Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Tomahawks Winding Down

With only two weeks remaining in the marathon of the 2011 season, the Indians find themselves firmly out of the AL Central race, clinging to the notion that a .500 record is still a viable “goal” for the season, and readying themselves for what figures to be the most interesting off-season in quite a while for the Wahoo Warriors. Though the games are…um, less than compelling as the Indians play out the string, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t some storylines that don’t merit a mention.

So let’s mention some of them as we watch the Tomahawks fly…

While the final two weeks of the season wind down, the questions come out as to why these final two weeks feel so bereft of anything meaningful and why the end of this season feels so much different than Septembers of years past, when compelling storylines existed. Whether those final-month narratives involved playoff pushes or seeing players who you had only known by name and stat line, consider how different this kind of “playing out the string” season compares to years’ past, where there was a very clear line of demarcation when the season was lost:
Grady’s missed fly ball in Kansas City in 2005…
The “sell-off” of anything that wasn’t nailed down in 2006…
CC imploding and Dana DeMuth squeezing in 2007…
The CC deal of 2008…
The CP Lee/El Capitan punch to the gut in 2009…
The “sell-off” (again) of anything of value that wasn’t nailed down last year…

Go back and look at when most of those thing occurred – either at the VERY end of the season (or the playoffs) or sometime in June or July. This “contend through August or so” isn’t something we’ve experienced since 2004 as, in 2005 and 2007, every game was important up to the very end and the end came much sooner in those other years, to the point that fans had a couple of months to focus on youngsters and had more than just a few weeks to envision what the future held. Sure, we have a couple of weeks to see Hagadone and Putnam as well as some time to watch Kipnis and The Chiz every day while we wonder whether Hafner and Grady will ever get fully healthy, but a lot of the questions that existed prior to the season found answers this year and a couple of weeks in September are unlikely to affect those answers.

The answers that came this season – the ones that give reason for hope – were watching Masterson take the leap from flawed starter/eventual reliever to a legitimate top-of-the-rotation arm, Asdrubal’s leap into the upper echelon of not just MLB SS but among the best AL hitters (15th in the AL in XBH…along with The Axe Man), Santana’s emergence as an offensive force as he now has matched the HR total for Victor’s rookie season as an Indian (23) and who has a .820 OPS since mid-April, Kipnis bursting onto the scene and perhaps settling a position that has been unsettled since Robbie Alomar left town, and a gaggle of arms in the bullpen that are emerging from the Minors that can fill out an effective relief corps. With that group of players’ performance in 2011, the top-of-the-rotation has some stability, the bullpen inspires some hope (with the caveat that reliever success is fleeting and unpredictable) and the Indians have a troika of under-25 hitters that figure to provide some production as they continue to develop…in Cleveland.

On the flip side, we found out that LaPorta is unlikely to ever be the big RH bat, that Carmona is going to remain frustratingly inconsistent despite all of our wishes, that Hafner is unlikely ever to make it through a season completely healthy and will likely play between 80 and 120 games, with an OPS in the low-.800’s as his contract runs out, that even Choo is not immune to a down year, that well-regarded young players (like Chisenhall) often do not arrive to MLB and perform as immediate All-Stars, and that the once-praised Indians’ Training Staff has certainly lost some luster off of their once high-gloss shine.

Certainly, questions remain – who is Ubaldo, what will the Indians do to rectify the 1B issue, could the Huff/Gomez duo contribute to the 2012 rotation with Carrasco out, can the Indians actually stay healthy – that will be answered in the off-season or as 2012 starts, but the building blocks of a healthy foundation seem to be there for the Indians. Thinking back to Opening Day of 2011, those blocks were much harder to see but (with the caveat that regressions and injuries are unavoidable for any team) the Indians have some pieces to build upon as they attempt to use the positive momentum from the 2011 season – regardless of what the next two weeks bring – into a sustained run at the division and (more importantly) an actual look at a playoff run.

Speaking of the division, with the Tigers now making a play not just for the AL Central (the curtain came down on that “play” about a week-and-a-half ago), and as the Motor City Kitties now make a legitimate push for home field advantage in the playoffs, it is stunning to go back and look at how preseason predictions simply did not jive with how the season played out. For some perspective on how unpredictable the AL Central has been this year, realize that most prognosticators picked the Twins and the White Sox to battle it out for divisional supremacy. You know, the same Twins’ team that is now in last place with a $115M payroll, with SERIOUS issues going forward with their team and the White Sox team that was going to lose “a lot of money” if they weren’t a “good team”?

Remember how Travis Hafner’s contract became an albatross around the neck of the Indians as an organization?
When signed, Hafner’s deal was for 4 years and $57M, with Hafner coming off of a 3-year stretch in which he posted a OPS+ of 170 and on the heels of a 2006 season in which he posted the OPS in all of MLB. Yes, Hafner’s deal would cover his age-30 to age-35 seasons, but for all of the hand-wringing that’s been done about how Hafner’s deal looks like a mistake in hindsight (given the injuries), how about this…

Joe Mauer’s deal in the Twin Cities is for 8 years and $184M and will pay his $23M annually THROUGH the 2018 season. It is true that the deal was signed the year after Mauer also led MLB in OPS and was inked when Mauer was about three years younger than Hafner when each signed their respective deals, but the Twins will pay Mauer (who has a full no-trade in his contract) through 2018 for $23M a year. While there’s little doubt that Mauer is (when healthy) one of the elite players in MLB, he’s played 16 more games than Hafner in the last two years as each has been hampered by injury. Combine the financial commitment to Mauer with the fact that they owe Justin Morneau $15M in 2012 and 2013 while realizing that the likes of Ben Revere and Danny Valencia (while useful) aren’t going to pick up the offensive slack if Mauer and Morneau (.618 OPS this year in 69 games) remain injured and you start to see the issues that face small-to-mid-market teams that (allegedly) do things the “right way” if they are affected by injuries, even if those injuries are to the team’s homegrown players.

While Tom Verducci may be writing articles about the “parity” of MLB, the fact remains that there are going to be “success” stories for small-to-mid-market teams that crop up every year (the D-Backs and Brewers are this year’s, with the Rays threatening to join that duo), but those teams change every year and as the Yankees, Red Sox, and Phillies have already figured out how to maximize their inherent advantages to sew up their birthright of a playoff berth, with the Rangers threatening to do the same, it really becomes about 28 teams fighting for 4 playoff berths, with the other ½ of the playoff berths being “reserved” for the usual suspects.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that there are some large-market teams that haven’t figured out how to capitalize on the built-in advantages for them and the example of this most obvious to Tribe fans in the team that resides on the South Side that could see a MAJOR shake-up this off-season. Certainly, it feels like this conversation comes about every year the White Sox don’t make the playoffs (will Ozzie go…what of Kenny?), but regardless of Reinsdorf’s personal affinity for both Kenny and Ozzie, there’s one way to get the attention of a businessman – lose his money.

Lest you forget, Reinsdorf was crowing all off-season about how the White Sox had extended their payroll to the limit and were basically betting that they were going to draw gobs of people to The Cell to “pay” for their increased payroll…a payroll that was about $30M higher than that of the Tigers. Here is what Reinsdorf said prior to the start of the season:
“We’ve really taken a chance…We’ve really stuck our necks out. If this team bombs and we draw 2.2 million people again, we are going to lose a lot of money. We are betting that we’re going to be good.”

Not that anyone needs to be reminded of this, but the White Sox are tied with the Tribe in the standings and are likely to finish around .500, probably more than 15 GB in the AL Central. For a team with a $128M payroll, that’s bombing…

Not quite “could-possibly-lose-100-games-with-a-$115M-payroll-Twins” bombing, but if the Twins have contracts with guaranteed money that look bad going forward, the White Sox have them in spades with guaranteed money going to bad or injured players going forward in spades. They will pay Alex Rios for 3 more years and $37.5M guaranteed after this year to a player with a .585 OPS this year while they cut checks to Adam Dunn for the next 3 years at $44M guaranteed after his 2011 with a .577 OPS. Additionally, they’re on the hook for paying Jake Peavy $17M guaranteed in 2012 and probably a $4M buyout for 2013 for a pitcher with a 4.77 ERA in the last two full years…having thrown just over 200 IP TOTAL since the start of 2010. That trio is all on their books and while the White Sox occupy a market in which they should be able to absorb some bad deals (unlike the Twins), let’s get back to the statement from Reinsdorf that if “we draw 2.2 million people again, we are going to lose a lot on money”.

Right now, they’re barely on pace to barely draw 2 million people (they’ve drawn 2,351 more people per game than the Tribe) and if they were going to “lose a lot of money” from drawing 2.2 million, one would have to think that Reinsdorf will be able to find a reason (or lots of reasons) for the White Sox to do an about face as an organization. Maybe Ozzie heads off to Florida and maybe Kenny Williams gets kicked upstairs so the Pale Hose can promote Rick Hahn to the GM chair to keep him away from the North Siders (and this is something I would not like to see as a Tribe fan), but it’s likely that a change is in the offing in Chicago. Frankly, I’m not all that interested to see what a more efficient Front Office could do with the money that the White Sox spend as they outspent the free-spending Tigers by $30M this year and though they have some very good young pieces, if a GM that was less…um, reactionary than Williams were given the purse strings on the South Side, I fear that the disparity in market size that exists in the AL Central will start to bear itself out in the standings.

That may not be happening any time soon however, as the AL Central (in the short-term) is perhaps there for the taking with Chicago losing a TON of money this season and the Twins in utter disarray...finally. How the Indians attempt to capitalize on this remains to be seen, but if Antonetti tried to take advantage of the 30-15 start, I think he’s going to try to take advantage of what would seemingly be a winnable division...unless, of course, Detroit adds guys like Trevor Crowe and some Minnesota cast-off and turns them into All-Stars while Mike Ilitch continues to deficit-spend (they reportedly lost $29M in 2009) in an effort to give Detroit a World Series trophy an a depressed economic region something to feel good about.

On the topic of what the off-season holds in store for the Tribe, taking off of this past Sunday’s column that the Indians could be looking to solve their 1B issue by acquiring an under-the-radar 1B that nobody’s thinking of right now, there was a bit from Jim Bowden in Baseball Prospectus’ “Kiss ‘Em Goodbye” series for the Mariners, in which the former GM Bowden attempts to “suggest” moves that each team could make in the off-season to improve themselves for the coming year. For Seattle, Bowden introduced the idea that the Mariners could be players for Prince Fielder, which would make Justin Smoak available, leading to this suggestion to move Smoak to…yep, Cleveland:
Zduriencik drafted Fielder in Milwaukee and would love for him to be the Mariners’ new cleanup hitter for years to come. Zduriencik also has a good relationship with Fielder’s agent, Scott Boras. Realistically, Smoak is a five-hole hitter and Carp a six-hole hitter in a championship lineup. If you get a chance to get Fielder, you get him. The M’s can trade Smoak in a package to the Indians for right fielder Shin-Soo Choo, who originally was signed by the Mariners in 2000. The Indians are convinced Carlos Santana will end up at catcher and Matt LaPorta is no longer their answer at first. Smoak would solve first base for the Indians for the long term while reducing financial exposure.

While I’m not sure I’m ready to turn SS Choo into Justin Smoak (who is a promising young SWITCH-hitter who is under club control through the 2015 season) because you’re just creating a hole in RF to fill the hole at 1B, this is intriguing in terms of extending this “window of contention” idea past the end of 2013. While this may not be a move I’d make (as it could be construed as “selling low” on Choo), this is the type of thinking that I’m expecting from the Indians this off-season. However, if this is the kind of move that the Indians would consider, the question becomes how they balance the near-term with the long-term construction of this ballclub. That is to say, certainly the Indians would figure to be a better team with Choo (v.2008-2010) in the lineup than Smoak, but with Choo about to get more expensive and coming off of a down year, could the Indians use their internal scouting on Choo to realistically know what to expect of him and act accordingly if they feel that 2011 is any kind of sign of regression?

There seems to be a level of aggressiveness from the current Front Office that we haven’t seen for some time and I wonder how bold they’ll get this off-season, in terms of adding talent and payroll. Maybe the Ubaldo deal ushered in a new era of risk-taking for the Indians, in which they’re not simply content to make their picks, watch their own players develop, and simply augment their base through the scrap-heap signings that we’ve become accustomed to in years past. Of course, it’s just as possible that the Ubaldo deal stands out as the aberration and we prepare for the explanation of why a Shelley Duncan/Nick Johnson platoon at 1B is going to be serviceable enough for a divisional contender because the Indians figure to get SO much production from other spots in the lineup.

Whichever it is, it doesn’t figure to be an uninteresting off-sesaon…

Back to the boldness of the Ubaldo deal, with Pomeranz and White now in the Rockies’ rotation, I thought I’d pass along (and liberally cut and paste) from a piece that appeared on Colorado Rockies’ Prospect Report website as it pertains to Drew Pomeranz and White. It’s a Q & A with Lincoln Hamilton, who runs the Project Prospect website (with a hat tip to Ryan Richards of LGT) on the prospects that made their way to the Mile High City in the Jimenez deal.

While the whole piece is worth a read, here are some of the more interesting comments (specifically focusing on Pomz and White), starting with Hamilton’s opinion of Drew Pomeranz:
“Pomeranz isn’t a completely finished product. I’d like to see him improve his third pitch (his change up). If he can get his command above-average, and his change up to just average to compliment an above-average fastball and devastating curve, then he’s a No. 2. He’s not there yet, but I think he could be a solid big league pitcher with very little improvement right now. Pomeranz does have a pretty high floor for a prospect. After it’s all said and done, my personal belief is that he ends up much closer to his ceiling than his floor.”

That’s about what we’ve heard since Pomz was drafted and it’s awfully interesting that the Rox promoted Pomeranz to the parent club (much less added him to the 40-man roster) when he really doesn’t have that third pitch fully refined yet. Certainly, there are pitchers that can thrive on two pitches (Masterson comes to mind…and he does throw two pitches, not just “one” fastball as people make it out as), but if Pomeranz is going to add and refine that third pitch, it would seem that Colorado is expecting him to do it at the MLB level, or at least in the next few years as his option clock has now been started with his start last Sunday.

As for the other member of the current Colorado rotation, Hamilton had this to say on White, the potential for injury for him and where Hamilton feels he may end up as an MLB pitcher:
“I can’t say when, where, or even if a pitcher will get injured, but I can say if he’s at an elevated risk level. Smoking cigarettes doesn’t guarantee you’ll get lung cancer, but it shifts the actuarial odds out of your favor. Alex White’s pitching motion is the equivalent of a 3-pack-a-day smoking habit…Given the rigors of making 35 big league starts on a 5-man rotation and trying to throw 200+ innings year in and year out, I find it highly unlikely White could stand up to a starter’s workload and still remain healthy and effective long-term”
“I think White is likely to have most of his career value come from relieving, where he could be quite good. He has experience out of the pen at the college level. I think short bursts play to this strengths (stuff, competitiveness) while minimizing his concerns (problems against lefties, problems facing guys a third time through the lineup, durability). Let him air it out, the velocity will play up. Then in terms of stuff and potential results he could be akin to a Jose Valverde, Brandon League, or Jonathon Papelbon. White has the potential to be a really good reliever, potential closer.”

Again, this is what we heard/read when White was drafted and while most Tribe fans bristled at the suggestion that White would “only” top out as a reliever, it is interesting to read that opinion expressed again, as well as the injury concerns, particularly in light of White’s finger injury (which could be more serious than is being reported) and his initial struggles in Colorado. Remember, White was called up in May by the Indians, so his service time clock is ticking and (like Pomeranz), he needs to make the necessary adjustments to his repertoire to succeed in Colorado, no small feat.

Regardless, here’s Hamilton’s final take-away on the entire trade, in the context of Jimenez, Pomz, and White’s future:
“While the Indians gave up considerable talent and Ubaldo was never likely to get the Tribe into October this year, I like the move a lot more for Cleveland than Colorado…This isn’t a terrible deal for the Rockies. Pomeranz and White should both yield positive big league value, but I think they needed the type of deal the Indians got for Bartolo Colon, the A’s got for Dan Haren, or the Rangers got for Mark Teixeira. The Rockies got a guy who’ll really help their rotation in Pomeranz, but is very unlikely to ever be better than Jimenez; a talented-but-flawed prospect in White who’s probably more effective in the bullpen long-term, and a solid-throw in who may help but won’t be a difference maker in Joe Gardner. The overall package the Rockies received wasn’t awful but it was less than what the Royals got for Zach Grienke, a very similar talent with a year less of team control.”

Just to be clear, this is a guy who mainly follows prospects and who has no dog in this fight and is simply attempting to quantify the assets (and club control associated with those assets) in this deal. The line that Pomz is “very unlikely to ever be better than Jimenez” is rather jarring as, when the trade was made, it was written (here) that Jimenez was what most would hope Pomeranz to eventually be and the timeframe of when Pomeranz legitimately figured to achieve that level of success (placed against the backdrop of the current roster) played a role in the decision to make the move.

Also, let’s be clear that nobody’s wishing ill will upon White or Pomeranz, in terms of revealing themselves as inherently flawed or injury-prone to simply make this trade look GREAT for the Tribe, but some of the instant analysis of the Ubaldo deal has focused on the fact that both of these guys are in the Colorado rotation NOW, while ignoring the fact that their long-term performance is far from a guarantee.

Certainly, public perception on the trade has been colored by Jimenez’s starts against the Tigers, but does anyone question that a full off-season with Tim Belcher and with some normalcy (and hopefully health) for Ubaldo is going to result in a more mechanically-sound and more consistent Jimenez in 2011?

Now six weeks removed from the Ubaldo deal, it is still painfully early to make any kind of judgment on it, but that doesn’t mean that opinions won’t continue to evolve and change over the course of the next two years…at least.

The Tribe is finally coming down the final straightaway here after a scintillating and sometimes laborious trip around the track. While the eventual spot in the standings will certainly mark where the Indians finished the season, as we wind down the 2011 season, most realize that one final record over 162 games will not quite do it justice.


Clecago Joe said...

Isn't it time to shut Masterson down for the year. He is right at that dangerous "25 innings more than last year" point where no young pitcher should be taken.

Don't see the benefit of throwing him out there 3 more times this season. Hopefully the Tribe brass has learned from Carmona's struggles post 2007.

Paul Cousineau said...

Yeah, I would think that they start to shut some of these guys down, like they basically already have with Pestano.

Masterson is a great candidate as he's ramped up his inning total from 130 IP in 2009, 180 IP in 2010, and now sits at 205 IP. If they're thinking of making sure that 2012 isn't going to be a big bump, I think they're already in that territory, now that he's thrown 205 IP.

As you say, no need to push him in the final two weeks.

Hyde said...

I know this wasn't quite the point of the post, but I wanted to address the first point mentioned in the "very clear line of demarcation when the season was lost" litany--the part about Grady Sizemore's misplay that cost the Indians a game in Kansas City. The one and only reason people even remember that game today, aside from it being an unusual ending, is the way the Indians went on to play after that. It's obvious that Sizemore's mistake wasn't the immediate cause of the Indians' subsequent collapse (5 losses in 6 games, all at home, to a horrible Rays team and a White Sox team that knew it was at least a wild card and was getting in position for the playoffs) in the same way that the various fire sales were.

So I think Grady gets a bad rap. If the Indians had just taken care of business that next week, the season wouldn't have been "lost" with that game. Later that same season, the Astros had about the most disheartening playoff loss you can imagine, when Pujols homered off Lidge to give the Cardinals a 9th inning win, with the NLCS heading back to St. Louis for Games 6 and 7. But hardly anyone remembers that today (the same way Clevelanders remember Game 5 of the 2007 ALCS), because Houston went out and won Game 6. No team with any sort of mental makeup should have been destroyed by one measly loss in KC.

Spills said...

Assuming that the majority of the pitching staff would have hit a Fausto Circa 2007 ALCS wall even if we had made the playoffs this year, I like how the end to this season sets us up for next year.

Keys to this year's start compared to early season expectations:
-The O.C becoming Mr. Clutch
-Supermanahan manning 3b instead of Jack
-Pronk/Sizemore being healthy and productive
-Fausto getting his head out of his ass and anchoring the staff as the No.1
-Masterson/Carrasco becoming viable middle of the rotation starters
-Tomlin/Gomez/Huff being something more than AAA fodder
-Non-implosion from the bullpen

Compare that to what we're looking at going into next year:
-Above average to very good contributors at RF,SS,C,2B,LF
-Anything from likely starters 3B,CF,DH a bonus
-A black hole at 1B
-A consistent (Granted only for one year) No.1 in Masterson
-A question mark with high upside at No.2 in Ubaldo
-Fausto getting his head out of his ass and contributing to the staff as the No.3
-Tomlin as a solid inning eating No.4
-Huff/Gomez/McCalister being something more than AAA fodder
-A dominant bullpen

This may be looking at the glass way beyond half full, but we have to be inline for a season where the breaks fall our way at the end of the year some day... right?

Paul Cousineau said...

You're right and I was using it mainly as that line of demarcation. Certainly, they were playing for something after that, but I didn't want to use Ozzie doing the "choke" sign as it still angers me to this day.

I'm right there on board with you, though I fear that the "season where the breaks fall our way" may never come.

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