Saturday, July 30, 2011

Going All In on A Lazy Sunday

What If…the Indians were in 2nd place at the end of July in 2011, 1 ½ games out?
What If…the Indians were the most aggressive team in MLB, moving two of their highly prized prospects (arms, no less) to make a move for today AND tomorrow?
What If…the Indians were the team taking the chance that a proven MLB commodity was worth more than minor-league prospects?
What If…Ubaldo Jimenez just became a Cleveland Indian?

That’s right, friends of the feather, your Cleveland Indians have just acted boldly and decisively in an attempt to improve their chances at the AL Central (and beyond) for 2011…and for 2012…and for 2013. While everyone attempts to wrap their heads around the haul of prospects that the Indians just gave up for 2+ seasons of Ubaldo Jimenez, it is easy to forget that very fact – the acquisition of Jimenez has been made with an eye not at the final 2 months of 2011, but at the organization’s chances of contending for the next few years as a healthy (and that’s a caveat here) Ubaldo Jimenez slots into the top of the Indians’ rotation for the next few years. But in making that addition, the Indians paid a steep price…one that you would expect to add a 27-year-old RH pitcher with a career 3.62 ERA and under club control for the next two years PAST this year for a total cost of less than $10M over the next two seasons combined.

Just to recap the deal, most reports have the Indians sending Drew Pomeranz (who cannot be named as part of the deal until mid-August because he was a 2010 draftee), Alex White, Joe Gardner, and Matt McBride to the Rox for the services of Ubaldo Jimenez through 2013. While Gardner and McBride are generally throw-ins on the deal, the big names that everyone will recognize are those of Pomz and Al White, unquestionably the Indians’ top two pitching prospects and the Tribe’s last two 1st Round Picks, who had been identified by the team (and most everyone else) as the future of the Indians’ rotation for 2011 and beyond.

That “future” of the Tribe rotation has a new name today as Ubaldo Jimenez arrives on the North Coast in exchange for the Indians’ duo of young arms. In case you’re catching up here, Jimenez burst onto the national scene last year with his ridiculously successful start and most recently has found himself searching to re-capture that success since last year, as he has struggled with injuries in the early going in 2011 as his overall 2011 numbers underwhelm as he currently sits on a 4.20 ERA, 107 ERA+, and a 1.33 WHIP, all serious downturns from his “break-out” 2010 season.

However, since Jimenez has been rehabbing from a Spring Training thumb injury and working his way back into shape, he has posted a 3.03 ERA in his last 11 starts with 71 K and 11 BB (read that again) in his last 71 1/3 IP (read those K and BB totals again) for Colorado, not including his inexplicable start last night for the Rockies. While concerns about Jimenez’s health and velocity persist (his fastball is down about 3 MPH from last year), it is worth noting that Jimenez has played for the Rockies and…in case you don’t remember, Coors Field tends to have an impact on pitchers’ effectiveness.

With that in mind, peep these home/away splits for Jimenez this year:
2011 Home – 5.55 ERA, 1.67 WHIP, 7.4 K/9, 2.04 K/BB, .885 OPS against in 61 2/3 IP
2011 Away – 2.83 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, 9.7 K/9, 2.95 K/BB, .534 OPS against in 60 1/3 IP

Don’t take that to mean that Jimenez is going to go all Pete Martinez, circa 2000 if he’s moved away from the thin air of Denver, and Tom Verducci from has an interesting piece that asserts that Jimenez is on the precipice of a major downturn, based on the fact that he HAS pitched in Colorado during his career, with Verducci stating his case thusly:
The workhorse starter in Colorado Rockies history does not exist. No one ever has thrown 200 innings three straight seasons for the Rockies, though Jimenez is attempting to be the first. In the first half of last season, Jimenez’s career odometer went past 600 innings, as he moved into sixth place on the franchise's all-time innings list. He looked every bit the franchise ace. Since then, he has been just another middle-of-the-rotation pitcher: 10-16 with a 4.03 ERA. Is that a slump or a warning sign?
There have been 10 pitchers who have thrown 500 innings for the Rockies. What kind of toll did the previous nine pay for pitching in Colorado? Almost all of them broke down, none of them had sustained success through his 30s and even getting out of Denver proved not to be restorative for them. Only one of the nine pitchers ever threw 200 innings after leaving the Rockies: John Thomson did it once, for the 2003 Rangers.

Verducci even has a little chart in the piece to support his assertion and while I’m not sure about the whole “Mile High Effect” on a pitcher’s longevity, Verducci does raise some interesting and compelling counter-points to the idea that the Indians would be getting a bona-fide ace, under club control through 2013.

Maybe Verducci is on to something here, but most of the concerns that I’ve seen about Jimenez have to do with his downturn in effectiveness from last year to this year and looking at the most cited numbers, it’s hard not to wonder why there’s some trepidation on Ubaldo:
2010 – 2.88 ERA, 1.16 WHIP, 162 ERA+
2011 – 4.03 ERA, 1.37 WHIP, 107 ERA+

Quite the regression, right?
If I may channel my sports talk radio font…FAUSTO V2.0!?!
Well, actually if you start to compare what Jimenez has done in terms of K and BB, his numbers actually fall right in line with where they were last year, decreased velocity and all:
2010 – 8.7 K/9, 3.7 BB/9, 2.33 K/BB
2011 – 8.6 K/9, 3.5 BB/9, 2.47 K/BB

In fact, if you look at what Jimenez’s numbers look like for the past two years in terms of Fielding Independent Pitching, the expectation for Jimenez’s performance look to be moderately in line with what he put forth in his breakout 2010 season:
2010 – 3.10 FIP, 3.60 xFIP
2011 – 3.48 FIP, 3.49 xFIP

So, what’s been the big difference with Jimenez?
Has it simply been luck, with his .271 BABIP in 2010 and his .309 BABIP this year?
That’s a question that has hopefully been answered by the Indians’ scouts and medical staff as the Indians are essentially going all in that Jimenez is going to be the pitcher that he’s been for the past few years as he arrives on the shores of Lake Erie. Interestingly, though so much attention has been paid to Jimenez’s 2010 and 2011, it is worth noting that heading into 2010, Ubaldo had a career 3.80 ERA, a 1.31 WHIP and had a steadily rising K rate. So while 2010 may have been Jimenez’s career year, the downside of Ubaldo (assuming health) is still an arm that can slot into the top of a rotation…any rotation.

That much is obvious, but the question becomes why the Indians were willing to give up so much (and they gave up A TON) for Ubaldo, the answer comes in these numbers:
2012 - $4M
2013 - $5.75M Club Option ($1M Buyout)
Now, there’s a 2014 option that may be voided now that Jimenez has been traded (and it is up to Ubaldo…who may not void it) but just to put those numbers in perspective, Carmona’s club options are worth $7M in 2012, $9M in 2013, and $12M in 2014 if picked up. Perhaps invoking the name of Carmona is frightening in terms of a pitcher regressing, regardless of how friendly his contract seems to be, but Ubaldo is a 27-year-old top-of-the-rotation starter with a career ERA+ of 127 who strikes out nearly a hitter an inning.

To question how Ubaldo fits into the Tribe’s rotation (or any rotation) is akin to insanity, but it doesn’t dismiss the idea that there are very real reasons to be wary of Jimenez – from Colorado’s still-unknown reasons for making a 27-year-old “ace” available, to reports that the Yankees backed away from the Ubaldo sweepstakes when they were allegedly stonewalled in their attempts to obtain medical reports.

That said, the Indians’ Front Office – oft-maligned for their inactivity, their proclivity to sell “tomorrow” instead of “today”, and crucified for “unmet” promises – weighed the risks in acquiring Ubaldo (and there are many) and parted with their two prized arms, with one having already contributed to the parent club and with the other one following the same fast track. In giving up Pomeranz and White, the Indians are gambling that the performance of Jimenez over the next 2+ years is enough to balance out the club control that they held over Pomz and White, and the potential that each arm contained.

Is it a bold move?
Of course, as the Indians find themselves suddenly trying this shoe on the other foot – attempting to convince themselves that immediate gratification is preferable to the delayed gratification that we’ve become so accustomed to wrapping our heads around since July of 2008.

To obtain 2+ years of Jimenez, the Indians gave up Pomeranz and White and while that cost seems obscene to some, it is worth noting that what Jimenez (when healthy) brings to the mound is essentially what the Indians could have only hoped Pomz and White to mature into over the next few years. Whether Pomeranz and White attain the level of effectiveness and dominance that some have predicted for them will reveal itself over the next few years, but Indians’ fans have come to know that the road between Akron (where Pomz was just promoted to) and Cleveland is much longer than a northbound trip on I-77.

Perhaps Pomeranz fulfills his promise as a dominant front-of-the-rotation starter and maybe White moves into the Colorado rotation at the beginning of 2011 to induce groundballs and eat innings, but the recent lessons of Atom Miller’s finger serve as a constant reminder as to how well-laid plans can remain on the ground. After years of convincing ourselves that 5 to 6 years of Masterson, Carrasco, LaPorta, etc. were worth more than the remaining years left on our departing stars’ contracts, we are left to come to grips with the notion that perhaps a bird in the hand is better than two in the bush…at least, in the proper context.

If the big loss is Pomz, it is worth noting that Jimenez is what you HOPE Pomeranz would be and let’s be honest about this as Pomeranz has pitched all of 14 innings above A+. Now, he has flat-out dominated to this point in his professional, as he struck out 112 of the 370 hitters he faced in Kinston and has already struck out 17 of the 57 hitters he’s faced in Akron, meaning that he’s still striking out nearly 1/3 of the hitters that he faces, but to net something of worth generally means giving up something of worth, and Pomeranz is certainly something of worth…as is White.

Maybe Pomeranz and White anchor Colorado’s rotation for the next few years (though White only has 38 2/3 IP above AA and was coming back to the Indians as a reliever because of the finger injury…further solidifying why acronym TINSTAAPP – There Is No Such Thing As A Pitching Prospect – has gained traction because of injury and attrition rates), but the Indians just acquired an arm that has the capability to sit at the top of their rotation RIGHT NOW and I don’t think that the fact that Jimenez helps now should be ignored. By that I mean that White and Pomeranz certainly represented a bright future, in which they could be slotted around the likes of Masterson and Carrasco, but that future date of when they could contribute (and contribute at a high level) was largely an unknown.

With the Indians having promoted Chisenhall and Kipnis already, the pieces for their offense seem to be in place (with all of them under contract through the end of 2013…which is when Ubaldo is signed through) and this could signify that the Indians see this “window of contention” as opening in front of them. While that may be hard to see, in light of no-hitters and Cookie buzzing Billy Butler’s tower, if you stood in short right-center field (so as to look away from CF and RF) right now and looked around the diamond, you would think that this is how the Indians WANTED their 2011 team to look – with Santana, LaPorta, Kipnis, Cabrera, Chiz, and Brantley occupying the spots that seem to have been reserved for them. Maybe that crew is underwhelming right now as they adjust to MLB, but couldn’t that be the point in this?

If the pieces were/are already in place around the diamond and Masterson, Carrasco, and the bullpen were thought to be pieces that the team could win with for the rest of the year but (more importantly) in 2012 and/or 2013, the Indians must have felt that Ubaldo – as he arrives to Cleveland as an established pitcher – represents the best piece to fit in with the rest of the roster to win now. But that “win now” mentality that is pervasive at this time of year with rent-a-players and arguments that Ryan Ludwick upgrades an offense doesn’t really apply to Jimenez as the fact that he’s under control THROUGH 2013 (and the 2014 option is at Ubaldo’s discretion) and if the Indians have their pieces lined up on the board with everyone under control through 2013, it’s easy to see how an established stalwart like Jimenez fits into the rotation more than potential stalwarts like Pomz and White for the next couple of years.

Certainly, that line of thinking represents a sharp departure from what we’ve been used to from the corner of Carnegie and Ontario in recent years, but the Indians have put the fast-forward button on this rebuild/reload/whatever, and the acquisition of Ubaldo (and the trade of The OC for a young RH OF) only confirms that the Indians see an opportunity in front of them in 2011 and in the coming years. While the assumption when the season started was that the Indians needed to take incremental steps back toward contention, they’ve taken a flying leap forward in acquiring Jimenez to add to their rotation.

The cost to add him was unquestionably steep, but his inclusion in the rotation and on the roster seems to signal a new day on the North Coast – one in which boldness and bravado may be coming back. The acquisition of Ubaldo does not come without risk, in terms of his assumed health and the because of the arms that they gave up for him. However, the Indians showed aggressiveness in adding Jimenez and adding Ubaldo to the current mix of players, nearly all under contract through 2013, should make for an interesting couple of years.

While this day may have been hard to even imagine just 2 years ago, as CP Lee made his way to Philly and a tearful El Capitan went to New England, the Indians have added the most desirable arm on the market to their team and, while it may have taken two young, highly-thought-of 1st Round Picks to do so, the Indians have pushed all of their chips into the center of the table for the services of Jimenez of 2+ years, with an “ace” now seemingly in the hole.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Fukudome in a New Home

For the first time since 2007, the Indians are “buyers” in the July swap meet as the Indians have added Cubs’ OF Kosuke Fukudome to their painfully thin OF mix. According to most reports, the Cubs would pick up nearly all of the remaining $4.7M on Fukudome’s 2011 salary and the Indians would be parting with two minor-leaguers, Columbus reliever Carlton Smith and Kinston OF Abner Abreu. While most of the North Coast will exhale with a soft “meh” and as the sports-talk radio machine goes into high gear that “THIS…THIS is the BIG MOVE” (that I told you was coming), let’s get to know Fukudome and attempt to figure how he fits into this 2011 Indians team.

On the season, Fukudome has a line of .273 BA / .374 OBP / .369 SLG / .742 OPS with only 20 XBH in 87 games while walking 46 times and striking out 57 times. Though he has virtually no power (he has 3 HR this season in the friendly confines of Wrigley Field), his .742 OPS would put him 4th among current Tribe regulars (behind Hafner, Asdrubal, and Santana) and that represents an obvious upgrade over the Buck/Kearns/Carrera triumvirate, which will continue to live on in some amalgamation until Choo returns…which he still thinks will be in mid-August.

Regardless of Choo’s timeframe, the one thing that Fukudome has done since he arrived in America is get on base, and he has done so with remarkable consistency if you look at his OBP over the last three years:
2009 - .375 OBP
2010 - .371 OBP
2011 - .374 OBP

With the Indians previously stuck with Buck, Kearns, and Carrera starting in 2 of the 3 OF spots, Fukudome represents an upgrade in on-base ability at the very least, despite the fact that he has very little power. While it is true that he is a LH hitter, he has a generally even platoon split in his career:
Career vs. LHP - .712 OPS
Career vs. RHP - .783 OPS
Looking at that, it’s true that he’s better against RHP, but he’s not awful against LHP, something that cannot be said about Travis Buck, who has now been DFA'd.

Regardless and back to Fukudome, he’s generally played RF in his career with the Cubs, but has also played quite a bit of CF, which means that Fukudome can man RF until Choo returns (which, again, he thinks he’s doing in mid-August…or in two weeks), then sliding over to CF to provide some speed and on-base ability to the top of the lineup.

In Chicago, Fukudome was often seen as a bust, which was largely the result of the money he was getting paid on the North Side ($40M over the last 3 years) as Fukudome is a useful, if flawed and incomplete, player who was never worth the money that the Cubs gave him when he came stateside, but certainly represents an upgrade – however incremental – over what the Indians have been forced to play in the OF since the injuries to Choo, then Sizemore.

Certainly Fukudome may not move the needle and he may not be that BIG BAT that everyone seems to think is going to solve all of the Indians’ offensive woes, but there was really one difference-making bat available this July and he just made his way to the Bay Area after (surprise) the news that Beltran would block any trade to Cleveland, with the Indians intimating that Boras was “controlling the process”. If this comes as a surprise to you…well, you haven’t been paying attention. As much as I’d like to say that this wasn’t the obvious outcome to any Beltran-to-Cleveland talk, it was if you remember that thing that I’ve written about since Beltran’s name was invoked as a “trade target”…that Beltran wouldn’t come to Cleveland, that Heymann’s reportage of it meant that Boras was telling Heymann that Beltran wouldn’t come to Cleveland.

While other OF names have gotten more attention in recent weeks and may have more cache because of name recognition (justified or not), let’s all realize some things about the three names that have been most closely connected to the Tribe to this point – Upton, Crisp, and Ludwick.
BJ Upton has a cumulative OPS of .721 since the beginning of the 2009…
Coco Crisp has an OPS+ of 90 since he left Cleveland 5 ½ seasons ago…
Ryan Ludwick has a .718 OPS since the beginning of last season…
So, let’s all acknowledge that while all of those names may certainly look like an upgrade, at this point doesn’t it seem that the Indians are more than just one “big bat” away?

Those guys…yeah, those aren’t big bats, if you consider what they’ve done this year in comparison to everyone’s whipping boy du jour (who is about to feel the snarl of my whip), one Matt MaTola:
2011 OPS Totals
LaPorta - .703 OPS
BJ Upton - .702 OPS
Coco Crisp - .701 OPS
Ryan Ludwick - .678 OPS

Yes, LaPorta has the lowest OBP on the season among those names…but that also means that LaPorta has a higher SLG than Upton, Crisp (obviously), and Upton. So, if you’re looking for that big bat to plop in the middle of the Tribe lineup to apparently make everything sunny and happy on the North Coast, those names weren’t going to do it. That’s not to say that Fukudome is “the answer” to what ails the Indians, but at this point he represents an upgrade over Zeke Carrera stepping out of his 4th OF role and this team should be looking to make any and all incremental upgrades available to them.

Essentially, that’s what Fukudome is – an incremental upgrade and since I’m becoming more resigned to the fact that they won’t be adding a long-term piece (with the Nats’ acquisition of Jonny Gomes indicating that they may be buying, not selling…so Mike Morse’s availability can certainly be questioned), it may come back to the fact that the team has already made their BIG moves as Chiz arrived for Hannahan and Kipnis arrived for The OC as the Indians set their lineup up for today and tomorrow already.

Putting Fukudome in the #2 spot and in RF for the time being makes the lineup more palatable (though certainly not intimidating) as the addition of Fukudome gives the Indians at least a viable MLB player that can get on-base that can fill in while Choo gets healthy and can be useful for the remainder of the year.

While what the Indians gave up for 2 months of Fukudome looks like a pretty small price, the Cubs eating Fukudome’s remaining salary meant that the Tribe had to give up more than just the PTBNL’s and “cash considerations” that are so popular this time of year. With Fukudome in the fold, most reports indicate that the Indians are not done adding as they’re probably still looking to add a RH bat (like Ludwick…who will underwhelm more than Fukudome does if he’s added) or a starting pitcher before Sunday’s Trade Deadline.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

A Lazy Sunday Up Against a Deadline

Paulie C. is taking this weekend “off” in order to move himself, a house full of furniture and three young boys into a new home, one that more appropriately fits Mom, Dad as well as 1/3 of a the starting lineup of a baseball team. So I’m sliding into the captain’s chair here on a Lazy Sunday that sees us eight days away from the non-wavier trade deadline. Despite opening the season with somewhat low expectations on their $49 million payroll, and despite having Grady Sizemore (x3), Travis Hafner, S.S. Choo, Alex White, Joe Smith, Carlos Carrasco, Mitch Talbot, Matt LaPorta and Fausto Carmona spend time on the DL, our Indians find themselves playing the role of buyer at the deadline for the first time since 2007. Indians fans seem almost confused to be in this role, as some think we should trade for Carlos Beltran and David Wright, some think we’re better of shopping in the bargain bin while others think we should just sit tight with what we have and see what happens. To find out where I fall on this spectrum as well as getting to see my mid-season top-10 prospects list, read on…

The big news from last week isn’t on the trade front per se, but that the Indians have again reached into the upper echelons of their farm system for a top prospect to try to jumpstart the sagging offense. Jason Kipnis was called up to The Show to make his major league debut this past Friday, and went 0-2 with a HBP in a 3-0 loss to his hometown Chicago White Sox. Kipnis follows the trail blazed by Alex White, Cord Phelps and Lonnie Chisenhall before him, as the Indians now have called up four of their top ten (and three of their top five) prospects going into 2011 in an effort to win THIS year. My thoughts on the Kipnis call up are pretty much contained here, but others outside of the Cleveland area have been weighing in as well. ESPN’s Jim Bowden, formerly the GM of the Reds and the Nationals, provides a scout’s take on Kipnis (subscription required), saying “While the Indians' starting lineup just improved, we’ll have to watch Kipnis' defense closely to see how far he’s progressed since he changed positions less than two years ago.” Bowden seems confident that Kip’s bat will play this year and possibly be at an all-star level down the road, and projects that he will be a league-average defender as well by giving him a future grade of 50 (current grade of 45) in the field on the 20-80 scouting scale.

Staying on Kipnis for a moment, I’ve been asked a number of times via twitter and e-mail lately what type of player he will be at the major league level. Everyone loves comps, so here’s one for you; none other than our very own Carlos Baerga. I think Kip’s overall #’s at the plate will be very similar to what Carlos put up in his peak years, but Kip will be better in the field and hopefully have a longer peak than Baerga. From 1992-1994, Carlos averaged .316/.349/.484 with 20 HR, 100 RBI and 11 SB. That’s what I think Kipnis could turn into. That’s pretty much beset-case scenario and I don’t see him finding quite that level of success this year, but based on what I’ve seen from him, read about him from respected voices in the industry and his minor league track record, that’s what we could have on our hands in a year or two. So for those suggesting that the Indians include Kip in a deal for Hunter Pence…would you really give up 6 years of club control of Jason Kipnis as part of a package for 2 seasons of Hunter Pence when he would be eligible for arbitration? I wouldn’t.

That dovetails nicely into our next segment here on LS…did the Indians already make their big deadline deal by bringing up Kipnis? Per CNNSI’s Jon Heyman, one unnamed AL scout thinks so. Heyman quotes the scout as saying that ”the Indians just made a blockbuster deadline trade,'' and added that Cleveland should get a "helluva in-season jolt.” Hopefully that ends up being the case, as Kipnis to the big league roster as an in-season “trade” was something that has been floated in this space a number of times by both myself and Pauly C. Do I think it is a “blockbuster” trade and one that will propel the Indians to the Central Division crown all by itself? Absolutely not. Do I think that if given consistent playing time Kipnis will be better than Orlando Cabrera at the plate and in the field? I 100% do. So temper your expectations a little bit and give him time to get his feet wet, but hopefully Kipnis is here to stay and will be part of a run to the postseason this year, albeit not the driving force behind that run.

As far as actual trades from outside the organization go, your guess is as good as mine at this point. It’s pretty clear that the Indians need a righthanded outfield bat, and they’ve been loosely linked to every name from Carlos Beltran to Coco Crisp. As my esteemed colleague Brian McPeek has pointed out, at this point the MLB trade deadline feels like almost as much of an ESPN creation as the ESPY’s, and the “rumors” are just that, created to generate frequent page clicks and rake in advertiser dollars. Baseball Prospectus takes a funny look at just how some of these rumors might get started and the ridiculousness of the whole situation. If I had to guess, I’d agree with guys like Kevin Goldstein and Jim Bowden who think that if the Indians make a move at all, it will be for a middle of the road bat like Ludwick or Crisp, and I’m fine with that. As I alluded to above when talking about Kipnis, I don’t see how the Indians can even entertain the idea of giving up some of their valuable prospect currency for a short-term rental. I’d be ok with a minor prospect for a guy like Ryan Ludwick, but I wouldn’t want to give up players who will be cheap and under club control for two+ months of Carlos Beltran. The way this team is set up, the 2012 Indians should be better than the 2011 Indians, and the 2013 club should be better still. If I was confident that this team was one player away from the World Series this year, I’d say trade anyone who won’t be on the playoff roster and have at it. But they aren’t quite there yet, and I’d hate to trade away a shot at the 2012-2016 postseason for a better chance at the 2011 one.

On the non-trade/non-prospect front, Grady Sizemore is once again on the disabled list. Pauly pretty much captured everything you’d every want to know about Sizemore earlier this week, so I’m not going to linger on this very long. ESPN’s “Injury Expert” Stephania Bell weighed in on news as well with some medical terms that I really don’t understand. The bottom line is that Grady now has had trouble in both knees and has now had surgery to repair a “sports hernia” twice in the past two years. Dr. Bill Meyers is apparently the Dr. James Andrews of the sports hernia world (who knew?) and be conducted the surgery, but I think that at this point anything we get from Grady down the stretch will be a pleasant surprise and certainly not anything that can be counted on in advance. I hope he comes back healthy and productive as he is a joy to watch when he is going good on the field, I just don’t see how anyone can expect rather than hope for that at this point in time.

Jordan Bastain takes a really interesting look at Justin Masterson’s last start, in which he threw one slider and 103 fastballs in 7 2/3 shutout innings against the Twins last Tuesday. I repeat, he threw 104 pitches, 103 of which were either 2 or 4-seam fastballs. The slowest fastball he threw was 89.9 MPH, and the fastest was 97.9. Basically, 99% of his pitches were over 90 MPH. One of the most significant developments between this season and last season for the Indians is the development of Masterson from a potential bullpen arm to a dominant front of the rotation starter. Justin Credible has a 3.77 ERA against lefthanded batters this year, who are hitting .278 off of him. That’s a nice improvement over last year, when he posted a 4.02 ERA and a .290 average against southpaws. Any way you look at it, the 26-year old Masterson has taken a tremendous leap this year. If he can sustain his 2011 form, it will go a long way towards anchoring a solid rotation on the North Shore for the foreseeable future.

Like he does pretty much every time he steps up to the plate, Anthony Castrovice knocks one out of the park with his look at the trade market, injuries and whether or not this is a team of destiny. He tackles the buy/sell/hold question as well as anyone I’ve seen, and basically comes to the same conclusion I have. He just says it much better than I ever could:

Yet the Indians carry on in this crazy division, and they have 10 days to decide how serious they want to take this final push. By and large, I’m not a big believer in Trade Deadline acquisitions truly deciding divisions… at least, not in trade markets like this one. There are no CC Sabathias or Cliff Lees to be had here. By and large, the deadline is a pretty overrated avenue for improvement. I wrote some version of it before and I’ll say it again that, with all apologies to the Ryan Ludwicks, Josh Willinghams, Melky Cabreras and Aaron Harangs of the world, getting Choo or White back in the near term will do more wonders for this club than any of the reportedly available options on the market would.

Basically, the best shot making and finding success in the playoffs this year will come not from external options but from the Indians own players getting healthy and productive. I still think we could see Nick Hagadone, C.C. Lee or Josh Judy up in the bullpen for the stretch run, so it’s not like there are no more options from inside the organization. Nick Johnson appears to be healthy and hitting (3 HR in his last 7 games). So even if there isn’t a major move in the next week or so, there could still be an infusion of talent in the days to come that could help push the team over the top.

As a special feature here on Lazy Sunday, I’m going to unveil my updated top-10 prospects in the Indians organization, plus a few who just missed. Fear not, as I will take a more in-depth look at all 50 from my preseason list as well as some of the guys who have played their way into the upper echelon of talent in the organization down the road, but here’s a sneak peak at the top-10. As a reminder, players eligible for this list must have fewer than 50 IP or 130 AB at the major league level and have to be signed and in the organization. No Francisco Lindor here, yet.

  1. Jason Kipnis, 2B-CLE

He was #1 going into this year, and didn’t do anything to lose that ranking in AAA Columbus. He was a AAA all-star, hit a HR in the MLB Futures Game, and put up a .279/.361/.481 line with 12 HR, 55 RBI and 12 SB in 13 attempts. Hopefully he’s up in Cleveland for good, and will get consistent playing time as the everyday 2B.

  1. Drew Pomeranz, SP-AKR

I had him at #3 in March, he pitched his way up to the #2 spot with a dominating half-season in the Carolina League. He was promoted after the Futures Game and has made two starts in AA Akron, and he’s put up a 1.87 ERA and 106 K in 86 2/3 innings of work between the two levels.

  1. Lonnie Chisenhall, 3B-CLE

Chiz wasn’t setting the world on fire in Columbus when he was called up, but had put together a solid season and scouts were pretty much unanimous in their praise for his sweet lefthanded swing.

  1. Alex White, SP-CLE

White dominated at AAA Columbus and earned a ticket to Cleveland, where he pitched well before injuring his middle finger and going on the DL.

5. LeVon Washington, CF-LCC

Washington hasn’t been great in Lake County, but it is his first year in professional baseball and he’s still just 19 years old.

6. Nick Weglarz, LF-AKR

Wegz was primed for a big year in AAA Columbus, but tore his meniscus prior to the season and has only played ## games for AA Akron. He’s struggled in Akron and still doesn’t seem like he’s 100% healthy, but he’s one of the few power OF bats in the Indians organization.

7. Cord Phelps, INF-COL

Phelps has been outstanding in Columbus, but struggled during his brief promotion to Cleveland earlier this year. Didn’t exactly get consistent playing time on the North Shore, and will likely be back at some point as a utility infielder.

8. C.C. Lee, RP-COL

Lee has been one of the most dominant relievers in the system this year, posting a 1.83 ERA and striking out 77 hitters in 54 IP between Akron and Columbus.

9. Nick Hagadone, RP-COL

Like Lee, Hagadone began the year in Akron before working his way to Columbus. He has a 2.86 overall ERA and 52 K in 50 1/3 innings of work, and will be a power arm in the back end of a major league bullpen sooner rather than later.

10. Chun Chen, C-AKR

The reviews on Chen’s defense are improving, and his bat is still solid. He’s hitting .280/.329/.475 for Akron with 10 HR so far this season.

Just missed: Zach McAllister, Scott Barnes, Zach Putnam, Jason Knapp, Joe Gardner, Rob Bryson

Last but certainly not least, I’d like to offer a heartfelt congratulations to former Indians Robbie Alomar and Bert Blyleven as they enter the Hall of Fame today. Neither will wear the Chief Wahoo cap in the Hall, but both had some pretty good years on the North Shore. I’ll never forget watching Alomar and Omar Vizquel play together up the middle, as every groundball hit by the opposing team was a potential webgem. Seeing them turn doubleplays was poetry in motion, and Robbie was no slouch with the bat in Cleveland either. He averaged .323/.405/.515 with 21 HR, 103 RBI and 35 SB in his three years playing for the Indians, the best three year offensive stretch of his career. Blyleven had four solid years in Cleveland, but he was a little before my time as his 1st year in Cleveland was the year I was born. So congratulations to both on their well-deserved induction into Cooperstown, and I look forward to seeing their plaques on the wall the next time I visit those hallowed grounds. Until next time….go Tribe!

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Kipnis Up, Valbuena Down

Just in case you weren’t already convinced that the Indians are trying to make the playoffs this year, the front office at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario decided today to call up uber-prospect Jason Kipnis from AAA Columbus. Luis Valbuena’s short stay on the North Shore is over as he is sent back to the Clippers, and Jared Goedert was designated for assignment to make room on the 40-man roster to add Kipnis.

After a bit of a slow start to the season, Kipnis came on strong in May and June and was hitting .279/.361/.481 after yesterday’s loss in Columbus. He’s been struggling with the bat in the month of July, hitting just .154/.250/.231 but a hectic travel schedule might have had something to do with that. Kip appeared in Arizona for the MLB Futures Game as part of All Star Weekend (where he led off the bottom of the 1st with a HR) and followed that up with a trip to Salt Lake City for the AAA All Star Game. Prior to the all star break, Kipnis was hitting an impressive .297/.380/.506 with 11 of his 12 HR.

Let’s get this out of the way now …Jason Kipnis is not coming up here to play OF. He’s not coming up to be a utility INF, and he’s not coming up to play 3 days a week. He’s coming up to play 2B regularly, otherwise he wouldn’t have been brought up. Has Chris Antonetti personally assured me of this? No, but I think it is a pretty good guess. Orlando Cabrera will likely hang around in case Kipnis either fails spectacularly or gets hurt, but Kip will be the regular 2B for the foreseeable future.

Kipnis joins Alex White, Cord Phelps and Lonnie Chisenhall as a top-10 prospect called up to help the big league ballclub this year. White was excellent until he injured his finger, Phelps was overwhelmed at the plate and in the field, and Chiz has found some success but isn’t exactly setting the world on fire (.213/.260/.362). Kipnis was my #1 prospect going into this season, and (SPOILER ALERT!) he’s the #1 guy on my midseason list that will be published here on Sunday.

I think he’s proven everything he needs to prove in the minors with the bat, the only question will be the glove. The converted OF has taken quite well to 2B, but he’s only played the position for a year and a half. There are likely to be some growing pains in the field, similar to those we saw with Cord Phelps earlier this year. It’s tough enough moving up to the majors from AAA, but Kipnis is still learning the intricacies of his position in the field and will be playing extensively with a new doubleplay partner for the first time ever. One of the main things the Indians wanted him to work on in Columbus was turning two, so don’t be surprised if he’s not Robbie Alomar right away. Most scouts agree that he will be at least league-average defensively eventually, but I don’t think he’s going to be there right off the bat.

The cavalry continues to roll northward on I-71 from Columbus to try and keep the Indians in a tight AL Central playoff race. “Trading” Luis Valbuena for Jason Kipnis will probably end up being the biggest deadline deal the Indians make. Will it be enough? Time will tell, but I like the move and think that Kip (who will wear #22) will provide a solid bat in the bottom third of an order that has been struggling to produce of late. If he and Chiz get acclimated to major league pitching and are hitting well in August and September when Choo, White and Sizemore return…well, this could be a pretty potent lineup down the stretch.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Not Much Sizemore

As the Indians find themselves in the midst of a portion of the schedule heavy with AL Central opponents, the season has taken another hard left turn as Grady Sizemore has found his way back to the DL with what could be a major knee injury that puts his season, and maybe even his career as an Indian, in question. As Sizemore made the turn around 1B on Sunday in Baltimore, something obviously gave way in his knee and his intimations that the injury feels a lot like the last one certainly don’t bode well for anyone with a dog in this fight. Though the results of his initial test “did not initially reveal any signs of serious damage”, allowing everyone to exhale (for a moment at least), there is still something wrong with Grady’s “other” knee and what we saw on Sunday may be an indication that serious underlying issues may exist as generally “contusions” do not come about from hitting 1B the wrong way or simply by running around bases.

What those issues may be are anyone’s guess (and remember that, with the Indians’ reportage of injuries, actions speak louder than words), but Sizemore’s injury certainly provides the Indians’ season with a whole new angle as, although Sizemore had been scuffling since his return from the DL in late May, he remained unquestionably one of the most talented players on team, whose early-season tear now looks to be a fading memory of what once was and what we thought (not so long ago) what could be again. Suddenly, the Indians are faced with the prospect of not having Sizemore for the foreseeable future (and at least the next two weeks), with the option that the club holds on him for 2012 completely up in the air.

But that’s getting a little ahead of ourselves as before looking forward, let’s go back a little bit and see the similarities between the two injuries that Sizemore has now endured on his two knees. Lest anyone forget, Sizemore originally injured his knee in April of 2010, diving back to a base and attempted to fight his way through the injury until he “re-injured” it on May 16th of last year, sliding into a base. That “re-injury” in May of 2010 was what resulted in Grady’s microfracture surgery, leading to the questions as to whether the Grady that we had come to know and admire was ever coming back to the North Coast.

Of course, when he returned in mid-April of 2011, he was gangbusters as he proved the skeptics wrong. Suddenly, he was that Grady that we all like to remember, posting a .974 OPS with 16 XBH in only 18 games…that is until he hurt his “other” knee sliding into 2B on May 10th, landing him back on the DL. While everyone breathed a sigh of relief that the injury was to his “other” knee, when Grady returned (on May 27th), all of that early-season momentum seemed to be gone as from his return on May 27th through his first 137, this is what he did at the plate:
Sizemore – 2011 (from May 27th to July 4th)
.189 BA / .270 OBP / .320 SLG / .590 OPS with 11 XBH, 47 K, and 10 BB in 137 PA

Why do I use the 137 PA mark, only up to July 4th?
Well, because it is instructive to look at similar timeframes when comparing Sizemore attempting to overcome his injury on May 10th of 2011 to the late-April injury of 2010. By that I mean, see that line up there?
Here’s what Sizemore did to start the year last year, until the “re-injury” that resulted in his microfracture:
Sizemore – 2010
.211 BA / .271 OBP / .289 SLG / .560 OPS with 6 XBH, 35 K, and 9 BB in 140 PA

Could that be a coincidence?
Sure…and he had a little more power when he returned this year from the “initial” injury, but in both seasons, it was obvious that something was not quite right with Sizemore, something most noticeable in his alarming K rate and his defense, where he just seemed to be missing balls that he would have easily flagged down in previous years. After both “initial” knee injuries, Grady attempted to play through it until a seemingly innocuous “second” play (sliding into a base in 2010 and rounding 1B in 2011) caused enough damage that his long-term prospects came into question. We all know what the result of the 2010 surgery was and it remains to be seen what the doctors find this week in his other knee, but the possibility that the warning signs were there and the idea that Grady may have been pushing his luck after the first knee injury (which was obviously affecting him) because of his 2012 option, or because of the Indians’ need for him, or it just being his nature to push himself is hard to ignore.

Where Sizemore goes from here is anyone’s guess (depending upon the medical examination and despite the initial positive reports) as his last injury caused him to basically be out for a year and if we’re talking about a similar injury or any other knee injury, it would be tough to imagine the Indians simply picking up a $9M option (merely based on “what he could be”) on a player that may be playing on two knees with major surgery on them in the past few years.

Maybe the allure of what Grady could be and his value as a “known” name play a role here more than it should (although this Front Office is known for making decisions with their head over their heart), but two strengths of Grady’s game have always been speed and defense and with both knees perhaps undergoing procedures since May of last year, the wisdom of picking up that option (Grady’s status as a fan favorite and as the onetime “Face of the Franchise” considered) wouldn’t look too prudent as the Indians could simply pay the $500K buyout to decline the option.

That said, perhaps another option could exist (and it’s one that I’ve been touting for a while) as perhaps the Indians attempt to re-negotiate with Sizemore, using that club option as the carrot to dangle in front of Sizemore to add more club control at lower numbers past 2012. Or, perhaps they approach Sizemore on an incentive-laden deal past 2012, again using that $9M as incentive for him to accept lower numbers than he’d thought he’d be earning past 2012. Unfortunately for Sizemore, the big contract that seemed so obvious for him may not come as he’ll be left to prove that he’s healthy and can be effective, a stunning downturn of a career that once seemed so limitless and on a path only treaded by some of baseball’s elite.

Of course, maybe Sizemore’s new knee injury turns out to be a “minor” issue, but his play since the injury on May 10th of this year seems to suggest that this may be more than a “minor” injury and (even worse) could be a sign of more bad things to come. While some could point to Carlos Beltran as a player who was able to over come serious knee injuries to recapture his former glory (and I’ll get back to Beltran in a little), Beltran’s knee surgery (on one knee) was in January of 2010 and it’s taken him more than a little time to ramp back up to his former production. If Grady does have two surgically repaired knees (and I realize that this is taking a leap, given that the test results will come out later this week), how much are we to really expect from him going forward?

That’s the question now facing the Indians, as they await the results of these tests, as Grady (as we saw him for a month in April and May) is probably more talented than anyone in the organization, but is THAT player ever really coming back?

There’s a $9M club option hanging out there in the off-season that will show what the Indians think that answer is, and in the here and now, the Indians are left with the possibility that they may be without both Sizemore and Choo (whose self-proclaimed “2nd week of August return” is something I have yet to see an update on) for the next few weeks…at the very least. With that in mind, the Indians are in an unenviable position that they didn’t occupy before Sizemore’s injury as Grady’s trip to the DL means that basically any player is going to upgrade this Indians’ roster as the Tribe tries to keep pace with the Tigers and the White Sox.

Though a player like Zeke Carrera has value (mostly as a 4th OF) and Kearns and Buck haven’t been THAT bad in Choo’s absence (though Buck’s HBP to the head is another factor here), not having the threat of Grady in the lineup (or even the threat of Grady, as he once existed) would seem to point that the Indians are going to add a bat…probably RH…and probably for the OF. While I’ll hold out hope that they add a player that can help in the near-and-long-term (like Mike Morse), the growing likelihood that the team is going to pick out of the Ryan Ludwick/Josh Willingham pile has become too obvious to ignore.

While calls for Hunter Pence (who is overrated and will only get moved if someone DRASTICALLY overpays for him…and I hope that the Indians aren’t that team) and Carlos Beltran persist as that “big BAT”, the reality is that neither of those players is coming to Cleveland. While I’ve stated this before on Beltran, it is worth re-posting this as it is new from Jon Heymann as he attempts to gauge the market for Beltran, dropping this in on the Tribe and the unlikelihood of him coming to Cleveland:
Beltran has a no-trade clause and he has said he wants to play for a World Series contender, so the teams that are more certain to make the playoffs are most likely to be approved.
7. Indians. The American League’s surprise team is determined to add an outfield bat. But with Beltran holding veto power, he could easily force his way to a team that's more of a sure thing.

Since I’m not going to attempt to get into Beltran’s head on this, just realize that Scott Boras is Beltran’s agent and Boras and Heymann have a…um, relationship in which what Heymann writes (particularly on Boras’ agents) is the message that Boras wants to convey. While I’m not going to go further than that (you can read this if you want), just realize that if Heymann is writing that about Beltran, a Boras agent, that’s what is happening.

So where do the Indians go from here, particularly if Sizemore’s knee injury is one that brings into question the prudence of picking up that 2012 option as it currently exists?

Maybe they stick with Carrera, Buck, and Kearns to fill 2/3 of an outfield that was thought of to be a strength of this team going into the season to see if one of them can step into the void and take advantage of the opportunity in front of them…

Maybe they go the “rent-a-player” route and add one of the RH bats that have been bandied about that, though flawed, represent upgrades over what the Indians’ current options are, particularly if Buck’s HBP results in him missing more than a few games…

Maybe they get more aggressive in their pursuit of a long-term option as you’re talking about a team that is now almost certainly in need of an OF for the next month, and perhaps into next year. Perhaps that means making a play for a Mike Morse or another similarly under-club-control player, stepping outside of their comfort zone to do so and using their knowledge of their OWN players to make the right moves and part with the “right” mix of players…

At this point, it certainly feels like a move is coming as the Front Office knows an opportunity when one is presented to them because of the first three months of the season. What that move is (assuming there is one) may tell quite a bit about what the Indians think of their chances this year and beyond and may even perhaps be telling as to whether they start making plans for “Life Without Grady”.

While that notion of Sizemore NOT being in an Indians’ uniform in 2012 may have been laughable just a few years ago, it’s possible that Grady isn’t playing in Cleveland in 2012, either because of a decision by the organization in the off-season or because of a prognosis of his doctors in the coming weeks…

Sunday, July 17, 2011

A Lazy Sunday on Building and Maintenance

With the unofficial 2nd half of the season officially underway as the auditions for the 5th spot in Indians’ rotation begin in full force this afternoon, let’s all take a moment to realize that we are now more than half-way through the month of July with the Indians posting a 7-6 record in the month. While the Twins have bested the Tribe’s winning percentage in July, if this month is truly the time that the contenders start to separate themselves from the pretenders (the equivalent of “Moving Day” in a golf tournament), the Indians have kept pace in a flawed division, remaining atop the AL Central…a reminder that I’ll continue to throw out there in order to provide the proper perspective to a fanbase that is all too quick to see the warts of the Indians while ignoring the ugliness in the rest of the division.

With that in mind, realize that the Tigers’ run differential is now -27 in the month of July and that the Indians are the only team in the AL Central with a positive run differential (at +8) this late in the season. Does that slim positive run differential evoke all sorts of confidence in terms of the Indians’ chances against the heavyweights of the AL in September and October?

Probably not (and 4 of the 5 AL East teams have better run differentials than the Tribe), but it is July 17th and the Indians are the lead horse in an AL Central race that they’ve lost sight of by the second turn in the past three years, so excuse me while I enjoy it before getting into the turns of the rumor mill and into what could actually be a very real concern for the Indians going forward this season.

OK enough enjoyment; let’s get loose on a Lazy One…
With the rumor mill spinning as it always does at this time of the year and since everyone else is attempting to measure the potential impact that Ryan Spilborghs or Reed Johnson could have on the Indians’ season, I’ll embrace the lunacy for a little while before getting into the topic of the day because, as Craig Calcaterra wrote, “Crazy season is upon us. The semi-annual rumor-fest, in which people hear this and that and run wild with speculation. Occasionally — very occasionally — there is actually some hard news in all of this nonsense…you gotta keep your critical-thinking skills handy when it comes to this sort of thing.”

So let’s just bask in “crazy season” for a moment as, I’m not sure if you’ve heard this – but Beltran, Ludwick, and Willingham are three names to keep in mind for players that the Indians might add. While I’ve attempted to rationalize adding a piece like Mike Morse that helps fill a long-term organizational void (versatile RH bat) with others suggesting Hunter Pence (though he will command a king’s ransom, rightly or wrongly, as the “Face of the Astros) and more, there is no question that this is the time of year that names come flying at us and we try to rationalize whether this player would be a good addition or that player fills a need for the Tribe.

With that in mind, B-Pro’s John Perroto has a list of players that he could see getting moved at the deadline, with the usual suspects of Ludwick, Francoeur, Willingham, Melky, Beltran, Ryan Spilborghs, Reed Johnson, and Dexter Fowler all making the list, among others. However, perhaps the more interesting tidbit passed along by Perrotto is the assertion that “if the White Sox drop out of contention in the American League Central in the next two weeks, look for them to take calls on right fielder Carlos Quentin at the deadline”, which brings us back to the idea of the next two weeks having a profound impact on the AL Central for this year and beyond. Also included in Perrotto’s column is the nugget that “the Tigers are pushing hard to add a starting pitcher, and Dodgers right-hander Hiroki Kuroda is their top trade target” and while it’s likely that the Tigers will add something – usually a high-profile name…usually represented by Scott Boras (not that it means it’s a high-quality player) – you can almost already script the howls on July 31st and August 1st, regardless of what moves the Indians do or do not make.

Reason being is that everyone seems to want that “BIG BAT” and since there is only one of those that would fit the Indians’ needs in Beltran, perhaps it is noteworthy to pass this along from’s Jon Heymann in a piece in which he also identifies pieces that may (or may not be available) as Heymann passes along the opinion that the Indians’ desire for Beltran may not even matter all that much because of Beltran’s right to approve or veto any trade because of language in his contract. Heymann presents the potential Beltran/Indians situation thusly:
“The Indians are looking for an outfield bat. But Beltran doesn’t look like a match for them because while they are having a surprising season, it might be hard to imagine a storybook finish. So they are one contender Beltran is unlikely to approve in trade.”

So while the North Coast has visions of Carlos Beltran coming to Cleveland, it’s not even all that clear that Beltran would want to come here, which is likely the reason that the Indians are targeting guys like the Cubs’ Jeff Baker, who is apparently not being made available by Chicago, despite their organizational standing and their ability to flip an ancillary part in a non-contending season for pieces that could help them in the future.

Can you hear it now?
Pouring out of your radio in the car…“The Indians need a Beltran and they go out and ask about or acquire a guy I’ve never heard of. Yeah, GREAT move Indians!”

Well, if they’re asking on Baker, they’re actually doing exactly what I had hoped that they would do as Baker is a versatile RH bat who can play 5 positions and is under club control through the end of NEXT season. Yes, Baker has a .746 OPS this season as a Utility Man for the Cubs, but he’s played 1B, 2B, 3B, RF, and LF this season while posting a .902 OPS vs. LHP. Remember when I wrote that the Indians should be looking for Casey Blake of about 6 years ago to be the versatile RH bat that they could move around the infield not just this year, but beyond?
That’s a guy like Jeff Baker…

But Baker’s “Q” rating isn’t equal to that of Beltran or even (inexplicably) Ludwick, who is still living off of one good year in StL when he was protected by Albert Pujols, so a move that could help the team for this year AND next year would likely be panned as “not being enough” or not showing that “commitment to spend that we’ve ALL BEEN PROMISED when the time is right”. Even then, according to Jon-Paul Morosi, the 30-year-old Baker who is under contract for another year-and-a-half isn’t being made available by a team that is 18 games under .500 and 11 ½ games out of the NL Central race.

While I would prefer a player like Morse (with Terry Pluto jumping on the bandwagon that I’m suddenly driving) because of his ability to hit both LHP and RHP, his controlled years, and his power over Baker, it’s a seller’s market at this point and while a player like Baker may never make his way to the North Coast because it takes two to tango, it’s the type of move that I could see (and would like to see) the Tribe making, even if it isn’t going to move the needle among the crowd and the sports-talk radio circus, where intelligence, logic, and perspective are in short supply…sometimes by design.

Regardless, the next two weeks figure to be full of the chicanery of “crazy season” while ignoring that the success or failure of the Indians as an offensive team is still going to be largely dependent upon the performances of Asdrubal, Sizemore, Santana, and (most notably) Hafner. In fact, if you look at what the Indians’ offense has done since Hafner’s return compared to the offensive production without him, the optimism for the offense (as it is currently) actually begins to grow:
28 Games Without Hafner (5/18 to 6/16)
3.03 Runs Scored Per Game
.620 Team OPS
10-18 Record

24 Games Since Hafner’s Return (6/17 through Friday night)
4.5 Runs Scored Per Game
.735 Team OPS
13-11 Record

Want to know who they faced in that second stretch of 24 games?
Two divisional leaders (PIT and SF), two second place teams (NYY and ARI), two more teams over .500 (CIN and TOR), a Colorado team 3 games under .500 and two games against the lowly Orioles…that’s who they were 13-11 against through Friday night since Hafner’s return. Part of that has to do with Hafner, but Santana’s OPS since Hafner has returned is .998 and the offense is going to be paced by Hafner, Santana, and Asdrubal with the hope that Sizemore’s knee(s) allow him to return to his early-season form causing the most optimism for the Tribe offense going forward.

Would a bat help that?
Probably, but the impact of a healthy and effective Hafner or a consistent Santana or Sizemore on this lineup is much more profound than adding a Josh Willingham or a Ryan Ludwick. Those guys would help to some degree, but more important than anything that the Indians are going to do externally to add to their offense is getting production from the players that are already in-house with the young(er) players like Brantley, Chisenhall, LaPorta, and potentially Kipnis being the complementary pieces around the middle of the Indians’ lineup that is going to carry the offensive burden.

Regardless, with all of the focus on adding that RH bat, what the rest of the Indians’ season figures to hinge upon, even more importantly than anything lineup-related, is the sustainability of their pitching staff, most notably the young arms at the top of their rotation. This always seems a little obvious when it’s pointed out, but the Indians have won with their pitching to this point in the season and if they’re going to continue to win, it will be because of that pitching continuing to be excellent as the season rolls on. As the bullpen’s effectiveness continues to please, there is something very interesting to watch in terms of the Indians’ rotation because of the youth of the current troika at the top and of the names that have already started to compete (with auditions continuing today and tomorrow) for Mitch Talbot’s spot in the rotation.

That aspect of the 2011 Indians’ team to watch has to do with the assumed inning counts for Masterson, Carrasco, and Tomlin as each player is likely to top their previous career highs in innings pitched, which could perhaps limit their effectiveness down the stretch as well as compromising success past this year. While I’ll get to all of that, let’s check the numbers from last year:
2010 Innings Pitched
Carrasco – 194 2/3 IP
Tomlin – 180 1/3 IP
Masterson – 180 IP
Truthfully, those numbers are palatable as the Indians have done a good job of ramping up the innings for those three young pitchers as they age and mature as pitchers. In case you couldn’t guess, those are totals for both AAA and MLB, with the current inning totals for the trio looking like this:
2011 Innings Pitched to date
Masterson – 128 2/3 IP
Tomlin – 120 2/3 IP
Carrasco – 108 IP
Remember that Carrasco spent some time on the DL earlier in the year which may have actually been a good thing in terms of limiting his innings and keeping him healthy and effective for this year and beyond.

Regardless, using Baseball Reference to project out what their 2011 inning totals would look like at their current pace, here is what B-Ref projects them to hit by the end of the year:
Masterson on pace for 226 IP
Tomlin on pace for 216 IP
Carrasco on pace for 202 IP

Not enormous numbers, but that’s a healthy bump in IP with the upticks and increases from last year to projections for this year for each of the three pitchers looking like this:
2010 – 180 IP
2011 (Projected) – 226 IP
Increase – 46 IP
That would be a 25.5% increase in inning totals for Masterson from 2010 to 2011.

2010 – 180 1/3 IP
2011 – 216 IP
Increase – 35 2/3 IP
That would be a 19.8% increase in inning totals for Tomlin from 2010 to 2011.


2010 – 194 2/3 IP
2011 (Projected) – 202 IP
Increase – 7 1/3 IP
Remember that idea that Carrasco’s early DL stint may have not been that bad of a thing…well that’s only a 3.8% increase in Cookie’s inning totals from 2010 to 2011.

Monitoring these innings thrown by these young pitchers is important for a couple of reasons as these arms are still young and finding their way to consistency in MLB and their performance may be affected as their innings (particularly MLB innings and not AAA innings) mount going forward. If you’ve seen the recent performance of Josh Tomlin (5.61 ERA in his last 10 starts), you realize that these pitchers could be adversely affected by their mounting inning count as well as adjustments that MLB is going to make to them.

In the long-term sense, there is another concern with monitoring the inning count for these young arms as it relates to a trend first “discovered” by SI’s Tom Verducci, with the explanation for the “Verducci Effect” going a little something like this:
Named for Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated, this is a negative forward indicator for pitcher workload. Verducci, who called this the ‘Year After Effect,’ found that pitchers under the age of 25 who have 30-inning increases year over year tend to underperform. Will Carroll independently found that pitchers who break the “Rule of 30” tend to get injured. Carroll renamed this ‘rule’ the Verducci Effect in honor of the man who initially found the evidence.

It is true that both Masterson and Tomlin fall on the north side of that “age 25” border and Carrasco’s 2011 inning total looks to be the one that falls closest to where he finished last year, but if you’re looking at the long-term effects of what a significant increase can do to a particular player, you only have to look to one Fausto Carmona. Lest you forget, Carmona (age 23) threw 230 innings (including playoffs) at the age of 23 in 2007, this inning total coming on the heels of a year in which he threw only 102 1/3 innings in 2006 as a 22-year-old. Since that increase, Carmona has a 5.07 ERA and a 1.50 WHIP over 97 starts from the beginning of the 2008 season.

Nobody figures to make THAT big of a jump, but if the Indians’ continued renaissance is going to be built on the arms that are currently in the Indians’ rotation and just beneath it, the Indians are going to have to be cautious about use and inning counts…something that may not be all that easy if the Indians find themselves waist-deep in a playoff race in September with innings mounting for the top of their rotation. While an easy “answer” would be that the Indians can start to lean on their depth in AAA if needed, this is where things get interesting as (I’m not sure if you noticed) here are the inning counts for 2011 and 2010 for the trio of pitchers that looks to be closest to representing the current cavalry for the rotation and who are now going to start to slot themselves for Talbot’s spot in the rotation:
Jeanmar Gomez
2010 – 155 1/3 IP
2011 – 112 IP to date

Zach McAllister
2010 – 149 2/3 IP
2011 – 101 IP to date

Dave Huff
2010 – 154 IP
2011 – 101 1/3 IP to date

In case you were wondering, these guys all have inning totals at or above where Carrasco was prior to his Saturday start, which means that inning totals are going to come into play for these pitchers as much as they will for Masterson, Carrasco, and Tomlin. Maybe you can look at those arms and figure that the Indians will be able to figure out some arrangement to protect these young arms (for now AND the future), but if the Indians are hanging around in the AL Central race for the next two months, they’re going to want to put their best arms forward and balancing that caution and aggressiveness is going to be a challenge for the team.

Perhaps you could take this as a call that the Indians should be more intent on adding a starting pitcher over a RH bat, but the Indians may just have the internal arms to compile all of the innings that have yet to be pitched. Certainly, Alex White returning would help matters and it may have been a blessing in disguise for White to remain shelved for some time as his inning count has been limited due to the finger injury and, while his 2010 and 2011 numbers may belie his usefulness, the Indians always have Mitch Talbot to eat innings for the team if need be. However, with Gomez, McAllister, Huff, White, and Talbot, you’re talking about the back-end-of-the-rotation arms…and those aren’t the pitchers that have put the Indians in their current position of contention.

The Indians still sitting at the top of the AL Central (and I’ll keep typing that as long as it is true) is due to the top of the rotation and the bullpen behind it with some timely offense thrown in to achieve 1st place to this point. While the offense may or may not need a boost and may or may not GET a boost, the ability of the Indians to stay in the AL Central race is going to be keyed by the top three arms in their rotation to stay effective through the final 2 ½ months of the season.

As innings mount for each young pitcher in the rotation (and Masterson, Carrasco, and Tomlin have 3 of the 33 lowest ERA’s in the AL to date), the Indians may have to get creative to maximize effectiveness and protect their present and their future. Then again, with the Trading Deadline just 2 ½ weeks away, the Indians may be having to plug into that “creative side” more than a couple times as this roller coaster ride of a 2011 season rolls on…

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Finding the “Right” Fit

As the Indians come out of the All-Star Break, staring firmly at a vital part of their schedule (though that could really be said at any point from here on out), the focus has turned to the Rumor Mill that keeps spinning away on every TV broadcast and every radio sound wave this time of year. By now, you’ve seen all the names of “available” players and the lists of “buyers” and “sellers” as the national analysts ready their “winners” and “losers” of the Trade Deadline piece that come flying out at us every August 1st. With the Indians allegedly being one of the teams picking up the phone to make calls instead of simply fielding calls on players (as has been the case in years past), there is a level of excitement on the North Coast as people sell themselves on Jeff Francoeur or Ryan Ludwick or Josh Willingham as a potential difference-maker down the stretch for the Indians.

However, lost amidst all of this talk that the Indians “need” to add a RH bat for the final two months, preferably of the “impact” variety, is that this “need” for a RH bat is not one that is unique to the second half of this season. Yes, a RH bat would balance out this lineup quite a bit, but what the Indians really need to add is a RH bat that can help this year…and beyond. Perhaps that is why Jeff Francoeur and Ryan Ludwick and Josh Willingham are less than desirable to me in that I get that they would help this year, but then they’re gone and the Indians are left this off-season looking for a RH bat once again.

Obviously everyone knows that Hafner, Sizemore, Choo, and Brantley are all LH, but did anyone notice that the “3B of the Future” who just ascended to the North Coast (and took a pitch off of his face) is also LH? Want to guess what Jason Kipnis is?

Yep, he’s LH and the only two other top-level prospects that figure to offer any real help in the coming years, Nick Weglarz and Zeke Carrera (even as a 4th OF), are both LH as well. So, if the current team stays in place around the diamond and The Chiz and Kipnis take over 3B and 2B on a full-time basis next year, here’s what you’re looking at:



As my friend Tyler recently wrote me, “No wonder they were so hot for LaPorta” in terms of what they targeted in the CC deal. What he means by that (and I’m pretty sure that there was a quote from Shapiro at the time that foretold of this) is that RH bats, particularly power RH bats are a suddenly dying breed in MLB. There are 76 qualified RH hitters in MLB right now, 14 of which have an OPS over .850…and one of them is Jhonny Peralta, who currently has the 8th highest OPS in MLB among RH hitters. In 2007 (just to pick a year in which the Indians were also contending), there were 23 RH hitters with an OPS over .850 when the season ended and the numbers only get bigger the further back you go. Some of this is a function of more stringent PED testing, but 14 RH hitters this year have SLG over .500 as well (and Peralta is 7 on that list) and given that there are 30 teams in MLB, that means about ½ of the teams in MLB have a RH bat that has a SLG over .500 and ½ the teams have a RH bat with an OPS over .850. Interestingly, the Tigers and the White Sox are the only two teams with two RH hitters on either of those lists, but that’s neither here nor there…

Regardless, while the obvious and lazy “they need to make moves NOW to improve this team for the stretch run and a RH bat would be a good start” pieces (without offering much by way of suggestions other than the oft-discussed, overexposed, unattractive options) have flown all around these Interwebs and continue to take up space on people’s front stoops, the starker reality is that the Indians – as an organization – need a RH bat for the second half and for the next couple of years as, if LaPorta happens to flame out, you’re looking at an awfully LH-heavy lineup going forward with the likely replacements for what you would figure to be the July 2012 lineup (Wegz and Zeke) also being LH hitters.

What does that mean for right now?
For starters, it means that the Indians should be targeting RH bats that are under club control for at least a couple of years, that are versatile to play multiple positions as it looks like a majority of positions are “spoken for” or at least reserved for certain players or top prospects, and they should use some level of boldness to perhaps find a potential impact bat that could be available for a team that finds themselves with greater (or different needs) than a RH bat.

One example of a player like this could be Washington’s Mike Morse, who has emerged this year as a versatile and productive piece after a couple of years of bouncing around in Seattle’s infield and around the diamond for the Nationals. A 29-year-old RH bat, Morse has posted a .306 BA / .351 OBP / .535 SLG / .886 OPS with 15 HR and 17 2B in the 81 games that he’s played this year. He was one of the candidates to be a final All-Star (in that silly vote-in process) and is being paid $1.05M in this, his 1st year of arbitration eligibility, while primarily playing 1B after Adam LaRoche’s injury.

Nice looking player, right…why would the Nationals move such a guy?
Well, the Nats are still on the hook to pay LaRoche $8M next year and have some compelling young players coming up from the Minors (Bryce Harper and Derek Norris) to go along with some players that arrived recently, like Ian Desmond, Danny Espinoza, and Wilson Ramos, not to mention their young arms (Strasburg and Drew Storen) that look to form a nice core of players in the next few years. But would a 29-year-old Morse, under club control through 2013, be a piece that would be most valuable to them as a versatile auxiliary piece for the next two-and-a-half years or as a trading chip that could be used to upgrade their starting pitching or corner OF depth significantly to line all of the pieces up together as we’ve seen so executed so well and so frequently elsewhere in MLB by teams on the rise?

For a team that currently counts Livan Hernandez as their “ace”, one would think that the right package of players could be enough to pry Morse – who is almost a “found” asset by Washington – out of the nation’s capital to improve the long-term standing of the Nats. Interestingly, I happened upon this Q&A with Steven Goldman of B-Pro regarding Morse over at The Nationals Review, with Goldman addressing Morse’s attractiveness as a trade chip thusly:
Charlie (Bethesda, MD): Mike Morse – has he really turned into a 870-ish OPS hitter who can bat against righties? Other than this year’s April slump, he’s been doing this since the beginning of last year. Am I allowed to start believing in this?
Steven Goldman: I very much doubt it lasts, and as much as he’s propping up the lineup right now, I would be looking to see if someone was willing to overpay for that by the deadline.
Charlie (Bethesda, MD): Re: Mike Morse – it’s now been 472 PAs of .867 OPS over two seasons. How much longer would he need? Or is it so far out of the realm of possibility because of his age? He’s got a career OPS of .820, and 30% of those PAs came from his .718 age 23 season.
Steven Goldman: Well, I like what he’s done. He’s hit .300/.352/.511 since that season you mention in 608 scattered PAs. He has real value given that he can move around the field and knock the ball. But his 39 walks/140 strikeouts makes me nervous about the inevitable cold streaks or bad BABIP stretch, because players of this model, be they Robinson Cano or Alfonso Soriano, when they go cold, they just contribute nothing. Put that together with his age and that he should be up for arb after the season and I think, “Go fish.”

Maybe it doesn’t “last” for Morse, but as a RH bat that does (now) have a .878 OPS over the last two seasons for the Nats, that’s a player I’d like to see the Indians perhaps “overpay” for, considering that he IS under club control through 2013, even if he’s about to get more expensive through his arbitration seasons. While Goldman is right to see that K/BB rate and raise some red flags, Morse is the type of player that I’d like to see the Indians aggressively go after as a potential long-term solution instead of sifting through the Francoeur/Ludwick/Willingham pile. Though that RH-hitting pile that thrives against LHP has its value for the final 2 months of the season, I’d prefer for the Indians to make a move for a player like Morse.

In case you were wondering where Morse would fit, he played 72 games in RF last year, 27 games in LF this year, and has played 67 games at 1B over the last two years. Between his ability to play both corner OF spots and 1B (plus the availability to be a RH option at DH that isn’t Shelley Duncan), Morse would fit that bill of the versatile RH bat that the Indians should be targeting.

Though some will point to Casey Blake as the “versatile RH bat” that is likely to show up on the Tribe’s radar, let’s be honest that this current Indians’ team needs Casey Blake…just the Casey Blake of 6 years ago, not the 38-year-old with the .386 SLG (about what Mike Brantley’s SLG) that’s roaming around Chavez Ravine today. The Tribe needs a RH bat that could move around the diamond to fill holes and provide some pop from the right side, and not just for the next two months. Maybe Morse is a guy like that who could fill that role for the next couple of years and, though I’m sensitive to being that guy that says “let’s pick a player off of team X that is allegedly out of the playoff race and figure out how to get him” because the last few Julys were full of conjecture on EVERYONE in a Tribe uniform being traded, the Nationals just may be compelled to use Morse to strengthen some of their organizational weaknesses, namely upper-level starting pitching.

Though the Nats would have no interest in The Chiz or the Phelps/Kipnis duo (though I don’t know if I’d want to part with Chisenhall or Kipnis for Morse) because of their own 3B and 2B options, one might think that the Indians could use one of their AAA starters (maybe even Gomez or McAllister if White is anywhere close to returning) and maybe a Nick Weglarz to make this kind of move, perhaps throwing in a lower-level arm to sweeten the pot for the Nationals, a team that is admittedly .500, 11 ½ games out of the NL East race, but “only” 8 games out of the Wild Card race.

However (and stop me if you’ve heard this before), what happens over the next two-and-a-half weeks is going to determine which teams are going to be looking to add pieces and which teams might be looking to move pieces. Whether the Indians are in the former column and the Nats in the latter column remains to be seen, but if the Indians are going to make a move, I’d prefer to see them make one that helps this team past the end of this season. The need for a versatile RH bat is unmistakable, but that need isn’t going to end after the 162nd game of the 2011 season and the Indians should be acting accordingly by targeting players – like Mike Morse – and using their deep prospect pool to acquire a player that can help the team in the short-and-long-term at positions of need.