Sunday, July 14, 2013

Approaching the All-Star Break on a Lazy Sunday

It’s been a while since we’ve shared a Lazy Sunday together. It’s been a busy summer, with a perfect storm of work and personal life conspiring to sap me of nearly all of my free time, so I’ve unfortunately had precious little chance to write. I hope you’ve missed this column as much as I’ve missed writing it, and if I had my way there would be 6,000+ words up here at least once a week. I still have interviews with several minor league players and coaches to write up as well, and you’ll hopefully be seeing those again on a regular basis very soon. I’m not one for excuses though, so let’s jump right into what you actually came here for on this Sunday morning; a look at our 2nd place Indians leading up to the all-star break.

The most newsworthy item of the past week occurred early Thursday afternoon, when pitching prospect Danny Salazar turned his major league debut against the Blue Jays into a 6-inning coming out party. Salazar threw 5 no-hit innings to begin his major league career and wound up allowing just one run on two hits through six innings, walking one and striking out seven. Salazar nearly wound up with a hard-luck no-decision, but the offense came alive in the bottom of the sixth, plating a pair of runs en route to a 4-2 victory in the series finale against Toronto. I’ve had a front-row seat on the Danny Salazar bandwagon since he dominated for the Aeros down the stretch last season after his return from Tommy John surgery. While I can safely say I expected him to find success last week, I didn’t see that level of dominance coming.

Salazar was every bit as good as the numbers would indicate, if not better. Using the fantastic Brooks Baseball pitchf/x data, let’s go a little deeper inside Salazar’s gem. He threw 89 pitches in the game, and 64 of those pitches were strikes. All seven of his strikeouts were of the swinging variety. Salazar worked primarily off of his fastball, throwing 51 4-seamers (39 strikes). Of those 51 4-seam fastballs, a whopping 35 were at or above 94 MPH. His AVERAGE fastball velocity was 96.58 MPH. Velocity isn’t everything of course, but a fastball with that kind of giddyup both allows for greater freedom within the strike zone and does an excellent job setting up one’s offspeed pitches. When you look at this strike zone plot of Salazar’s outing, pay special attention to the yellow squares down and out of the zone. Those are swings and misses, and they’re on pitches that aren’t particularly close to being strikes. Hitters have to make their mind up pretty early when looking at a 96+ MPH fastball, and less time for pitch recognition and selection can result in hitters offering at some pretty bad pitches.

Interestingly, Salazar threw 26 changeups (19 strikes, 6 of which were swinging) and just 5 sliders. Coming into 2013, Salazar was seen as having two potential plus pitches in his fastball and slider. His changeup was a developing offering that he was going to have to improve upon in order to have a long-term future in a major league rotation. It appears that Salazar put a lot of work in on his changeup, possibly even at the expense of his slider, because the change has been getting a much higher grade this season than his slider. If he can regain the feel for his slider and keep his changeup diving down and out of the zone, than the Indians will really have something in the young righty. He was my #6 prospect in the organization coming into the season and outperformed even that lofty ranking, going 5-5 with a 3.08 ERA, 100 K and 23 BB in 76 innings between AA Akron and AAA Columbus this season. He’s one of the most talented pitchers in the organization, and if the Indians are going to make a run at a playoff spot this season, Salazar will likely be a part of it. He’s not going to pitch like he did on Thursday every time out, but he has the physical and mental game to succeed at the big league level right now.

If you’ll allow me a brief umpire tangent; the first hit (and only run) allowed by Salazar never should have occurred. Leading off the 6th inning, Toronto backstop Josh Thole fell behind 0-2 after chasing a changeup down in the dirt. On pitch 3, Salazar came back with another change that fooled Thole, and it crossed the plate pretty much right down the middle, thigh high. It was called a ball. Again using the Brooks Baseball chart below, you’ll see what I’m talking about; pitch #3 is a green square, indicating that it was inexplicably called a ball by home plate umpire Tony Randazzo. As usually happens, Thole singled later in the at bat and eventually came around to score on Jose Bautista’s RBI double.

By no means am I saying that Randazzo was out to get the Indians, or Salazar in particular. It’s just an example of the myriad of issues that have plagued MLB umpires all season long. The strikezone shrinks when the count is 0-2, and expands when it’s 3-0. It drove me crazy as a player, and continues to drive me crazy as a fan. A gift 3-0 strike allowing a pitcher back into an at bat can completely change the dynamic of an inning, and a 0-2 gift to the hitter can result in the pitcher losing a no-hitter, shutout, and possibly the game. That’s the beauty of baseball; every pitch fits in to the greater story of the game, and none is less important than any other. Umpires consistently changing the strike zone based on the count makes for a frustrating game to play and watch. It cost Salazar and the Indians on Thursday, and could have meant the game if the offense didn’t pick things up in the bottom half of the 6th. Rant over, and thanks for bearing with me there.

The calendar tells us that we’re pretty much halfway through the month of July, which means that the non-wavier trading deadline is less than three weeks away. The Indians look to be in a similar position as the one they found themselves in back in 2011; close enough to contend, but a team that is likely ultimately too flawed to go deep in the postseason even if they make it past the Tigers for the Central Division crown. We all know what happened in 2011 though, as GM Chris Antonetti pushed all of his chips into the center of the table in a deal for Colorado Rockies pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez. Antonetti is faced with a similar quandary here in 2013, as the starting rotation for the 2nd place Tribe has been up and down as expected, and the bullpen has been surprisingly ineffective. We’re already hearing names like Matt Garza (who would be a ½ season rental) and Yovanni Gallardo (who has Cleveland on his no-trade list) getting thrown around as potentially helping to round out the inconsistent rotation. But ESPN’s Buster Olney threw out another interesting name in his (insider required) column on Friday; shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera. While the Indians are far too close to 1st place to wave the white flag, Cabrera remains an attractive candidate to move at or before the trading deadline. Olney reports that both the Yankees and the St. Louis Cardinals have inquired about Cabrera, and you’d have to think that Antonetti would listen should either club make an attractive offer that includes a high-end, close to MLB ready pitching prospect. I’ll let Olney explain:

Sources say there has been more discussion about a possible swap that was talked about in the offseason: the Indians’ Asdrubal Cabrera to St. Louis. 

It’s unclear just how far advanced these talks are, whether it’s more conceptual or internal at the moment, and undoubtedly, it’s a deal that would be more easily done in the offseason, with more time. 

But it’s a situation worth watching, because it could be an in-season match that could make sense for both teams. For St. Louis, Cabrera would represent an upgrade at shortstop: He’s 27 years old and a switch-hitting, two-time All-Star with power and experience. Cabrera has a .725 OPS and has demonstrated the ability to play multiple positions, which is why the Yankees have asked about him repeatedly. He could play shortstop, yes, but also third base or second or even first, so if the Yankees needed to fill in for Derek Jeter or Alex Rodriguez or Robinson Cano -- depending on developments ranging from injury (Jeter and A-Rod) to PED suspension (A-Rod) to free-agent departure (Cano, perhaps), Cabrera could step in. Cabrera makes $6.5 million this year, and will earn $10 million next season, before becoming eligible for free agency. 
Cabrera would be replaced by Mike Aviles in the short term, and Francisco Lindor (more on him later) in the long-term. The Indians impressive organizational depth at shortstop (and lack of impact SP prospects) would allow for the deal to take place without the team taking a significant step back in terms of playoff contention for 2013-15. Cabrera has a pair of all-star selections to his credit, but we are all very familiar with his lack of 2nd half production and tendency to…have priorities other than conditioning. He’s as good as gone after 2014 anyway, as there’s pretty much no chance the Indians pay him $10 million or more a year with a guy like Lindor waiting in the wings. It would be a trade that doesn’t follow the “all-in” Ubaldo deal in 2011, nor would it be raising the white flag on the 2013 season because of the ability for Mike Aviles to step in and play a serviceable shortstop on a daily basis until Lindor is ready. Juan Diaz would be recalled from Columbus to play Aviles’ utility infielder role, and that would be a step down in terms of production there. But if the Indians are offered a legitimate future front of the rotation starting pitcher in return for 1 ½ seasons of Asdrubal Cabrera, I can’t see turning that down because of a downgrade in your backup SS. I’m not advocating dumping Cabrera for 75 cents on the dollar, but if the prospect-rich Cardinals make the Indians an offer that contains pitcher Carlos Martinez plus another arm, I’m certainly considering it if I’m Chris Antonetti.

Talk of trading Asdrubal midway through the 2013 season makes you wonder whether or not the Indians front office did enough to improve the team this offseason. If the Indians aren’t buyers at the deadline, then Antonetti and company failed, right? Well, not necessarily. Daniel Rathman of Baseball Prospectus took a look inside the numbers for the 2013 Indians, and found that there has been considerable improvement from the 2012 squad:

The Tribe entered play on Thursday ranked fifth in the majors in runs scored and sixth in True Average, a considerable improvement from last year, when Cleveland placed 22nd and 18th, respectively, in those categories. The Indians’ fielding also has been markedly better this year than it was in 2012, enough to bump their park-adjusted defensive efficiency up from 24th to 12th in the league.
As we all expected, the free agent signings and trades did a great job shoring up the offense, allowing the Indians to jump into the top echelon in baseball in both runs scored and TAv. Nick Swisher hasn’t set the world on fire, but he’s still managed a 118 OPS+ in an injury-effected 1st half. Mark Reynolds has been downright terrible of late, but he carried the offense in April when other guys in the lineup were struggling, and no matter what he does this season it will be more than Casey Kotchman contributed last year. Michael Bourn has been pretty much as advertised at the top of the lineup. And just as important as the offensive contributions, having Bourn, Stubbs, Aviles and Swisher in the field has allowed the Indians to work their way from near the bottom to the top half of the league defensively. Last year’s Indians were succeeding despite being outscored by their opponents, doing it more with smoke and mirrors than anything else. The epic collapse after the Verlander game was disappointing, but not completely shocking. This year, the Indians have outscored their opponents by 21 runs going into Saturday, a number more commensurate with their 49-44 record. This team doesn’t just have a better record, but they’re better on the field (if that makes sense).

But despite the improvements in the lineup and in the field, the pitching has been disappointing, both the starters and the bullpen. The Indians team ERA ranks 27th in the league at 4.38, a number that has to come down if the club expects to contend for a playoff spot. The major move this offseason to address the pitching staff has proved ineffective, as Brett Myers has been injured and extremely homer-prone when he was on the mound. I’m just not sure the pitching staff as a whole is good enough for the Indians to win a playoff series, even if they do manage to make it past the Tigers. So a move to shore up the starting rotation for next season, even if it costs the Indians Asdrubal Cabrera, could set the Indians up for the 2014 season. If next year’s rotation options include Masterson, Kluber, McAllister, Salazar, Bauer, Carrasco and a high-level prospect or two obtained from a Cabrera trade, I feel pretty good about the 2014 Cleveland Indians and their chances for a deep playoff run.

Speaking of Lindor, get your DVR’s ready, because you’re going to have a chance to see the talented young shortstop on national TV this weekend when the MLB Futures Game is aired on Sunday (2pm, ESPN2). Lindor will be representing the Indians and his native Puerto Rico on the World Team for the 2nd time, and for some Tribe fans it will be the first chance to see the #1 prospect in the organization in action. Lindor enters the game as a consensus top-10 prospect, as he’s the #4 player in Baseball Prospectus’ midseason rankings, and #5 in Baseball America’s list. Keith Law doesn’t release his midseason top prospects list until next week, but he lists Lindor as having the best hit tool in the Futures Game, and one of the best gloves. I had a chance to interview Lindor earlier this season, and came away extremely impressed with the 19-year old switch hitter. He’s an incredibly gifted fielder, a better hitter than he gets credit for (3rd in the Carolina League in hitting) and a mature leader on and off the field. He’s hitting .306/.373/.410, has 20 stolen bases, and his glove is better than his bat or his legs. The .306 average is 3rd in the Carolina League, trailing only teammate Joey Wendle and Red Sox prospect Garin Cecchini (who was promoted to AA a couple of weeks ago). The Indians announced that Lindor will be promoted to AA Akron following the Future’s Game, so Cleveland-based fans will have a chance to see him live and in person soon enough. Watching him on the field, it’s tough to remember that he’ll play the entire season as a19-year old. #LindorBC

While we’re talking prospects, I’d be remiss to not bring up the Indians most recent 1st round draft pick, OF Clint Frazier. Frazier signed quickly and for slightly below slot, accepting a $3.5 million bonus when the Indians were allotted $3.787 million for the pick. He seemed genuinely eager to get the contract negotiations out of the way and get back out on the baseball diamond. He reported to the Indians Goodyear complex to play with the Arizona League Indians, and promptly hit a home run in his first professional at bat. Small sample size of course, but the 18-year old Frazier is hitting .327/.357/.571 with a HR, 3 triples, 3 doubles and 14 RBI in 13 AZL contests. Just for comparison’s sake, 19-year old D’Vone McClure, the Indians 4th round pick in last year’s draft, is hitting just .197/.269/.262 in 15 games, and he came into this season with 24 AZL games under his belt. That’s not to pick on McClure, who is a talented player, but more to show that AZL success is far from assured from high draft picks. So while it’s a small sample from Frazier, it’s an encouraging sample, and I’d expect to see him in Mahoning Valley or even Lake County before the end of the 2013 season. He’ll be easy to spot on the diamond; just look for the kid who looks like former University of Wisconsin basketball player Mike Bruesewitz.

Finally, on a fun note, Scott Lewis over at The Score blog put together an oral history of the 1989 Cleveland Indians for your reading pleasure. No, not the 73-89 Indians that finished in 6th place in the AL East, but the fictional 1989 Indians from the classic comedy Major League. Reading Charlie Donovan, Lou Brown and Harry Doyle (among others) “reminisce” about the Indians miracle run to the 1989 playoffs was a lot of fun for me, especially having seen the movie as many times as I have. Pretty much any kid growing up in Cleveland in the ‘90s has seen the movie at least once, and if you were anything like me and my friends, you’ve seen it close to 100 times. It’s a fun piece to read heading into the all-star break as we wonder if this year’s Indians have a similar run in them…


PO13 said...

Welcome back Al, good to read your work again. A couple of thoughts:

I'm not sure why fans are so confident in bullpen success based on previous performance. Baseball has consistently shown that bullpens have a great variance year-to-year in performance, mostly due to the makeup of the pitchers in the 'pen. It would be a shame for the Indians season to stall based on the pen though.

I really like the makeup of this team. They are fun to watch on a daily basis, and they consistently play the game the right way. Looking forward to hearing more of your thoughts as the season progresses.

Al Ciammaichella said...

Thanks, glad you enjoyed it. I agree on the bullpen; year-to-year, it's the most volatile part of a roster. Look no further than the 2007/2008 Indians for a perfect example.

Like you, I really enjoy watching this team. It's a far superior roster than either the 2011/12 versions, and there are going to be fewer holes to address this offseason than in years past.