Sunday, July 08, 2012

An Outside Pitch on A Lazy Sunday

Believe it or not, the Tribe has been as hot as the weather on the North Coast as of late, winning 6 of the last 9 games against the Angels, the Orioles, and the Rays.  And while that may have been unthinkable about a week and a half ago after the Indians fell to the Astros, then got swept away in the Bronx, the Tribe is keeping pace with the White Sox in the Central and, interestingly enough, are now firmly ensconced in the two-horse Wild Card mix with the three teams (LAA, BAL, TB) that they’ve been playing.  So, with the All-Star Break looming and the Indians continuing to hang around, let’s get going on a Lazy Sunday to find out if there might be a move/some moves that the Indians could start looking at to extend this contention in 2012.

And with that, we’re off…
Since it is that time of the year that the Rumor Mill whirls away, I’ll continue to play the ol’ “this is what we need” game, with a start to said game straight from the horse’s (OK, one of the horses) mouth in terms of what the Indians need and what they’re looking for:
Acta was asked what he’d tell GM Chris Antonetti if asked what area of the team needed to be improved the most.  “I think he knows,” Acta said. “We need to improve our offense. We need to improve our pitching.”

Asked if the answers could come internally or externally, Acta said: “I think we’re exploring the possibilities of bringing in people from the outside. I’m not saying we can’t do it internally, but internally means our clubhouse. How long can you wait?"
When asked which one he’d take if he had a choice between a pitcher and a hitter, Acta said, “Both of them.”

So, offense and pitching…is that it?
Seriously, there are a couple of interesting points there as Acta says that if there are “internal” answers come, “internally means our clubhouse”, which means that Acta isn’t all that thrilled with the idea that anyone sitting in AAA is much of an upgrade over what’s in Cleveland.  Certainly, that’s a condemnation of MaTola and Canzler (among others) as any type of upgrade over the likes of Cunningham and Duncan (who somehow remain in the crosshairs of the fan despite doing what they should be doing on this team – serving as complementary/bit pieces and actually doing them pretty well) and it may even be a little dig at the fact that a number of young relievers have come up from AAA and have struggled to find success in MLB.

But even more than that, I think that Acta is talking about the pitching concerns and, more specifically, the rotational uncertainty of the team to this point in the season.  Because as good as Lowe, Tomlin, and McAllister have looked in the past week, all of those guys are either wildly inconsistent, very young/inexperienced, or have been just plain bad for long stretches of time.  And if Acta is saying that there isn’t immediate help within the organization that isn’t in “our clubhouse”, then he’s not real optimistic that a guy like a Corey Kluber or any other of the AAA fodder are going to perform much better than Lowe or Tomlin (most notably) have on the year.

Now, unless you think that Fausto/Roberto is about to re-appear (and here we are, days away from the All-Star Break, with no news of his return…not even taking into account how long it would take him to get ready to actually pitch in MLB), you start to see where I’m going here as it becomes clearer and clearer that the rotation needs help to lengthen the depth that they have and to strengthen the middle-to-back-end-of-the-rotation.

As much as things were upside-down to start the season (Lowe and Gomez going gangbusters, Masterson and Ubaldo getting busted up), things are back rightside-up again and for as well as Masterson and Ubaldo have pitched recently, the Indians are going to need more than two dependable starting pitchers for the 2nd half to stay in the thick of the AL Central race.  Obviously, this isn’t some grand revelation as it is something that was alluded to a couple of weeks ago in this space.  

But let’s go back to the impetus of why that piece was written as it was an offshoot of the interview that Shapiro did with the PD’s Bill Lubinger.  While they hit on many topics, the money quote (for me, at least, in terms of the 2012 team on the field) remains this:
I’m a big believer that starting pitching puts you in a position to win games every night, and I’m a huge believer that if our starting pitching gives us a chance, our lineup is more than good enough.

Again, Shapiro is not the GM anymore and maybe I’m overanalyzing one sentence among many.  But the way that this Front Office chooses its words (carefully, that is) and the way that there is still that synergy between Shapiro and Antonetti, that “our lineup is more than good enough” sticks with me as does the “starting pitching puts you in a position to win games every night”, with the acquisition of Ubaldo at this time last year providing some proof to the pudding.

The Indians (since the Colon deal) have often said that they would be reliant upon starting pitching and the teams of the mid-to-late-2000s bore that out (as did the move for Ubaldo) and it’s going to be interesting to see how they move in this Trading market.  Truthfully, if I’m the Indians, I’m still unloading the prospect fodder in the cannon (and Kevin Goldstein of B-Pro said that Carolina Mudcats’ SS Ronny Rodriguez “could be a nice trade chip this month” given that he’s 20, already in High-A and has Lindor behind him in the Minors but ahead of him on most prospect lists) on a guy like Carlos Quentin, then look to upgrade the middle-to-back-end of the rotation.  Because of the presence of Masterson and Jimenez (if they can keep this up), I’d be more inclined to look for a starter that simply lengthens the depth in the rotation more than I’m looking for a “difference maker” in the rotation, particularly given the cost and the fact that the Indians only have so much “ammunition” in terms of prospects to acquire anyone at the Trading Deadline.

Interestingly, the Indians have been linked to Chase Headley (albeit by Jon Heymann), which means that they’re talking with the Padres and the Padres – though they’re waiting for their ownership situation to be resolved, which may be coming soon – look to be fielding calls for their players.  How active they’ll be in actually trading these players, as the O’Malley’s (or whoever else guys the team) may not want to buy the team and immediately start selling off pieces and parts (even if that’s what they should be doing) because of the potential public backlash.  

But that will bear itself out as the ownership issue is resolved and that’s actually getting a little off-topic…
Back to the matter at hand, if the Indians are to look to upgrade their rotation, there will be some arms that will be available and while the likes of Greinke, Hamels, Wandy, Garza (who the Tigers are interested in), Dempster, etc. are the jewels of the Rumor Mill, it might be interesting to see if the Indians can find some value in the tier below those players.

Let me remind you that the biggest difference maker down the stretch for the playoffs last year was Doug Fister, a trade that barely made a ripple among deadline deals (in terms of attention), but made a huge impact in the AL Central race as he posted a 1.79 ERA and a 0.83 WHIP for the Tigers after he went from Seattle to Detroit.  Most thought that Fister would slot in behind Verlander, Scherzer, and Porcello last year and that his real value was in the control that the Tigers would have over him (which is still true), but Fister was masterful once he got to Motown and his arrival played a HUGE part in the Tigers running away with the AL Central last year.  So while big names may be out there and are certain to make an impact, the Indians should perhaps (after searching out that bat) try to find that Doug Fister-type player, whose acquisition may fly under-the-radar for some, but may be just what the Indians need in terms of strengthening and lengthening their rotation.

Since I can hear you from here, “OF COURSE they want a guy that will post an ERA under 2.00 for the 2nd half of the season, but a crystal ball isn’t down at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario”, let me clarify that what I’m saying they should be looking for is a guy that may be undervalued that can immediately slot into the #3 or #4 spot in the rotation and allow either McAllister or Tomlin to become depth in case Lowe’s 2012 goes completely off the tracks down the stretch the way that it did last year in Atlanta.

Maybe a guy like Joe Blanton is made available and while his numbers to date (4.85 ERA, 1.25 WHIP), he’s sitting on the best K/BB of his career and though his GB% is down, he’s a FA at the end of the season and the Phillies may begin to start moving pieces that don’t obviously fit into their short-or-long-term plans and Blanton could be a guy that could be had for a prospect price that isn’t prohibitive.  Now, you may be saying that Blanton represents no great upgrade, given his ERA near 5.00, but that ERA is better than Tomlin’s at this point (by quite a bit) and if Lowe is going to continue his inconsistency, adding a guy like Blanton may be a nice addition, if an underwhelming one.

If you’re looking for someone who might represent something more than a “nice addition” and who may be truly undervalued, a pitcher like Seattle’s Jason Vargas is interesting.  And he’s not just interesting because he was actually a part of the 3-team trade that took Frank the Tank to the Emerald City and brought Joe Smith, Zeke Carrera, and Luis Valbuena to Cleveland.

Regardless…and focusing in on Vargas, the reason he’s interesting is because of his handedness (he’s LH and would be the only LH to start a game for the Tribe this year) and due to his 4.07 ERA (which would be the lowest ERA on the Tribe for starters, outside of McAllister’s first 6 starts) being inflated by one horrific outing in Arizona.  At the beginning of June, Vargas had a 3.45 ERA and a 1.03 WHIP and while his ERA looks to have gone in the wrong direction recently, most of that really stems from that one atrocious outing against the Diamondbacks, in which he 10 ER in 4 1/3 IP, including giving up 5 HR to Arizona.  Realistically, if you take out that one game, you’re talking about Vargas sitting on a 3.47 ERA and a 1.09 WHIP with 84 K and 30 BB in 121 2/3 IP, including Vargas’ complete-game outing last night against the A’s.

Perhaps you don’t like the “take out that one game”…well, game, but after seeing Masterson on Saturday night while knowing what he’s done over the last month or so, as Acta said, “I hope that everyone can have six good ones in a row and one bad one…I’ll take that anytime.” And in the three starts since that trainwreck in the desert (including last night’s gem against the A’s), Vargas has thrown 23 2/3 innings while allowing 4 ER, just 15 hits and 5 BB while whiffing 22 batters…so he actually may be reaching his crest.  Of course, that’s not to say that Vargas is a particularly ideal addition 

Actually, Vargas was mentioned in the B-Pro piece that I linked here last week about players that might be moved with his “strengths” and “weaknesses” being thusly pointed out:
Strengths: Vargas is the archetypical back-of-the-rotation southpaw. He makes a high-80s fastball work thanks to a good changeup that gets plenty of separation. Add in durability (aiming for a third consecutive 30-plus start season) and another year of control, and Vargas makes up for his lack of upside.

Weaknesses: The big concern with Vargas is his viability away from Safeco Field. He relies upon his park and defense more than any pitcher on the list. Since 2010, more than 60 percent of his home runs allowed have come on the road, and a recent five-home run outing is sure to create more skepticism. Realistically, Vargas might not make a playoff rotation.

That last part is particularly troubling but Vargas’ “viability away from Safeco Field” is something that’s worth exploring, but it is interesting to note that Jacobs Field is 24th in MLB in terms of HR frequency with Safeco being 28th (while I ask you to keep your Duncan/Damon/Kotchman jokes to yourself), so the corner of Carnegie and Ontario has (somehow) become one of the more difficult places to hit HR in MLB.  Yes, he leads all of MLB in HR allowed (and we already have one of those in The Little Cowboy), but remember that he gave up 5 HR in that one outing in Arizona and if you figure that his HR/FB rate is going to settle back down to where it has been the past two years, you could be looking at a pitcher that has some value going forward.

Now, the Trade Market being what it is, the Indians are going to be far from the only team looking for rotational help – impact or depth – and Jayson Stark reports that the Braves are already scouting Vargas:
The Braves continue their hunt for what one exec categorized as “an impact starting pitcher” -- but not necessarily the usual suspects. Their customary M.O. is not to shop for rent-a-players. So it makes sense that one starter they've scouted extensively is Seattle's Jason Vargas, who can't be a free agent until after next season.

While that may look like a boilerplate submission on “Team A” is looking at “Player X” that we read so much of this time of year, the line that Vargas “can’t be a free agent until after next season” is what throws up the bells and whistles for me.  Remember, Derek Lowe is going to be a FA at the end of this season, and with the rest of the current rotation (in Cleveland and in Columbus) being what we’re looking for 2013, the Indians might be looking for an arm (and a LH one, no less) that can help them for this year and beyond.  Certainly, you could say that Carmona/Hernandez is scheduled to come back at some point and the Ghost of Kevin Slowey is somewhere in the organization, but if you’re looking at the 2013 rotation, you have the same Masterson/Ubaldo duo at the top and the same batch of the usual suspects (Tomlin, McAllister, Gomez, McFarland, Barnes) to fill out those last three spots.

Maybe an arm like Vargas isn’t that much of an upgrade over that group, but his numbers in 2012 are skewed by that one bad outing and he threw about 200 innings in both 2010 and 2011, with a cumulative 4.02 ERA and 1.28 WHIP in the two previous years, numbers that look pretty close to what he’s compiled this year.  Those numbers and his performance thus far in 2012 may not be a difference-maker in the AL Central race, but the Indians already (allegedly) have a top-of-the-rotation in place and simply need to lengthen the rotation and strengthen their pitching staff if they’re going to stick around in the division.  The cost to add him – or a pitcher like him – doesn’t figure to be prohibitive and if the Indians are looking to add (as Acta says) “both of them” in terms of the team searching for a pitcher and a hitter, prioritizing those needs (and the prospects/money it will take to fill those needs) could lead the Indians to the second tier of the pitchers available on the Trade Market.

Finding value in that second tier and perhaps finding the arm that can do for them what Fister did for the Tigers last year could be what swings the division, this time in their favor…


smaynor said...

Does Carlos Carrasco come back next season? He is still an arm to hold out hope for our future.

Paul Cousineau said...

No question about Cookie (who I think is supposed to start throwing rehab games next month) is in the mix for next year. But given what can happen to any and all pitchers from year to year, and because I don't think that Fausto/Roberto is a compelling option for 2013, I don't think it should prevent them from adding an arm that is under control for longer than a couple of months.

MTF said...

I'm betting they look closely at Guthrie. Two reasons: Because we haven't suffered enough, and because he might actually help us at a reasonable price.

Also, in the bargain bin category, I'd recommend a look-see at Adam Lind. His power numbers would be the best on the team, if you can overlook all those K's, and the Jays suppoedly want to unload his deal. Tell him we'll agree to cancel one club option for each >115 OPS+ season he puts in the books, starting with his second half Tribe numbers, and watch that contract turn into pure awesomeness.