Sunday, August 12, 2012

A Lazy Sunday Wondering “What…Now?”

With the Indians’ season bottoming out in the course of about two weeks, the team has attempted to turn the page past 2012 (despite more than 50 games remaining) with an eye towards…yes, next year.  The moves that put an end to the 2012 incarnation of the Indians have already started with Lowe, Damon, and Lopez giving way to Kluber, Zeke, and Donald…in a roundabout way at least.  Going further, Hafner is on the DL…again, and maybe this time for good, with a new pitching coach in the dugout as Radinsky’s head was put up on a stake to proclaim “there will be casualties here”.  And while I’m not going to pretend to know if Radinsky was part of the problem or part of an unreachable solution, it is interesting to note that Ubaldo said of Radinsky, upon his firing that “he did everything possible…It’s my fault”, showing that Jimenez is pretty acutely aware of his role in the shocking descent of the team over the last year, the last month, and the last few weeks.

Of course, Ubaldo assuming blame for the firing doesn’t get Radinsky his job back or anything and we’re left here looking down the barrel of a little more than 50 games (think about the fact that the season is only 2/3 of the way over) wondering what happens now.  That is, there is no real chance of contention this year and the Indians have already largely cleared the decks of veterans that don’t factor in next year, with Kotchman being the lone remaining “not-under-contract” player for 2013 (and I imagine they’ll move him in an August trade at some point as his glove is still compelling and he has a not-all-that-embarrassing .723 OPS since July 1) with all of the other players on the roster still under club control…even Duncan (under club control through 2015 and still affordable and useful as a RH bench bat), who is often lumped into the Lowe/Damon column.

But, really…what now?
Unfortunately, it becomes a time where evaluation takes place and players try to build some momentum for next year, the way that Santana seems to be doing, or gaining confidence in their ability to compete at the MLB level, the way that McAllister and a couple of the young relievers are doing.  While that isn’t really all that interesting, as it feels like what we’ve been doing from August on since 2009, the Indians are full of players that they need to either figure out as useful parts or parts whose “use” is most valuable elsewhere, either via trade or as an open 40-man roster spot.

Certainly, they should be taking a look at Marson every day (or close to it) as a catcher, particularly given that the DH spot is open (probably for the rest of the year) and 1B could be open soon, meaning that Santana could focus on his hitting for the rest of the year while staying healthy.  Perhaps they could find that their “problem” at 1B could be solved by Marson catching with Santana at 1B in 2013 and beyond if Marson is able to show some semblance of consistency at the plate.  In addition, they should be seeing if Donald is able to handle the Utility role (as in, can he be a viable back-up SS) so they don’t have to subject themselves to any kind of external Brent Lillibridge-ian player as an “addition” to the team in the off-season.  Likewise, they should be giving Zeke as much exposure as they can in both LF and CF (giving Brantley some days at DH or off) to see if he can actually look like the “best defensive OF” that he’s been purported to be, in essence to see if Carrera is a legitimate possibility as the 4th OF next year.  Additionally, they should continue to try to build Cody Allen, Esmil Rogers, and Tony Sipp (back) into viable back-end-of-the-bullpen options for next year while continuing to see if McAllister and Kluber are about to take any kind of Westbrook-ian leap into a permanent starting rotation spot for the foreseeable future.

But frankly, all of that isn’t all that interesting (even to someone like me) and that’s really just talking about the periphery of the roster in terms of a back-up catcher, a utility IF, the middle of the bullpen, and the back-end-of-the-rotation.  Not to say that it isn’t useful to find answers to some questions on these guys – or even seeing if they could build up some trade value for a guy like Lou Marson or Jason Donald as a throw-in for an off-season trade – but the performance of those guys down the stretch isn’t likely to have a big impact on the 2013 team, even if some of the performances down the stretch here could affect some of the decisions (and there are lot of them) facing this team this off-season, in terms of FA, trades, and internal pieces. 

Even more important than seeing if any of those peripheral pieces can legitimately be counted on for 2013 (affecting how/if the Indians augment this group), the players that could have a big impact on 2013 are the ones that we’ve been watching all year long, with few “new” answers likely to come in the final months.  How the organization handles those players (Choo and Perez, most notably) this off-season is going to determine whether they think of the future of this group of currently assembled players in the short-and-long term.

Because as much momentum as there seems to be for the “blow it all up”…um, strategy, let’s remember that the Indians acquired these particular players back from 2008 to now (via trade and draft) because they were similarly-aged, similarly-controlled, and (hopefully) talented enough that they would mature into a contender.  Though the Ubaldo deal threw a bit of a wrench into those works, there are still pieces and parts – particularly on offense – that align very nicely on the field and in terms of controlled years, particularly when you remember that Santana and Kipnis are under club control through the 2017 season.  That’s why I have such difficulty seeing the “trade anything/everything of value” and try to envision a day 3 to 4 years from now – when Brantley, Santana, and Kipnis (just to name a few) are playing out the end of their days with the Tribe – when the High-A and Low-A talent that would come from a complete blow-up/rebuild now are hopefully maturing and congealing into a contender…because didn’t we just see that attempted?

That said, don’t think that the…um, “strategy” to start anew is unique to observers on the North Coast only as a “Front Office type” had this to say about the Tribe to B-Pro’s John Perrotto, who passed along outside perspectives on a number of franchises, with the analysis on the Tribe looking like this:
Indians: “They are in a really tough spot. They don’t have much talent on their big-league club, and they don’t have anything in the farm system. If I’m running that club, I’m trading Justin Masterson, Chris Perez, and Shin-Soo Choo over the winter and trying to collect as much young talent as I can. They need to rebuild, and it's going to be a long process if they do.”

So about 3 to 4 years after trading everything that wasn’t nailed down in an attempt to collect as much young talent as they could, this “Front Office type” is telling Perrotto that they’d trade the biggest assets (and those closest to FA) in an attempt to “collect as much young talent as (they) can”.

And that’s why this Front Office (assuming they’re still the Indians’ Front Office in 3 months) faces such a difficult off-season as they aligned Santana, Kipnis, Brantley, Masterson, Perez, and others to be “ready” to contribute in the final years that Choo and Ubaldo are under contract, with Cabrera under control for another two years.  Though they’re unquestionably handcuffed by a lack of payroll that would allow them to compete for the Hamiltons and Grienkes of the world and the prospects to make a splash in the Trade Market, they’re left with the unenviable decision to try to make the right moves to augment the current club in place or go for a full-bore rebuild, which would be a pretty hard sell to ownership so quickly after the last “rebuild/reload/whatever” less than 5 years ago.

Since the more likely of the two “alternatives” is to augment and reshape the current roster – as I don’t think the full-scale bomb is dropping soon – and they take it about 1/3 of the way or ½ way from what that “Front Office type” suggested, meaning that don’t move Masterson, but gauge market interest and return for Perez and Choo, what are we looking at here, and is any kind of assumed return for either (or both) enough to make 2013 much more palatable or are we quite suddenly writing off 2013, once thought to be the “target date” when Ubaldo was added?

In other words, is it possible to move Perez and/or Choo this off-season and expect this team to still think about contention in 2013?

In terms of what could reasonably be expected for a trade that would involve Perez and/or Choo, the assumption that the Indians can add a ready-for-MLB starting pitcher or 1B seems to be floating out there, but is that realistic?

If they were to move Perez – and it has been suggested that he should be traded for some time, for reasons listed pretty accurately here – they would be dealing from a position of strength and it would seem that they have a ready-made replacement in Vinnie Pestano for the 9th inning.  If the assumption is that Smith/Rogers/Sipp/Allen/name a MiLB reliever can settle themselves into roles for the 6th through 8th innings, it makes sense to attempt to “sell” Perez (who my son has taken to call “Babyface” with his beard gone) when his value is at its peak and before he gets (too) expensive via arbitration.

But what could they expect to get for him?
Certainly, the ideal is what the A’s received for Andrew Bailey and Ryan Sweeney, namely OF Josh Reddick, who currently has 21 2B, 25 HR, and a .849 OPS to date in Oakland.  And you can simply say…let’s turn Chris Perez into a ready-to-be-an-All-Star corner OF like the A’s did last year with Bailey (and Sweeney) for Reddick.

But let’s remember that, when that deal was consummated, Josh Reddick had played in 143 games for Boston, with 10 HR and a .706 OPS in a little more than 400 PA and he was likely slated to start the season in AAA.  Even if he was a name that was bandied about here (and other places…and check this out from last December from Adam Van Arsdale, suggesting Reddick for C. Perez) that came largely based on this from B-Pro, written about Reddick (again, 21 2B, 25 HR, .849 OPS to date) and Ryan Kalish (only 85 PA with the Red Sox this year, with a .922 OPS in AAA Pawtucket) and how each had “potential” coming into the season:
Kalish and Reddick have come up together through the Red Sox system and have similar potential as corner outfielders. Kalish is the more athletic of the pair, but Reddick has more power and the stronger arm. As of right now, Reddick is the starting right fielder in Boston, but as one scout put it, “They’re both good enough to play every day in the big leagues… just not for the Red Sox.” Both could be involved in potential deals that return older, more expensive upgrades.

So how do the Indians find another Josh Reddick and would some team be willing to trade a young, under-club-control OF (as an example) for an about-to-get-more-expensive closer in C. Perez?

That’s the question at hand as, yes…in an ideal world, the Indians simply deal Perez, get a ready-to-step-in bat (or starter) and call it a day, but finding that situation – when they probably did gauge interest and return for Perez at the Trading Deadline – is what it will come down to.  Certainly, they could get some package of prospects for Perez, but what would a trade like that mean for 2013 or even 2014?

Even more confusing is the Choo situation as he (unlike Perez) is entering his walk year and the Indians have NO compelling options anywhere in the organization to replace him.  Don’t get me wrong here, at some point, they’re going to have to eventually replace him as Choo is going to leave either by hook (via trade) or crook (Messr. Boras) at some point in the next 14 months or so.  But again, if the Indians do look to move Choo, what expectation should there be that they could add a ready-to-contribute starting pitcher (or OF or 1B) when recent trades involving other still-under-control OF have resulted largely in prospect packages.

Perhaps the best example of this is to look at the packages that netted Hunter Pence in the past two years, with the Astros sending 2 ½ years of club control of Pence to the Phillies and the Phillies recently trading 1 ½ years of club control to the Giants.  Now, realizing that this isn’t a “this is the going rate for an OF on the Trade Market” proclamation, it is interesting to look to see what the Astros, then the Phillies were able to get for Hunter Pence…and Hunter Pence for longer than what the Indians would be giving up in Choo.

When the Astros sent him to Philly, they added Jarred Cossart as the main piece closest to MLB, who at the time was a 21-year-old pitcher in AA who was listed as the 70th best prospect in baseball prior to the 2011 season.  Since then, he’s ascended to AAA (just recently) and was BA’s 50th best prospect coming into the 2012 season and could perhaps contribute to the Astros next year…or about 2 years after Houston added him.  Past Cossart, they acquired OF Jonathan Singleton, who was in High-A ball at the time and ranked as the 39th best prospect prior to last season by BA, “improving” to the #34 slot prior to this year, where he is currently a 20-year-old in AA.  In addition to those two main players, they added an older arm in Josh Zeid (now 25, with a 6.08 ERA in AA) and a very young OF in Domingo Santana (now 19 years old and playing in High-A) as the PTBNL.  After having traded Pence about a year ago, the Astros have yet to see any kind of MLB contributions from the players they added, even if Cossart may not be too far away, depending upon his performance in AAA.

Now, just a year later, the Phillies sent Pence off to the Bay Area for the Giants to retain club control over him for 1 ½ years.  The Phillies’ return for those 1 ½ years of Pence from San Francisco was an interesting 20-year-old catcher that was recently promoted to AA in Tommy Joseph and a hard-throwing relief prospect in Seth Rosin that figures to start 2013 in AA, though he could move quickly as a late-inning reliever.  So…two guys that – while interesting with high ceilings – are likely to spend the 2013 season in AA, maybe making it to AAA in 2014, with an eye towards a call-up to MLB (assuming things go well) towards the end of 2014, or about the time that Francisco Lindor should (knocking firmly on wood) be getting close to MLB.

And the reason that I put all of the ETA’s in there for those players is not coincidental as both packages revolved around players either in AA or High-A ball, meaning players that weren’t going to arrive to MLB in any kind of short order.  Perhaps the Astros, then Phillies, desired lower-level players and demanded that those particular players be included in the deals, but one would assume (particularly with the Phillies) that most clubs would prefer to get closer-to-MLB players, assuming that their pedigree was in line with those below them in the Minors.

Maybe they can target closer-to-MLB players or insist upon already-established MLB players under club control for the foreseeable future, but there are you returns for 2 ½ years of Hunter Pence and 1 ½ years for Pence.  Certainly, I realize that Choo is a better player than Pence, but he’s also a Boras client who is unquestionably going to test the FA waters at the end of 2013 and the likelihood that he signs with any team that would acquire him in the off-season is as laughable as the idea that he’s suddenly going to ink a deal with the Tribe.

All of that context brings us back to the idea that the Indians can simply make a deal to bolster their MLB rotation immediately by moving Choo or would be able to find his replacement in RF by essentially trading for him.  If the Pence deals provide any insight, the Indians might be looking at a package that would include players further away from MLB and, lacking an obvious replacement for Choo, how they handle the Choo situation is going to be the move/non-move that tips their hand about expectations for 2013, most notably.

The assumption that the Indians can simply trade Choo (or Perez) for guys that step in right away is a tough one to envision on a tit-for-tat scale, particularly given the limited control that any acquiring team would be getting with Choo (or Perez) in a move.  Yes, there have been moves that have involved MLB players being dealt for MLB players, but those deals (Garza-for-Young, Hamilton-for-Volquez) often involve young players under control for a longer period of time than the one year remaining on Choo’s deal.  And yes, there have been deals like the one involving Josh Reddick last year heading West to Oakland, but the Indians would have to hit on one of those deals – and hit a HR doing so – to make 2013 not feel like a step back or just another plea to “wait until these guys are ready”.

Because that “wait until these guys are ready” day has already arrived for the current group of Indians and how the organization envisions them in 2013 – as a contender in need of a few tweaks/additions or as a non-contender – is going to become clear in what is shaping up as a franchise-altering and ownership-defining off-season for the team.


MTF said...

The highly disciplined, even rigid, management philosophy the Indians use is getting in our way. Devotion to the front office and management process has meant bad performers are tolerated for far too long. Draft after abysmal draft destroyed our dream of internal development naturally refueling the big league club year after year, and yet no one lost their job. Devotion to Eric Wedge dictated bad trades and bad team management despite mediocre results. Again, no front office denizens were fired. 

There were strategic errors too.  One big management error was the idea of an incremental rebuild after the 2009 debacle when, instead of completey rebuilding the team, the front office sought a partial rebuild by trading for "close to the majors" players. Poor selection of players coming back has undone that idea, and made the partial rebuild a failure. 

Ownership has made a valiant effort to run the team in keeping with the internally generated cash flow of the team, and obviously over the long haul this is the only way to keep the Indians viable. But now we are left with no option: the Dolans need to find some cash, and invest that cash in hitters this winter. Last winter they did invest money, but the front office bought very badly. Penny wise, they ignored Willingham and bought Damon; a bad decision. They signed Kotchman instead of a bolder more expensive option. Another bad choice. They risked $5 million on Lowe instead of that amount or more on a more effective free agent choice who might have deserved a multi-year deal. Combined with the bad Hafner decision, the Tribe invested about 40% of the 2012 payroll budget in bad players.

All these bad results dictate better leadership. 

David said...

Great Post Paul

Any chance that Cabrera could net us a more satisfactory return due to more club control his contract provides? Can Donald be a placeholder at SS while saving Choo, who will be doing his best to impress in his FA year, for a mid-season trade in 2013.

Paul Cousineau said...

Certainly, Cabrera would be attractive as trade bait with his new contract in hand, but the acquisition of Lillibridge with Donald in the system doesn't bode well for the future of Jason Donald. I'm intrigued by Juan Diaz (now in AAA), but they'd have to be awfully sure about what they're getting for Asdrubal because (like Choo and any replacement for him) of the organizational drop-off behind Asdrubal.

Adam said...

I'm not sure about trading Cabrera and Choo in the offseason. I do, however think we missed the boat on trading Chris Perez before the deadline. If the Giants were really going to give us Belt (who's already heating up recently) we should have been all over that. Bullpen is the only position of strength on this team and trading Perez made perfect sense in that Pestano can step right into the closer role. With Smith sliding to 8th inning guy and maybe Sipp/Rogers/Allen for middle relief. Also, Perez's value was never higher than mid-July, coming off his All-Star appearance and leading the league in saves.

As far as trading Choo and Cabby, these are trades that would severely hurt the team in the short run. This offense is marginal even with these two. I can't imagine what it would look like with one or both of these guys gone.