Sunday, April 29, 2012

A Lazy Sunday of Appreciation and Anticipation

While most of the North Coast takes their magnifying glass to the NFL Draft (said by many to be the Browns’ Annual Super Bowl…and one that they’ve not exactly thrived in since their return) and as another portion of Clevelanders prepare for the NBA Lottery on May 30th (as the Cavaliers finish a two-year stretch in which they posted the fewest wins since the 1982 to 1984 teams…not that I don’t “approve” of them getting the third most ping-pong balls), you may or may not have noticed, but the Indians are preparing to enter May in 1st Place in their division. 

Are they tied for 1st Place?
Yes…and it can certainly be argued that the Indians simply took advantage of a favorable schedule in the early going (and I’ll actually make that argument if you want to hear it) and that this is still ultimately a flawed team (again, no dissension on that point as they have a negative run differential), but in a town where “hope” is the operative word for sports franchises in recent years, the Indians are once again off to a hot start and – while that hasn’t been reflected at the turnstiles – they finish their April comparing favorably to the other teams in their division and…well, maybe it’s time to appreciate that.

Since so much of the conversation in the past week revolves around what young players “could be” or how they project in the NFL or NBA or how “promise” is there to build upon, maybe it’s time to take a look at a couple of players who have graduated from the “could” side of the ledger into the “are” side and whose “promise” has been realized in short order.  While the Browns and the Cavs certainly have talented young players (who may or may not live up to the projections being heaped on them), the Indians have some very exciting players that have established themselves as elite players and have positioned themselves to perhaps occupy the upper echelon among MLB players going forward and appreciating them for what they are while anticipating what’s to come is something that’s not done often enough in a world in which the negatives are examined to death (guilty here) while the positives are taken for granted to some degree.

So while the sports-talk radio crowd (when they’re not talking about how a 4th Rounder fits into a “scheme) and the Twitterverse harps away at the deficiencies of Kotchman, Brantley, Wheeler, and others, what often gets lost is that we’re watching a couple of players cement their position as the pillars that the Indians figure to be built on…and not just for 2012, but for years after this. 
Of course, I speak of Asdrubal Cabrera and Carlos Santana as we let loose on a Lazy One…

With the wonderful juxtaposition of the struggling Angels being in town as the back-drop, given their spending spree this off-season, Cabrera and Santana were the two players that inked extensions this off-season for the Tribe and, while their deals may have only “bought” out one year of FA for each of those players, Cabrera is now potentially in the fold through 2014 (with $21.05M guaranteed) and Santana under club control potentially through 2017 (with $21M guaranteed), it’s worth noting that the Angels will pay at least one player $20M or more every year until 2021, which is the year that my oldest son, now 5 years old, will be entering High School.

Though I don’t need a refresher course of service time, arbitration, FA, or even TV contracts as I know that the Indians (unlike the Angels) are never going to pay for past production and will pay for perceived future production, to see Cabrera and Santana under the Indians’ control for the next three seasons together (and through 2017 in Santana’s case) can’t help but generate some enthusiasm.  And that enthusiasm and optimism is building as 2012 begins since the Indians’statistical leaderboard starts to morph back into some semblance of normalcy, as it is worth noting that the Indians’ C and SS have continued to establish themselves as two players for whom their 2011 success seems to have carried over.

Now, I don’t know if you noticed in that link above, but Cabrera and Santana are the 3rd and 4th youngest regulars for the Indians (Brantley and Kipnis are younger) and while that may depress you to see that they have three players over 30 (with another on the way in Damon) that are getting regular time, given that they were supposed to have loaded up the farm system to get similarly-aged and similarly-controlled players, Cabrera and Santana are both 26 years old and are just hitting their years of peak production.  Given what they’ve done in the last couple of years (and so far this year) that’s exciting enough to forget that Mike Brantley has a career .315 OBP in 1,018 PA and 29 career SB in 230 games (though he’s admittedly looked better at the plate in the last 2 days than I think he ever has) or that Kotchman, Duncan, and Hannahan are taking significant AB this season.  Because complaining about the black holes on the roster is missing the bright, shining stars and complaining about the less significant portions of the team is taking for granted the development and contributions of the more important players on this team…for this year and beyond.

That’s not to say that complaining about a teams’ inability to develop a LF or the persistent black hole at 1B aren’t justifiable endeavors, but what happens while we moan and project about what the team is going to do at 3B (again, guilty in this space) or scan the rosters of other teams to find a LF to target for trade, we miss out on the development and establishment of the players who HAVE fulfilled potential or HAVE surprised us (in the pleasant way) with the player that they’ve become.  As we (inexplicably) are reminded seemingly every day how Matt MaTola is doing in AAA or how Trevor Crowe is “lining himself up for a chance” and can’t help but be depressed by this (and the fact that the Indians are playing Shelley Duncan and Casey Kotchman on a regular basis and just signed Johnny Damon should tell you everything you need to know about how likely a LaPorta or Crowe sighting is in Cleveland this year), we somehow take the burgeoning stars in the middle of the Indians’ lineup – the players that have fulfilled their potential – that constitute the “up-the-middle” talent for granted.

Often, I think about how Victor Martinez was a topic of discussion or debate as an Indian only when he was hurt or how he was fondly appreciated mainly on that day that he sat in front of his locker crying as so much time and words were put into finding a solution for 3B or LF or 1B (yes, even back then) in those years that we failed to truly appreciate Victor for the player that he became and for the Indian that he was.  Certainly, he was the favorite player for many and he was far from ignored, but too often we took his steadiness and his excellence for granted, only broaching it as a topic when he was injured or when he was…well, gone.

While that “gone” doesn’t really apply for Cabrera and Santana (with their extensions in hand), to see the way that the duo has started 2012 is to realize that their 2011 seasons may not have been aberrations or red herrings.  Lest you forget, Santana posted the 3rd highest wOBA among C in MLB last year and Asdrubal was 5th among MLB SS in wOBA.  This year (with that small sample size siren blaring), Santana ranks 7th in wOBA among C in MLB and Asdrubal ranks 4th in MLB among SS, perhaps showing that the duo is ready to pace this offense (or at least lead it) throughout the 2012 season and beyond.

With a hot start in 2012, Asdrubal continues to establish himself as an elite offensive SS, despite questions as to whether 2011 was the aberration and as whispers about his off-season conditioning grew audible.  Interestingly, he seems to have filled a leadership void in the clubhouse that has existed since El Capitan headed to Beantown, looking more and more like the heart and soul of this Indians’ team.  While his defense remains a point of contention between stats and eyes, to realize that the Indians acquired him for ½ of a season of Eduardo Perez reminds us that things have worked out in some areas for the Indians, even if the team’s main beat writer spend his Sundays answering questions about where Scott Lewis has gone…apparently because nobody asked him about the whereabouts of Anthony Reyes or Jeremy Sowers.

The Venezuelan SS (whose at-bat music is “Super Estrella”, which I believes translates to “Super Astro” or “Super Star”…and thanks to AC for dropping all of the actual walk-in music for the Tribe on us) has emerged as a perennial All-Star – not that the All-Star selection process is the most scientific way to quantify worth – and while Francisco Lindor continues to bepraised in Lake County, it’s again important to remember not what a certain player “could” be (though I’m irrationally excited about Lindor) but to appreciate a player for what he has become…and Cabrera has become a star.  Even when Asdrubal arrived in that magical 2007 season, there was hope (that at times seemed unfounded) that he would develop into the player that he is today.  But that hope has materialized into reality and, while it proves that stars can emerge from relative obscurity (and the Seattle farm system), that is something that is not appreciated enough.

As for emerging from “relative obscurity”, Santana didn’t follow that path as he was a highly-touted prospect from the time he arrived from LA for Lacey Cake and (while other “top prospects” acquired by the Indians in those dark days of 2008 and 2009 have fallen by the wayside) Santana kept climbing the Minor League ladder and every Annual Prospect ranking.  Upon arrival to the parent club, he immediately put his offensive imprint on the team and, despite an…um, harrowing night in Boston in his rookie year, his performance at the plate is something that I don’t think is truly grasped, in terms of context.

By that I mean that among players with more than 900 PA since the beginning of 2010, Santana’s OPS of 129+ puts him 27th inMLB, just ahead of Ryan Zimmerman and Andre Ethier and if you really want to get some perspective about how impressive Santana’s performance in MLB has been, look at the players ranked for their numbers from 2010 to now, onlyincluding players that are in their 1st to 5th seasons intheir career.  That is, among players who are still young and are only just starting their careers (relatively speaking), Santana’s OPS+ ranks behind only Votto, Hamilton, Braun, Longoria, and Carlos Gonzalez.

That’s it…
Those are the only players under the age of 30, early in their careers that have performed better than Santana at the plate since 2010, which is when The Axe Man arrived to MLB.  Santana is that “big bopper” that some thought (or “hoped”) he would become, the middle-of-the-order presence that gets taken for granted far too often and is noticed more for the “protection” in the lineup that he does not have more than for his excellence at the plate.  As for “behind” said plate, Santana’s defense has unquestionably improved this season and, while it remains to be seen where The Axe Man ends up on defense, his game is becoming more complete as he continues his assault on MLB pitching.

Over at LGT, Jay Levin penned a great piece dissecting the (absurd) Fangraphsian suggestion that the Indians did not get much of a discount in Santana’s extension.  After a logical foray into the “how does Johnny Damon fit” question, Jay’s piece that asserted that the Indians received what could be potentially quite a discount, comparing the money received by Derek Jeter, Ryan Howard, and Prince Fielder in arbitration to what the Indians will be paying Santana.  If those names look ambitious in terms of comparison, Levin opines thusly:
These are not logical comps for Santana, clearly. And yet, one scenario that the Indians do have to consider in their planning is the one where Santana becomes a straight-up superstar. All he has to do is hit 35 bombs — and he doesn’t even have to do it this year. He can do it in 2012, or in 2013, or in 2014. Santana’s age in those three seasons: 26, 27 and 28.

That – in a nutshell – reminds us what Santana already is and what he can (quite easily) become if he follows on his current path. “What he is” and “what he can become” are unquestionably exciting notions and, as there is much hand-wringing over Kotchman’s start or concerns over Ubaldo’s inconsistency (both legitimate gripes), let’s not take Santana’s ascension to the upper echelon of MLB hitters for granted.  Sure, the local beat writers are going to continue to harp away at The Axe Man’s batting average because…well, that’s what they do instead of attempting to contextualize his impact, but to watch Santana develop has already been a joy.  The feeling that he’s just scratching the surface is impossible to ignore and seeing him in the middle of the Indians’ lineup (potentially) through 2017 should cause some warmth on a cold Sunday morning on the North Coast.

How the Indians’ offense ultimately performs throughout the season remains (seriously) in question as it becomes more and more apparent that this offense is going to have to be paced by Santana and Cabrera with the hope that Choo can get healthy (and effective) and Hafner can STAY healthy (and effective) forming the heart of the order.  If Kipnis continues to develop as an offensive presence and Brantley’s weekend foretells of future success (and this is me not holding my breath), the top-to-middle of the Indians’ offense could excite and amaze this year. 

While much e-ink will be spilled on the other spots in the lineup and concerns in the rotation and bullpen, it’s important to not lose sight of the way that Asdrubal Cabrera and Carlos Santana have emerged as legitimate stars in the last two years or so.  Maybe the onus is on the Indians for not surrounding them with more talent at the corners of the diamond and in the corners of the outfield, but complaining about those issues (which are justified) sometimes takes away from the enjoyment of watching a young player mature and develop into an impactful star in MLB.

With both Asdrubal and The Axe Man, that enjoyment is unmistakable and – regardless of what happens around that duo in the lineup or in the field – to appreciate them for what they are and to anticipate what they can be is the reason that most of us became baseball fans.  Rather than irrationally focusing on the (continued) deficiencies of the team all season long, placing that focus on seeing what the young players that are on hand have evolved into allows one to envision an enjoyable summer.

Whether the summer is enjoyable or not, the Indians have pillars for their team up the middle of the diamond and – thanks to their newly inked extensions – those pillars can be appreciated now and into the future… 

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Protecting Pronk

As the Indians continue to do exactly what they need to do against the soft underbelly of their schedule (and even against these teams, they’re really steamrolling) and since Indians litter the top of thestill-largely-irrelevant leaderboards in MLB, let us bask in the glory that is Hafner, Duncan, Hannahan, and Santana at the top of the OBP list in the AL.  To say that seeing two of those names on that list is a surprise is a bit of an understatement, but the inclusion of Hafner and Santana provide fond memories of past success of cause positive projections for future success.

Without delving too deeply into the early success of Duncan (why do visions of Chris Shelton cloud my brain) and Hannahan (which, as much as I’m enjoying this, is still largely a result of luck and BABIP…though I continue to abhor my role as “realist” in this fairy tale story), to see Hafner and Santana on that list provides a glimpse as to why the Indians are scoring more runs per game (X) than anyone else in the league as the middle-of-the-order hitters are thumping their way through the early schedule and providing the drumbeat for the rhythm of the offense.

With Santana, his performance is everything that we have hoped it would be and – oddly enough – it’s not all that surprising, given his success last year, his pedigree, and his potential.  Seeing The Axe Man mash is unquestionably exciting (his 162 game average is a 38 2B, 27 HR while he has walked only 28 fewer times than he has struck out in 914 MLB PA) for the future of this team and the idea that Santana will sit in the middle of this lineup for the next six or so seasons.

But what’s been even more enjoyable is to bask in the the performance of Travis Hafner to date.  While numbers are still pretty tough to parse through, it’s impossible to NOT get excited about what Hafner’s done so far:
.333 BA / .500 OBP / .533 SLG / 1.033 OPS with 3 2B and 2 HR in 60 PA

While depositing balls into people’s salads and wraps in Kansas City, Hafner has gotten on base in HALF of his plate appearances to date as – going further than just numbers and going into the gut – he “looks” like the Hafner of old as he’s striking the ball with authority, driving the ball in a way that we haven’t seen for some time.  However, in this age of instant analysis and the 24-hour news cycle, have we all forgotten that it really hasn’t been that long since we’ve seen this same Hafner?

Just to remind you, this is what Hafner had done in his first 59 plate appearances last year:
.346 BA / .407 OBP / .635 SLG / 1.041 OPS with 3 2B and 4 HR in 15 games

Compare those to the numbers for 2011 shown above (which is as close as I can get in terms of plate appearances) and realize that Hafner burst out of the gate last year as well, yet would finish the season having played in only 94 games in 2011.

If you remember (or even if you don’t), Hafner had a .959 OPS at the end of April and a .958 OPS in mid-May as the Indians raced out to their lead in the AL Central.  Then, after racing out to his blazing start and (this is important) after playing in 32 of the Indians’ first 39 games in 2011, he hit the DL with a strained oblique that would sideline him for a month until mid-June.  Of course, he came back just in time for NL games (creating a glorified PH role for him) as the Indians’ season started to slide.

But just to go back to the frequency in which Hafner was used last year prior to his injury, he played in 32 of the first 39 games (posting a .958 in those 32games) and would play only 62 of the final 123 games (posting a .732 OPS in those final 62 games) and so far he’s played in 13 of the first 15 games and while I’m not suggesting that anything is about to go SPROING with Hafner as he “looks” healthy, he started out in this manner last year and looked just as healthy as we read stories about how he was finally ready for a year of full health.  Again, he played in only 94 games last year as his absence from the team coincided with the team’s slide in the standings and while I won’t say that the team overused Hafner in the early going, causing him to the DL for a month from mid-May to mid-June (and he hit the DL again later in the year), the idea that Hafner has returned to form this year comes with the caveats and precautions that cannot be ignored, as they may have been last year.

What I’m getting at is that protecting Hafner, who is out to a huge start, is vitally important to the offense’s productivity this season, as wonderful as it is to see him hit like this and imagine that he’s FINALLY back.  Hafner is what makes this offense go (settling the middle of the lineup and providing protection for Santana) and – though it may be hard to remember, particularly given the alternatives – it is important to remember that a healthy Hafner is more important than an everyday Hafner.

As nice as it is to have that “everyday Hafner”, there should be a concerted effort to rest him periodically to prevent him going on the DL for a solid couple of weeks when the Indians need him in the lineup without a prolonged absence.  This is not a new concept (though I’m surprised that Hafner is playing this frequently in the early going) and as much as some want to simply push Santana down to 1B against LHP because (surprise!) Casey Kotchman can’t hit LHP (2 of 28 this season as he’s been inexplicably playing against LHP), I’d still prefer to have Santana slot to DH against LHP (with Marson as the catcher) to protect the health of the Indians’ best two offensive players.  With Hafner, it’s about giving his body a rest to maximize his effectiveness and with Santana, it’s about getting him completely off the field (while keeping his VERY IMPORTANT bat in the lineup) to rest up from all of those foul tips that he’s been taking off of batted balls.

In terms of what to do at 1B vs. LHP (because Kotchman shouldn’t face LHP…and this is not a new line of thinking), I still think that Hannahan is an interesting option at 1B vs. LHP or using Lopez in some capacity or Duncan at 1B (once Damon arrives) could be an option.  Ultimately (and this should come as no surprise), Casey Kotchman isn’t hitting in 2012 because…well, because he really never hit outside of his BABIP-driven 2011 in Tampa and he hasn’t hit LHP in his recent past (.245 BA / .305 OBP / .305 OBP / .610 OPS in his last 367 AB vs. LHP going into 2012) and since he hasn’t hit LHP this year, it’s just a continuation of a trend, not a new development.  All of this means that the Indians are going to have some moving pieces in an effort to put Kotchman in a position to succeed.

Maybe they pull some sort of double platoon here to protect the health of Hafner and Santana while limiting Kotchman’s exposure to LHP, maybe utilizing Jason Donald as more than a super-utility player, playing him at 3B vs. LHP, with the two alignments looking something like this:
Against RHP
C – Santana
1B – Kotchman
3B – Hannahan
DH – Hafner

Against LHP
C – Marson
1B – Hannahan
3B – Donald
DH – Santana

Remember that usually about 75% of a season’s AB come against RHP and only about 25% come from LHP, so the Indians are still getting the lion’s share of PA for Hafner (and Kotchman) in there in spots that play to their strengths.  In that arrangement, Santana and Hannahan are the everyday players here (so long as Hannahan’s hot start continues…even if it’s largely explained by BABIP here) with guys like Lopez and Duncan having some flexibility to play 1B if necessary.

Regardless of how those parts move and mesh together, the most important factor in those alignments is resting Hafner more than he’s being rested now and using the open DH spot (when Hafner is off) to give Santana as much of a break as possible, allowing him to only hit and reducing the wear-and-tear on his body.  The Indians’ offensive success in 2012 is likely to be paced by (or maybe even reliant upon) the presence of Hafner and Santana in the lineup and losing one or both of those players to injury would thin out the lineup to a point that this offense simply couldn’t take…particularly with this Choo hamstring issue.

As enjoyable as it may be to see the past (Hafner) and the future (Santana) collide in the present, the Indians need to avoid getting overzealous with their usage for each, and particularly with Hafner.  With the lessons of 2011 being so close in the rearview mirror, and with the idea that this may be the final season in which Hafner is able to do this (even sporadically) in an Indians’ uniform, protecting Hafner for the length of the season will only lengthen the odds of the Indians’ continuing to compete in the AL Central.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

A Lazy Sunday Sorting Through the Bull(pen)

Last week, it was written that “fattening up” is what the Indians needed to do against what look to be the dregs of the AL (and that Seattle lineup is almost as bad as the Royals’ pitching) and they’re probably loosening their belt a little bit as they finish up their road trip that took them through Kansas City, Seattle, and Oakland – three teams that look likely to finish at or near the bottom of their respective divisions, if anything is to be gleaned from seeing each of these teams in the early going. The Indians needed to build some momentum with this portion of their schedule and they’ve done just that as they prepare to welcome the Royals to the friendly confines before the big, bad, bloated (paying Vernon Wells $24M this year) Angels, the team with the big off-season that has resulted in them being…wait for it…7 games back in their division after just a couple of weeks into the season. While the Angels aren’t likely to play .357 baseball throughout the season, the Indians have the opportunity to carry the thrust from this road trip (and perhaps the Royals series) to take advantage of an Angels’ team still looking to find its sea legs.

But that’s getting too far ahead of ourselves and knowing what the 2012 Indians actually are or will be is still far off on the horizon as there have been both positive signs and negative ones since the season started. In fact, the idea that much can be gleaned from small samples is always one that’s bothered me in terms of baseball coverage this early in the season and burying the Angels (or Red Sox) as fun as that may be is always premature. Unless you’re talking about an aspect of a particular team (Kansas City’s pitching, Seattle’s offense, Minnesota’s…well, team) that was thought to be a weak spot and has looked worse than expected, the results of April are often fool’s gold.

Certainly, these games count just as the ones in September do in the midst of a pennant race, but if you’re overly analyzing the performance of a particular player based on what happens before Memorial Day even, then…well, you’re doing it wrong. That is said, of course, with the full knowledge that Josh Tomlin “outdueled” King Felix for a victory a day after I wrote that he may find himself as the odd man out when/if Roberto Hernandez returns. However, against one of the worst lineups that I can remember seeing (hey, Chone Figgins is hitting leadoff and Phil Humber just threw a Perfect Game against them) thrown out there by The Atomic Wedgie in the Emerald City, Tomlin did what Masterson and Lowe could not in going deep into the game and giving the bullpen some much-needed rest.

Interestingly, his 8-inning outing represented only the 2nd time that a starter had gone 8 innings (Masterson did it on Opening Day) and what’s interesting is that, the 8-inning outing from “The Lil’ Cowboy” (as Acta dubbed him after the victory) was the first time that an Indians’ pitcher had gone at least 7 innings since Masterson, Ubaldo, and Lowe each did in the opening series with Toronto. What has happened since that series with Toronto has been some shorter outings for the Tribe starters, either due to Acta’s hook or the umpire’s thumb (in the case of Jeanmar), which has caused the bullpen to throw a good number of innings, which is the topic of today’s Lazy Sunday…

Though we’re still more than a week away from May, the innings are piling up for the Tribe’s bullpen as (going into Saturday night), the Indians’ bullpen is AVERAGING a little less than 4 1/3 IP per game. Certainly, they’ve played in some extra inning games and the game in Kansas City (in which Gomez was ejected), which play a role here, but take a look at where they rank among all MLB teams in terms of IP for bullpens, per game:
Cleveland – 4.19 IP (50 1/3 IP in 12 games)
Kansas City – 3.72 (48 1/3 IP in 13 games)
Pittsburgh – 3.49 IP (45 1/3 IP in 13 games)
San Diego – 3.44 IP (51 2/3 IP in 15 games)
New York (AL) – 3.38 (47 1/3 IP in 14 games)
Washington – 3.38 (47 1/3 IP in 14 games)
Just to provide some context here, the Orioles’ bullpen threw 3.55 innings per game last year to lead MLB…by a pretty wide margin. Just to go further, the Indians were in the middle of the pack, with the bullpen throwing 3.07 innings per game in 2011.

Perhaps this is ignoring my own advice and making too much of what looks like an inordinately high number (compared to the rest of MLB) in just a couple week’s worth of games, but the bullpen is almost AVERAGING 4 1/3 IP per game. Watching Ubaldo’s pitch counts start after start and realizing that Tomlin and Gomez are still largely back-of-the-end rotation fodder who could be chased early in a good many starts, I’m not sure if this isn’t the start of a trend that could have a profound effect on the performance of the overall bullpen in 2012 and, perhaps more importantly, the health of these individual relievers (which looked so solid as a group last year) heading into this “window of contention”, in which the bullpen looks to be a strength. 

Admittedly, bullpen performance is certainly something that is difficult to quantify on a player-by-player basis in such a short amount of time and because of the short outings for these, but bullpen usage is much easier to see in terms of the stress and workload being placed on a bullpen. That’s not to say that the “player-by-player” analysis should be ignored (even this early), as many of us will remember Joe Borowski almost single-handedly botched away the start of the 2008 season (he had a 7.56 ERA and a 1.92 WHIP in only 16 2/3 IP that year before the Indians designated him for assignment on July 4th of that year, 4 days before they would trade CC Sabathia), in a year that was…um, kind of important to the Indians.

Certainly I’m not suggesting that there’s any link nearly as weak on this team as Brodzoski (The Close) was in 2008, as Borowski gave up nearly 3 times as many hits (24) as he accumulated strikeouts (9) in a season in which he was the closer to start the season. Realistically, even attempting to parse out a season’s worth of effectiveness is hard to do based on a couple of performances for any reliever. If you’ll remember back to 2010, Rafael Perez (a player with a strong track record as a reliever) posted a 7.20 ERA, 2.27 WHIP, .940 OPS against in 15 IP over his first 19 games, then somehow rebounded to post a 1.96 ERA, 1.37 WHIP, .679 OPS against in 46 IP over his final 51 games. While some (ahem…me) were calling for the Indians to cut ties with Perez, their patience paid off as he was able to settle into a groove.

However, while expectations of performance vary wildly for relievers, what we’re seeing so far for the Indians is a HEAVY usage of the bullpen due to extra inning games and starters not going very deep into games. As much as the 2011 was an unquestioned strength of the team, most were hopeful (if not convinced) that the bullpen could remain that “strength”, only made skeptical mainly because of the volatility of relievers as a whole. The concern here is that the volatility is only going to rise as they throw more innings or as they’re leaned on more heavily if the starters are not able to extend their starts into the 6th or 7th innings. It was a fear that this could happen as I wrote this prior to the season, “the bullpen is going to be leaned on too heavily early on because of uncertainty in the rotation (and particularly in the back-end) which could cause the bullpen to falter down the stretch”. Though we’re still talking about the team being in April and any intimation that the bullpen WILL “falter down the stretch” is just guessing, the amount that they’ve been used is throwing up some red flags.

If you want to say that the bullpen as a whole (or individually) has thrown up some red flags or if you want to go through a pitcher-by-pitcher evaluation of each of the relievers this early in the season, have at it. But I’m not going to sit here, not quite to the end of April, and make any grand pronouncements that THIS reliever has to be in Cleveland or THAT player should be DFA’d as it takes a while for bullpens to evolve and shape out.

However, in looking at the way that the bullpen is absorbing so many innings in the early going, perhaps it is time to look at how this bullpen can remain healthy and effective…and not just for the rest of this season. By that I mean, the Indians have a promising group of young arms in the bullpen (Pestano, Perez, Smith, Sipp, Hagadone) with more in Columbus (CC Lee, most notably) and Akron (Bryce Stowell, most notably) that should provide the backbone for a solid bullpen for years to come. But if we’ve learned anything about predicting bullpen performance in the past, it’s that it can’t be predicted. Though I’m not going to re-post the variances between the 2005 bullpen and the 2006 bullpen or the 2007 bullpen and the 2008 bullpen, we’ve learned in Cleveland that bullpens are fickle beasts, who seemingly cannot (or will not) be tamed.

But what if the 2012 season is the time that the Indians use to overhaul the way that bullpens are thought of and used, throwing out the notion of the “one-inning reliever” or the set-up role and the closer role being used based on inning instead of situation? Can the Indians tame the fickle beast that is the MLB bullpen in 2012 by challenging “conventional wisdom”?

To start this off, there’s been a groundswell afoot for the “save” stat to be abolished and Joe Sheehan had an interesting piece that opines that abolishing the “save” rule (which is not a new idea…but I’ll get to that”) would allow the way that bullpens are constructed and utilized to be overhauled in a more efficient manner, asserting that:
The biggest positive of eliminating the save rule would be a reversal of the trend toward less and less work from more and more relievers. The one-inning closer begat the one-inning setup man, which begat one-batter matchup guys. That's why your team has eight relievers but no one to bat for the .180-hitting shortstop in the ninth. Eliminating the closer myth would free managers to use their best pitchers in the biggest spots and balance rosters and payrolls.

Watching this 2012 Indians’ bullpen get worked over early, one has to wonder what would happen if the Indians were the team that overhauled the way that bullpens were constructed and utilized to work more efficiently, while protecting their young bullpen arms BEFORE the save rule was eliminated?

Maybe you’d say that the public outcry would be too overwhelming for the Indians to attempt an overhaul, but since most of Cleveland is more concerned with which three players the Browns are going to take in the first 37 picks in the draft than they are about a young, exciting baseball team, if the Tribe were to be pro-active in their handling of the bullpen, throwing out the conventional wisdom that has existed since Tony LaRussa put The Eck in the back of the A’s bullpen, they could perhaps change the way that bullpen performance is so volatile…all while flying under-the-radar of a Cleveland Sports Media that churns out more mock drafts than insight.

Would it be an ambitious undertaking?
Of course, but if the Indians’ bullpen is being overtaxed right now and they have young arms in the bullpen that they want to protect in the interest of creating a “stable” environment out of their relief corps, wouldn’t now be the time to do it?

Perhaps even more important than bullpen performance however, the idea that the Indians could be at the cutting edge of usage for these relievers to avoid injury presents a much more compelling reason to do so, with the early burden of 2012 providing the impetus. Since we all know what happens when Danny Graves, Oldberto Hernandez (no, not #55…the other one from a few years ago), and their ilk are asked to handle major innings for a team that is supposed to contend, wouldn’t it behoove the Indians to protect these young arms to keep them effective and HEALTHY for the next couple of years, as they attempt to contend?

As we watch Brian Wilson go for Tommy John again and as we’re about to welcome the Joakim Soria-less Royals to Cleveland, let’s not pretend that these “carefully crafted” bullpens that are everywhere in MLB with their roles have produced this perfect scenario where pitchers are slotted into their “roles” and games are shortened by a couple of innings. Sure, that has happened a couple of times in the past decade (mostly due to Mo Rivera), but Tom Verducci of SI challenges the notion that the “conventional wisdom” for the way that bullpens are handled is wise, given the volatility and the injury risk:
No one wants to admit it, but the modern bullpen is a failure and the modern conventional wisdom of training pitchers is a failure. The modern specialized bullpen does no better job protecting leads than the pitching usage that preceded it. And though closers, like pitchers of all types, work less often, they break down more often. What industry would accept these failure rates -- the way baseball does? 
• Sixty-six percent of 2011 Opening Day closers (20 of 30) are no longer closing for the same team 12 months later, with seven of them hurt. 
Yet baseball keeps doing things the same way. It is addicted to the “theater” of having a specialized closer and the “theory” that an arm has only so many pitches in it -- and that everybody’s arm will be treated exactly the same way. And when the casualties keep piling up, baseball keeps going about it the same way. The sport is so flush with money even wasting half a billion dollars a year doesn’t set off any alarms. 
Managers are motivated by the save statistic, throwing three-out save chances to their closer like bones to a dog. The game universally has embraced this idea that a closer can’t come in to a tie game on the road -- better to lose the game with a lesser pitcher than run your closer out there without a save in hand. What makes this groupthink so crazy is that the system isn’t working. Closers are breaking down or losing effectiveness faster than you can say Joel Zumaya. (Quick, look around baseball: show me the high velocity, high energy closer with the obligatory, goofy closer-hair starter kit who has a long career. The job has a bit of planned obsolescence to it.)

Think about this in terms of the Indians’ current bullpen and how the Indians (seem to) have built up some depth in their relief corps. While that may seem like an oxymoron, given the volatility of relievers, perhaps the 2012 Indians could be what Verducci later calls the “maverick” team that begins to protect their bullpen assets in a new way while turning this antiquated notion of bullpens (and saves) on its collective head. 

Truthfully, this is not the first time that a new bullpen alignment has been suggested, as Grantland’s Jonah Keri had an interesting piece on relievers and saves after Chris Perez’s Opening Day meltdown, even asserting that the Indians are an ideal team to be the guinea pig in a necessary experiment:
In fact, the Indians could be a perfect candidate to blow up the save and start anew. They’re a small-revenue club that’s already opted to pass on megapriced free-agent closers. They’re run by a progressive front office and a manager who’s eager to use statistical analysis to his advantage. Their bullpen already skews young and features multiple middle relievers and setup men with the skills to succeed (depending on the situation, Pestano, Rafael Perez, or Joe Smith could be a great fit, and even Tony Sipp and Dan Wheeler can be deployed against certain batters in certain ballparks for big spots). Whether it’s the Indians or anyone else, the door’s wide open for any other ball club with some balls and some common sense to run with a new idea. 

Though Keri mainly dealt with compensation and arbitration, as well as measures of a reliever’s effectiveness, he believes that relievers should be used based on situation, not necessarily what the inning is and the whole piece is worth a read, in terms of proposing a new way to evaluate a bullpen and how to implement relievers in an effective way. It makes a lot of sense if you think about it logically, in that hypothetical situations like Indians having a lead in Detroit with Miggy and Prince scheduled to hit in the 6th inning. Do the Indians go with their “6th inning reliever” or do they go with the pitcher that’s going to give them the best shot of making it through the heart of a dangerous Tiger lineup, regardless of the inning. Obviously, the latter makes more sense…but that’s not what the Indians (or any MLB team does) as those “sacred” roles and who pitches which inning somehow takes precedence.

But even more than what Keri suggests (which should be adopted immediately), when he says that the Indians’ “bullpen already skews young and features multiple middle relievers and setup men with the skills to succeed”, it brings us back to the larger point of whether the Indians can somehow maintain those “skills to succeed” for the long-term – in the face of everything that we “know” about the volatility of bullpens – so the Tribe’s bullpen could actually be a strength not in one-or-two-year spurts, but for a sustained period of time. Up to this point, they’ve attempted to find relievers where they can and – once their effectiveness wanes – they attempt to find more relievers. Unfortunately, the reliever with staying power is the exception, not the rule. Perhaps there’s good reason for that as most relievers are failed starters of pitchers that only feature a two-pitch mix, but a good amount of attrition comes from injury and, perhaps, from overuse.

While the likes of Jensen Lewis and Tom Mastny have fallen by the wayside on the North Coasat, Rafael Perez has endured, ranking 21st in all of MLB among pure relievers in innings pitched from 2007 to now. While it may be surprising to note that Rafael Betancourt ranks 10th on that list, the question becomes why that is and whether the Indians’ deep thinkers or analytical department can devise a strategy to take that 2011 bullpen or the one that is in Cleveland now and maintain the integrity and the effectiveness of the bullpen, particularly in this season, in which they’ve already thrown more than 50 innings in 12 games?

How can it be done?
Admittedly (and though I hate when people present a problem and not a solution), I’m not going to pretend to know the answer to that, Verducci thinks that it will take a “maverick” team to revolutionize bullpens and Keri says that the Indians are a good candidate because of “a progressive front office and a manager who’s eager to use statistical analysis to his advantage”, so maybe this early burden for the Indians’ bullpen becomes that opportunity to take chances. With a talented group of players, all under control for similar amounts of time (and that includes the bullpen), the Indians are trying to take this current group of players (which includes relievers) into the playoffs this year or in the coming years. Joe Smith and Rafael Perez can become FA after the 2013 season and Chris Perez can become a FA after the 2014 season (though he’s going to get expensive in coming years, for the reasons that Keri laid out in his piece), so it isn’t as if many of these guys are going away anytime soon and maintaining their effectiveness and health could become an equalizer for a team that isn’t going to stack up against Detroit’s offense in the AL Central. Due to this, the 2012 season may present the perfect opportunity for the Indians to revolutionize the way that bullpens are thought of, handled, and perhaps develop an advantage that capitalizes on the talent on hand in Cleveland and below.

As endearing as they may be as a group, the bullpen isn’t exactly full of “known” commodities right now as Pestano was a revelation last year, Sipp always seems to be riding the razor’s edge, and Chris Perez has been…um, adventurous at times this season and dominant at other times. Knowing that nothing can sabotage a season like a leaky bullpen, seeing the inning count tick upwards for the bullpen, and seeing a player like Hagadone arrive and thrive, you start to wonder if this is the time for the Indians to be proactive in handling their young bullpen arms – both in terms of role and usage.

Though I’m not going to pretend to know what the different utilization of a bullpen might be, as we’ve all been hard-wired to this 7th-8th-9th inning parade of arms, perhaps using these arms more effectively and more judiciously is in the cards for THIS season. Truthfully, if the Indians are looking for a competitive advantage, utilizing Pestano, Smith, Perez, Sipp, Hagadone, and others effectively while attempting to protect their arms or prolong their efficacy, the early burden could be used as the “reason” or “excuse” to initiate some radical thinking. Though everyone in the world thinks they can manage a bullpen better than an MLB manager (just like everyone in the world grills the best steak in the world), Acta has the personality and the smarts to make this work. While most of the writers that cover the Indians will be off wondering if the Browns should be taking/ shold have taken Ryan Tannehill in the Draft for the next couple of months, Acta could slowly turn bullpen strategy on its head, using the pile of innings the bullpen has thrown to date and the youth in the bullpen as his impetus to do so.

With the way that the starters have…well, started the season, this bullpen could be burned from overuse in a hurry this season unless the Indians are ready to play the role of the innovator and call into question the “conventional wisdom” on how to handle bullpens that has developed over the past 20 years. That “conventional wisdom” may not be “conventional” or particularly “wise”, considering the volatility of bullpen performance and with the rate of injuries to relievers in the past couple of years. Right now, it seems that the Indians have a good number of young, effective relievers just embarking on an MLB career and given the uncertainty around their health and effectiveness going forward, doesn’t it behoove the Indians to do everything in their power to keep those young, talented, and (quite frankly) cheap arms as healthy and effective as possible.

Though the risk is there, the reward is certainly there…
With Acta perhaps playing the role of trailblazer, armed with stats and endearing quotes as he utilizes his relievers based on “situation” rather than “role” and attempting to protect the long-term health of the bullpen, perhaps prolonging the effectiveness of this group of relievers which, in the era of overspecialization and injury for relievers would be a “revolution” that a whole town (and sport) could get behind.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Hard-Hitting Tomahawks

As the Indians have already started to fatten up on their April schedule with a rousing late-night victory in Seattle reminding us how magical one game on one night can be in the context of a season full of them, let’s take a moment to remind ourselves where we are. After the 480 bridge filled up after the opening homestand, the Tribe swept the Royals (who will not be legitimate AL Central contenders, regardless of what their talented lineup looks like, until they get pitching) and have the potential to build some early momentum as they finish things up in Seattle before heading to Oakland, then returning to face those same Royals at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario.

Beating up on the Royals and Mariners and potentially continuing that hot stretch with a trip to Oakland could allow the Indians to hide their warts for a couple of weeks and gain some goodwill among the fanbase in anticipation of them returning late next week. Sounds like a familiar script…ahem, 30-15. Since it is worth noting that they’re in an “easy” part of their schedule right now, after seeing the Royals this past weekend and watching the Twins positively crater, there isn’t much doubt that Royals and Twins as 2 of the worst 3 teams in MLB right now…and that may not change all season, unless the Royals can find some pitching or the Twins can find some hitting.

Lest you forget, the Indians play the Royals 18 times and the Twins 18 times this season (meaning they play those two teams for 22.2% of their games) and, though the Tigers (and the White Sox) will face their AL Central foes as much as the Tribe, potentially fattening up on those divisional “rivals” is going to have a huge effect on the Indians and on the AL Central as a whole throughout the season. Certainly, the head-to-head record is going to play a part (ahem…Tigers v. Tribe, 2011), but if the Indians can beat the Royals and Twins consistently this season, it could go a long way to sticking around in the AL Central race and even making some noise for the 2nd AL Wild Card now in play.
That said, let’s loose the Tomahawks…

Though it’s nearly impossible to glean anything on 8 or 10 games from a statistical standpoint, there have certainly been some bright spots for the Indians, particularly (surprise!) offensively as the Indians have feasted on the pitching staffs of the Royals and the Mariners to allay those early fears. Some of the bright spots have been particularly encouraging (Hafner hitting a ball halfway to Topeka, Santana and Kipnis having 3 HR each in their first 8 games, and the continuation of 2nd half success in 2011 for Hannahan and Duncan) and it remains to be seen how many of those bright spots will continue to shine, there’s something that caught my eye in looking at the offensive numbers of the team as a whole.

While I’ll hold off on any assertion that Shelley Duncan is ready for his Costacos Brothers poster (and please click on that link and not just for the Bob Golic poster) or that the Damon deal gave him (more) fire to excel or that The BLC (sub-.700 OPS, leads team in K) is never going to recapture his 2008-2010 form, check out these splits for a team that most make a big deal out of being almost completely LH:
Indians vs. LHP in 177 PA
.223 BA / .341 OBP / .419 SLG / .760 OPS / 117 OPS+

Indians vs. RHP in 225 PA
.268 BA / .348 OBP / .460 SLG / .808 OPS / 126 OPS+
Yes, they’re better against RHP (which is to be expected), but they’ve faced LHP in nearly 45% of their plate appearances to date (they faced LHP in only 33% of their plate appearances last year) which means that opposing managers may be throwing more LHP at them in the early going and surprisingly, they’ve actually fared pretty well.

Will that continue?
Who knows and it’s why you don’t really put too much credence in the results of 400 or so plate appearances when it will represent about 5% of the season total, but what is interesting to look at is to examine which Tribe players are thriving against particular pitchers (small sample size siren blaring in the background), if you look at the OPS leaders on the team versus both LHP and RHP:
OPS Leaders vs. LHP
Duncan – 1.357 OPS
Lopez – 1.143 OPS
Santana – 1.043 OPS
Marson – 1.000 OPS
Hafner - .909 OPS
Though Hafner’s inclusion on this list is a surprise given his recent performance vs. LHP in the past few years (and with the caveat that his .909 OPS is for 11 AB), that’s the list of players that you’d expect to post the best numbers vs. LHP and Acta’s management and utilization of those players (and Hannahan, who hit LHP last year as well, would appear next on this list) thus far has worked out well.

As for the players that have thrived against RHP, the list looks like this:
OPS Leaders vs. RHP
Kipnis – 1.118 OPS
Donald – 1.000 OPS
Hafner - .955 OPS
Santana - .911 OPS
Cabrera - .895 OPS
Again, Donald’s inclusion is based on 6 AB and his presence on this list is surprising, to see Kipnis, Hafner, and Santana top this list should come as no surprise. The team is crushing RHP to date, with only the Cardinals, Rangers, and Rockies outpacing them in OPS vs. RHP.

Again, this is all based on NINE games, but it is certainly worth watching as the assumption that the Indians would struggle against LHP has not held up in the early going as Acta has maximized his lineup, based on match-ups to this point. Whether this holds up remains to be seen as there are plenty of more games to come against pitching staffs that are better than the ones we’ve seen from Kansas City and in the 1st game in Seattle, but the offense has been surprisingly effective, particularly in the last week or so.

That performance has allayed fears (or at least delayed them) about the offense’s ability to score runs in 2012…

Interestingly, it was thought that the Indians would be sacrificing offense in the name of defense (particularly at the infield corners this year) and of the 7 errors committed by the team this year, 4 of them belong to Jack Hannahan. Jack Hannahan has 4 errors in 8 games after a 2011 season in which he committed 5 errors in 121 games. While I’ll be the last to stress error totals (as they’re based largely on the decision made in the press box), Hannahan’s defense – which has always been his calling card – has been inconsistent this season. Now, I’m certainly not going to suggest that Jack Hannahan’s defense has suddenly fallen off of a cliff (and it is here where I am unable to avoid passing on that Lonnie Chisenhall has a 1.023 OPS in Columbus through 13 games), but it points to the idea that defense remains such a difficult skill to quantify in numbers.

It was a subject that was broached by a recent article in the print edition of SI, with Ben Reiter taking a look at teams eschewing defense this past off-season in search of the almighty HR. Though the “Mark Trumbo at 3B” experiment already seems to be over in Anaheim, Reiter posits that teams are uncomfortable making decisions on things that they can’t count or that there aren’t hard, easy-to-compare numbers for:
Although the new defensive metrics are certainly better barometers than fielding percentage, they remain inexact. Even the proprietary statistics kept by most clubs often rely on judgments made by observers watching video and are therefore subject to human error. Radar technology that will allow clubs to precisely analyze the movements of every fielder on every batted ball is still years away. Until then, it will remain far easier to assess the values of hitters. A three-run home run is definitive. Whether an outfielder failed to reach a fly ball because of his positioning or his range is not.

Just to continue that line of thought and bring it to the corner of Carnegie and Ontario, Adam Van Arsdale of LGT has a great interview with Indians’ Baseball Analyst Sky Andrecheck that goes in-depth into the difficulties of quantifying defensive ability. The whole interview (part 1 of 2) is worth a read, so I’m not going to bastardize it by cutting and pasting it, but it is interesting to consider in light of Reiter’s piece about how teams are more willing to reward the “known” quantity of offense over the vagaries of defensive evaluation.

Maybe Hannahan and Kotchman (who has…GASP 2 HR) keep hitting, but their defense is the reason that they find themselves in the everyday lineup. How well they defend (and how that’s even quantified) will likely determine their usefulness to the club much more than their offensive contributions. On the other end of the spectrum, the Indians will have to evaluate how the defense of Shelley Duncan and Johnny Damon balance against their offensive contributions once Damon arrives.

Though the Indians’ offense has been the pleasant surprise of the 2012 season to date, the team was built (at certain positions) to be strong defensively and how the Indians make their decisions at 3B and LF, most notably, going forward may not be something that is going to be easy to predict or quantify, due to the unpredictably and inability to properly quantify (publicly, at least) defensive contributions.

Prior to the season, my often-astute friend Tyler e-mailed me some of his concerns about Josh Tomlin, fearing ultimately that that Tomlin was a “RH version of Jeremy Sowers” as it’s difficult to find consistent success without an effective fastball in MLB. Those concerns are nothing new as Tomlin’s 2nd half certainly generated those whispers that Tomlin may not be the middle-of-the-rotation that so many seem blindly willing to accept. In fact, the prevailing narrative is that Tomlin had a successful 2011 season and that he established himself in the rotation when…well, that really wasn’t the case and his finish to 2011 and the his start to 2012 throw up more than a few red flags.

By that I mean that as Tomlin is lauded for his “approach”, “tenacity”, and “strike-throwing ability” and he’s an awfully easy guy to root for, but his actual results and performance have been lacking since the beginning of June of last year. Just to clarify this, look at how Tomlin’s 2011 was separated, in terms of performance and results:
First 9 games in 2011
2.41 ERA, 0.82 WHIP, with 39 H, 10 BB, 30 K in 59 2/3 IP

Last 17 games in 2011
5.28 ERA, 1.68 WHIP with 118 H, 11 BB, 59 K in 105 2/3 IP

In looking at that, the fear is that once the league had a “book” on Tomlin (that he’d throw strikes and challenge hitters early, often resulting in weak contact when he got ahead in counts) that he’d be hit and hit hard. Unfortunately, the results from June until his injury bore that out as the big issue is the hits that he gives up (more than one an inning in those last 17 games) and that hasn’t changed in his first two appearances (13 H, 2 HR in 8 2/3 IP) in 2012.

While everyone points to the fact that he doesn’t give up walks as a positive (and it is), the flip side of that is that gives up hits…and a lot of them. In his last 114 1/3 IP, he’s given up 131 hits and his ERA is 5.51 in those last 19 games that he’s pitched between last year and thus far this year. Certainly, he may find himself on the mound in a favorable match-up where he’s able to take advantage of his strengths, but the problem is that he’s getting hit A LOT. That may be fine if you’re a GB pitcher in that double plays are induced or even if you’re a strikeout pitcher in that you can get out of jams via the K. But Tomlin is neither of those…and he’s been getting hit hard since the beginning of June last year, having given up 18 HR in those 114 1/3 IP over his last 19 games
That’s a HR/9 of 1.41 and, just to put that into context, only 3 pitchers in MLB posted higher HR/9 than that last year

Maybe he makes the proper adjustments, but if you’re looking at Tomlin’s body of work in MLB, it more closely resembles that of Sowers – who had initial success that he was never able to duplicate, much less sustain. What followed was Sowers’ struggling to make adjustments and making modifications to the way that he pitched until he wasn’t even effective in AAA. Essentially, when a pitcher’s level of success is based largely on luck and poor contact, it often catches up with them as more video is obtained on them and as scouts are able to dissect patterns.

Certain players have gotten away with this (Paul Byrd is the one that comes to mind with Tomlin) and Tomlin’s tenacity is certainly endearing, but the fact is that he has a 5.51 ERA in his last 19 games and, even for a back-end-of-the-rotation starter, that’s not good enough to stick in an MLB rotation.

Please, don’t take this as a “DEMOTE JOSH TOMLIN NOW” overreaction, but it bears watching as Tomlin’s…um, “issues” that sabotaged the way he closed out his 2011 have already reared their ugly head. Additionally, there may not be a more desirable option in AAA (although Scott Barnes is turning some heads with 103 K in 99 AAA IP), but there is a growing feeling that when (although it’s starting to feel like “if”) Hernandez/Carmona returns, Tomlin may be the odd man out in the Indians rotation.
Or, unless Tomlin is able to stop his results from snowballing on him, it might be earlier than that…

As the Indians attempt to roll on in their quick West Coast trip, it’s time to petition that the Indians face the Mariners early in the season…at least as long as The Atomic Wedgie is managing the M’s. Because while the baseball season is a “grind” that you have to take “one day at a time”, attempting to “run into one” every once in a while because the you shouldn’t get too worked up about a slow start, it’s nice to be on the other side of that ledger – out to a quick start.

Last year, the Indians rode the momentum of their April and May (famously 30-15 on May 23rd of last year) and doing so again this year may give them the boost and the cushion they need to make some noise in the AL Central and – more importantly – on the North Coast.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

A Lazy Sunday on Damon, Desperation, & Drafting

As the Indians finish up their series in Kansas City, the first stop as they embark on a West Coast trip starting in Seattle on Tuesday, the season is not even two weeks old and the intrigue just keeps building. Despite a razor-thin margin for error, they dropped some games they shouldn’t have lost in their opening homestand and, while that had some rushing for the “Panic” button (including in the Front Office), the next two weeks are going to be awfully telling about where this season is going to take us. Thus far, they’re off to a solid (if, um…adventurous) start to the road trip and after the Indians leave Kansas City, they head to Seattle, then Oakland, then return to the North Coast to face these Royals once again. With those three teams coming up on the schedule, how the Indians fare in what was looked at as an “easy” part of their schedule is going to set the tone for the rest of 2012 – whether they’re able to build some early momentum as they did last year or if the tailspin begins early as it has too many times in the past few years.

Interestingly, though the Indians have signed Johnny Damon (and I’ll get to that) to potentially upgrade their offense – which has been scuffling for longer than just the beginning of 2012 – it’s possible that Damon doesn’t arrive for a couple of weeks and (since we’ve seen how much can change in the first week and a half) it’s going to be interesting to see where the Indians sit when Damon arrives. But arrive he (apparently) will and his arrival is why it’s time to get off on this Lazy Sunday, examining how Damon fits this roster/lineup, the desperation to find something/anything different that resulted in him being inked, and how we got to this point in mid-April in 2012, when a 38-year-old out of work OF was seen as an upgrade to ANYTHING that the Indians had to offer internally. So, with that, let’s get off on a Lazy one…

Strange as it may be to acknowledge, here we are in mid-April (a little over 7 months after making the Ubaldo deal that seemed to signal a new aggressiveness at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario) talking about a Johnny Damon signing that still hasn’t been formally announced, with a wildly player-friendly contract attached to it. It was merely five games into the 2012 season when the team reached out to a 38-year-old player, essentially as a rental for about a month or so, that hadn’t been signed and who is willing to accept a base salary of $1.25M because he represented something potentially better than anything else they had in the system or brought in during the off-season.

Now, don’t take that to mean that Damon isn’t an upgrade to the Tribe roster as it exists right now, but it certainly conveys the idea that the Indians are (still) unsatisfied (and rightfully so) with their LF configuration. They hate the internal options enough (both top-side and in AAA) that we’re talking about Johnny Damon, after wasting a couple of days earlier in the off-season dissecting Bobby Abreu…and I’m glad we have Damon instead of Abreu. While this signing shouldn’t come as a total surprise as we watched talk and Tweets for the latter part of Spring Training that the Tribe was attempting to find an OF anywhere, actually bringing in a player like Damon is telling about what the Indians think of the internal options and how his signing brings the organizational failure to come up with a “Plan B” past Grady this off-season and to draft/develop a suitable corner OF for too long under some pretty hot lights.

In terms of how it affects the current roster, I can’t decide if this signing is an indictment of Brantley and what they think of him, a continuation of the search to find an OF not named Shelley Duncan, or an instance of throwing something up against the wall and hoping it sticks. Regardless, it smacks of desperation and when you throw the alleged contract terms on top of that stink of desperation, as well as possibility that he won’t even be ready to play for a couple of weeks and you start to see the corner that the Indians had painted themselves into by not coming up with a “Plan B” for the inevitable Sizemore injury during the off-season. Interestingly, Damon seems to be that “Plan B” now (though it’s odd that they wouldn’t have just done this 3 weeks ago or so) as really a “rental” player until the day for when/if Sizemore is ready to return and RJ Anderson at Baseball Prospectus has a pretty good summary of the correlation between Damon’s deal and Sizemore’s availability:
Damon receives full no-trade protection and the ability to opt out once Grady Sizemore returns from the disabled list. This is no ordinary one-year deal. Damon holds all the cards; or so it appears. Think of this from the Indians’ perspective: they want Damon in the lineup for the next few weeks, but know that they can’t offer the consistent playing time he wants throughout the rest of the season. One way to get Damon now and avoid the mess later is to trade him, but it is unlikely that Damon holds much value, and he could not be traded until June without his consent. The other way is to give him a greener-grass clause, essentially telling him to pursue a better opportunity if one presents itself.

The Indians have a gaping hole and they’re bringing in Damon as a band-aid, and not the “Casey Kotchman one-year band-aid” that we’ve grown somewhat accustomed to in 1B or LF. No, this is more like a 6 to 8 week band-aid as the Indians are really plugging Damon into the lineup until Sizemore is ready to return, at which point (through what looks like a sort of handshake agreement) he can move on via what Anderson calls that “greener-grass clause”.

As for what the Indians are getting in Damon, though some will remember Damon for what he was and not acknowledge him for what he now is, Johnny Damon is not the on-base machine that he’s been in the past and Anderson writes of Damon in his aforementioned B-Pro piece that, “it is fair to write that Damon is no longer the batter he was once. His walk rate (about 8 percent) marked his lowest since 2004. He doesn’t make contact as often as he did before, though he can still keep an at-bat alive by spoiling pitches… Damon is 38 now, and a dramatic improvement is unlikely.”

Of course, while “a dramatic improvement is unlikely”, to look at this deal in the context of upgrading the roster over Aaron Cunningham (and his ilk) is to understand why the Indians are making this deal and why they’ve been scouring MLB for an option in LF since Sizemore’s (latest) injury. While inking Damon is certainly not a terrible addition as it upgrades the roster, it is worth mentioning that it does so only marginally as the Indians add a defensively-challenged “outfielder” to somehow mix in with another defensively-challenged “outfielder” in Shelley Duncan in what promises to be an interesting “platoon” in LF. If and when Damon does make his way into an Indians’ uniform, it will be interesting to see how the Indians integrate and utilize Damon in the lineup as (let’s all say this together now once and for all) Damon has played in 52 games in the OF since the beginning of the 2010 season.

While I won’t get into Damon’s throwing arm or how he’s best suited as a DH (which is how Tampa used him last year), something made difficult by Hafner’s presence on the roster, he’s a more compelling offensive option than Duncan and probably even Kotchman and certainly upgrades the Tribe’s bench at the very least as Damon can fit on the roster somehow merely by being a better offensive option in a part-time role than what the Indians are doing now in LF. That is to say, adding Damon to take some PA in LF is preferable to Duncan in a full-time role and certainly than Aaron Cunningham in an anytime role. A few months back, John Perrotto at B-Pro analyzed the players that were still available on the FA market and a scout told him this on Damon:
“He can still play, and he can still help someone. I’m really surprised the Rays didn’t bring him back, because he seemed like a good fit there. He’s getting older. He’s 38 and doesn’t have the home run power he used to, but he can still help and be a productive player. It’s just hard for me to believe he’s going to wind up as either a platoon player, a bench guy—or even out of baseball.”

Although Damon doesn’t really seem “like a good fit” here as he seemed to be in Tampa and since it looks like he’s going to be a platoon player, another aspect to this that will certainly be interesting to see will be what happens with the Indians as they wait for Damon to play himself into MLB condition over the next few weeks. That said, he’s probably going to help the team…but to understand how a 38-year-old, out-of-work-in-mid-April OF is able to help this team is to get to the crux of the issue with Damon coming to Cleveland. That is to say that Damon is coming to Cleveland instead of the Indians simply promoting two players who have gotten off to fast starts in Columbus and who (jointly) represent everything that has transpired to get us to that point. Those two players are Matt LaPorta or (gasp) Trevor Crowe, and the fact that either or both are being written about and entertained as options at this point gets to the heart of what makes this Damon signing so…well, disheartening in a big-picture way.

It’s disheartening because this team has no OF depth (still) and while some will champion the cause of LaPorta or (gasp) Crowe, let’s realize that Matt LaPorta is 27 (and is interestingly playing LF in Columbus, something he hasn’t done since 2010) and Trevor Crowe is 28 and if either of those guys represents a possible answer for the parent club…well, then I’d like to rephrase the question. Both are out to “hot” starts in AAA and have prospect pedigree (LaPorta much more than Crowe), but let’s not get too excited about Matt MaTola’s hot start in Columbus this year as we remember this:
LaPorta 2010 (AAA)
1.094 OPS with 5 HR & 4 2B in 81 PA

MaTola 2010 (MLB)
.668 OPS with 12 HR & 15 2B in 425 PA

Granted, that was two years ago, but MaTola posted a .711 OPS last year in MLB over 385 PA, so it’s not as if he’s improving or making the adjustments that he needs to in order to make his AAA success translate to MLB. He’s always crushed AAA pitching as LaPorta has a .967 OPS in 541 PA in AAA and a .701 OPS in MLB in 1,008 PA.

Look at those two numbers again (particularly with the context of PA) and you start to get why the idea that the light has suddenly gone on in a couple of weeks in Columbus to start 2012 really doesn’t apply as LaPorta is just hammering away at AAA pitching the way he always has. If he comes to Cleveland to play LF or 1B or be a RH bat off the bench, he’s likely to do what he’s always done in MLB – and that isn’t a pretty sight. To see the Indians search out and trot out OF/1B after OF/1B this Spring Training, with Shelley Duncan and Aaron Cunningham making the team over Matt LaPorta is a pretty clear indication of MaTola’s standing in the organization – a standing that’s been earned and is well-deserved.

Factor in this Damon signing and puts into pretty clear perspective what the Indians think of LaPorta or Canzler or…gulp, Crowe (whose promotion should never be a part of a serious discussion) as legitimate upgrades to the current roster. So, let’s stop with this obsession that an AAA/AAAA player represents an upgrade simply because it represents a change and maybe a 27-year-old player “figured it out” after a week in Columbus.

In fact, now that Crowe has been mentioned as an aside, I don’t mean to go off on a rant, but…
In light of the recent rash of extensions handed out to 1st Round Picks from the 2005 Draft (particularly to OF McCutchen, Gordon, and Maybin), it’s worth pointing out that 10 of the Top 30 picks in that 2005 Draft were OF or players that would be OF in MLB. They were, in order of where they were picked:
Justin Upton (#1)
Alex Gordon (#2)
Ryan Braun (#8)
Cameron Maybin (#10)
Andrew McCutchen (#11)
Jay Bruce (#12)
Trevor Crowe (#15)
John Mayberry, Jr. (#19)
Jacoby Ellsbury (#23)
Colby Rasmus (#28)

This is not meant to pile on Trevor Crowe any more than I already have in this space for too many years now, but with Gordon, Maybin, and McCutchen all signing long-term extensions this past off-season to stay where they are and with all of those players on that list being everyday players in MLB in 2012 with the exception of Crowe…yeah, that’s a pretty big miss in that Crowe isn’t even on the 40-man roster (think about that) and one that they’re feeling as Johnny Damon makes his way to the North Coast.

If you want to say that they really only missed on Ellsbury since the rest of those impact players were drafted before Crowe, that’s fine but looking longingly at a flawed player like John Mayberry, Jr. or even a player that’s been moved like Colby Rasmus speaks to the depths of the despair in looking at this list. The 2004 Indians finished the season at 80-82, putting them at #15 on the draft list, just behind the Reds (who picked Jay Bruce at #12, who hit 32 HR last year) who finished with a 76-86 record…so three wins by the Indians and three losses by the Reds made the difference in that draft. That’s not to say that the Indians would have taken Bruce as they never even had that chance; however, the Indians picked Crowe over Ellsbury and whey you realize that Ellsbury and Crowe both played in the Pac-10 (Arizona and Oregon State); it’s pretty obvious that the selection of Crowe in that spot (and HS OF John Drennen at #33 that year) played a pretty big role in where we find ourselves today.

As an aside (within an aside), Mike Brantley was a 7th round pick that year, a couple spots ahead of the Mets’ LHP Jon Niese, another player that just received a contract extension. Meanwhile, the Indians took Joe Ness in the 6th round prior to those two being drafted. Of course, you could do this all day long by examining the old draft lists, but when you miss on nearly every one of your picks for more than a couple of years (and the 2005 picks look like Hall of Famers compared to the 2007 picks), you’re going to have to augment your team with NRI’s like Hannahan and Duncan and hope for the best in finding some gas left in Johnny Damon’s tank.

Want to know why we’re here talking about Johnny Damon after wasting some time prior to the season dissecting Bobby Abreu?
Because the Indians missed on all of these OF and when the bio for the man who ran the Indians’ drafts looks like this in a Media Guide from a couple of years ago, you’re in trouble. In case you didn’t click on that link or didn’t want to read that whole bio of John Mirabelli from the Media Guide a couple of years ago because you want to keep your coffee down, the final line reads, “During his tenure as head of scouting, the Indians drafted players such as Jeremy Sowers, Ryan Garko, Trevor Crowe, Tony Sipp, Ben Francisco, Aaron Laffey, Beau Mills, Jordan Brown, Chris Gimenez, David Huff, & Jensen Lewis to name a few”.

While the “to name a few” implies that there are MLB players not listed, there are players listed that aren’t MLB players and only two of those players are on MLB rosters (a 4th OF in Francisco and a middle reliever in Sipp) and when you have 8 drafts that produce that group of players…well you get to discuss Johnny Damon as an addition and hope that Casey Kotchman can hit when all indications run counter to that.

Lest you forget (and not even revisiting the Beau Mills/Jason Heyward miss), in that ill-fated 2005 Draft, the Indians took Jordan Brown two spots ahead (#124 overall) of Marlins’ 1B Gaby Sanchez (#126) and I don’t mention that because of my crush on Gaby Sanchez so much as I do to point out (even if I know this has been pointed out so many times that we’re all out of fingers) that the Indians have very little to nothing to show for nearly a decade of drafting – a time when it was continually reported that they were dumping money into the farm system. While it is true that they did spend on the farm system in those years, there was a fundamental failure to draft and/or develop talent to become even useful MLB players, much less stars. This is nothing new…I know, but the Damon signing brings this into clearer focus and the fact that anyone’s even thinking about Trevor Crowe as an internal alternative is just depressing, as is clicking through the drafts from 2000 to 2007 (click on this 2007 link and go to each year prior to that) is a pretty depressing way to spend your time.

Maybe someone still emerges and surprises from one of those “lost” drafts the way that Tomlin and Pestano (both 2006 draftees) did last year, but I’m not holding my breath. Of course, it bears mentioning that the Indians likely saw this crevasse and augmented their farm system with the trades that netted them Santana, Masterson, and C. Perez among others and (just to bring this back to LaPorta), it should be noted that the 1st trade that they made in those dark days between June of 2008 and July of 2009 netted them what was SUPPOSED to be a 1B/LF and CF in the CC deal, which (as noted above) hasn’t worked out for LaPorta with confidence waning quickly in Brantley. The Indians (still) need a RH bat that plays either 1B or LF and the Indians put all their eggs in the LaPorta basket that he would be that guy. Remember, he was playing LF sporadically before he injured himself in Fenway in 2010, and the idea that he would occupy LF with Brantley eventually replacing Grady in CF was not a pie-in-the-sky thought as recently as two years ago.

Really, the high hopes for that duo (and particularly LaPorta) play the other major part in where we are today as I unearthed this little nugget from the past in a write-up of the Clifton Phifer deal in 2009 in terms of what was offered to the Indians and what they chose as a return:
The Indians could have gotten outfielder Dominic Brown or Michael Taylor in the deal, but at the expense of Marson or Knapp. The Indians wanted Knapp and feel they have enough corner outfielders. That’s why they agreed to trade Francisco.

Before your blood starts boiling, think of that in the context of when it was written…
In July of 2009, The BLC had nailed down RF and LaPorta and Brantley had been in the organization for less than a year. LaPorta had played about 1/2 of the games in Columbus that year as an OF and has posted a .917 OPS in AAA as a 25-year-old. Brantley was a 22-year-old in the middle of an AAA campaign in which he would walk more than he struck out. So, the optimism for putting together an OF of the Future with Choo, Sizemore, LaPorta, and eventually Brantley wasn’t as far-fetched as it seems in hindsight.

Now, just to go back to the Phillies’ trade, it should be mentioned that both Brown (for the Phillies) and Taylor (for the A’s) are still in AAA and I do (still) love me some Lou Marson, but the line that they “feel they have enough corner outfielders” is telling in terms of how they were still high on Brantley and LaPorta at that point, and how it really wasn’t that outrageous for them to be. Remember those days when it was thought that LaPorta would hold down LF until Brantley emerged and either Brantley would slot into LF around Sizemore with LaPorta at 1B or how LaPorta would stick in LF with Brantley in CF?
Yes, those were some days…

Now we’re talking about a platoon of Shelley Duncan (NRI in 2011) and Johnny Damon (unsigned to start the season in 2012) splitting time in LF and, well…that’s sad.

Maybe Acta can arrange these pieces into an effective lineup…
Maybe Damon is able to provide a spark, when he arrives that is…
Maybe Sizemore comes back and ignites the offense like he did last year…

But those are all “maybes” that will take weeks and even months to find out as the LF “situation” figures to be on display in the interim, a “situation” caused by players thought to be future OF (acquired either via draft) flaming out or hitting the proverbial wall as the Damon signing is a move that’s been coming for about 6 or 7 years…