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 MLB.com. 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    
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    
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?

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Loving Lindor on a Lazy Sunday

The Kansas City Royals have swept their way through three rounds of the playoffs. The Kansas…City…Royals…look like an unstoppable juggernaut destined to win the 2014 World Series. It’s starting to sink in, but it still doesn’t make a ton of sense. The Indians went 10-9 against the Royals this year, finishing up four games behind them in the chase for the 2nd AL Wild Card berth. The two teams appear similar when you look at those two stats, but in reality they couldn’t be more different. The Royals are winning with defense, speed, timely hitting, a lights out bullpen and two really good starting pitchers. The Indians won this year with incredible starting pitching, horrible defense, and enough hitting to support the former and overcome the latter. In the end, the defense and bullpen of the Royals won out over the pitching and offense of the Indians. There’s a lot more that I’d like to touch on when it comes to KC, but first I want take an in-depth look at everyone’s favorite shortstop prospect, Francisco Lindor. 

“When is Francisco Lindor coming up?” That’s one of the biggest questions for the Indians heading into next season, as Lindor represents by far the cheapest opportunity to dramatically improve the roster in 2015. One only need look at the Indians before and after Jose Ramirez replaced Asdrubal Cabrera in the starting lineup to see how much of an effect a decent defensive SS can have on a team. The Indians were floundering at 53-55 on July 31 when Cabrera was dealt to the Washington Nationals. With Ramirez as the primary shortstop, the Indians closed the season on a 32-22 run. Not all of that was solely due to Ramirez of course, but the switch certainly played a significant role in the club’s improvement. Then consider that Lindor projects to be a better defender and hitter than Ramirez (.646 OPS in 266 PA last year), probably from day one, and it’s easy to see why Tribe fans are drooling over the toolsy young SS. So will the three-headed decision making monster of Shapiro, Anonetti and Francona opt to have the soon-to-be 21-year old SS on the big-league roster from day one? That decision depends not just on whether or not they feel he’s ready to contribute, but whether or not it makes financial sense to start his service time clock in April rather than June or July.
To gain some insight into whether or not Lindor is “ready,” I wanted to take a look the performance of some of his recent contemporary SS prospects. Fortunately, being in the golden age of the shortstop as we are, there were several guys that we can take a look at who are similar to Lindor. I chose the below shortstops because they made their MLB debuts at age 22 or earlier and were ranked in the Baseball Prospectus top-100 prospect rankings. This first table will be the selected SS comps from their respective final minor league seasons:

Name
Age
PA
Slash
HR
BB
K
Xander Bogearts
20
515
.297/.388/.477
15
63
95
Javier Baez
21
434
.260/.323/.510
23
34
130
Chris Owings
21
575
.330/.359/.482
12
22
99
Jurickson Profar
20
166
.278/.370/.438
4
21
24
Manny Machado
19
202
.266/.352/.438
11
48
70
Jean Segura
22
451
.304/.358/.413
7
23
57

As you see, pretty solid numbers across the board. Jean Segura had the lowest OPS at .771. Javier Baez was one of the most prolific sluggers in all of minor league baseball last year, popping 23 HR in just 434 plate appearances. Machado was the only one on the list who was still 19 in the MiLB season in question, and he ended up leading the AL in doubles and making an all-star team as a 20-year old. Chris Owings put up really good numbers that have to be taken with a grain of salt, as they were accumulated in the offense-friendly environment of the Pacific Coast League. All in all, the average season for the six players in our sample was an .818 OPS, 12 HR, 35 BB and 79 K over 390 plate appearances. For comparison’s sake, Francisco Lindor accumulated 567 plate appearances last year between AA Akron and AAA Columbus, putting together a .276/.338/.389 (.727 OPS) line with 11 HR, 49 BB and 97 K. That would put him on the lower end of this sample when talking about offensive production only.
Now that we’ve taken a good look at minor league production from our sample, let’s see how those same six guys did in their first exposure to major league pitching:

Name
Age
PA
Slash
HR
BB
K
Xander Bogaerts
21
594
.240/.297/.362
12
39
138
Javier Baez
21
229
.169/.227/.324
9
15
95
Chris Owings
22
310
.261/.300/.406
6
16
67
Jurickson Profar
20
324
.234/.308/.336
2
26
63
Manny Machado
19
202
.262/.294/.445
7
9
38
Jean Segura
22
166
.258/.315/.325
0
13
23

Yikes. That’s…that’s not pretty. Bogaerts was the only player in the sample to play a full season at the MLB level, and he responded with a .659 OPS and a 3.5/1 K/BB ratio. And that was after getting a cup of coffee with the Sox during his age-20 season. Javier Baez struck out in 41% of his plate appearances. Jurickson Profar, tabbed by many as the top prospect in all of baseball, put up an OPS 164 points lower in MLB than MiLB. All in all, our sample averaged 304 plate appearances with a .656 OPS, 6 HR, 19 BB and 70 strikeouts. That’s not a knock on these guys, two of whom have already appeared in the Midsummer Classic and all of whom still have the potential to be fantastic shortstops (or 2B, or 3B depending on the player) at some point in the near future. The point is that making the jump from the minors to The Show is very, very difficult. Expecting Lindor to come up and make an impact right away with his bat is farfetched. He probably won’t be a total zero, but certainly won’t provide a dramatic upgrade to the Indians offensive issues in 2015. If I had to project offensive numbers for him at the major league level next season, I’d guess that he could end up in the .250/.310/.380 range.

With all that said, Lindor’s main tool isn’t his bat, it’s his glove. Fans who were thrilled with the defensive upgrade that Jose Ramirez offered last year are going to be beside themselves when they watch Lindor play the position. Going from Asdrubal to Ramirez was like upgrading from a McDonalds burger to Five Guys. Going from Ramirez to Lindor will be like getting a Ruth’s Chris bacon-wrapped fillet. And it’s very possible that the most important improvements to the Indians going into 2015 will be on the defensive side of the ledger, not offense like many fans are clamoring for.

Getting back to the World Series-bound Kansas City Royals for a second; they hit 95 HR to the Indians 142, scored 651 runs to the Indians 669 and posted an OPS+ of 91 to the Indians 102 (100 OPS+ is league average). The Indians were an above-average offensive team in the AL last year, and the Royals were well below average (lowest OPS+ of any team in the league). The Royals pitching was a little better by ERA (3.51 to 3.57) but the Indians FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) was 3.42 to the Royals 3.69. The big difference came on the defensive side of the ledger. The Royals allowed 59 unearned runs in 2014, compared to the Indians 72. KC committed 104 errors, while the Indians made a league-leading 116. But the real hammer comes when you look at the advanced defensive metrics. By Baseball-Reference.com’s Defensive Runs Saved formula*, the Royals were able to prevent 41 more runs from scoring than the average American League team. The Indians allowed 74 more runs (again, worst in the league) than average. So by that formula, the Indians were 115 runs worse than Kansas City, a team that beat them out for the AL Wild Card by four games. A team that has swept their way through the playoffs to a World Series berth. A team that had three players hit double-digit HR, none more than 19 (the Indians had 3 hit over 20). Maybe, just maybe, the Indians offense is going to be good enough to win in 2015, especially when you consider what the pitching staff is capable of. Maybe what the team needs more than a “big bat” is a defensive wizard at shortstop. Based on his 56 games at SS last year, Jose Ramirez projects to be worth 10 runs above average at SS (Asdrubal was worth -10 in 2014, -17 in 2013). Lindor could be worth 20 or more, right from the moment he steps onto the diamond. Combine that with expected regression from Ramirez (I like him a lot, more than most, but I don’t think he’s going to be a +10 run SS for his career), and you see the type of impact that Lindor could have on the Indians 2015 pennant chase.

*B-Ref explains their “Rdrs” formula: The number of runs above or below average the player was worth based on the number of plays made.
This number combines the Rpm, Rbdp, Rbof, Rbcatch numbers into a total defensive contribution. Provided by Baseball Info Solutions

So now that we’ve looked at what we might be able to expect out of Lindor the player when he does come up, let’s shift our attention to the Indians front office to try and predict when he will come up. Conventional wisdom holds that ready or not, Lindor will start the season right where he finished last year, playing SS for AAA Columbus. In a recent chat, ESPN’s Keith Law was asked where he thought Lindor would be to open the 2015 season, and his response was “service time uber alles.” Managing service time does have its advantages, but to me, some of those advantages are overblown. Let’s start with the commonly-used “Super Two” argument. For the uninitiated; players must accrue three years of MLB service time before they are eligible for salary arbitration, then three years of arbitration-eligible seasons before they are eligible for free agency. “Super Two” grants players in the top 22% (changed from 17% in the most recent CBA) of two-year service time an extra year of arbitration. If the Indians keep Lindor in the minors long enough, they can make sure to avoid Super Two with their top prospect. I have two counter-arguments to this line of reasoning. One, since that 22% figure is based on that season’s eligible players, the cutoff date is different every year. So it’ll likely be sometime in late-June to mid-July, but no one knows exactly when. It’s possible the Indians could keep Lindor in the minors until Independence Day, and still end up with a Super Two case. My second counter-argument is that this doesn’t affect free agency, only arbitration. Lindor won’t be able to become a free agent any earlier if he ends up a Super Two player. It could wind up costing the team money, but if they end up buying out arbitration years (and at least a year or two of free agency) as they’ve been doing with their young position-player stars (Gomes, Kipnis, Brantley), it’ll wind up being irrelevant anyway. If the Indians miss the playoffs by a game or two and Lindor could’ve been up helping the ballclub even a 
week earlier, then we’ll all be second-guessing the timing of the call-up.

So we’ve looked at some of Lindor’s shortstop contemporaries, broken down how he could potentially contribute to the ballclub on both sides of the baseball and talked about contract issues. Let’s take it one step further and try and predict how the Indians front office might time the call-up based on how they’ve handled top prospects in the somewhat-recent past. I’m going to call upon my Excel “expertise” one last time and throw another chart at you:

Name
Age
Date
AAA PA
Matt LaPorta
24
3-May
1235
Carlos Santana
24
11-Jun
246
Jason Kipnis
24
22-Jul
409
Lonnie Chisenhall
22
22-Jun
543
Andy Marte
22
28-Jul
2509
Michael Brantley
22
2-Jun
844
Trevor Crowe
25
9-Apr
1407
Yan Gomes
25
9-Apr
373

All of these guys came up under the Shapiro or Antonetti regime. LaPorta, Santana, Kipnis, Chisenhall and Marte were all consensus top-100 guys in their final minor league seasons. All of the “blue chip” guys came up after May 1. None came up before they turned 22. The only two players who started a season in MLB with the Indians were Trevor Crowe and Yan Gomes, neither of which were considered to be top prospects at the time of their call-up, and both of whom were 25 years old at the time. None came up before they collected at least 246 plate appearances at the AAA level. For reference, Francisco Lindor will be 21 on opening day next year and has just 180 AAA plate appearances under his belt. Super Two or no Super Two, the Indians may feel like Lindor could benefit from some additional seasoning in AAA Columbus before he’s ready to jump up to the big league level.

We’re 2000+ words into answering the Lindor question, and I’m not sure if we have any better of an idea when he’s actually going to make his Indians debut. I’ve long been on the Opening Day train (we need some sort of hashtag…#LindoronApril6 just doesn’t flow), but I’m becoming less and less convinced that is going to happen. No less than Anthony Castrovice thinks the Indians are going to pick up Mike Aviles’ option for 2015, so that would leave he and Jose Ramirez splitting SS to start the season with Lindor opening up in back AAA Columbus. Indians beat writer Jordan Bastian was asked about Lindor in his inbox this week, and here feels like the job is Lindor’s in 2015, just not right away:

Barring an injury or unexpected trade, I would be absolutely stunned if we don't see Lindor in the big leagues with the Indians at some point during the 2015 season. I do not expect that to be on Opening Day. The job out of the gates would seem to fall to Ramirez, who played admirably at shortstop in the second half of this season.
I of course have no insight into the Indians thought process (#sources) on the matter, nor am I a professional scout who can claim to accurately project how Lindor will handle the rigors of a major league schedule. I have seen Lindor play more than most though, and would stake my very insignificant internet reputation on his defense not only playing, but excelling at the highest level. Can his glove justify burning a year of service time for a 21-year old prospect who might not be quite “ready” for The Show? If you expect the Indians to contend for a playoff spot next year (and I do), then I think the answer has to be yes. So yes, I want Lindor up in April. But if you’re asking when I think he should get the call to the big leagues? This may sound like a cop out, but I think he should come up as soon as the Indians brain trust feels he’s ready to contribute. If Antonetti and Tito think he can be the best option in April, bring him up in April. If they don’t think he’s ready right away but are convinced that June 6 is the day, then bring him up on June 6. I trust them to know their own assets better than I do, and will suck it up and soldier on if they don’t feel he’s ready to be The Guy right away. I just hope that decision is made based on what happens between the foul lines, not what may or may not happen in a negotiating session sometime in 2020.

Bringing everything back to Anthony Castrovice and the Royals, Castro penned a predictably outstanding piece on Friday about the Royals unpredictable playoff run, and how the Indians can be encouraged by the success that KC is having this postseason. If you haven’t read the entire thing, you should do so now, but I want to draw your attention to one paragraph in particular:

No, it wouldn’t have happened this year, even if the Indians had somehow snuck into the Wild Card game. The Royals play D, the Indians didn’t. To me, it’s really that simple. Nothing separated the Royals from the O’s in this ALCS more than their ability to make it seem as if they routinely had 18 gloves in the field. So let’s not indulge in any undue fantasies. Stick to the Super Bowl beliefs borne out of a 3-2 start, or go watch LeBron and the boys stroll through the NBA’s plodding and predictable regular season.

The Royals play D, the Indians didn’t. Assuming Castro is right (and Castro has never steered me wrong…Castro is gold), let’s take Occam’s Razor to this issue. What if the Indians improve their defense next year instead of their offense? If Lindor starts the season at SS, that’s a big step in the right direction. Then say the team decides to move Lonnie Chisenhall (to OF, DH or another team) to make way for Gio Urshela, another guy who might not hit right away but who should have no trouble providing above-average defense at the hot corner? Suddenly the left side of the infield turns from a liability to an asset. Maybe Lindor and Urshela don’t contribute much on the offensive side, but Cabrera/Ramirez and Chisenhall weren’t exactly setting the world on fire at the plate during the 2nd half of 2014 anyway. Imagine the Indians starting pitching with a non-putrid defense behind them? All of this sounds more effective, simpler, lower risk and much cheaper than chasing a mythical “Big Bat” on the free agent market this year. Especially when you consider just how scarce offense is around the league right now. Jordan Bastian took an in-depth look at how baseball is shifting away from waiting for the 3-run HR to a more balanced approach, and how that middle-of-the-order thumper that you can pencil in for a 40 HR season doesn’t really exist right now. And if there is a legit power bat on the open market, it’s unlikely that the Indians can afford to pay him.


Maybe Nick Swisher stays healthy next year and regains his pre-2014 form at the plate. Maybe Kipnis bounces back to another all-star season at 2B. Maybe Victor really wants to come back to Cleveland and cuts the team a dramatic and unexpected hometown discount. But absent that, I think the Indians quickest path to contention in 2015 lies on the defensive side of the diamond, not at the plate. Lindor can and should be a big part of that solution, and I hope he’s there in April. Service time be damned.