010, through July 10th

4.75 ERA, 1.48 WHIP, 62 K, 36 BB in 108 IP over 18 games

Is that cherry-picking a date to make the comparison work?
Yeah, probably...but Bonderman’s start in 2010 was actually better than that of Jake Westbrook and if the Indians are looking to add that veteran arm to the rotation to buy them some time before a guy like Al White is deemed to be ready for promotion, looking for a few months of production from Bonderman (who was effective in the early part of 2010) before looking to flip him still may represent an opportunity for the Tribe.

If you remember (or even if you don’t), Westbrook was moved for Corey Kluber who, as Al Ciammaichella said in his Top 50 Prospect countdown, will be jockeying for position “to be the first starter called up to Cleveland in case of injury or ineffectiveness in the big league rotation” with the upside of a “productive #3/#4 starter” if he can “refine his changeup” and while that may not look like a shiny bauble, that’s what the Indians netted for ½ of a season of Jake Westbrook, who actually had worse numbers than Jeremy Bonderman last year in mid-July.

With the 40-man apparently set (for now), the Indians have turned their attention to filling out their “honorary coaches/special assistants/attempts to cash in on some past goodwill” staff as players arrive in Goodyear. Certainly, the “addition” of Kenny Lofton, who will be in Goodyear to work with OF and baserunners before becoming an “ambassador” for two weekends at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario and the fact that the only bobblehead this year will be of The Human Rain Delay have the stink of culling up the “Era of Champions” for some nostalgic fans. However, the Indians actually did add some former players that figure to play a role in development while providing some input as they added Jason Bere and Eduardo (½ of the famous “Benuardo” of years past) Perez to serve as “Special Assistants to Baseball Operations”, even if Perez will oddly continue his work on ESPN while providing input to the Tribe on player development.

While you may have thought that Bere was already in this position and that Perez is simply replacing a position most recently filled by Ellis Burks, let’s all remember this little swipe that Hoynes took at the Tribe’s cost-cutting measures when discussing the Indians’ Front Office alignment:
It would be nice if they hired some consultants with big-league experience to replace Jason Bere and Ellis Burks. Bere and Burks were let go in budget-cutting measures after last season. The Indians used to have four former players in that capacity. Now they have one, Robby Thompson. Tim Belcher moved from that position to become pitching coach for the 2010 season.

That was from last September and well, Hoynsie...sometimes wishes do come true, so this must mean that the days of “budget-cutting” measures are past us, right?

Regardless, this is a “move” that’s pretty hard to quantify, but Eduardo Perez was once part of one of the more lopsided (though not the most lopsided deals with the Mariners with a platoon 1B) deals in recent memory, but as long as we’re surrounding Asdrubal with either veterans to push him (most notably, the man known as Uncle Orlando) or ex-players to remind him of the player that he was supposed to be and could perhaps still evolve into...I’m all for it because for as much attention is paid to the returns of Sizemore and Santana from injury (and rightfully so), getting Asdrubal back to the player that most thought he would be – offensively AND defensively – a few years back is tantamount to any measure of Indians’ success this year or in the coming years.

Want a stunning reminder of how well Cabrera’s first three years went?
Through his age-23 season (which was through the end of 2009), Cabrera had posted a 105 OPS+ in 1,034 PA over 290 games with 71 2B, 6 3B, and 15 HR. No less than Troy Tulowitzki, through the first three years of his career (which took him through his age-23 season to the end of 2008) had a 96 OPS+ in 1,082 PA over 281 games with 59 2B, 7 3B, and 33 HR.

Is that to suggest that a Tulowitki-esque leap to superstardom awaits Asdrubal?
Certainly not, but it definitely puts the disappointment of Asdrubal’s 2010 (before and after the injury) into some perspective...

Even if most of the baseball world is focused on Messrs. Sabathia and Pujols (and those links are to Castrovince, comfortable in his new chair, nailing both situations), this is the time when hope springs eternal across this fair land of ours, even if some of the hope is misplaced...particularly if your zip codes places you out of “The Corridor”.

By that I mean that SI’s Tom Verducci has some interesting facts on the growing disparity among the purported “parity” of MLB, pointing out the manner in which a few of the East Coast teams along “The Corridor” have separated themselves from the pack:
It’s true that baseball enjoys a parity that fosters World Series dreams this time of year. Eleven franchises have accounted for the past 12 pennants. But that’s because most teams bubble to the surface for one year and sink back, while the Phillies, Yankees and Red Sox are virtually unsinkable. It’s time to take stock of the task that confronts the other 27 teams.
The Phillies, Yankees and Red Sox have:
• averaged 94 wins from 2007-10 while winning no fewer than 89 games.
• claimed 10 of their possible 12 combined playoff spots in the past four years.
• been represented in each of the past six League Championship Series and seven of the past eight.
• come within five wins of claiming every spot in the past three World Series.
• accounted for 32 percent of all dollars spent on free agents this winter -- and that’s not counting the $154 million the Red Sox have stashed in a desk drawer to extend the contract of Gonzalez, a trade acquisition who had to leave his hometown team after a 90-win season to step up into The Corridor.

Yeah, seriously.
Here’s to waiting for the Indians to “bubble to the surface” again sometime soon while enjoying the fact that the first full practice is tomorrow…

Saturday, February 12, 2011

A Lazy Sunday Wading Through the Infield Quagmire

Now that the Cavaliers have finally won a game over the Clippers (and is now a good time to mention that the Clippers, with Blake Griffin and Eric Gordon are 13 games under .500…so here’s to the bounces of the ping-pong ball equaling success in the near term) and with the temperature on the North Coast finally cracking 40 degrees, it’s time to get loose on a Lazy Sunday on the precipice of pitchers and catchers reporting which is, of course, Tuesday.

Under the Arizona sun, while there will be some moderate intrigue as to who the 5th starter will be, it figures to pale in comparison to the depth of the mess in the infield so before wading into that marsh, here are a couple of quick hits on different ways that the Indians can go with that 5th starter spot. Providing a nice encapsulation of the “competition”, Jon Steiner examines the likely “combatants” and realizes that most of it merits a hearty “meh”, saving the vitriol for Dave Huff, whom he asserts is “just not good at pitching”. While I don’t think that Huff’s MLB record to this point could lead anyone to a different conclusion, LGT’s Adam Van Arsdale comes to the defense of Dave Huff, recalling some pertinent rankings (from Goldstein), debunking the idea that he’s “another soft-tossing lefty” of the Sowersian ilk and concluding that “if Huff can tweek his change and slider, regain some of his (excellent) minor league control, and figure out how to use his pitches more effectively, Huff can still be a major league pitcher.”

If I was really forced to choose someone for the 5th starter spot entering Goodyear, given that Tomlin is what he is and Gomez could use more seasoning in AAA (I’m not including Ant Reyes in the discussion) and seeing that the Indians have not added that veteran pitcher that they’ve reportedly been courting, the player with the highest upside is still Huff (even if his MLB track record has shown that he perhaps is “just not good at pitching”) as his left-handedness in an Ocean of RH makes him all the more valuable...potentially, at least.

Given that there’s been some well-documented friction between the Indians and Huff, if I’m the Indians I give Huff the 5th spot on Opening Day with the idea that he’ll have two months to either assert himself into the teams’ future plans or to simply fade away into Sowersia. Essentially, here’s your rope…either save yourself or make your own noose because, with some of the other arms that have yet to come, Huff needs to show that his 2008 season in the Minors was not the aberration and that he is able to make the transition to MLB that has eluded so many pitchers before him.

If the Tribe went in another direction at the 5th starter spot, it would certainly justifiable (and I suppose it will be worth watching), but it’s time to tell Huff that his future as an Indian is in the balance and that it’s time for him to either step up or step aside.

Additionally, there will be some question as to which arms fill out the middle portion of the bullpen, in front of C.F. Perez, Sipp, R. Perez, Smith, and Lewis...but those are largely fungible pieces and parts that figure to be doing the I-71 Shuffle for most of the season. As for the make-up of the bench, I’ll get to some of that, but debating the 25th spot on the roster is ludicrous…unless you want to hear my screed against Trevor Crowe, 2011 Cleveland Indian.

No, most of the eyes will be focused on what the Indians’ infield is going to look like as the recent (apparent) signing of The OC (that’s Orlando Cabrera...and I didn’t come up with that) certainly seems to add questions on top of the existing questions that were obvious in the infield before the addition. On the surface, The OC makes sense as a back-up SS to Asdrubal adding some veteran help to the infield and upgrading over the possibility that Adam Everett would be spending time in Cleveland at all this year. But the intimation that The OC is going to “compete” for the 2B job throws multiple layers of confusion over what was already a baffling situation.

Perhaps the Indians surveyed the FA landscape and, unable to locate a 3B that fit their needs, they went to the “Next Best Option” in The OC, figuring that he would provide some stability to the infield. That sounds good in theory, and I’ve been hoping for some sort of infield upgrade as noted in the Hitting the Fan piece when the news hit. However, let’s realize that The OC’s cumulative OPS over the last 3 years is .692 (OPS+ of 83) and that his once-steady glovework has been deteriorating for the last few years at SS. With the news that he will “compete” for the 2B job, the assertion that I made in the piece seems to be coming to fruition as it looks like the Indians will be asking him to learn a new position when his bat doesn’t justify it, falling in line with the “Nixian” philosophy that seems to have pervaded the corner of Carnegie and Ontario in recent years.

Maybe The OC does represent a better option at 2B than any of the previously-thought-of competition (though I’ll get to my point that I think a better option exists in a bit) and Anthony Castrovince does a nice job of walking us through the decision and how Cabrera fits as “the fixer” to a problem. Castrovince’s rationalization is the best that I’ve seen for the move, although the “fix” certainly doesn’t seem as clean as you might hope for, seeing as how Cabrera has played all of 33 MLB games at 2B, with the Indians admitting that Cabrera will “compete” for the 2B job and (thankfully) will not supplant Asdrubal at SS.

If Cabrera then is thought to be the front-runner for the 2B job and not just an upgrade over Adam Everett (cumulative OPS of .589 in the last three years, which puts The OC’s offensive “contributions” of the last few years into perspective) as a back-up SS, what the move does then is move the mess of the infield situation firmly over to 3B…as if it wasn’t already enough of a mess over there before this.

To that end, let’s back to the Castro piece, as he mentions to “count me among the skeptical that Donald has the arm to play third (and Cabrera has never played there). It still seems to me that Jayson Nix is the favorite to land the most opportunity at the hot corner” summarily dismissing Louie V as an option (and rightfully so) at either spot.

Want to know why I have trouble with the idea that “Nix is the favorite” at 3B...not his natural position, when he struggled there last year and was reportedly not improving in Winter Ball at the hot corner?
Frankly, because his offensive contributions don’t justify his inclusion in the lineup – particularly if he’s playing out of position and if his value (intrinsically tied to his ability to play 2B) is simply not a factor.

Don’t believe that Nix’s bat doesn’t justify him being much more than “in the conversation” at any of these positions…and particularly 3B?
Consider that since the beginning of the 2008 season, 313 players have amassed more than 700 PA with Jayson Nix’s .288 OBP in that timeframe placing him 306th among those 313 players. To put that into context, Orlando Cabrera’s .319 OBP places him 248th among those 313 players and Luis Valbuena’s .289 OBP in the same timeframe just eclipses Nix’s total.

But Nix has power, right?
Well, kind of...but his .380 SLG over the last 3 years ranks him 254th among those 313 qualified players and, as long as we’re talking numbers from the triple slash, Nix’s .215 BA since 2008 ranks him 310th of the 313 players in MLB with 700 PA or more, one point below recent Minor-League signee Jack Hannahan.
No, seriously...

So we’re anointing Nix as the 3B (when he can’t play the position), based on what?
We saw Nix play 3B last year and (this is important) after being CUT by the offensively-challenged 2010 White Sox, Nix went on a relative power surge as an Indian, even if those improved numbers only improved his three-year totals to have the 7th worst OBP and the 2nd worst BA for players with more than 700 PA.

Yet he remains firmly in the conversation when The OC (who again, would be playing out of position) is assumed to be the 2B because the idea that he’ll just slide over to 3B has become pervasive. To that end, regarding the 2B/3B question, in an attempt at an answer within one of Jordan Bastian’s Spring Training preview (albeit before The OC’s signing) Bastian opined that, “Jayson Nix and Jason Donald appear to be the leading candidates for both spots. Which player would play where is not clear right now.”

Maybe the frustration of the whole “square peg, round hole” idea that has taken hold in the Indians’ infield (when nobody’s bat justifies the attempt to push that square peg into place) has embittered me on this situation, but if you look at what is projected for the names that figure most obviously in the 2B/3B mess, consider these projections from a variety of sources:
Jason Donald
ZiPS - .687 OPS
Bill James - .714 OPS
Marcel - .727 OPS

Sonny Nix
ZiPS - .677 OPS
Bill James - .691 OPS
Marcel - .691 OPS

The OC
ZiPS - .676 OPS
Bill James - .680 OPS
Marcel - .665 OPS

Jack Hannahan is not listed on that list because...well, because Hannahan’s projections would scare small children as his glove would be his meal ticket and Louie V is not listed for the mere fact that if the Indians are considering him for the everyday 3B job, then somebody should be fired on the spot, if an entire housecleaning isn’t in order.

Back to those main three however, those are pretty underwhelming projections overall, right?
Figure in that each and every one of them figures into positions that are not their “natural” position and you start to see the veins in my forehead appearing. That being said, which one of those players do you see legitimately fitting past July of 2011 in any role...the one with higher projected OPS from all three sources across the board, right?

Yes, Jason Donald has been a SS throughout his minor-league career and looked horrifically deficient in the defensive department last year (both at 2B and SS), but if the Indians are completely abandoning hope to put together the best defensive infield, why wouldn’t Donald be the preference over Nix? Perhaps it’s hope in the devil I don’t know (what Donald looks like at 3B) over fear of the devil I know (Nix at 3B), but the assertion that Castro made that Donald’s arm wouldn’t be strong enough for 3B leads me to wonder if he had the arm for SS, wouldn’t his arm be better suited to 3B instead of 2B?

If Donald moved over to 3B, he’d at least be on the same side of the diamond as his “natural” position and names that have moved from SS to their right (Mike Young, A-Rod, Jhonny P., etc) is more complete than the one that I can compile off of the top of my head of success in moving across the bag. Maybe Donald lacks the skill-set to play 3B (and if he is able to play 3B, whoever in the Indians’ organization that made the suggestion last year that he should be playing 2B when 3B was just as large of a gaping hole should be re-assigned) and maybe that will reveal itself under the Arizona sun, but between Nix and Donald, which player more obviously fits into the Indians’ long-term plans and which has the higher ceiling?

Nix, with his 77 OPS+ over 718 PA and three years who turns 29 this August, or Donald, who compiled a 94 OPS+ in his first 325 PA last year and who will turn 27 this September?

Certainly, it feels like picking between the lesser of two evils (and Donald’s defensive transition would obviously play a factor here), but if the Indians’ 3B job comes down to those two players, playing at a new position, I’m taking Donald with the idea that he has room to grow and is able to provide more of a stop-gap at 3B until The Chiz arrives instead of subjecting myself to more of Jayson Nix’s 3B “stylings” in the field, when his bat doesn’t justify putting up with those defensive deficiencies. Perhaps you could make the same argument with Donald, but with the addition of The OC to play 2B (and I’m almost there as to why I think he shouldn’t), I’d insert Donald at 3B and see what the Indians have in the 26-year-old former SS who was a Top 100 Prospect in MLB just two years ago – square peg, round hole and all…

Maybe Donald goes Louis V. (2010 version) and completely buries himself in the organization, but the only way to make that determination is by giving Donald an extended look at MLB and, unless you think that Jay Nix figures more obviously into a future roster for the Indians (at any level of contribution), there’s no better time to start than the present.

As for the assumption that The OC has been signed to “settle” 2B, most of the justification that I’ve seen for the move revolves around defense (which we don’t know about because he has yet to play 2B and, if we’re talking about the best 2B defensively, it’s Nix) and veteran leadership, which rings hollow for me as a reason to include him in the everyday lineup. That being said, if The OC was brought in to simply be a “fixer” at 2B until Jason Kipnis is deemed to be ready, let’s go back and take a look at those ZiPS projections for the 2011 infield “competition” participants, including one more name in the list, one that frequently gets overlooked:
2011 ZiPS projections
Donald - .687 OPS
Nix - .677 OPS
The OC - .676 OPS

And…wait for it…
Cord Phelps - .700 OPS

Projections are just that and certainly that’s not a HUGE difference in terms of performance than the names above Phelps, but remember how everyone’s waiting for Jason Kipnis to be ready to take over 2B for the next 6 or 7 years and how the Indians say that Kipnis needs time in Columbus (while denying that they’re managing his service clock) before ascending to the parent club?

Check this…
Cord Phelps – 2010 (Cumulative)
.308 BA / .368 OBP / .457 SLG / .825 OPS with 28 2B and 8 HR in 119 games (all played at 2B)

Jason Kipnis – 2010 (Cumulative)
.307 BA / .386 OBP / .492 SLG / .878 OPS with 32 2B and 16 HR in 133 games (all played at 2B)
Clearly, Kipnis had the better performance at the plate last year, but realize that Kipnis started the season in Kinston, then moved up to Akron while Phelps started the season in Akron, then moved up to Columbus. Once at Columbus, Phelps posted this line over the final 66 games of the season, all of which were played as a 2B:
.317 BA / .386 OBP / .506 SLG / .892 OPS with 20 2B and 6 HR

Is now a good time to mention that Phelps is only 2 ½ months older than Kipnis with 273 PA at AAA under his belt?

As Marc Hulet points out in his Top 10 Tribe Prospect piece at Fangraphs, “Phelps actually out-performed Kipnis in the Arizona Fall League (although not by that much) with a .451 wOBA” so wouldn’t it make sense that Phelps would at least represent a stopgap until Kipnis was deemed to be ready?

If the Indians could get past their “square peg, round hole” philosophy in the infield, perhaps Phelps at 2B – yes, right out of the gate – does more to advance the development of the current “Rebuild/Reload/Whatever” in that he’d be playing his natural position (The OC wouldn’t) and would be rewarded for his excellent 2010 campaign and his Arizona Fall League performance with a chance to justify himself at the MLB level in 2011 from Day 1. As has been explored before, with Kipnis starting 2011 as the Columbus 2B and The Chiz as the Columbus 3B, Phelps would look to be a man without a position to start 2011. Call me obstinate or just exceedingly frustrated by the square peg-round hole philosophy, but the idea of moving Phelps around the Columbus field in an attempt to find value is short-sighted when an obvious solution is staring the Indians right in the face.

That is (and obviously depending upon what happens under the Arizona sun) going with Phelps at 2B out of the gate with Cabrera as the Utility Infielder to spell the youngsters in the infield and to provide that veteran presence…just not striding to the plate 4 times a game or playing a brand-new position on an everyday basis. Of course, that proposition presupposes that Jason Donald can play 3B and certainly that’s no given as I’m sure the odds were pretty long that Jason Donald would be the Indians’ Opening Day 3B in 2011 last October.

However, if the Indians looking for stop-gaps until The Chiz and Kipnis arrive, how about ingratiating the two players that would figure in as Utility Infielders once they arrive to give them some time as starters? If anyone brings up the service clock management of guys like Donald and Phelps as a reason NOT to give them a legitimate shot…well, the Indians are in more trouble than anyone could have ever imagined, pushing off arbitration dates with what are likely to be bit and/or utility players. But the Indians should be approaching the 2011 season with the idea that they could afford players like Donald and Phelps the chance to justify their inclusion in some of the top prospect ranking lists that they’ve been on instead of miring down in Columbus as the organization attempts to convert them into Super Utility guys at the AAA level?

If the Indians are going to embrace this youth movement and start giving young players that could contribute in this next incarnation of the Tribe (even if it’s on the periphery of the roster or in marginal roles), it means that they develop their OWN players to fill roles, perhaps eliminating the need to go out and sign the Adam Everetts, Jack Hannahans, and…yes, The OC’s in the bargain bin.

The Indians aren’t going to know what they have in Donald and Phelps, most notably, until each is afforded an extended chance and with The Chiz and Kipnis not far off, those “extended chances” don’t figure to be that abundant in the coming years. It’s possible that both Donald and Phelps crash-and-burn and find themselves on the I-71 Shuttle for the coming years, unable to find a toehold in Cleveland, but the Indians are never going to find out if they trot out the likes of The OC and Nix (both playing out of their natural positions) in lieu of answering questions about their internal options at the Big League level. If the Indians go with what looks like their current course of action (a light-hitting, veteran SS at 2B and a light-hitting, veteran 2B at 3B), any thought of contention looks further off, not closer…