Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Closing the Book on 2011

The 2011 season is officially in the books and, though the obits were written weeks ago (as we’ve all been enjoying our Sawxenfreude since then), it bears worth looking back at the individuals and units that made up the 2011 season if only to take one last look behind us before focusing on what lies ahead. As exciting and hopeful as the 2011 season has been, the team was ultimately done in by injuries and a lack of talent as they had their opportunity to stand up to the Tigers and summarily dispatched into 2nd place. Again, there’s no question that injuries play a role here, in that if a player was injured and it contributed to a disappointing season but…well, it’s still a disappointing season as the Indians started out so fast and were unable to stay afloat once the ship began taking on water.

But that’s the overview and perhaps it’s more interesting to look at the 2011 Indians’ players and units individually. Though I generally loathe the “Report Card” approach to any particular sports team and their season, it is worth examining the various pieces and parts of the 2011 Indians to see the positives, the negatives, and the aspects of the team that represented a mixed bag. For my own sanity, I mainly focused on the players that played a vital (or semi-vital) role in the season, so you won’t find another shovelful of dirt being heaped on Austin Kearns, nor will you find an analysis of the contributions of Kosuke Fukudome and Jim Thome. Though both in-season acquisitions certainly played a role in the season, neither figures to be back nor their additions felt like “too little, too late” when they arrived…and that’s exactly what they were.

That said, there’s plenty to get to and we’ll start off (as always) on “The Bright Side of Life”…
Bright Spots
Justin Masterson

Coming into the season, there was more than a small contingent of “experts” (Tribe-related or not) that thought that Justin Masterson was simply biding his time in the Indians’ rotation before he moved back to the back-end-of-the-bullpen, a role he played to some critical acclaim in Boston. Now, 216 innings later, Masterson finishes his 2011 season having established himself as a bona-fide front-of-the-rotation innings eater whose numbers hold up well against the majority of AL starters. His ranks among AL starters in ERA (10th), FIP (10th), HR/9 (1st), GB% (2nd) and even the not-as-applicable to the sinkerballing Masterson K/BB (23rd) provide some hope that Masterson has found his groove as a Starter. Whether the adjustments he made were mechanical or mental, since the beginning of August 2010 he has a 3.14 ERA and a 1.26 WHIP over his last 272 2/3 IP as a starter. Though his total inning count in 2011 ended a little too high for my comfort level – in terms of an increase over his 2010 total, though he is a little older than most SP breaking into the rotation as he’ll be 27 next March – he certainly has the look of an innings-eating horse that the Indians can factor in at the top of the rotation for the foreseeable future…and hopefully past that.

Asdrubal Cabrera
Speaking of guys that I’d like to see stick around past the foreseeable future, Asdrubal Cabrera’s 2011 was the leap forward that we had all been waiting for since his 2007 season. He was (largely) injury free as he tallied nearly 600 PA and, while his pace at the plate slowed as the season went on (probably because his shoulders were sore from carrying the team), he showed the all-around ability that he had only shown in glimpses prior to this year. While there is some concern that this year will be the outlier in his career, with Asdrubal healthy and effective in the middle-of-the-diamond and at or near the middle-of-the-lineup, the Indians need to ensure that Asdrubal sticks around past his age-27 season, as his current club control currently runs through. From his highlight-reel defensive plays and his proficiency at the plate (2 fewer HR than Adrian Gonzalez), Cabrera finally broke out in 2011 with the hope that he’s just now scratching the surface not being an outrageous thought.

Carlos Santana
As fantastic as Cabrera’s season was and as much as Asdrubal’s 2011 felt like it was just a harbinger of things to come, how about a 27 HR, 34 2B, .810 OPS season for the 25-year-old Santana in his first full year in MLB? Given that Victor Martinez had a 23 HR, 38 2B, .851 OPS season as a 25-year-old in his first full year in MLB in 2004, the start of Santana’s career certainly causes optimism for The Axe Man. While people can moan about Santana’s BA, know that Santana’S .264 BABIP was 8th lowest AL (which can affect BA pretty profoundly as BABIP is the acronym for Batting Average on Balls in Play), which means that your precious back-of-the-baseball-card number will rise for Santana going forward. It is true that Santana struck out too much last year – which is odd because of his sterling K/BB numbers in the Minors and even as a member of the Tribe last year, when he walked 37 times and struck out 29 times in 46 games in 2010 – but it is easy to forget that Santana still has fewer career PA than Matt LaPorta and Mike Brantley…just to name two players. Though Santana’s defense (wherever he plays) is a…um, work in progress, his bat has continued to thump as advertised. For a team in need of middle-of-the-order presence going forward, Santana figures to settle into the lineup and provide the same stabilizing force that another Venezuelan catcher who also wore #41 did in the last incarnation of a contending Indians team.

Jason Kipnis
From the moment that Jason Kipnis arrived in Cleveland, you could see that he was a special player. From his bat control to his hustle to his power (.532 SLG) to the infectious energy that he brought to the field and the basepaths, Kipnis stood out as a prospect whose hype seemed to be justified. With Kipnis unfortunately missing some time with his side issue that kept his plate appearance total down, Kipnis ranks 16th in the AL in OPS with players accumulating more than 125 PA. His .857 OPS puts him just ahead of Michael Young and Dustin Pedroia on the AL leaderboard and, while those two established veterans had more plate appearances, isn’t that the kind of rarified air that seems possible for Kipnis? Sure, his defense may still be a bit of a work in progress (not that he’s alone in that regard on this team), but his bat has come as advertised as he knocked out XBH in 12.1% of his plate appearances. Maybe that doesn’t mean anything to you, but realize that only Adrian Beltre (12.4% of his PA resulted in an XBH) and Brett Lawrie (12.3% XBH/PA) bested Kipnis in the AL among players with more than 125 PA. It’s certainly possible that Kipnis experiences the same second-year struggles that befall so many MLB players, but Kipnis’ emergence from the Minors gives hope that the revolving door that has been 2B just stopped spinning.

Bullpen Bridge – Pestano, Sipp, and Smith
This has been written about before in this space, but the 7th and 8th inning arms that provided the bridge between the starting pitchers and the 9th inning probably kept the 2011 Indians in more games than any team in recent memory. Paced by Pestano, Sipp, and Smith, the Indians’ success in the bullpen was largely paced by the ability to keep the opposition at bay while the Indians’ offense was given the opportunity to cobble together enough runs for a win. Starting with Vinnie Pestano, who struck out ONE OUT OF EVERY THREE batters he faced and who ranked 4th in the AL among relievers with a 12.02 K/9 rate, which is actually the highest rate ever recorded by an Indians pitcher (minimum 50 innings), the Indians FINALLY had a homegrown late-inning reliever who performed over the course of a whole year (sorry, Jensen Lewis) that potentially projects as a possible closer. All three relievers (Pestano, Sipp, Smith) rank among the 18 lowest relievers in terms of WHIP in 2011 and Joe Smith’s .521 OPS against put him 4th among AL relievers with more than 40 IP. Tony Sipp proved himself to be much more than a LOOGY or match-up LHP as he was equally effective against hitters regardless of which side of the plate they stood on (.665 OPS against vs. LH, .664 OPS against vs. RH), giving birth to the idea that the Indians could perhaps use this trio as the backbone of the back-end of their bullpen for a while. Certainly, the inning counts for each were high and relievers are volatile from one year to the next, but each proved themselves as worthy of consideration for 8th and 9th inning roles in 2012.

Bench Bunch – Hannahan, Donald, Duncan, and Marson
After suffering through off-season after off-season combing through the scrap-heap pile of 4th OF, RH bats for the bench, and Futility IF, could the Indians finally have succeeded in filling out the final spots of their roster internally? While I’m not going to fall victim to the idea that any of these guys should be handed a starting spot in 2012 (Duncan had a .728 OPS on August 31st and The Lesson of Karim Garcia applies) as each has their strong points (notably defense for Hannahan and Marson) and weak points (defense for Duncan) that need to be considered. But after living through Sal Fasano (not that I minded Sal), Mike Rouse, Tony Graffanino, and the like, it was comforting to see this quartet step into roles (adequately) when injuries or the ineffectiveness of others necessitated their use. Truthfully, I’mot sure if all of these guys come back, depending upon what the Tribe does this off-season, as Hannahan and Donald are somewhat redundant in the positions that they play if varying in their skill sets and I’m interested in finding a 4th OF who does not have a “C” an “R” and an “E” in their last name (in that order), but the Indians FINALLY have some players that can fill out their bench without a massive drop-off in production and without having to unnecessarily spend money on auxiliary parts.

A Little Good, A Little Bad
Josh Tomlin
As much as I’d love to put Tomlin in that first grouping, I’m not as enamored with the Quality Start Streak as some seem to be and see Tomlin’s season as a whole as a success, but not one without red flags. Obviously, Tomlin is a great story – a largely-overlooked late draft pick that moved his way up the system who achieved success in his first go-around in MLB, last year and (more acutely) to start this year. He arrived to the All-Star Break with a 3.81 ERA, a 1.02 WHIP, and a 4.64 K/BB ratio, mentioned in a Sports Illustrated article about the emergence of the cut fastball, and riding high in the Tribe rotation. Unfortunately, Tomlin’s first-half success would not continue into the second-half as his 5.26 ERA reflected his propensity for the long-ball with 9 HR allowed in his final 8 starts. That’s not to say that Tomlin will never achieve the success that he did to start 2011…it just may never be that level of success. He’s not going to stop his approach of pounding the strike zone and, as the league adjusted to him, it is now on him to continue to adapt and evolve as a pitcher. Whether he has the repertoire to succeed as he adapts remains to be seen as he could easily settle into a Paul Byrdian role on this team around some other hard-throwers in the rotation…and there wouldn’t be anything wrong with that. If Tomlin is filling out the Tribe rotation and throwing quality innings and challenging hitters, he’s a tremendous find and a needed surprise for the Indians. As long as the assumption doesn’t exist that he’s going to be a sub-3.00 ERA, sub-1.00 WHIP (as he was for the first 2 months of the season), I’ll take Tomlin – warts and all – in the Tribe rotation for 2012 and beyond.

Fausto Carmona
Since any talk of Carmona is going to center around his option, here’s the piece that I wrote on the options for Carmona (and Sizemore), with this passage from that piece being applicable in the review of Carmona’s season:
April 7th through May 8th - 7 starts
2.22 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, 30 K, 14 BB with a .541 OPS against in 48 2/3 IP

May 13th through June 26th – 9 starts
7.99 ERA, 1.64 WHIP, 26 K, 18 BB with a .927 OPS against in 50 2/3 IP

July 18th through August 22nd – 7 starts
2.49 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 26 K, 13 BB with a .673 OPS against in 47 IP

August 27th through Tuesday – 6 starts
7.23 ERA, 1.74 WHIP, 21 K, 14 BB with a .866 OPS against in 37 1/3 IP

Again, that doesn’t include the game in Cincinnati on July 2nd as Carmona went 2 scoreless innings before belly flopping his way to the DL. However, it does certainly bring into focus why calling Carmona’s season “uneven” or “inconsistent” is about as accurate as it gets. When he’s good…he can be very good. When he’s bad…oy.
That, unfortunately, is Fausto. Love him or hate him, just get used to him for another year.

Carlos Carrasco
Lest you forget, back before Cookie was buzzing towers and going under the knife, he was putting together a break-out season in the starting rotation. At the end of June, he had a 3.54 ERA, a 1.16 WHIP, and was holding opposing hitters to a .660 OPS. Those numbers were propelled by 5-game stretch in which Carrasco allowed only 4 ER in 36.2 IP (0.98 ERA), striking out 28 and walking only 5 in that stretch, which included a 7-inning outing in the Bronx. Prior to that stretch, Carrasco had already spent time on the shelf with arm issues and he would find himself there again, eventually making his way onto the Tommy John hospital bed as his age-25 season will involve nothing but rehab in 2012 with an eye towards 2013. If there is a great disappointment in 2011, it is Carrasco’s injury as he was starting to show signs (at age 24) of being the top-to-middle-of-the-rotation starter that the Indians envisioned when he was the centerpiece of the Cliff Lee deal. While Masterson took the leap into the top-of-the-rotation, Carrasco’s path there (and he did seem to be on that path) was interrupted by the injury as the Indians lost not only one of their most promising young arms, but had their immediate depth in the rotation compromised almost immediately as Carmona’s option became a necessity and as the likelihood of adding a veteran starter grew exponentially. Now, the hope with Carrasco is that he can do what so many pitchers have done before him – emerge from Tommy John surgery and achieve success. The answer as to whether he can do that or not however, is not one that’s going to come anytime soon.

Chris Perez
Want to know what’s tough about being a fan of a baseball team?
Sometimes it’s hard to separate personal feelings from actual feelings on a particular player and Chris Perez in 2011 is a great case study of that. After years of enduring Bob Wickman and the cast of characters that tried their hand at pitching the 9th inning for the Indians, C. Perez came in and stabilized the back-end-of-the-bullpen in a way that has been lacking for too long. Finally, the Indians had an answer at closer that projected a hell, fire, and brimstone attitude from the mound (and on Twitter) that was both endearing and exciting. With his hair flying and his with his steely glare, Perez had the look and feel of a lockdown reliever that we all wanted to believe that he could be. The problem is…in 2011, he just wasn’t. Yes, he saved 36 games (and I’m going to put aside my vitriol for the “save” as a “statistic”) and his presence in the 9th inning allowed the rest of the bullpen to slot into roles, in which they flourished. But he also only struck out 39 hitters all season in 59 2/3 IP and had the 2nd worst K/BB ratio on the pitching staff, “bested” only by Mitch Talbot. That’s not to say that Chris Perez was not effective at times as he finished the year with a 3.32 ERA, a 1.20 WHIP, and a .648 OPS against. Those are all great numbers, but his peripherals took a tumble this year and perhaps you’re in the camp of “all that matters is getting those final 3 outs”, but you can’t tell me that Perez’s 9th inning affairs were…um, adventurous at times. For as much as all Indians’ fans want Perez to be that lights-out, shut-down 9th inning presence, Perez simply wasn’t that this year and, with him about to make a salary between $4M and $5M in arbitration, the Indians need to ask some hard questions on whether Perez ever will be the lock-down closer that we want him so badly to be.

Rafael Perez
Anyone remember that Rafael Perez had a 1.12 ERA in late June, with a 1.09 WHIP and a.523 OPS against in 32 IP?
If you don’t, it’s probably because (other than not giving interviews and not really embracing the bullpen persona that the rest of the relievers did) he has a 4.99 ERA, a 1.40 WHIP, and a .779 OPS against since that time. That’s not to say that Perez was not an effective reliever, but he struck out 13 hitters in his final 30 2/3 IP and walked 8 in that same stretch. A K/BB ration around 1.00 over a three-month timeframe is not something that elicits a lot of confidence, particularly when the pitcher is only striking out a batter about once every three innings pitched. Given that Perez is due another pay raise in arbitration and with Nick Hagadone ready in the wings, this may be The Quiet Man’s last stand in Cleveland (regardless of what Acta says publicly) as he is still an effective reliever whose value to the organization may be greatest in terms of what he could provide as a return in a trade.

Lonnie Chisenhall
Yes, his final line will say that he posted a sub-.700 OPS in more than 200 plate appearances this year, but for a 22-year-old getting his first taste of MLB…what The Chiz was able to show (albeit inconsistently at times) puts him in this category. That age is a MAJOR factor here as only 8 players that were 22 or younger compiled more than 200 PA this year and the fact that Chisenhall held his own at the plate is reason for optimism. One factor that is often forgotten about Lonnie’s season is the pitched ball that bounced off his face about a week-and-a-half after his arrival to the parent club. At that point, Chisenhall had already accumulated 4 XBH in his first 9 games and, while the beanball would take some of the steam out of his engine (he had a .579 OPS in the 5 weeks after getting hit), the extra-base machine has returned with a vengeance down the stretch as he’s posted an .858 OPS in the last 3 weeks. While September numbers should be taken with a GIANT grain of salt, the talent certainly seems to be there with The Chiz, if the confidence looked shaky at times this season. While it is true that he looked lost at times, he was surprisingly adept in the field, and Chisenhall now has a base to build upon and some momentum to go into the 2012 season as the starting 3B for the Tribe.

The Damaged Duo – Hafner & Sizemore
What can be written about these two that hasn’t been written in the past year, the past two years, or even the last three years? When healthy, these two can hit, something they proved once again at the beginning of 2011…problem is, they weren’t healthy.
On May 10th, Sizemore had a .974 OPS and Hafner had a .916 OPS as the Indians got out to their hot start. Grady went down first (and second) and Hafner held on for a while longer, with a .994 OPS as late as July 7th. But, as has been the case for the past few years, both would encounter injuries that would linger…then linger some more. With news that Grady’s heading off to have his right knee examined by the same doctor who performed microfracture surgery on his left knee, it is sad (if not fitting) to see the Indians’ careers of these two – once thought to be the linchpins that would carry the offense to success past 2007 – slowly wind down, with barely a whimper. Depending upon what Dr. Steadman has to say about Grady’s right knee, I’d still hold by what I wrote last week (and Steadman’s diagnosis may affect Grady’s willingness to do a re-structured deal that may not have existed before) in that Sizemore’s talent shouldn’t be summarily dismissed. However, 2011 felt like the last few years have for these two – glimpses of what used to be barely visible between the reality of what now is.

Back-End Rotation Arms
Truthfully, not much more is known about the troika of Jeanmar Gomez, Dave Huff, and Zach McAllister than was known when the season started. There have been positives such as Gomez’s recent stretch before greeting the Tigers, Huff upon being recalled, and McAllister’s 2nd and 3rd starts. Of course, there have been negatives to go with those, like Gomez’s still-paltry K/9 rate, Huff’s freefall after his relief appearance, and McAllister’s 1st start. So what do the Indians have in these three? Right now, they look like back-end-of-the-rotation/swing-man fodder as you’re going to always get positives and negatives from pitchers like this. Gomez and McAllister are young enough that they can perhaps carve a niche out for themselves and maybe (just…maybe) Huff can finally turn that corner that he’s been chasing since arriving to MLB, but the greater likelihood is that these guys represented the starting pitching depth in 2011 and will continue to do so for the next couple of years. Perhaps McAllister can break out and become a Westbrook-esque innings-eater, but he’s going to have to take major steps (just like Westbrook did) to get to that point.

Dark Clouds
Ubaldo Jimenez

While it may be acceptable to judge players like Tomlin and Carrasco (and even Carmona) on the basis of an X-game stretch or over the course of a couple of weeks, that simply does not apply for a pitcher that was acquired to front the Indians’ rotation – with the Tribe paying a hefty price to add him. Brought in to pair with Masterson at the top of the rotation, Jimenez was erratic, at his worst at the worst possible times, and looked nothing like the Cy Young contender that he has been in the past. For the Indians’ sake, they had better hope that he was tipping his pitches or that a full off-season of health and work with Tim Belcher on his mechanics can fix him, because a 5.10 ERA and a 1.46 WHIP over 65 1/3 innings and 11 starts is not anything close to what should be expected from Jimenez. Trust me, I know all about Jimenez’s peripherals that say that his K/9, BB/9, and K/BB are virtually identical to his 2010 season, but at a certain point, Jimenez needs to execute and limit damage and go deep into games. If one “key for success” for the 2012 Tribe season needs to identified today, it is unquestionably Jimenez recapturing his 2010 form (or something close to it) because with the Jimenez that was on display on the mound in a Tribe uniform, the Indians’ rotation won’t keep the team in enough games to win consistently, much less win an AL Central crown.

Matt MaTola
Look, I’ve already piled on MaTola enough in the past two months to re-hash anything new here. The bottom line with LaPorta is that 2011 was the year that he needed to show that he at least had the potential to be the RH bat he was supposed to be when he arrived in the CC deal and, as an about-to-turn-27-year-old with a career OPS around .700 with nearly 1,000 career PA, that just didn’t happen. The Indians should – and will – make plans at 1B this year that don’t involve LaPorta as Plan A or even Plan B as he’s likely to start to 2012 season in Columbus to see if he can evolve as a hitter and even provide the RH pop off the bench that is likely to come from Shelley Duncan for the parent club in 2012. Ultimately, the Indians needed LaPorta to show some signs of hope or some progression in 2011 and he never displayed it…which is a shame, because the RH bat that MaTola was SUPPOSED to be is exactly what the 2011 Indians needed.

Shin-Soo Choo
Speaking of what the 2011 Indians needed, how about the guy that put up these frighteningly consistent lines during the two years prior to this one:
BLC 2009
.300 BA / .394 OBP / .489 SLG / .883 OPS with 38 2B, 20 HR, 21 SB in 685 PA
BLC 2010
.300 BA / .401 OBP / .484 SLG / .885 OPS with 31 2B, 22 HR, 21 SB in 646 PA
Then, 2011 rolled around and Choo came in, fresh off of his first arbitration case, looking to make his move into the upper echelon of players and (to borrow Choo’s “frog” analogy), he got splattered across the street – Frogger-style – a couple of times. First, there was the slow start, then came the DUI, then the HBP, then the oblique, and finally…the oblique again. The “hits” never stopped coming for Choo, and unlike what we saw since he returned from his TJ surgery in 2008, these consistent “hits” were not ones that anybody needed to see. Perhaps Choo simply puts 2011 in the rearview mirror and moves back into the middle-of-the-lineup in 2012 and resumes the steady path that he was following prior to his unquestioned lost year in 2011.

Mike Brantley
He has a .316 OBP in 972 MLB plate appearances and had a .318 OBP in 2010 as a 24-year-old. The hope that he’s going to turn into the on-base machine that he was in the Minors is starting to dissipate and the idea that he’s ever going to develop power seems laughable at this point, with his career .359 SLG. As much grief as LaPorta gets, LaPorta has a career .700 OPS in 1,001 PA and Brantley has a career .675 OPS in 972 PA. Yes, age plays a role here, but Brantley is only two years younger than LaPorta (27 this offseason) as Brantley will turn 25 next May. Perhaps you could say that positional value comes into play (LaPorta is expected to produce more as a 1B), but if what Pluto wrote a couple of weeks ago that the Indians “believe Michael Brantley is -- at best -- average in center field. They’d rather play him in left, where he grades high defensively”…well, then you’re talking about a LF that didn’t really get on base and doesn’t really project to have power. Maybe you want to talk about his “bat-to-ball” ability (despite that he’s middle of the pack in the AL in K%) and love his speed (he had 13 SB this year) and athleticism, but Brantley needs to take a MAJOR step in 2012 to not become a poor man’s version of Coco Crisp…another player mistakenly labeled by many as a “core” player in the mid-2000s who found ultimately his way out of Cleveland after a career year in 2005.

Middle Relievers
With the caveat that I don’t really care about middle relievers/mop-up guys, the guys that filled that role for the Indians were pretty bad this year as Durbin and Herrmann both posted an ERA over 5.00 with WHIP’s to match. Hitters posted an .872 OPS off of Durbin and Herrmann (.810 OPS against) wasn’t far behind as only Mitch Talbot (a eye-popping .933 OPS against) “bested” them in terms of posting the highest OPS against on the pitching staff among arms with more than 20 IP. Truthfully, these guys serve a role to simply come in and eat innings in which the Indians are likely already losing (each has quite a bit more IP than G), but if the Indians are going to continue to build their bullpen from within, these spots need to start going to pitchers that are arriving in Cleveland with the potential to move further up the “bullpen ladder” into the 7th or 8th innings. Maybe Herrmann was that kind of guy or maybe Josh Judy (1.061 OPS against) or Zach Putnam is or could use the middle reliever opportunity to parlay into a more meaningful role, but the failure of the Indians’ middle relief corps all season long was disappointing, if not par for the course for middle relievers around the league.

At the end of the day, 2011 was full of positives and building blocks (in important places, like at the top of the rotation and the middle of the lineup) that should form a foundation going forward. Now, it’s time for the Indians to build up from that foundation to create something that lasts.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Extending a Lazy Sunday

While the Indians push ever closer to that “goal” of a .500 record (1 win to go) and a 2nd place finish that became the focus of the season after being steamrolled by the Tigers (who steamrolled through the rest of the AL as well), the last week has been an interesting one in the world of baseball as Brad Pitt graces the cover of SI in an A’s hat and as a movie about baseball statistics continues to pack them in at the theaters. Though most baseball fans who come here are familiar (even if vaguely familiar) with the whole “Moneyball” movement, the misconceptions about it, and how it is perceived by those who love it and those who hate it (and those two camps are both full), much of the better analysis of “Moneyball” that’s been coming out since the movie opened has had little to do with the actual book or even the movie.

Rather, what has been the most compelling narrative to follow has been how “Moneyball” has evolved and how it not only has changed the manner in which baseball decisions are made, but the landscape of MLB altogether. For starters, Ken Rosenthal has a terrific piece on how “Moneyball” basically pulled back the curtain on what a few teams were doing when it was written and how the (relative) success of those teams has now caused basically every MLB team to engage in some sort of statistical analysis. Rosenthal delves into what has happened since the release of the book – focusing on specific markets – and attempts to frame it as an evolution, or at least the starting point of a particular evolution.

However, the most compelling piece from the week comes from Tom Verducci in the print edition of SI as Verducci focuses on one market very specifically and how the evolution of the Red Sox, from their statistical analysis, has vaulted Boston into an upper echelon of teams that it is unlikely to leave any time soon. While this is no great revelation, Verducci goes inside what the Red Sox do and how the revenues that they generate separate them from every other team that has leaned on certain philosophies in the past decade. Again, the piece presents no great surprise to people who have been paying attention to the evolution of the Red Sox in the past decade, but Verducci frames it in such a way that he accurately points out how Boston uses their built-in advantages (in the draft, in FA, their ability to overcome mistakes, etc.) because of their revenue streams.

Reading it is pretty sobering as the fan of a small-to-mid-market team that is never going to be able to compete on the consistent basis that the Red Sox have done in the past decade. It also strikes some fear into any Tribe fan’s heart in that it certainly lays out for any large-market, big-revenue team that is NOT taking advantage of the system the way that the Red Sox do to put their current system under the magnifying glass. Since MLB certainly doesn’t seem to be interested in really overhauling the system to prevent the “haves” from becoming further separated from the “have nots” (they prefer to add another Wild Card so the 10 or so teams in each league that don’t get a playoff berth as a birthright have more hope as the season rolls on), it certainly doesn’t elicit a lot of confidence for a team like the Indians, or the other 25 or so other teams in a similar predicament.

So what can the Indians do?
Sure, they can try to make a move with the Marlins, now that Florida’s closer is…um, not who they thought he was, and try to find that RH bat by perhaps dangling Chris Perez to the Fish, who continue to be included on the lists of being “in” on the Pujols/Prince extravaganza (albeit with a heavy dose of skepticism), but the best they can do is hope to get the pieces lined up together every couple of years and take a shot at it.
And isn’t that what they’ve done…and what they’re currently doing?

As much as we hear about “windows” and read about how they are set up for 2012 contention and while everyone knows about the current “window”, what the Indians (or any team like them) need to do is identify a talented group of players, keep them under club control for as long as possible as a group, and hopefully get an extended playoff run (or two) out of that group of players. They did that from 2004 to the middle of 2009 and, while that group only made one playoff run, they’re doing it again, as evidenced by their breakout 2011 season, even if it ended prematurely.

That said, most Tribe fans seem to be looking at this group of players and seeing a fairly limited “window” of opportunity as there are some major pieces that are only under control through the 2013 season (Asdrubal, Ubaldo, Choo) or the 2014 season (Masterson), but if what is past is truly prologue, isn’t this the off-season that the Indians take some of these now-identified “core” players and attempt to keep that window open a little longer by approaching some players that are arbitration-eligible and are only under club control for a couple additional years?

As soul-crushing as it may be to see the usual suspects make the playoffs (NYY, BOS, PHI, TEX) with the rotating group of “see, they can do it” teams (MIL, AZ) after reading those pieces from Rosenthal and Verducci that point out how the already-uneven playing field is probably going to continue to tilt – and not in the Tribe’s favor – the best course of action for the Indians to take this off-season is to take those “core” players that they’ve assembled (via trade or however) and start to approach them about extensions to keep them in Cleveland as long as possible.

They did it in the early-to-mid-1990’s…
They did it in the early-to-mid-2000s…
And, it’s more than likely that they’re going to start doing it this off-season…

While I’m not suggesting the wholesale approach to the whole roster that John Hart and Dan O’Dowd executed in the early-to-mid-1990s (Scott Scudder…Glenallen Hill, anyone?), there is little question that the current group of Indians has some players that need to be approached by the club with offers that guarantee fair salaries for the next few years in order to keep them under club control past what their current service time would dictate.

This was mentioned about a month ago, but the Indians “could approach Asdrubal with an offer similar to the contract that Troy Tulowitzi signed back in 2008 (not the 10-year deal he just inked) for 6-years and $31M just as they could go to Masterson with a deal similar to the ones that Jon Lester (5 years, $30M) and Clay Buchholz (4 years, $29.95M) recently signed to keep those two on The Reservation for the foreseeable future at set contract numbers.”

Let’s keep this line of thinking going, and since I’m using Tulo’s first deal as the basis for a potential Asdrubal extension, let’s remember what was pointed out back in May and re-visit the comparison, as it is worth pointing out again what Tulowitzki put forth in his first 3 MLB seasons as well as what Asdrubal did in his first 3 MLB seasons:
Tulowitzki (2006-2008) – 281 games
.276 BA / .346 OBP / .435 SLG / .781 OPS / 96 OPS+ with 99 XBH in 1,082 AB

Asdrubal (2007-2009) – 290 games
.287 BA / .355 OBP / .411 SLG / .766 OPS / 105 OPS+ with 92 XBH in 1,034 AB

Now, if you look at what each player did/is doing in their 4th season, you start to wonder if Asdrubal and Tulowitzki are more similar players than one would imagine. By that I mean that here are Tulowitzki’s numbers from that 4th season in 2009, when he was 24 years old:
.297 BA / .377 OBP / .552 SLG / .930 OPS / 131 OPS+ with 32 HR, 66 XBH

And now, Asdrubal’s 4th season this year, which is his season as a 25-year-old:
.275 BA / .334 OBP / .465 SLG / .800 OPS / 121 OPS+ with 25 HR, 60 XBH

There is some age discrepancy there, but what is interesting there is while Tulo’s numbers certainly look better overall, a stat like OPS+ actually says that Asdrubal is having a comparable year in the context of what’s happening offensively in the rest of the league because it uses the rest of MLB as a comparison tool and relates what each player is doing in the context of the rest of MLB.

While realizing that this isn’t apples-to-apples, this is the contract that Tulowitzki signed in January of 2008 which, at the time, was the largest deal ever for a player with less than 2 years of service time, starting with the relevant comparatives of what would have been Tulo’s 2nd year of arbitration and all ensuing years in the contract he signed:
2011 - $5.5M
2012 - $8.25M
2013 - $10M
2014 - $15M club option ($2M buyout)

Whoa…those are some big numbers that are out there, but if (according to MLBTR), “Cabrera’s power surge should push him to $4.9MM or so” in his 2nd year or arbitration, that $5.5M number (or thereabouts) is probably a conceivable carrot to hang out there for Asdrubal to get him to the table for an extension. Of course, Tulowitzki signed his deal, with those locked-in numbers, far earlier in his career than where Asdrubal is right now, so the Indians may need to come pretty close to these numbers.

Given that Tulowitzki has put up better numbers (for longer) than Cabrera but signed his deal much earlier in his career than Asdrubal would, perhaps the Indians could use the last 3 guaranteed years (and one club option) of Tulo’s first contract as a framework to offer Asdrubal a deal that would look something like this:
2012 - $5.5M
2013 - $8.5M
2014 - $10M
2015 - $12M club option ($1M buyout)
2016 - $13M club option ($2M buyout)
That’s a 3-year deal worth $27M guaranteed, buying out one year of Asdrubal’s FA years (2014) and putting some club options in there at big numbers (with buyouts that aren’t inconsequential in terms of cash) that might entice Asdrubal to consider the security of a long-term deal instead of going year-to-year for the next two seasons. Maybe this could be construed as “buying high”, but Asdrubal doesn’t turn 26 until this November and if the assumption is that 2011 finally provided a peek into what Asdrubal can do, it’s the right time to make this kind of commitment to a player, rather than deal with the nightmare that Asdrubal would hit the FA market as a 27-year-old entering his age-28 season and figuring that there would be some interested suitors at that point.

Perhaps Asdrubal is keenly aware of those years and ages and potential interest, but his agent (Alan Nero) also represented Victor Martinez when El Capitan signed a 5-year deal with a club option back in 2005, sacrificing potential future earnings for security, so perhaps a common ground could be located.

The question that needs to be asked is whether approaching Cabrera with a long-term deal with some big numbers going forward is even prudent, given his HUGE bump in production from Asdrubal?

To that I would say that I think too much is being made of his HR increase, particularly as it’s being framed as a one-year bump from his injury-riddled 2010 to his fully-healthy 2011. Consider that in the 1,610 plate appearances that Asdrubal had coming into this year, he had 112 XBH, meaning that he hit an XBH in 6.9% of his plate appearances. This year, he has tallied 60 XBH in 652 PA and while that translates out to him getting an XBH in 9.2% of his plate appearances, we’re not talking about a stratospheric leap here, particularly considering his age and his health.

Could Asdrubal come back to Earth and never replicate his 2011 success?
Of course…don’t you remember Jhonny Peralta v.2005 (.885 OPS as a 23-year-old) and Peralta from 2006 through 2009 (.744 combined OPS over 4 seasons, with a .690 OPS in 2009)?

But these are the risks the Indians need to take (particularly in light of the evolving landscape of MLB), to lock up their own players while they sit alone with them at the negotiating table. When they’re the only team able to offer a player the security of guaranteed money, they need to parlay that into more years of club control, and this off-season represents a perfect time to do so with Asdrubal.

Asdrubal is not alone on this list however as Justin Masterson’s 2011 season has vaulted him into the upper echelon of AL starters, with his first year of arbitration awaiting him this off-season. Though the MLBTR piece says that Masterson would use a “healthy $4M this year” in arbitration, he would look to be ripe for an extension that would keep the big RHP under club control past 2014. In terms of Masterson and a comparable contract that could provide the framework for an extension for the large RHP that figures in at the top of the rotation, you need to look no further than the deal signed by Masterson’s former Red Sox teammate Clay Buchholz, who signed a 4 years, $30.445M last off-season with 2016 and 2017, with the numbers breaking down like this:
2012 - $3.5M
2013 -$5.5M
2014 - $7.7M
2015 - $12M
2016 - $13M club option ($0.245M buyout)
2017 - $13.5M club option ($0.5M buyout)

You’ll notice that Buchholz’s contract (signed this past April) does not include a 2011 salary as it included a $1M signing bonus in addition to the $550K he made in 2011 from Boston as the contract really goes into effect in 2012

That’s interesting because when Buchholz signed that extension prior to the 2011 season, he had 2 years and 59 days of service time and (after this season) Masterson will have 3 years and 108 days of service time, meaning that he’s 1 year further into his career than Buchholz was when he signed his deal. However, if Buchholz’s contract didn’t offer him a significant pay bump in 2011, I don’t think that it’s outrageous to copy the pattern of the Buchholz extension and maybe bump up those numbers accordingly, figuring the leap that Masterson took

The leap is one that Buchholz took a year earlier and one of the reasons that Buchholz is the one being used here is because his 2010 season (the one before his extension) was similar to Masterson’s 2011 season as Buchholz broke out in 2010, to the tune of a 2.33 ERA, a 1.20 WHIP, and a MLB-best 187 ERA+. Similarly, Masterson has answered questions about his viability as a front-of-the-rotation starter, en route to a 3.21 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, and a 123 ERA+. Certainly, Buchholz’s 2010 numbers are more impressive than those from Masterson this year, but with Masterson closer to FA than Buchholz was last off-season, it is possible that Masterson is going to be looking for numbers similar to those received by Buchholz last April.

Perhaps the Indians could do something similar to Buchholz’s deal with something like this, particularly figuring that “guess” from MLBTR on Masterson’s 2012 salary via arbitration:
2012 - $4M
2013 - $6M
2014 - $8M
2015 - $12M
2016 - $13M club option ($250K buyout)
2017 - $14M club option ($500K buyout)

That breaks down to a 4-year, $30.75M deal for Masterson (with the $30.75M guaranteed) with club options that could keep him in a Tribe uniform through the 2017 season, when Masterson will be 32. Essentially, they’d be buying out one year of FA (and paying him $12M in that year) with some club options that represent some pretty big numbers after that. He’d be guaranteed the $30.75M, which is more in guaranteed money than the extensions meted to Buchholz and another former teammate, Jon Lester, both of whom signed extensions with Boston prior to arbitration, giving up years of FA and with club options attached to the extensions for the security of guaranteed money.

Would Masterson do something similar?
It’s entirely possible and it would lock in numbers for a front-of-the-rotation starter and keeps him past that “END OF 2014” that has everyone gripping.

Regardless of whether they’re able to reach an agreement for an extension with Masterson or Cabrera (or even Choo…though I’ve pretty much written that off because of the Boras factor – bad season/DUI or not), it is worth mentioning in all of this extension talk as most people think that keeping homegrown players around is the best use for 2012 money, but extending these guys wouldn’t really affect the 2012 payroll as these players are going to get the salaries (whether it be via arbitration or extension) one way or another.

That’s a common misperception that needs to be cleared up as extending these guys doesn’t really affect their ability to spend money elsewhere for 2012 as the Indians aren’t going to give Justin Masterson $8M in 2012 as part of an extension if he would get around $4M in arbitration because…well, that just isn’t how the process works. Rather, these extensions affect FUTURE payrolls, just as the extensions that were signed back in the early-to-mid-2000s didn’t really affect one particular year (see how the graph in the middle of this page has a nice, linear path up from 2004 to 2009), but kept that group of players together longer than they would have, had the Indians not extended those players that they identified as “core” players back in the early-to-mid-2000s.

Lest you forget, Victor signed a 5-year, $15.5M deal with the Tribe with that 2010 club option back in April of 2005 as Victor was under contract from 2002 through 2010 as an Indian. Obviously, he never made it through that 2009 season, but that’s 9 seasons that El Capitan would have been under club control. Lee was also under club control for 9 seasons as an Indian because of that 2010 club option that was exercised as a member of the Mariners. No, they weren’t 9 FULL seasons, but the Indians gave out extensions to those players that kept them under club control longer than simply going year-to-year with them in arbitration, then dealing with their FA year when it arrived would have.
Anyone remember that CC was under club control for 8 years as an Indian because of the TWO extensions that he signed with Cleveland?

Again, while most people remember how these guys LEFT because of contracts, they forget that the Indians extended CC, Lee, Martinez, Sizemore, Peralta (and others) when each was a young player and, while most people don’t remember those deals – remembering instead the “deals” that took them out of Cleveland or the “deals” they signed once they were FA – this is a strategy that the Indians have been implementing since the early 1990s.

While the landscape of the MLB has changed (and will continue to), the Indians can still identify those “core” players and attempt to lock them up in long-term deals that guarantees money to the player, providing the incentive to the player to give up a year or two (or more) of their FA years. Certainly, that doesn’t mean that they need to get overly ambitious and go after Santana or Kipnis or anyone else that is a LONG way away from even being arbitration-eligible. But Cabrera and Masterson are two players that I would certainly approach this off-season to start to get these guys under club control past the end of the 2013 season (in Asdrubal’s case) or the end of the 2014 season (in the case of Masterson) as they seem to have some payroll flexibility going forward.

Having those two players past their current Cleveland “expiration dates” may not be enough to allow the Indians to overcome a slanted system (and not in their favor) where the mousetrap that they built in the mid-2000s has been copied by teams with deeper pockets, now in possession of bigger mousetraps. However, the “core” players for the Indians started to emerge in 2011 and keeping those players on the corner of Carnegie and Ontario as long as they can needs to be as important as anything that the organization is going to do to augment the current group in place to keep that “window” open as long as possible.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Board of Options

With the 2011 season winding down, there has certainly been quite a bit of talk that’s already started about the 2012 roster and the decisions that face the Tribe this off-season. While the off-season is still about a month away (remember, the still have the MLB playoffs…Indians or not), much of the focus has landed squarely on the options that exist for the two players that were once thought to be the linchpins of the franchise, whose stock has dropped considerably as seasons have progressed – Grady Sizemore and Fausto Carmona.

While arbitration numbers need to be figured and contract extensions need to be considered, the immediate focus is on the $7M option that the Indians hold for Carmona and the $9M (not $8.5M as it’s being reported by so many outlets) for Sizemore’s 2012 season. Given that significant raises are coming to a number of players currently on the Tribe because of their service time and the prevailing notion that the Indians need to add to the current group of players in order to contend, it is no small issue. As it stands now, their assumed commitment to players currently on the roster (if they pick up the options on Sizemore and Carmona) figures to be around $65M, if you use the arbitration estimates on the Tribe players from MLBTR here, with $23M to the 7 arbitration eligibles (again, numbers here), $13M to Hafner, $9M to Sizemore, $7M to Carmona, $4.2M to Ubaldo, and about $6M for the 14 remaining minimum-salaried players (assuming minimum salary is about $425,000) that figure to fill out the roster.

Since the Indians don’t figure to drastically bump the payroll, and while there is some logic to perhaps moving some of the arbitration-eligible players (is Chris Perez worth $4.3M a year?), the crux of the discussion regarding adding players (and their salaries) starts with the idea that all the Indians need to do is decline Carmona’s option and Sizemore’s option and they’re in business to add some pieces and parts. Additionally, there seems to be this prevailing logic in some circles that the Indians should decline these options, sign players for the money that would have been going to Carmona and Sizemore and the roster would be significantly better.
But is that logic sound?

Just to start with Carmona and that $7M option, everyone realizes what the going rate is on the FA market for Starting Pitchers, right?
For some hard numbers, consider that in 2010, Javier Vazquez posted a 5.32 ERA, a 1.40 WHIP for the Yankees. After that season, he signed a 1-year, $7M deal with the Marlins for the 2011 season. Certainly, Vazquez’s 2009 with the Braves (2.87 ERA) played a role in the Marlins’ decision to ink Vazquez as the Marlins likely thought that Vazquez would benefit from a change in scenery (out of Gotham) and could find his former self, but if Carmona’s 2011 option is for $7M, doesn’t it stand to reason that similar demand could exist for Carmona this off-season?

Lest you forget, in a FA market starved for ANY viable starting pitcher, Kevin Correia inked a 2-year deal with the Pirates last off-season for $8M and that was coming off of a 2010 season in which he had a 5.40 ERA and a 1.49 WHIP...for the Padres, who play in cavernous Petco Park. Going further, the Cardinals gave Jake Westbrook (4.22 ERA, 1.34 WHIP with the Tribe and Cards in 2010) a 2-year deal worth $16.5M last off-season, for a pitcher that they assumed would sit in the middle-of-the-rotation in St. Louis.

With the embarrassing dearth of starting pitching (particularly starting pitching available on the FA market) league-wide, these players are going to get more money than they’re worth. That may not be telling any secrets, but just to keep the examples flying from last off-season, Brad Penny got a $3M deal last off-season from the Tigers after pitching only 55 innings with the Cards in 2010 and Brandon Webb got $3M in guaranteed money from Texas last off-season having pitched FOUR MLB innings the previous two seasons.

Sure, Penny and Webb had histories of success, but given Carmona’s “potential”, is there any doubt that a team (like..say, the Yankees) would roll the dice on Carmona’s “potential” and give him a deal, with the idea that they’d be the ones that could iron out the issues that have plagued him, however long those issues have plagued him? In case you forgot, Carmona posted a 3.77 ERA in 2010 as some thought that he may have turned that corner (once again) to respectability and, if we’re to glean anything from 2011, it’s that the talent is still there with Carmona, just not the consistency.

Certainly, every split-personality descriptor has been assigned to Carmona this season, but take a look at Carmona as he personified that Jekyll-and-Hyde that has tantalized and frustrated us all season:
April 7th through May 8th - 7 starts
2.22 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, 30 K, 14 BB with a .541 OPS against in 48 2/3 IP

May 13th through June 26th – 9 starts
7.99 ERA, 1.64 WHIP, 26 K, 18 BB with a .927 OPS against in 50 2.3 IP

In the interest of full disclosure, I’m not including the game in Cincinnati here on July 2nd as Carmona went 2 scoreless innings before belly flopping his way to the DL. Regardless, here is what he’s done since he returned from his DL stint:
July 18th through August 22nd – 7 starts
2.49 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, 26 K, 13 BB with a .673 OPS against in 47 IP

August 27th through Tuesday – 6 starts
7.55 ERA, 1.84 WHIP, 18 K, 13 BB with a .868 OPS against in 31 IP

Which of those pitchers is going to show up for the rest of Carmona’s career, much less in 2012, the talented one that is capable of compiling a month’s worth of good starts or the headcase that allows baserunners and runs to envelop him?
Let’s just say that there’s a reason that “Good Fausto/Bad Fausto” is part of the lexicon of any Indians fan…

Regardless, it’s not a secret that this inconsistency with Fausto is mental and since they’ve attempted to crawl inside his head since 2008, there isn’t any great hope that Fausto v.2007 is ever coming back. Rather, the hope is that Fausto can settle into the middle-of-the-rotation, have more stretches of good pitching than bad, and contribute 200 or so (admittedly, uneven innings) to the Tribe. Now, if Cookie Carrasco’s elbow would have not landed him on the Tommy John operating table, this is a completely different discussion, just as it was affected by the trade of White (11 HR allowed in 27 2/3 IP for the Rox) and Pomz (1.69 ERA for Colorado), though not as much as the Cookie surger. But Carrasco’s not coming back in 2012 and White and Pomz are donning purple uniforms now.

Going further, given some of the concerns about Fausto’s conditioning, it could probably be argued that picking up this option may not be the best idea, in terms of motivation for Carmona, but looking at the other options on the FA SP market (is Edwin Jackson or Bruce Chen or Jeff Francis much more appealing…and what kind of money/years does it take to get those guys?) this off-season and with the idea that the Indians probably shouldn’t count on Gomez/Huff/McAllister to take up TWO spots in the rotation, the Indians are best served turning their head, pinching their nose, and picking up Carmona’s option for 2012, given that it’s basically a one-year deal and the final year that these options for Carmona aren’t patently outrageous (it’s $9M next year and $12M in 2014) in terms of guaranteed money.

As for the other option on the Tribe’s table this off-season, this is what I wrote exactly two months ago regarding one Grady Sizemore:
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.

As much as I hate to say, “this”…well, “this”.
However, despite the fact that it “wouldn’t look to prudent” to pick up that option as it currently exists, there is this gnawing feeling that Sizemore’s talent is still in there somewhere and that it would nearly be criminal if Sizemore returned to some level of his past production in something other than a Cleveland uniform. Lest you forget, Sizemore posted the 4th highest WAR from 2005 to 2008 as he became the Golden Boy, the SI Cover Boy, and the impetus for fan sites everywhere. He was the Indians’ best chance at a baseball superstar, under club control through the end of the 2012 season (remember thinking how great that was entering 2009?), and the pillar upon which the lineup would be built.

Now, he’s viewed as a has-been, a windmill of all that had gone wrong in the decline of the Indians of the 2000s, as he quickly made the trip from the penthouse to the outhouse with his role of that of a savior morphing into that of a pariah. Of course, that downward path was prompted by his injuries and while it can be accurately asserted that those 2005 to 2008 stretch was a long time ago, doesn’t anyone remember what he put forth when he returned from the DL in mid-April of THIS YEAR?
Grady Sizemore – 2011 – 1st 18 games after return
.282 BA / .333 OBP / .641 SLG / .974 OPS with 10 2B and 6 HR in 84 PA

He had TEN doubles in 18 games and SIXTEEN extra-base hits upon his return. Obviously, he was injured again in mid-May, forcing him to the DL after those 18 games, but isn’t that kind of the paradox with Grady?

When fully healthy (or even close to it), he’s an unquestioned talent, capable of putting an offense on his back while flying after fly balls in the OF. When he’s not healthy, he’s either a shell of his former self at the plate (he has a .599 OPS since mid-May…and nobody can convince me that he’s been healthy since that first DL stint) or he’s languishing on the DL.

That said, here’s the thing with Grady – even outside of the unappealing internal options to replace him (Zeke and Crowe) or the fact that the CF FA pickings are slim – as I don’t know how many people are prepared to see Sizemore, with a full off-season to rehab and potentially get healthy, returning to his Superhero form in another uniform. Which is to say, that if Grady can spend the off-season getting healthy and is able to prove to some team (any team) that he’s close to being back to form, he’s going to be in demand.
Not $9M in demand, but in demand nonetheless…

That’s where the Indians hold the cards with this thing in that they have that $9M club option that they can use as the carrot for Sizemore. Though I have trouble believing what the Tribe told Terry Pluto in that, “if the Indians pass on Sizemore’s option, they believe another team will probably pick him up at that price range” as $9M for a player, I do think that the Indians could use the guaranteed $9M as incentive to keep Grady, while perhaps minimizing some risk on their part, in the fold with the idea that if he does return to form, that he’ll do it as a Cleveland Indian.

Though I’ve been floating the idea of renegotiating Sizemore’s deal for some time, Pluto says in his piece this past weekend that he would “offer Sizemore a contract with a $3 million base and lots of incentives. It can even be hooked into a lucrative long-term deal if he plays 120 games, or some other indication of durability.” Let’s use this as a starting point and get a little creative with a possible solution that allows the Indians to minimize some risk, keep Sizemore on the team with reachable incentives that become lucrative for Grady, and find some common ground here.

As a starting point, the Indians would guarantee Sizemore’s $9M option, but make it payable over 3 years with those games-played-based incentives that Pluto suggested built in so Sizemore (if healthy) could earn a salary at a rate commensurate with what a healthy Sizemore would earn on the open market. Remember, they did this with Pavano a couple of years ago, with incentives tied to innings pitched building upon a base salary as Pavano’s health was in question and the Indians’ creativity is what brought Pavano onto The Reservation.

Regardless, follow me on this:
2012 - $3M guaranteed, potential for additional $6M for 140 games played
$3M guaranteed base
Additional $1.5M for 80 games played
Another additional $1.5M for 100 games played
Another additional $1.5M for 120 games played
A final additional $1.5M for 140 games played
In this scenario, he’s guaranteed $3M in 2012 and could earn up to the $9M if he plays in 140 games, earning healthy bumps in pay as he plays in games throughout the season.

2013 - $3M guaranteed, potential for additional $8M for 140 games played
$3M guaranteed base
Additional $2M for 80 games played
Another additional $2M for 100 games played
Another additional $2M for 120 games played
A final additional $2M for 140 games played
Again, Sizemore has that $3M guaranteed with the ability to earn $11M if he hits that 140 game plateau.

2014 - $3M guaranteed, potential for additional $10M for 140 games played
$3M guaranteed base
Additional $2.5M for 80 games played
Another additional $2.5M for 100 games played
Another additional $2.5M for 120 games played
A final additional $2.5M for 140 games played
You’re getting the point here, as Grady will still get the $3M guaranteed (the final 1/3 of that $9M club option) in 2014 with the possibility that he could earn $13M if he stayed healthy enough to play in 140 games.

Looks acceptable from a team standpoint, right?
What about a compelling reason for Grady to sign this?
Well, I would include a proviso that if Sizemore does not reach the 80 games played plateau in any of those seasons, he immediately becomes a FA in the following year with the club giving up control of him, while still paying him that guaranteed spread-out $9M, which would become deferred payments. This way, if Sizemore was unable to play in 80 games and wanted to test the FA market, he could sign another deal elsewhere while still receiving the guaranteed base salaries from the Indians and essentially double-dipping while still having the security of a guaranteed $3M per year through the 2014 season.

In this scenario, the Indians spread out their risk by lowering the guaranteed money to Sizemore each year, Sizemore gets his $9M total guaranteed (albeit over three years) with built-in escalator clauses that are have no basis on performance and are simply based on his ability to stay healthy, and perhaps a happy medium is reached. For some context on the games played numbers, Sizemore hasn’t played in 80 games since the 2009 season (he played 109 that season) and hasn’t played in 140 games since the 2008 season, so these games played numbers – while not outrageous – are going to take some consistent health from Sizemore to hit.

It’s possible that Sizemore and his agent reject this as you have to remember that he already signed his “discounted” deal when he inked his 6-year, $23.45M deal as a much-younger player. Maybe he wants to dip his toe in the FA market and demands that the $9M option (as it exists) is either picked up or declined and, if that were the case, the Indians have to make a quick assessment of the FA market and the Trade market while being very honest with themselves about what can be reasonably expected for Sizemore in 2012 as the dearth of OF options past him isn’t going away anytime in the near future.

However, if the Indians were able to get Grady to agree to spread his $9M club option over a couple of years, the team may actually have some financial flexibility to add that bat that remains atop everyone’s wish list. Would they have enough to add a Mike Cuddyer (who would play some amalgamation of 1B/OF/DH if Grady stuck around), as MLBTR predicts that “Cuddyer could find three years and $30MM on the open market, so the Twins might have to improve their offer to something in the three-year, $27MM range to get a deal done”?

Restructuring Sizemore’s deal certainly makes that more feasible, but the Indians need to get creative in their financial commitments to their current team before fully exploring augmenting the team from within. Maybe that means trading some arbitration-eligible players or maybe it means signing young players to extensions to lock in known payroll numbers going forward, but the financial decisions of the off-season start with the options that exist for Fausto and Grady. Once thought to be no-brainers in terms of exercised options, whether or not the team exercises either option, or both, is going to have a profound impact on what is shaping up to be the most important off-season on The Reservation in recent memory.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Learning Lessons on A Lazy Sunday

As the weather has now unquestionably turned to Fall on the North Coast as most eyes turn (once again) to the seemingly (once again) moribund Browns and I attempt to discern which craft brewery puts out the best Oktoberfest beer (GLBC is in the lead, over Thirsty Dog and Brooklyn Brewery, with Bell’s in the queue) as the seasons are made for adapting your drinking, the Indians’ season marches on, if largely ignored. While the Oktoberfest tastings may be done with some sort of numbing effect in mind, given that the Tigers have now not only won the division, but are a mere 3 GB behind the Yankees for the best record in the AL as the Indians’ slide down the W-L record seems to be greased, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t things to be watching as the Tribe plays out the string here as they are hanging on in 2nd place (who had that in the pool) and are threatening to finish the season with a record over .500.

Those “things to be watching” don’t involve making major decisions for 2012 on the basis of a couple of weeks in September (Karim Garcia is somewhere with fond memories of his time as an Indian), but rather to see how the Indians can balance protecting some of the principal pieces, while giving those pieces some confidence going into next year and watching some of their young players down the stretch. Certainly, there seems to be some logic in just shutting some of these “veterans” down as there is absolutely no reason to risk further injury (ahem…The BLC) or watch inning counts mount unnecessarily (for Masterson for example as Clecago Joe suggested in the comments) in games that aren’t that important in the grand scheme of things. Of course, news broke late this week that the Indians do, in fact, plan on bringing Josh Tomlin back to likely start one of the games in an upcoming doubleheader. Maybe there is some level of credence to this whole “prove to oneself that they can be healthy going into the off-season”, but have we learned nothing this season?

If something can go wrong, health-wise, for this team, it will…then it will again. Do the Indians REALLY have to bring Josh Tomlin back, even just for a couple of innings, after what we saw time after time this season, with players being cleared to play because they passed all of the “tests” in place, only to see them struggle and eventually end up on the DL again?

Given the rotational depth (or lack thereof), I’m all for shutting Tomlin down, giving Masterson maybe one more start and resting Cabrera and Santana A LOT more than they’re being rested right now. Maybe that means that we’re watching a baseball team that looks more like the Clippers than the Indians for the final two weeks, but isn’t that how it’s been for a while? Give the guys that need continued reps in MLB (Chisenhall, Kipnis, Marson, Huff, Gomez, McAllister) the opportunity to play these final two weeks and stop worrying about giving a guy like Tomlin a chance to feel like he CAN come back to play again in 2011. As we found out with The BLC, the wishes of these guys to finish the season “on the field, not on the DL” are potentially counterproductive.

That being said, and with that as just the appetizer, let’s get off into a Lazy Sunday as we take a look at some of the young players that significantly figure into 2012. For some of those players, answers have presented themselves in 2011 and some that may be coming in 2012.. Seeing as how the 1B “issue” figures to evolve – with Jayson Stark identifying the Marlins as one of the probably “surprise” spenders this off-season…and where have I heard that before – throughout the off-season (so don’t just go ordering that Indians’ Gaby Sanchez jersey yet), and with plenty of time to talk about the options of Sizemore and Carmona that exist, 2011 saw a number of young players attempt to assert themselves in MLB. While the health of the walking wounded Wahoos may be more important for success in 2012, forget attempting to answer the questions of health (Brantley, Choo, Sizemore, Hafner) as I’m not going to attempt to wade into that muck of MRI’s and put-off surgeries. Rather, let’s get into the young players that saw their first major action in 2011 and what can be gleaned (if anything) from their performances as we get off on a Lazy One…

Starting off, remember that idea a few months ago, that there were a number of players in the lineup that entered 2011 with very few MLB plate appearances?
In case you forgot, as the team attempted to keep pace in the AL Central, they were doing so with a cast of characters full of guys still cutting their teeth in MLB:
Cabrera – 1,610 MLB plate appearances entering 2011 season
Brantley – 446 MLB plate appearances entering 2011 season
Hafner – 3,852 MLB plate appearances entering 2011 season
Santana – 192 MLB plate appearances entering 2011 season
LaPorta – 623 MLB plate appearances entering 2011 season
Chisenhall – 0 MLB plate appearances entering 2011 season
Carrera – 0 MLB plate appearances entering 2011 season
Kearns – 3,799 MLB plate appearances entering 2011 season
Kipnis – 0 MLB plate appearances entering 2011 season
Marson – 400 MLB plate appearances entering 2011 season

There are six guys on that list that had fewer than 450 MLB PA going into the season (Brantley, Santana, Chisenhall, Carrerra, Kipnis, and Marson) and since Carrerra and Marson figure to serve on the bench next year and since Brantley logged nearly 500 PA this year and has almost reached 1,000 career plate appearances (with a career OBP of .316…but that’s a topic for another day), let’s focus on the presumed starters going into next season that had fewer than 200 MLB PA coming into 2011 – The Axe Man, Kipnis, and The Chiz.

Despite a slow start (a couple of weeks, at least) and some defensive…um, transgressions, Santana has shown himself to be the potentially impactful bat that he was purported to be as he rose through the ranks of the Indians’ farm system. With his 25th HR yesterday, Santana tied the Indians’ record for HR by a switch-hitter (held by Victor) in his first full season in MLB. From April 28th through Friday night, Santana has a .836 OPS with 22 HR in 121 games, which projects out to a 30 HR season. While projections are just that, Santana is 4th in BB rate in the AL and while his K rate is concerning (in that it represents a stark departure from his MiLB numbers), there are 12 players in the AL with a K/BB rate better than that of Santana with an OPS over .800. They are Miggy Cabrera, Joey Bats, Ian Kinsler, Dustin PEDroia, David Ortiz, Paul Konerko, Victor Martinez, Nick Swisher, Casey Kotchman, and Evan Longoria.

The BB rate may not be all that impressive to some, but that list should be, particularly if you remember (again) that Santana is in his first full MLB season and that he’s likely to finish the season with the highest OPS on the team. Yes…I know Jason Kipnis has a higher OPS as does Shelley Duncan’s (in 1/3 of the plate appearances) but it could be argued (pretty easily) that The Axe Man was the Indians’ best hitter this year. Yes, his BA has been low, but as Joe Posnanski points out, the likely MVP of the AL has a BA of .264 and nobody’s made a peep about that, so maybe this antiquated idea that BA is even worth mentioning in the worth of a hitter is passing. Someday that notion will make its way to the pages of the PD, but even if you want to give some weight to BA, given that Santana has the 7th lowest BABIP in the AL, doesn’t it stand to reason that the still-25-year-old Santana has arrived as a hitting machine for the Tribe?

The Indians have had a lot go wrong this season and have a lot of questions that remain in their lineup, but Santana’s placement in the middle of that lineup (and it being justified by his 2011 performance) is not one of them as Santana is ready to anchor a lineup, something he’s really been doing since the beginning of May.

Heading down the 3B line from where The Axe Man dons his tools of ignorance (and will continue to), the question becomes whether another highly-touted Tribe prospect, Lonnie Chisenhall, is ready to consistently contribute in 2012. That answer is a little murkier as The Chiz has looked overwhelmed at times as he’s actually walking LESS than Orlando Cabrera did as an Indian…and that’s no small feat. In fact his BB/PA is the 2nd lowest in the AL, with only the notoriously free-swinging Vlad Guerrero “besting” The Chiz in that department. The reason that his low BB rate is a cause for concern is that Chisenhall had a respectable BB rate in MiLB and has struggled to have that translate to MLB.

It is worth noting that Chisenhall had a .779 OPS when he got in the face on July 8th, and had a sub-.600 OPS in the 40 games after he took a fastball off his cheekbone. After his recent hot streak (he has 5 XBH, 4 of which have been HR in his last 9 games), his OPS has crept back over the .700 mark. Certainly, more may have been expected from Chisenhall, given all of the hype that surrounded his Spring Training in particular, but The Chiz has looked like a 22-year-old who struggled to make the transition to MLB pitching, as so many young, talented players have done before him. What is interesting for Chisenhall is that there was some (deserved) concern over whether he would be able to handle LHP in MLB, as he had struggled against LHP in the Minors. Oddly enough, The Chiz has crushed LHP this year (.910 OPS vs. LHP) while struggling against RHP (.623 OPS vs. RHP) when the opposite was true throughout his MiLB career as Lonnie always struggled against LHP and thrived against RHP before arriving to the parent club.

Whether anything can truly be gleaned from that is unlikely as the small sample siren blares, but it would seem that Chisenhall could benefit from more “seasoning” at AAA at some point, perhaps to begin 2012. Whether he would start the season in Columbus next year remains to be seen, but the performance of Jack Hannahan (whose career and year is looked at in great detail by the always-terrific Ryan Richards here) in 2011 gives some comfort that the Indians may have a serviceable bridge in place to allow Chisenhall to develop at his own pace. The Chiz may not be completely ready to contribute at a high level to the Indians, but the signs (18 XBH in 182 PA) are there to allow the optimism to remain regarding Chisenhall’s impact, even if that impact is not in the immediate future.

Unlike Chisenhall, the one rookie who made an immediate impact on the Tribe was Lonnie’s infield-mate, Jason Kipnis, whose ranks in the AL (rookie or not) provide some perspective as to the level at which Kipnis performed once he was promoted. Now, it should be noted that Kipnis will be 25 years old next April, so he is a much older “young” player than Chisenhall, but unlike at 3B, the Indians do not have a veteran player (any more) that would prevent the team from giving Kipnis the 2B job from here on out. Yes, Donald and Phelps still exist in the 2B mix, but those two seem to be competing to become a Utility IF for this team going forward as Kipnis asserted himself in a manner in which it’s not hard to picture him at the top of the order for the foreseeable future.

Kipnis’ skill at the plate, his hustle, and his talent were obvious from the time that he arrived in Cleveland and, much like the performance of Santana, his 2011 seasonprovides a glimpse of what should be a productive career for Kipnis as an Indian. With the revolving door that 2B has been spinning since Robbie Alomar made his way to the Big Apple, Kipnis may actually finally settle the position for the Indians and provide some production from 2B that Indians’ fans haven’t been accustomed to in quite some time. Kipnis, like Santana, is likely to sit at the top-to-middle-of-the-lineup from the next few years and figures to be a major cog in the offense going forward, which is more than most would have wished for when the season started.

Speaking of expectations when the season started, how many people would have assumed that Josh Tomlin would have a guaranteed spot in the 2012 rotation, with another spot likely to be filled by Huff, Gomez, or McAllister?

With White and Pomz in the system when the 2011 season started, it was assumed that those arms would have been leapfrogged with perhaps ONE of the Tomlin/Huff/Gomez/ McAllister pile factoring in past 2011, but with the Ubaldo deal, it would seem that the rotation figures to be filled by two of the aforementioned names. Maybe Mitch Talbot reappears at some point, but if Tomlin figures to have one rotation spot locked down (assuming nothing goes SPROING in his elbow…and this is me knocking on wood) with the hope that the April and May Tomlin is going to eventually win over the July and August Tomlin, the Indians will have one spot to fill in their rotation internally, with the likely candidates of Gomez, Huff, and McAllister all making their cases down the stretch in 2011.

Certainly, the most impressive (in MLB) this season has been Jeanmar Gomez, but is Gomez really ready to capture a rotational spot and not relinquish it because of his underwhelming “stuff”?
It is true that he has a sub-4.00 ERA over 47 2/3 IP and he posted a 2.55 ERA in Columbus this year and though it’s fairly obvious that he will never be a big K guy and a high WHIP guy that lives dangerously, it’s easy to forget that he’s 23 years old. Right now, he’s about average (his ERA+ this year is 100), under club-control for a while (meaning he can ride the I-71 Shuttle if necessary) and if the idea is that he can fill out the back-end-of-a-rotation adequately exists, he is likely to be given the first shot at a 2012 spot in the rotation. Assuming his leg injury from Saturday is a minor one (and he’s reportedly not expected to miss a start), Gomez can attempt to build upon the momentum that he’s finishing September with to see if that can translate into a spot in the rotation in 2012.

It is worth noting that Gomez has gone through these periods of effectiveness before (he had a 3.07 ERA through his first 8 starts in 2010, only to see the wheels come off) and his last four starts (in which he’s excelled) have come against Oakland, Chicago, Kansas City, and Minnesota, but Gomez is positioning himself for a spot in the rotation next year. Remembering that he is still just 23 and realizing that his AAA were as good as any in the International League this year (although another 23-year-old Clipper was impressive too), it’s not impossible to see Gomez fitting into the back-end-of-the-rotation for the Tribe. If he falters, he gets sent down to Columbus for the next “hot hand”, but if he excels, the Indians could perhaps get some production from their 5th spot in the rotation without having to spend millions of dollars to do so, saving that money for more pressing needs.

In terms of that other “23-year-old Clipper that was impressive too”, there was an interesting comment from Ross Atkins at IPI as Atkins had this to say about Zach McAllister:
Zach is much more than just a contributing piece to this puzzle for us. I think he is going to be in the middle of a rotation for a long time and there are a lot of people who think that. I know Zach thinks that and that is probably the most important person. He has things not everyone has. He has a three pitch mix, sometimes four. He is durable, he is very strong, he is very intelligent, and he has the work ethic and the passion which are the standards that are elevating. When you look back at Fausto Carmona when he was 20 years old or Jake Westbrook when he was 22-23 years old and breaking into the Major Leagues, they were not exactly seamless transitions.

Now, Atkins is usually good for plotting out the best-case scenario for these guys, but Westbrook is an interesting comp here if you look at what each did in their age-appropriate seasons, both in AAA:
Jake – 2001 AAA (Age 23)
3.20 ERA, 1.28 WHIP, 6.3 K/9, 3.2 BB/9, 1.96 K/BB in 64 2/3 IP

McAllister – 2011 AAA (Age 23)
3.28 ERA, 1.20 WHIP, 7.4 K/9, 1.8 BB/9, 4.13 K/BB in 154 2/3 IP

Remember, the “light” didn’t really go off for Westbrook until 2003 as he was still the long man/swing starter for those Indians’ teams of the early 2000s before he took off in the middle of 2003. In fact, in Westbrook’s first 3 seasons in MLB (113 IP), he had a 6.43 ERA and a 1.61 WHIP as he struggled to find success in MLB. Don’t take that to mean that McAllister is going to eventually have the career that Westbrook has, but both are groundball pitchers and McAllister’s size (he’s 6’6”, 240 lbs.) is intriguing in his ability to throw on a downward plane.

That’s not to say that McAllister will be ready to contribute from Day 1 in 2012 as he certainly has looked completely overwhelmed in his first two starts for the Indians (he allowed 19 baserunners while tallying 22 outs), but McAllister is interesting because of his youth and the numbers that he put forth in Columbus this year, which compare favorably among starters in AAA. Perhaps he takes as long as Westbrook did to put it all together (although if he follows the same path, he won’t contribute in the rotation until 2013), but McAllister’s numbers in AAA this year (put up at age 23) show that there is talent there. Whether that talent translates may find an answer in 2012.

In terms of talent translating, will the David Huff that some (OK…me) saw back in 2008 ever arrive in Cleveland and consistently contribute?
Too many words and too much thought has been spent on Dave Huff in this space (and others) without a real clear idea of whether Huff has figured it out or if he’s ever going to figure it out and become – at the very least – a viable back-end-of-the-rotation starter. There are starts in which you see his fastball command, his new shortened wind-up, and his aggressiveness all lead to his effectiveness, making it easy to envision him as a player that should be handed the ball every 5th day. Then, there are starts in which you see him nibbling, missing off the plate, getting hammered, and looking like he will never stick in the Tribe’s rotation.

What’s disconcerting about that is that, for players like Gomez and McAllister – still adjusting to MLB and still young – those growing pains are to be expected, but with Huff (now 27 and with more than 250 MLB IP), you have to wonder if this is just who he is. Certainly, the hope is there that LHP take a little longer to develop and the cautionary tale of giving up on a highly-touted LHP is there in the form of CP Lee (though Lee in 2007 and Huff of today are nowhere near to equal footing, in terms of accomplishments or expectations), but it certainly feels like Huff will continue to tease us of what “could be” for a while, instead of asserting himself as “being” as most hope he will.

What does the performance of those three in 2011 mean for 2012?
That’s hard to say, and it becomes a question of whether any of these guys going to perform better than Mitch Talbot has in the last couple of years. One would certainly hope so, but there isn’t one pitcher in that troika that elicits a lot of confidence to step into the rotation in 2012 and succeed (even at a level commensurate with that of a 5th starter) on a consistent basis. With Cookie out with TJ, with Carmona being Carmona and with Tomlin…um, stumbling down the stretch (5.28 ERA, .778 OPS against since May 27th), that’s kind of a terrifying idea going into next season, given that the advantage that a team like the Indians needs to exploit is with their pitching.

Is there another Josh Tomlin on the periphery to surprise us?
Though I think that the question of whether Josh Tomlin is even able to hold down a rotational spot throughout 2012, could a guy like Paolo Espino who, according to Ross Atkins via IPI, is a similar pitcher to Tomlin, come on and surprise the organization in the way that Tomlin did?

There may be some hope for LHP Scott Barnes (and his 107 K in 99 IP), but there’s some major concern past Masterson and Ubaldo (not to mention concern for Ubaldo that lingers) in the rotation. Does that mean that the Indians add another arm to the rotational mix?

At this point, I’d say maybe if you figure that the starting five is Masterson, Ubaldo, Carmona, Tomlin, and some amalgamation of Gomez/Huff/McAllister/Some Guy. After seeing Tomlin’s ERA since the end of May and with the knowledge that Fausto (whose option they almost have to pick up) is…well, Fausto, the Indians’ rotation (past the top two) merits a long look this off-season and the answers that the Indians need on their young pitchers aren’t going to come in a couple of weeks in September. With starting pitchers, answers reveal themselves over months and seasons, not individual starts or weeks. Thus, the questions that are being asked now about the Indians’ young starters are likely going to persist well into 2012.

As for the bullpen arms that figure to populate the September box scores, I’m not about to draw conclusions, as I don’t know a lot about Judy or Hagadone, much less Putnam. From the eye test (the sample sizes are painfully small), Judy has failed to impress and Hagadone’s talent is obvious, as are his strike-throwing issues. Perhaps the Indians can find another Pestano from that group for 2011 with the hope that Pestano (and Sipp and Joe Smith) can replicate their 2011 success for another year. In the world of bullpens – where success is fleeting and nothing is guaranteed from one year to the next – a guy like CC Lee can emerge from nowhere to play a role in a 2012 bullpen or he could go the way of Fernando Cabrera and Jensen Lewis…as could Vinnie Pestano.

As has been stated many times, the pieces that we’ve seen shuffling towards Cleveland have essentially arrived (or are getting their first cup of coffee this September) in the lineup, the rotation, and the bullpen. There were some major steps taken by important players in 2011 and 2012 needs to be filled with more of the same pleasant developmental surprises if the Indians are going to contend (again) next year. Though this is preaching to the choir, the Indians don’t have the luxury of just filling holes by writing checks (without possible complications down the road), as other teams may and though it looks like the chess pieces have been lined up on the board for the Indians, the Tribe needs the players that have now arrived to perform at a level that has been predicted for them.

Success won’t be universal for these young players that have arrived or that figure to arrive, but internal augmentation is still going to have to play a factor here if the Indians are going to be able to use the 2011 season as the jumping-off point for contention in 2012.

As the 2011 winds to a slow finish, it is obvious that on some days, that 2012 contention next year is easy to see. Other days, not so much…