Wednesday, November 02, 2011

The Hot Stove Heats Up Early

Sometime after finishing the Early Bird Special on Saturday and en route to the shuffleboard courts at Del Boca Vista (remember…I am “retired”, according to some), news broke that the Indians would be picking up the $7M option on Fausto Carmona and declining the $9M option on Grady Sizemore, deciding to pay the $500K to decline Sizemore’s 2012 option. The decision was made official on Monday, but the Indians weren’t satisfied with just those two moves before the end of October as the Tribe added Derek Lowe from Atlanta for non-prospect LHP Chris Jones, assuming only $5M of the $15M left on Lowe’s contract. And suddenly, before clocks were even turned back and with leaves still on the trees on the North Coast, the Hot Stove season was upon us, quite unexpectedly.

Thus, with a bit to get to, let’s start to take some of these things in order, starting with the option decisions that faced the Tribe with Grady and Fausto. While this topic is something that I’ve already spilled too much e-ink on already (and I’m not going to provide the links…because you’ve already read them) and with the acknowledgement that Carmona’s option was essentially guaranteed once news hit that Cookie Carrasco would get the Tommy John treatment, the big news here is that Grady Sizemore has likely played his last game as a Cleveland Indian. Sure, it’s possible that Sizemore explores his options on the FA market and ends up returning to Cleveland, but it would seem that Sizemore would intrigue enough teams this off-season (and the teams with a bigger margin for error than the Tribe) that he’s going to wind up elsewhere, particularly given the dearth of other OF options on the FA market.

While there was some thought (namely in this space) that the most desirable path to keeping Sizemore on The Reservation was a re-negotiation of that $9M option into an incentive-laden deal that would run over the course of multiple years, the old saying of that “it takes two to tango” stepped in and erased any thought of that as Sizemore’s agent essentially told the Indians that they could either pick up the $9M option or pay $500K to decline it with no middle ground to find. In a way, it’s not difficult to understand Sizemore’s angle on this as, though he’s been playing in MLB since 2005, he’s “only” earned about $24M, doing so by virtue of him signing the contract that bought out his arbitration (and a couple of FA years) lo those many years ago. While $24M is a LOT of money, it is worth providing some perspective here that TWO of Sizemore’s former teammates will make more than that in 2012 alone and it’s not hard to figure that Sizemore (being probably the best player on those teams of the mid-to-late-2000s…CC considered) figures that he’s going to see what’s out there to hopefully reclaim some of the money that he could have earned but forfeited with the deal that removed arbitration or FA as it would have been normally scheduled.

With Sizemore’s Tribe career essentially (or is it probably) over, there is no doubt that the story is a sad one as the 2012 option always looked to be an absolute lock (up until probably mid-2010) as Sizemore’s “club-friendly” contract was once seen the way that Evan Longoria’s contract is referred to – a player choosing the security of guaranteed money early in his career at the expense of being eventually paid the “going rate” when Sizemore was unquestionably one of the game’s elite talents. But the days of being considered an elite talent feel like they were a long time ago with Grady and the Indians were faced with the question of whether the $9M option represented a good deal to pay to a player that has only played in 104 games over the last two years, regardless of the pulls at the heart strings or the memories that Grady gave the team or the promise that he once so clearly represented. Of course, the answer from the organization came back with a negative and Grady will now hit the open market for the first time in his career as the Indians saved $8.5M (there was a $500K buyout on the $9M option) with one decision, which led to the obvious question of where (or if) the Tribe would use that money to improve the team for the 2012 season.

Before speculation could begin on the (still) underwhelming options out there to replace Sizemore in the OF, some of the answer as to the use of the money arrived with the news that the Indians traded for Derek Lowe, who wore out his welcome in Atlanta and was essentially jettisoned by the Braves, who essentially paid $10M for Lowe to NOT be on Atlanta’s roster next year. Sure, they got a LH pitching prospect in Chris Jones (who, it should be noted, has spent FIVE years in the organization and has not made it past Kinston), but this was pretty much a player dump for the Braves.

So, the Indians received a player that was ostensibly “dumped” by the Braves, who paid $10M (more money than the Indians will pay anyone this year, except Hafner) to NOT have him on their team…sounds great for the Tribe, right?

That’s disingenuous, of course, as the Braves’ rotation is stocked with young arms that were going to push Lowe out of the rotation and any kind of salary relief for him in Atlanta was a welcome respite. Also, Lowe had a particularly horrible final two months (6.24 ERA) as the Braves frittered away their playoff spot and Lowe’s…um, standing among the Brave faithful was somewhere around that of Brooks Conrad.

As a result of his disastrous finish, Lowe’s overall 2011 line – 5.05 ERA, 1.51 WHIP – was fairly ugly, though it bears mentioning again that Lowe’s sputtering to the finish line colored those numbers the ugly shade of brownish ick that they are. In fact, Lowe’s numbers at the All-Star Break of last year – 4.30 ERA, 1.38 WHIP – were more than acceptable and looking a little deeper at his numbers over the past few years shows that Lowe’s peripherals in 2011 were fairly consistent with where they had been in the past few years, when he had experienced more success on the mound.

Just to compare Lowe’s peripherals from his 2010 (4.00 ERA, 1.36 WHIP) and his 2011 (5.05 ERA, 1.51 WHIP) suggests that Lowe may have been a victim of bad luck as much as anything last year. If you remember that FIP and xFIP are generally pretty good indicators of HOW a pitcher pitched, independent of factors out of his control (namely, defense), take a look at the numbers for Lowe’s 2010 and 2011 seasons, with the GB% numbers thrown in for the groundball-inducing Lowe:
Lowe 2010 (4.00 ERA, 1.37 WHIP)
3.89 FIP, 3.54 xFIP, 6.32 K/9, 2.83 BB/9, 58.8 GB%

Lowe 2011 (5.05 ERA, 1.51 WHIP)
3.70 FIP, 3.65 xFIP, 6.59 K/9, 3.37 BB/9, 59.0 GB%

Pretty similar numbers (other than the increase in BB/9 between the two seasons) as Lowe’s peripherals have been fairly consistent, if the ERA that has resulted from those peripherals has not. Don’t take that to mean that the Indians just added a SP that’s poised to post an ERA around 4.00 as Lowe’s fastball has lost some zip and he is now 39 years old. But his 2011 may be more similar to his 2010 than his final ERA and WHIP would lead you to believe, meaning that Lowe’s “downturn” in 2011 may not have been quite as severe as you might think at first glance. Now, you may remember a similar instance of this (comparable seasons with disparate results) being pointed out when the Indians added Ubaldo at the end of July (and the jury is still out on whether Jimenez can recapture his past success that eluded him in 2011), but with Lowe, you’re really talking about a pitcher that is likely to figure into the middle-to-back-end-of-the-rotation and is not being counted on to be much more than the innings-eating veteran that he’s been since 2002 instead of fronting the rotation as Ubaldo is expected to do. Perhaps it is unsettling to see the Indians now counting on TWO pitchers, attempting to resolve their issues of last year WHILE making the transition from the NL to the AL, but that’s where we’re at.

And “where we’re at” isn’t so bad in terms of the Lowe addition as, looking through the detritus that makes up the FA SP list, the Indians being able to slot Lowe into the middle-to-back-end of the rotation for what amounts to a 1-year, $5M is pretty desirable, considering the premium (in terms of dollars AND years) that is paid to SP in the FA market, deserved or undeserved. Frankly, if he can even sit at the back-end of the rotation for $5M, the Indians pulled off a coup, in terms of what they gave up for him and the alternatives on the FA market, and what each alternative would have commanded. That idea that he can “even sit at the back-end of the rotation” may ultimately look laughable depending upon whether Lowe can recapture his success (while coming back to the AL, no less) in 2012, but the Indians actually have a track record of success with these kinds of guys – Millwood, Byrd, Pavano – if you ignore the whole Jason Johnson fiasco.

But even if we’re talking about a Jason Johnson redux (though I’m not sure that we are, given Lowe’s pedigree versus that of Johnson), the Indians will have some stability to start the season in their rotation (with few truly compelling internal options that he’s ostensibly “blocking”) and will trot Lowe out there every 5th day from Opening Day. As a result of adding Lowe, the Indians won’t have to rely on the idea that they need to find the “right” guy from Day 1 from the Gomez/Huff/McAllister pile to fill out their rotation and can let those guys sort themselves out in Columbus or see if a guy like Scott Barnes can parlay his 2011 success into a strong start and leapfrog the 5th starter pile that looks to be growing in the state’s capital. If you figure that the Indians now have Masterson, Jimenez, Carmona, Lowe, and Tomlin to start out their 2012 rotation, with that quintet being known at the beginning of November, with the rest of those names slotting themselves in AAA to be the 6th, 7th, and 8th starters, the Indians at least have some sort of stability in their rotation this early in the off-season, even if that rotation is still fraught with question marks up and down the starting five.

In looking at that group of five, it is worth noting that the Indians now have 60% of their rotation made up of extreme groundball pitchers, with Lowe (2nd), Carmona (7th), and Masterson (8th) all ranked in the Top 8 among all MLB starters in terms of GB% in 2011. This focus on groundball pitchers is nothing new if you remember (or even if you don’t) the piece that appeared back in July of 2010 with that oh-so-clever title of “The Groundlings” that focused on the Indians’ penchant for stockpiling groundball pitchers. Of course, some of the guys mentioned in the 2010 piece have moved on (Laffey, Westbrook, White, Gardner, etc.), but the strategy has remained in place, and the 2012 rotation will bear that out with Masterson, Carmona, and Lowe presumably inducing groundballs at a rapid rate.

Of course, the natural offshoot from the realization that Masterson, Carmona, and Lowe are going to make the infielders a busy bunch next year is to wonder how the Indians figure on improving their infield defense, or at least maximizing it to make these groundballs that figure to be in play result in outs instead of seeing-eye singles. Certainly, one would think that Asdrubal and Kipnis figure to get the majority of the playing time in the middle of the infield, given their offensive contributions, but does this emphasis on groundball pitchers (even if it isn’t new) mean that the Indians are perhaps going to give the slick-fielding Jack Hannahan an expanded role in 2012 and beyond or that they’ll be filling their 1B hole with a glove-first 1B?

On 3B, I’d be awfully surprised if Hannahan is given the nod over Chisenhall (nice piece here on The Chiz), who has been touted as a top prospect for years, whose defense has always been at least average, particularly now that he’s been exposed to MLB and began to show signs of being a special player down the stretch in 2011. Maybe Hannahan sticks around as a defensive replacement or a 2nd Utility IF (Donald is probably the main Utility IF), but I would guess that the Indians are going to give The Chiz the majority of the playing time at 3B in 2012, even if he’s not the Opening Day starter…though I still think he is.

If you figure that The Chiz, Asdrubal, and Kipnis are going to be playing 3B, SS, and 2B for most of the 2012 season, the only real opportunity to upgrade the defense of the infield over what currently exists in the organization comes at 1B and, since the Indians were already probably in the market for a 1B, the question becomes what role defense will play in their decision, in terms of who to add at 1B. That is to say that the Tribe would be wise to not play a player out of position at 1B (though they’ve done it before…at MANY other positions) and should perhaps focus on adding a slick-fielding defender at 1B as they look to augment the 2012 roster and maximize the effectiveness of their pitching staff.

In terms of how to measure the defensive ability of 1B, you’ve heard this from me before but the current defensive metrics (UZR, dWAR, etc.) are awash with inaccuracies and red herrings (and anyone who asserts otherwise or uses WAR as the end-all, be-all statistic without mentioning the faults of defense as a component of it, particularly as a one-year metric, is engaging in overly simplistic analysis) and one of the only sources that I trust in the evaluation of players’ fielding comes by way of a composite scoring system at John Dewan’s Fielding Bible site. What it attempts to do is use various “experts” to rank players at their positions and using those rankings to compile a list of the best fielders at each position. While it may not be the most scientific method, it uses a number of qualified experts, from various walks of life, and attempts to balance out perception and reality while using both computers and the eyes of scouts and those who follow baseball very closely.

Regardless, here is the voting for the 2011 season and you can see that the 1B on the list vary from the game’s all-around elite (Pujols, Gonzalez, and Teixiera) to players (Loney and Barton) whose glove is probably their best attribute. If the Indians are truly looking to upgrade their defense at 1B, guys like Loney and Barton may be available (and may even be non-tendered) and it becomes a question of whether the Indians are willing to put up with the offensive shortcomings of Daric Barton (.590 OPS in 2011) or James Loney (average of 12 HR over the last full 4 years) for their defense?

Yes, there are other names on that list of Fielding Bible vote-getters that are available, but Carlos Pena isn’t going to come cheap (particularly once Pujols and Prince sign and those on the outside looking in are still searching for a 1B) and Casey Kotchman is about to get overpaid because of his 2011 season (which certainly looks like an offensive outlier), meaning that the Indians are in a difficult position when it comes to finding the 1B that they are still likely to add. Maybe a player like Daniel Murphy or Ike Davis (who rated highly in last year’s voting) from the Mets becomes available, but 1B remains a major question going forward this off-season.

That said, one of the questions coming into the off-season was answered very quickly with the addition of Lowe to fill out the rotation as the Tribe can cross one “need” off of their off-season “To-Do” list. But needs still remain and 1B is just one of them as the Indians now definitely have to fill their hole in the OF, particularly given the Sizemore is unlikely to find his way back to the North Coast. Hopefully, they get creative again as signing an “on-base” guy like Coco Crisp or (worse) Juan Pierre that doesn’t really get on base for $4M or $5M is terrifying to me to man CF, particularly if they’re keeping Brantley (another “on-base” guy who hasn’t gotten on base in his career to date) to patrol LF.

Speaking of Brantley, is anyone else a little worried by Pluto passing along that the Indians don’t really like Brantley’s defense in CF in a couple of his Sunday columns (which basically come directly from the Indians) in terms of accepting Brantley as the new CF?

Though it seems that LF can be “found” by every other team in MLB, everyone knows that the average production from LF in the AL was a .702 OPS, right…which is EXACTLY what Brantley’s OPS in 2011 was?

This idea that LF just fall out of trees in MLB may not be too accurate in this “new” era of MLB and I don’t think I need to remind anyone how it went the last time the Indians decided to go out on the FA market for a LF…OK, I will.
“He” went by the name of Dellichaels…

Which brings it all back to Sizemore as declining Grady’s option may have been the prudent move (and spare me this argument of removing all of the emotion from it), but the move to “replace” Grady is ten times more important to the fate of the 2012 team. We know that some of the money “saved” will be spent on Lowe’s 2012 salary, but what’s important now is that the Indians find a suitable solution for CF/LF while hoping that Grady doesn’t don his cape once again in 2012, when he figures to wear a new uniform.

Truthfully, that’s the scary thing in this (if you want to call it that) and maybe the Clevelander in me can’t shake the idea that Grady’s going to head off to San Francisco to thrive in a Giants’ uniform or go to the North Side of Chicago to make Theo look like a genius or (gasp) take his talents to South Beach to join the President of the Grady Fan Club, Mr. Ozzie Guillen, to re-assert himself among the game’s elite talents while the MLB world wonders “how could the Indians have let this guy go?”

Again, that’s the Clevelander in me – expecting the worst and often realizing it – and perhaps putting too much stock in those three weeks when Sizemore came back in May of this past year and was ripping extra-base hits all over the place, but with a gaping hole still existing in the OF, it will be interesting to see how the Indians approach the needs that still remain for this team.

As we’ve found out, Antonetti acts quickly and decisively and while other teams were still making option decisions, the Indians were shoring up their rotation and spending the money “saved” by declining Sizemore’s option. Not content to let the market dictate their moves, the Indians of 2012 is in clearer focus today, even if some blurry spots still remain. The Hot Stove is already kicking some heat off and, in what figures to be another dark, cold winter on the North Coast (particularly sports-related), that qualifies as good news.

As for me, “retirement” (or at least a “step back” and less regimented posting) is suiting me just fine. Now, if you’ll excuse me…I have to go back to work on this Tom Collins and my tan…


Wah00kid said...

Thanks for the rundown on the moves. After I got a text on he Lowe trade yours was the first site I visited hoping to get the level headed take on it.

It would be great to see a real vaccuum over at first with all these groundlings... It seems the rotation and bullpen are strong spots again. Also again it seems that there is going to be an offense that is tied down with the Hafner contract for another year and cant go out and get the OF or 1B we need.

Enjoy the retirement but for selfish reasons I hope you find this to be geneology

Elia said...

Waited until Sunday to read as, well, it just seemed the right thing to do. So glad to see "a few words" from my favorite Indians scribe. While I understand your "retirement" -- I have a family and job, too -- it sure is tough not having you to look forward to twice a week.

All that, I've wanted to ask your opinion. What no one mentions in this 1B/LF thing is the role of Santana. If he is going to play 1B 60 games a year, what high quality first sacker would even want to come here? The chance to play part-time seems like not much of a draw. Finding someone who can play high-quality first, left and hit for power seems like a pipe-dream, too. Are the Indians dreaming here about a first base upgrade? Would the team be better off finding a CF/LF option with power and bat that can protect Santana in the middle of the line-up (for a reasonable amount of money -- talk about a pipe dream!) and let 1B be manned by the combo of Hannahan and Donald? How does the team fulfill these seemingly opposing goals? (High quality first baseman who only needs to play the position 4 days a week.)

Paul Cousineau said...

The Santana-as-1B is something I've been thinking about if they're really looking to add a legit 1B for the reasons you mention. I think the elephant in the room (as usual) is that the Indians aren't counting on Hafner to be fully healthy all season or capable of playing everyday. Thus, they may have the ability to slide Santana to DH or this mythical "legit 1B" to DH to keep Santana active defensively (though I'm not all that excited about that idea) by playing at 1B. Giving Santana time at DH makes more sense than 1B if you're really talking about "protecting" him and I could see Santana playing 40 or so games at DH and 20 or so games at 1B throughout the year.

While I wish they would get a slick-fielding defensive 1B that becomes the everyday 1B, the guy they get is probably going to be some hybrid 1B/LF type who is going to move around (and play some DH) with Santana being one of the other moving parts.

We'll see how often the posts come. I assumed I'd write when they did something this off-season and I didn't see the Lowe thing coming at all...particularly this soon.

Kenneth Kolson said...

Derrek Lee?

Halifax said...

Discussing the hybrid LF/1B/DH, this is why Michael Cuddyer is a perfect fit for the Indians, but he's attracted a lot of attention already and will get massively overpaid, so forget him. Same with Kotchman, as Paul has already mentioned.

I like Loney and would gladly accept his low power output for consistent hitting and a great glove at 1B.

Here's a guy I would consider, and he would cost some cash, but I think would greatly improve the team and show some commitment by the front office:

Matt Holliday -- I know, stupid, or keep dreaming...whatever. Consider this, this RH power hitting OF has averaged 25 HR/95 RBI/.315 BA/.388 OBP/.929 OPS in his career. Now, Holliday makes 17 million a year over the next five seasons, and he's 31 years old. But before you laugh me off the site realize this: Over the last decade the Cardinals have averaged a payroll of right around $90M over the last decade. This year that spiked to $109M. Granted, they won the WS, and spirits and revues are high...right now. But Albert Pujols is a FA and they want him back, but he wants A-Rod money for 8-10 years. They have already floated a 9-year $200M contract his way ($22 per), so using that number, can the Cardinals afford to pay $39M a year for the next five years to two guys? I doubt it.

So, I suggest the Indians get proactive and spend a bit beyond their means if their window truly is now. They need a RH power guy in the OF, they have Choo, Masterson, Asdrubal, Ubaldo, etc. for the next two years, and Travis Hafner's $13M comes off the books after this season. Propose something to the Cardinals that moves prospects that include some package of (Jason Donald, Cord Phelps, Tony Wolters, LeVon Washington) along with some relievers (either Perez, Tony Sipp, Joe Smith) for Holliday and $4M per season. If you can get Holliday for prospects for $13M a year it's a steal. St. Louis has to sign Albert. Then, if you pull a Derek Lowe and get some AL team to take Travis Hafner (with Tribe paying $8M salary) you can at least save $5M in 2011. Considering Grady money it becomes a wash both this year and beyond because of Hafner's contract going away.

Crazy, maybe? But it would really solidify the lineup and LF. Then, let Hannahan and LaPorta man 1B.

Holliday has a history of production and durability:

Halifax said...

Another note: The Cards have Nick Punto playing 2B for them, and Alan Craig, World Series stud, can slide into the LF slot for them. I could see Jason Donald being a very attractive possibility for the Cards.

Adam said...

Holiday is terrible. I wouldn't trade a can of dip and Matt Laporta for him. He almost single handedly cost the Cards the World Series with his pathetic hitting and defense. Not to mention I watched him get traded to oakland a few years back and he did not even try! Next suggestion please.

CLohse said...

Hey hey! Welcome back, Mr. Sizemore! For Xmas this year, I'll chip in on a visit to the physical therapist. Perhaps Manny Acta will get you a gift certificate for several turns in the DH slot, and Antonetti will hand write a couple Get Out off the DL Free slips.

In any case, I'm glad you're back even if it's merely to reinforce the Tribe's reputation for earning the loyalty of its players.