Sunday, November 11, 2012

Making Plans on a Lazy Sunday

“And at the 11th hour, of the 11th day, of the 11th month, the guns of August fell silent.” Today is Veterans Day in the US, which was originally Armistice Day celebrating the end of WWI, the poorly-named “War to End All Wars.” After World War II, Armistice Day was expanded to honor all veterans, and is a near-worldwide celebration of those who fought and continue to fight for our freedoms. While here in London and across the commonwealth countries they call it “Remembrance Day,” the underlying theme remains the same. Poppies decorate the lapels of nearly everyone walking around town (including yours truly), and by the time you read this the Queen herself will have presided over an impressive ceremony that includes two full minutes of silence as Big Ben strikes 1100 GMT. From the ever-dwindling number of WWII vets to the always-increasing stream of young men and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, most of us know someone who has served their country. So regardless of whether or not you will enjoy a day off for tomorrow’s bank holiday, give a soldier a pat on the back, pay for his/her drink or just take a second to say “thanks.”

The 2012 offseason is in full swing, with the hot stove beginning to simmer, award voting/arguing commencing and the general managers gathering in California for their annual slate of post-World Series meetings. While more smoke than fire will undoubtedly rise in the next few weeks with names like Justin Upton, Jacoby Ellsbury, Matt Garza and countless others already in discussion, the Indians have an important step to take before any sort of significant moves are made. The front office needs to step back and take a holistic look at the organization and decide whether this team can be tweaked into 2013 contention, or whether a complete teardown and rebuild of the 40-man roster needs to take place. Last week’s trade of Esmil Rodgers for Mike Aviles and prospect Yan Gomes did nothing to reveal the intentions of Chris Antonetti and company. The move could be seen as the first domino falling that ends with Asdrubal Cabrera departing Cleveland, but it could also be seen simply as the Indians selling high on a bullpen arm to shore up their depth with a versatile righthanded bat and a C/1B prospect. Antonetti responded to questions about the future of Asdrubal with an emphatic denial that anything further is in the works with respect to the all-star shortstop, but forgive me if I take that with a rather large grain of salt. I have to think that the front office has already made a decision as to the likelihood of contention in 2013, and I think that as the offseason gets rolling we’ll see that overarching vision come into focus with each additional move. So while the Indians intentions are disguised at the moment, allow me to humbly set forth some of my suggestions as to personnel moves the team is likely considering here on a Lazy Sunday…

Let’s just get this out there straightaway; looking at the Indians organization, I simply don’t see how the 25-man roster could be massaged into a playoff contender prior to the 2013 season. Even in the relatively weak AL Central, the Indians simply do not have the pitching necessary to make it to the playoffs, let alone make some noise if they get there. IF Masterson regains his 2011 form, IF Ubaldo isn’t a complete disaster, IF Carrasco comes back healthy and effective and IF Kluber and McAllister can stay healthy and develop into innings-eaters in the back of the rotation, then the Indians could contend. Those are five pretty big “IFS,” to say the least. To count on all five of those guys just isn’t realistic. Put me firmly in the “teardown and full-rebuild” camp. It’s a difficult decision to sit here in November of 2012 to write off the 2013 season, but ripping off the band-aid is a necessary step to take when you look at the state of the 40-man roster. With that being said, the Indians are actually in a pretty good position to dramatically accelerate the usual rebuilding process. This year’s free agent crop, outside of the top few marquee names, is pretty weak. Teams are flush with cash coming from the new TV revenue, and bidding for free agent services is bound to get crazy pretty quickly. Smaller market teams like the A’s and Rays who are expected to contend in 2013 but still need to add a piece of two will be forced to turn to the trade market as the contracts continue to escalate. Even the larger market teams that are looking for an established closer or shortstop will find slim and expensive pickings in free agency. This could result in somewhat of a perfect storm for the Indians, who just happen to have both an established closer and quality offensive shortstop under control through 2014. In this marked, those are two incredibly valuable trade chips. So understanding the opportunities that this market offers I will now, in true political style, lay out my personal 5-point plan for the Indians offseason:

1. Trade Asdrubal Cabrera. This move is just screaming to take place this offseason. Mike Aviles is at least Cabrera’s equal in the field, and while a step down in offensive production he’s also a step down in price tag. Pitching-rich Oakland, Arizona, St. Louis, Seattle and San Francisco find themselves without a marquee shortstop, and Stephen Drew and Marco Scutaro are the best of some pretty underwhelming options on the free agent market. The Indians have more organizational talent in the minors at shortstop than any other position, with Francisco Lindor, Ronny Rodriguez, Tony Wolters, Dorssys Paulino and Juan Diaz all looking like legitimate major league options at some point in the future. So the rebuilding Indians would have an opportunity to create a bidding war between several teams for the services of a good but not elite player who likely has no chance of player here past 2014. What am I missing here? This looks like a slam dunk move to me, one that needs to happen and could potentially restock the upper levels of the farm system with badly needed starting pitching prospects. Cabrera has the potential to bring more in return than any other player on the Indians roster right now and would give the Indians an opportunity to add a legitimate starting pitching prospect (or two).

2. Trade Chris Perez. Perez has two more years of club control under salary arbitration. He’s never tried to hide his desire for a big payday once he hits free agency, and I have a hard time seeing the Indians investing the amount of money that Perez will be able to command on the open market. Nor should they, as bullpen pieces are the most volatile commodities on a roster, and a team like the Indians should not be tying up big money in a player who will throw around 60 innings in a season. Perez is talented, but he’s also wearing his welcome thin with both the front office and Indians fans with his overplayed antics, bashing everyone from the fans to the owner to the GM, manager and opposing fans. He’s still an All-Star Closer™ who should be able to fetch a decent haul on the trade market if last year’s Andrew Bailey deal is any sort of barometer. The Angels, Mets, Tigers and even the Yankees or Red Soz could be in the market for a guy like Perez, and we know how much the Tigers like obnoxious closers. The free agent market for closers is filled with injury risks (Ryan Madson, Jonathan Broxton), head cases (Jose Valverde) and guys who are both (Rafael Soriano), and with pickings that slim it’s bound to get pricy in a hurry. A team might just want to pay in prospects for more of a sure thing in Perez, and if that team comes along the Indians need to make a deal to move their closer before it’s too late. They have an internal option to replace Perez at a fraction of the cost in fan-favorite Vinnie Pestano (more on him later), so even the potential downside to the 2013-14 seasons is mitigated.

3. Trade S.S. Choo. This is another easy decision, especially if the Indians decide they’re not going to contend in 2013. Choo is under control for just this year, and the Scott Boras client fully intends on exploring the free agent market as soon as he has the opportunity. When healthy, Choo is a 20/20 player with a cannon in RF (Gold Glove finalist!), and the Indians will not be able to afford what Choo is offered in the open market. Teams always need OF help, and everyone from Boston to Baltimore would be lining up to make an offer to acquire the South Korean national hero. Choo would likely net more than Perez but less than Cabrera, providing more potential plugs to the myriad of holes the Indians need to fill at the upper levels of their organization. The only downside to trading Choo this offseason is that the free agent market for outfielders has several attractive options, from Josh Hamilton to Nick Swisher, B.J. Upton, Melky Cabrera, Shane Victorino and even Cody Ross. Still, once those free agent dominos start to fall, expect the good ship Choo to steam its way out of town to a potential 2013 contender.

4. Go bargain hunting on the free agent market. Specifically, picking up a player or two on “pillow contracts” who need to rebuild their value before seeking a big multi-year payday or mid-priced free agents that the Indians see as being undervalued in the context of the market. As Ken Funck from Baseball Prospectuspoints out, the Cubs did a great job with one such move last offseason, signing Paul Maholm to a contract of less than $5 million and then flipping him at the deadline for one of the top pitching prospects in the Braves organization. The Indians themselves struck gold with a similar sign and trade scenario a few years ago with Eduardo Perez. So while the free agent market alone will not provide the talent that the Indians need to make a run at the Central Division crown, hitting on just one or two low-cost options that turn into prospects at the deadline could provide a significant boost to the farm system that is hopefully already restocked from the Cabrera/Perez/Choo deals. I’m thinking along the lines of Jeff Keppinger, Francisco Liriano, Randy Choate, Cody Ross or even Melky Cabrerra if teams shy away from signing the PED user. None of those guys are likely to push the 2013 Indians to the playoffs, but they just might be able to acquire the players who get the 2015 Indians to the postseason.

      5. This last one is going to be difficult for Indians fans to swallow, and is difficult for me to even suggest because he’s one of my favorite players in the organization. But the Indians need to explore the market for Vinnie Pestano. Pestano has been one of the best setup men in baseball for the past two years, and as leader of the “Bullpen Mafia” has become a fan favorite who consistently interacts with his followers on twitter. Losing him would be a difficult PR move, but the fact is his value is sky-high right now and if that can be leveraged into a SP or quality position player prospect, the Indians have to at least consider it. As previously discussed, bullpen arms are both volatile and replaceable. The Indians stable of relief arms throughout the organization should crank out at least one and likely several viable setup arms in the next couple of years, so on a baseball level he’s somewhat replaceable. I’m not saying this move has to happen, but the team should at least float his name out there to see if anyone offers up more than Pestano is worth to the team. He’s cheap, talented and under club control for several more years, so he’s likely to be a hot commodity in the trade market. I hope Vinnie F. Pestano is a member of the 2013 Indians and beyond, but I can certainly understand it if he’s moved.

One move I considered but ultimately decided against including in my “master plan” is trading Justin Masterson. The young righthander’s 2012 struggles are well documented, as the guy we all counted on as the projected ace of the staff scuffled his way to an 11-15 record with a ugly 4.93 ERA which translates to an even uglier 79 ERA+. As such, Nasty Masty’s value has pretty much bottomed out, so I just don’t see the need to deal him for cents on the dollar. Most of Masterson’s peripheral stats remained fairly consistent from 2011 to 2012, save of course his walk rate which jumped from 2.7/9 IP to 3.8/9 IP, so if Masterson can get back to commanding his two-seamer then I think he can still be a solid #2 starter in a good rotation. If someone wants to come along and pay for the 2011 version of Masterson, then that’s great. But it’s much more likely that teams will try and acquire him on the cheap and hope to correct whatever ailed him in 2012, and if that’s the case I think the Indians should just hold on to him and see if he can get back in a groove in an Indians uniform rather than somewhere else.

It’s easy for me to sit here on the outside of the organization and lay out this series of moves, especially because I’m not the one who has to sit and hear the deafening silence from season ticket holders not calling to renew their packages for 2013. It’s a tough PR sell to basically tell your fanbase that contention in a season that hasn’t even begun yet isn’t really an option. But from a purely baseball perspective, I don’t see how the Indians can continue to remain in purgatory, stuck between contention and rebuilding. For a team that has limited financial resources at their disposal, a fire sale for prospects is really the only way of quickly turning the franchise around. The draft by itself takes too long and is too much of a crapshoot and splashy free agent signings aren’t really an option. But if the Indians can augment the talent they have at the lower levels of the minors with some legit players (especially pitchers) in the upper levels, throw in the #5 pick in the draft this June and all of a sudden what is a talented but young (and thus risky) system becomes a much more balanced, talented system from top to bottom.

The key here of course is hitting on a majority of the prospects that they do end up trading for. If they deal away Cabrera, Choo and Perez for the next Knapp and LaPorta, then they’re going to be worse off than when they started. With all of the players outlined above with the exception of Choo under club control past 2013, they Indians to have the luxury of time. If the right offer doesn’t come along, they don’t have to make all of these deals at the winter meetings or even before the 2013 trade deadline. But if September 2013 rolls around and the Indians are out of contention with a below-average farm system and Chris Perez is still their closer, then I believe the club will have made a major mistake. It’s tough to look at 2013 as nothing more than a developmental year for the Indians organization, but every year that the team spends in between contention and rebuilding adds at least another year to the cycle once they do finally decide to tear it down and start over. Yet another window of contention has slammed shut without the Indians even making the playoffs, and it’s now up to Antonetti and company to find the quickest way to pry open the next one.