Sunday, November 16, 2014

Celebrating CyKluber on a Lazy Sunday

On June 6, 1944, the biggest invasion fleet in the history of the world set forth from the Eastern ports of England, bound for the beaches of Normandy, France. D-Day, as it is commonly referred to now, featured the combined arms of the United States, United Kingdom and Canada, all under the care of U.S. General (and later President) Dwight David Eisenhower. Ike was ultimately responsible for the lives of thousands of Allied soldiers, and ultimately the fate of the free world. The Supreme Allied Commander wrote two speeches in the days leading up to D-Day, one to use if the landings were able to secure a beachhead, and one to use if the liberating forces were thrown back into the English Channel in defeat. Thankfully for the men and women of occupied Europe, Ike never had to use that second speech. The landings were successful and the Allies would roll into Germany, crossing the Rhine in March of 1945 and bringing the War in Europe to a successful conclusion on May 8, 1945 (V.E. Day). What does D-Day have to do with baseball? Very little, to be honest. But earlier this week, I started writing this column and realized that I’d have to prepare two versions; one for Corey Kluber’s successful Cy Young campaign, and one if Felix Hernandez was selected as the 2014 AL Cy Young Award winner. The stakes are a little (lot) lower than they were back in 1944, but anytime I can work Eisenhower into the opening of a Lazy Sunday (especially the week after Veterans Day), you can be darn sure I’m going to take advantage.

So as all Indians fans are surely aware, Corey Kluber is your 2014 AL Cy Young Award winner, completing one of the more unlikely Cy Young campaigns in recent memory (but still behind Cliff Lee's 2008). He was the 2nd best pitcher in all of major league baseball in 2014, and the single best cyborg. It’s possible that Felix Hernandez was actually the best human pitcher in baseball this year, losing out only to CyKluber and the alien life force known as Clayton Kershaw. The award came as a bit of a surprise to some, and a major shock to the system for Mariners fans who had talked themselves into King Felix winning the award back in June or July. Ultimately, it was the arguments made by most Indians fans that helped Kluber win out. He pitched in front of the worst defense in baseball, which actually ended up helping Kluber with the voters who embrace some of the more “advanced” statistics like FIP (fielding independent pitching). He accumulated more WAR (wins above replacement) than Felix, 7.4 to 6.8. He also had more wins than Hernandez, which probably helped him in the minds of the “old-school” voters who still value statistics like wins and RBI over those new-fangled WAR, FIP, OPS+ etc. The stats themselves were close enough that either choice could be defended, as Anthony Castrovice breaks down for Castro also includes the video from the hit-turned-error that shaved four earned runs off of Hernandez’s final mark as well as the hit-turned-error-turned-hit that added three earned runs onto Kluber’s tally. Change one (or both) of those scoring decisions, and the final ERA race becomes even closer. I’m glad Kluber won and think it was the right decision, but I probably wouldn’t have gone off the deep end had the final result been flipped. If you want to read well-thought out, reasoned take on the voting from a Mariner fan, the always-reliable USS Mariner put together a solid piece less than 2 hrs after the award was announced. If you want to read complete and utter nonsense expelled from the mouth of an idiot, then click here.

Getting back to intelligent, reasonable analysis, August Fagerstrom of the Akron Beacon Journal and Fangraphs put together a really nice piece looking at how the voters gave Kluber the Cy Young based primarily on FIP, whether they knew it or not. And that’s a big deal for those who value advanced metrics becoming more mainstream. As Fagerstrom explains:

This seems big. There’s a consensus as to why Corey Kluber just won a Cy Young Award and, at the risk of sounding over dramatic, it feels like something of a revolutionary consensus. This reminds me of when Felix won the Cy Young in 2010, despite a 13-12 record. Seemed like that was a turning point that helped the national audience realize pitcher wins don’t matter. Perhaps this will be something of a turning point that ERA isn’t the end-all-be-all, and a turning point that helps legitimize FIP to the mainstream.
Fagerstrom took a look at the rationale behind some of Kluber’s supporters amongst the voters, and found that while they didn’t mention FIP outright, many talked about the superior defense in Seattle, as well as the park effects of Safeco benefiting the King. As an aside, if you’re not following August on Twitter, you’re doing yourself a disservice. He’s an excellent writer with some really insightful stuff, and I highly recommend you read his stuff.

I don’t have much more to add to the Kluber news, but I will say this; the Cleveland Indians won one Cy Young Award between 1956 (the first year of the award) and 2006. After going 1 for 50, Indians pitchers have now captured three of the last eight AL Cy Young Awards. That’s a pretty nice little run they have put together, and there’s no reason to think that Kluber can’t continue to contend for the award in the near future. He’s under club control through at least 2018(!), and isn’t even arbitration eligible until 2016. If you want to read more about the Indians young, cheap and downright adorable Cy Young Award winner, the good folks over at Let’s Go Tribe have an excellent rundown of links from around the interwebs that are worth checking out.

Moving on from Kluber (but not really), Baseball Prospectus has come up with a somewhat complicated formula to measure how well-off a franchise is when it comes to “core talent.” They call it Core Team Value, and it looks at youth, performance (by WAR) and club control to try and figure out what teams are set up best for the future at the major league level. The Indians come in at…wait for it…#2 in all of baseball, behind only the big-money Los Angeles Dodgers of Los Angeles. They have five “core” players that were considered for the sample; Michael Brantley, Corey Kluber, Yan Gomes, Carlos Santana and Cookie Carrasco. So that’s not even considering the potential contributions of young, talented players like Danny Salazar, Trevor Bauer, Jason Kipnis or Cody Allen, not to mention uber-prospect Francisco Lindor. All of those players are also under club control for several years to come. And you could even get really rosy eyed and predict some sort of a bounce back year for Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn in 2015. As BP’s Jonathan Judge put it:
Cleveland did extremely well in these rankings last year, ranking fourth in the league for roster core quality. I didn’t comment on it at the time, as Cleveland had just enjoyed a Cinderella season and its team WARP obviously reflected that. But here we are for a second year in a row, and Cleveland not only maintained its top-quartile status, but moved up. It did so by coaxing strong performances from additional core assets for a second year in a row. Whereas last year featured superb production from Jason Kipnis and Carlos Santana, this year the club added outstanding performances from Michael Brantley and Corey Kluber (both 6+ WARP). In a fairly weak division, this emerging roster core has the needle trending up.
This team is young and talented, of that there can be no doubt. There’s no guarantee that 2014 success will beget a solid 2015 season, of course. Fausberto Carnandez  going from Cy Young contender in 2007 to Lake County in 2008 is recent enough evidence of that. But the Indians are in a very good position for the 2015 season and beyond. They have a deep, restocked farm system with a couple of crown jewels acquired in recent drafts. They’re trending upwards (again, just like we thought in 2007) in a division where the other teams are either treading water or getting weaker. Young, affordable pitching is never going out of style (even if power is at more of a premium right now) and that’s something that the Indians have in spades. Combine that with a solid bullpen and a balanced lineup, the team has to be considered a potential playoff contender even without major additions this offseason. We’ll again pop over to the impartial experts over at Baseball Prospectus, who think that the Indians are being underrated by the sharps in Vegas when they put the club at 28-1 odds at winning the World Series next year:
Cory Kluber headlines a rotation that features perhaps the most intriguing collection of starters in all of baseball. Armed with a great arsenal and much improved command, Carlos Carrasco appears to have blossomed into a legitimate no. 2 starter. Danny Salazar bounced back from a disappointing start in 2014 and could be primed for a breakout season, and few teams in baseball round out their rotation with better pitchers than Trevor Bauer and T.J. House.
Offensively, Cleveland can expect to be better at crucial positions. Some combination of Jose Ramirez and Francisco Lindor should outproduce what Asdrubal Cabrera provided—at least with the glove—and with a full offseason to recover from an oblique injury that never went away, Jason Kipnis is a strong rebound candidate. If the Indians can add a mid-tier bat—a Colby Rasmus or Alex Rios type fits— they should have enough thump in their order to compensate for a weak defense. Their pitching alone gives them a pretty good chance to reach the postseason, and once you get there...
Speaking of divisional clubs treading water, the Tigers were to prevent their best offensive player (in 2014 at least) from departing by inking DH Victor Martinez to a 4-year contract. They are paying Martinez $68 million for his age 36-40 seasons, which is $12 million more than the Indians risked in paying Nick Swisher for his age 32-35 seasons. Victor has been healthy and productive throughout his career of course, but he posted “just” a .785 OPS in 2013. That’s not bad, but it’s not what the Tigers are paying for. It’s no secret that the Tigers are firmly in win now mode, and this deal definitely helps their team in 2015. But it’s not without risk, even next season. Fangraphs Dave Cameron listed Vic as one of his free agent “landmines,” explaining that a team signing him is paying for what amounts to an outlier season when it comes to power production. Even if Victor does produce at a level commensurate with his pay (and even with the Tigers, I can’t find myself rooting against Vic), the Tigers have some significant payroll obligations for players on the clear downside of their careers. They will owe a combined $76 million in 2018 for a 40-year old Victor Martinez, 35-year old Justin Verlander (88 ERA+ in 2014) and a 35-year old Miguel Cabrera. They’re committed to pay Anibal Sanchez and Ian Kinsler at least $10 million, and that’s if they buy out the final year of both of those contracts. That makes for $86 million obligated in 2018, and that’s for three players on the active roster. The Indians entire payroll in 2014 was less than $86 million. Does Mike Ilitch care? Probably not, as he’s in it to win it in the very near future. But the long term ramifications could be severe. Let’s look to Fangraphs one last time today, as Jeff Sullivan shows us a present-day glimpse of what the future could hold in Detroit:
The natural, kind of obvious conclusion: the Tigers are positioning themselves to resemble the Phillies. The Phillies are in the dreadful part of the cycle after having made the playoffs five years in a row. The Tigers have finished first in their division four years in a row, and they’re good enough to make it five. It sure looks like, within the next few years, the situation in Detroit is going to turn pretty ugly. But they can worry about that when they get there, if they even still have all the same front-office personnel, and besides, before it sucked to be a Phillies fan, it was pretty damn special. Since the Phillies won the World Series, they might say it was worth it. The Tigers put another $68 million toward buying an era a trophy.
Is it worth it to strip the farm system barren and sign aging players to contracts that would be crazy even if they were paid in Monopoly money if it results in just one championship? That’s a question that neither Indians nor Tigers fans can answer as of right now, because the last title for either team was 30 years ago. Are the Tigers in a better spot to end that drought in 2015? Probably, but with the potential departure of Max Scherzer, their lineup is going to have to stay healthy and productive in order to compensate for a weakened starting rotation. Regardless of 2015 though, I think the Indians are in a much better spot over the long haul thanks to their stable of young, controlled talent.

Last week in this space, I talked about potential moves that the Indians could/should make this offseason to bolster their chances for 2015. I talked about Brett Anderson and Brandon Morrow as potential arms to take a flyer on, but didn’t mention former Indians ace Justin Masterson. Well, it appears that the Indians and Masterson’s camp are talking about a potential return to the North Coast for the big righty. Jordan Bastian reports that the Indians are one of several teams that have contacted Masterson about a short term deal, a far cry from the 3 year, $45 million extension the club offered him in March. Masterson struggled to a 7-9 record with the Indians and Cardinals in 2014, including a career-worst 5.88 ERA and 4.50 FIP. His K/BB ratio fell from 2.57 in 2013 to 1.68 in 2014. In short, it was a terrible season at a terrible time for the 29-year old right-hander out of Beavercreek, OH. But could there have been an underlying reason(s) for the sudden and steep decline? As we all no doubt remember, Masterson dealt with an oblique injury down the stretch in 2013. That injury reportedly lingered into spring training last year, which began a chain reaction leading to knee and shoulder issues that kept Masterson from reaching his full effectiveness at any point last year, as Bastian details for us:
The oblique injury led to tenderness in Masterson's ribcage area during Spring Training before this season, but the pitcher kept quiet about the issue…
During the season's first half, Kluber and Tomlin pointed out to Masterson that his stride in his delivery had lengthened. Masterson was compensating for the soreness in his side and the result was inflammation in his right knee. Cleveland traded the pitcher to St. Louis on July 30, but the issues persisted to the point of needing an MRI exam.
The Cardinals' staff discovered the scar tissue in Masterson's side and also found an impingement in his right shoulder. The pitcher received a cortisone shot in his arm and underwent a minor procedure to break up the scar tissue. All of the issues combined offer possible reasons behind Masterson's diminished velocity and his uncharacteristic pitching line (7-9, 5.88 ERA in 128 2/3 innings).

Masterson has been an “every other year” guy with the Indians, pitching much better in odd years than even for whatever reason. Could he be in line for a big bounceback season in 2015 now that he’s healthy again? Much like we talked about with Brett Anderson, it could be an attractive deal for both sides. Masterson would be back in a familiar location with a team and organization that he’s comfortable with, including The Pitcher Whisperer. He could rebuild his value and look for a multi-year deal in 2016, in Cleveland or elsewhere. The Indians would get a guy they know is a leader in the clubhouse at a rate far cheaper than they anticipated paying just eight months ago, and the contract would carry very little risk for the club. If he’s unable to regain his starting form, Masterson could even be used as a power arm out of the bullpen the way he was in 2013. There are a number of teams interested in Masterson (a dozen, according to his agent which should be taken with a grain of salt) so the reunion might not happen if another club offers Masty a longer term deal or more upfront money than the Indians are willing to shell out. But having a healthy and effective Masterson in the middle of the rotation would be an incredible luxury that seemed impossible a year ago, and would provide insurance in case 2nd half Cookie Carrasco turns into a pumpkin and regresses to the guy we saw prior to the 2014 all-star break. Fan-favorite Justin Masterson propels Indians past Tigers for AL Central title would be a poetic and welcome headline in September of 2015, and something for Indians fans to dream on during a cold and snowy winter… 

Sunday, November 09, 2014

GM for a Day on a Lazy Sunday

Another week into the cold, seemingly unending darkness of baseball’s offseason. Leaves are falling, clocks are changing, and the weather is getting colder. The Cavs haven’t been the unstoppable juggernaut that many expected them to be (at least, not yet). The Browns are…well, the Browns. Thursday’s win was great, but I’m still not quite convinced they’ve broken through to become Super Bowl contenders. Regardless, I have good news. There is light at the end of the tunnel. Pitchers and catchers report just 102 days from today (if you’re reading this on Sunday). Baseball is coming back.

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you’ve see the reports that Tito Francona agreed to a contract extension through at least 2018, and it includes club options for 2019 and 2020. Your 9th grade child will be well-into college before Tito can leave for another job on his own accord. And more importantly, there doesn’t seem like there’s much chance for him to want to leave, now or down the road. In his own words:

 “I really didn’t want to move on from here. ... You watch every manager in their first press conference, they say all these things — and they’re all true, they all feel them — but what’s really cool for me is, two years later, I’m getting to live them out. And I still feel the same way, two years [later], except maybe stronger, than the day I was hired. And for that, I’m very grateful.”
There’s not a whole lot I can add on Tito that wasn’t covered by Anthony Castrovice and/or Jordan Bastian (and if for some reason you haven’t read those two pieces yet, please remedy that by clicking the links), but I think it’s important to recognize just how much Francona means to this organization, both on and off the field. He’s a solid in-game tactician in the dugout. He’s great with the media and an effective communicator (something today’s manager has to be able to do). The players like him, which makes him an asset in the offseason when it comes to attracting free agents. He’s put together a fantastic staff, including both former (Brad Mills) and future (Sandy Alomar and Mike Sarbaugh) MLB managers, not to mention The Pitcher Whisperer. His Indians teams have won the 4th-most games in the AL since he took over as manager prior to the 2013 season. He’s on the same page as the two guys above him, GM Chris Antonetti and Team President Mark Shapiro. And most importantly, he genuinely wants to be here. He’s not using Cleveland as a stepping stone to a better-paying job somewhere else. He’s not going to leverage the Indians contract into a job with the Dodgers. Hell, if you believe the reports, he didn’t even know how much money he made in 2014! As the Cleveland fanbase know probably better than any other, continuity at the top of an organization makes for a much better chance at sustained success. One look at the history of the Cleveland Browns would seem to confirm that hypothesis. The Indians triumvirate at the top seems to be locked in for the long haul, and although there’s a very loud segment of the fanbase that would probably prefer otherwise, I think that’s a pretty good thing for the organization’s future success.

All that said, the best manager in the universe isn’t going to win without the players on the field. According to the BBWA, the Indians had one of the top-3 pitchers and one of the top-3 position players in the American League in 2014. That’s a really good start, as both of those guys are south of 30 and theoretically still on their way up. But what else can GM Chris Antonetti add to the roster this offseason to help Tito’s squad get over the hump and win the AL Central? With the help of the venerable founder of this fine site, the original DiaTribe himself, I sat down and tried to come up with some realistic moves that Antonetti could/should make this winter to help the Indians compete for the division next year. Please note that ‘realistic’ is a key word here. So no trading Josh Tomlin and Nick Swisher for Giancarlo Stanton. And also no “sign Victor,” as much as I want that to happen, because he just had too good of a season to wind up on the North Coast in 2015. So without further ado, here’s my attempt at playing armchair GM for the Indians this winter:

1.      As part of the annual offseason signings of 4-8th starters, offer former Rockies SP Brett Anderson an incentive-laden deal to compete for the 5th starter job out of spring training. I think that it’d probably take $2-4 million guaranteed, plus another $3-5 million in incentives to bring him into the fold on a one-year deal. It’d be a great option for both parties involved. Anderson would get a chance to pitch in The Jake, a ballpark that slightly favors pitchers over hitters that would feel like paradise compared to Coors Field. He’d have The Pitcher Whisperer as his pitching coach, keeping his mechanics in line and hopefully preventing further injury. And most importantly, he’d have a chance to rebuild his value on a one-year deal with a chance to get paid in 2016 and beyond. Anderson will be just 27 for all of the 2015 baseball season (2 years younger than when Scott Kazmir took his one-year deal in Cleveland) and has been really good when he has pitched in his career (112 career ERA+). But the last time he threw more than 45 innings was in 2011. Because he’s left-handed (another reason he’d fit in well in the Indians rotation) and has had success, he’s going to be a popular buy-low target throughout baseball. The Indians are bound to have competition for Anderson, but I think they can get a deal done.

Another arm I’d like to see them make a run at is former Blue Jay Brandon Morrow. Morrow is a little older than Anderson (turned 30 in July) and doesn’t have the same track record of success (99 career ERA+) and he’s right-handed, so he should come cheaper than Anderson. He’s combined to throw just 87 2/3 innings over the past two seasons, with an ERA north of 5 in both 2013 and 2014. But his FIP in 2014 was 3.73, and his raw stuff has always been above-average (765 K in 735 2/3 career IP). He’s another guy that I’d like to see Mickey Callaway have a shot with, as the upside is definitely there. There’s even the potential for him slotting into the back end of a bullpen, a la Wade Davis, although I’m not sure his arm could bounce back quickly enough to make multiple appearances in a single week.

2    2.      Call the Dodgers and offer them Bryan Shaw for OF Scott Van Slyke. Original credit for this idea goes to Pauly C., which explains why it makes so much sense. The Dodgers bullpen struggled last year, and a setup guy like Shaw would fit in very nicely for them. Also, Shaw pitched . Meanwhile, Van Slyke is 28 and still doesn’t have a home in a crowded and expensive Dodgers outfield, especially if Matt Kemp is healthy. Van Slyke has played well in limited action for the Dodgers, putting up a .276/.36/.501 slash line with 18 HR in 151 games between 2013-14. He could at least be the right side of a RF platoon with lefty David Murphy, and could provide the Indians OF with a little more pop than they exhibited last year.

As for Shaw, he had an outstanding season as the Indians primary 8th inning guy last year, posting a 2.59 ERA (144 ERA+) in 76 1/3 innings of work. But he made a league-high 80 appearances last year, and his FIP was nearly a full run higher than his ERA (3.42). There’s a good chance for regression, and bullpen arms are notoriously fickle from year to year anyway (see Betancourt, Rafael). The Indians have a glut of power RH bullpen arms in the pipeline, guys like Austin Adams, C.C. Lee, Shawn Armstrong and Bryan Price. Not to mention Zach McAllister, a guy who really doesn’t have a spot left in the revamped Indians rotation, would slot very nicely into a back-end role. Losing Shaw would hurt the bullpen’s depth, but I’m confident they can find someone to plug in and replace him without too much overall degradation.
3.      Start Francisco Lindor at shortstop on opening day. Based on the Indians picking up Mike Aviles’ option for 2015, this is almost definitely not going to happen. But in this scenario, I’m playing GM for the day, so I get to do what I want. I’ve already gone to great lengths to cover how I think Lindor could help the 2015 Indians, both in the field and at the plate. I think he’s a better hitter and fielder than Jose Ramirez right now, and could be worth an extra win or two as the club’s everyday shortstop. With the Indians expecting to contend for the playoffs next year, that extra win could be the difference between playing baseball in October or ending the season after 162 games. Or the difference between a one-game Wild Card berth and setting up the rotation for the best-of-five ALDS.

Those are the first three moves I’d make this offseason if I were in charge. The Indians aren’t going to be major players in the free agent market this winter, and frankly they really don’t have to be. The roster is pretty well set for next season, particularly the starting rotation (which I’ll get deeper into in the coming weeks). The Indians will pick up a couple of arms for the rotation and a couple of arms for bullpen depth. They’ll kick the tires on a couple of corner OF free agents, but the overall core of the team is pretty well set. There’s still more to sort out, especially at the 3B position, where it’s unclear whether or not Lonnie Chisenhall is the long-term solution. But between the talented young players (Silver Sluggers Gomes and Brantley) and the expensive veterans that are locked into the lineup for better or worse (Swisher and Bourn), the lineup is pretty well set. So those are just a few of my (realistic) ideas for some ancillary moves that could help the ballclub heading into what should be an interesting 2015 season. What are some of yours?