Sunday, March 23, 2014

Lazy Sunday with the President, v. 2014

For the second year in a row, Indians team president Mark Shapiro was kind enough to take an hour out of his very busy spring training schedule and sit down for an interview with me in beautiful Goodyear, Arizona. Here’s a link to last year’s interview in case you missed it. We covered a wide variety of topics, including the difference in the 2013 and 2014 free agent market, Yan Gomes, ticket pricing, promotions, Francisco Lindor and of course, Justin Masterson and the breakdown in his long-term contract negotiations. The following is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation this past Friday.

Al Ciammaichella: This offseason was much quieter/different than last offseason. Were the moves you made last year looking forward to this year’s free agent class where you signed guys like Swisher and Bourn knowing this offseason would be quieter?

Mark Shapiro: We always have to take an opportunistic lens when it comes to free agency. When we look at free agency, if we’re dependent upon it to build our team, then we’re in a very difficult, if not impossible, spot. The reality is that we’re either looking for where the value is in the market or looking to be opportunistic. Last offseason there happened to be two guys that fit multiple year, positional needs for us at values we thought we could afford and who have some other special attributes, especially in the case of Swish, but really Bourne too, as a leader as well. They filled gaps we had in our system, where we felt like we didn’t have anyone coming up at all. And we also knew that this offseason there was a lot national TV money coming into the system and a lot less guys, so there were going to be more resources available, greater demand and less supply. So while it’s already a tough market, that was going to make it nearly an impossible market. So I look at last year as our chance to make a bigger splash in free agency, and this year was going to be “are there little things we can do?” I think we studied David Murphy, who I think is a good pick up for us. He’s going to improve both the defense, and give us a really good platoon and depth in the outfield.

AC: We talked a lot about levers last year, which became one of my new favorite buzzwords. How did you decide what levers to pull this year, with Murphy, and how did you decide which not to pull, with not bringing back guys like Ubaldo and Kazmir?

MS: Those decisions are never as simple as “do you want the player or not?” I think that the fan tends to look at it as “you didn’t want the guy.” We loved what Kaz did for us, we wanted him, but the level of risk involved with multiple years and the level of risk involved with those dollars just didn’t fit our payroll parameters this year with the natural, built in escalation of contracts. I think with Ubaldo, same thing. It ended up being a good deal for us, particularly in light of what we gave up, but it wasn’t the right fit for us this year. When you talk about levers, I think the neat things to think about from last spring to this spring are the evolution of a guy like Yan Gomes. Where all of a sudden, you look at Gomes and there’s a guy who leverages his ability to impact a game at more than just his position because of what he means defensively, what he means for his passion for making pitchers better, for helping to call a game. So I always like to think about, “where are the guys that can impact a game beyond objective statistics? Beyond just their own performance?” And Gomes is a guy who when he started to catch last year, I think that was one of the keys to our team really taking off.

AC: So when you traded for Gomes, and I could sit here all day and talk to you about Gomes, but when you traded for him, did you have any idea he’d be that much of an impact defensively? I’ve talked to some Blue Jays guys, and they were of the opinion that he was maybe a 3rd catcher while he was with the Jays.

MS: Any GM or front office guy who tells you he knows exactly what he was getting when he traded for a guy is just pounding his own chest. What you do is you try and find something you like, a defined attribute that you like about a guy. Even when we traded for Asdrubal or Shin-Soo Choo, there were always questions. We never thought they’d both be as good as they were, never. So when we traded for Yan Gomes, we thought that maybe he could catch, but really what he was, was right handed power, and a guy who could play multiple positions. That’s what we thought. When we got him, I think we did a smart thing, similar to when we traded for Justin Masterson. We didn’t know Masterson could start, but we knew he could be a dominant bullpen guy. But in our situation it’s important to maximize the value because we can’t go out and buy those things. So we put Yan back there, and right away Tito and the staff said “this guy’s got pretty special hands, he’s got some strength behind the plate.” When you go back and look at his career, whether it’s in Tennessee (in college) or in the Toronto system, he played behind Arrencebia both places, and they had D’Arnaud there as well. So he was behind two of the best young catchers in the game and he never got to catch much. He just took right to it. He got better and better. He’s a worker, he’s smart, he’s tough, he has a lot of the attributes you look for in a catcher.

AC: It’s nice having guys like Sandy (Alomar) and Wally (AA manager Dave Wallace) around who can help young catchers develop. I’m sure they spent a decent amount of time with him.

MS: Yeah, and he’s a sponge too. He wants more.

AC: You can tell. Just the framing metrics, things that were probably previously proprietary stats that are now out in the public showing just how many runs a catcher can save just by framing pitches helps show why he’s so valuable.

MS: Yeah, like Molina. I think there are just some things that you can’t measure, like his game calling and the way pitchers feel about him being a student of the advanced (scouting) report.

AC: And we haven’t even talked about his bat yet.

MS: Yeah, he’s got right-handed pop, which was the one thing we thought when we got him. He’s got right-handed power, which is hard to find.

AC: Last September was great experience, but such a roller coaster, winning 10 in a row to claim the 1st Wild Card and having it all end in just one day against the Rays. What was that like?

MS: Backing off the emotion, and looking at it from a more intellectual level, my take on that game in general was, we had just won ten in a row, and the nature of regressing to the mean was that we actually played a decent game. I thought we had more hard-hit balls than Tampa had. We could’ve won that game. But the odds just reversed on us. We had won ten in a row, and the time came for us not to have balls fall in. Two hard-hit balls right at people, and our ten game streak came to an end. It just happened to come to an end in a time where we were playing a single-elimination game. My thoughts, bigger picture reflecting were, “hey, I was on the committee that put that structure in place.” I was a little reluctant to go to a one-game playoff, but the managers lobbied hard for it in the intent to make it more difficult for a Wild Card team to advance. My takeaway was that it is definitely more difficult for a Wild Card team to advance.

AC: Right, a couple of years ago, you’re planning for the Red Sox as the Wild Card team. That had to creep into the back of your mind a little bit.

MS: A little bit. In the end, I still think it’s better for us and better for the game that more teams are involved in the playoffs, but yeah, what an abrupt halt to an incredible run. A little bit of an improbable run, so just to get in and play playoff baseball again in Progressive Field was pretty cool.

Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
AC: Last year you had guys like Danny Salazar and Corey Kluber really step up to fill big question marks in the rotation. Can you talk about how important those guys were, and who do you see being those guys this year? Whether it’s a starting pitcher, position player or bullpen arm, someone who can step up and fill a question mark going into the 2014 season.

MS: I think that Tomlin is an interesting guy to keep an eye on, Tomlin or Carrasco. I was really excited about Carlos coming in because of some of the changes he made this offseason, but the reality is that we’re going to need starters to step up. Carlos has got probably the highest ceiling and the most weapons and really has worked hard on some delivery changes that have shown extremely well early in camp. Obviously he’s struggled the last two times out. Josh is a guy that you’ve followed a little bit…I love the guy. Getting back to my earlier comments to you, looking for things you know about a guy? I know he competes. I know he’s an athlete, I know he throws strikes. I know he’s going to make you beat him. He is an extra infielder there in the infield, and you can’t run on him. Look at the numbers, you just cannot run on him. Is he going to give up some homers? Yeah, he’s going to give up some homers, but this spring there’s been some swing and miss with him, he’s had some more weapons. He’s a good guy to bet on, a good guy to win or lose with. And Carlos is a guy who is one step away from everything clicking, and you don’t want to give up on that. I think that can come from those guys. The bullpen…it’s hard to say. We’ve got some depth there. C.C. Lee is a guy that we feel strongly about, that he can have an impact soon.

AC: Austin Adams is another guy…

MS: Yeah, a good guy, a battler, competitor, hard thrower. Yesterday he was 97-98.

AC: Since we’re talking about pitching, let’s talk about Mickey Callaway. What a lever that guy has been, effecting the whole organization from top to bottom. You see what he was able to do with Ubaldo, and what he’s done with a lot of the young kids on the way up in Lake County, Carolina. How important is he to the club, and can he work his magic on other talented guys like Trevor Bauer and Carlos Carrasco, those high-ceiling, high talent guys who haven’t quite made that last step yet?

MS: One of the things to think about with Trevor is that he’s only 23 years old. So he’s still so young, but his path was almost artificially sped up just because of where he was drafted. Ross Atkins did a marvelous job in identifying Mickey, and hiring Mickey, and knowing that he had something special when he hired him. I remember vividly Ross telling me when he hired him. I’ve always told every farm director we’ve had, from John Farrell, Neil Huntington, Ross Atkins, all of the guys who’ve followed me in that job, “every time a job comes open, you need to think that pitching coach you’re hiring, that could be the next major league pitching coach.” You can’t just fill the job. You’ve got to look for impact guys, and Ross did that with Mickey, obviously, but he’s done that with numerous guys that he’s hired. But what makes Mickey special is his ability to communicate, and his openness to adapt to whoever he’s teaching. It’s not that he has some sort of sage insight into pitching mechanics or crazy proprietary philosophies, it’s more of the ability to connect, communicate, and individualize instruction. Develop trust and respect and help guys get better. Ensure that they know that he’s there for them. Mickey does that at a really elite level. His magic secret is his ability to communicate that other guys don’t have, and his ability to be selfless and really be there for the player.

AC: Positional flexibility is something that this team has, and not Garko in the outfield type of flexibility. But Santanta at 3B/1B/C, Raburn pretty much anywhere on the field, Swish 1B/OF, Aviles can play anywhere. How important is that to Tito and the club?

MS: I think that we look at having a nimble roster, having the ability to withstand the fact that not all guys can play 162 (games) as being important. One of the separators for us was having a bench with Raburn and Aviles on it last year. You look at a guy like Elliott Johnson, having a good camp, extremely versatile, a guy who can play all three outfield positions in addition to two or three infield positions, he’s another guy like that. So having good big-league players who are also versatile helps you in the endurance test of a 162 game season. And it may give you an opportunity to make up some ground on some higher revenue teams with superstar type players. It’s inevitable that most players are not going to play all 162.

AC: The Qualifying Offer. You’ve been on both sides of the Qualifying Offer now. Last year you were able to get a couple of guys who had that QO, with maybe a little less interest in a guy like Bourn than if he had not been under the QO protection. Then this year, with Ubaldo, getting an extra first round pick back after losing him. What are your feelings on the QO? Do you think that’s a positive aspect of the current CBA?

MS: I think it’s worked in the way that clubs have hoped it would work. It provides some compensation for losing a free agent, and I think we have a better understanding of the value of what those picks are worth now, and we can put a cash value on that. We factor that in to a free agent offer and we determine whether to offer the player something beyond the Qualifying Offer or not. To hear people on the other side diminish the value of the QO…we offered those guys $14.1 million for a one-year deal. That’s a whole lot of money. So it’s hard to feel like anyone is being take advantage of. They make the decision that they’ve earned the right to make, whether to accept it or not.

AC: So talking about whether or not to make that very large financial commitment, did you consider extending a QO to Kazmir?

MS: We never take anything lightly, and we walk very carefully through everything.

AC: So 2005 and 2007, the last two really great years of Cleveland baseball, the next years after 
those, in 2006 and 2008 the team started pretty slow out of the gate, being forced to trade C.C. in 2008 because you were out of it before the all-star break. Is there anything that the 2014 team can or has learned from that to try not to backslide?

MS: I wouldn’t say that we learned much from that, other than just how fragile it is which I think we already knew. I think we all understand that there’s still some good fortune that has to factor in to us being that team. Last spring training we were trying to figure out who three of our starters were. Now we’re agonizing over three or four good choices for one spot, our last spot. But we may end up worse this year than last year, starting pitching wise. Some things really hit for us last year, with Ubaldo and Scotty Kazmir. In our situation, we’re never going to build the perfect team. We’re always going to have some question marks heading in. Our job is to reduce the number of “ifs.” If this happens, if that happens…have as few of those “ifs” as possible heading into the season. And I think this year’s team has less “ifs” than last year’s team. The question is whether we can build off of what we did last year. Not, can we improve? Because 92 wins is pretty tough, but to build off of that and play good baseball. Part of the way we got to 92 wins was by winning ten in a row at the end. I don’t want to have to do that again.

AC: Going 4-15 against the Tigers last year essentially killed your chances to win the division. Other than having better luck, what can you do to close that gap specifically against the Tigers this year?

MS: That’s true. They’re objectively the best team in baseball, so I’m not sure that we were able to close the gap on them. I just think we need to focus on being as good as we can be. I think we’re going to be better than 4-15 against them this year. But the reality is the Royals are going to be better, and regardless of how good they’re going to be both the White Sox and the Twins are going to be better than they were last year. It’s a hard division, and the Tigers are still objectively either #1 or #2 in all of major league baseball. And they should be, with the resources they’ve got. So we’re going to have a challenge, a real battle. It wasn’t easy last year. You could argue that Kansas City, down the stretch, was the best team we played in September last year. They beat us more than anyone else beat us in September.

AC: We talked a little about TV money last year, and again today already. When you saw the contract that Kershaw got (7 years, $215 million), what was the first thing that flashed through your mind?

MS: First thing that flashed through my mind is that is one of the most special, most unique players and people that exists in the game. And if we were in similar circumstances, we would probably do the same thing. He represents not just a talent, but a man of character and work ethic, and I think those things factor in when you stretch and make big decisions. That being said, if you scale revenue and the resources to our market, that offer in our market gets a lot smaller.

AC: The season ticket base is not at the level that you want it right now.

MS: Our single biggest challenge.

AC: Still, revenue did go up last year. Is that from dynamic pricing?

MS: It’s a factor of more efficient pricing in general. I think we got ourselves into a position because of reflexively discounting and promoting for a period of years, which is pretty standard sports marketing, instead of focusing and understanding where the most important fans are and how we effectively price and what we’re doing to our business by just discounting year after year. The ultimate challenge is, and I always tell people this, is the concert analogy. If Pearl Jam is playing in Boston, they’re getting paid the same thing as if they were playing in Cleveland. But they can charge a lot more for the tickets in Boston. The talent in baseball gets paid no matter what city it plays in, but tickets cost a lot more in cities other than they do in Cleveland. That’s because of the size of the market and the wealth of the market. So we’re in a tough spot. But I think that what we need to do, more than raise prices, is just to get people to buy in advance. That’s the most important thing for us. Try to change behaviors. Any more in today’s world, when you have a ballpark in a downtown where there are only 170,000 people working downtown, if the decision is left up to the last minute then weather is a significant variable. Really the home TV product is a significant variable. You’re tired at the end of your day, you didn’t buy already and make that decision already, it’s not so bad to sit down on the couch and watch with your surround sound on your 60” screen. I think our fans are out there. It’s just, how do we make it more compelling to come to the ballpark, and how do we shift that behavior to buy in advance, to commit earlier.

AC: Talking about enticing people to come to the ballpark, you’ve got a lot of really neat promotions this year, new food items, cheaper beer…what are you most excited about on that front?

MS: I’m actually most excited about one that we haven’t announced yet, one that we’re going to announce after opening day. We’ve got a big technology driven one that we’re really excited about.

AC: Free iPad day at the ballpark?

MS: Haha, exactly, right. I do think it will be a platform for us to do a lot more technologically at our ballpark.

Photo Credit: Colorado Rockies
AC: Coors Field has a rooftop deck in the stands, something that they came out withthis year. Is that something that Cleveland would ever entertain?

MS: We’ve been looking at concepts a lot like that, not that exact same one. But I think, as you and I talked about last year, we’re very intensely involved in the evolution of our ballpark in two levels. One, it’s 20 years old, so there’s just infrastructure that we have to think about. Second, is how do we help the ballpark without ever violating the incredible architectural integrity of it, how do we help it evolve for the next generation of fans, the next 20 years. Because we do have some things that are outdated, some things that don’t fit our market or fit today’s fans. So how do we make it a compelling entertainment environment. We are quietly working on those things, very closely, and I think when we get to the point where we have firm plans you’ll start to see us roll those out. It could be as soon as this year, we’re getting closer on some of those things. It’s a lot of work.

AC: Last year we talked a little bit about the draft, and you stressed how important it was going to be with a top-5 pick to hit on a star. Do you think you hit on that guy with Clint Frazier?

MS: Well, we hit on a guy with big-time pop, big-time power who loves to play the game of baseball and who is still learning to play his position defensively. When you take a high school position player, one that has a pretty good profile, pretty good pedigree, there’s upside there. You have the chance to have a star. But the draft business in general is highly speculative, so for me to say we hit on that…we have a talent. Now we have to help make him a talented professional player. Because it’s difficult for any 19-year old to come into this environment…this is not the right environment for everyone. For a guy like Francisco Lindor, he’s a baseball rat, he was made to play baseball. It’s what he’s always thinking about, it’s what he wants to do, he’s very at ease in this environment. I’ve seen other 18-year old kids come in and it’s just uncomfortable for them from day one.

AC: Two of your top starting pitching prospects, Cody Anderson and Dace Kime, were relievers in college. Is that an under-exploited market? Are college RP a new market inefficiency?

MS: We haven’t looked at it that way. We have some very specific things we’re looking for as we’ve evolved in our amateur scouting, and really our pitching scouting in general. We have a checklist of things we think about, and those guys were guys who happened to not be starting based on what their college coaches saw that we think have the capability to be starters. When we look at college relievers, some of them are relievers for a reason. Some of them are guys like Cody Allen that we’ll bring in here and put in the bullpen because we feel like that’s the right role for them because of either arm action or pitch development. Other guys we think can maybe start, and we’ll give them a chance to start.

AC: Two big rule changes this year with expanded instant replay and catcher collisions rule. I refuse to call it a ban on homeplate collisions, because it isn’t that.

MS: Not this year, no. Hopefully next year it will be.

AC: You’re in favor of that one then, obviously.

MS: I’m in favor of it. I’m not sure I’m in favor of the incremental step, but that was part of the negotiation 
with the union. I think the rule has worked pretty efficiently and pretty effectively at the NCAA level. When we talked to those umpires and those coaches, they were surprised at how quickly it was adapted to. But the union had some concerns, understandably, that these guys have been away from that for so long that it could be a big adjustment, so they put an incremental step in place with the intent of having it go all the way next year, so we’ll see how that works.

AC: And with replay, I saw you hired a replay coordinator, a former coach (Gregg Langbehn), a guy who really knows the game and will be able to help out on what calls should be challenged. Do you see replay as being a big thing this year?

MS: I love the fact that we’re moving in that direction. I think that it was positioned extremely appropriately, that it’s going to be a learning process, that there’s no way, as (Braves Team President) John Schuerholz said, that we’re going to be able to peel all the layers back from the onion. We’re going to have to adjust as we go. I think that admitting that up front, that saying that we expect that within three years we’ll have a more perfect system but that it’s going to be a work in progress. I see some issues that might need some adjustment pretty quickly, but that’ll bear out and we’ll adjust as time goes on. I think that in the end, it’s a step in the right direction. We can’t have people in the stands watching it on their hand held devices, their phones and tablets, watching it and saying “how could that happen?” Sooner or later that’s going to happen in a World Series game or a pennant stretch game, and that would be a bad thing for the industry to not have the ability to reverse that call.

AC: This offseason, you guys hired (Baseball Prospectus reporter and author) MaxMarchi, who literally wrote the book on baseball analytics? How big of a hire is that for you guys?

MS: Mike or Chris would probably be better to talk about that, but he’s a guy who we’ve been very aware of for a long period of time, obviously his work, like you, and respect it, and we feel like as we continue to grow and evolve analytically that he has a chance to make an impact for us. I think it’s an area where we continue to grow in.

AC: Looking down south in Atlanta, John Hart gets hired and you see them start buying out a slew of arbitration and free agent years for their young guys. That can’t be a coincidence.

MS: (Smiling broadly) I just got off the phone with him an hour ago. Multi-year deals. When I talked to him today, I said, “hey, Scott Scudder, Dave Otto, sign ‘em all up!” (laughing). John is an incredible influence in my career, an incredibly wise guy, an astute evaluator of talent and a strong leader. John Schuerholz knows that, I think he’s also probably John’s best friend. So John Schuerholz is going to clearly take advantage of John Hart’s wisdom, as is Frank Wren, and one of those things is probably that philosophy, although not the same parameters, not the same operating conditions with the insurance industry being different, still has its advantages, particularly in the first generation of contracts.

AC: So how has your perspective, your approach to contracts evolved since those Scott Scudder and Dave Otto contracts?

MS: It’s just a much harder, more finite window on the multi-year contract process. Trying to find that value, where the shared risk aligns. It’s just a lot more difficult.  

AC: When looking at contracts, do you ever factor in WAR/$ (Wins Over Replacement)?
That’s certainly something that goes in…we’re looking at measuring the value of the player. The replacement value of the player and what that costs. So absolutely, we factor that in. I’m not saying that’s the only stat we use, we have our own proprietary stats. But we are making clear valuations on the player, and cash is the easiest way to measure that value.

AC: So, I have to ask about Justin Masterson. Obviously, he’s a very important part of the ballclub, and it was reported last night that talks on a multi-year deal broke down. Any thoughts on Masty’s future in Cleveland?

MS: We make it a habit not to negotiate in public. That’s never constructive, it’s never respectful for the other side and it never results in a good outcome. The things that I will say about Masty are that we appreciate him, we like him as a player, we respect him as a person and we want to keep him here. That’s never the question. The question is, can we do it at a level and still effectively build a team around him. So that’s more the challenge for us, when you look at a guy who has accomplished as much as he has accomplished and is staring free agency in the face.

Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
AC: I can’t leave without asking about Francisco Lindor. I know we talked about him a little bit, but every time I watch him I come away more and more impressed. I watched him in BP yesterday, and he hit 3 HR from each side of the plate in two rounds of BP. And defense is his calling card! How excited are you for him to play in Cleveland?

MS: I try to temper that, putting my player development hat on and just knowing that, and Ross and I have talked about this, that he (Lindor) needs to focus on his clock ticking. Using every single at bat, every single ground ball and every single inning in the minor leagues as a pearl that’s going to be going away pretty quickly. So we need to make sure he’s as prepared as he can humanly be when he comes up and gets a chance to play up here. So I’m trying to put that aside to get him to focus on not where he’s going, but where he is. And the best thing for his major league career is going to be for him to focus on those limited opportunities he has in those minor league at bats where he’s not going to get overly scrutinized, or hurt his earning potential, and focus on getting developmentally squared away so that his foundation is strong when he gets to the big leagues. That’s kind of where I’m trying to stay, where all of us are trying to stay right now.

AC: So Swisher’s “Unfinished Business” t-shirts…do you have one? Is that something the organization is really getting behind?

MS: I do…but it took me a while to get one! Limited edition (laughs). I’m going to have to tweet out here, I have a couple to give a couple away, I managed to get ahold of some extras.

AC: Thanks a lot for taking the time to talk with me, I know how busy you are this time of year.

MS: Any time, I enjoyed it!


Adam Van Arsdale said...

Someone is a huge Tomlin fan, it sounds like

Al Ciammaichella said...

Yeah, I definitely got that impression. CC Lee as well. When you look at his positive comments on Elliott Johnson the day before it's announced that Johnson won a roster spot, you have to think that both Tomlinson and Lee have a leg up in their respective position battles.

Adam Van Arsdale said...

I would be surprised if Lee beats out Wood for the 7th (final?) bullpen spot now. But I would not at all be surprised to see Lee as the first guy called upon from Columbus.

Unknown said...

I hope this continues to be an annual piece here, AC. Great work, as always.

Ryan said...

Awesome interview, Al.

Dan Wismar said...

Well done, Al. Thanks for asking the tough questions....about ticket sales...decisions on QO's and resigning vets...etc. Without trying to insult any of the "beat" guys....let's face're showing them up.

Al Ciammaichella said...

Thanks everyone, glad you enjoyed it.

Tricky Dick said...

Good stuff. Can't wait to talk about other observations from your trip. Next year, I'm coming along for some Spring Training fun.

PO13 said...

Great work Al!!

I must ask, how long does it take to transcribe something like this? I may be way off since I have no experience, but I'm assuming you tape record the conversation and then play it back slowly typing each sentence. Am I living in the 1970's? Is there a better technique?

Regardless great work and I'm so excited for baseball!