Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Tomahawks Hitting the Bases

Outside of watching the bullpen blow a couple of games against the South Siders and making sure that my Carlos Carrasco jersey (he’ll still wear #59, right…where can I get a confirmation on this) arrives in time for his Wednesday start, there is not much happening at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario. Nevertheless, there’s a number of links with quick thoughts that I’ve been meaning to get to, as well as a bit of a final look at some of the numbers for the Minor Leaguers as those seasons are nearing their ends.

With that in mind, let’s get a few Tomahawks in the air, if only to remove the taste of the Tribe’s recent performance from my mouth…

Just to put a bow on the idea (from the weekend) that the Indians were unable to sustain the success that 2005 and 2007 seemed to promise, there’s a fascinating piece in the print version of SI, where Tom Verducci takes a look at the “surprise” teams in MLB this year. He points out that “in the 15 seasons under the wild-card format, 30 teams—one of every four playoff teams, including seven World Series clubs—have made the postseason a year after a losing season”, but lays the sustainability idea out with the numbers to back it up, starting out with a terrific quote from a GM:
“There are surprise teams that are built on high draft picks and planning,” says one G.M., “and others that just have a special year. I love San Diego, but it could be one of those special years. Like the Brewers [in 2008], most of these teams get one year, then it’s five or six waiting for another window. Don’t kid yourself. The large markets still have a huge advantage. The small markets can’t sustain it.”
Of the 30 teams that morphed from losers to elite, only six returned to the postseason the following year, and those six were flush with money, ranking no worse than ninth in payroll.

Check this line again - “Most of these teams get one year, then it’s five or six waiting for another window” because “the small markets can’t sustain it”. Can somebody check to see if this “one GM” is coming to you live from the corner of Carnegie and Onatario…

As for that “sustainability”, with the Minor League seasons finishing up, now might be a good time to take a look at the composite leaders in the Indians’ organization. Realizing that many of the farmhands end up playing on multiple teams at multiple levels, here are the top OPS for players on the farm for the Indians, with their age indicated appropriately.

For the purposes of my sanity, I’m including only guys above Lake County:
C) Carlos Santana – Age 24 – AAA/MLB - .967 OPS
OF) Jerad Head – Age 27 – AA/AAA - .919 OPS
C) Chun-Hsui Chen – Age 21 – A/A+ - .918 OPS
IF) Jared Goedert – Age 25 – AA/AAA - .909 OPS
OF) Nick Weglarz – Age 22 – AA/AAA - .893 OPS
IF) Jason Kipnis – Age 23 – A+/AA - .893 OPS

Those are the players with OPS over .850 and, while extenuating circumstances apply for a lot of names that you don’t see here (like The Chiz, who battled through an injury), you can see which of those players are the most exciting and figure most prominently as potential impact players in Cleveland.

While we’ve all seen Santana in Cleveland (and hope to see him again very soon), Weglarz putting up that line in Akron and Columbus as a 22-year-old and Chun-Hsui Chen thriving in Lake County and Kinston as a 21-year-old are head and shoulders above the rest, in terms of age and advancement. Kipnis comes in as a close third while Head (as a 27-year-old who spent time in Akron) is far from a prospect and Jared Goedert has been discussed in most corners, particularly given the…um, issues at 3B for the parent club.

If you’re looking for impact position players for next year, Weglarz, Kipnis, and Chisenhall (.797 OPS in Akron) FAR outpace any other position prospect in Columbus or anywhere else, based strictly on age and advancement. Given that the aforementioned troika figures in at LF/DH, 2B, and 3B, any or all of them may find themselves on the fast track to Cleveland at some point in 2011.

As long as we’re taking that look down on the farm, how about the arms that have limited damage in 2010, with the EXTREMELY unscientific (and perhaps useless) metric of OPS against being used to measure what pitchers experienced the most success in 2010.

Again, age and level of advancement are indicated and I kept it to pitchers at Lake County or above, with at least 40 IP on the season as the only other requirement…as much as I wanted to include Jason Knapp’s .448 OPS against because he’s only pitched 24 innings. Regardless, here are the pitchers who have started more games than they’ve relieved, even if Hagadone has been moved to the bullpen:
SP) Joe Gardner – Age 22 – A/A+ - .584 OPS against
SP/RP) Matt Packer – Age 22 – A+/AA - .591 OPS against
SP) Alex White – Age 21 – A+/AA - .625 OPS against
SP/RP) Nick Hagadone – Age 24 – A+/AA - .658 OPS against

That’s it for “starters” with OPS against under .675 (which IS an absurdly low number), but interestingly the two 2008 draft picks (Gardner and White) have moved quickly and have thrived in their first professional year, but the lack of names on this list goes back to the idea that the Indians are going to have to sort through a number of arms who are already in Cleveland, or who are not far away, in 2011 as they attempt to build this rotation from within as well as they can. Gardner and White may get looks at a certain point in mid-to-late 2011, depending upon what happens with each, but the likes of Masterson, Carrasco, Gomez, Tomlin, McCallister, Kubler, and (even) Huff are going to get extended looks before the Indians dip this deep into their pitching depth.

Moving on, AC had this suggestion for a possible solution for 3B in Cleveland next year in most recent Minutiae…Omar Vizquel:
Though the Indians weren’t able to woo Vizquel last winter, they’d be remiss not to try again this offseason. He’d be a practical addition to this team, particularly now that he’s proven himself to be an asset at third base, too. And not that people come to ballgames to see utility infielders, but at least Vizquel would provide some measure of marketability in what should be another tough year for attendance.

I can’t believe I’m saying this as a staunch believer that this organization should be looking forward and not back (and trust me, I’ve sat at the ballpark and had to endure “conversations” in my section about how the team should see if they could bring Wayne Kirby back), but…I think I can get behind this.

Perhaps part of it comes from the fact that I’d be rallying for support of Brooks Robinson’s return to MLB if it meant that I wouldn’t be subjected to the 3B-butchery that we’ve seen all year…and particularly recently, but Vizquel is actually a compelling option. He’s put together his best offensive season since 2006 at the age of 43 (yeah, really) and while that equates to a .701 OPS being his best offensive season, I can’t get the idea of Vizquel and Cabrera patrolling the left side of the infield in front of Carmona and Masterson out of my head.

Obviously, it takes two to tango and the Indians were rebuffed in their attempts to add Omar last off-season while Omar continues on his voyage around the league, charming as many Hall of Fame voters as possible before he finally hangs them up, but the premise of Vizquel playing 3B (even if it is just for the first half of the season) certainly has merit.

Given what we’ve seen (or rather, haven’t seen) at the turnstiles this season, perhaps the Indians do pursue Vizquel…for more than Box Office reasons, but to play a competent 3B and to return to the place of his greatest glory. While the 2011 Indians may not offer Vizquel the chance to play on a contender or to meet and greet with more HOF voters, if the Indians are looking for a defensive-centric 3B to serve as a stop-gap in 2011, they could do a lot worse than Vizquel.

Now, about that Manny as DH complement to Hafner idea…

Finally, I may be late on a couple of these, but for your entertainment, here is a conversation between Chris Perez and his Twitterian alter ego as well as Cleveland Frowns hilariously (and accurately, I think) taking aim at the only Sports Radio in town, something I can only speak to marginally as I've long since moved on from the blood pressure-rising level of rhetoric that pollutes the airwaves in our fair city...but Frownie nails it.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Sustaining a Lazy Sunday

While most of the North Coast spent Saturday night debating whether to make Peyton Hillis their 1st or 2nd Round Pick in their Fantasy Draft, the scene on the Reservation was decidedly more hectic as we tended to two sick boys and, while my rank in who the boys want to see when sick ranks well below Big Bird or any other fictitious character, my time wasn’t completely wasted as I took the opportunity to explore what paperwork needs to be filed to nominate The DiaBride for sainthood. After realizing that it is not an easy process, I figured that sending her off to the Outlet Mall with carte blanche and an instruction to buy anything that she wants is enough to keep my end up of this matrimonial/parental arrangement.

Nevertheless, with the boys on the mend and with the Indians threatening to…wait for it…pull out of last place thanks to Asdrubal Cabrera and a bunch of pile-jumpers, let’s get off on a Lazy One while “Cars” has the undivided attention of four very forlorn eyes that currently occupy my house.

And with that, we’re off…
In case you missed it, GM-in-waiting (in name only, as he’s been the GM for about a month now) Chris Antonetti sat down with Pat McManaman, formerly of the ABJ and now with AOL Fanhouse, to talk about minimizing the “window of transition” and numerous other bits of rhetoric that we’ve heard for some time now. The interview definitely has some interesting points and is well-worth the read, although the responses could have come from any number of occupants in the current Tribe Front Office, or the Polo Shirt Mafia (or LaCoste Nostra, if you prefer), where the vocabulary, the diction, and the talking points must come out in some sort of morning memo with afternoon practice to sound alike. If large words and circular explanations annoy you, it might be best to avoid it, although the logic and merit is not lacking in what Antonetti has to say.

Regardless, it is worth reading (even if it will raise your blood pressure), if only to see how Antonetti answers some excellent and very pertinent questions by McManaman, even if the answers are things that we’ve heard before and lack depth. Contained within the interview, there is one line of questioning that McManaman attempts multiple times that has to do with how quickly the Indians have been torn down as he poses the question multiple times in various forms. Given what 2010 has evolved into, with 3 positions contributing a WAR higher than 1.0 and how far away 2007 seems on certain days, the multiple questions and responses represented the most compelling part of the Q & A, to me at least:
FH: I guess what I’m saying is if you keep some guys longer rather than get rid of them sooner, and that is my phrasing, you could be .500 and in this division you could be within range in September and drawing more people.

CA: But those guys were free agents at the end of the year. Those guys we wouldn’t have been able to retain for the following year. CC Sabathia no matter what ... We made an earnest effort to extend CC at different junctures in the past while he was still under his last contract. We weren’t able to align values. I think it became clear to us at that point with the way things were playing that he was going to become a free agent at the end of the year. We aren’t going to win bidding wars with the Yankees’ or Red Sox’ primary target. Or large markets. If it’s a primary target for a large market in the free agent period, or candidly even on a trade scenario, that’s not the best places for us to compete.

The one thing that’s important to note is we want to be in the position and have the team to warrant acquiring guys that are in the last year (of their contracts). We want to be on the other end of these trades. If we had the team we envisioned in 2008 and we were competitive, we would have played it out with CC and Casey. We would have been perfectly happy. That would have been a great outcome for us.

Same thing had we been competitive this year and a contending team this year, we wouldn’t have traded Jake Westbrook even though he was at the end of his contract.

I think that’s the same thing we look to going forward. Just because a player is in the last year of his deal it doesn’t mean we necessarily have to trade him. If we have a competitive team and that player is a productive player contributing to our competitiveness, it’s a great scenario for us to keep him. It’s more when we have the years that don’t go as we’ve expected or where we're not as competitive as we want to be, that’s where we have to make the difficult decisions. That’s where there’s a little bit of a difference in our market vs. some other markets.

It is interesting the way that Antonetti references specifically dealing Sabathia and how the team was not in a position to contend when he was dealt (and please let’s all remember that the team was 37-51 when CC was traded, so it isn’t as if that team was justifying him staying with their play), but specifically mentions only CC and Casey Blake in this explanation of how players were dealt in the FA years, avoiding the fact that Lee and Martinez were dealt the following year with 1 ½ years on their deals. Of course, the performance of that 2009 team (with Lee and Victor on the team) did nothing to justify keeping Clifton Phifer or El Capitan around for the remainder of the 2009 season, while the issue as to why they were dealt, essentially punting on the 2010 season, remains a bit of a mystery. In other words, it is still not known whether the decision to trade Cliff and Vic came about as a result of an ownership mandate or simply from the Front Office asking serious questions about the club, as it existed in July of 2009, and concluding that the team wouldn’t contend in 2010, without or without those two players.

Regardless, McManaman goes back to the well of performance and frames it as it relates to attendance, putting forth the idea that the two are intrinsically related and gets back to the idea that the organization should be concerned about yearly performance, in that it feeds interest, optimism, and attendance,and conversely so...using the “death spiral” idea:
FH: That gets back to the spiral question. It just seems like – and there are reasons why the revenues are what they are and there are reasons why the expenses are what they are – but it seems like one feeds the other and it leads to a spiral.

CA: In order to reverse the course, we need to first transition and develop a strong nucleus of players to build around. Once we have that nucleus in place, we can then look to strategically add to it through external sources. The Dolans (the Indians’ owners) have demonstrated in the past that they are willing to provide the resources necessary to add to the core group of guys and we anticipate we will again be able to do that at the appropriate time.

Think back to Kerry Wood. We thought going into 2009 that we had a good team and had the nucleus in place to be a competitive team. We went in and invested in Kerry Wood thinking that a strong closer may have been the difference for us. In the end it wasn’t, but the Dolans demonstrated that they are willing to invest in the team when the talent has dictated it. I have no reason to think that we will operate any differently moving forward.

This is something that has been discussed ad nauseum on the North Coast, but it is important to frame the discussion in the context of the economics of baseball as teams can be built in various forms, with most teams in markets similar in size to Cleveland not really having the opportunity to simply build through Free Agency and attempting to build through the draft and international signings, with astute trades bringing in more talent, with the complement of veteran talent filling in the gaps once (or if, in some cases) that young talent matures, congeals, and begins to win.

If you think back to the early 90’s, the Indians drafted well (Belle, Ramirez, Thome, Nagy, etc.), made astute trades (Alomar, Baerga, Lofton, etc.), and complemented their young talent with veterans (Murray, Hershiser, El Presidente, Williams, Fryman, Robbie, etc.) until the core group had aged and departed, as the Indians were left with the ancillary pieces who could not win on their own, although that transition took the team into the next decade.

In the early 2000’s, the Indians acquired young talent through the draft and internationally (CC, Victor, Peralta, etc.) made astute trades (Sizemore, Lee, Westbrook, Cabrera, Choo, etc.) and filled in the gaps with veterans (Millwood, Byrd, Borowski, etc.) until Free Agency, injuries, and regressions reared their ugly head (in short order), prompting the decision of the Front Office to tear it down and attempt to build it all back up once again.

Now, entering a new decade, they’ve assembled some players via the draft and internationally (Chisenhall, White, Weglarz, Kipnis, etc.), have accumulated young players via trade (Santana, LaPorta, Brantley, Perez, Donald, Carrasco, Knapp, Masterson, Hagadone, Price, etc.) and have yet to see that talent do much of anything by way of maturing and congealing as they certainly haven’t started to win.

While this is all fairly rudimentary, the disconnect for most fans, particularly in the context of the last two years, comes from the fact that the success from the mid-1990’s was not fleeting and was sustained through the arrival of talent from the Minors, as well as the Indians operating in a different financial reality than the one that exists today. The issue that most fans have is that they look at the team today and wonder how things fell so far so fast as the build-up that took place from 2002 to 2004 was supposed to provide the Indians with the pieces for a contender at the MLB level, but also with the support throughout the system to sustain that success…as sustenance that never took root.

If there is one main failure of this current Indians’ regime (and remember, I’m saying “main”), it is that the promise of the Indians maintaining a core and augmenting it from within simply fell apart (for a variety of reasons) and the Indians fell hard and fell fast back to being among the mediocre (and now sub-mediocre) teams in MLB. If you look at the timeline of the attempts by the organization to fill particular holes (and Andrew Humphries and Tyler Chirdon start to do that for 2B over at LGT in the first of two parts), you start to see how the best-laid plans went awry before more best-laid plans went awry before…well, you get the idea.

Regardless, there are a variety of reasons for that as players headed for FA (namely Sabathia) and SEVERE regressions from supposed “core” players (notably Carmona and Hafner) as well as injuries (a variety to Victor and a complete loss of Westbrook) was exacerbated by the organization’s inability to produce their own stable of players, even those who would only be complementary pieces.

That inability is something that is well-known and is quite absurd if you figure that the EVERY SINGLE POSITION next year could very well be filled by a player acquired via trade (Santana, LaPorta, Donald, Fill in a 3B, Choo, Brantley, Sizemore, and Hafner), but let’s get back to this line of questioning that McManaman continues to go back to, in terms of keeping the team together in an effort to maintain fan interest and to perhaps get a look at the divisional lead by hanging around the .500 mark for much of the season.

Looking past the fact that neither the 2008 or 2009 teams came close to hanging around .500 into August, it brings up a more pertinent question, one which should be raised to the crowd that feels that the 2007 team was torn apart prematurely. McManaman seems to intimate is the better course of action would be for the Indians to try to ride out the storm year after year if they would (as he says), “keep some guys longer rather than get rid of them sooner, and that is my phrasing, you could be .500 and in this division you could be within range in September and drawing more people.”

However, which would you rather see, a team that flirts with .500 every year with an outside shot at making the playoffs (during which they’ be bounced in the first round) or a team that is built to compete with the “haves” of MLB when (actually “if”) they’re able to make it to the playoffs?

Just to go jump into the way back machine, look at the Opening Day lineup for the Indians in 2008 (when they were picked by many to go to the World Series) and tell me which players are truly missed here.
Sabathia and Martinez, right?

Factor in what Santana’s production figures to be and that Sabathia (and Lee) weren’t sticking around, and what was the alternative for the Indians when the die was cast in 2008 and 2009?

Because of their own player development deficiencies, the Indians tore it down and cut it to the bone while attempting to re-stock a farm system that had proven to be wildly overrated and bereft of impact players. Could they have attempted to re-tool on the fly and be “within range” with the mix of players that were left?

Sure, but what guarantee do the Indians have of success with that group and, given their own player development deficiencies (which is the real issue here, not the trades), should the Indians have attempted to be “within range”, so they could win a AL Central pennant only to be bounced in the first round of the playoffs?

Let me put this in tangible terms as the Twins have made the playoffs 5 times since 2002 and yet have not made it to the ALCS since they won the World Series in 1991 while the Indians have made the playoffs once since 2001, but have more playoff series wins than the Twins in that timeframe. Granted, it’s merely one playoff series win against zero and given what we’ve seen this year, it’s hard not to dream of a .500 team or a pennant race but isn’t chasing mediocrity or that chance to “be within range” what gets small-market teams into trouble in the first place?

For as much as everyone is up in arms regarding the Pirates “pocketing” money, at least they’re not spending money any more on what Shawn Hoffman of Baseball Prospectus calls “ridiculous (but media-appeasing, at the time) contracts for Kevin Young, Jason Kendall, Pat Meares, Derek Bell, et al.” and are investing in building a team the only way that a team in a market that is their size can be built into a winner – from within.

To that end, here is a marvelous piece from Slate that throws the idea that the Pirates should be spending every last penny (and more) in an effort to win under the bus and offers this conclusion in terms of how baseball economics work for small-market teams.
Before throwing up the quote that I found to be most pertinent, I would encourage you to read it in its entirety…I’ll wait…

Got it?
OK, here’s where the interest comes in as it relates to other small-market teams:
How can you be so successful while spending so little money? Basically, you have to rely on young, cheap players. The Pirates appear to be moving in this direction; they have a significant minor league player development budget, and they don’t appear to be shy about spending money to sign their draft picks.
A little luck helps, too. Statistically, in any given season, one out of every six teams will be lucky enough to exceed its talent level by six wins or more. And one team per season, on average, will exceed its talent by as many as 11 wins. (Admittedly, if you're waiting for that team to be yours … well, it could take a while.)
So if you’re a little bit smart, and very, very lucky, you could wind up with a few young, cheap players that could lead you to a playoff berth. But it would seem that for small-market teams like Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh, established stars cost too much to pay for themselves.
It would be nice for the fans if the Pirates were willing to lose millions of dollars in order to bring a competitive team to their loyal supporters. But even superrich owners are looking for some kind of return on their investment. In the end, the Pirates can spend a lot of money on player salaries, or they can turn a profit. They can’t do both.

Just to re-iterate, the whole piece is worth a read, if only as it attempts to put the money issue into perspective while taking the logical angle of wins versus losses against a backdrop of spending. Read that line again above that, “if you’re a little bit smart, and very, very lucky, you could wind up with a few young, cheap players that could lead you to a playoff berth”...and think about 2007. This is not rocket science, but knowing that to be the strategy and employing it effectively are two entirely different things, as every team has that blueprint, but few are able to see it come to fruition with much regularity.

If you don’t think that luck plays a role here, realize that the Nationals (the “feel-good” story of the first half) are about to see Strasburg go in for Tommy John as he will likely miss all of 2011 ($2.5M salary) and could miss part of 2012 ($3M salary) before he enters his arbitration years (2014-2016) as a National while Adam Dunn figures to leave in Free Agency. For as much as the Nationals seemed to have their fortunes turning, the effect of these types of events are simply too much for nearly all of MLB to overcome as they attempt to build a consistent winner…or even an inconsistent winner.

Go back to that piece from Slate piece and realize that the Indians are attempting to once again “rely on young, cheap players” and are attempting to take “luck” out of the equation as much as possible by simply loading as much similarly-aged talent up as possible to factor in attrition and injury and ineffectiveness.

When the Indians realized that the “core” of players that they thought they would rely on into the 2010’s had turned into a bit of a rotting “core”, they moved decisively to turn that page. There’s a lot that can be said about the Indians' Front Office since the end of the 2007, but indecisiveness is not something that remains in question after the past couple of years. Perhaps at times that decisiveness comes at the expense of taking the best path, but this Front Office has (once again) made their bed, so they’re the ones that are going to be lying in it as they attempt to finally augment the talent that they’ve brought in via trades with the talent that they HOPE will come from internal avenues, the recent draft being one of them.

On that most recent draft, MLB Trade Rumors had a piece that identified the Indians as one of the “big spenders” in the draft, with Brad Grant comments to MLBTR explaining the Indians’ draft strategy thusly:
“A year ago we sat down and decided that we wanted to be aggressive in the draft and try to add as much talent as we possibly could,” Indians amateur scouting director Brad Grant said. “Knowing that where we are right now as a major league organization, we need to infuse as much talent into our organization as possible.”
At that point, the Indians didn’t know they’d end up drafting Drew Pomeranz, their eventual first-round selection. They ranked potential picks based on talent, with players’ demands in mind - but only to an extent.
“We were ready to react,” Grant said. “We knew the players that we liked. We had a breakdown solely by ability and we tried to take the player we liked best.”
The Indians are prepared to spend on elite amateurs because they aren’t able to spend on elite pros.
“Especially with our market, we can’t afford to sign some of the higher-end major league free agents,” Grant said. “That gets out of our spectrum, so the best way to infuse talent into our organization is to acquire it, whether that be through the draft, whether that be through international signings, whether that be through trades, those are routes we have to take in order to acquire top talent.”

Again, these words sound like they could have come out of any number of mouths from the Indians’ Front Office (while likely wearing a Polo Shirt), but there is no gray area as to how the Indians feel they need to build this team back up again. While some teams attempt to live in that middle ground to “hang around there” and perhaps “get a look” at the division, the Indians are going back to their blueprint of building from within and through trades with the idea that they will eventually supplement that to-be-determined new “core” with veterans (whose usefulness and price tag would be related to how close/far away the team is from contention) and attempt to fortify with re-inforcements from within.

The blueprint has been attempted before and fell apart as quickly as it seemed to take hold as the major factor to sustain that competitiveness (the continued player development) forced the organization to make hard decisions and tear down the team that had just been built. If the first stage of any construction job involves following the blueprint and laying the foundation, the Indians find themselves in that first stage once again.

Hopefully, the blueprint will be followed through to completion this time and won’t have a half-finished entity torn down prematurely because of structural deficiencies or because of faulty assumptions made when executing those blueprints.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Tomahawks Looking for Hope

As the dog days of summer have Indians fans feeling tired and lethargic (and not just from the humidity) and the Indians attempt to plant their feet on the bottom in the midst of their descent down the abyss, the 2010 season has slipped into nearly unwatchable territory. For most, the Indians’ season became unwatchable on the night that Santana was carted off of the field, and if that is the case…consider yourself lucky as the team has gone 5-15 since that night in Boston. Interestingly, the Indians were 23-36 before Santana’s promotion, were 22-25 with him on the team, and have been the aforementioned 5-15 since his injury, but let’s not chalk up the misery of this season to one play on one night as the reasons are too numerous to count.

Instead of reaching into the depths of our minds to count them, we spend our nights fighting the urge to catch up on episodes of “Mad Men” or “Entourage” from the DVR or watch “The Dark Knight” on whichever directional HBO is playing it that night, and subject ourselves to the remainder of an Indians’ season that rolls on in earnest as hope is sapped from even the fullest of glasses.

With the mood suitably set and with you likely pouring a drink after that little intro, let’s get some Tomahawks in the air…

One of the most frustrating aspects of the last month has been the lack of young players asserting themselves into the teams’ future plans, with LaPorta, Donald, and a whole gaggle of pitchers being among the most disappointing. While this makes it awfully difficult to find silver linings, I continue to hold out this irrational hope that Carlos Carrasco is able to place himself into the mix for the 2011 rotation with the opportunity that is likely coming his way in the next week or so.

With full realization of just how bad Carrasco looked last year in Cleveland and knowing that Carrasco’s promotion has been a hot topic as of late, I bring this up because of something that Kevin Goldstein wrote about Kyle Drabek in a recent piece at Baseball Prospectus. Goldstein wrote of Drabek:
While a 2.98 ERA and 123 strikeouts in 154 innings is good; it’s not the kind of numbers one gets from an elite prospect, but a quick run through his game log shows no bad night. Drabek has gone at least five innings in all but one start, when he went four, and to find a pitcher like that is at times as hard as finding one with those elite numbers.

The idea of consistency is certainly something that has eluded Carrasco and is well-worn territory in these parts. However, let’s not forget the ages, levels, and performances of the two players to date in MiLB:
Carrasco AAA – DOB 3-21-87
3.77 ERA, 3.89 FIP, 1.25 WHIP, 127 K, 45 BB in 143 1/3 IP

Drabek AA – DOB 12-8-87

2.98 ERA, 4.01 FIP, 1.20 WHIP, 123 K, 63 BB in 154 IP

Admittedly, that bolding is done by yours truly, but it needs to be pointed out at every possible moment that Carrasco is 8 ½ months older than Drabek...you remember, the pitcher the Indians SHOULD have targeted in the CP Lee deal. Given that Jason Knapp has returned to pitching and could find his way up to Kinston as a 20-year-old, it will be interesting to see how the careers of Carrasco and Drabek compare going forward in the context of the Lee/Halladay deals made months apart from each other.

Back to Carrasco and the youngsters asserting themselves, given what Carrasco has accomplished in AAA and given his pedigree (plus the fact that he was part of the Lee deal), one would have to think that if Carrasco is able to show any type of consistency in the month of September, he’s going to have the leg up on a rotation spot for 2011, which seem to be wide open after Carmona and Talbot. If Carrasco can inspire any kind of confidence, the Indians could conceivably approach their 2011 rotation with Carmona, Talbot, and Carrasco, going after a vet, and using the 5th spot to allow the rest of the arms to shake out of their own volition.

Who those arms would be remains to be seen for 2011, but the list would seem to include Gomez, Tomlin, and (now) Zach McCallister with Alex White probably coming into the mix at some point. Perhaps I’m looking too deeply into this, but I think that the Indians are positioning Laffey as a long man/swing man and the likelihood of Huff being on the team next year is questionable at best.

Why is Huff being an Indian in 2011 “questionable at best”?
Well...there’s this little nugget from the ABJ on which arms might see some starts in September with Acta being about as dismissive of a player as is possible:
David Huff presumably might be a candidate for September promotion, but Tribe officials, including Acta, are not high on him. when asked about Huff, the manager said, “”Yes, he’s down there, too.”

If there’s been a more telling quote regarding the future of a particular player in an organization, it doesn’t immediately jump to mind and if anyone can see this Huff thing is going to end anything but badly at this point?

The Indians will have decisions to make on Masterson’s future and what to do with Laffey, but if there’s one thing to watch through the month of September, it is the performance of Carlos Carrasco.

If you want a look at where the Indians would LIKE to be in terms of their pitching rotation, look no further than across the diamond this week, as these are the arms that have populated the Oakland staff that are 26 or younger:
Trevor Cahill (Age 22) – 22 starts, 161 ERA+
Brett Anderson (Age 22) – 11 starts, 144 ERA+
Gio Gonzalez (Age 24) – 26 starts, 126 ERA+
Dallas Braden (Age 26) – 22 starts, 117 ERA+
Vin Mazzaro (Age 22) – 15 starts, 115 ERA+

For some perspective on this, the starters on the Indians with the best ERA+ on the year with more than 10 starts are Carmona (Age 26, 94 ERA+) and Talbot (Age 26, 93 ERA+)…so yeah, that’s pretty impressive. What’s happened in Oakland is that consistency finally arrived for a number of these ballyhooed young pitchers in 2010 and, while Anderson is obviously injured this year, the A’s built this stable in a manner which should make the Indians green with envy as Anderson and Gonzalez came via trade while Cahill (2nd Round, 2006), Braden (24th Round, 2004), and Mazzaro (3rd Round, 2005) all came via the Amateur Draft.

Whether arms like White, Pomeranz, and Knapp can eventually fill into the Indians’ rotation as effectively and at such young ages remains to be seen, but what they’ve accomplished in Oakland (or are accomplishing) should provide some semblance of a blueprint.

While there has been much (justified) discussion over what the Indians should be doing at 3B for the remainder of 2010 and into 2011, can a simple suggestion be made that defense be one of the most important aspects of identifying that “stop-gap” to fill the hot corner?

Given what we’ve seen at 3B and since it seems as if Marte has fumbled away his (albeit limited) opportunity, perhaps the best course of action is for the Indians to find a player, who has played 3B for the majority of his career (or is unusually adept at fielding the position) to serve as the bridge to Lonnie Chisenhall, whose ETA is still TBD. Although defensive metrics remain suspect to me, here are the Ultimate Zone Ratings for 3B this year from FanGraphs, which are only moderately helpful if you look where Jhonny Peralta ranks in these ratings.

If you think that the Indians are going to attempt to find an answer via FA, the most compelling names belong to Brandon Inge and Pedro Feliz (if you’re talking about defensive 3B) and a bunch of older players whose better days (offensively and defensively) are likely behind them. To wit, how does a list that includes the names of Melvin Mora, Bill Hall, Garrett Atkins, Geoff Blum, Wes Helms, and Mike Lowell strike you?

All of those names might be recognizable to a degree, but Inge and Feliz are the only ones who really stand out as defensive upgrades and while Brandon Inge presents a name of some interest, one would think that Inge is going to generate some interest from some corner on the FA market, something that the Indians likely aren’t going to be able to compete with on the open market.

With that in mind, what direction could they go and could past serve as prologue in this matter? By that I mean, the Indians could go in the same direction that they did back when Casey Blake won the 3B job in Spring Training, inviting a number of late-20’s/early-30’s career minor-league 3B/MLB journeyman to fill the 3B position until a better alternative emerged.

If you don’t remember (or even if you do), the “competition” in 2003 Spring Training consisted of Blake, Bill Selby, Greg LaRocca, Zach Sorenson, and probably some other players I’m not remembering being given a legitimate chance to be the 2003 Opening Day 3B. Of course, Blake “seized” the opportunity to create the MLB career he currently enjoys, but in light of the internal alternatives that we’ve seen and with the knowledge that the Indians probably aren’t going to be bringing in a high-profile FA 3B on a multi-year deal, perhaps that is the path they tread once again.

Certainly, the current cast of characters can be thrown into the mix (although Nix looks more like a fill-in at multiple positions more than a straight 3B and Valbuena is simply not a viable defensive 3B while Andy Marte is simply living on borrowed time), but maybe the Indians should be asking their scouts to find the best defensive 3B in the Minors that they can find who will be a Minor League FA at season’s end and throw them into the gauntlet.

While this isn’t going to quicken any pulses, there are guys in the Minors who fit that Blake/Selby/LaRocca profile, whether it be Dan Johnson of the Durham Bulls, who is blocked by Longoria in Tampa (if a 31-year-old can be “blocked”) or players like Wes Timmons of the Gwinnet Braves, Cody Ransom of the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs, and Ed Lucas of the Omaha Royals, in that these players could probably be had in the off-season to simply provide (hopefully) a solid glove at 3B until Lonnie Chisenhall is ready to emerge.

Given the way Lonnie Chisenhall is absolutely crushing the ball in AA recently and since his defense is purported to be among the best in the organization at 3B, a placeholder is all that is really needed so the Indians should concentrate on finding a slick glove at 3B to help out their pitching staff before worrying about production from 3B (which has been largely absent with the questionable gloves there), because that production from 3B is eventually coming.

The production will come from The Chiz, whose numbers since June 1 are awfully impressive in AA:
.272 BA / .341 OBP / .494 SLG / .835 OPS with 12 2B and 14 HR in 261 AB

Don’t take that impressive line as an assertion that he’s going to be ready by the middle of 2011, just compare it to what Carlos Santana did last year in AA:
.290 BA / .413 OBP / .530 SLG / .943 OPS with 30 2B and 23 HR in 428 AB

Certainly, Santana’s numbers were better across the board (and I’m cherry-picking numbers for Lonnie), but Santana was also 23 years old last year while Chisenhall is still 21 this year in Akron. His arrival may not be imminent and his impact may still be a couple of years away, but in finding a stop-gap at 3B until he arrives, perhaps they should follow a path they’ve already taken and let the glove do the talking in the process.

Though the baseball world is atwitter with news that the Pirates turned a $34.8M profit over the last 3 years, a simple question keeps coming to mind for me - aren’t these teams SUPPOSED to make money or not necessarily break even or deficit spend year after year?

Let’s be very real about this, all of these teams are making money in some fashion, although the profits are going to be as wildly disparate as the revenues that fuel them. While people in Pittsburgh may be up in arms over the Pirates “pocketing” money instead of spending every…single…solitary…dollar to win 75 games instead of 60, wouldn’t it be more concerning if some of these small-market teams were losing money hand over fist?

This is the most relevant fact for me as this great fear exists in the recesses of my mind that Cleveland is going to have two professional sports teams ten years from now (or sooner) and that the Browns aren’t going to be going anywhere (again) any time soon. Given the fragile states of the Indians and the Cavaliers and the shrinking population base that lines their pockets, it would concern me if the Indians were to come out and say that they had lost X amount of money over the course of X amount of years because I think that it would bring serious questions about the future of baseball in Cleveland, competitive balance or not.

And with that thought ruminating, pour me another before this glass starts to look half-empty…

Sunday, August 22, 2010

A Lazy Sunday Feeling A Draft

Coming to you live (if late) from the satellite office in Milwaukee, and having been spared from watching the recent games live (though the game recaps, the highlights, and the box scores paint a pretty vivid picture), let’s take on a few appetizers before getting into the Main Course. The Main Course is obviously the recent Draft that blowing it’s way off of the Lake. Before getting into the whole Draft, a couple of the low and high points as the Indians go into Sunday’s game attempting to avoid a sweep AGAIN, this time at the hands of the Tigers, as the Indians’ “easy” part of the schedule hasn’t done much to further the optimism that existed around these parts a week or two ago.

The Indians have looked like a team decimated by injuries and (more importantly) inconsistency as the hope that a couple of these young players would emerge and really assert themselves in August has given way to a feeling that the string is being played out. If they hit, they can’t pitch and vice versa…as it’s become Groundhog Day on the North Coast. The result has been dreadful to watch and even the bright spots (notably Brantley) come with strings attached as the Indians are trying to finish off the season with some kind of momentum towards 2011.

That momentum, or any semblance of good news, is particularly bereft at 3B, where Andy Marte continues to waste opportunities afforded to him as he plays what figures to be his final 6 weeks in the organization. While a possible solution existed in the form of Jared Goedert, the hits just keep coming for the Indians at 3B as the hits have dried up for Goedert in Columbus. To wit, Goedert’s numbers in Columbus since the All-Star Break have him posting a .234 BA / .342 OBP / .419 SLG / .762 OPS with 3 HR in 32 games, a decided difference from the 1.102 OPS that he posted in his first 33 games with the Clippers, during which he hammered 15 HR. So…yeah, he’s cooled off with the bat and, if that was his ticket to Cleveland, he may be waiting in the concourse for a while.

Outside of the happenings on the field, the second biggest news of the week came in the form of the announcement of the PTBNL for Austin Kearns as the Yankees sent RHP Zach McCallister to Cleveland to complete the deal. McCallister is, by all accounts, a big RH arm, whose size doesn’t translate to him being a power pitcher as he relies on control and command. Prior to the season, Baseball Prospectus had him as the Yankees’ 4th best prospect and the fact that the Indians received the Yankees’ 4th best prospect going into this year either speaks to the scarcity of depth in the Yankees’ system or that the Indians just continue to pilfer other teams’ upper levels for pitching talent. I tend to think the former as Goldstein said before the season that a perfect world projection of him pegs him “as a back-of-the-rotation starter who delivers 200 solid innings annually.” Remember, that’s the optimistic view of how he projects…

However, that shouldn’t dismiss McCallister, who is just 22 and is already in AAA, a year after leading the Eastern League (the same league the Aeros are in) in ERA as a 21-year-old with the player with the second lowest ERA finishing the season a full run below McCallister’s pace. If the Indians had a 21-year-old arm who led the Eastern League in ERA, he would be so squarely on the prospect map that he would be a household name on the North Coast. For now, McCallister joins the Indians from an organization in which he was likely never going to be given much of a chance to start, much less a long leash to prove himself. Suddenly, he finds himself as another section in the Layer Cake of Arms that the Indians have been compiling for the better part of two years now. With McCallister and Kluber (from the Westbrook deal) joining the growing list of arms that the Indians continue to add with their trades, there are more arms to filter through as the Indians continue to attempt to build from beneath and from within, which leads us to the Main Offering of the day – the 2010 MLB Draft.

While we’ve all seen the numbers thrown around regarding how much the Indians spent this draft and how they went overslot on their first 10 picks in an attempt to infuse talent into the upper levels of their minor leagues, let’s take a look WAY back in an attempt to determine not only how the Indians find themselves employing this draft strategy, but also why a change in strategy was wildly necessary.

Much has been made of the difference in the drafts run by Brad Grant, who has run the 2008, 2009, and 2010 drafts, versus those run by John Mirabelli, who was responsible for the draft from 2000 to 2007. The Indians are touting these signing bonuses for the 2010 Draftees as a way to be “hyper-aggressive” to add talent to the system in short order. However, if you start to look at some of the money that was doled out from 2000 to 2007, which is Mirabelli’s regime when he was running the draft, it’s not as if the Indians have never spent in the Draft in an attempt to find talent…they were just giving money to the wrong players that they were selecting.

Of course, I realize that this is old news, but in light of all of the high numbers being thrown around in terms of Pomeranz, Washington, Wolters, and Lavisky, let’s realize that a simple outlay of cash doesn’t guarantee much of anything by way of MLB success. To wit, take a look at all of the players who received more than $500K as a signing bonus in the Mirabelli regime:
Jeremy Sowers (1st Round, 2005) - $2,475,000
Michael Aubrey (1st Round, 2004) - $2,010,000
Jeremy Guthrie (1st Round, 2003) - $2,000,000
Dan Denham (1st Round, 2002) - $2,000,000

Trevor Crowe (1st Round, 2006) - $1,695,000
Beau Mills (1st Round, 2007) - $1,575,000
Brad Snyder (1st Round, 2004) - $1,525,000
Corey Smith (1st Round, 2000) - $1,375,000
Matt Whitney (1st Round, 2003) - $1,125,000
Adam Miller (1st Round, 2004) - $1,025,000
John Drennan (1st Round, 2006) - $1,000,000
Wes Hodges (2nd Round, 2006) - $1,000,000

JD Martin (1st Round, 2001) - $975,000
David Huff (1st Round, 2006) - $900,000
Mike Conroy (1st Round, 2001) - $892,500
Derek Thompson (1st Round, 2000) - $850,000
Jake Dittler (2nd Round, 2001) - $750,000
Justin Hoyman (2nd Round, 2005) - $725,000
Javier Herrerra (2nd Round, 2004) - $710,000
Mark Folsom (2nd Round, 2000) - $700,000
Chuck Lofgren (4th Round, 2005) - $650,000
Steven Wright (2nd Round, 2006) - $630,000
Josh Rodriguez (2nd Round, 2006) - $625,000
Stephen Head (2nd Round, 2005) - $605,000
Brian Tallet (2nd Round, 2000) - $595,000
Ryan Morris (4th Round, 2006) - $500,000

Obviously, all of those guys are 1st, 2nd, or (oddly) 4th Round Picks, meaning that the Indians didn’t take many fliers or go overslot the way that they have in recent years…but I’ll get to that in a minute. Sure, they gave $363K to Aaron Laffey (a late-round pick) and they actually paid Wes Hodges (a 2nd Round Pick) more than Dave Huff (their 1st Round Pick of the same year), but for the most part, the Indians spent their money at the top of the Draft and the results above more or less speak for themselves.

If you want to see how the results speak for themselves, take a look at the players drafted by the Indians from 2000 to 2007 who made it to MLB and how the players performed in MLB, as measured by WAR (Wins Above Replacement). If you’re not familiar with WAR, here’s a handy primer from Jon Steiner at WFNY (who breaks it down in easy-to-understand terms), with the draftees from the Indians over an 8-year period compiling these numbers, with their cumulative WAR as Indians indicated in parentheses:
2000 Draft: 0.4 WAR Total for the Indians
Ryan Church: 5.2 (none as an Indian)
Joe Inglett: 3.2 (0.3 as an Indian)
Brian Tallet: 1.8 (0.1 as an Indian)
Jonathon Van Every: 0.3 (none as an Indian)
Derek Thompson: 0.3 (none as an Indian)
Eric Crozier: -0.2 (none as an Indian)

2001 Draft: 0.0 WAR Total for the Indians
Luke Scott: 9.9 (none as an Indian)
JD Martin: 0.6 (none as an Indian)

2002 Draft: 1.6 WAR Total for the Indians
Jeremy Guthrie: 13.6 (-0.3 as an Indian)
Ben Francisco: 2.8 (2.1 as an Indian)
Brian Slocum: -0.2 (-0.2 as an Indian)

2003 Draft: 4.0 WAR Total for the Indians
Kevin Kouzmanoff: 5.7 (-0.2 as an Indian)
Aaron Laffey: 1.7 (1.7 as an Indian)
Ryan Garko: 1.6 (2.8 as an Indian)
Michael Aubrey: 0.0 (-0.3 as an Indian)

2004 Draft: 1.0 WAR Total for the Indians
Jeremy Sowers: 1.7 (1.7 as an Indian)
Scott Lewis: 0.6 (0.6 as an Indian)
Tony Sipp: 0.3 (0.5 as an Indian)
Wyatt Toregas: -0.2 (-0.2 as an Indian)
Chris Gimenez: -1.4 (-1.4 as an Indian)

2005 Draft: 1.5 WAR Total for the Indians
Jensen Lewis: 1.7 (1.7 as an Indian)
Jordan Brown: 0.1 (0.1 as an Indian)
Trevor Crowe: -0.3 (-0.3 as an Indian)

2006 Draft: -1.4 WAR Total for the Indians
Josh Tomlin: 0.6 (0.6 as an Indian)
David Huff: -2.0 (-2.0 as an Indian)

2007 Draft: N/A
As a quick aside here, the only draftee from 2007 that has made it past AA is Josh Judy, who was a 34th Round Pick that year, meaning that the Indians have not had any MLB contributions from this Draft class, with the prospect of any of them contributing extensively looking rather bleak.

To recap that list, the players drafted by the Indians from 2000 to 2007 with the highest career WAR are as follows:
Jeremy Guthrie: 13.6
Luke Scott: 9.9
Kevin Kouzmanoff: 5.7
Ryan Church: 5.2
Joe Inglett: 3.2

The obvious issue (as if it isn’t already obvious) is that those players posted a cumulative -0.2 while playing for Cleveland and the list of players with the highest WAR as Indians is certainly less compelling:
Ryan Garko: 2.8
Ben Francisco: 2.1
Jeremy Sowers: 1.7
Jensen Lewis: 1.7
Aaron Laffey: 1.7

Maybe this isn’t fair to judge some of the Indians’ youngsters on the basis of their first real taste of MLB (like Gimenez, who should heretofore be known as “The Pile Jumper”, courtesy of Anthony Caskronowich and Buck Showalter), in that they’re still making adjustments. However, if you want some perspective on this, Carlos Santana compiled a 2.1 WAR in 192 Plate Appearances this year and Jeanmar Gomez has compiled a 0.9 WAR in his 29 1/3 IP this year.

Obviously, WAR is a fluid number that’s going to go up and down (Sowers' 2004 season produced a 2.4 WAR, a number that fell precipitiously each ensuing year), but the Indians’ inability to identify, draft, and develop impact players is jarring, particularly when you go back and look at the outlay of cash over an 8-year period. Doubly concerning is the fact that the drafted players who have evolved into role players even look marginal most times or find themselves out of the organization altogether.

Thus, given that the Indians HAVE spent money in the past (although admittedly the 2008 and 2010 drafts do represent a change in strategy), the issue is not as much as HOW much money they’re spending, but rather WHO they’re spending it on.

With that in mind, let’s move on to the “Brad Grant drafts”, starting with the total signing bonus numbers for the Indians for the last 3 years, courtesy of Jim Callis, via Stephanie Storm at the ABJ (with a listing for all the teams for the proper context):



Three-Year Total
If you’re wondering, that three-year total is the 6th most among MLB teams behind (in order), the Pirates, the Red Sox, the Nationals, the Orioles, and the Royals. Obviously, some of those teams have a larger amount by virtue of where they’ve drafted (like the Nats, for example, with Strasburg and Harper), but 2010 is the first time that the Indians occupied that high draft slot, so they’ve spent money in an overslot situation, just as the other team on that list (the one from the Northeast) has mastered in the past few years.

For a breakdown of players who have received more than $250K as signing bonuses for the last three drafts, here they are, with their draft position noted and listed in descending order for signing bonus, not draft position:
2008 Signing Bonuses
Trey Haley (2nd Round) - $1,250,000
Lonnie Chisenhall (1st Round) - $1,100,000
TJ House (16th Round) - $750,000
Tim Fedroff (7th Round) - $725,000
Bryce Stowell (22nd Round) - $725,000
Zach Putnam (5th Round) - $600,000
Cord Phelps (3rd Round) - $327,000

2009 Signing Bonuses
Alex White (1st Round) - $2,250,000
Jason Kipnis (2nd Round) - $575,000
Joseph Gardner (3rd Round) - $363,000

2010 Signing Bonuses

Drew Pomeranz (1st Round) - $2,650,000
Toby Wolters (3rd Round) - $1,350,000
LaVon Washington (2nd Round) - $1,200,000
Alex Lavisky (8th Round) - $1,000,000
Kyle Blair (4th Round) - $580,000
Tyler Holt (10th Round) - $500,000
Michael Goodnight (13th Round) - $315,000
Cole Cook (5th Round) - $299,000
Tony Dischler (23rd Round) - $255,000

That’s not to assume that some of these guys that signed for less than $250K aren’t going to project, but what jumps out is that the Indians went overslot in 2008 and 2010 (not so much in 2009) to give healthy bonuses to late-round picks, particularly in 2008, when they gave $600K or more to four players drafted in the 5th Round or later.

The encouraging news there is how the Indians have utilized the end of their drafts and paid the overslot money (at least in 2008 and 2010) with some of the immediate results from those players bearing fruit in short order. While the outlier of the three most recent drafts is that 2009 draft, the other encouraging aspect to these classes is how quickly those players have moved as the 2009 draft didn’t offer any overslot players and the Indians paid dollars that were pretty much commensurate with draft position as they paid $250K or more in bonuses to only their top 3 draft picks.

To that end, here is an update of the aforementioned 2008 and 2009 Draftees that received more than $250K. For the sake of brevity (which is not my strong suit), I’ll use just the stats for each player despite the fact that some of the players (most notably the pitchers, like Stowell and White) have played a multiple levels this year as it gives an idea as to how each player has performed against the highest level of competition faced to date:
Currently in Columbus (AAA)
Bryce Stowell (Age 23): 4.24 ERA, 1.47 WHIP with 25 K, 16 BB in 17 IP
Zach Putnam (Age 22): 5.79 ERA, 1.43 WHIP with 13 K, 4 BB in 14 IP
Cord Phelps (Age 23): .330 BA / .400 OBP / .524 SLG / .924 OPS with 16 2B, 6 HR in 231 PA

Currently in Akron (AA)
Lonnie Chisenhall (Age 21): .271 BA / .341 OBP / .443 SLG / .784 OPS with 17 2B, 15 HR in 437 PA
Alex White (Age 21): 2.39 ERA, 1.09 WHIP with 66 K, 23 BB in 94 1/3 IP
Jason Kipnis (Age 23): .342 BA / .423 OBP / .560 SLG / .983 OPS with 16 2B, 9 HR in 269 PA
Tim Fedroff (Age 23): .277 BA / .347 OBP / .361 SLG / .708 OPS with 18 2B, 2 HR in 452 PA

Currently in Kinston (A+)

TJ House (Age 20): 3.84 ERA, 1.41 WHIP with 96 K, 51 BB in 122 IP
Joseph Gardner (Age 23): 2.86 ERA, 1.08 WHIP with 94 K, 42 BB in 107 IP

Currently in Lake County (A)

Trey Haley (Age 20): 5.50 ERA, 1.68 WHIP with 85 K, 67 BB in 103 IP

Interestingly, Trey Haley actually received the 4th largest signing bonus since Grant has taken over the draft (behind Pomeranz, White, and Wolters) as he was an overslot signing who (to date) has not justified the $1.25M price tag associated with signing him. While that may not be fair to a 20-year-old in Lake County, it speaks to the volatile nature of the Draft, where nothing is guaranteed and money spent on a particular player does not guarantee immediate results.

That being said, the correct assumption that the Indians should be investing in the development side of things (because they’re simply not able to compete on the money side of the player acquisition system in place in MLB) figures to be put to the test over the next couple of years. The truth is that the Indians DID spend money in the past, only that the money was spent largely on one or two players in a draft who were signed to dollar amounts that were commensurate with their draft position. What they’re attempting to do now is spread that money out (while spending more money) in an attempt to diffuse the attrition rate that hampers the development of most players drafted in MLB…and not just for the Indians.

At one point, most people assumed that Adam Miller and Matt Whitney were obvious cogs in the machine for the next decade for the Indians, but real life gets in the way for the best-laid plans as the Indians have developed a new strategy (utilized in two of the last three years) that attempts to place best-laid plans alongside other best-laid plans in the hopes that one of those plans will yield some sort of benefit to the parent club.

The money spent this year (and for the two previous years) are encouraging in terms of employing this strategy and dreaming on some of these young players. However, the question as to whether the players selected were the “right” talent to pay overslot money to or whether they are destined to go the way of Mike Aubrey and Jerry Sowers (non-impact and barely marginal role players) will play out over the course of the next few years.

The success of the players selected in the 2008 and 2009 drafts are just as, if not more, encouraging than the dollars spent as the dollars have been spent before by an Indians’ organization that has always touted “building from within”.

Whether that pillar upon which the Indians are supposed to be built (and were supposed to be built upon by now) can actually bear some weight will ultimately determine if the organization is destined for an extended walk in the MLB desert or if greener pastures are truly ahead.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Opportunity Knocks - Shouldering the Load

As the Indians attempt to “fight” their way out of the AL Central this week in Kansas City, the extended auditions continue for an Indians team that has been casting an eye past 2010 for the better part of two months. While the rotation and bullpen will remain open casting calls (with few exceptions) as the season continues, there are definite spots of stability and volatility in the lineup going forward. As has already been hit on, the 2B and 3B situations will continue to bear themselves out, but another spot for which the young players that we’re seeing on the field these days could be just as in play for 2011 and beyond, despite the presence of the team’s highest-paid player, who was supposed to be the anchor in the lineup from the DH position for the next few years.

The Hafner situation is nothing new and innumerable keystrokes and spoken syllables have been exhausted on his contract, his performance, and his fall from the elite of MLB hitters to where he sits today. That is not worth re-hashing as even casual Indians’ fans are aware of Hafner’s drop-off since signing his extension in 2007.

However, the most recent stint for Hafner on the DL and his return, in which he came back to going directly into the lineup, start to raise serious questions for his future…as if questions didn’t already exist. When Hafner decided to eschew a rehab assignment and head right back to the parent club, it was seen in some circles as noble and brave (relatively speaking) as the first two pitchers that the Indians were to face were King Felix and Greinke. In fact, since his return, Hafner has hit the ball very well, hitting the Grand Slam (which was a thing of beauty) against Hernandez and finding success against Grienke, one of the only Indians to do so.

This performance however, and those glimpses of being the man whose exploits merited a section at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario to be named after him, come after a period of prolonged rest, forced by what was only termed “shoulder soreness”. There was no other impetus for the DL stint, nor was there any kind of smoking gun other than the “lingering issues” that seem to always find their way into sentences about Hafner these days.

Therein lies the issue with Hafner going forward, in that Hafner may never be fully healthy and (if his most recent DL stint is any indication), the Indians can’t be certain that he’s not going to be battling a further deterioration or worse “lingering issues” with his shoulder. Don’t take this the wrong way on Hafner, who could have simply gone in the tank, collected his paychecks, and deposited himself on the DL with a chronically weak shoulder in the 2008 season.

The idea that Hafner may not ever be an everyday player is certainly not a new one, but it also is by no means a personal attack on Hafner, as this represents only an attempt to rationally assert that there are only so many swings in Hafner’s shoulder left and that his ability to play on a regular basis, much less in consecutive games, is very much in question going forward.

As much as we would all like to believe that Pronk is returning to play every day at some point, the reality is that Travis Hafner (which is to say Clark Kent, not Superman) may not even ever return to play every day. Even if he is healthy enough to play every day, recent trends have shown that he may be devolving into not much more than a platoon player, which could lead to the chicken-or-the-egg question.

Since I’m not all that interested in dealing in hypotheticals (and since I have no insight as to what is going on in Hafner’s shoulder), the raw facts are that Hafner (who was purported to be as healthy as he’s been since the shoulder issue) has 322 Plate Appearances this year, fewer than Trevor Crowe, who didn’t get called up until mid-May, and less than 30 more than Matt LaPorta, who spent nearly all of June in Columbus.

Last year, Hafner had 383 PA last year in 94 games and he’s probably going to come close to reaching 400 PA in about 100 games this year, a number that could end up being on the high side as time takes its toll on his shoulder. To borrow a phrase, “what if this is as good as it gets” with Hafner’s availability as a DH?

If Hafner is going to max out at about 400 PA for the next two years (while he’s still under contract), that would leave about 300 to 325 Plate Appearances that would be up for grabs going forward. Going back to the whole idea behind this little “series” (which is just two parts), that would seem to offer some opportunity for some of the current Indians to assert themselves as an option for those 250 to 325 Plate Appearances for 2011 and beyond, essentially made available if Hafner’s shoulder precludes him from playing on a consistent basis.

While the obvious names of Shelley Duncan and Jordan Brown jump to everyone’s lips, here’s a little snippet from Will Carroll at Baseball Prospectus, which relates to this situation more than you might think:
I got to talk with Manny Acta in Cleveland and he’s very encouraged by the early reports on Carlos Santana. Acta thinks Santana will be fully recovered by next spring. The team is likely to use Santana more at first base and DH, but it expects he’ll still be the primary catcher. Call it the “Victor Martinez plan.”

This is great news on Santana and really nothing new as Castrovince reported some time back that Santana would be playing more 1B to lessen the load on him, particularly given his recent injury. But follow the bouncing ball on this if you figure that Santana is going to play some 1B (which would likely move LaPorta to DH) or spend some time at DH himself as it would leave an obvious opportunity for Lou Marson to insert himself in a convoluted platoon between C, 1B, and DH.
C – Santana
1B – LaPorta
DH – Hafner

C – Marson
1B – Santana/LaPorta
DH – Santana/LaPorta

If you’ll remember from the piece a couple of Sundays ago, Hafner’s main difficulties this year (and in the last couple of years) have come against LHP, so how has Marson performed against LHP if we’re talking about a very weird platoon between those two players?

For his career, Marson has hit LHP a little better than he has RHP in the Minors (career .784 OPS vs. LHP, career .743 OPS vs. RHP) and, with the small sample sirens wailing, that continued to MLB, as he sits on an MLB OPS of .758 vs. LHP and a MLB OPS of .544 vs. RHP in his 268 career MLB PA.

While that may represent a leap of faith to figure that the Indians are going to play it out like that, what are the alternatives?

Shelley Duncan, who will be 31 years old next year, whose 37.2% K rate is 2nd among those same 153 AL players (behind only Jack Cust, whose K rate is 37.8% and “besting” Rusty Branyan, whose K rate is merely 32.8%) and who doesn’t walk as much as those guys and he trails each of them in Slugging Percentage, meaning that the pay-off for surviving those strikeouts isn’t nearly as compelling as it is for even a Branyan, whose SLG outpaces Duncan's by a solid .050 points.

Duncan is RH and does offer some value to the team as a RH bat off of the bench who can play a little OF and a little 1B while providing some leadership for a young team, but Shelley Duncan getting 250 to 325 Plate Appearances next year seems more than a little far-fetched, particularly for an organization that looks to be promoting from within with some gusto in the last year or so.

To that end, what about Jordan Brown?
Well, for one, Brown will be 27 this Winter and he (like Hafner) is LH. While he has won two Minor League MVP awards, his inability to take a BB concerns me as he walked 81 times TOTAL in the last three years in the Minors over 289 games. Maybe this is simply projecting something that isn’t there, but his ability to get a bat on the ball and put it into play at the expense of a walk could very well lead to weak grounders, something that we did see with Brown in (cue the small sample size siren) his brief time with the Tribe, putting 63% of the balls that he put into play onto the ground. Brown’s GB percentage has reduced in the past few years, but he’s also been playing at the same level for the past three years:
Groundball Percentage
2010 in AAA – 38.7%
2009 in AAA – 43.5%
2008 in AAA – 47.1%

Beyond the BB and Groundball concern (or maybe related to it), his lack of power is the other concern as he’s hit a TOTAL of 39 HR in the last 4 years in the Minors over 416 games and with him turning 27 this Winter, the likelihood that power is going to appear suddenly at the MLB level is remote.

Just for a bit of comparison’s sake (and reference the numbers above here), Nick Weglarz has walked 196 times in the last three years over 298 games, hitting 63 HR in the last 4 years over 424 games...and he'll turn 23 this Winter.

That’s not to sit here and say that Brown is not without worth as a sort of stop-gap measure, but (and I know that this is not new ground) he projects as more of a Ryan Garko type player to me, a player that is without an obvious defensive position who can put the ball into play on a consistent basis. The big difference between Brown and Garko (who both have a .472 career SLG in MiLB) and that at this point in Garko’s development (which is to say, when Garko was 26), he had established himself as a MLB player, even if he was never anything more than a placeholder.

Of course, the likelihood of Duncan or Brown filling this role on the team would be helped by their ability to play the OF, and they both can do that. However, at this point, it would seem that the 4 spots for the Indians’ 2011 are spoken for with Choo, Sizemore, Brantley, and Crowe.

It would seem obvious that the first three names will represent the starting OF with Crowe as the 4th OF (bad routes and all) for 2011. The only question for the three starters is where they fit in and, while this may be a little off-topic, here’s a little blurb from a scout who had this to say to Baseball Prospectus’ John Perrotto on Carlos Beltran:
“He’s just not the player he used to be because of his knee. He’s become extremely tentative in the outfield, and his power is negligible because he doesn’t have a strong base under him without healthy legs. Maybe having the offseason to rest will help, but he is definitely a player in decline.”

I have yet to see a definitive “Sizemore had the same surgery as Beltran” assertion, but does it still feel premature to say, “Your next LF of the 2011 Indians...Grady Sizemore”?

Sure, Weglarz enters the conversation at some point, but that’s as related to one injured veteran (Hafner) as it is to another (Sizemore) and this little exercise has gotten depressing enough.

All told, the Indians could go outside the organization to complement Hafner at DH in 2011 as they should know that the likelihood that Hafner is able to take more than 400 Plate Appearances in 2011 (and beyond) is optimistic, to say the least. That being said, internal options look to be confined to Duncan, Brown, and (in a roundabout, convoluted platoon) Marson with perhaps some combination of two of the three of them, as well as players getting a day off from the field assuming some DH duties, filling in for those extra Plate Appearances from DH.

The situation may not be ideal, but with the Hafner situation at this point is more about making lemonade out of lemons at this point.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

A Lazy Sunday Going Into the Final Quarter

While most of Northeast Ohio waits with bated breath for their just-ordered Seneca Wallace jersey to arrive in the mail, it is Sunday morning and (around these parts at least) that means hitting on that team that was supposed to cruise through the weak part of their schedule in the past week, your Cleveland Indians. Um…about that “success against the better teams in the AL” offering hope that this team would be able to thrive against the lesser lights in the AL, scratch that and let’s realize that the Indians (as they are presently constructed) represent one of those aforementioned “lesser lights in the AL”, regardless of the success that they saw in the nearly 40 games prior to this week.

That being said (and before getting too far ahead of ourselves), to go further on the way that the current Indians’ team is constructed, let’s all realize that a good number of the players that currently populate the Indians’ lineup are second and third options at their positions, not only for this year, but for next year as well. If you want to throw a football analogy out there (as that is what seems to be on the minds of most on the North Coast), the Indians have played nearly 75% of their games and watching the current Indians is akin to watching a battered and decimated football teams play their final 4 games with back-ups and third-stringers playing the majority of the time. While the complaints about a third-string CB getting burnt over and over or a back-up OL looking like a turnstile for the better part of a couple of games are cathartic, they often have little bearing on next year’s team.

That’s essentially what the Indians’ final month and a half is going to look like as players that don’t necessarily figure to play prominent roles in the organization (even simply after this year) are being given a chance to be on the field to see if they are worth a 40-man roster spot, much less a 25-man spot.

Even with that knowledge in hand, it doesn’t make what’s happening on the corner of Carnegie and Ontario this past week any more compelling or encouraging, particularly if you look at the offensive nature of the Indians’ lineup. However, to get back to the point of the fact that most of the players who currently find themselves striding to the batters box don’t really factor into any kind of long-term plans and really shouldn't color your view of the 2011 lineup, let’s all realize that there are basically 4 position players currently playing that are almost assured of being in the 2011 lineup – Brantley, Cabrera, Choo, LaPorta. That would be 4 of the 9 spots for the 2011 team that are going to be playing for the next month and a half.

While Brantley’s inclusion there is a bit presumptuous (given that he’s struggled in two stints with the parent club so far and is just now getting his sea legs under him), every indication is that the Indians are going to give Brantley a starting job in 2011 based on his on-base ability and his defense, with the idea that those two skills are just two that may be enough to justify his inclusion in the lineup for the remainder of 2010 and for the 2011 season. Not included in that list is Jason Donald, who has the opportunity to assert himself as the 2B for next year (and he might want to think about bringing his glove – the one without the hole in it – to the field with him to assist in that venture), but the competition for him (Phelps and even Kipnis) certainly doesn’t allow his name to be placed into the 2011 lineup automatically.

The rest of these players that we’re seeing (Duncan, Marte, Marson, Crowe, Nix, Gimenez, Valbuena, and Brown) project as mere stop-gaps, bench players, or depth options for 2011 and that arrangement doesn’t come without precedent with the current Indians’ regime. If you remember back to 2002 (or even if you don’t), the final month of the Indians’ lineup included Karim Garcia, Greg LaRocca, Chris Magruder, Earl Snyder, and the never-to-be-forgotten Bill Selby.

Is that to say that we’re back to 2002 in terms of the lineup?
Given the recent spate of injuries and the fact that Santana and Sizemore should be in that lineup, I would assert that the offense if further along than they were back then, particularly when you go back to the four players that obviously figure into the 2011 lineup – Brantley, Cabrera, Choo, and LaPorta. Perhaps instead of cursing the names of Shelley Duncan and Andy Marte as the team plays out the string, the thing to watch through the end of the season is to see if any real sense of optimism can be gained going forward by looking at the performances of that quartet.

In the 7 games since he returned from his most recent stint in Columbus, Brantley has posted a .357 BA / .419 OBP / .536 SLG / .955 OPS in 32 PA (during which he has also stolen 2 bases after stealing only 2 in his first 26 games over the first two stretches) and while those numbers are probably unsustainable (particularly that .536 SLG when he has never even sniffed a SLG over .400 in the Minors and had a .206 SLG in his first 112 PA this year), it sheds some hope that Brantley simply needs to make the adjustments to MLB pitching to post the high on-base numbers that he has throughout his Minor League career.

In the interest of full disclosure, Brantley is the same player who has been sent down twice this year because his first two stints with the team resulted in a .436 OPS(!) and he certainly will still have adjustments to make going forward. However, unlike some of the other OF options for 2011 (ahem, Crazy Eyes Crowe), he’s still just 23 years old and the Indians should be putting him in CF to groom him for a spot there in 2011…yes, you read that right.

While Brantley has finally shown some promise, if there is a player who has consistently disappointed at the plate among this quartet this year, it is Asdrubal, whose .679 OPS to date bests Crowe’s .664 OPS and Andy Marte’s .656 OPS…but certainly not in the manner that was to be expected after what looked like his break-out year last year, when he posted a .799 OPS as a 23-year-old SS. Sure, he was injured and, yes, his defense makes him very valuable (particularly given the defensive talents around him in the infield on a team of groundball pitchers), but the Indians had better hope that Cabrera’s 2010 season is simply an aberration and not the beginning of a trend the way that another certain Indian SS was never able to replicate the success he saw as a 23-year-old in Cleveland, who you may or may not remember.

As a quick aside on Peralta, he’s posted a .176 BA / .276 OBP / .314 SLG / .590 OPS line in Detroit, where he’s been playing SS since Brandon Inge returned. Since that first game with the Motor City Kitties (in which he hit 2 HR), his OPS is .375 in 13 games. All that being said, here’s a story about the even-keel that Peralta maintains. The whole piece is worth a read because it represents a point of view of people who haven’t been watching Peralta every day for the last 7 years and I’ll provide a snippet that I absolutely love and that I use without further comment, as I don’t think that commenting on these brilliant quotes need much support:
“He’s had calm at-bats, good at-bats,” Leyland said. “I’ve been impressed. I’ve always liked him. He isn’t jumpy. He’s been a nice addition.”
His personality is even keel on and off the diamond.
“From the first day I signed, I could slow the game down,” Peralta said. “I try to be patient.”

The piece closes out with a quote from an AL scout commenting on Jhonny that, “He’s a marginal shortstop at best, even when he played there before…third base was the place he needed to be.” Given that the Tigers already may be looking to move Peralta (if he clears waivers), let’s just say that getting Giovanni Soto (who has 20 K in his first 18 IP as a Lake County Captain) is going to be remembered as basically a gift between the organizations, regardless of how much success Soto ever attains.

Anywho, back to the players that bear watching in the INDIANS’ lineup for the rest of the year because of the way that they factor in so prominently in 2011, the player who has revealed himself to be one of the best players in MLB is playing RF for the Indians these days – you know him as The BLC.

To date, Choo has the 14th highest OPS (at .855) in the AL, just ahead of Evan Longoria and Magglio Ordonez and is the 10th most valuable player in the AL, according to WAR as he sits between Joe Mauer and Nick Swisher. We all know about the Boras issue and the threat of Korean military service, but if nothing else can be taken from the end of this season, enjoy watching The BLC turn into one of the best players in MLB (and don’t think that Boras doesn’t have those ranks listed above at his right hand) and realize that despite the presence of Boras (who can only make the arbitration process ugly for the Indians), Choo is under club control for three more years, through the 2013 season.

Choo should be sitting in the middle of the Indians’ lineup for the next few years, where he’ll likely be joined by Santana (who will probably hit behind him) and the final player whose performance in 2010 should be taken seriously as it relates to the offensive future of this team, Matt LaPorta, who looks like the only real RH-only power option on a team and in an organization otherwise bereft of them. Although it’s old news, LaPorta shook off the injury bug early in the season and benefitted greatly from Branyan making his way back to Seattle and has now found himself in the Tribe lineup every day.

With the stability of playing 1B nearly every day and not worrying about an infrequency of playing, LaPorta’s numbers since he returned from Columbus have been a line of .271 BA / .338 OBP / .471 SLG / .809 OPS in 157 PA over 39 games and while that may not jump off of the page, he has shown consistent power and has also shown to be a rapidly improving defensive 1B. He still takes too many feeble swings at third strikes for my liking and I’d prefer to see him walk with more frequency, but his 8 2B and 6 HR since his return would project out to a 34 2B and 25 HR season at the pace he’s been able to maintain since the end of June. After the likes of Benuardo and Garko (and the rest of the cast of characters that have occupied 1B since Thome left), production like that from a 25-year-old is something to build upon.

Really, that’s the crux of pointing all of this out as the Indians (as they are presently constructed) have pieces to build upon and while the completeness of a fleshed-out lineup isn’t obvious to everyone, the way that the historically unbelievable 1995 team was, there are young players on this offense to build around.

Those aforementioned four just happen to be the only ones that we’re seeing on a nightly basis these days. Throw Santana and Sizemore on top of those 4 with hope for Donald (assuming his defense improves…and not just a little bit), and the Indians could have 7 of the 9 spots locked down with the 3B and DH conundrums presenting the real question marks going forward into next year

Maybe some of those flotsam and jetsam names fit in at 3B (Marte, Nix, Valbuena) or DH (Duncan, Brown) in the short term (and you’ll notice that I remain unconvinced that Hafner will be healthy enough to play regularly and, even if he is, has devolved into a platoon DH), but it’s just as likely that players that we haven’t seen yet (namely Jared Goedert and Nick Weglarz) play a role in 2011 at those positions as the current denizens of Carnegie and Ontario.

While sitting through an entire Indians game these days is particularly “offensive” (see what I did there?), let’s be honest about this…
Crowe is depth going forward...
Marson is depth going forward, or maybe trade bait...
Gimenez is depth as a best-case scenario for him...
Duncan is “a guy” who is 30 years old…
Marte and Nix have no guarantees to be around in 2011 and Brown and Valbuena could ride the I-71 Shuttle for the next few years with their remaining options…

If you want to complain about seeing a AAA team for the next two months, have at it and enjoy the bitterness at which you approach your life, but the players that you’re seeing right now are (for the most part) pieces and parts that aren’t integral portions of this team going forward and those players (Crowe, Marson, Gimenez, Duncan, Marte, Nix, Brown, and Valbuena) are guys that are being given the opportunity to assert themselves for roles in 2011 and beyond, something that didn’t apply to the alternatives (Peralta, Kearns, etc.) that were previously on hand.

With that off of my chest, the real issue that remains troubling to visualizing this team as any sort of contender in the near future remains the rotation. As Castrovince hit on it in his most recent Inbox, the questions that remain for the 2011 rotation are almost too innumerable to keep up with:
Fausto Carmona went from outcast to All-Star, but I wouldn't classify him as a true No. 1, shutdown starter, by any stretch of the imagination. Mitch Talbot has revealed himself to be a nice option for the back end of the rotation. Justin Masterson has been unpredictable. David Huff was horrendous much of the first half and now has a chance to redeem himself.
We’ve seen encouraging things from Josh Tomlin and Jeanmar Gomez early on in their Major League careers, and the Indians hope that continues. I’m not sure I’ve seen anybody get hit as hard as Carlos Carrasco was last September; we’ll see how he fares this September. Alex White looks to be the most promising starting option in the upper levels of the Minor League system, but he’ll likely be getting his first taste of Triple-A in April. Double-A right-hander Corey Kluber was an intriguing addition in the Jake Westbrook trade.

It’s hard to argue with any of that and, at this point, the Indians are to a point where they need to find arms that legitimately fit into the 2011 rotation and beyond with Carmona and Talbot (remember, no options) being the only players that would obviously have a spot in the 2011 rotation. So we’re down to this idea of the “open audition” with the rotation going forward (not that we haven’t already seen it) to see if the Indians can fill some of these holes with legitimate starting options for 2011.

In an attempt to maximize opportunities (and limit inning counts), it certainly looks like the Indians are not far away from moving to a 6-man rotation, even if Manny Acta is hesitant to characterize it as such:
“What we’re thinking about is we could have a swing man, a type of guy where if someone like [Mitch] Talbot or [Justin] Masterson needs to be shut down, this guy can step in for one of those guys each week…That way, everybody will pitch, but not necessarily in a six-man rotation. We just don’t want to shut anyone down completely. We want them to keep pitching through the year. That's the main thing.”

That arrangement sounds fine and it looks like Aaron Laffey would be that “swing man”, with the news that he’s going to the bullpen, but I could very easily see the Indians go to a more defined 6-man rotation (even with that “swing man” in the mix) very soon because of the way that these inning counts are accumulating very quickly for these starting pitchers.

Just to give you a taste of what that refers to, take a look at the inning tallies for the starting pitchers who legitimately have the possibility to start a game down the stretch and how they stack up against the totals for each player from last year, using all innings pitched for all players, both in MLB and in the Minor Leagues:
Carmona 2009 – 171 2/3 IP
Carmona 2010 – 151 1/3 IP to date

Talbot 2009 – 68 IP 1/3
Talbot 2010 – 125 IP to date

Masterson 2009 – 129 1/3 IP
Masterson 2010 – 133 1/3 IP to date

Gomez 2009 – 147 1/3
Gomez 2010 – 139 1/3 IP to date

Tomlin 2009 – 145 IP
Tomlin 2010 – 131 2/3 IP to date

Huff 2009 – 167 2/3 IP
Huff 2010 – 130 IP

Carrasco 2009 – 179 1/3 IP
Carrasco 2010 – 128 2/3 IP to date

Perhaps you hear Rachel Phelps’ voice asserting that “maybe we’re babying these guys too much”, but with as many options (as uninterested as you may be in continuing to see them) as the Indians have – and that list is 7 right there and doesn’t include the Laffey “swing man” role – it would certainly seem to make sense that the Indians divvy up the remaining starts across these 7 players to not only limit inning counts, but to also give these young players more exposure to MLB to see if they can either build on their short-term success in MLB (Gomez and Tomlin) or establish any sense of momentum going into 2011 with late-season success after having uneven seasons (Masterson, Huff, Carrasco) this year.

While the inclusion of Carlos Carrasco is sure to induce some eye-rolling, can we all realize that this kid is 23 years old (younger than everyone but Jeanmar Gomez on the Tribe staff) and as Terry Pluto writes (in a piece that references some hack’s thoughts on 3B), “in his past 10 starts, Carlos Carrasco is 4-2 with a 3.50 ERA. On the season, he’s 9-5 with a 3.92 ERA.”

To that bit of optimism, I would add that in those last 10 starts (where he has compiled that 3.50 ERA), he’s limited baserunners with a 1.24 WHIP and struck out 50 while walking only 19 in 54 IP over those 10 starts. If you’re unimpressed by that, here is Carrasco’s line over his last 5 starts:
Carrasco’s last 5 starts – 2.08 ERA, 0.80 WHIP with 24 K, 6 BB in 26 IP

More importantly, Carrasco has given up only 1 HR given up in his last 37 IP after giving up 15 HR in his first 91 2/3 IP meaning that his proclivity for giving up the longball has diminished. Whether that will translate into success for the parent club in the next month and a half remains to be seen, but to see what two pitchers who did not post numbers that were nearly as impressive as Carrasco’s in Columbus make the situation all the more intriguing.

At this point, who knows if Josh Tomlin or Jeanmar Gomez are illusions or truly represent legitimate starting options going forward? What is known is that Tomlin (25) has compiled a 2.96 ERA and a 1.07 WHIP with 13 K and 5 BB in 24 1/3 IP and Gomez (22 years old) is sitting on a 1.54 ERA and a 1.07 WHIP with 12 K and 5 BB in 23 1/3 IP.

Those peripherals don’t jump out for either of them as they’re not missing a lot of bats, and maybe it’s just the “Jeremy Sowers Alarm” going off in my head that prevents me from getting too excited, but of the two, I just don’t buy Tomlin as a long-term option because of the flyball tendencies and the HR numbers.

Certainly, that doesn’t mean that Tomlin doesn’t have the potential to contribute to the team going forward, even as a 6th or 7th starter that can bounce up and down I-71 because of his remaining options, but Gomez represents much more intrigue for me, if only because of the Orioles’ Adam Jones saying that Gomez beat Baltimore by simply throwing his sinker and Acta’s comment on him after the game that Gomez’s three pitch arsenal may not even be tapped into yet:
“For his age, his composure is above-average,” Acta said. “One thing is to have three good pitches and to be able to command them, and another is composure, and he has that. He’s mature beyond his age. He’s able to slow things down. He hasn’t been intimidated by anything up here so far. There are times out there when he looks like he’s probably better off down there developing, but he’s pitched well four times for us now…He just continues to go out there and pitch without fear. From what we’ve learned about him, he’s not going to back down if a team hits him around. That’s not the kind of guy that he is.”

For all of the talk about Gomez’s AAA ERA of 5.20 prior to his call-up, this is the same pitcher who posted a cumulative 3.30 ERA with a 1.21 WHIP in Kinston and Akron last year as a 21-year-old, thriving against older players, particularly in Akron, where he threw a perfect game last year.

While Gomez may not be a finished product and could benefit from more seasoning (particularly when the league adjusts to him), the intimation that he may be getting by on “composure” and that the Indians are pleased with his results and (more obviously) his approach, leads us to the pitcher that actually may be the least likely to find himself in this convoluted 6-man rotation for the rest of the year as the disconnect between David Huff and the Indians’ organization is palpable and neither party is going out of their way to conceal it from the media.

If you’re wondering what I’m talking about, Huff and Acta didn’t see how his last start went exactly the same way:
“I felt even in the first four innings he was getting away with a lot,” Acta said. “You can only do that for so long.”
“We felt like if he could have gone at least five, our bullpen has been very steady of late,” Acta said. “I felt like we gave him enough for at least five innings, but he couldn’t get it done.”
Acta said Huff threw less than 50 percent first-pitch strikes.
“That’s not going to get it done,” Acta said. “That’s why you don’t see bloops or anything like that. They hit him hard.”
Huff wasn’t completely onboard with his manager’s assessment.
“My first-pitch strike percentage was right there the first four innings,” Huff said. “I was throwing my breaking ball for strikes. I was keeping them honest with my changeup.”

In case you were wondering, the manager and the organization have the hammer on this type of situation and Huff finds himself in Columbus as a result of that. Truthfully, I’ve long been working under the assumption that Dave Huff is NOT Jeremy Sowers v.2.0 as their Minor League numbers separated Huff’s ability to miss bats, something that Sowers was never able to do at any level. However, if Huff’s 2009 and 2010 season have revealed anything, it’s that is inability to miss bats (either due to approach or command) has caught him in the Sowersian Vortex and it’s threatening to suck him down back to AAA.

Don’t think that the Indians haven’t noticed the tailspin and please take notice on how the two pitches that Huff talks about in the above quote are not referenced in Acta’s comments here:
“He needs to command his fastball, simple as that” Acta said. “We’ve said it over and over and over, but that’s what he needs to do.”
“He’s got to work on keeping the ball down in the zone,” Acta said. “Stats are not going to tell the whole story, because we already know he can go down to Triple-A and pitch well. He has to go down there and make adjustments. I think he understands that...Life is about adapting, adjusting and improvising. If it’s not working, and obviously it’s not right now, then he needs to change."
“This is a guy who we need to be good,” Acta said. “He’s proven in the past that he has the stuff to have success up here. He’s left-handed, has a nice, free delivery and can throw 91 mph for the duration of his outing, which is pretty good, if you can command it.”
“A lot of people don’t realize that it’s a big difference between Triple-A and the big leagues,” Acta said. “This is the ultimate challenge up here. There’s a reason why this is the top level and the elite guys are competing here every day. There are things down there that don’t work up here…We need David to be successful, without a doubt. At this level, results count. Down there, you want to see development and all that, but when you’re up here, results are what we look at.”

As if on cue, Huff’s Friday night start for the Clippers was a 7 2/3 inning outing in which he allowed 5 H and 3 ER despite only striking out 3 and walking 3. As Tony Lastoria writes (in a great new feature at IPI if you haven’t seen it as Al Ciammaichella and Tony go through the best and worst of the previous night’s performances), “The Huffster now 7-0 with a 3.75 in 8 starts for Columbus this year. Maybe the Indians should have him wear a Clippers uniform in Cleveland?”

Read those quotes again from Acta and realize that for an organization that rarely airs its dirty laundry in public and for a manager who falls all over himself complementing players, particularly young ones (read those comments about Gomez above again), this situation with Huff is bad and actually getting worse. Between the whole Twitter flap and this obvious disagreement about approach, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least to see Huff remain in AAA to finish the season, if only to send a message to him that the Indians will explore other avenues for the rotation that don’t include him.

As for the question as to why Huff wouldn’t be given an opportunity instead of Justin Masterson, who some feel should be heading out to the bullpen right now, I ran across this little comparison at Beyond the Boxscore:
Another example of why ERA is flawed
Tim Hudson peripherals: 1.57 strikeout-to-walk ratio, 65% groundball rate, 4.06 xFIP
Justin Masterson peripherals: 1.73 strikeout-to-walk ratio, 63% groundball rate, 4.11 xFIP
Tim Hudson BABIP: .235
Justin Masterson BABIP: .347
Tim Hudson ERA: 2.24
Justin Masterson ERA: 5.47

While I’m not going to assert that Masterson is Tim Hudson with worse defense behind him (as you’d have to be blind…or not watch the manner in which those balls having been coming off of opposing hitters’ bats, whether they be grounders or not), the idea that Masterson should be moved to the bullpen now still feels premature.

Are his starts painful to watch?
Absolutely, even given how short they are, but Masterson has shown that he does have the capability to be a dominant pitcher and, while that dominance may eventually come out of the bullpen, the Indians are in a spot to give Masterson every opportunity to assert himself in the rotation because of a lack of options for the rotation that match his repertoire and his dominance (with the strikeouts and the groundballs when he’s on…and he was for a short time) as possible front-to-middle-of-the-rotation options. Additionally, the depth of bullpen arms (11 relievers in AA and AAA have struck out more than a batter an inning this year) mean that the Tribe needs to parse through those relievers in the coming months and years. While Masterson may ultimately end up in the 7th or 8th inning (and I believe that he will), he is still 25 years old, with the potential of being a stalwart in the rotation. If that transition doesn’t happen (and better options for the rotation obviously exist), then the Indians should move him to the bullpen as a fallback option with the idea that he can always be the reliever that he was in Boston. But until it can definitively be said that the ship has sailed on him being a starter, with better options existing, I would give Masterson a long leash in the rotation. Perhaps he hangs himself with it and ends up in the bullpen, but now is as good a time as any to find out.

Perhaps those words best sum up this last quarter of the season in 2010 – “now is as good a time as any to find out” – that can be applied to any number of players that currently populate the lineup, the rotation, and the bullpen.

It may not be inspiring or even enjoyable from game to game, but the glimmers of hope will come (hopefully from the players that figure most obviously on the team past 2010) and those are the ones that provide that hope and optimism for the future.

Since I realize that all of that suddenly got pretty depressing and serious, if you need a laugh after all of that, check this out (and I link this with the full disclosure that I'm pretty sure that I sported the same glasses frames seen here on Lee Tunnell and Tom Henke from Grades 2 to 6 of my life) and if you need something to drink after all of that, check this out and support your local craft brewer.

Finally, here is a tremendous piece from Castrovince on Luke Holko, the little boy who was struck in the head while attending a Mahoning Valley Scrappers game last year. It updates the amazing progress made by Luke and incorporates the life-changing effect that one moment in time had on more lives than just that of Luke.

It is an inspiring piece and extremely well-written, just be ready to swallow hard during it or maybe even grab a Kleenex, which may already be within your reach if you have been watching the Tribe at all this week.