Sunday, March 27, 2016

Back in Action on a Lazy Sunday

Hi. Remember me? I used to write stuff about Indians baseball. People read it and everything, it was really great. Unfortunately, the last time I wrote anything about Indians baseball was…June of 2015. Wow, that’s embarrassing to actually see in print. When Paul Cousineau stepped away from the interwebs (for good, it turns out) in September of 2012, the one thing I wanted to do with this site is to carry on his legacy and keep the DiaTribe alive in a form that he’d be proud of. Paul hasn’t said anything to me about it, but I can’t help but feel like he’s disappointed with where the site is today. Without boring everyone with the details of my personal life, I’ve welcomed a DiaBaby of my own to the world this past November, and being a first-time parent is every bit as challenging as my wife and I expected, and more. He’s healthy and (usually) happy, and we’re incredibly blessed in that sense. I can’t imagine how parents deal with a legitimately sick child, as every time he sneezes my wife and I hold our breath, worrying that there’s something wrong (the veteran parents out there are no doubt chuckling to themselves right now). Adding the kid to a work schedule that has involved both a promotion and more travel than I ever expected makes writing at the level worthy of this site a difficult proposition at best. I already struggle to replicate the quality that you became accustomed to with the great Pauly C. in the best of circumstances. Writing with an increasingly hectic work and personal life became a difficult proposition, and whenever I did finally put virtual pen to paper, I was never satisfied that the result was worth publishing on this site. The DiaTribe has always been high quality, long form journalism. That high standard handed down by the Godfather isn’t easy to live up to, but it’s something at which I’ve always made a legitimate effort. For those that are still reading, I’d love to hear from you via e-mail, twitter or in the comments section as to whether that’s something that you still value in this day and age, or if you’re more attracted to shorter, more frequent pieces. Articles of more than a couple of pages are rare these days, and if the demand isn’t there for that, then I’ll quit worrying about satisfying the (non-existent) desire for more long-form stuff. This is all a very long-winded way for me to do three things; 1) apologize to those who frequented the site and didn’t want it to go away 2) tell you that I’m going to make a better effort to write more this season and 3) try to determine the appetite for articles on this site. Look forward to your feedback, and hopefully spending many a Lazy Sunday with you this year and in the future.

I didn’t feel comfortable writing a prospect countdown this year because I just haven’t seen the guys throughout the org the way I have in years past, so I’d primarily be regurgitating others opinions on players. If you’re looking for original prospect coverage right now, check out IBI, Baseball Prospectus and the new 2080 Baseball. I’ll get back out and start checking out the affiliates this year, but missing out on spring training makes it tough to see the new guys and also to get a read on the improvements made by the veteran players in the org. But I do want to talk about one guy that I’m really excited about this year, a guy that has flown under the radar over the past year or two due to his age and injury history. Mike Clevinger was originally a 4th round pick by the Los Angeles Angels back in 2011, and was dealt to the Indians in 2014 for Vinnie Pestano. Clevinger had thrown just 5 2/3 innings in 2013 coming off Tommy John surgery, and was getting knocked around the Cal League with high-A Inland Empire (5.37 ERA in 55 1/3 IP). But the Indians focused on his peripherals (58 K) and projection, and figured he was worth a flier. Clevinger responded with a legitimate breakout as a 24-year old in Akron last year, going 9-8 with a 2.73 ERA, 145 K and 40 BB in 158 IP for the Rubberducks.

Clevinger has a starter’s body and repertoire, throwing four pitches that project to be at least average at the major league level. His fastball sits comfortably in the mid-90s, and he compliments the fastball with a slider, curveball and split-change a-la Danny Salazar. Clevinger’s split-change is of course not in Salazar’s class just yet, but I’d be shocked if the two weren’t exchanging notes on the pitch throughout Clevinger’s time in big-league camp this spring. Adam McInturff of Baseball Prospectus saw Clevinger in action earlier this month and came away impressed:

“Clevinger’s fastball ranged between 93-97 mph, sitting consistently at 94-95. It’s a straight four-seamer, but he consistently showed the ability to power the ball past hitters and get swings and misses. He showed progressively better feel for a slider at 82-85 that flashed solid-average (if not a tick better) at its best, and looked like a reliable second pitch. His third pitch was a hard splitter at 87-90, though it was too firm (almost looking like a two-seam fastball) at the higher end of velocity band. Clevinger rattled off some better splitters during his second inning of work, though, flashing a 
handful with pretty nasty life bottoming out and running away from left-handers.”

It’s still early, but if Clevinger becomes even a serviceable back of the rotation SP, the Pestano-Clevinger deal will become another in a long line of under the radar steals by the Indians front office. If he becomes a solid #3 or even #2 (which seems possible based on his frame and stuff), it’ll fall into “Yan Gomes for Esmil Rodgers” territory.

Moving on to players who have already been contributing to the major league roster; it’s no secret that Francisco Lindor was a force in his rookie season last year. Lindor played the sparkling defense that we all expected from him upon getting the call to Cleveland, but his bat produced at a higher level than anyone expected. A career .279/.354/.384 hitter across 5 minor league seasons, Lindor hit .313/.353/.482 with 12 HR, 51 RBI and 12 SB in 99 games at the major league level last year. That’s a big leap for a 21 year old in his first exposure to major league pitching. Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports wrote a really nice piece on Lindor, and I’d like to focus on a couple of Ken’s points, if I may;

“…consider that Lindor immediately established himself as an elite defender — and that he batted .205 with a .492 OPS in his first 90 plate appearances with the Indians, .342 with a .927 OPS in his next 348.


Indians hitting coach Ty Van Burkleo mentioned to the team's front office that Lindor's at-bats actually looked good, even if the results indicated otherwise. The front office, after examining Lindor's exit velocities, determined that he indeed was hitting into poor luck, general manager Chris Antonetti says.

Van Burkleo relayed that information to Lindor, who appreciated that the coach did not try to alter his mechanics.


He decided that he would bunt more out of the No. 2 spot, putting runners in scoring position for No. 3 hitter Michael Brantley. Francona didn't necessarily like the idea. But he, too, declined to suggest anything different to Lindor.

"I was getting caught in between," Francona says. "I was like, 'The kid is trying to do what he thinks is right.' But he's such a good hitter, I didn't want him to give himself up.
"I never really said anything to him. I thought, 'You know what? Let's see where it goes.' Sometimes you've got to just let 'em play a little bit."

All these months later, Lindor believes that bunting was pivotal to his later success. He would track the ball, follow its progress to his bat. In subsequent plate appearances, he would see the ball better and swing.

His batting average rose. His confidence followed.”

Reading the entire article (which you should’ve done by now anyway), you can’t help but come away even more impressed with Lindor than before (which I thought was impossible, but there you go). The fact that a 21-year old could come up, struggle, be trusted by the coaching staff and organization to make his own adjustments then come out and have a borderline historic half season tells you so much about Lindor’s talent, maturity, leadership and makeup. And you really have to hand it to the Indians as well; trusting Lindor to work his way through his own struggles was absolutely the right decision. Too often a hitting coach can artificially tinker with a young player and wind up creating bad habits where none existed to begin with. The Indians know what they have with Lindor, and they (correctly) trust him to get the most out of his considerable talent. This does not mean that Lindor is infallible and will never need coaching, of course. But knowing when to coach up a player and when to leave him alone is important, and it’s a difficult line to draw when working with a 21-year old rookie.

The player who moved aside to make room for the 21-year old Lindor has been making waves this spring, as Jose Ramirez has been impressive both at the plate and at various stops around the diamond defensively. Ramirez was handed the SS job out of spring training last year, and stumbled to a .180/.247/.240 line in 46 games before being sent down to AAA Columbus. Ramirez was clearly pressing and looking over his shoulder, knowing uber-prospect Lindor lurked just behind him and that he may be getting just one shot at the SS job in Cleveland. Ramirez was recalled to Cleveland on August 3, and from then on to the end of the season he served as a super-utilityman, playing all over the diamond and producing much more effectively at the plate. He didn’t set the world on fire, but he put up a .259/.337/.438 line with 5 HR in 50 games. More importantly, he walked (19) more times than he struck out (15) over those final plate appearances.

Ramirez was never going to be a 1st-division everyday SS in the major leagues. He’s not a great defender at SS, and was never going to out-hit his defensive deficiencies enough to play the position at a high level. What he can be however is a Mike Aviles type utilityman, playing SS, 3B, 2B and even OF as needed. He’s a switch hitter, so he can give Kipnis a break against tough lefties, play 3B when there’s a good RHP on the mound, plus he can pinch hit and pinch run as necessary late in games when he doesn’t get the start. Ramirez can still be an incredibly valuable part of a major league roster, despite failing to prove he can handle SS. He’s still just 23 years old and is under club control for at least four more seasons. Take these with an enormous grain of salt, but as of Friday he was hitting .390/.422/.780 with 4 HR in spring training. If he can ride that wave into the regular season in a clearly defined utility role, Ramirez can be one of the most important position players on the roster this season.

Another player who opened some eyes in camp this spring is CF Tyler Naquin. Naquin was thrust into the competition for the opening day CF job when the Abraham Almonte suspension was announced, and he’s responded with his best stretch of production as a professional hitter. With our spring training and small sample size alarms blaring, I’ll just note that Naquin is hitting a robust .447/.500/.842 with 2 HR, 3 3B and 3 2B in 15 games (38 AB). In addition to the solid performance at the plate, Naquin is the best defensive CF on the roster right now, and will offer more defensively than his competitors for the role. Naquin has good speed and takes good routes to the ball in CF. Add to that a plus-plus arm that’s among the best in all of baseball, and you have an above average defensive CF, a guy that’s going to add value to the lineup even if he doesn’t hit. I certainly don’t expect Naquin to carry over his spring production if he does get the nod to start the season in Cleveland, but his bat won’t be completely empty. He’s not going to hit for much power, but he’ll put the bat on the ball, take a walk and (yes) he can bunt if the situation calls for it. He hit a combined .300/.381/.446 between Akron and Columbus last year, and has a career minor league OPS of .777. If I had to pick someone on the current Indians roster to start the season as the everyday CF, it’d be Naquin. The Indians have already announced that Naquin will make the opening day roster, and I doubt they’re taking him north just to sit. I expect him to be patrolling CF on April 4 when Tom Hamilton finally announces that we are UNDERway at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario.

This offseason, the Indians finally signed a pair of veterans who it feels like they’ve flirted with for a decade now. This site has advocated for the Indians to go out and get Juan Uribe and/or Marlon Byrd since Paul Cousineau himself was writing the articles. Uribe and Byrd were cheap, low-risk signings that serve to improve on areas of the team that were…let’s just say poor last season. Gio Urshela came up and showcased a fantastic glove at the hot corner, but the then-23 year old hit just .225/.279/.330, not enough to lock down the position for 2016. Uribe meanwhile has posted OPS+’s of over 100 in each of the past three seasons in the National League (116, 120, 105), meaning he was better than league average at the plate. He’s also 37 years old and very much on the downside of his career, but signed to a 1-year, $4 million contract there is really no risk here to the Indians. If it turns out he’s lost it at the plate and in the field, they release him and give Urshela another shot. If he can produce at a level even commensurate with 2015, then it’s a big step forward in filling a void at 3B. He’s a popular guy in the clubhouse and will help provide veteran leadership to a young infield. It’s a solid signing, even if it would’ve been better three years ago.

The other vet flying his way to the North Shore is outfielder Marlon Byrd. Byrd is even older than Uribe at 38, but has probably been more productive over the past few years. The right handed hitting Byrd has hit 24, 25 and 23 HR over the past three seasons, respectively. He’s posted a combined .268/.313/.469 line with a 116 OPS+ since 2013, pretty solid numbers for a guy closer to 30 than 40. Signed to a minor league deal to augment an uncertain outfield corps, Byrd carries even less risk than Uribe, and even more upside. Here’s a list of Indians players who hit more HR than Byrd last season; N/A. That’s right, Carlos Santana led the club with 19 dingers. Santana’s 27 in 2014 would’ve been more than Byrd that season, but no one else hit more than his 25. Not to belabor the point, but Byrd also would’ve led the AL Wild Card winning 2013 Indians with his 24 HR (2 more than Nick Swisher’s 22). Power has been in short supply at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario for the past few years, and especially with Brantley’s injury concerns, there’s no one in the Indians outfield that projects to hit more than 15 or so HR this year. Adding Byrd to the mix on a minor league deal could end up being a significant move. It’s entirely possible that the Indians just signed the guy who’s going to lead the 2016 club in HR, and they did it in mid-March.

Sincere thanks for those of you who are still reading, and hopefully you’ll stick with me through another year of what will likely be somewhat inconsistent posts. It’s good to be back, and I really think this could be a special season for Indians baseball. The pitching staff (which we really didn’t even talk about this week) is one of the best in all of baseball, and the lineup and defense are going to be better than they were last year. Is that going to be enough to propel the club to meaningful October baseball? Time will tell, but I think they’re built to contend this year, and potentially make a run deep into the playoffs.