Tuesday, October 27, 2009

What Should Have Been

The nightmare is upon us as CC Sabathia takes the mound for the Yankees in Game 1 against the Philadelphia Phillies, boasting their own former Cy Young Award winner in Clifton Phifer Lee. The pain of seeing these two former teammates battle each other will come soon enough, but the fact that these two ex-Tribesman front rotations for participants in the World Series is enough to wonder what happened to the Indians’ team that still boasted both of them on their roster.

Two short years ago, the Indians were one game away from the World Series and while the turning point came in Game 5 of the ALCS, one can’t help but wonder today what might have been had the 2007 ALCS hadn’t ended differently. It’s not a question that is reserved for just Tribe fans this week as Sabathia admitted last week to USA Today’s Bob Nightengale that “I still can’t believe what happened… I mean, we just have to win one more game. Just one game. And we would not have only gone to the World Series, but I'm sure we would have won it. I still think about that.”

“What happened” was what happened throughout the 2007 post-season as CC was not able to defeat the Red Sox that night as his 2007 post-season would finish on that October night with a 1-2 record brought about by a 8.80 ERA and a 2.21 WHIP in 3 starts.
But that (as well as mentioning that CP Lee’s 2007 post season record doesn’t exist as it’s neither here nor there) gets away from the crux of the issue at hand.

That issue is that it can be argued that the loss to the Red Sox in the 2007 ALCS should not have represented the end of the line for the assembled talent as the pieces and parts that made the run down the stretch in 2007 and made the playoff push at the end of the season was nearly identical to the team that would break camp to start the 2008 season. The performance of that team in 2008 is perhaps what should be examined at length (instead of “just one game”, as important as that game was with everything out there for the Indians to go to the World Series) and it goes back to another CC quote in terms of the 2008 club as he told Nightengale in the aforementioned piece that “with the young guys we had, I was sure we’d be back. I really thought we’d be together for a long time. But once we got off to a slow start, things changed so quickly. Now, the only guy really left is (center fielder) Grady (Sizemore). It’s weird.”

“Weird” is not the word that most Indians’ fans would use to describe the sequence of events for the organization from Game 5 in the 2007 ALCS to where the Indians sit today, with a new manager and a nearly completely different set of players. There are other choice words that could probably better articulate how Tribe fans feel about the shocking slide into rebuilding, but when asked what he would tell fans in Cleveland about the Game 1 match-up, pitting Sabathia and Lee, CC just flashed that mega-watt smile that we all keep reading about and said…wait for it…”I don't know what to tell them. It's not our fault.”

While we can sit and debate whether the fall-off was tied directly to the disappointment of the starting pitching in Game 5 of the ALCS, it’s brings up the pertinent question as we sit and wait for the FOX coverage of Game 1 of this World Series to bring about ulcers and groans across the North Coast.
That question of course is - whose fault is it?

Whose fault is it that the promise the shone so brightly at the beginning of 2008 has been reduced to barely a flicker, where contention in 2010 seems unlikely and contention beyond that is dependent upon too many variables to count?

If you’ll remember, the 2008 season started with essentially the same team that finished the 2007 season in a flurry of success:
Victor Martinez
Ryan Garko
Asdrubal Cabrera
Jhonny Peralta
Casey Blake
Franklin Gutierrez
Grady Sizemore
Jason Michaels
Travis Hafner

Starting Rotation
CC Sabathia
Cliff Lee
Fausto Carmona
Jake Westbrook
Paul Byrd

Back-End of Bullpen
Joe Borowski
Rafael Betancourt
Rafael Perez
Jensen Lewis

Joe Borowski…Jason Michaels…I know, blame it on those guys.
But with that assembled group of players, THAT team had a record of 37-51 on July 7th, a solid 14 games out of 1st place, a game and a half behind the Royals in the AL Central further than halfway into the season. Again, that would be the team WITH CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee, two pitchers who would end the season among the top four starters in terms of ERA+, healthy and starting 40% of the games over an 88-game stretch.

You want a period of time that killed this organizational window of winning, there it is – an 88-game stretch with both Sabathia (fresh off a 2007 Cy Young season) and Lee (working on a 2008 Cy Young season) going two times every turn through the rotation. As easy as it would be to say that the one game in October of 2007 killed the Indians, as they were constructed, a more complete explanation comes over that set of games that comprised over a little over half of the next season.

CC says that the state the Indians find themselves in and the fact that the two starting pitchers for Game 1 of the 2009 World Series is not “their fault” and it’s hard to argue that when you look at the numbers of Sabathia and Lee when CC was traded to Milwaukee on July 7th of 2008:
CC Sabathia – 6-8, 3.83 ERA, 1.23 WHIP in 18 starts
Cliff Lee – 11-2, 2.43 ERA, 1.04 WHIP in 17 starts

The team was designed to be built on starting pitching and it was, if you remember the 44 1/3 scoreless inning streak by the strong rotation (which by that time included an effective Aaron Laffey), so what went so horribly and irreparably wrong in those 88 games that forced the Indians to make a decision on Sabathia, beginning the quick organizational descent?

Obviously, some injuries to the rotation played a role (with Carmona and Westbrook both ailing that year), but the 2008 Indians boasted two of the best pitchers in MLB in the first half and still could not climb out of the cellar in a very weak AL Central in 2008.
So really, what went wrong?

It was a topic that was delved into back after the CC trade in 2008 in the “Things Fall Apart” series with some blame being placed on the bullpen, and specifically the struggles of Betancourt, Perez, and Lewis – all thought to be legitimate options when (not if) Borowski ran out of gas. Additionally, some blame was placed on the offense’s inability to make up for the lost offensive output brought about by injuries to Victor and Hafner, most notably in terms of the regressions of Gutierrez, Cabrera, and Garko as they struggled to fill the offensive void. Finally, blame was placed on the Indians’ strategy to stand pat in the off-season leading up to the 2008 season, as the Front Office’s decision to remain content and to rest on the success of the 2007 season and assume that player development would progress without hiccups and the overall success of the team would continue.

Wherever the final blame is placed (and it could certainly be spread around pretty evenly), the notion that the Indians could have made some changes to start the season – like waiting for the still-injured Choo to take over for Michaels (or Francisco), moving Grady to LF and Gutierrez to CF…or moving Blake to 1B, Peralta to 3B, Cabrera to SS, and finding a 2B, or even starting the season with Blake in LF, Marte at 3B and with the rest of the alignment in place – does not hide the fact that the past cannot be changed.

Perhaps some blame can be placed on the current structure in MLB that forces teams like the Indians to confront reality before they want to and make decisions based on their future, sometimes at the expense of the present. As Casey Blake stated in the Nightengale piece, "they had to make a decision…either stick with this group or start over again. Just one game changed the direction of that organization.”

While his presumption that “one game changed the direction of that organization” may be little dramatic, there’s no question that the direction of the organization was permanently changed by the time that Blake was moved to the Dodgers. Between Game 5 of the ALCS in 2007 and Casey going to Hollywood, the Indians needed to face their reality in terms of their situation in – they knew CC was leaving at the end of the 2008 season for the most money and the Indians had to decide what to do with him in terms of the realistic expectations for their future.

Should the Indians have “stuck with that group”, despite the fact that the team was 14 games under .500 in the month of June, with the likelihood of making the playoffs being slim and none?

Regardless of that answer, all that’s left is the regret and bitterness towards that three-month stretch that slammed shut the Indians’ window of contention, as the 2009 team followed the path laid out by the first three months of the 2008 team and the franchise was irreparably changed. As the frustration of knowing that the players that made up that 2008 team were unquestionably talented, but simply did not win, descends like a gray cloud on Wednesday night when the first pitch is thrown, realize that the Indians’ fortunes did not change in Game 5 of the ALCS on that October night…but it was certainly the beginning of the end.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Time for Some Acta

The managerial game of musical chairs found one man standing as Manny Acta, impressive in front of the cameras in Cleveland and lauded by baseball men for his knowledge and passion of the game despite his difficulties in the situation in Washington, has been named the Indians’ new skipper in a surprising turn of events (in terms of timeframe) that ended with Sunday’s announcement.

While the Indians may not have planned on naming Manny Acta as their new manager just yet, news that the Astros offered Acta a two-year deal with an option for a third year forced the Indians to spring into action to trump Houston’s offer to land Acta in Cleveland. His three-year deal with an option for a fourth with the Tribe put away any idea that Houston was his preferred landing spot (or “dream job”), regardless of ancillaries involved, because he had grown up in the Astros’ organization.

The timeframe seemingly forced upon the Indians essentially removed Don Mattingly from consideration (if everything written about him in the past two weeks as the heir apparent in LA didn’t already) and one would have to think that Bobby Valentine either confessed a lack of interest, or such a lack of interest was picked up from his press conference, that his candidacy was no longer considered serious.

Acta brings an interesting resume to Cleveland with his strengths as a bilingual communicator known for developing young players being balanced against his unquestionably poor record in the nation’s capital (one that got worse in each of his 2 ½ seasons) and the fact that the Nationals improved after he was fired at the All-Star break of the 2009 season.

He brings a new energy to a team in need of it and, more importantly, a fresh perspective as he comes from outside the status quo of the Indians’ uniformly uniform organization. While he subscribes to some of the same basic philosophies as the Front Office, the application of those philosophies on the specific set of players he’s been hired to manage will ultimately determine if his record in Washington was an aberration or the start of a pattern.

Truthfully, like any coaching hire, nobody really knows what to expect as Acta was unquestionably in control of his press conference with the assembled media and said all of the right things about all of the right people at all of the right times. How he goes about achieving all of those things – like fixing Fausto and getting some consistency out of Peralta – is where his baseball acumen will have to show, and quickly.

Getting a read on him and making a snap judgment about whether he’s the right man for the job borders on folly, but some clues about him and his strategies should begin to emerge with the first order of business – naming a coaching staff. The construction of the staff (according to the Front Office when this process started) is up to the newly named manager, and Acta has made it clear that he would have no problem bringing along coaches that are familiar (and successful) with the current batch of Indians – a category that the AAA troika of Columbus manager Torey Lovullo, Columbus hitting coach Jon Nunnally, and Columbus pitching coach Scott Radinsky all fall under.

Whether any or all of them eventually comprise any part of his coaching staff remains to be seen as it’s a certainty that he’ll look to bring in coaches he’s familiar with and with whom he’s coached in the past. Just taking a look at the coaches that surrounded him in Washington brings forth names from his 2006 hiring like Rick Aponte, Pat Corrales (yes, Pat Corrales for those of you DYING for a former Tribe manager to be in the dugout), Jerry Morales, Mitchell Page, Tim Tolman, and Randy St. Claire. Some of those names are still gainfully employed in Washington, at least until a new manager is named, but it puts forth the idea that some of the coaching hires (as important as they are) may be names that are simply names to most Tribe fans. Regardless of this fact, the proper mix of coaches familiar with the youngsters on the Indians and those that Acta is comfortable with that can lend a new perspective on players, young and old, is what Acta needs to achieve.

How he attempts to put together a coaching staff as the first step to maximizing the young talent in place on the North Coast and to make contention in 2011 a reality is where Acta will be judged in the very near future as his impressive press conference and demeanor will earn him only so much goodwill in lieu of results.

The time for talk is over and the time for Acta has begun in Cleveland.

A Lazy Sunday with the Candidates

Realizing that CC and Clifton Phifer are looking like they’re heading towards each other at ramming speed for the World Series and the articles have started on how painful that is for Indians’ fans; but seeing as how I prefer not feeling nauseous on Sunday mornings and promising that I’ll have some thoughts on that later in the week, let’s keep focused on what’s happening at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario and worry about what could have been (or is it what should have been) for later in the week when we all have our heads in the garbage cans watching CC face CP Lee in the Fall Classic.

With that horrific scenario pushed back into the recesses (get back there!), let’s get loose on a Lazy One we return to the managerial candidate race in this election season (well, kind of) with Torey Lovullo sitting down in front of the assembled press corps on Friday.

In case you missed Lovullo in front of the cameras and microphones, the current Clippers’ manager wasted no time in attempting to put to rest the notion that he’s just an organizational soldier, waiting for his chance as another former Tribe AAA manager did in 2002.

To wit:
Some players sent down told Lovullo they had lost confidence after being yanked in and out of the lineup or moved from position to position.
“I like to get a lineup and try not to change it,” Lovullo said. “I'm big on team chemistry. I want players to know I have their back, that they can play relaxed and comfortable. ... But I expect an effort every day. This team can look different, act different and play different.”
“The biggest challenge to an AL manager is knowing how to run a bullpen,” Lovullo said. “You try and put guys in a role in which they are comfortable.”
Lovullo thinks he can get the team to start better than the 11-21 record it had by mid-May.
“The last few days of spring training, you have to change the mindset and prepare as if it is already opening day,” Lovullo said. “I'd like to take the team on a three-day trip, like we were going on the road.”

Boy, other than REALLY trying to establish himself as a different person than Wedge (hey Eric, did you catch the license plate of that bus you just got thrown under with the “yanked in and out of the lineup or moved from position to position” line, among others), Lovullo certainly came in and hit all the high points:
Stability and development…check.
Improving the performance of the bullpen…check.
Better starts to the season…check.

Obviously, these are all just words and Lovullo attempting to say the right things, but it would certainly seem that Lovullo came into the situation with a pretty good handle on what the Indians were (and weren’t) looking for and was attempting to distance himself (at least publicly) from Wedge. There had to be a part of Lovullo that knew that he was seen by some (perhaps even some whose last name is “Dolan”) as Wedge Part II or simply an internal option and that differentiating himself from the former manager was the astute way to play his situation, particularly in front of the cameras and the microphones.

Maybe everything rolls Lovullo’s way (in terms of Acta, Valentine, and Mattingly all opting to go elsewhere or stay put), but I still believe that Lovullo finds himself in the Indians’ dugout in 2010…just not as the manager.

Of course, outside of those four candidates there seems to be a new wrinkle with the inclusion of Ron Roenicke in the mix. However, anyone else catch this snippet from Paul Hoynes in an article covering Lovullo’s interview?
The interview process…started with at least 10 candidates – including Angels bench coach Ron Roenicke who didn’t make it past the first round – and is now down to the final four.

Admittedly, I emphasized the part in bold, but that was written AFTER the report in the LA Times was picked up by multiple media outlets and is even mentioned in the AP story on ESPN that, “Dodgers hitting coach Don Mattingly and Angels bench coach Ron Roenicke are expected to be brought in next week for interviews”. Despite that, Hoynes seems to assert that the finalists are still four and that Roenicke WAS a candidate who did not make the cut.
So…is he another finalist or isn’t he?

Regardless if he is or not, if you want a bit of background on Roenicke, he did a Q & A with Baseball Prospectus a while back and gets into what the duties of a bench coach actually entail (something that a lot of people probably don’t know for as much talk as there is to “just go get a bench coach of a successful team”) as well as articulating some of his baseball philosophies. He hits on his thoughts on aggressiveness on the basepaths (an Angels’ hallmark, which he thinks doesn’t fall into the category of “overaggressive”), his thoughts on platooning young players, and how his shortcomings as an MLB player have allowed him to have a greater appreciation of the “little things”.

Roenicke is an interesting option (again, if he is an option) as he would certainly represent an outside opinion and a different way of thinking than the one that the Indians have subscribed to under the Mark Shapiro-Eric Wedge regime. Roenicke could offer that breath of fresh air to implement strategies and assert ideas that may be foreign to the straight-line thinking currently in place to the benefit of the team.

Speaking of foreign, is anyone else still baffled by this Valentine press conference?
If you’ll remember, he said “I can tell you I don't know about the American League, I don't know about the (AL) Central, and I don't know about the Indians, but I sure as hell am willing to learn and spend about 28 hours a day, if necessary, to know everything I could possibly know.”

Isn’t this the same guy that is covering and analyzing the MLB playoffs for the Worldwide Leader and has been since the end of September?

Are you telling me that Valentine claimed to the Cleveland media that he knew nothing about the American League or that he had watched a generation of baseball players on TV…and ESPN simply handed him the analysts’ chair on their set, figuring he could put in some of his “28 hour days” to catch up two weeks earlier or that he would be able to just watch these games and impart his limitless baseball knowledge onto the baseball population despite not knowing about the American League?

Valentine sits in Bristol and talks about baseball with the likes of Peter Gammons, Tim Kurkjian, and Buster Olney as a paying job and he took THAT angle when addressing the media, not even attempting to show that he’s done any research on the Indians to…you know…see if it might be a situation, player-wise, that he would want to walk into as a manager?

Maybe that’s it…that’s it not a situation he wants to walk into, but wants to get his name out there as a candidate for when the Mets or some other high-profile team needs a manager, so they know that Bobby V’s back on the menu. Maybe it’s an act, maybe he just doesn’t care, or maybe he doesn’t feel that he needs to justify his candidacy to a group of writers whose opinion he cares so little about that he couldn’t care less.

For all we know, he nailed the interview with the Indians’ brass and simply wasn’t in the mood to make himself look good in front of people who aren’t making the decision whether or not to hire him. Terry Pluto’s comment that Valentine “had a knack for remembering names and getting a sense of what the Indians are about, despite his public claims not to know much of the Tribe or the Central” would certainly support that idea.

What makes Bobby Valentine tick has remained an enigma, wrapped in a riddle, shrouded by mystery since his time in Texas and Cleveland may have just received their first taste as his true interest in the job remains up for debate, if only for the tangled web that he cast in his brief time on the North Coast.

In terms of true interest, the speculation is growing that Don Mattingly may be using the Indians’ interest to make sure that a power transfer in Los Angeles goes a little smoother than it did in New York, in terms of Torre handing him the reins:
The interest in Mattingly on the part of Washington as well as Cleveland might solidify Mattingly's status with the Dodgers. The current plan appears to be for him to take over for iconic manager Joe Torre after the 2010 season. It would seem to be a long shot to think he'd give up the Dodgers -- a storied franchise where his middle son is a minor league player -- to jump to a rebuilding situation in Cleveland or Washington.

This isn’t rocket science when you think about the fact that Mattingly was burned in NY, where he was assumed to be the heir apparent before Joe Girardi got the job and is simply leveraging his “interest” in the Cleveland and Washington job to show the Dodgers that he’ll leave unless he’s given a clearer picture (particularly clearer than the one that happened in NY) as to what happens when Torre retires.

As to the question of Mattingly’s readiness to be an MLB manager, Rob Neyer has some thoughts prompted by a piece from Matthew Pouliot (one that goes a little outside the lines in terms of evaluating Mattingly in the context of his family issues), with Neyer asserting that:
The more substantive point is that Mattingly has never managed a baseball team; the closest he's come is one season as Joe Torre's bench coach. The New York Yankees knew Mattingly better than anyone, and after his one season in that role, he was passed over in favor of Joe Girardi as Torre's replacement. Since then, he has served as Torre's (and the Dodgers') hitting coach.

Mattingly might be a great manager right now, if given the chance. But these stories -- big name with little or no managerial experience gets the big job -- rarely have happy endings, and often the sad ending comes quickly. If Mattingly really wants to manage, he should volunteer to return to the minor leagues and learn how to run a 25-man roster. But considering the pay cut he'd have to take, I wouldn't hold my breath on that one.

Neyer’s second sentence (the one in bold) is the one that I can’t get past, in that the Yankees had EVERY good reason to give Mattingly the job (a Yankee legend on Torre’s staff as his bench coach who was universally well-respected) and didn’t. Obviously, the availability and track record of Joe Girardi in Florida played a role, but anointing the beloved Don Mattingly as the new manager of the Bronx Bombers seemed at once to be a foregone conclusion when Torre left. Seeing as how he was a finalist for the job, why is he not managing the Yankees today?
Is it really just the lack of managerial experience?

Back to that managerial experience idea, Manny Acta remains the one candidate who possesses some time as an MLB skipper (albeit inauspicious) and who came across as impressive to the media (not that they’re making the decision), something he likely did in front of the Indians’ brass as well. However, as always, there’s a “but”…as Acta (as expected) has officially been named one of the four finalists for the job in Houston – the job he referred to as his “dream job”.

If you’re looking for a leader in the clubhouse (at least to me), I’m thinking that Acta looks like the most logical fit. While a total outsider like Valentine makes sense on many levels, there remains the idea that Mark Shapiro has created this new “window of opportunity” with the trades of this summer and that the dismissal of Wedge put him in the crosshairs of being the next on the firing line if things continue to go awry. With that in mind, what would the introduction of a complete wild card like Valentine mean? Couldn’t it result in Shapiro and a guy like Valentine not meshing with the end game being Valentine’s dismissal and Shapiro’s claim that Valentine never fit in, without the Indians getting a proper read on where the shortcomings in the organization lie?

The simple fact is that this managerial selection will have as much bearing on the future of Mark Shapiro as GM of the Indians as it will the longevity of any of these candidates’ future with the Indians, so if Acta comes with the credentials, the image, and the backing of baseball people that assert that he was in an untenable situation in Washington – enough to satisfy Shapiro that he’s the pick to win in Cleveland (with Acta putting forth the idea that he would look at internal candidates like Lovullo, Columbus hitting coach Jon Nunnally, and Columbus pitching coach Scott Radinsky to build his coaching staff), then Acta should be the guy.

However, that selection should be made with the understanding that the Indians’ Front Office is hiring the guy that they feel fits in best with what they have in place and any continued failures by the product on the field will no longer be able to be chalked up to deficiencies in the dugout, but up to the offices at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario as well.

As for the players that figure to be led by any of these guys, Adam Van Arsdale at LGT has a nice write-up on some of the young players that may play a role in the 2010 season, notably Mike Brantley and Carlos Santana, putting forth the idea that those two prospects are quite certainly the real deal.

On the topic of offensive upgrades emerging from within, the aforementioned Santana was also the topic of discussion recently at The Hardball Times, as was Matt LaPorta.
Carlos Santana
The 23-year old switch-hitter has emerged as an elite catching prospect with a major league ready bat. He spent the entire 2009 season with the Akron Aeros of the Eastern League (Double-A) putting together an an eye-popping line of .290/.413/.530. His plate discipline is also advanced beyond his age.
Santana will likely hit for a solid average and decent power numbers, in the range of 20-25 home runs. His real value will be in his ability to draw walks and reach base. I think we can expect a batting line in the range of .280/.375/.450 in the future.

Matt LaPorta
Matt LaPorta is one of the game's top power-hitting prospects, despite his somewhat disappointing 2009. LaPorta's prime is coming on fast, and his strong plate coverage and natural home run swing are too much to ignore. He still has the ability to turn into a superior middle-of-the-order hitter, and he is one of my very top fantasy breakout players for 2010.

Some answers should start to emerge this week as to who will be given the chance to develop these players pertaining to Acta in Houston, the actual level of interest for Valentine and Mattingly, and whether other candidates (like Roenicke or even Clint Hurdle) have in fact entered the mix. For now, answers are scarce and opinions and questions remain prevalent as this four-ring circus of a managerial search rolls on.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Mailing in the Tomahawks

With the second interview completed, with Bobby V…um, not exactly “nailing it” and the third interview (Lovullo) scheduled for Friday, let’s get into the latest and greatest (relatively speaking) on the Indians’ managerial search as we release some Tomahawks:

With Bobby Valentine really mailing in the “meet-the-press-greet-the-press” portion of his interview, let’s take a look at some of the real beauties dropped on his “desire” to lead the Tribe:
"This is an opportunity to manage a major-league team with a group of major-league class people. I'd almost have to ask why wouldn't I want the opportunity? . . . It's one of the best ballparks in the world. They asked me at ESPN, "Why do you want to go there?"
"Why wouldn't I?"
"I think I'm being asked to be part of a baseball culture, to be part of a process that might be lasting, might be special. I like special."

Hey Bobby, thanks for showing up with your charming generalities and non-descript stories told with a smile…I would maybe look at buying in Bristol.

Comparing Valentine’s presser with that of Acta, is there much of a question which prospective manager came across as better prepared, more confidence-inspiring, and (frankly) more interested?

Regardless of that, as well as Manny Acta presented himself in his press conference, you can almost already hear the critics howling at Acta, if he were in fact named manager, as a losing organization picking a loser. Whether that’s valid or not, the Nationals’ record in 2009 was 26-61 (.298 winning percentage) under Acta and 33-42 (.440 winning percentage) after he left, which certainly causes some concern as to his ability to maximize talent.

However, while it’s easy to fall into the trap of looking at Acta in Washington (particularly his record) and simply dub him a “loser” without much hope that he could find much more success in Cleveland, I’ll direct you to a comment made by Baseball Prospectus’ Joe Sheehan in a recent online chat.

The Q & A looked like this:
buffum (Austin TX): Acta or Valentine?
Joe Sheehan: Acta. He's the next Terry Francona.

I’m not sure if the next Jon Lester or the next Kevin Youkilis can come along with this “next Terry Francona”, but it sounds like the beginning of a plan to me.

Also, if somebody could shed some light on who this astute question came from, it would be much obliged.

Of course, the corollary to Acta’s situation is that he’s also a candidate in Houston and Ken Rosenthal thinks that Astros’ owner Drayton McClane may attempt to make this interesting if he senses a competition with the Indians for the services of Acta:
Acta not only is a finalist for the Indians, but also a leading candidate for the Astros. The Indians are not likely to alter their process because of the Astros' interest. But Astros owner Drayton McLane might react to the Indians' pursuit.
The competition for Acta is reminiscent of the battle between the Rangers and Orioles for Phil Regan after the 1994 season. The Orioles' interest in Regan only intensified after club officials learned that Regan also was a target of the Rangers and their new general manager, former O's exec Doug Melvin.
Orioles owner Peter Angelos, fearing he might lose Regan, would not let him leave Baltimore without a contract. McLane is the same type of owner that Angelos was then — intrusive, competitive, prone to impulse.
Acta, who began his career with the Astros and spent 16 years in the organization, told reporters that rejoining the team would be "too good to be true." The Indians, however, are a far more stable operation.

Now there’s speculation (admittedly wild speculation at that) that the Blue Jays may express an interest in Acta because of his connection with some of the principals in the new Toronto Front Office:
If Manny Acta doesn’t get the Cleveland Indians managing job, I wouldn’t be surprised if he figures in any reworking of the Toronto Blue Jays coaching staff. Never mind that new Jays assistant GM Dana Brown worked with Acta in Montreal and with the Washington Nationals; Acta is also known to Alex Anthopoulos and Tony LaCava.

Suddenly, somebody’s looking like the belle of the ball with a full dance card to boot…

If Acta could have a destination other than Cleveland this off-season, it seems that Don Mattingly may be keeping his address as Jon Heyman asserts that there is an understanding in place to keep Mattingly in Chavez Ravine as the heir apparent to Joe Torre:
So while no one is saying it officially, the Dodgers are one team that truly has a manager in waiting. (According to Torre, the wait will be one more year, as he reiterated to SI.com that it's his intention to make 2010 his last year as Dodgers manager.)
Mattingly said he believes Torre when he says he intends to make 2010 his last season managing the Dodgers. "He's not as leverage-the-media guy," Mattingly said. "But nobody knows the future."
Mattingly understands the future isn't guaranteed to anyone. But his looks pretty secure in Dodger blue.

Could we suddenly be looking at a “always the bridesmaid, never the bride” situation emerging here?

I suppose if anything can be taken from these possibilities, it’s the fact that at least we’re looking at guys other teams are interested in and are targeting managerial candidates that other teams feel just as strongly about. To that end (and to bring this around to a couple of names NOT on the “finalist” list), when was the last time you heard of an interview for Hargrove when a managerial position (or even a coaching position) arose in the past…how about Tony Pena?

With Acta perhaps going to Houston and Mattingly perhaps staying put, is it any surprise that it looks like Clint Hurdle may now be entering the picture? Since I’m losing track, would Hurdle represent Plan D, or are we already on E?
Actually, I think it’s F…

Whatever letter we may find ourselves on, it would seem that Hurdle has entered the mix and perhaps for no other reason than to have an option in case everyone else bails out. How serious a candidate Hurdle should be considered remains to be seen; but if you don’t like the difference between the Nationals’ record with Acta and without Acta, you’re not going to like this:
Colorado Rockies - 2009
18-28 (.391 winning percentage) under Hurdle
74-42 (.638 winning percentage) after he was fired

If Hurdle gets into the finalist stage of the process (hopefully having more to say than that he has no idea who the starting third baseman might be), I’ll get into the ins and outs of Hurdle; but until then, we’ll just call him “Plan F”.

Two managerial candidates have finished their interviews, with one coming across well-prepared and interested and the other coming across as “above” the process and assuming that he could sit before the microphones and charm his way into the job.

More are on the way, but whether some of the aforementioned candidates (of the ones on the plane from the NLCS) see the Indians as their first choice may dictate the Indians’ “selection” as much as anything.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Then There Were Four

In light of the recent machinations having to do with the Indians’ managerial search, I’m going to put the “Forward Thinking” series on hold until this search for a skipper starts to wind down or until information slows down on it. Obviously, the most recent happenings at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario have to do with Manny Acta going in front of the assembled press as part of his candidacy as a “finalist” for the job.

How much can really be gleaned from Acta’s words remain to be seen (although it certainly sounds like he did his homework and talked in the “we” and “us” sense when discussing the team) , but it does appear as if there are four candidates that are finalists for the Indians’ managerial position – Acta, Bobby Valentine, Torey Lovullo, and Don Mattingly.

Since the topic of Manny Acta has already been touched upon a few times in this space (a smart baseball man in a bad situation in Washington who may be pining for the Houston job over the one in Cleveland) , let’s hit on the other names on the list that apparently fill out the Indians’ pickings for their new skipper.

The name on the list that has the most MLB experience as a manager (because Acta is second in that category with…gulp… 2 ½ seasons as a MLB manager among the four) is Bobby Valentine. The same Bobby V that comes through on your “Baseball Tonight” (and I say “your” because I stopped watching that show years ago) and the one who has often been portrayed as an egomaniac, an attention hog, and a lightning rod for criticism out in front of the cameras and microphones talking as much about himself as his team. We all remember when he came back to the dugout as the Mets’ manager in disguise and laugh about it, but the episode serves as a microcosm of what you get with Valentine – a manager driven to succeed (almost blinded by that drive) who is all too willing to allow himself to become the focus in lieu of all else.

Valentine is certainly the antithesis of what the Indians dugout has looked like as “even-keeled”, “vanilla” and “robotic” are never words that you’ll see associated with Bobby V (and could you imagine The Atomic Wedgie in this scenario), but lest we get lost in the winds associated with the hurricane that is Bobby Valentine, you have to get back to the actual task at hand and ask the pertinent question – can he win with the Indians?

Since it’s been more than a few years since Valentine has managed on American soil, it’s easy to forget that Bobby V. is not just a mustachioed cartoon character, at home smiling in front of the bright lights of the TV. No, prior to all of that, Valentine was a young manager in Texas who went 581-605 from 1985 to 1992, finishing with a winning record in 4 of the full 6 seasons he managed. While his teams in Arlington only finished better than 3rd in the AL West once and never won a pennant, they were constantly in contention – often up against the “Bash Brothers’ Era” in Oakland. Interestingly, Valentine was fired from a team that had a winning record (45-41) and contained the collected young offensive talent that would eventually mature (with some chemical help) into a juggernaut as his 1992 team boasted Pudge Rodriguez (20), Juan Gone (22), Dean Palmer (23), Ruben Sierra (26), and Rafael Palmiero (27).

After his dismissal from Texas and after spending some time in Japan, Valentine was hired in Queens in 1996 and compiled a 536-467 record over his tenure there, during which he compiled a winning record in all 5 full seasons he managed. While he never won the NL East there (Bobby Cox and the Braves had a monopoly on that), he did win the NL Pennant in 2000, only to lose in the Subway Series to the Yankees.

Interestingly, when asked by the NY Times a few years back about what went wrong with the Mets, Valentine offered this explanation:
I thought we went outside too much. The key word was building, and I think after we got to the World Series, then we just wanted to create. We just wanted to pluck it out of the sky and have it. I thought we lost our mode of what made us pretty good - that we were a good team, we were going to build our own players and add a few pieces.

Sound like a philosophy that falls in line (in theory) with that of a team you know…“build our own players and add a few pieces”?

Of course, after Valentine was dismissed by the Mets, he returned to Japan and now finds himself occupying an ESPN chair, trying to get back into the mix as a MLB manager. Does he see a job like Cleveland as a stepping stone to getting back into the spotlight or does he just want to get back into MLB? If it’s the latter, you would have to assume that Valentine will do what he has always done in the MLB – win consistently, his way.

The question with Valentine (other than the fact that he made $4M last year in Japan and may be looking for substantial compensation to return to managing) is whether the Indians want to put up with the histrionics associated with having Valentine calling the shots and taking the spotlight from the team. Or is that exactly what the Indians need – a manager to take the spotlight, to generate some flavor from the dugout, a little Bobby V?
Perhaps…but at what price, both monetarily and in terms of the spotlight?

Outside of Valentine, the most intriguing candidate is Don Mattingly, who comes with instant credibility from his playing days and, more recently, from his success as the hitting coach for the Dodgers as he has assisted in the development of the young offensive talent in Chavez Ravine. However, he has no managerial experience of any kind and as nice as some memories may be of Donny Baseball as a player, the Indians would be handing the reins to a team whose biggest issue is pitching to a hitting coach who has never handled a pitching staff at any level. Truthfully, the best argument that I can make on Mattingly’s ability to handle a pitching staff is that both he and Mike Scioscia were in the greatest Simpsons’ episode of all time – “Homer at the Bat”.

It’s true that Mattingly was supposed to be the heir apparent in NY and was Torre’s bench coach in 2007, but his resume looks to be missing some key ingredients that should be contained on a cover page. Of course, Mattingly could build a coaching staff around him to surround himself with more experience, but Mattingly’s situation in Los Angeles (with Torre) is more reminiscent to me of John Farrell’s in Boston. Mattingly has coached high-priced talent in high-exposure markets in the past and, while his stated intentions that he wants to be a manager could ring true, one has to wonder if the specific situation in Cleveland is the one that he wants to cut his managerial teeth on.

Perhaps he wants a challenge and wants to get out from the shadow of Torre, but his lack of experience and a realization that he may be sitting in the proverbial catbird’s seat in SoCal, waiting for Torre to hang it up, may prevent Mattingly from committing fully to coming after the Indians’ job too hard.

As for Torey Lovullo, as nice as an MLB managing prospect as he might be, he simply has too much of the stink of Eric Wedge Part II on him to legitimately be considered a candidate, particularly one that the Dolans have to sign off on.
Remember this from last week:
Aren't we really just waiting for the final 3 to be Lovullo (with the explanation that they wanted to hire from outside the organization, but that Lovullo's interview was SO impressive that he made the final list)…

Lovullo probably has a spot on the Indians’ 2010 coaching staff and the Indians are doing him a favor by introducing him as a final candidate to put him on the greater MLB radar; but if Lovullo’s the final selection, it likely means that the Indians have been turned down by the other three or any other names that might emerge.

If you’re looking at the known candidates as a whole, I’d say that Acta and Valentine would have to be considered the most compelling choices among the four, based on experience and bringing the total package to the table, though neither comes without worries (Acta in Washington) or warts (Bobby being…well, Bobby). Acta’s interest in the Houston job and the fact that Valentine can sit in Bristol if the financial package offered is not to his liking could put Mattingly on the map to take the job.

With the list of “finalists”, we’re getting closer…to what I’m still not quite sure.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

A Managerial Lazy Sunday

With so very little being known about the only real relevant topic this Sunday that wasn’t hit on earlier in the week – that is, the Indians’ managerial search – let’s take a quick look at what information IS actually being revealed as to which candidates the Indians are considering for their post of skipper. Sitting in my father-in-law’s office in Milwaukee, surrounded by Packer Green and Gold, it’s time to get loose on a Lazy Sunday:

Starting off with Terry Pluto, who seems to have the most inside knowledge of the names being bandied about by the organization, he reports that the candidates that he knows were part of the phone interview process were Manny Acta, Bobby Valentine, Travis Fryman, and Torey Lovullo. Since Pluto writes that “of the in-house candidates, Fryman has the best chance to make the final five”, it’s pretty safe to say that anyone that had fears that Torey Lovullo would be Wedge Part II can ease their troubled minds.

Who else is on that list that was involved with the phone interview process?
Those bench coaches that had been mentioned in the past (Roenicke, Wotus, etc.) don’t show up, but Pluto does put forth the notion that names that were NOT included on the list would be Mike Hargrove, Tony Pena, Buck Showalter, and Phil Garner, slipping in the strange addendum that “Hargrove could end up being a bench coach if the team hires a younger manager.”

Reading too far into this (obviously), anyone else find it interesting that the two names that Pluto mentions (one being a managerial candidate, one not being a managerial candidate) would actually set up a Fryman as Manager, Grover as Bench Coach dynamic in the Indians’ dugout?

Fryman as Manager, Grover as Bench Coach, eh?
Let me think about that one…and direct you to the interview that Fryman did with Baseball Prospectus last August where he talks about himself as a manager and specifically how he was trying to help Lonnie Chisenhall make the transition from SS to 3B, a move Fryman made for the Tigers as a young player.

Interesting in that piece is the discussion on Chris Chambliss, who Fryman valued as his manager as a young player in the Detroit farm system. Chambliss was obviously hitting coach for the Yankees’ teams of the late ‘90s and has held various hitting coaching positions since then (NYM, CIN). He is currently the manager of the AAA Charlotte Knights (White Sox affiliate), so if the concern is there that Fryman may be inexperienced for a big-league managerial job, maybe filling out the staff with veteran coaches like Chambliss and Hargrove (both former Tribe players) is how the coaching staff gets filled out to blend some veteran savvy with Fryman’s relative inexperience.

The one name that is unquestionably out there and seems to be getting a good deal of attention is Manny Acta, who may be looking at the Indians’ job as a fall-back to the job he’s interviewing for in Houston, who had this to say to the assembled Houston press corps about the prospect of managing the Astros:
"It would be too good to be true," Acta said. "It's amazing because as I mentioned I owe them everything, including my wife. I met her while playing in the Minor Leagues for them. That being said, I understand what the process is all about. They have to do what's best for the Astros, and I'm happy to be part of it."

Wouldn’t it be nice to hear a managerial candidate for the Tribe come out and say that?
Pipe down there, Grover…

Seriously though, Acta responded to the criticism that he was unqualified to manage again based on the struggles of his team in Washington thusly:
"I learned that rebuilding is tough, rebuilding is cruel and can be grueling, but those are the types of jobs that go to people like me," Acta said. "Obviously, you're going to ask one of those big-time managers to do one of those jobs, but we have to get our foot in the door. We did it and it was a tremendous experience and we can use that going forward."
Sound about what you would imagine the Indians’ brass heard in Acta’s phone interview?

Back to square one then, it seems like the names that did get interviewed (or at least the ones we seem to know about) fall in line with what we’ve been hearing. While the list of candidates is supposed to be parsed down to five this week for the sit-down interviews, we’ll have to see if the veil of secrecy lifts at all from the corner of Carnegie and Ontario.

Based on the tea leaves and on the coverage of various candidates, guys like Acta and Fryman are likely to make it through to the next round, with the probability of a couple of surprises (meriting a “who’s that guy” at first mention) could be included as the Indians try to find the right fit.

Maybe more will come out about the managerial search (and hopefully no more surprise surgeries are mentioned) in the next week, but until then we’ll all keep sitting, waiting, and wishing for happier days to arrive.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Tomahawks Coming from Gray Clouds

Some kind of off-season so far, eh?

This week alone has seen John Farrell passing on being interviewed for the managerial job, adding Matt LaPorta to the list of those who have gone under the knife, and the feeling that a CC vs. CP Lee in Game 1 of the World Series coming closer to a reality. With those things in mind (and with snow in the forecast for Friday), let’s release just a few tomahawks to recap the events of the week:

The big news of the week is John Farrell’s withdrawal from consideration for the post of Indians’ manager, which had been dissected and pored over probably more than it should have been (admittedly by me, among others) in the past few weeks, meaning that the assumed top candidate for the job of skipper is not a candidate at all. While it had been reported by various outlets, Farrell’s statement to the PD removes any thought that his previously-reported disinterest was a smoke-screen or a deflection of attention while the Red Sox were still in the playoffs.

For Farrell, it represents the third time that he has declined to be interviewed for open managerial positions (the Royals and Pirates were also declined in years past) and the reasons for Farrell to resist what would look to be a job promotion (pitching coach to manager) remain a mystery. As I wrote here last week, there could be any number of reasons for Farrell not to accept a chance to become an MLB manager for an organization that he’s intimately familiar with and (apparently) remains close to.

Whether he has been promised the managerial position in Boston, or isn’t interested in returning to Cleveland because of concerns about their current situation or Front Office, or that he’s seen how green the pastures are on a team with a seemingly unlimited payroll and talent already in-house and with more on the way and isn’t interested in scratching and clawing into contention every couple of years, the fact that stands alone, without mystery, is that he’s not going to be the next Indians’ skipper.

While his disinterest had been reported by various media outlets, his withdrawal is surprising because the “criteria” laid out by the Indians last week for a new manager seemed to list Farrell’s resume, with the idea that the Indians were describing Farrell because…he was who they wanted and could go down the list of “criteria” when he was named to hang the “Mission Accomplished” banner.

If you’ll remember what they’re looking for from the recap of the presser, once you got past the broad generalizations from what they were looking for (a “good communicator”…as if they would be looking for anything else), you saw that the specific attributes that were mentioned essentially described what Farrell would seemingly bring to the table.

To wit, from the press conference and how each relates to Farrell:
8. A big point is to "understand the uniqueness of our situation and how essential young players are to us." This means that the new manager must be strong in player development, especially helping move from the minors to the Majors as fast as possible -- and then helping the players deal with trials and challenges of staying and improving in the Majors.

Understanding the uniqueness of the Indians situation…like, say serving as team’s Director of Player Development from 2001 to 2006 so he’d be pretty aware of the “situation” and would have some experience in developing young players?
That type of “understanding” with a strength in player development?

9. Experience of being a big league manager is "helpful, but not a necessity."

MLB managing experience “helpful, but not a necessity” ruled out that candidate HAS to be a former manager, which Farrell is not.

10. The Indians will have "no pre-conceptions" when it comes to experience, but it will take "a special guy to be considered without Major League experience as a coach and/or manager."

Wouldn’t a “special guy” be someone who cut his teeth in the Indians’ organization, but may be lacking in coaching/managerial experience outside of being a pitching coach for three years in Boston.

11. The Indians also believe they will have the financial resources to hire the candidate of their choice. They say that money should not prevent them from finding the manager they want.

Financial resources available seemed to imply that compensation and a healthy paycheck were thought to be prerequisites to lure Farrell, but that the Indians would not allow money to be a factor in excluding a candidate.

15. A real emphasis will be place on handling and developing the bullpen. The Indians are open to new ways of doing it, given their struggles with the bullpen in 2006, 2008 and 2009.

Regardless of what this EXTREMEMLY specific attribute may say about the handling and development of a bullpen by the previous regime, Farrell presided over the bullpen with the 2nd lowest ERA in 2009, the 7th lowest ERA in 2008, the lowest ERA in 2007…so yeah, that fits.

While the “fit” seemed to be there in terms of their expectations and the assumed candidate, Farrell’s announcement removes any shadows of any doubts that he’s remotely interested and the Indians find themselves looking at a list of candidates for manager…a list that no longer contains John Farrell.

As for the names that are on the list, the only name that has been confirmed in connection to actually interviewing for the job has been Manny Acta, who is also allegedly interviewing in Houston for the open Astros’ job.

At first glance, Acta makes little sense if you’re looking strictly at the performance of his teams (73-89 in 2007, 59-102 in 2008, 26-61 in 2009 when he was fired) in Washington, but let’s remember what a couple of notable MLB managers had on their resume from their first managerial stint before dismissing Acta as a non-factor:
Terry Francona in 4 years in Philadelphia (1997-2000): 285-363
Joe Torre in 5 years with the Mets (1977-1981): 286-420

Maybe that’s picking just a couple of instances of managers who took some time to find their footing (not to mention the right situation in terms of talent) and other managers find success at different times and with different organizations, but it speaks to the idea that past success (or failure) does not guarantee results of either kind in terms of managers.

That’s not to say that Acta simply needs to be put in a different situation to succeed, but this interview with him, completed after the surprisingly good 2007 season as Nationals’ manager, paints the picture of a dynamic young manager who would represent a change in attitude from the dugout from what has resided there since 2002.

In terms of how he fits the Tribe’s criteria (from above), he’s been exposed to managing young players in Washington, has managerial experience (also from the World Baseball Classic), and has experience in handling and developing a MLB bullpen as his 2007 bullpen in Washington actually posted the 4th lowest ERA in the NL with a group of players that very few outside of the Beltway have ever heard of. Granted, his 2008 bullpen was 14th in ERA in the NL, but it goes back to the question of what a truly great managerial candidate looks like.

Is Acta a compelling candidate?
I suppose at some level, but as nice as it would to find the next Mike Scioscia or Joe Girardi, the candidates named from here on out are likely to elicit the same type of response as the mention of Manny Acta.

Do the names of Bob Brenly (who may or may not be interested in leaving the Cubs’ broadcast booth and has said in the past that he probably wouldn’t take a job with a rebuilding team but that “things can change”) or Clint Hurdle or Bobby Valentine or Tony Pena REALLY get you that much more excited about the outlook for the 2010 season?

Maybe they do for you, but the “meh” factor is rising for me…

Far from a “meh” reaction is my astonishment to the news that Matt LaPorta underwent surgery on his hip and (less importantly) his big toe, meaning that he’s likely to miss the start of Spring Training, with AC even putting the atrocious thought that “his situation might be comparable to that of Travis Hafner this year” to let the water out of my perpetually half-full glass.

The timeframe that’s being given for LaPorta’s return is 4 to 6 months, which would come somewhere between mid-February and mid-April and, considering that the first game is on April 5th, let’s all hope for the 4 month recovery time.

As a quick aside here, does anyone remember Wedge’s quote when the hip injury cropped up, as LaPorta was attempting to score from third against the Tigers?
“The pain is still in there,” Wedge said. “We think he just tweaked it when he turned for home there.
“I'll tell you what happened. I guarantee you it's from him moving from the outfield to the infield. It's happened before. You're using different muscles at first base. You're doing a lot more squatting, a lot more bending. I'm sure that had something to do with it.”

Seriously, that is how the injury was initially explained…putting the idea that “using different muscles at first base” left his hip to be more open to injury.
Or was more open to a “tweak”?

Certainly the surgery (on an injury that occurred in the September 22nd game in Detroit…after which LaPorta started 9 of the 12 remaining games on the schedule) would suggest more than the idea that he “just tweaked it when he turned for home there”. Is anyone else getting tired of these “surprises” in terms of surgeries or should we suspend any additional “squatting” and “bending” from players’ usual activities?

Why is it that the players that have now gone under the knife (with the exception of Sizemore) were actually the top performers in 2009, or at least projected some hope for 2010? Asdrubal, Chris Perez, and LaPorta actually looked to be strengths of the team in 2009, with very little concern that recovering from an injury (OK, we knew about Perez’s foot for a while) would affect their performance in 2010.

Where’s the news that Peralta was battling a hip injury all year or that Rafael Perez had issues with his left elbow or that Fausto had difficulty with a loose bone and a cyst on his foot?

Wouldn’t all of that make you feel better about the 2009 performances of those players, not the news that two of the best players on the team (Grady and Asdrubal), the best power hitting prospect on the team (LaPorta) and the possible closer-in-waiting (Chris Perez) will all be coming off of not just injuries, but injuries that required surgery, for the 2010 season?

Alas, the gray clouds that usually settle over the North Coast from November to March have arrived early and are hanging low over the corner of Carnegie and Ontario.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Forward Thinking – Around the Diamond

As the managerial search continues, but with little actually being cleared up in terms of John Farrell’s interest or what other names are legitimately involved, let’s start to take a look towards what the Indians may be looking at in terms of the makeup of their 2010 roster and what questions face the club this off-season.

As usual, I’ll break this thing down a little bit, if only to get into it as deep as I want to and so I don’t unleash some 10,000 word monster in one fell swoop on your unsuspecting consciousness. Starting off with the infield (with the outfield/DH and pitching staff yet to come), with a look at how the Indians look today, in mid-October, in terms of how the club looks to shake out for next season.

When addressing the issue of catcher, the Indians are looking at their first year without Victor Martinez as their Opening Day catcher since Vic began the 2004 season behind the dish. The one-time assumed heir apparent, Kelly Shoppach (particularly after his 2008 season), does not seem to be in line to ascend to the starting position. That is, he wasn’t used like a starting catcher in 2009, as ShopVac started 4 consecutive games only twice during the 2009 season (once from May 31st to June 3rd and once from August 19th to August 22nd), this a season after he posted a .272 BA / .364 OBP / .570 SLG / .934 OPS line after being installed as basically the everyday catcher on June 9th of 2008.

Whether the drop in Shoppach’s production was a by-product of the infrequency of his use or the rest of MLB adjusting to him may never be answered, but the mitigating factor in Shoppach’s unlikelihood to become the Indians’ 2010 everyday catcher is his contract status. Shoppach is entering his second year of arbitration, after being on the books for $1.95M last year, with the assumption that he will be due another pay raise, if only by the design of the salary arbitration process. For Shoppach, his usefulness drops proportionally to the raising of the number on his contract and if he’s due for another pay raise with the idea that less expensive options are available to keep the area behind home plate warm for Carlos Santana’s ascension, the writing certainly seems to be on the wall for Shoppach.

What would the Indians do with him?
It’s possible that they non-tender him, though I would imagine that the Indians could extract something of value for him, if only on the basis of his 2008 season. There should be no shortage of NL teams looking for some sort of upgrade at catcher (NYM, CIN, HOU, MIL, etc.) not to mention a certain team in New England whose veteran catcher’s usefulness has also declined proportionally to his increased paycheck. Perhaps the idea that Boston may be looking for a catcher to complement Victor could be balanced with the idea that they may be looking for compensation for hiring their current pitching coach. Regardless of where Shoppach ends up (or if the Indians can net anything for him), it does seem that his time with the Indians is coming to an end.

If we’re working off the assumption that Show Pack is not long for the Cleveland Indians, Blue Lou Marson looks to be the aforementioned adequate placeholder, as a high-OBP, low-SLG with some defensive skills, who can effectively hold down the fort behind the dish until Carlos Santana emerges from AAA. Marson’s 2009 season in Cleveland looked much like his MiLB career as (in an embarrassingly small sample size of 52 plate appearances) he posted a .346 OBP and a .386 SLG, which are not far off from his career MiLB totals of a .369 OBP and a .386 SLG. Perhaps Marson is a Jason Kendall-type catcher (and there are worse things to have than a Kendall-type catcher, particularly at a league minimum salary and under club control) or maybe he’s more. He certainly was more than a throw-in in the Lee deal and is likely to receive the bulk of the catching time in Cleveland until Santana is ready.

Some have compared Marson’s situation to that of Josh Bard, circa 2003, designed to play the role of place-holder until the talented youth (Santana for Marson, Victor for Bard) arrives, making him expendable for trade. In terms of backing up Marson to start the season, it’s likely that Wyatt Torregas fills that role, though he does not look to be a long-term viable back-up catcher by virtue of his offensive struggles as he has a career MiLB OPS of .739 and he’ll be 27 in December. That being said, he could easily play the 40-man roster game filling in where he would need to until his options run out.

The real player in the whole catcher story is obviously Carlos Santana, whose status as the Indians’ top prospect is unquestioned as he posted a .290 BA / .413 OBP / .530 SLG / .943 OPS in Akron after posting a cumulative .999 OPS in 2008. For the second straight he year he walked more than he struck out and figures to start the season in Columbus in 2010 with the idea that a call-up to Cleveland will not be far away.

Some have argued that Santana should start the 2010 season as the everyday catcher to quicken his adjustment to MLB and allowing him to be “finished off” against the best possible competition. However, if Santana is the catcher of the future, the Indians should manage his service time clock in a season that they aren’t likely to contend him, allowing him to start the season in AAA for a time to delay his Free Agency year by a full year by keeping him out of the Cleveland lineup until his Super-2 status is not in question.

Speaking of Santana (at least in a round-about way of getting back to him), reliable sources have refuted claims made by WEEI reporter Rob Bradford and furthered here on Sunday that the Red Sox offer of a “mega-trade” for both Lee and Martinez “eclipsed” those that were allegedly on the table particularly that a “mega-deal” between the two teams “would be a proposition that would start with Clay Buchholz and only get richer”.

According to a source connected to the team, talks between Cleveland and Boston did, in fact, bring the possibility of moving Lee to Boston with the Indians asking for Clay Buchholz in a one-for-one deal for Lee. The Red Sox passed on the offer, according to the source, of a straight-up Lee-for-Buchholz swap and Boston countered with a proposal that would have sent Clay Buchholz to the North Coast for Carlos Santana. The Indians declined the Red Sox offer that brought Santana into the mix (I told you I'd get to Santana) and the talks involving Buchholz between the two teams ground to a halt.

As the recounting with the new information on the trade process from the Indians’ side shows, Santana is a coveted commodity in MLB and Indians’ fans will find out why sometime in 2010.

First Base
As confusing as the catching situation is, with one player likely on his way out, one player likely to serve as a placeholder, and one player representing the future, the situation at 1B for 2010 looks to have finally moved past that point of endless transition. That is, the days of seeing Ben Broussard and Ryan Garko, with a sporadic appearance by an Eduardo Perez seem to be over as the notion that the 1B for the Indians will be just “good enough” has given way to the idea that the Indians finally have their 1B-of-the-future occupying the same locker as their 1B-of-the-present in Matt LaPorta.

That idea could be…wait for it…delayed if the Indians decide to start LaPorta in LF with Mike Brantley starting 2010 in Columbus, with some amalgamation of Andy Marte and Jordan Brown (assuming either is even still in the organization) playing 1B until Brantley returns from AAA to moves LaPorta back to 1B. If you’re asking me though, perhaps it’s time to put LaPorta at 1B full-time from Day 1 (while acknowledging that his usefulness as a LF may be more attractive) and allow him to play every day at 1B.

The reason would be consistency, as we all know how LaPorta was mishandled during his first stint with the Indians, then thrived at the plate after being given consistent AB in his second trip to Cleveland. From the time he arrived for his second go-around, LaPorta posted a line of .273 BA / .315 OBP / .489 SLG / .805 OPS with 12 Doubles and 6 HR in 39 games (which breaks down to a 50 Double / 25 HR season over a whole season), while flipping between LF and 1B for the parent club.

Unfortunately, LaPorta logged only 181 AB in a season that was lost by mid-June as the Indians’ top prospect that played the same position as a 1B and a LF that would be traded as spare parts in July. Why he wasn’t up in MLB to play everyday in May could eventually be seen as a bullet point on the list of failures of Eric Wedge as the Indians’ manager (hell, it was seen as a mistake back in May), but nevertheless his future with the team remains bright if his immediate position remains (somewhat) in question, while his long-term position of 1B seems rather clear. How quickly he assumes his spot at 1B figures to be answered by factors unrelated to him.

Another reason for LaPorta to play 1B from Day 1 in 2010 would be the reality that the alternatives past him are essentially Andy Marte, a 3B, and Jordan Brown, who may be moved to LF...and that assumes that both players (who both turn 26 this off-season) stay in the organization through the off-season as both could fill the bill of “depth” but perhaps not much else.

Second Base
Heading into 2010, Luis Valbuena looks to be the 6th Opening Day 2B for the Indians since the departure of Robbie Alomar after the 2001 season and his arrival to Cleveland portends that he may finally represent the end of a long search for a viable 2B for the organization. As a 23-year-old getting his first extended look at MLB, Valbuena posted a respectable line of .250 BA / .298 OBP / .416 SLG / .714 OPS with 25 doubles in 398 plate appearances while never looking overwhelmed at the plate and supplying steady defense from the 2B position.

His age (he’ll turn 24 in November) and his consistency at the plate are the cause of some optimism for Valbuena and his long-term prospects as a 2B, but his 2009 usage and performance do not come without concerns. Of Valbuena’s 398 plate appearances, only 40 came against LHP (he posted a .661 OPS against LHP in that small sample), an obvious reaction to his career MiLB splits:
Valbuena MiLB vs. LHP – .241 BA / .319 OBP / .311 SLG / .630 OPS
Valbuena MiLB vs. RHP – .282 BA / .361 OBP / .447 SLG / .808 OPS

Knowing that then, how long of a leash should Valbuena have against LHP in an attempt to adjust to facing them and (hopefully) improving against them so he becomes less of a liability against LHP? His long-term viability as an everyday player seems to be tied into his ability to hit LHP (allowing him to play without concern for the handedness of the opposing pitcher) and how much latitude the Indians allow him in 2010 to make those adjustments certainly will be interesting to watch.

It will be interesting to watch because it would seem that the Indians netted what looks to be the RH complement to (or perhaps even straight-up competition for) Valbuena in the Lee deal in their acquisition of Jason Donald. Lest anyone forget because of Donald’s injury that sidelined him after the trade, he is a now-25-year-old infielder (one year older than Valbuena) who was rated as the 69th best prospect in all of baseball by Baseball America and 48th best by Keith Law entering this season. While his injury unquestionably would preclude him from making those lists after this season, the talent does seem to be there with Donald. His health going forward may affect how quickly he factors into the parent club’s plans, but his career MiLB numbers would seem to present an obvious complement to what the Indians have in Louie the Fifth:
Donald MiLB vs. LHP – .284 BA / .394 OBP / .429 SLG / .823 OPS
Donald MiLB vs. RHP – .282 BA / .356 OBP / .434 SLG / .790 OPS

Interestingly, looking at Donald’s body of work, his consistency, and his right-handedness in a potentially LH-hitting heavy lineup, it’s not inconceivable to figure that the Indians could open up 2010 Spring Training with Valbuena and Donald fighting for the everyday 2B job with the “loser” essentially becoming Jamey Carroll’s replacement as a Utility IF as both Donald and Valbuena's ability to play 2B, SS, and 3B mirror Carroll's defensive repertoire, coming at a much lower price tag in 2010. The notion is out there that Carroll could be re-signed to fill the role that he did to such critical acclaim in 2009, but the inclusion of Jason Donald in the Lee deal and his ability to play all of the positions that Carroll did certainly suggests otherwise.

In a season of disappointments, one of the only shining lights that consistently burned brightly for the 2009 Tribe was that of their 2B…I mean SS, Asdrubal Cabrera. Still not 24 (OK, he will be 24 next month), Asdrubal finished the year with the 3rd highest OPS (.799) among AL Shortstops, behind only Jason Bartlett’s otherworldly .879 and Jeter’s .871. He tallied the most doubles (42) among all AL Shortstops at the plate and his glove (finally at his natural position) looked like everyone expected it to in the field after a brief sojourn at 2B.

With the adjustment period of 2008 behind him, Cabrera established himself as perhaps the best overall SS in the AL under the age of 35 and as a likely perennial All-Star from the middle of the diamond. His emergence as a hitter and a fielder should have a steadying influence on the team, whose strength up the middle (with Asdrubal and Grady and Santana eventually) could be the backbone that the organization finds themselves in need of.

There’s no question that there are many questions facing the Indians in 2010 – who will be playing SS everyday for them every day (finally) doesn’t figure to be one of them as the performance of and the potential around Asdrubal Cabrera remained a bright spot in an otherwise dark season.

Third Base
From an unquestioned bright spot of the season, let’s turn to one of the deep disappointments of the season as Jhonny Peralta regressed to the point that his long-term viability as a part of the Indians’ organization is far from assured. Now a 27-year-old full-time 3B, Peralta has now compiled a career OPS of .756 (OPS+ of 97) and the promise of his 2005 season is a distant memory. But what does all of that mean for Peralta going forward as he’s coming off of his worst season as a professional while playing a position that generally produces some power after posting a SLG of .375 in 2009?

Were his mid-season position change and his obviously strained relationship with lame-duck manager to blame for his regression?

Those are the questions that the Indians need to answer before making a decision on whether to go forward with Peralta as the 3B for 2010. They need to project what Peralta could do with a full off-season of preparing to play 3B and (hopefully) without a manager that calls him out for a perceived lack of effort. If they feel that he can improve (even marginally) for 2010, holding onto him this off-season makes sense if only because the obvious ready-to-step-in replacement simply doesn’t exist internally for the club.

As well as Andy Marte played in Columbus in 2009, he didn’t play one inning as a 3B for the parent club in 47 games – a pretty startling fact and a good indication that the team was attempting to get Peralta untracked at 3B as much as anything else related to Marte. Maybe Marte plays the role of the backup 3B and 1B while providing a RH bat off of the bench with the idea that he could step in if Peralta were to be moved at some point during the 2010 season, but Marte’s performance in MLB after being promoted did nothing to put forth the idea that Marte is a legitimate option for everyday use in 2010.

Of course, the other mitigating factor with 3B is the fact that Peralta’s owed $4.6M in 2010 and if the idea exists that Shoppach and Carroll are replaceable for cheaper alternatives who may come close to their level of production, why shouldn’t that axiom apply to Jhonny?

Could the Indians get by with the “production” from Marte in Peralta’s absence until the 3B-in-waiting is ready for MLB? That 3B-in-waiting would be Lonnie Chisenhall, but the 20-year-old Chiz just spent all of 24 games in AA this year, meaning that the optimistic “Carlos Santana-esque” path to the big leagues would put his ETA closer to 2011…and that’s assuming that everything continues to break his way.

All told, it’s likely that the Indians hold on to Peralta through the off-season, keeping Marte around as his back-up with the idea that Peralta could always be moved at the Trading Deadline (assuming he boosts his trade value in the first half of 2010), because moving him now would be selling low on a player who may simply need a “Wedge-free” off-season to concentrate on 3B in the hopes that he can find the player he once looked to be.

If you can believe, the infield actually represents one of the more known areas of the team, with most of the assumed pieces already in place or not far off. That being said, much can change from the perceived make-up of the infield in mid-October to its actual alignment in April of 2010.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

A Lazy Sunday Around the Horn

As the off-season begins in earnest and with the only real “news” coming out of the corner of Carnegie and Ontario is that Asdrubal and Hurricane Perez had minor surgeries, let’s get off on a Lazy Sunday before a Fall trip to the pumpkin patch/apple orchard for some apple cider becomes necessary by halftime of a certain NFL game.

And with that, we’re off:
Starting at the top, Anthony Castrovince presents a nice look ahead, putting a nice little bow on what may be coming. The “look forward” portion is something that I’ll attempt to flesh out a little more in the coming weeks, but AC’s presentation is a good primer.

As for looking back, there is a piece that appeared earlier this week that recounts the story of how the Victor trade to Boston became a reality. It’s an utterly fascinating piece, offering a look inside the process, by WEEI’s Rob Bradford, spotted by hawk-eyed reader Al Ciammaichella:
The Red Sox and Indians started talking more, with the focus on a mega-trade that would send both Martinez and starter Cliff Lee to the Red Sox for a package of players, eclipsing what the Sox were offering for Toronto’s Roy Halladay, San Diego’s Adrian Gonzalez or Seattle’s Felix Hernandez. It would be a proposition that would start with Clay Buchholz and only get richer.
But as the days got closer to the July 31 deadline, the Indians decided to split up the two players and trade them separately to maximize their prospect return. And when Lee was sent to Philadelphia with a week to go in July, the Sox were left to focus on Martinez.
As much as the Red Sox wanted Martinez, they also realized that too much interest only was going to drive up the price, so they took a 24-hour-or-so break from calling the Indians. In the meantime, the Sox started heating up their pursuit of two players atop the wish list, Hernandez and Gonzalez. They both were long shots, but with a decent idea of what it would take to get Martinez, the Sox could take some shots elsewhere.
The Sox’ instincts and intel were correct — after seeing the shock-and-awe transactions fall through, it took a phone call lasting just a few minutes to consummate the deal for the team’s new catcher (and without Reddick). The cost to the Sox was steep, since Masterson was regarded by the organization as at worst a legitimate late-inning relief option, while Hagadone is considered to have legitimate closer's stuff, and Bryan Price, the third pitcher included in the deal, has a premium (albeit somewhat raw) arm.

The whole piece is worth your time as it certainly presents the Victor situation clearly, particularly when you remember the timeframe of that final week before the Trading Deadline, where signals from the Indians were mixed at best as to whether they were seriously considering moving Lee and Vic.

What part of that little synopsis of the trade jumps out at you though?
How about this:
The Red Sox and Indians started talking more, with the focus on a mega-trade that would send both Martinez and starter Cliff Lee to the Red Sox for a package of players, eclipsing what the Sox were offering for Toronto’s Roy Halladay, San Diego’s Adrian Gonzalez or Seattle’s Felix Hernandez.
The Indians decided to split up the two players and trade them separately to maximize their prospect return. And when Lee was sent to Philadelphia with a week to go in July, the Sox were left to focus on Martinez.”

I know that you read that once already, but parse through that for a second. The Red Sox were offering a package for both Lee and Martinez that “eclipsed” their offers for Halladay, Gonzalez, and Hernandez.
Remember what Boston was allegedly offering for King Felix?
The Seattle Times reports that, according to sources, the Red Sox offered a list of eight players, from which the Mariners could choose any five in exchange for Felix Hernandez. The list reportedly included:
Clay Buchholz
Daniel Bard
Michael Bowden
Justin Masterson
Nick Hagadone
Josh Reddick
Yamaico Navarro
Felix Doubront

Now, figure that Masterson and Hagadone came over in the Martinez deal (with Price)… and balance through the idea that the Red Sox offer for including Lee with Martinez ECLIPSED picking 5 of the names you see above.

So if Masterson and Hagadone are 2 of the 5, that would leave the Indians to pick 3 from among Buchholz, Bard, Bowden, Reddick, Navarro, and Doubrant at the very least, because the Red Sox offer for both Lee and Martinez was BETTER than the one listed above.

Maybe it didn’t shake out like that and maybe the names were not necessarily the same or the offer for Hernandez was overstated, but knowing what the Indians got from both the Phillies and the Red Sox for Lee and Martinez and knowing that this offer may have been, in fact, on the table (or even an offer that “eclipsed” this), the Indians better hope that Carlos Carrasco and Jason Knapp don’t fall by the wayside while the likes of Buchholz, Bard, and Bowden become principal members of the juggernaut that is the Red Sox going forward.

Mark Shapiro, if it wasn’t already obvious…you’re on notice.

This brings us to an absolutely phenomenal piece from LGT’s Jay Levin (which wraps up their “Fire Everyone” series) that puts the Tribe GM under the microscope. “Fire Shapiro” presents an interesting paradox as Jay points out that Shapiro is certainly not without his strengths, but finds himself in the position he does today because of an over-reliance on the processes in place and not enough of a dissenting voice to balance an overwhelming cohesion in the organization.
…the brilliant executive can't necessarily tell you whether it's better to overspend on Raul IbaƱez or Kerry Wood. He can't necessarily devise a process to tell you that, and he can't necessarily hire the right person to tell you that, either. Nor can he devise a process to hire the right person to tell you that. It doesn't always come down to objective analysis or having a good process. Sometimes it comes down to talent: the talent to play, the talent to evaluate talent, the talent to develop talent, and the judgment to make decisions about talent.
Shapiro has not given us any concrete reason to believe that he knows how to put people into critical positions who are capable of evaluating, developing and coaching real talent — the kind that can thrive at the major league level. Without people in key roles who are possessed of that kind of judgment and talent, it doesn't make any difference how good your organizational processes are or how much class-acting you do.

Levin identifies some significant pieces of the Front Office that are no longer here (Jay mentions Farrell, Neal Huntington, and Tony LaCava…to which I would add Mike Hazen, the current Director of Player Development in Boston, a position that he has ascended to from 2006, when he admitted that he thought he would be a in Cleveland for a long time until the Red Sox came calling) and suggests that the Indians became weaker when each left, leaving the Indians to scramble to keep the pipeline full…and not just in terms of players.

Moving back into the nothingness of the managerial search, Jon Heyman offers much of the same that we’ve been hearing:
Bobby Valentine is the name most prominently mentioned as a candidate for the Indians job. But Indians people say they have a long list. Red Sox coach Brad Mills could be a candidate. Makes sense, his son, Beau Mills, was a high draft choice of theirs recently. Indians and Red Sox executives are close, and the Indians originally targeted Boston pitching coach John Farrell, who decided to remain in his current job.

Is anyone else confused by Brad Mills “making sense” as a candidate because the Indians drafted his son? Does that mean if the Indians drafted Ron Roenicke’s son recently that he would “make sense” as a candidate?
I’m fine with the argument that Mills is a respected bench coach for a successful team, but justifying his candidacy with the fact that his son is a former 1st Round Pick of the team and a current AA 1B doesn’t exactly make a compelling case.

Staying with the managerial circus (and refuting what Heyman writes), anyone else catch this little aside from Hoynes this week when listing managerial “candidates”, which looks a lot like the last time he listed “candidates”:
If Farrell, Boston's pitching coach, is still in the picture, he'll be a strong candidate. ESPN.com reported that he removed himself from consideration. If he did, it's news to the Indians.

That was admittedly bolded by me for emphasis, but is Hoynesie slipping in little clues that the Indians have not, in fact, been told by Farrell that he’s removed himself from consideration?

More importantly, is this what I’ve come to on an October morning…looking for hidden meanings in Paul Hoynes’ articles?

Moving on, if you’ve watched any of the MLB playoffs, you’re aware that (other than the umpires making quite a…ahem…name for themselves) it’s been more than a little painful to watch because of the ex-Indians (who, it should be noted DID NOT win when they were together as a team before the trades to start the 2008 season and, to a lesser degree, to start the 2009 season, making this idea that “breaking up the band” was a premature and short-sighted decision not forced by the performance of the players on the field) leading their new teams in the Divisional tilts. Regardless, my fellow TCF writer Steve Buffum lays out another reason it’s been just as difficult to watch the coverage of the playoffs…or at least difficult to listen to them with an imagined conversation that actually doesn’t stray too far from reality.

Finally, and apropos of absolutely nothing related to the Indians though it does keep us at “64 and Counting”, Vince Grzegorek recounts his experience at a try-out for “American Idol”, during which he “auditioned” by singing…wait for it…“Bernie, Bernie” in full Browns’ attire in the end zone of the Dawg Pound.

If nothing else, we’re a week closer to having a new manager for the Indians, which could be affected by the outcome of today’s Red Sox-Angels game…so I guess that’s something.