Tuesday, January 10, 2012

1st and (Still) Foremost

The new year is upon us and since things have been quiet on the corner of Carnegie and Ontario, there hasn’t been too much to ruminate on pertaining to the Indians as they are only so many times that one can read (or write) about the 1B situation, breathlessly follow 140 character proclamations that “the #indians are in on…”, or dissect the current roster much more. However, seeing as how there seems to be some movement on how the Indians are approaching their 1B…um, “situation”, I figured it would be as good a time as any to weigh in on what’s been happening (or what could be in the works) with YOUR Cleveland Indians.

While nearly all of the focus for the Indians since the Sizemore deal has centered on adding a bat (preferably RH…preferably one that can play 1B or LF or both), here we are in mid-January and the situation has remained almost completely unchanged since the end of the 2011 season. Yes, Aaron Cunningham has entered the fray (though saying that his presence “changes” the situation is a bit of a stretch) and the Indians have been “in” on Josh Willingham and Carlos Beltran, but with about 6 weeks until pitchers and catchers report, the Indians are looking at a 1B and LF situation that pretty much resembles the one on the North Coast a few months ago. Though the contracts meted out to Jason Kubel and Coco Crisp (both got 2 years and $7M or more annually) make the Josh Willingham deal with the Twins that much more palatable and adding another OF because of the injury concerns regarding Grady still seems like a prudent idea(and count me as still intrigued by Marlon Byrd, particularly now that the Cubs have added David DeJesus and Reed Johnson and are obviously building for another day), the obvious hole that has existed since Matt LaPorta proved to be Matt MaTola and continues to exist is at 1B, where the alignment of internal options that may factor into 1B is getting some new attention.

Of course, this new “attention” is merely a resurrected line of thinking out there regarding the Indians’ 1B situation (as it’s an idea that AC posted on his blog a few months ago), but it does come via Pluto’s Sunday notes, which means that it does come from the Indians. It started last weekend as Pluto passed along (and remember, his Sunday notes come from what the Tribe is telling him) that “the Indians would like to do something about a first baseman. They appear committed to Carlos Santana against lefties, with Lou Marson catching. When a right-hander is on the mound, Santana will catch. No commitment has been made to Matt LaPorta.”

And with that (and as Matt LaPorta started perusing Columbus apartments on Craiglist), the seed of an idea that Santana could be shuffling up and down the 1B line in 2012 and that a full-time 1B may not be coming was re-planted as Marson catching against LHP meant that the Indians would essentially be looking for a 1B to face RHP, when Santana would be catching. Starting off, this makes loads of sense from the Marson vs. LHP perspective as Marson has a .763 career OPS vs. LHP and a .529 career OPS vs. RHP. In fact, Marson’s .793 OPS vs. LHP in 2011 ranked him 3rd on the Tribe against LHP among players with more than 90 AB against LHP (Santana and Hannahan were higher), so if Marson’s production at the plate against LHP goes along with his defensive prowess to justify his inclusion in the lineup against LHP…I’m all for it.

However, as noted above, the player that posted the highest OPS vs. LHP on the Indians last year was one Carlos Santana, so The Axe Man obviously is a big part of the equation vs. LHP, begging the question whether Marson being behind the dish vs. LHP pushes Santana down to 1B line against LHP or perhaps if a better utilization of roster management exists. By that I meant that everyone seems to be content to simply move Santana down to 1B on a part-time basis, but what about moving him into the DH spot vs. LHP since Hafner had a .638 OPS vs. LHP in 2011 (2nd lowest among Indians with more than 100 AB in 2011 vs. LHP) to essentially maximize both Marson AND Hafner’s effectiveness in 2012?

Truthfully, that’s the way I would handle the Marson/Santana “platoon”, by using this alignment for that duo and Hafner, dependent upon the starting pitcher:
C – Marson
DH – Santana

C – Santana
DH– Hafner

Is it ideal to have a $13M a year platoon player in Hafner?
Of course not, but as disparate as Marson’s splits have been the last couple of years, check these…
Hafner Splits 2011
.886 OPS vs. RHP
.638 OPS vs. LHP

Hafner Splits 2010
.863 OPS vs. RHP
.706 OPS vs. LHP

Hafner Splits 2009
.866 OPS vs. RHP
.696 OPS vs. LHP

If you’re saying that those numbers aren’t THAT bad against LHP, consider that Hafner has 22 XBH in his last 309 PA against LHP and has 5 HR against LHP in his last 219 PA…seriously. That’s not to say that Hafner would become a largely “part-time” player as it is worth mentioning that the average number of AB per team in MLB vs. LHP was 1,470 while the average number of AB per team in MLB vs. RHP was 4,053. So if each team has about 5,500 AB to give out per season, only about ¼ of those AB come against LHP, so Hafner would be more of a ¾-type player which, given the chance that there are only so many swings in Hafner’s shoulder every year, sounds just about right.

While the idea might exist that pushing Santana down to 1B for those 25% of the games against LHP makes more sense, with somebody like Duncan playing the RH DH role, consider that Hafner had the 25th lowest OPS vs. LHP in the AL last year among players with more than 100 PA vs. LHP in 2011. On the Indians, only Mike Brantley was worse on that list, with the 3rd worst Indian on that list being…wait for it…Shelley Duncan, whose .638 OPS vs. LHP ranked him 33rd from the bottom.

And here’s where things get kind of odd in planning out these alignments as one would think that the RH Duncan would have more success vs. LHP to the point that you could suggest a Duncan/Hafner timeshare at DH but strangely enough, the RH Duncan actually hit RHP better than LHP in 2011:
Duncan vs. RHP – 2011
.273 BA / .331 OBP / .587 SLG / .981 OPS in 133 PA

Duncan vs. LHP – 2011
.245 BA / .316 OBP / .363 SLG / .679 OPS in 114 PA

Now if you’re ready for the REALLY weird part in this whole Shelley Duncan split thing, look at what Shelley Duncan’s splits looked like prior to the 2011 season:
Duncan vs. RHP – Prior to 2011
.198 BA / .275 OBP / .357 SLG / .632 OPS in 229 PA

Duncan vs. LHP – Prior to 2011
.261 BA / .337 OBP / .476 SLG / .813 OPS in 187 PA
Certainly, these are all still pretty small sample sizes, but Duncan historically struggled against RHP prior to the 2011 season, when he inexplicably thrived against them, with the opposite being true against LHP prior to and during last season. However, it brings some question to the idea that Duncan represents a suitable “partner” with Hafner at DH, simply by virtue of him being RH. Maybe Duncan reverts back to his pre-2011 performance vs. RHP or maybe his 2011 struggles against RHP are the beginning of a trend, but simply asserting that Hafner can be spelled against RHP is a stance that would be hard to legitimately support.

Truthfully, all this lefty-righty stuff makes my head hurt (and Pluto suggested – in a roundabout sort of way – that Sizemore, Hafner, and Brantley would all sit from time to time against LHP…not that those thoughts aren’t justified, particularly with Brantley, meaning that there’s going to be a lot of lineup fluctuation based on the opposing pitcher), but the idea is essentially put these guys into situations in which they can be most productive and maximize the talent that is on hand.

If you’re fleshing out the C/DH platoon idea, you’d have Santana playing C about 120 games and filling the DH role for 40 games with Marson playing 40 games at C and Hafner getting about 120 sporadic starts at DH to keep him fresh as the season goes along since he played in only 94 games last year, after his 118-game 2010 campaign. To me, that looks like a pretty good solution that doesn’t put Santana at 1B every so often (when his defense is lacking there) and keeps him fresh throughout the season, while resting Hafner to the point that he can (hopefully) remain healthy and effective for an entire season, and utilizing Marson correctly – as a sort of super-backup catcher, who plays against LHP – which again, keeps the Indians’ best offensive player (Santana) rested and hopefully healthy for the season.

Obviously, this situation does nothing about 1B, but if there are concerns about Santana’s ability to play 1B (and there are, particularly with a groundball staff) and the idea is to keep Santana as fresh as due to the wear and tear or the duties of catching because of his offensive potential, perhaps using him in a convoluted platoon for C and DH makes more sense for the Indians to maximize production from Santana for the whole season, but also to put Marson and Hafner in situations that they are most ideally suited for at this point in their careers.

As stated above, this arrangement would still do nothing to fill the still-gaping hole at 1B and would actually deepen the crevasse as the idea that Santana would be an option at 1B would be lessened and the Indians would be left to cobble together some odd amalgamation of Shelley Duncan, Matt MaTola, and (gulp) Mike Brantley at 1B. Of course, here is where the obvious declaration comes that the Indians STILL need to find an everyday 1B comes across again.

To that end, does it strike anyone else as odd with pitchers and catchers reporting about five weeks from now (Tribe P&C report on February 20th) that Prince Fielder, Carlos Pena, Casey Kotchman, and Derrek Lee all remain unsigned?

Maybe the flurry of activity is waiting on Prince’s deal (and that looks like it will be in the nation’s capital, perhaps making Adam LaRoche or Chris Marrero an option…but that’s another story), but after Pujols had more than a few suitors, the 1B market has certainly hit a dry patch. With the Cubs acquiring Anthony Rizzo and the Padres netting Yonder Alonso (neither of whom interested me all that much as a 2011 solution, largely because of the bitter LaPortian taste in my mouth regarding top 1B prospects and the idea that Rizzo and Alonso are still just that…prospects), some teams looking for 1B this off-season have moved to get their “1B of the Future”. But that means the options who represent the “1B of the Present” (Fielder, Pena, Kotchman, and Lee) are still basically out there, just with fewer suitors that had a hole that needed to be filled at 1B.

What does that mean for the Indians?
Well, it means that they might be able to essentially wait this out and sign whatever player (not named Prince) is still left standing in this game of Musical Chairs once the music stops or they could target one of Pena, Kotchman, or Lee as soon as Fielder signs to act quickly and add the 1B that is so obviously lacking on this roster, something brought into clearer focus with all of this talk about platooning inferior options (Duncan, Brantley, Donald, etc.) at 1B.

If you’re talking about the trio of Pena, Kotchman, or Lee being feasible additions to the team (and remember that the Beltran “offer” showed that they’re willing to hand out some dollars to the “right” FA this off-season…and none of those guys figures to command a long-term deal at this point), the trio represents an upgrade over what the Indians would be able to have at 1B as it stands now, but that doesn’t mean that each doesn’t come with serious concerns and obvious warts. If you’re looking strictly at 2011 offensive stats, Pena posted the highest OPS (.819) and wOBA (.354), with Kotchman coming in 2nd in both categories (.800 OPS, .351 wOBA), and Lee’s 2011 numbers (.771 OPS, .335 wOBA) being the “worst” among the three, even if they look Pujolsian compared to the Duncan/LaPorta/Donald/Brantley idea. Beyond that, all three have solid defensive reputations, finishing in the Top 12 (Kotchman – 8th, Pena – 9th, Lee – 12th) in John Dewan’s 2011 Fielding Bible voting, something that can certainly not be said for Santana, much less that 4-headed monster that is reportedly being considered to split time there.

So, if we’re talking about offensive prowess, Pena’s 2011 numbers look the best…but that doesn’t mean that Pena does not come with legitimate concerns offensively, with the main concern being voiced by a scout in John Perrotto’s piece at B-Pro called “Best Players Still on the Board”:
Scout’s view: “He can still help someone, but you better have a good right-handed hitter to platoon with him. He’s completely helpless against left-handers now, so you can’t play him 155-160 games anymore. At this stage of his career, he’s a complementary player rather than a major cog in a lineup, and I’d pay him accordingly.”

“Completely helpless against left-handers now”…oof, we already have a couple of those. Unfortunately, what the scout sees bears out in the numbers as Pena posted a .594 OPS vs. LHP in the NL last year, which comes on the heels of a .675 OPS vs. LHP campaign in 2010 for the Rays. In the last 3 years, Pena has a .704 OPS vs. LHP, a number that has trended down since the 2009 campaign. As a quick aside, Hafner’s OPS vs. LHP over that same timeframe (the last 3 years) is .680, so Hafner has actually been less effective than Pena vs. LHP since the beginning of the 2009 season…and since there would only be one Carlos Santana to go around, you’d still be looking for a RH platoon partner for Pena (or Hafner) if a guy like Pena is signed, warts and all.

If you think that Pena’s performance against LHP is underwhelming, realize that Casey Kotchman has a .610 OPS vs. LHP since the beginning of his 2009 season and while his .709 OPS vs. LHP last year was the highest of his career, there is a very real concern with Kotchman that his 2011 offensive numbers will represent the outlier as his 2011 production took SUCH a big jump (Kotchman had a LaPortian .717 career OPS coming into the 2011 season with only 49 career HR in 645 games going into last year) perhaps paced by a supernatural BABIP in 2011 that the very real possibility that Kotchman may not be that much of an upgrade over LaPorta throws up enough red flags to fill the sky.

Thus, if Pena is “completely helpless against left-handers now” and Kotchman could come screeching back to Earth after a solid (though not great) 2011 season in Tampa, would Derrek Lee represent the best option, given that he doesn’t have the HUGE platoon split that Pena and Kotchman do and with his production still relatively steady, if waning?

Maybe that’s damning with faint praise, but Lee is the only one without a DRASTIC platoon split, either in the near or distant past, so he may be more of the “everyday” 1B the Indians so desperately need even if Bastian reports that “Lee’s camp did not return the interest that the Indians showed” early in the FA process. Perhaps that changes as the season draws closer (after all, Lee ended up in Baltimore last year, so minds can be changed) and Lee finds himself on the outside looking in, with the Indians maybe coming into the fray with a one-year deal for Lee that would guarantee him everyday PA at 1B…something he may not be able to find anywhere else.

So what can be made of this 1B situation?
Well, maybe the Indians are looking at a Pena or a Kotchman to play that LH role at 1B (with Santana playing the RH part of the “platoon”) and while that’s far from an ideal situation (as I’d prefer Santana spelling Hafner at DH against LHP), it would still represent a decided upgrade from what’s staring at the Indians as the roster currently stands.

Maybe something happens on the Prince Fielder front that makes another 1B available via trade (though my Gaby Sanchez jersey looks to be gathering mothballs) and maybe the Indians still have a trick up their collective sleeve, but with the 1B market as stagnant as it is right now, with as many players still looking for contracts with fewer opportunities around MLB, and with the Indians reportedly still aggressive in their pursuit of a 1B, I’d be surprised if the Indians actually went to Goodyear with the idea that they’d be able to form a quality 1B out of some twisted amalgamation of Santana, Duncan, LaPorta, and (gulp) Brantley.

Then again, maybe “surprised” isn’t the right word.
Perhaps “disappointed” would be a better fit…


Jason said...

Glad to see you back in the saddle. Your idea is intriguing, but do you think it is a good idea to regularly DH a catcher? I realize that injuries are unusual, but Acta has shown a proclivity for pinch running in the late innings. I realize that Marson is not as slow as Hafner, but still.

I think your idea has a lot of merit, but having both catchers in the lineup simultaneously seems a little risky. Is this something you considered and rejected? I can certainly understand the counter-argument.

Paul Cousineau said...

The counter-argument is that if Santana goes to 1B on a part-time basis, you're still talking about having both catchers in the lineup simultaneously, which they did quite a bit last year down the stretch.

Actually, if Santana would be the DH, it would give Acta more flexibility to pinch-hit or pinch run as Santana would slide back to catch and really anybody on the bench (not just someone who could play 1B) would assume the DH duties from Santana.

Jason said...

I'm sorry I wasn't more clear. It's not just having them both in the lineup, it's having one as the DH. It's bad enough watching NL pitchers bat, but at least the rules are the same for both teams. My point was that if you have Santana as the DH and need to put him behind the plate you lose your DH.

I can see giving him the occasional start at DH to rest his legs, but much more than that seems rather risky. Then again, I doubt that the 2012 Tribe will contend by playing it safe.

John Lowther said...

I think the thing that scares me about what you wrote is that if Grady Sizemore, Travis Hafner, and Michael Brantley are going to be needing some days off due to keeping them healthy and/or not facing lefties that doesn't leave a lot of time off for left handed hitting youngsters Jason Kipnis and Lonnie Chisenhall to take breaks against lefties as well. Regardless of right handed bat vs. a left handed bat what this team really needs is healthy everyday player that can run out there 140+ games. We don't even know if we have that in Shin-Soo Choo anymore either. Partner all of this with the fact that Asdrubal Cabrera didn't even show up at the plate in the second half of the season last year. I love the Tribe and am usually optimistic about them but this team is going to be like a Billy Beane team, you have to play them the way it's put together or else it will not work out.

Halifax said...

Paul, have the Indians called to offer you a position yet? They should.

It doesn't bother me to have Santana and Marson in the same lineup, either as DH or 1B. The matchups are much better, and it's genius. I don't want to see Santana at 1B any more than I have to, he's not good.

The best option does seem to be Lee in the role of Eddie Murray. They need a RH every day guy.

Paul Cousineau said...

The "lose your DH" thing is something that I think they can work around if they're going to be utilizing their bench in the late innings to pinch-hit for the "pitcher/DH" spot in late innings. While it might be unorthodox, I still think it's the best use of assets.

Those young guys are going to need days off and I think we're going to see Jason Donald MUCH more than the average utility IF as he bounces around 2B and 3B to protect those guys and give them days off when they need them. That said, the whole the need a "healthy everyday player" thing was the whole impetus for this...and, as Halifax says, I do think that Lee is the best option among those that are still out there on the FA market.

pilotui said...

Wow, great, great article! Paul, you nailed it. I think Marson will have a good year and earn more playing time. If we don't get a FA 1B then I see Santana moving to 1B for 60% of the games...he's been injured too much as a C...and the Tribe wants/needs to protect their investment. Also, he's not THAT bad of a 1B option...compared to LaPorta he looks like Texeria. :)

Adam said...

Realistically I think we're talking about a 2 team race between us and the Tigers. That's the most frustrating part about the failure to improve the team in any real significant way in the offseason. I could understand if all the other AL Central teams were legit contenders, but the Twins, Sox, and Royals all have major flaws and I don't expect them to compete for the division.

However, sadly at this point I'd have to give the edge to the Tigers in both pitching and hitting. I think the combo of Verlander, Sherzer, Fister, Turner and whoever is stronger than Masterson, Jimenez, Carmona, Tomlin and Lee.

Hitting-wise you would have to give the edge to the Tigers simply due to the fact that they have Cabrera and a great supporting cast for him and that we lack that major bat and have more holes in our lineup.

Alot can change (as we all know) due to injuries, fatigue, trades, etc. but right now I would have to say that we are a good 5 to 7 games worse than the Tigers.

Tim said...

I like Marson in the lineup versus left-handed pitching. I have always like the idea of Santana as the DH, rather than first base, versus lefties. The problem is that then you have to carry a third catcher. I do not think there is room on the roster for another player. Who wants to be stuck with having to hit Marson versus a right handed reliever late in the game? Even though it was a small sample, it appears that Chisenhall will be decent versus lefties. I would not have a problem with Hannahan at first versus lefties. I think this is an overlooked possibility. Duncan is brutal at first defensively. Santana is much better.If it comes down to Hannahan or Duncan for the last roster spot (and it probably will if Chisenhall makes the team), then Duncan should be the 26th man again this year.

Tim said...

This team should be ready to break out by 2014, maybe 2013. Just when White and Pomeranz would be ready and when Jimenez walks as a free agent. Was Antonetti looking out the right window of opportunity?

Halifax said...

Adam -- I wouldn't be so quick to write off the Twins, they had their poor year last season. In the same sense, while I am optimistic about the Tribe, they have more than their own share of warts. Beyond their over-left-handedness at the plate, the rotation is on shaky ground when you consider Ubaldo has become a project, Masterson could be due for a regression, Fausto is Fausto, Tomlin was hurt and Lowe is ancient. Perhaps if the Indians want to spend 8-10 million the cash would be better spent on Roy Oswalt to stabilize the rotation. But I would gladly take Carlos Pena's bat and glove, even if he uses them from the left.

Pilot - sorry, if you think Santana should be playing more at first I'm not sure what to make of that. While Duncan is a butch, Carlos is a hack and can't pick squat, plus he's a compact car taking up a luxury vehicle parking space. DH/C is exactly where Santana needs to be. Pena is a better option than doing nothing and having Duncan sniff an everyday role at any position.

Baltimoran said...

Halifax...Fausto in not Fausto

MTF said...

How about trading Asdrubal and Raffy P. to the Red Sox for Kevin Youkilis (soon to be 33 years old), maybe a little bit of cash (if necessary) and some equalizing (and tantalizing) number of their very best prospects?

The RS need a SS with Scutaro gone and they've been looking for help in their pen all winter, so this might have appeal to them. Also, they get younger and have an opportunity to shed salary. The Indians take a chance on Youkilis' health and are certainly getting older, but get a right handed bat with excellent past power (career OPS of .883), very good OBP (career .391) and a deadly scowl when he's up at bat along with a rasher of good new prospects for our depleted system. Last season, he had to contend with a second year of injury time and a low BABIP of .296, but he still produced at a respectable rate (OPS+ of 123) while playing third and first. To refresh memories, Cots says Youkilis' contract is for $12 million in 2012 and there is a $13 million club option in 2013 ($1 MM buyout). The mid-point of Cabrera's and Perez' arbitration amounts suggests a total of $6.5 million in the aggregate for the two players in 2012, so Youkilis would raise our costs by $5.5-6.5 MM in 2012, depending upon whether or not we exercise the 2013 option.

Then we play KY at first, splitting time with Santana. We can play Jason Donald at short, which might well mean the loss of Asdrubals offensive contribution might not be so keenly felt (assuming Donald is the hitter the Tribe is hinting they believe he can be). Youkilis might be able to help coach Santana at first and Chiz at third, and would certainly improve our fielding results at first.

That way we have the option of keeping Youkilis in 2013 if he's able and we want him to fill in for Hafner, we restock the farm a little bit and we potentially increase our total offensive production even while getting rid of our outstanding arbitration issues and not breaking the Dolan's piggy bank.

What do you think?

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