Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Book Review: 9 in 9 by Justin Toole

Justin Toole comes from a baseball family. His dad coached his teams growing up, and his brother Eric just wrapped his sophomore season as a 2nd-team All-Big Ten outfielder for the Iowa Hawkeyes. His sister was a softball player. Watching Toole play the game, it’s easy to see the influence that his baseball-oriented upbringing has had on his career as a player. Toole can play any position on the diamond (literally), and always knows what to do with the baseball anytime it is hit to him. He’s a patient hitter at the dish, and is sneaky-effective on the basepaths. He’s not a burner, but reads balls well in dirt and goes first-to-third quicker than some players with better raw speed. In short, he does all of the little things well, helping his overall package play greater than the sum of his tools.

Toole isn’t a guy who is going to go out and hit 40 HR in a season. His strengths lie in his versatility and fundamentally sound play. A long shot to be an everyday player in a major league lineup, the former undrafted free agent is a career .247/.298/.293 hitter in 361 minor league games. He’s appeared in 118 games at 2B, 54 games at SS, 53 games at 1B, 90 games at 3B, 36 games in the OF, 2 games on the mound and one game behind the plate. He has played at nearly every level in the Indians system, from rookie AZL to AAA Columbus, with stops in Mahoning Valley, Kinston/Carolina, and Akron. Anytime Toole is needed anywhere in the system, he answers the call and fills the organizational need. When you’re around a team that Toole plays on, it’s easy to see the effect he has in the clubhouse. Everyone from the other players, the manager and coaching staff to the team’s announcer talks about the impact Toole has on and off the field, and that is something that just can’t be captured in a box score.
Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella

Toole made headlines around the country last year when he played all nine defensive positions in a single nine-inning game for the Mudcats. He started the game in RF and moved all the way around the diamond throughout the contest before pitching the bottom of the 9th in a 4-2 Mudcats victory. Pitching was hardly foreign to Toole, who was the Bob Feller Award winner as the top high school pitcher in the state of Iowa his senior year. It was a unique experience for the versatile utility infielder, one that gave him a chance to reflect on the lessons he’s been able to learn throughout his baseball life.

Toole was a psychology major at Iowa, and uses some of the lessons he learned in sports psychology classes to coach young players in various camps during the offseason. In addition to the coaching, Toole has written a book based on his famous nine positions in nine innings game, and that book is now available via Amazon. I got my copy this week, and it’s an excellent read. In the book, Toole relates how the nine positions he played for the Mudcats that night relate to nine different life lessons that can be applied to the mental side of baseball. This ties in nicely with a recent article from Baseball Prospectus/Grantland columnist Ben Lindbergh, who recently completed MLB’s certified Scout School. Lindbergh is talking to a veteran scout about the mental side of the game, and the veteran scout tells him the following:

According to Larson, 90 percent of prospects fail to reach their OFPs (overall future potential). Most often, he says, it’s because of intangibles. It’s much more common for a player’s makeup to prevent him from making the majors than for it to propel him there. My guess is that assessing makeup will become an increasingly important part of scouts’ responsibilities as PITCHf/x, biomechanical analysis, and other applications of motion-tracking tech permeate the lower levels of the minors and bleed into amateur ball. Watching a player work and collecting character references isn’t something a computer can do, although refinements in psychological testing — not a new concept in baseball, but an increasingly popular one — may eventually offer an automated alternative.
Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
From spending as much time around Toole as I have, I know he’ll never have a problem with the mental side of the game. His tools will always play up to their overall future potential (OFP), because he’s head and shoulders over the vast majority of his counterparts when it comes to the psychology of the game. He’s always a pleasure to talk to, and even though I’ve played and studied the game all of my life, I always learn something new about baseball whenever I have the pleasure of talking to him.

The book has nine chapters, each of which first recaps one inning of action at a different position and then explains how to apply that inning to life both in and outside of baseball. Toole teaches the reader about patience, perspective, expensive/inexpensive experience, taking advantage of your opportunities, hard work beating talent when talent doesn’t work, believing in yourself, controlling what you can control, being comfortable when uncomfortable, and staying in the moment. He talks not just about the 9-in-9 game, but about his high school career, collegiate ball, and lessons learned on the road to playing professional baseball. His was not an easy road to becoming a pro, as he had to fight for his spot on the Iowa baseball roster, then had a quick stint in independent ball (after breaking his arm in a late-season game against Michigan State) before being signed as an undrafted free agent by the Indians. He was almost drafted in the 27th round by the Marlins, but was too honest with one of their scouts (see chapter one). He always had to outwork his competition, because he wasn’t always the most talented player on the field, court or gridiron.

Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
I highly recommend the book for baseball players or coaches at any level of the game, from little league all the way up to college and the pros. If I were a high school coach, I’d make it required reading for all of my players. When I have kids, I’m going to make them read it. It contains tips on how to play each position, mental keys to the game and provides a fantastic insight into the road to becoming a major league baseball player. The vast majority of baseball players don’t get to take the Bryce Harper or Steven Strasburg route, playing just a season or so of minor league ball before being promoted to the bigs. Most play several seasons in the minors before making it to The Show, and more players top out in the minors than actually make it to the big leagues. It’s a side of the game that very few fans ever get to learn about, and it’s really interesting to hear some of the trials and tribulations of a player working his way from high school through college and the minor leagues. Toole hasn’t had the easiest road as he works his way to the big leagues, but he’s learned a lot more about the game and about himself than some of the bonus babies who have been handed millions of dollars straight out of high school. He knows how to handle adversity, and has become a more well-rounded player and person because of it.

In the game itself, Toole went 1-4 with a single at the plate, and gave up 2 runs on 2 hits (both solo HR) on the mound…but after the back-to-back solo HR, Toole came back with back-to-back strikeouts to preserve a 4-2 Mudcat victory. The pitching inning (and 9th and final chapter of the book) is my favorite. It includes a couple of funny stories relating to the Mudcat bullpen on and off the field, and it serves as a microcosm for Toole’s entire sports career. He faces a new challenge, encounters adversity, and overcomes to find success. Toole is never going to be the anchor of the Indians lineup at the major league level, but there’s a chance he finds some measure of success as a utility player. Even if he never plays a single major league inning, I am 100% confident that Justin Toole will be successful in life, no matter what career he pursues after baseball. He could be an outstanding coach, trainer or sports psychologist. He could be a great accountant, lawyer, stock trader or whatever he decides to do. He’s one of my favorite players in the organization, and I can’t wait to see him play next season. 

Sunday, October 20, 2013

A Special Guest on a Lazy Sunday

A few weeks ago, when the playoffs were anything but assured, someone on twitter asked whether or not Pauly C. and I would combine for a joint, mega-edition of Lazy Sunday if the Indians made the playoffs. Well wouldn’t you know it, but the wi-fi down in Del Boca Vista was working this week, and what started out as an innocent e-mail exchange turned into what you see before you here today. We’re heading into the most important offseason for the Indians since the winter of 2007-08, when the 96-win Indians took the Red Sox to the brink of elimination in the ALCS, falling just one game short of a World Series berth (and eventual win over the Rockies, and no one will ever convince me otherwise). That club made only minor tweaks to what we all thought was a pretty solid roster, then promptly went out and fell flat on their faces in 2008, stumbling so badly that reigning Cy Young winner C.C. Sabathia was dealt in early July. Even a 22-3 (167 ERA+!) season from Cliff Lee couldn’t save that club. There’s a lot of pressure on Chris Antonetti and company to avoid a similar fate in 2014, as the Cleveland fanbase has shown an unwillingness to trust the front office and ownership group despite a playoff* season in 2013. So with that level of gravity established, it is with great pride that I bring to you the return of THE DiaTribe, The Westside Kid, the biggest Pat Tabler fan outside of the Tabler family…that’s right, none other than Paul Cousineau himself! Time and schedule permitting, Pauly and I will try and get together for a little offseason miniseries, so consider this installment one of several still to come in the fall/winter months ahead.

Paul Cousineau: So if you're down at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario, what "levers" are you pulling?

Al Ciammaichella: To start, they need to figure out whether Ubaldo will pick up his end of his option (which he won't, unless he's crazy). After he declines it, I think they need to figure out if he'll sign for a reasonable #, or if they just offer him the qualifying tender and move on with a draft pick. I think that's the most likely scenario. As good as he was in the 2nd half this year, that delivery still has a lot of moving parts, any of which can break down at any point and he turns back into 2012 Ubaldo. I just think he's better off being someone else's risk, especially at the $$ he'll command on the open market. Everything hinges on that decision though, and with the remote chance that the Big U will offer a big “hometown” discount for the team that kept giving him chances until he got himself right, that scenario has to be given a little bit of time to play itself out.

Next comes Kazmir. Is he worth 2 years/$17 million? Yeah, probably, especially considering he'd be the only lefty in the rotation and there are no sure things to step up from the farm next year. They almost have to resign one of them, and I think Kazmir will come cheaper and with less risk (and lower upside). So after Ubaldo (likely) leaves, they need to do what it takes to bring Kaz back into the fold for next season.

Step 3 is feeling out the trade market for Asdrubal. Even if they have to trade him for $.75 on the dollar, I think they have to move him to free up $$$. You can't pay him $10 million next year to be a replacement-level SS. By B-Ref's WAR, he was worth 1.2 wins last year. That's a CAREER LOW, including his rookie year when he only appeared in 45 games. Yikes. He reports to camp in lousy shape, is always dinged up throughout the season, and doesn't seem to be a team leader. With the raises coming to Bourn and Swish, they're going to need every dollar to maximize payroll. I'm not in love with Aviles, but he can keep SS warm until Lindor (who I am madly in love with) is ready. And I think Lindor will be ready at some point in 2014, and will be able to contribute enough with his glove that he’ll be able to provide the value of Asdrubal at a fraction of the cost, and be 10 times more adorable while doing so.

What do you think they'll look to do?

PC: Absolutely agree on those 3 being the first steps, in that order.
Ubaldo's walking to greener pastures, so you put in your qualifying offer and take the pick.  As good as he was, let him be someone else's constant project.

Kazimir is the guy I'd keep for the reasons you point out.  I don't think he gets more than that and he (unlike Ubaldo) would have some loyalty to the team giving him a shot.  The presence of Tito and Callaway (plus the fact that he's made more than $30M in his career) won't hurt.

If you get Kazimir locked up, the rotation is pretty sound although some of that I attribute to the steps made by Kluber/McAllister/Salazar and what I’ll call the “Tao of Mickey”. The wild card could be Masterson if he doesn't seem interested in an extension (that the team is sure to approach him about) at all.  By that I mean, do the Indians pull a Rays-esque move with Shields...and can the fanbase handle that?  I don't think so…on both counts (at least I can't - even if they'd get a king's ransom for him), so I hope that Masterson is willing to do a CC-type deal where he gives up some FA years or maybe one year and an option for some security.  And, yes...CC did that at one point before the 2005 season.

Even separating emotion from it as frustration was the norm for him all season, you try to move Asdrubal.  Maybe you don't get as much for him, but I've LONG been of the opinion that Aviles can at least hold ground there until Lindor is ready.  I was ready for that in July of 2013, so a couple more mediocre months...and a BRUTAL GIDP in the WC game haven't changed that.

To me, the interesting spots are 3B/SS and RF/1B and how they think they're going to utilize Raburn and Aviles for next year.  Ideally, they're still bench guys (and they're getting paid like bench guys at $4M combined for 2014) and I'm OK with Chiz at 3B to start the season with Swish taking one of RF or 1B, but what they do in RF and at SS (or Utility IF, if Asdrubal is traded and Aviles is the starting SS) are the spots to watch.

Oh, and building a bullpen without Smith, Perez, Pestano (assuming he's not healthy), and Albers...

AC:  Ever notice how every year that the bullpen is supposed to be the strength of the team it ends up blowing up in our faces? I'm primarily referring to 2008 in addition to last year of course; it just seems like no matter what, that's the most volatile part of the club and you can never really know what you're getting from season to season. Pestano is the best example; WBC guy prior to the season, coming off of two seasons where he averaged a 161 ERA+, and he ends up getting sent to AAA in 2013. YCPB could stand for You Can't Predict Bullpen. But I also share your opinion that a bullpen is the easiest (and cheapest) part of a team to construct. Trade or DFA Perez, slide a (healthy) Pestano into the back end of the bullpen along with Cody Allen, mix with a dash of Scrabble and a pinch of Bryan Shaw and you've got the start of something promising. I think C.C. Lee is a full-time member of the bullpen next season, and he can fill the Joe Smith role capably. I still refuse to believe that the Nick Hagadone experiment is a failed one; his stuff is just so much better than the results indicate. I'm still holding out hope that the light bulb goes on for him at some point next year. Preston Guilmet, Trey Haley, Scott Barnes and Austin Adams are all internal options that could appear at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario at some point in 2014, so before you even throw in random vet signing(s) and minor league signings with invites to big league camp, you have the makings for a solid cadre of bullpen arms. Adams especially; his fastball still sits in the upper 90’s and routinely touches 99. I think he becomes a significant contributor to the major league bullpen as soon as 2014, with future closer© potential.'re just going to bring up the idea of a Masterson trade with no warning like that? Give a guy a chance to brace himself. While I stew over that nugget, what are your thoughts on the bullpen? Do you think they offer CP arbitration?

PC: Nah, Perez is gone. 

Even engaging him in arbitration seems unlikely, given the raise that he’s due via the arbitration process and with the “stats” that they look at and value.  They’ll probably put feelers out to move him, then non-tender him because you just don’t tie up that much $ that can be spent elsewhere when you’re a team like the Indians.

As for the 2014 pen, you remember those "odd year"-"even year" bullpens?

I get sick just thinking about what those 2006 and 2008 bullpens did to those seasons by mid-May as the same gas cans were trotted out there as the season frittered away.  But if you think back to those bullpens, there were names like Masa Kobayashi, Brodzoski (The Close), Brendan Donnelly, Guillermo Mota, Danny Graves, and Scott Sauerbeck that were all supposed to contribute when seasons started and, when they didn't, the team scrambled - MUCH too late - to find suitable replacements, with few options readily available.  You could say that this happens with every team every year as it takes a while to sort these arms out, but what impressed me about the handling of the 2013 bullpen was how nimble the organization seemed to be - from the Front Office to Tito's usage patterns.

Think about the fact that the 3 relievers that elicited the most confidence when October hit were Joe Smith, Shaw, and Scrabble...who had that “Trust Troika” in April, or even mid-August?  Essentially, Francona slotted pieces and parts around to ride the hot hand - whether it was Allen in the middle of the season, or Perez when he was actually good (and he WAS, basically for the whole month of July), or even a Cookie Carrasco late in the season - to maximize effectiveness.  That's what elicits confidence for me, in that there are a lot of guys that you mention that are young, dynamic, and could move quickly in a bullpen that seems to FINALLY be designed to allow quick movement into different spots in particular situations...and a lot of the names that you mention are already on the parent club or are knocking at the door.  And if the team is lacking in a particular area (as they were for a LOOGY last year), the Front Office has shown that it can and will make a quick and smart move to add a guy that their analysts or scouts are high on, like a Scrabble, with little given up to net that piece.

So I'm not all that concerned about which players makes up the bullpen, but who is putting it together and managing it calms me.  Maybe we see some sort of combination of Allen, Carrasco, Shaw and a surprise like an Austin Adams come August or September 2014 or maybe it's something that would be as surprising as the 2013 late season triumvirate of Smith/Shaw/Scrabble...but I think (or maybe it is hope) that they could have this bullpen thing figured out as well as anyone could reasonably hope to and the exit of Chris Perez this off-season will signal the end of a hard-and-fast closer for this organization as they move into the growing column of teams that figures out their bullpen mix as the season develops.  Maybe they don't go as far as Jonah Keri suggested after Opening Day of 2012, but I think what we saw down the stretch in 2013 (that AC so accurately wrote about) is what we're going to start to see in the bullpen...and that's a welcome change.

Now, as for that reliever-turned-starter, you want to dive into the Masterson thing?

AC:  I had forgotten about Brendan Donnelly and Scott Sauerbeck. Reading that paragraph gave me bullpen PTSD and harkened back to the days of Derrek Lilliquist, who is probably still my all-time least favorite Indians reliever.

As for Justin Credible, IF Masty makes it clear to the front office that he's going to test free agent waters and IF the right deal presents itself, I guess I could understand moving him prior to the season. It'd be a shock of epic proportions to a fan base that still bears the scars of the Sabathia/Lee deals, and something tells me that few if any would understand nor appreciate it. But if for some reason the St. Louis Cardinals decided that they'd rather have Masterson than Oscar Taveras...well, I'd have a hard time saying no to that deal. Remember, Wil Myers was a consensus top-5 prospect in all of baseball when he was dealt, and he was basically major-league ready at the time. So Taveras is the best comparison I can come up with. Since it's all hypothetical at this point, we could even work out a mega-trade; Asdrubal and Masterson for Taveras, Martinez and Wacha. Who says no? Probably the Cardinals, that’s who. But if the Twins are offering up Buxton or Sano, that's a tough offer to turn down as well. Now is a good time to remind our hyperventilating readers that this is all hypothetical, and the Rays did make the playoffs this year even after trading away James Shields.

PC: Looking past my frustration at seeing these young St. Louis arms in the playoffs that’s been exacerbated by HOW they’ve pitched while realizing that Asdrubal’s value is at a near-low right now, that was the point of bringing up Masterson as a wild card this off-season.  Reason being that Shields-Myers deal is the precedent given that Shields was a top-tier SP with 2 years of club control remaining (identical to Masterson right now) and Myers was that “Can’t Miss” 22-year-old ready-for-MLB prospect that hadn’t even started his service time clock. 

That said, by NO MEANS is this me advocating a trade of Masterson as I think that the organization is smart enough to realize that moving Masterson (regardless of who is coming back for him) basically gives all of the dullards in the Cleveland Sports Media another reason to say “see, this is what they do when they have a good player – they trade him for ANOTHER prospect…there’s NO way to support this team” over and over until it becomes the accepted ethos, regardless of the fact that this Front Office has now put together three teams with 90-win seasons in the past nine years.

But if you think about what Tampa did with Shields and what Oakland did after the 2011 season (trading their two best starters in Cahill and Gio Gonzalez, plus their best reliever in Bailey), those teams remove that emotion or fear of public backlash from their decisions, maximize their assets and try to continually build on the fly, and trust in their ability to do so…with the results in recent years speaking for themselves.  As much as people in Cleveland point to TB and OAK as examples of small-market teams that continue to contend on a shoestring budget, I’m fairly certain that the high rate of roster turnover simply wouldn’t be accepted by a fanbase that is always ready to grab those pitchforks.

Again, don’t take this to mean that Masterson should be shopped here as Tampa was in a different situation last off-season, with Price (who will be traded THIS off-season) still around and a litany of young arms ready to ascend still able to make up for the gap that Shields left.  But the Indians have to be very honest about their expectations for their rotation next year and whether Danny Salazar really has the potential to be (gasp) some sort of modern-day Pedro Martinez while making reasonable assessments of Kluber and McAllister after making decisions on Ubaldo and Kazimir.

And so we go back to your first three steps here as where Ubaldo and Kazimir end up affect the rotation, just as any move/non-move with Cabrera affects what they do not only at SS, but also at 3B, due to the presence of Aviles as a stop-gap measure/fill-in for either spot going forward.  To me, I’d prefer that trade of Asdrubal that moves Aviles to SS and gives Lonnie some time to attempt to (again) settle in at 3B.

AL:  You know me; I’ve been on the “Trade Asdrubal” bandwagon since November 2012, including at the trade deadline this past season. Watching Wacha, Martinez, Rosenthal and company go out and dominate in the NL playoffs is incredibly frustrating. If I could ask put Antonetti on truth serum and ask him just one question, I’d ask him what trade offers (if any) were on the table for Asdrubal, and when. 

Heading into this season, I thought Salazar was one of the four most talented pitchers in the organization. But I never expected that, still coming off of Tommy John surgery, he’d make it to the big league club and feature the fastest fastball among major league starting pitchers. I predicted that he’d be a bullpen weapon after the all-star break, and I’ve rarely been happier to have been so wrong about something. His starts were mandatory viewing this year, and I think he’s the Indians #2 starter behind Masterson (provided you don’t trade him away in the offseason) in 2014. Danny Salazar and Yan Gomes are my two favorite players right now, and I couldn’t be happier that Salazar snagged #31 for himself.

As one of the final remaining members on the Lonnie Chisenhall bandwagon, I'm also good with him starting the season as an everyday 3B. Give him one last chance to sink or swim, with the Aviles safety net behind him (provided the Aviles safety net hasn't already been deployed next to him at SS). 

Since we're in the predicting mode, what do you think Jason Giambi's role will be with the 2014 Cleveland Indians? Player, coach, or interested observer from another locale?

PC: For whatever reason, I think he’ll be back in Cleveland…in (how’s this for avoiding a direct answer) some capacity.  Giambi’s role will I think (oddly) be determined by whether Sandy Alomar gets a managerial gig this off-season.  The musical chairs on the coaching staff left Sandy back out of the dugout and at 1B, which is probably where a guy like Giambi would start off if he’s going to get into coaching.  As much as there might have been a groundswell for Giambi as hitting coach, Van Burkleo is still in place for now and hitting coaches can find themselves on the chopping block for a bad start.  Ideally, I would think that Francona wants him to continue to be a presence in the clubhouse, perhaps without the stress of being in the tenuous position of hitting coach.

As for playing, while I know that Giambi says he wants to play and the Indians are saying that they’d welcome him back with open arms, both parties have to realize his abilities and limitations at this point.  Certainly, having guys like Raburn and Aviles on the team would allow them to carry Giambi again because they’re able to play so many positions, just as Gomes’ emergence should allow them to have their “second” catcher in Santana playing 1B or (preferably) DH, but Giambi’s playing career has an expiration date at some point…and everyone involved knows that.

It goes back to the other things that happen first though, as whether they can carry a guy like Giambi will likely be determined by whether Sandy’s still coaching 1B when managerial vacancies are filled and what the Indians do at SS and some other positions, because it will dictate how Aviles and Raburn will be used, which either opens up a role for a part-time player like Giambi or creates a need for a player much more versatile and usable than what Giambi is at this point.

AC: For anyone who claims that the front office is “too sabermetric,” I point to Jason Giambi as exhibit A as to why that can’t possibly be the case. By any sort of raw statistical measurement, Jason Giambi was utterly useless to the 2013 Cleveland Indians. He hit .183/.282/.371, albeit with 9 HR in 216 AB. He had an 85 OPS+, and actually had a negative oWAR (-0.6). But not only was Giambi a fixture on the roster and in the clubhouse this year, you had Tito Francona (who is firmly on the same page as Antonetti and company) calling him the team’s MVP. I think that may be a bit of a stretch, but his value to the club comes more from his leadership and acting as a de facto hitting coach in the dugout.

When I was in Goodyear last year, I spent most of my time down in minor league camp. Virtually every position player I talked to, from Tony Wolters to Dwight Childs, commented on how awesome it was to have Giambi around the team. They all loved talking to him about hitting, watching him work in the cage and apply his craft. Giambi wasn’t just helping out guys in the big league clubhouse, he was taking the time to work with the minor leaguers as well. For the 18-22 year old guys who are still trying to make it to The Show to see a guy like Giambi, a 42-year old who has made over $130 million in his baseball career, working to get one more season out of what was already a 17-year major league career; that’s something that can’t be replicated with any sort of coaching. Giambi is a lever, not just for the 25 guys in the ML clubhouse but for the 200+ minor leaguers throughout the organization.

So for that and the reasons you pointed out, I think he’s back next year as well. It’s even possible that he starts out as a player and transitions to the coaching staff in mid-stream. Would the Indians have made the playoffs this past year if Giambi wasn’t on the roster and in the clubhouse? I have no idea. I know they probably wouldn’t have won that game against the White Sox down the stretch. And I know that Tito doesn’t think they would’ve made it without him. So that’s enough for me to want him back next year. Plus, he only needs one more SB to get to 10 for his career, so that’s a milestone he’s closing in on.

As for next year, seeing as we’re already closing on the 4,000 word mark, we’ll save some of the further offseason prediction talk for next time. We still need to talk about the outfield, rotation options, potential free agent moves and a whole lot more.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Unsatisfied and Unsettled on a Lazy Sunday

I’m going to share a secret with you all. It’s a secret that you probably all already know, but bear with me; I don’t feel like I’m much of a writer. I think I know baseball pretty well, and I enjoy watching it and sharing my thoughts, which is why I write in this space as often as I can. But as far as writing itself, that’s just not my forte. This column doesn’t flow from my fingertips the way it always seemed to when Pauly C. was in the driver’s seat. It’s an effort, and some weeks are easier than others. This week falls into the “others” category. I spent an inordinate amount of time staring at a blank Microsoft Word screen this week. I just wasn’t ready for this season to be over. The “playoffs” were so fleeting that it was more of a tease than anything. We should be talking about who’s starting game 3 against Boston right now, not writing an autopsy on the season. I feel like I just read a book that was missing the last two or three chapters. I know I said earlier this season that all I wanted out of 2013 was meaningful baseball down the stretch. I sat in Goodyear, AZ and told loyal reader Tim Futo that back in March. But once I got a taste of the playoff run, I got greedy. I wanted more. I thought that once the Indians made it to October, anything could happen. I was ready to watch the Indians play deep into the fall, and came away crushed with the abbreviated taste of the postseason.

So what was I supposed to write about? Wednesday’s game? If you’re reading this column here on Sunday morning (or Monday afternoon, depending on your pleasure), chances are good that you watched Wednesday’s game. You’ve probably read several articles on Wednesday’s game, and are very possibly sick of thinking about it by now. What more can I say? Should I talk about planning for the 2014 season? Feels too soon to me. The body of the 2013 season isn’t even cold yet. A recap of the 2013 season? Ok, I suppose that could interest some, but it just didn’t seem right for today. Do I just take the week off and come back next week when there’s been a little bit of time to reflect on recent events? Eventually, I was able to sit down and come up with what you see before you today. I feel like a friend of mine has just been given bad news, and I want to be there for him (you). I don’t want to call or stop by if he doesn’t want me to, but I also want to be available if he needs to talk. So if you need to talk, feel free to hang with us today on this Lazy Sunday. But if you need a week off to process the hurt, I understand. See you when I see you. Eric Wedge would have been proud of the grit and determination of the column today; I really did my best to grind it out.

If you’re really a masochist, Jordan Bastain wrote up a few of the frustrating notes on the wild card game, and provided an excellent and exhaustive list of links from various sources on the contest. It’s a nice breakdown of what happened on Wends, looking at the well-documented escape artistry of Alex Cobb, the disappointing performance of the top of the Indians order and more. National writers Jonah Keri of Grantland and Sam Miller of Baseball Prospectus recapped the game and provided their key takeaways as well, and both articles are worth a read if you’re desperate to recall the misery of the 4-0 Tampa victory. I’m still not ready to relive the frustrations of the game, from the Delmon Young…Delmon freaking Young!...homer, to the bad BABIP inning for Salazar, to the many, many squandered opportunities by the top of the Indians order. That sentence along was difficult enough to type. But hey, if you’re stronger than I am and want to relieve the experience, the opportunity is there.

In the plethora of links, Bastain includes an article he wrote this past Monday discussing how the Indians reached their playoff goal far sooner than anyone anticipated. In it, he asks Francona whether or not Tito thinks the Indians are primed for success in 2014 and beyond:
Does Francona believe that makes the Indians' current run sustainable for many years?
"That's easier said than done, and I know that," Francona cautioned. "I am excited about our future here, but you kind of take what you have now and try to do with it what you can, and don't get too full of yourself. And then, when it's over, you start thinking about next year and how you can get better."
Tito, Antonetti and the Indians are not planning to rest on their laurels and expect to make the playoffs next year without making improvements in the club. The Indians as currently constructed are close to being contenders for the World Series title. But they aren’t there yet, and they know that. The budget isn’t going to allow for the type of splash in the free agent market the Indians made last season (Swisher and Bourn), but it won’t have to. They’ll have to get both creative and lucky to improve the club, making small trades (Aviles and Gomes) and picking up cheap veterans and hoping they pan out (Kazmir and Giambi). The core of the club is strong, but this isn’t a roster that can be expected to go deep into the playoffs without some improvements.

Anthony Castrovice wrote one of my favorite articles of the year earlier this week. He took a look at the offseason moves made by the Indians in the context of leadership and other non-statistical intangibles. Because there’s no real way to quantify it with any sort of stat, there’s a tendency for some sabermatricians and stat heads to ignore the effect that a manager has on a ballclub. Same with intangibles like leadership and experience. As Castro explains:
Look, this is one of those stories that lacks statistical support. Let's just put that out there right now.
Francona might be a two-time World Series winner, but at the end of the day, he's merely a manager, a guy who is only going to perform marginally better or worse than -- if not in line with -- the level of talent he's afforded. Swisher might have a ring of his own from his Yankees days, but hobbled by the sort of shoulder injury that can betray a batter's clout and confidence, he was, for much of the season, not quite the reliable run-producer the Indians hoped to pencil into the cleanup spot. And Giambi, a long ways from that MVP heyday, didn't bat above the Mendoza Line this season.
But some stories tread beyond the statistical into the anecdotal, into the physical and mental grind of a six-month season and all the beautiful, bizarre and bumbling moments that come with it.
I fully support the integration of advanced statistics like OPS+, WAR, RAR, ERA+ etc. They help enhance some people’s understanding of the game, and are more predictive than some of the “older” stats like batting average, RBI and runs scored. But just because there’s no stat to encapsulate Tito Francona’s impact on the 2013 Indians doesn’t mean that he wasn’t partly responsible for the massive improvement from the 2012 squad. Jason Giambi’s WAR, as calculated by Baseball Reference, was -0.6. But I’m wearing a Mardi Gras in September t-shirt as I write this article because of a game that the Indians never would have won without him. Nick Swisher had a down year in 2013, posting his lowest OPS+ since 2008. But I watched the Indians crater down the stretch in 2012, and while I don’t know for sure that Swisher’s infectious energy was at least partly responsible for preventing a September swoon this year, I have a feeling that it helped.
Would the team have been able to endure the crushing sweep at the hands of the Tigers and come back to win 21 games in September without Tito, Swish, Giambi and the other leaders on the club? Maybe, but I’m really glad we didn’t have to find out. It all goes back to the interview I had with team president Mark Shapiro in spring training this year. Shapiro talked about looking for “levers” this offseason that could affect more than one player or position:

“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.”
Antonetti and Shapiro pulled the right levers this offseason, even though not all of them worked exactly the way they’d planned. The 2013 Indians outperformed all but the most optimistic of prognostications, providing an exciting playoff push culminating in an all-too-short one game wild card playoff. With the playoff format of just two years ago, we’d be getting ready to watch game 3 of the ALDS right now. I don’t know how many of the Indians 92 wins Tito was responsible for, and I have no clue how to quantify the leadership qualities of Jason Giambi, but I feel very safe in saying that the Indians wouldn’t have had an opportunity to play Tampa Bay on the corner of Carnegie and Ontario this past week without them. It’s no coincidence that the worst-to-first Red Sox had a managerial change going into this season as well, replacing the abject disaster that was Bobby Valentine with the steadying influence of former Indian John Farrell. While it’s clear that no manager can overcome poor talent on the field by his individual brilliance alone, it’s also easy to see how a guy like Tito at the controls can push a decent team a little further than they would have been able to get from the players alone. And that’s before we even talk about the effect that pitching coach Mickey Callaway had on the 2013 staff, helping turn Ewwbaldo back to the Ubaldo! of old.

Grantland’s Andrew Sharp took a field trip to Cleveland for the Indians and Browns games this week, and survived to tell the tale. The Indians portion of the trip can pretty much be summed up by a single line that he uttered after the end of the game. “So this is what these people have been dealing with. Jesus Christ.” Sharp manages to capture both the passion and frustration of Cleveland fans, and does it without the usual level of degradation that usually comes from national writers towards our fair city. He had front row seats to the passion of a playoff crowd in Cleveland, and came away predictably impressed with the energy and enthusiasm the fans in The Jake brought to the table:

Fans in Cleveland didn't stop cheering. If there was a sense of doom as soon as Delmon Young hit that home run, that anxious murmur only lasted for a few minutes before the stadium got loud again and everyone went back to shouting through every inning, standing for third strikes and full counts, and everything else that normal, well-adjusted fans do at baseball games. 
Sharp did get to see a Browns victory the next night (despite a first quarter that nearly, nearly, had me believing that Cleveland was indeed cursed), so at least he got to see the town react to a positive sports situation as well. The entire article is worth a read, as it’s always nice to see how an outsider feels when he/she immerses themselves in your sports culture for a big game or two.

As expected, Anthony Castrovice came through with one of the most comprehensive and appropriate pieces in the aftermath of Wednesday’s loss. The entire piece is required reading for any Indians fan, and I’m guessing most of you have seen it already. It both looks back on 2013 with pride and casts a cautiously optimistic eye towards 2014, recognizing that the Indians have come a long way but still have some serious, challenging work to do to get over that final hump. It’s exactly the type of thing I wish I could write, and the fact that Castro had it out on the interwebs about three hours after the game’s final pitch tells you everything you need to know about why he’s drawing a paycheck from MLB for the pleasure of his thoughts. There are a couple of quotes that I’d like to draw attention to, comments from individual players that help put the season and the future into context. First, from catcher/DH/1B Carlos Santana:
“I feel like we’re a family,” Santana said in the aftermath of this loss, and this was coming from a guy who basically lost his job this season, banished to DH duties at the age of 27.
The Santana comment calls to mind the movie Miracle, the fantastic Disney flick that tells the story of the 1980 US Olympic Hockey team. This Indians team came together like none I’ve ever seen. Even the mid-90’s clubs were famous for their locker room divisions, winning because they were a supremely talented squad more so than because of their ability to come together to achieve a common goal. This team, with two notable exceptions that were removed in mid-stream, was the classic “sum of the parts” squad. As in, the sum of the parts as a whole was greater than if added up individually. No one on the team hit more than 22 HR (Swisher) or drove more than 84 runs (Kipnis). Justin Masterson’s 14 wins paced the pitching staff. None of the Indians figure to be a factor in any of the postseason awards lists, other than Francona in the Manager of the Year race. You don’t win 10 baseball games in a row if there’s a weak link in the rotation or the lineup. They were even able to pick up Chris Perez when he struggled in the back end of the bullpen. The team came together, and that was a big reason they were able to make a run to the playoffs in 2013.

The next quote was from 2B/grinder/team leader Jason Kipnis, reacting to a question about the crowd’s passion during the wild card game:
“My first reaction is that it almost upsets me,” Kipnis said, “because I wish I could play in front of a crowd like this every single night. But it’s a long season. You knew if we made the playoffs, Cleveland would rally behind us and come out. You tip the cap to them. They came out, they were loud, they were amped up.”
Kipnis, an unquestioned on the field leader for the team, could have easily slid by with a simple “great crowd” comment. But he answered honestly, and told the assembled group of scribes that he was angry. I’m glad he’s angry, because he has every right to be. And I’d very much prefer anger to indifference. Kipnis, Swisher, Bourn and the rest of the team could easily just go out every day, play in front of 10-12 thousand fans and cash their (substantial) paychecks, apathetic to fan support or lack thereof. But Kipnis (and others on the team) care about this team and this town. They’re passionate, they play hard, and they deserve to be supported by the fans that they’re out there playing for. I’m angry too. I’m mad that they only made it one game into the playoffs, and I want them to be back next year. Watching them play down the stretch, needing ten straight victories to secure a home playoff game, living and dying with every pitch, every out…it was incredible. Especially in comparison to watching the Indians play out the string for the last 5 years with nothing on the line but next year’s draft slot. From the lows of a Perez blown save to the incredible highs of a Giambi walk off home run, this baseball season was as much fun as I remembered the playoff seasons of days gone by. I love this team.