Sunday, March 31, 2013

Goodyear Notebook on a Lazy Sunday

Another spring training is in the books as the Indians head northward to open the season in Toronto tomorrow night. Between the exciting additions to the team this offseason and the early start due to the World Baseball Classic, this spring has seemed to drag on for longer than any in recent memory. The excitement surrounding the team for opening day is higher than at any time in the recent past, as the improvements in the starting lineup have people whispering about playoff possibilities for a club that finished 68-94 last season. That talk may well be premature, especially considering the question marks in the starting rotation, but the mere fact that talking about the playoffs isn’t completely insane is encouraging in and of itself.

I made the trip down to Goodyear for the fourth year in a row last week, and the trip gets better and better every year. I watched anywhere from two to four baseball games each day, and with the minor league fields being adjacent to each other I often found myself watching two games at once. Getting to see the players in the organization up close is a great experience, as there’s only so much you can learn from the stat line of a player. I left with a ton of great pictures and a notebook overflowing with observations. So as a pre-season treat, I’m going to share some of my notes on 20 or so players in the Indians organization that I was able to see this spring. There will be plenty more to come later in the season and in greater detail, but hopefully you enjoy this broad look at every level of the Indians system.

Tony Wolters
Some of the biggest news on the minor league front occurred a couple of days after I left Goodyear (of course). I was set to write about how much more comfortable Tony Wolters looked at 2B than at this time last year, and how excited I was to see him in AA Akron this season. Then on Friday, the Indians announced that they’re moving Wolters behind the plate. He was the club’s 3rd round draft pick in 2010, and posted a .724 OPS for high-A Carolina last year as a 20-year old. Wolters caught some in high school, and he definitely has the physical and mental tools to stick behind the plate. He’s a tireless worker, a plus athlete and a leader. But catcher is the most difficult position on the field, and there are guys who have caught their entire lives and still can’t perfect the intricacies of the position. The real question for me here is whether the Indians felt they needed to move Wolters off middle infield because of the organizational depth there, or if they truly see this as an opportunity to us an above-average bat behind the plate. Wolters did nothing to show the Indians that he couldn’t play 2B/SS, so I have to lean towards the latter explanation. Wolters will spend a couple of weeks in extended spring training working on the new position, and then rejoin the high-A Carolina Mudcats. I should get to see Wolters in action behind the plate at the end of April when the Mudcats travel to Potomac to play the P-Nats, and I can’t wait to talk to Wotlers and get his thoughts on the new position.
Flamethrowing righthanded reliever Trey Haley was experiencing some minor discomfort in his right shoulder, so the Indians had him on the shelf while I was down there. It wasn’t considered to be serious at all, and Haley was still throwing on the side. As one player told me though, when you have a guy who throws triple digits, you tend to be a little over-cautious with his arm. Haley is expected to be ready to start the 2013 regular season, but the situation bears monitoring nonetheless.

Trevor Bauer was optioned to minor league camp while I was in Arizona, and I got to see him start a game against the Dodgers AAA affiliate. Bauer threw 4 2/3 scoreless innings, allowing four hits while striking out two and walking two. Of the four hits he allowed, one was a bloop single over the infield and another was a swinging bunt that no one could make a play on. The Dodger hitters have a lot of trouble squaring the ball up against him, but Bauer also had a little trouble putting them away. His pitch count got up a little higher than the Indians would have liked, and they had to roll the 5th inning with two on and two out because Bauer had thrown more pitches than the Indians coaching staff was comfortable with. It was easy to see why the Indians acquired Bauer, as his fastball sat between 92-96 MPH and he showcased a plus-plus curveball and a plus changeup. His changeup in particular generated a lot of silly-looking swings, and I think it’s going to be a real weapon for him going forward. Bauer is going to start the 2013 season in the rotation for AAA Columbus, but there’s little doubt that he’ll be in Cleveland at some point, likely before the all-star break. Bauer is the most talented pitcher in the Indians organization with true front-line potential, and for the Indians to contend for the playoffs in 2013 or beyond, Bauer will have to mature into that #1 starter that the Indians front office believes that he can be. He’s still just 22 years old and is going to be a lot of fun to watch in Cleveland for the next 6 (or more) seasons.

I saw righthander Jordan Cooper pitch twice for Carolina last year, and both times he was excellent. That streak continued in Goodyear, as I watched him throw 4 outstanding innings for Akron, striking out 5 and not allowing an earned run. He’s a bit of an under the radar guy in the system right now, but that could change this year. He’s one of those guys who just goes out and gets results every time he’s on the bump.
I got to see the Indians 3rd round pick from last year, Kieran Lovergove, in action on Monday. He surprised me a little with his fastball velocity, sitting consistently between 92-95 and touching 97 once in his three innings of work. That’s a big leap from where he was as an amateur, and increases Lovegrove’s ceiling considerably. He credits the Indians coaching staff with teaching him to use his lower half more in his delivery, helping him to add a couple of ticks on his fastball.

Austin Adams
Austin Adams missed all of 2012 due to shoulder issues, finally having surgery after exhausting all other options. After working tirelessly to rehab in Arizona this winter, Adams finally got back on the mound in game action this Monday. I was concerned with whether Adams’ velocity would be effected with after the procedure, as he was a guy who touched triple digits prior to the shoulder issues. Well, he was between 94-96 in his two innings of work earlier this week, an extremely encouraging sign for the young righthander. Adams will stick around in Goodyear in extended spring training and likely make his debut back with Akron at some point this summer. It was great to see him back on the mound again, both for the Indians and for Adams himself.

Dorssys Paulino is the real deal. He’s a very advanced hitter, showcasing exceptional bat to ball ability. He consistently barrels the baseball, and uses the whole field. He has a smooth, level swing that generates plenty of line drives, and has some pop too. As he continues to add strength to his frame, I could see him hitting 20+ HR’s in a season down the road. Defensively, he handled every chance that I saw in the field, making a couple of tough plays on slow rollers that he had to come in on and then make strong throws on the run. Small sample size, but he definitely has the raw athleticism to remain at shortstop.

The Indians invited 2B Jose Ramirez to major league camp this spring, and he spent a lot of time up with the big club. Ramirez is just 20 years old, and he’s appeared in just 70 games outside of the complex leagues. The fact that the Indians felt that he could step in and compete with big league players says a lot about how talented Ramirez is, and it bodes well for his future. In fact, the club is so high on Ramirez that they’re going to have him skip high-A Carolina entirely and debut with the AA Akron Aeros to begin the 2013 season. Ramirez will be one of the youngest players in the Eastern League, and it will be very interesting to see how he handles the aggressive assignment. If Ramirez can hold his own at Akron this year, then his overall ceiling will be considerably higher than it was at this time last season.

Tyler Naquin
The Indians first round draft pick and 15th overall selection in 2013, CF Tyler Naquin also spent some time in big league camp. His arm came as advertised, as he had an opportunity to uncork a few throws from his plus-plus cannon of a right arm. His bat impressed as well, going 2-10 with 2 RBI and a stolen base in big league camp. Scouts are still unconvinced about his eventual power output, but there’s little doubt that he has the type of swing that will consistently generate a high batting average. Combine that with an advanced approach at the plate that will provide plenty of walks, and Naquin profiles as a classic top of the order CF. The Indians believe he can stick in CF, and if he can remain there then his power profile isn’t as big of an issue than if he were to have to move to an OF corner.

Indians fans writ large got an opportunity to watch Francisco Lindor, and the young shortstop didn’t disappoint. Lindor appeared in 10 games this spring, going 7-24 with a double, a triple and a stolen base. Perhaps most impressively, he struck out just twice in 25 plate appearances against big league pitching. He made some nice plays in the field, and provided Tribe fans with a glimpse of why he’s the consensus #1 prospect in the Indians organization. That the 19-year old switch-hitter is already comfortable playing with and against big leaguers is a pretty good sign for the youngster’s career. Lindor has future all-star written all over him, and he’s going to be a treat for fans who get to see him play with the Carolina Mudcats in 2013.

Lefthanded starter T.J. House was a key member of the Aeros 2012 Eastern League Championship run, and because of the logjam of starters slated to pitch for AAA Columbus, he’ll be back in Akron to begin the 2013 season. House was added to the 40-man roster this offseason and has the potential to be a solid middle of the rotation starter. He’s a command and control lefty that relies on location and movement more than pure stuff. He’s a smart pitcher who knows how to attack hitters, often pitching backwards and generating a lot of weak contact. He’s a fun guy to watch pitch, and should wind up in Columbus at some point in 2013.

I got a chance to talk with Aeros manager Edwin Rodriguez who was fresh off of his 2nd place finish in the World Baseball Classic. When I asked Rodriguez what it was like managing the Puerto Rican team in the WBC, he said that “it was like the World Series for those guys. In March!” It’s great to have such an experienced and respected manager in the Indians system, and Rodriguez is great at working with the young players in the minor leagues.

Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but Bo Greenwell is hurt again. When they went in to repair his torn ACL, they also fixed his meniscus. Unfortunately, the meniscus “fix” didn’t take, and he had to have it scoped this offseason. Greenwell is back taking try hacks and will be hitting soft toss and getting tee work in pretty soon. He’ll likely start the season in extended spring training, then move up to a full-season league at or near the beginning of May. When he’s healthy, Greenwell has been productive. He had an .813 OPS in 46 games with high-A Carolina last year. But it’s been one injury after another for Greenwell, as he’s appeared in just 115 games over the last two seasons.

LeVon Washington
Speaking of injuries, OF LeVon Washington has been dealing with a strained glute in camp and missed several days of game action. I did see him play in one game, during which he walked twice and was hit by a pitch in his three plate appearances. Washington is an immense talent, but has played just 95 games since being selected in the 2nd round of the 2010 draft. If he’s healthy, Washington should play most of the season in Carolina for the Mudcats.

One of the few disappointing things about my Arizona trip was that I didn’t get to see high-profile international signee Anthony Santander in action. The Venezuelan-born outfielder was nursing some minor injuries, and didn’t appear in game action while I was in Goodyear. Santander is still just 18 years old, and once he’s healthy will stick around in Arizona for extended spring training until the short season New York-Penn League starts up in June. He’ll likely spend some time with Mahoning Valley this year, with an eye towards Lake County in 2014. Santander is an advance hitter for his age though, and there’s a chance that he could see some time as a Captain as early as this season

Justin Toole gained fame by playing all nine positions on the diamond in a game last year, and decided to write a book on the experience. Toole was a sports psychology major at Iowa, and teaches and coaches youth baseball players during the offseason. His book looks at the “playing the field” game, and uses his experience at each position to reflect on a life lesson. He’s currently exploring options for how to publish the book, and it will likely come out sometime after the 2013 season. Toole isn’t an elite prospect, but he’s the kind of guy that every team needs. He’s a leader on and off the field, a player who goes out and plays hard on every play. He does all of the little things, and is a guy who is always at the right place at the right time. An example from one of the spring training games; Toole comes up with the bases loaded and one out after the opposing pitcher throws 8 straight balls. He takes a first-pitch strike, then fouls off the 2nd pitch to put him down 0-2. He fouls off a couple of tough pitches and works the count to 2-2 before grounding a pitch up the middle. It’s a made to order double-play ball, but Toole hustles out of the box and beats the throw to first. After the run-scoring fielder’s choice, Toole reads a ball in the dirt and advances to 2nd base on a ball that gets just far enough away from the catcher. He then scores from 2nd on a 2-out single. All the box score shows from that inning is an 0-1 with a run scored, but Toole did so much more to impact that inning besides a fielder’s choice and a run scored.

Nelson Rodriguez is a big guy. Not quite Jesus Aguilar big, but a big, solid guy with impressive power. He hit a ball off the scoreboard on the back fields in an intersquad game, and there’s a chance that the ball would still be rolling right now if the scoreboard didn’t get in the way. He probably won’t get his season underway until June with Mahoning Valley, but watching him put on a show in batting practice is a lot of fun.

No article would be complete without a mention of my guy Roberto Perez. But this time, we’re going to talk about his offense! Perez hit a pair of deep home runs in an intersquad game, and looks much more comfortable at the plate this year than in the past. Small sample size of course, but he seemed to be seeing the ball better this spring. He put together some really solid at bats, and if he can take even a small step forward with the bat it would mean big things for his prospect standing. Not sure if I’ve mentioned this before, but Perez is an elite defender behind the plate, so much so that the Indians considered rostering him this offseason to ensure they didn’t lose his catch and throw ability.  

I got to see outfielder D’Vone McClure for the first time, and he did not disappoint. McClure was the Indians 4th round pick in 2012, and signed for an overslot bonus to disappoint the University of Arkansas. McClure is an outstanding athlete, and everything he does on a baseball field just looks fluid and easy. He has a smooth, line-drive swing with plus bat speed. He’s a plus runner with an above-average arm, and he just looks like a baseball player. McClure will primarily play CF, and will stick around Goodyear in extended spring training until the short-season leagues start up in June.

Infielder Joe Wendle was a 6th round selection out of Division II West Chester College last year, and it was seen at the time as a signability pick to save money for elsewhere in the top 10. No one told Wendle though, as the 22-year old went out and hit .327/.375/.469 with 4 HR and 37 RBI for Mahoning Valley in 61 games last season. Wendle was a little old for the level so his numbers have to be taken in context, but it was an impressive performance nonetheless. Wendle has a smooth, level swing from the left side, and hits without batting gloves. What you see is what you get with the 2B/3B, and while he’s not a top prospect he’s certainly an intriguing guy to watch in the Indians system.

Logan Vick made one of the greatest defensive plays I’ve ever seen at the minor league level, robbing D’Vone McClure of extra bases with an incredible diving catch in center field. McClure smoked a ball into the left-center field gap, and I was already taking out my phone to tweet about how impressive McClure’s swing was. But Vick came out of nowhere to lay out at a full run and catch the ball just before it fell to the turf, drawing cheers from both dugouts in the intersquad contest. And considering Vick didn’t play a single game in CF last year just makes it all the more impressive. He was an 11th round pick out of Baylor last year, and the 22-year old should open in the Captains outfield this season in Eastlake.

Finally, Baseball Prospectus has come out with their annual minor league organizational rankings. The Indians rank 19th in baseball, up from the 24th position at this time last year. It’s definitely still a system on its way up, as most of the talent is still young and unproven. Not all of the young talent will improve in 2013, but they’re also not going to lose many top prospects to graduation this year. Add to that the #5 overall pick in the 2013 draft, and the Indians system has the potential to be back in the top-10 in all of baseball by next offseason. And when you look at where the Indians big-payroll AL Central Division opponents rank (Tigers 29, White Sox 28), you can’t help but be encouraged about the future. 

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Lazy Sunday with The President

Ok, maybe not THE President, as the White House Office of Public Affairs continues to ignore my requests for a one-on-one interview with Mr. Obama. But we’ve got the next best thing here on this Lazy Sunday, as the Indians media relations people are much more accommodating than those at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Indians team president Mark Shapiro was gracious enough to take about 45 minutes out of his extremely busy day on Friday to sit down and talk to me here in beautiful Goodyear, AZ. I really enjoyed our conversation, and he was very open and forthcoming with every question I asked him (as you’ll see). The following is the (lightly edited) text of our interview, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Al: Pretty exciting offseason for you guys, huh? I’ve been an Indians fan since I was born, and this is the most active offseason I can ever remember.

Mark: Yeah, if you define active by spending money. This is my 22nd season with the team, and there’s never been anything of this magnitude. It’s clearly both a statement and effort by ownership. This isn’t just a front office effort. We identify players, make recommendations and provide alternative plans and they ultimately make the decisions. With both Swisher and Bourn, Paul Dolan was extremely involved and assertive in our efforts to get those players.

Al: Talking about the front office, what exactly does the team president do? Half business and half baseball? Or more of an 80/20 ratio?

Mark: I think that fluctuates by the calendar. I’ve spent 17, 18 years in baseball ops with the Indians, I’m familiar with every aspect of it and had involvement with it from the farm system, which I ran, and it’s largely systematically still the same. Ross Atkins was both a player and a front office guy when I was here, a lot of the staff are the staff that were here, so I’ve got a comfort level and a familiarity and a confidence with our baseball operations staff that I can get out for 3 or 4 days, and get back in very quickly. My office is right next to Chris’, and it’s rare that he and I are not talking baseball and I’m still watching the games the same way. But I would say that a greater portion of my energy and time are spent on the business side because I’m still learning that side to an extent. It’s all new to me, it all reports to me and I feel responsible and accountable and it’s a big challenge. That and the MLB would be a third portion. I’m attending ownership meetings, I’m on a few committees that the Commissioner has put me on which has been an incredible education and learning process for me. So it really is a job that provides a global perspective of the game, from the MLB perspective to a baseball operations perspective to a business operations perspective. I’m in a leadership capacity in all three of those roles and enjoy those roles and after 21 years in the game I’m still learning a ton. I’m still trying to surround myself with smart, talented people who challenge me and make me better. And I’m able to stay in the same place which I clearly have strong roots, strong ties, strong bond with; raising my family there which means a lot to me, it really does.

Al: Yeah, you’ve been a Cleveland guy for your whole career. Most guys have to get moved out of an organization to get promoted.

Mark: Yeah, it’s a rare thing. I’d always thought that would happen, but it never happened that way and I feel extremely fortunate to spend my career here.

Al: Talking about the signings of Swisher and Bourn, you look at last offseason and at a guy like Josh Willingham. He was a 32-year old outfielder coming off of a very similar offensive season to Nick Swisher this year. Why Swisher this year and not Willingham last year?

Mark: Well, we offered within the parameters that we were expected to operate, and we actually offered Willingham more money on an annual basis than he signed for. We just didn’t feel comfortable with the risk when it was spread over that many years. A lot of what we do is risk based, we’re managing risk. We understand a little too well what a long-term contract can do to us when it’s not performing, and we get nervous about age and defense and what those things mean for a player. Obviously he had a career year in the first year of that contract, so hindsight is 20-20. But Swisher has defensive value at outfield and first base, two areas where we need help. He’s an average to plus defender, and we felt like there’s value that offsets the decline if he does decline over the contract because he provides value at first base and outfield, and provides us with versatility that we’ve already demonstrated by signing Bourn. But again, the situations were different. If ownership had decided last winter that it was critical for us to make a sign, then Willingham may have been a guy we overextend on. Again, we make recommendations and assess risk. We provide those in a context of what we’re given to operate under. Both Swisher and Bourn were outside of our original expectations of how we’ve operated, and ownership just stepped up and said we want these guys. It’s important to get them signed for us as a franchise, for our fans. These were really ownership-based decisions; not personnel wise, there were still the baseball people making the personnel selections and providing the analysis, but ownership said that even thought you might be scared about an extra year, we want the guy.

Al: Looking back at your history with the Indians, very few long-term contracts to free agents. You’ve bought out some arbitration years and bought out some free agent years, but haven’t really brought in a guy for a 4-5 year deal who’s clear of arbitration. And when you have given out long-term contracts, you’ve been bitten by it like with Hafner.

Mark: Yeah, those weren’t even long-term, but they were 2nd generation contracts. And with both Hafner and Westbrook it didn’t work out. I think the reality is that anytime you’re signing a player who’s past his prime, more than 29 years old, the risk is just going to go up. No forecasting or modeling we had ever could have guessed that Hafner was going to go through injury issues like that.

Al: And now with Kipnis and Brantley, you’re going through the same thing, looking to buy out arbitration years and free agency. Is that a continuation of the John Hart strategy that worked so well back in the 90’s?

Mark: Yeah, we did it with Carlos Santana and Asdrubal last year, and of course I was involved with John and Dan back in that initial set. Different parameters back then, we did it wholesale for everybody. We did it with Dave Otto, Scott Scudder, everyone. We were able to insure every contract back then, which we can’t do now which made a big difference. So it’s a little bit different today than it was then. That being said, it’s still something that we’re going to explore with what we feel are core players. It’s always about sharing risk. Do they think that the potential risk of leaving money on the table is worth the benefit of some certainty of financial security? For us it’s asking if having the fixed cost, a cost we can manage, we can plan around, is that worth the potential for injury that creates a mismatch in value.

Al: Looking at the new collective bargaining agreement, there are caps on draft spending, caps on international spending. Does that sort of thing help or hurt a team like the Indians?

Mark: That’s a very good question, and a very difficult question. I would think this; clearly it benefits us from a standpoint of stopping the largest market teams from exploiting their extreme resources and just go crazy. While we really feel like there should be some market considerations within amateur player acquisition, anything that limits our intellectual creativity, anything that limits our freedom of choice is probably a bad thing for us. So we need to be able to feel that year to year we can deploy more resources there and less in free agency. The bottom line is this; we’re always going to lose in major league free agency. Our chances to compete are going to be in a rare opportunity like with Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn where the biggest market clubs for some reason are not playing. Because they can always go an extra year, they can always go an extra $5 million. In amateur acquisition that discrepancy isn’t as great. So if we decided that we wanted to go heavy there, deploy more resources there, the freedom to do that would probably be better for us. But I still think the changes that were made are an incremental step in the right direction. It’s going to take more than one CBA to get it further. I accept the fact that there’s not a whole lot more revenue sharing coming, but I’d like to see more market consideration mixed in to the amateur talent selection process.

Al: With the steps to cap the spending in the draft and international market, do you ever see a salary cap in baseball?

Mark: That’s more of a labor-related issue. I guess I don’t really foresee that happening. It’s hard to get to that point. I think that something very dramatic or catastrophic would have to happen to get to that point.

 Al: With all of the TV contracts coming out, not just the major league deal that gives money to all teams but when you look at teams like Anaheim getting $150 million a season; can the Indians hope to compete with teams that are getting that much money just from TV revenue?

Mark: Yeah, and the Dodgers. The national money helps, but it helps everyone the same way so it doesn’t really provide us with a competitive advantage. The Fox Sports deal will give us a little more. But the magnitude of the television deals probably point to the greatest challenge within constructing teams in major league baseball. Where there’s greater revenue sharing than there’s ever been, while there is an effort to achieve competitive balance, under the current structure the extreme market disparities in size, population and wealth the nature of the system is going to create some large swings in payroll. And there’s a direct correlation from payroll to the expectancy to get into the playoffs. Not to go deep in the playoffs necessarily, but to get in and to sustain it. I think you’ll still see well-run small and mid-market teams have a chance to cycle in and win; maybe even win a World Series. What you’ll have a difficult time seeing, unless Tampa Bay proves to be the first, is to see a small-market team that can sustain it. And it still causes some pain for a fan base, you still can’t keep players. Carl Crawford, B.J. Upton, James Shields, they’re making tough trades. They just happen to do a good job when they make those trades and have a talent influx. In every study there’s a direct correlation between size of payroll and chance to get into the playoffs.

Al: Changing gears a little here, having talked to players, fans and reporters around the team, they all say that this is a different team with Terry Francona here. His leadership has already had such a profound effect on the club. Can you talk a little bit about the effect Terry has had on this franchise already?

Mark: We’re always looking for the moves that we can make that are levers, moves that will impact more than one player. Manager is one of those moves, it can impact the culture, the attitude and the energy of the team. Tito’s a guy that both has the confidence of having achieved the ultimate within the game, the passion for the game that comes from just being a baseball lifer and having the game running through his blood, as well as an appreciation and desire to be here, which I think is extremely important for us. This is a guy who wants to be here, that appreciates Cleveland, that has a history with Cleveland. He appreciates our culture because he has a history and a bond with our culture having worked with me and Chris. I think that resonates and has an impact throughout our entire organization. Not just players; it has an impact on our scouts, on our player development staff, on our front office. His energy, his attitude has been infectious. It has rubbed off on everyone, and that’s been a neat aspect of this camp.

Al: It’s always great when you can bring in guys like Francona and Swisher who are not only talented, but they are Ohio guys. They get the fanbase.

Mark: Right. I think those two moves were moves that really…I mean, watching Nick Swisher yesterday in the dugout, and he never stopped talking. He’s talking to the fans, he’s talking to the players, and it’s in a meaningless spring training game. On April 12th when it’s 37 degrees out and there’s 10,000 people in the stands, he’s going to be talking the same way. So if you want to know what leadership can mean, what energy can mean; when it’s tough for guys to get up, when they’re cold, tired, when there’s not a lot of energy coming from the stands, he’s still going to provide that. So again, when you’re looking at levers that exist that can impact more than one player, that’s one of them.

Al: Going back to the 2012 draft, the first draft in the new system with the new rules on spending; how do you think you did? Was there a strategy going in on how to save money in some areas and spend it in others?

Mark: I think our strategy wasn’t too different from a lot of other teams. We looked at what would be available at different picks, and if we didn’t think that the allotted amount for the pick justified the pick then we tried to use that money elsewhere in the draft. Try to get more leverage to convince a guy to sign that might not be inclined to sign for slot. We tried to be creative within the framework of the system, much as the Astros did and numerous other teams did. Early returns, I think we had a good draft. I think that sometimes people don’t understand the value of the top 4 or 5 picks is very different from 8, 9, 10 or 15. History would say that when you get one of those top-5 picks you really have a chance to get a player who can make an impact. After that, you’re more hoping to get a major league player, or really hit on something later in the draft. You feel good about it after draft day, but it really takes 4 or 5 years to analyze the quality of a draft. I feel like we had a good understanding of the system and our guys did a great job walking through mock drafts, simulations, negotiations, trying to get a feel for how it would go. I don’t think we were surprised by anything. We largely executed our strategy. This year will be an important year for us.

Al: Yeah, I noticed a little glint in your eye when you were talking about how a top-5 pick can impact a team, with you having the 5th overall pick this year.

Mark: (Laughing) Yes, this year will be an extremely important first round pick for us.

Al: Sticking with the minors, looking at the organization holistically you see a lot of high upside, athletic middle infielders. Lindor, Ramirez, Wolters, Rodriguez, Paulino; those are traditionally the tougher players to get. It’s usually easier to find a 1B or a LF. Is that an organizational strategy to go and load up on MI?

Mark: Yeah, the system is weak on corner players. We probably said years ago that Latin America would be a good place to go get middle infielders. But it’s not really a conscious effort; we look to get the best talent we can. I think it’s unrealistic that all of those guys are going to make it as middle infielders. One of those guys is going to get too big and end up as a third baseman or an outfielder, but we’ll keep them in the middle as long as we can. We’ll find ways of getting all of them at bats, and if one of them plays their way off middle infield then that’s fine, we need corner players too. They still have to become guys who are productive and hit enough and if they’re all middle guys then we have assets that we can find corner guys with. It’s still too far away to say where they’ll all end up.

Al: Trevor Bauer was another big acquisition for a team that is light in the upper minors when it comes to starting pitching prospects. Is there even such a thing as a starting pitching prospect, having gone through it with guys like Adam Miller and Jason Knapp?

Mark: Yeah, I think there is. I think we’ve got a better understanding of things like deliveries and mechanics, things that keep guys healthy. It’s still not a science, it’s still an area that’s in development but I do think we’ve done a ton of work on it and I think we’re better at understanding those things. Bauer is a guy who, because of four tough starts in the big leagues and an organization with a lot of depth in that area, we were able to find a unique opportunity to acquire a high-ceiling starter. That draft, if it ends up netting us Trevor Bauer and Lindor, we’ve got two players that we feel good about today. So I hope I’m saying the same thing to you three or four years from now when we’re sitting here talking about multi-year deals for those guys, but we’re very excited about them and think that both of those guys can be building-block guys that you can really build a team around.

Al: Talking about studying the delivery and mechanics, Trevor Bauer is one of the most dedicated students to the craft and art of pitching that you’re ever going to find. Have you had a chance to sit down and talk with him about pitching?

Mark: Yeah, Chris and Tito went down to visit him at the Texas baseball ranch where he works out, and I’ve had a chance to talk with him up here. He’s a guy who’s highly intellectual, he’s highly aware of what makes him successful, he’s aware of what will keep him healthy which is an asset but can also be a challenge. This is a game where if you over-intellectualize it can work against you, because there’s just so much failure built in. I think he’s going to have to learn to selectively use that intellect that he’s got. He’s clearly a smart guy and clearly aware of what makes him successful and he’s clearly applied a lot of those things to both his delivery and his level of preparation. I think we choose to see it as an asset more than anything else.

Al: Do you think you were able to get him at a bit of a discount because of that rough MLB debut? Choo is obviously a good player, but…

Mark: I think two things happened; one, their (Arizona’s) organization has Corbin, Skaggs, Bradley, a lot of young pitching. They have the ability to make a trade from depth. And two, they may have been colored by his interactions there, his poor major league debut. But I look at the fact that it was his first year of pro ball, and he had unbelievable AA and AAA numbers which guys don’t just go to AA and AAA and dominate like that in their first year. If you throw out the four major league starts, we probably don’t have a chance to sniff getting the guy.

Al: What is the most challenging aspect of building a championship level roster in Cleveland?

Mark: I think just the resources. The combination of resources and MLB structure. We’re competing against Detroit, whose average payroll is going to be well over $100 million and even with the steps we’ve made to put us in the high $80’s we’re still operating at a disadvantage. How that impacts decisions, how that impacts the ability to retain players, that’s still probably the greatest challenge. It’s an emotional challenge too, but I think the day that you view that as insurmountable, the day you view that as colossal is the day that it becomes an excuse instead of a challenge. From a leadership perspective it’s never a question of “can we,” it’s just a question of “how do we?” And there are examples of teams that are doing it well. So we just have to design our systems, we have to make our decisions, we have to align our processes to overcome those challenges. But it’s clear that’s the single biggest challenge. It’s a combination of the size of the market and the system that’s in place to share revenue. The revenue is largely predicated on the number of human beings that live in the market, and the wealth and corporations. The number of tickets purchased is directly proportional to the number of people that live there. I’m confident that there are more baseball fans, percentage wise, in Cleveland than in New York City. But if the % of baseball fans that come to the games in Cleveland is a little higher than the % of fans in New York that go to games, it doesn’t matter because there are just so many more people there. So it effects the number of tickets purchased, how much you can charge for tickets, the number of corporations that buy suites, sponsorship and the number of executives that buy tickets. All of those things are more of a challenge in baseball because of the system that baseball uses.

Al: The Royals did something before the 2012 season that I thought was pretty neat, they had a “prospect all-star game” before the season started. Would the Indians ever do something like that?

Mark: We talked a lot about playing minor league games there, but haven’t really been able to set it up. The Red Sox have done it, the Orioles have done it, but I think we’re cognizant of the fact that you’d be serving a very hard-core, small % of our fans with something like that. It’s not something that we’d get a huge turnout for. We just know that based on experience, based on how those teams draw, how our team draws and how these things work. I think it’d be fun for us, I think it’d be fun for a small group of our minor league fans, but really just for our hard core fans.

Al: Speaking of the marketing research, there was a really eye-opening article in Baseball Prospectus a couple of weeks ago about how the Indians handle their promotions. I don’t think any other team has come forward with so much visibility into the way they operate in that department.

Mark: We don’t have to be quite as secretive on the business side, we’re not competing against teams for marketing dollars. I hired Alex (King), and there are things in the business side that I find directly analogous to the baseball side. There’s an opportunity there for better decision making by utilizing decision-making and information. What makes it analogous to baseball is that while there is data and there is objective analysis, there’s still a subjective component to it, still a feel to it. You’re still dealing with human beings who are making decisions, you’re dealing with marketing. You can’t just spit out a definitive answer. But what I do think you want to do, just like when making a baseball operations decision, is that you want the best information possible. You want to have the smartest people help you bring that information to light in a way that you can apply it and execute it in a series of decisions that set up a strategy and make up a plan. I think that the business sides of professional sports organizations often are reactive to the performance of the team. They maximize revenue when the team is doing well and then they just try to hunker down and survive when the team is not doing well. The magnitude of our challenge has made us ask what else can we do and how do we know that we’re performing as well as possible on the business side regardless of team performance. That’s what we’ve tried to figure out. It’s a very tough question, and clearly the biggest lever and the most important area of focus will always be team performance. But what we want to know on the business side is how we can soften the valleys and heighten the peaks as far as revenue. And we build that bond with the fans by knowing our fans extremely well we build a stronger bond that’s more resilient.

Al: Do you still use proprietary statistics in the organization?

Mark: I’ll say this; when it comes to making decisions we want the best information possible. Analysis and statistics are one part of that. Seven or eight years ago we had one person who did it full time and now we have five people who do it full time. We have an analytics department. A big part of that department is just data management. There’s so much data to manage generate by every single pitch in the major leagues. It’s partly analysis, and it’s partly getting the information to Chris and Mike (Chernoff) so that they can make an efficient decision without getting bogged down in the statistics. So there’s multiple layers of how you use statistics and use information. That being said, I’ll also tell you that we have a never-ending thirst for the best information. Subjectively, from scouting, psychologically or mentally, financially or economically; we want the best information available on these guys in every single variable that exists going into a decision. And that’s the job of the front office, so we have a thirst to acquire the best information possible.

Al: Is there an example of a player where traditional stats like OPS say one thing but your proprietary stats tell you something different?

Mark: Not OPS, but maybe RBI’s and batting average. The utilization of information is always about finding inefficiency in the market. They’re going to constantly close, and when you do find one you’ve got to be constantly on the lookout for the next one. Because they’re very momentary, and you have to take advantage of them. Where’s the value at any one moment in time, and are you prepared and able and nimble enough to execute and make a decision on them.

Al: Well, thanks again for taking the time to talk with me, as I know you’re really busy here in the lead-up to the regular season. I really appreciate it, and good luck this year.

Mark: Thanks, it was my pleasure.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Indians Prospect Countdown: #5-1

Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
 Well, we've finally made it. The long and exciting journey that began almost two weeks ago is complete, and we've reached the cream of the crop in the Indians organization. Most of you can probably guess who the five prospects are that we're going to look at today, but do you know in what order they will appear? Remarkably, we're going to look at no fewer than three players who could end up as major league shortstops down the road, a remarkable number of elite SS prospects for one organization. In addition to the middle infielders, we have a pair of righthanded starting pitchers, one who came over in a trade from the Arizona Diamondbacks and one who was selected in the 2nd round of the 2012 draft out of a Minnesota high school. Thanks for following along with me here on The DiaTribe during the 2013 countdown, and I can only hope that you've enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to pack for Goodyear!

5. Tony Wolters, SS/2B

DOB: 6/9/1992
Height/Weight: 5-10/165.
Bats/Throws: Left/Right
Acquired: 3rd round pick in the 2010 MLB draft
2012 Stats: .260/.320/.404 with 8 HR and 58 RBI in 125 games for high-A Carolina

Scouting Report: When you look at Wolters’ overall stat line for 2012, you’re probably not blown away. Putting up a .724 OPS with 8 HR isn’t usually indicative of a top prospect. But consider that he put up that line as a 20-year old after skipping low-A altogether. Consider that in the month of April, Wolters went 9-69 and started May with a .130/.231/.195 triple slash line. And finally, remember that during all of this Wolters was the youngest player on the Mudcats roster, and was learning a new position in the field (2B). Are you a little more impressed now? Wolters finished 8th in the Carolina League with 30 doubles, led the league with his 8 triples and his .724 OPS was actually good enough to place him in the top-20 overall at the end of the season. He flashed his full potential over 25 games in the month of July, hitting .343/.396/.505 with a pair of home runs. Looking past that end of year triple slash line, Wolters actually had a pretty solid 2012.
Wolters is a maximum effort player who is always going to get the most out of his tools. He hits from the left side and does a nice job making contact, although his power will always be below-average. He has gap-power (46 XBH last year) and does a nice job getting the barrel of the bat on the ball. He has average speed, but it plays up due to his high baseball IQ and baserunning instincts.

In the field, Wolters profiles a little better at 2B than at SS, but will be able to hold down SS if necessary. His arm is average for SS, and he doesn’t have elite range at the position. He’s a good athlete, and his footwork is sound. He’s a very fundamentally solid baseball player, but some of his raw skills just aren’t what you’d traditionally look for out of an all-star shortstop.

Wolters is one of my favorite players in the organization, and I probably have him ranked a little higher than most. He’s a gym-rat, grinder, and one of (if not the) hardest working players in the organization. He doesn’t have one single skill that jumps out and screams “star” at the next level, but he’s at least average across the board and his overall package will always play up due to his work ethic and overall baseball IQ. Wolters’ mental toughness was on full display in 2012, as he could have easily succumbed to his terrible month of April and resigned himself to a season-long slump. But he showcased a remarkable ability to adjust to the level of pitching after having skipped low-A, and ended up having a really solid season. If you’re bringing your kid to the baseball field and want to give him/her an example to watch before and during the game as to how you should carry yourself on a diamond, Tony Wolters is it.

Glass half-full: He sticks at SS and becomes a 1st division starter
Glass half-empty: A super-utility player that gets most of his action at 2B

4. Mitch Brown, RHP

DOB: 4/13/1994
Height/Weight: 6-1/195 lb.
Bats/Throws: Right/Right
Acquired: 2nd round pick in the 2012 MLB draft
2012 Stats: 2-0, 3.58 ERA, 26 K and 10 BB in 27 2/3 IP for Rookie League Arizona

Scouting Report: Brown was selected out of a Rochester, Minnesota high school in the 2nd round of the 2012 draft. Rarely are players from cold-weather high schools selected that early in the MLB draft, but Brown’s skills are special. He’s an outstanding athlete with a very clean, easily repeatable delivery who just looks like he was built to be a pitcher. He shows a good feel for pitching, especially for a player with his limited experience. Scouts rave about his makeup, and he was seen as one of the more advanced high school arms available in last year’s draft.

Brown throws a 4-seam fastball that sits comfortably in the low-90s and he can reach back for a little more when he needs it. His best secondary offering is his cutter, a pitch that’s seen as having a future plus grade. In addition to the cutter, he throws a curveball and a changeup, and of those two pitches the curveball is more advanced at this stage of his career. The deep, 4-pitch arsenal combined with big, athletic frame has scouts and the Indians front office all convinced that Brown should stick in the rotation going forward. He projects as a solid #3 starter who eats innings, and could develop into more if his secondary stuff takes a step forward.

Brown was impressive in his limited work in the complex leagues last year, and is likely ready for his full-season debut with Lake County right out of spring training. There’s a chance the Indians keep him in extended spring training while the weather warms up to try and limit stress on his arm, but having pitched in Minnesota as an amateur, Eastlake in April should be no problem for the young righty.

Glass half-full: Solid #3 starter in a major league rotation
Glass half-empty: Fringe #4 starter in a major league rotation

Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
3. Dorssys Paulino, SS

DOB: 11/21/1994
Height/Weight: 6-0/175 lb.
Bats/Throws: Right/Right
Acquired: International free agent in 2011
2012 Stats: .333/.380/.558 with 7 HR, 38 RBI and 11 SB in 56 games between Rookie League Arizona and short season Mahoning Valley.

Scouting Report: Yes, folks, that DOB is correct; Dorssys Paulino was born after Jacobs Field opened for play in the 1994 season. Please excuse me while I go lie down and think about that for a second. Paulino was the Indians big money signing out of the Dominican Republic in 2011, and some analysts suggested at the time that the Indians overpaid to sign the young infielder to a $1.1 million bonus. Those same analysts are now ranking Paulino among the Indians top-3 prospects, as he demolished complex league pitching on his way to a brief cameo in the short-season New York-Penn League against kids 3-5 years older than him. After putting up a 1.015 OPS in 41 games in the complex league, he was more mortal with the Scrappers, posting a .713 OPS in 15 games with Mahoning Valley. Still, a 17-year old playing in the NYPL is an impressive feat and a harbinger of future success at higher levels.

Paulino projects to have a plus hit tool and at least average power, and could be a .300 hitter with 15-30 HR per season at the big league level. He’s strong for his age and size, and has extremely quick wrists that help him stay inside the baseball well and drive it to all fields. He does a great job barreling the baseball, and consistently makes loud contact. He doesn’t struggle against secondary stuff as much as many young Dominican hitters typically do, and he has the makings of a solid approach. In the complex leagues, he struck out 31 times and walked 15, but that ratio rose to 14/3 in the NYPL as he ran into more developed pitchers with better breaking balls. Still, for a 17-year old, Paulino’s season with the bat was outstanding. He projects to have all-star level offensive skills.

The issue with Paulino at this stage of his career is his glove. The Indians signed him as a shortstop, and he played there throughout the 2012 season. He was charged with 25 errors in 46 games though, a number that can’t continue if he hopes to play SS at the highest levels. I haven’t seen much of Paulino in the field at this stage of his career, but the scouting reports indicate that he’s stiff in the field and his hands aren’t yet soft enough for the position; kind of the anti-Lindor. He’s being projected as more of a 3B or 2B than a shortstop, which would limit the upside of his overall package. Still, Paulino is just 18 years old, so I think it’s a bit premature to say he’ll never play SS. It’s an uphill road and his defense needs a lot more work than his offense, but I’m not ready to demand a position change at this point in the youngster’s brief career.

The Indians could get aggressive with Paulino and start him right off with low-A Lake County, but I think that keeping him in extended spring training and letting him get more at bats in the NYPL is a better course of action for a player with his experience. Paulino is talented, but his approach still needs work and he needs as many repetitions as possible both in the batter’s box and in the field. Still, after his dynamic debut in 2012, the Indians front office will be tempted to see what he can do in the Midwest League, especially if he comes out and dominates in spring training the way he did in the complex leagues last year.

Glass Half-Full: An offense-oriented shortstop who wins a Silver Slugger or six
Glass Half-Empty: An offense-oriented 2B or 3B

2. Trevor Bauer, RHP

DOB: 1/17/1991
Height/Weight: 6-1/185 lb.
Bats/Throws: Right/Right
Acquired: Via trade from Arizona in three-way deal involving Shin Soo-Choo.
2012 Stats: 1-2 with a 6.06 ERA, 17 K and 13 BB in 16 1/3 IP for Arizona; 12-2 with a 2.42 ERA, 157 K and 61 BB in 130 1/3 IP between AA Mobile and AAA Reno.

Scouting Report: Acquired this winter in the three-team deal that sent Shin Soo Choo to Cincy and resulted in both Bauer and Drew Stubbs relocating to Cleveland, Bauer has a higher ceiling than any other pitcher in the Indians organization. Bauer was the #3 overall pick in the 2011 draft, coming off of a college season in which he won the Golden Spikes Award as the nation’s top collegiate baseball player. He pitched 25 2/3 innings in the Diamondbacks system in 2011, then went out and dominated hitters at both AA and AAA in 2012 on his way to a big league call-up less than a calendar year after he was drafted. Bauer struggled in the majors, trying to pitch through a groin injury and clashing with some of his teammates in the clubhouse, but for a 21-year old in his first season of professional baseball, making it to The Show is a pretty impressive accomplishment in and of itself.

Bauer’s stuff is electric; he features a 4-seam fastball that sits comfortably in the mid-90’s, and has nearly as much arm-side run as a typical 2-seamer. In addition to the fastball, he features a curveball, splitter, slider and changeup. If he tried to throw any more pitches (and he has in the past, including a “reverse slider” that has action similar to a screwball), Carlos Santana and Lou Marson would have to start growing more fingers. The curveball is his best secondary offering, a hard, mid-80’s pitch that grades out as a true plus-plus pitch. The rest of his repertoire ranges from average to above average, and all of his pitches at least flash plus. It’s an impressive arsenal with which Bauer can attack hitters, and he can sometimes try too hard to strike everyone out rather than trusting his stuff and pitching to contact.

Bauer has an…interesting workout regimen. He’s famous for throwing a lot of pitches in his bullpens between starts, and his pre-game ritual is that of legend. Like many starting pitchers, Bauer plays long-toss before the game to help loosen his arm up. Unlike many starting pitchers, Bauer’s long-toss is played from foul line to foul line, a distance of over 450 feet. That’s a long way to throw a baseball, especially as many times as Bauer does it. Then in between innings, Bauer’s first warm up toss to the catcher is delivered via crow hop. It’s strange, fun and impressive to watch, and I think that once he gets to Cleveland he’s going to be a real fan favorite. Between guys like Bauer, Pestano, Kipnis, Masterson and Swisher, manager Terry Francona is going to have his hands full. But having famously dealt with the Red Sox self-professed “bunch of idiots,” I think he’ll handle it just fine.

Bauer should have a shot at a spot in the rotation out of Goodyear, but there’s a good chance he’ll get some time with AAA Columbus to gain seasoning and not accrue service time. Either way, he’ll pitch in Cleveland at some point in 2013, and should be a mainstay in the rotation for many years to come. He’s got true ace potential, and if the Indians window of contention is going to crack open anytime soon, it will be because Bauer is leading the way at the front of the pitching staff.

Glass Half-Full: Ace. Top of the rotation, #1 starter
Glass Half-Empty: An eccentric #3

Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
1. Francisco Lindor, SS

DOB: 11/14/1993
Height/Weight: 5-11/175 lb.
Bats/Throws: Switch/Right
Acquired: 1st round pick in the 2011 MLB draft
2012 Stats: .257/.352/.355 with 6 HR, 42 RBI and 27 SB in 122 games for low-A Lake County

Scouting Report: Lindor was the Indians 1st round pick in what was universally considered a loaded 2011 draft class. He came off the board at #8 overall, and that draft slot is already looking like a steal for the smooth young shortstop. The switch-hitting Lindor has all of the tools you’d look for in a shortstop, both on the physical and mental side of the game. He more than held his own as one of the youngest players in the Midwest League last year, a circuit that is notoriously tough on hitters. He’s a leader on and off the field, and even after the Indians traded for the talented Trevor Bauer there was really no debate about who’s the top prospect in the organization. Lindor was a Midwest League All-Star, and was one of the two players the Indians sent to the MLB Future’s Game in Kansas City during All-Star weekend last year.

Lindor is a switch hitter, and projects to have an above-average hit tool down the road. He has an excellent approach and does a nice job making pitchers work. When he’s able to pick his pitch, he almost always barrels the ball. He’s unlikely to have even average power, but should be able to hit 10-15 HR at the major league level. He’s a classic top-of-the order guy with above-average hit and onbase skills who can also run a little. The raw offensive numbers probably don’t blow you away, but consider the following; he was an 18-year old in his first season of professional baseball, playing in the pitcher-friendly Midwest League, plus he’s an elite defender at one of the most important positions on the diamond. Once you put the numbers in context, it’s easy to see why Lindor is a consensus top-10 prospect in all of baseball. Lindor did fade in the 2nd half of last season, putting up a .228/.335/.299 line after the all-star break as opposed to a .285/.369/.410 line in the first half. That’s to be expected, as Lindor was used to playing a high school season that was much shorter and with much more rest than professional baseball. Now that he knows what to expect and is more accustomed to the daily grind of minor league baseball, I’d expect him to be more consistent in 2013.

The most impressive tool in Lindor’s stacked toolkit is his glove. He’s got amazing instincts for a player of his limited experience, and is always in the right place at the right time. He’s one of those players who always seems to be leaning in the direction that the ball is hit before contact is even made. He’s got a plus arm from the left side of the infield, extremely soft hands and smooth actions. Lindor looks like he was made to play shortstop, and once he gets to the corner of Carnegie and Ontario will remind people of Omar Vizquel. Yes, Omar Vizquel; his defense projects to be that good at the major league level.

Oh, and by the way, Lindor is one month younger than Byron Buxton, the toolsy HS outfield that the Twins selected with the #2 overall pick in the 2012 draft. Lindor has all of the tools necessary to be an all-star shortstop at the major league level. But as he just turned 19 this past November, he’ll be a level at a time guy in the system. Expect Lindor to play all of 2013 for high-A Carolina after spending 2012 with Lake County. At his age, there’s no reason to rush him through the system, and the Carolina League is as tough on hitters as the Midwest League. I’d expect Lindor’s 2013 numbers to be similar to those that he posted in 2012, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t improving. With his raw ability, all Lindor really needs are reps and at bats. There are a few players in the system that could turn into all-stars at the major league level; Lindor is the only position player that I expect to be an all-star someday.

Glass Half-Full: A perennial all-star and gold glove shortstop
Glass Half-Empty: An excellent defensive shortstop who never hits enough to be elite