Friday, February 24, 2012

Spring Cleaning on A Lazy Sunday

Workouts have just commenced in Goodyear under the high Arizona sky and Grady Sizemore is already hurt (cue the Late Night Talk Show band to prepare for the inevitable one-liners here, if you can hear them over the cavalcade of “I told you so’s”) as the Indians prepare themselves for a 2012 season that could go so many different directions that it almost makes one’s head spin.
Can this player do that…
Can that player stay healthy…
Which version of this player can we count on seeing this year…

The questions are numerous and the answers (right now) are few – other than this whole Grady thing, which pushes Brantley to CF to start the season and opens the door wide for Aaron Cunningham or Shelley Duncan or Ryan Spilborghs or even Fred Lewis to take advantage of an opportunity. While we don’t know how long Sizemore figures to be out because of this “back issue”, it is being reported that he’ll be out at least on Opening Day and, if you Opening Day is still a solid 6 weeks away and they’ve ALREADY ruled him out for that, this may be a while. If you figure that rehab is going to be needed after he is healthy enough to play along with the idea that Sizemore hasn’t really been healthy in…hell, I’ve forgotten how long, this is not a good first step for an Indians’ team that needed to make it through camp healthy as a starting point.

Regardless, since there’s plenty of time to ruminate on the Sizemore situation (Spring Training is going to be a while, even if Castro nails the whole risk/reward thing here and why I still think the Grady gamble was worth taking while I remind you that Tyler wrote a few months ago about Mike Brantley – erstwhile CF, something even more relevant than when it was written, given the Grady news), let’s get off on a Lazy Sunday, examining what can be gleaned from Spring Training, both in terms of performances and revelations.
And, we’re off…

Heading into camp, the goals of the Indians’ Spring Training are fairly obvious – continued and continuous health (particularly among those who have had recent…um, issues staying healthy) and getting key players prepared for the 2012 season. While that first “goal” has already taken a major hit with Grady’s injury which will sideline him for an indefinite amount of time and could have an impact on his performance when (or is it…gulp, if) he returns, the second “goal” is perhaps the more important one as the Indians have a number of players that either need to bounce back from lackluster 2011 seasons or are young players that need to keep the momentum of their 2011 seasons moving them in the right direction.

Truthfully, that second “goal” of getting key players prepared for the 2012 season may seem pedestrian to even mention, but getting – most notably – Ubaldo Jimenez and SS Choo (the two most important players this season in terms of having a track record and a potential impact for 2012) back on track to the type of production that each enjoyed before their nightmare 2011 seasons is essential to any idea that the Indians can contend in 2012. Obviously, monitoring the health of particular players is easy enough via reports from Goodyear, but in terms of that second “goal”, gleaning much from Spring Training performance is much more difficult…particularly when it comes to pitching.
Because simply looking at Spring Training numbers (and for pitchers in particular) doesn’t mean anything most of the time…

That isn’t said to burst any bubbles, but as much as Spring Training represents a welcome change from “nothing” to “something” in the baseball world, there’s really not much that can be truly learned from the numbers or even from the daily reports coming from Goodyear, even if you just go the recent past with the Indians in terms of translating Spring Training success/failure to project regular season performance.

Consider the fact that Cliff Lee had a 5.68 ERA in Spring Training prior to the 2008 season, giving up 27 hits and walking 5 in his 19 Spring innings, while striking out 16 hitters and posting a 1.68 WHIP. Remember, this was after the 2007 season in which CP Lee was not on the Tribe’s post-season roster as trade rumors swirled during that 2008 Spring Training about whether Lee would be the 5th starter to open the 2008 season or if he would perhaps be traded because he no longer had options remaining. Coming out of Spring Training, Lee’s 1st start was even delayed by a game so CC could pitch on his normal days rest as Lee unquestionably started that 2008 season as the 5th starter.
Lest you forget, Cliff Lee won the Cy Young Award that year…

That’s the exception…obviously, as nobody is expecting one of the arms fighting for the 5th spot this year to run away with the Cy Young in the way that CP Lee improbably did back then, but even more than the example of Lee’s Spring Training numbers meaning NOTHING once the regular season started, let’s remember how loose the grip can be on any of these spots out of Spring Training, once injuries and attrition show up. To wit, Scott Lewis was the 4th starter to start the 2009 season (after the Indians spent the off-season adding Wood and DeRosa) with Anthony Reyes as the 5th starter out of the gate. Those two pitchers COMBINED for 9 starts (8 of them by Reyes) and 42 2/3 innings that year…or about 3% of the innings thrown by the 2009 pitching staff.
Again, those were the pitchers that “won” the 4th and 5th starters spots out of Spring Training…

How does that mean anything for this year and this Spring Training?
Well, it’s not really meant to point out much more than that there are a bunch of guys going for the 5th starter spot and a TON of guys going for the last two bullpen spots and while these pitching staff “battles” are compelling at some level, most if not all of these guys are probably going to get a shot and whoever gets it first doesn’t really matter that much to me. How each of them performs in Arizona is obviously going to play a role in who breaks camp with the team, but it probably means very little in terms of projecting performance once the regular season starts. We will read stories (that are admittedly fun to read, in that they foster hope) about guys like Huff and his mechanics or how Ubaldo is ready to go after a “normal” off-season, but the proof is going to be in the pudding once those players make their way North for Opening Day. Regardless of what is done in or what is reported from Arizona, between Slowey, Gomez, Huff, and McAllister – most or all of those guys are going to see time in Cleveland this year as each retains options and each has upsides and downsides.

Keeping with the starting staff, things are going to change throughout Spring Training and beyond and, just to use Jeanmar (probably one of the presumed favorites, with Slowey) as an example, according to Bastian, Gomez spent the off-season resting his right knee which “gave him some trouble throughout last season” and, unless I missed it, no procedure was done to remedy that “trouble”. That’s not meant to assert that Gomez is sure to end up on the DL at some point in 2012, just that the odds are that one or two or (gasp) three of these guys is going to go down because of injury or will fall further down the pecking order just based on attrition.

Does that mean that we should all just ignore Spring Training games and results?
Of course not, as Spring Training is that glorious time when everything seems possible and hope builds upon hope. But if you’re even just talking about these arms that are slotting themselves for the first (and second…and third) shot at the 5th starter spot, I’m actually more interested in whether Scott Barnes and/or Austin Adams can make some progress in becoming more than that 5th starter/swing man fodder that the previous group seems to represent. Maybe that is simply preferring the devil I don’t know to the one that I think I do, but whoever “wins” the 5th starter spot will be on a tight leash while the other guys sort themselves out in Columbus.

Short of an injury or a sudden resolution to the Carmona/Hernandez situation (and I’m having trouble seeing that for a while, regardless of what Carmona/Hernandez and his agent may think), that last spot in the rotation could be in flux for a while. Realistically, that 4th spot could be in play as well if Josh Tomlin is not able to remedy the issues that plagued him in the second half of 2011 as he retains options, just like the pitchers that figure to be sitting in Columbus, waiting for a shot at the rotation.
As a quick aside here, one has to wonder if the money that would have been owed to Carmona/Hernandez is going to go towards a OF in light of this Grady situation. Suddenly, Marlon Byrd isn't looking so bad…

Regardless, this logic applies to the final couple of spots in the bullpen, as who comes North with the team is much less interesting to me than which players are going to have the unexpected impact that a player like Vinnie Pestano did in 2011. In a way, knowing who the 5th starter is on the Opening Day roster or who the last two guys at the front of the bullpen are fun to follow in an odd sort of way, but I’m more interested in how the Indians are going to make the talent on hand work throughout the course of the season.

This is all fairly rudimentary, but which arm will be in the Indians’ rotation in mid-July or who which reliever will surprise and climb that back-end-of-the-bullpen ladder, perhaps displacing an injured or ineffective arm that always finds his way out of the bullpen once the season gets underway, are the real “questions” that need “answers”.
Sadly, those answers aren’t going to be completely fleshed out in Arizona, as much as we’d like them to, though we will start to get a taste…

That’s not to say that Cactus League action is completely useless and isn’t meant to douse your well-deserved enthusiasm about baseball being played after a long and uneventful winter. It’s just a reminder that as much as people will pore over the numbers for a start by Kevin Slowey or an appearance by Dan Wheeler or Nick Hagadone, those final spots on the roster are tenuous at best and figure to be used throughout the season to include most, if not all, of the “competitors” in these Spring Training “battles”.

That all being said (and as you consider canceling your trip to Goodyear…although you shouldn’t), there are events that happen in Spring Training that provide a peek into what a team is going to do in the usage of talent that makes much more of an impact than how the 22nd through 25th spots on the roster get filled. Certainly, one of those “peeks” is going to come as the Indians start to mete out playing time in LF in the absence of Sizemore, but one of those moments occurred earlier in the week as Manny Acta tipped his hand (rather surprisingly) on how the Indians see the usage pattern for Carlos Santana this year in a convoluted platoon now that Kotchman is in the fold, with the explanation coming via Bastian:
“You do have a first baseman now,” Acta said. “What it does is -- probably this year more times than in the past -- we’re going to have to take a chance and probably DH Santana, and take the chance that, if [backup catcher Lou Marson] goes down during the game, that we lose the DH.”
The situation is such that the Indians want to keep Santana’s bat in the lineup as much as possible. That means that, on days he is not catching, the switch-hitter could either work as a first baseman or a DH. It is most likely that those starts would come against left-handed pitching.

If you’re following here, Acta (rightfully) doesn’t care about the possibility of losing the DH as he would have Santana slotting to DH against LHP, with Hafner sitting on the bench vs. LHP as Marson would assume the C duties in those situations. Truthfully, I think that defense plays more of a role here than you might think at first glance as Santana is probably not going to spend too much time at 1B this year (thankfully) and as Marson figures to spend more time behind the plate…which is interesting to consider when you figure that Keith Woolner (a former B-Pro writer who now works for the Indians) wrote this seminal work on the effect of catchers/game-calling over a decade ago.

But I digress…lest you forget, this “loss” of the DH was one of the main concerns that came up in response to something that I wrote in this space a few months back, proposing this exact scenario. Pardon the massive cut-and-paste, but in it, I wrote:
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)…
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.

However, the idea behind not having to use Santana at 1B in that piece was predicated on the idea that the Indians would add an “everyday” 1B. In theory (and maybe in their public comments), they have with Kotchman…but remember Kotchman has historically struggled against LHP (.245 BA / .305 OBP / .305 OBP / .610 OPS in his last 367 AB vs. LHP), so this idea that he should be playing everyday – including against any and all LHP – looks like wishful thinking. Perhaps that’s because of a lack of an obvious compelling alternative, but in looking a little deeper, maybe an option to take those ¼ of the PA at 1B (against LHP) referenced above does exist on the current roster.

By that I mean, go back though to the top of that part in italics above where Marson’s success in 2011 vs. LHP makes him a compelling alternative for Hafner in the lineup and see that the only two players that had more success against LHP for the Tribe in 2011 (with at least 90 PA) were Santana (who should play every day, naturally) and one John Joseph Hannahan IV.

Yep, Hannahan…and here’s an interesting off-shoot to the most compelling of the Spring Training “battles” as it relates to the only real intrigue down in Goodyear in terms of who the 3B figures to be and whether Hannahan’s glove at 3B outweighs Chisenhall’s promise and his bat. Given that the Indians should be looking to bring the best team North with them (given this whole “window” thing), wouldn’t it stand to reason that the Indians could come up with a solution to use Hannahan and Chisenhall effectively, given that Hannahan has some experience at 1B and would actually serve as a decent platoon partner for Kotchman at 1B because of Kotchman’s…um, struggles against LHP?

As much as everyone wants the definitive answer to “WHO’S THE OPENING DAY 3B”, does it need to be that black-and-white, given Hannahan’s versatility and due to Kotchman’s shortcomings?

That is to say, perhaps the alignment should be Chisenhall playing in the majority of the games at 3B with Hannahan bouncing back and forth between 3B and 1B, based on the pitcher (he’d play 3rd when Masterson or Lowe pitched) and the opposing pitcher (he’d play 1B when Kotchman needed a rest against LHP) with Chisenhall perhaps slotting into some plate appearances at DH, as the Indians attempt to keep Hafner as healthy and fresh as possible throughout the season.

Certainly this is all predicated on Chisenhall having a solid Spring Training, but how the Indians work this could be pretty flexible. In terms of who plays 3B when, maybe there’s a place online that shows where batted balls go for these pitchers that I can’t find (although I imagine the Indians do and during my search, I did find this for Masterson, which is amazing) that would lend a clue as to which pitcher would benefit most from Hannahan’s glovework at 3B, but everyday AB may not have to be as “this” or “that” when it comes to Chisenhall and Hannahan at 3B.

While the argument may be that using Chisenhall in any kind of “platoon” situation doesn’t do his development any great favors, perhaps everyday AB would be there for him, particularly in the light that the Indians are going to want to keep Hafner as rested as possible in the interest of maximizing his usefulness. And that’s really what this all boils down to – maximizing the talents of an imperfect group of players to put them in the best positions possible to succeed. These numbers are overly simplistic, but why couldn’t the Indians figure out usage patterns that looked like this:
Santana – 120 (vs. RHP)
Marson – 40 (vs. LHP)

Kotchman – 120 (vs. RHP)
Hannahan – 40 (vs. LHP)

Chisenhall – 120 (based on CLE pitcher)
Hannahan – 40 (based on CLE pitcher)

Hafner – 100 (against RHP only, with other days off)
Santana – 30 (filling in around that)
Chisenhall – 30 (filling in around that)

Santana – 150
Chisenhall – 150
Kotchman – 120
Hafner – 100
Hannahan – 80
Marson – 40

Yes…the numbers wouldn’t be that “clean” on any given position (particularly DH), but you get the main idea here, which is to maximize the effectiveness of these players – keep Hafner healthy and as effective as he can be, allow Santana and Chisenhall to remain in the lineup as much as possible to continue their development while allowing their defensive-oriented back-ups to shine when asked to, prevent Kotchman and Hafner from playing against LHP, prevent Marson from playing against RHP, put the best defensive IF in there when the GB pitchers are going, etc.

Essentially, this is cobbling together a lineup as the 1995 team, this is not…when Mike Hargrove had a laminated lineup card that he took out to the ump before the game and sat back and watched the ball fly out of the park. But this is may present the best option for the Indians and while “Lonnie Baseball” and “Supermanahan” have their pros and cons (as Bastian pointed out), using their strengths to complement each other is how the Indians are going to maximize not only their offensive potency, but their defensive prowess as well.

Maybe you’ve seen the Bill James projections that put the 2012 projected numbers for each player on equal footing at Fangraphs:
Chiz – Bill James 2012 Projections
.248 BA / .302 OBP / .400 SLG / .702 OPS, .305 wOBA

Hannahan – Bill James 2012 Projections
.244 BA / .335 OBP / .360 SLG / .695 OPS, .311 wOBA

Frankly, if that’s what is really expected of the two of them, you go with Hannahan and ship Lonnie off to Columbus and don’t think twice about it, but I think those projections sell Lonnie’s offensive potential short. As does Jonah Keri, who wrote in a well-balanced season preview of the Tribe at Grantland, that “Chisenhall struggled in his rookie season, posting a .284 on-base percentage; he’s got the skills to do a lot better.”

You’d have to think that the Indians feel the same way if Acta is telling Fangraphs that Lonnie is “going to probably be the most important piece of the puzzle in our infield” (and that link is an interesting Q&A with The Chiz) and, given that the Indians are going to be looking to get out to that fast start, sending Lonnie down to Columbus so he can play everyday seems short-sighted and perhaps unnecessary, in light of the scenarios laid out above.

Essentially, there’s going to be a lot of moving parts around the lineup and around the field all season because you’re really only talking about Choo, Cabrera, and Kipnis figuring to be a true “everyday” player at one position. Some of that is predicated on a particular player’s strength (getting Hannahan’s glove into the lineup) or weakness (making sure Hafner and Kotchman don’t face LHP) and if you wanted me to do the same thing with what’s going to happen in LF and CF to protect Brantley from LHP, protect Grady from…well, himself, and how Duncan and Cunningham or Spilborghs fit into that mix, I could do it – and probably will because of this whole Grady situation which blows LF wide open.
But you get the general idea and I’ve taken too much of your time already…

That said, the Indians have to maximize their talent on hand to find the right mix of players to compete from Day 1. In terms of pitching, that may take a while to flesh out – much longer than the time under the Arizona sun allows – but in terms of finding spots for the pieces that figure around the diamond (and in the infield in particular), prudent usage of players is tantamount to the Indians remaining that yapping dogs at the heels of the Tigers all season long in the Central.

Of course, since they haven’t even played a Spring Training game and the pieces are already moving around because of the Sizemore injury, it all remains to be seen as we’ve only just begun…


MTF said...

Do the Indians intend using the Carmona money to continue trying to be opportunistic in building outfield options? If we are, I'm sure the front office has convinced themselves to wait until midseason before pulling any triggers. That's a gamble, because (as we learned last year) piling up winning momentum in the early going can carry the team pretty far during the dog days of late summer, and to do that we will need an aggressive offense. Are we to count on SSChoo and Asdrubal for that offense, or should we look for another outfielder now?

Paul Cousineau said...

The question is whether they think that Carmona is coming back and if that money is "available". Despite Hoynes' Sunday story that intimates that Fausto will be back at some point soon, the Oviedo/Nunez situation remains unresolved and that happened well before the Carmona/Hernandez issue did. Maybe that means nothing and maybe the two are unrelated, but at a certain point, one would think that the Indians would entertain spending that money.

Don't forget that they DID offer about $7M to $8M for Pena, then inked Kotchman for $3M, so there may be money there regardless.

If they think that Sizemore's injury is going to linger AT ALL or if it's a sign of things to come, I'm not sure if they can wait until midseason as a lot can change in outlook between now and July.

MTF said...

Well, since I was hoping to pick up a good bat this winter anyway (but the screwy evil bad market didn't cooperate), losing Sizemore for the spring has reminded me I should stay on high alert about our offense. So if any team has any extra .800 OPS players out there, my hope and expectation is that we will be aggressively willing to do you a favor and take that guy off your hands.

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