Sunday, August 07, 2011

Window Watching on A Lazy Sunday

Now a week removed from the earth-shaking Ubaldo Jimenez acquisition and with the Indians’ season being compared to amusement park rides left and right, the Indians find themselves with these Texas nights feeling like a microcosm of the season as the Indians head into tonight’s tilt with a chance to still take 2 of 3 from the AL West leaders. After a soul-crushing Friday night that had many accepting the “reality” that the magic that was so prevalent early in the season may have gone up in a “poof” in Arlington, the Indians (as they’ve done all season) re-appeared through some trap door and still find themselves center stage.

While the “poof” and disappearing act may ultimately come to pass, the Indians have gone 3-3 in games against two divisional leaders on the road and they’ve been IN every one of these games in Texas and Boston. Certainly some of them ended…um, badly, but the Indians (despite the national media attaching a toe tag to this team) continue to stick around in these games and, in turn, in their division. Though it looked like this recent part of their schedule could provide the torpedo that would sink the season, the Indians have the chance to come through two series against Boston and Texas with a winning record, perhaps providing some momentum for a stretch of games that could decide the season in the next few weeks.

If you’re tired of reading that, trust me when I tell you that I’m tired of writing it. But the 12 games for the Indians after tonight’s tilt against the Rangers involve 6 games against the Motor City Kitties, 3 against the Pale Hose, and 3 against the Twinkies. Thus, as cataclysmic as it may seem to use depressing losses to the the Red Sox and the Rangers as measuring sticks for the Indians and as a reason to proclaim that the 2011 season is circling the drain, the Indians stand at the precipice of a stretch of games that may ultimately determine if 2011 is remembered as a team that couldn’t quite hang in for long enough or a team that hung tough until the end.

Even if the Indians can play close to .500 baseball in those next 12 games, the teams that follow that trip around the AL Central are the Mariners, the Royals, the A’s, and the Royals once again…or 3 of the 4 teams with the worst record in all of the AL (the Orioles are the worst), meaning that the Indians still have an opportunity to tread water in a still-winnable division for a while, with a stretch of games coming at the end of the month and the beginning of September that they could use to catapult them into (or back into) control of the AL Central…where no team has a positive run differential into August.

Whether that seems likely or even plausible at this point is tough to say as a game like Friday night’s certainly lends some credence to the idea that the Indians are too young, too inexperienced, and too thin to overcome the obstacles in front of them to remain in the AL Central race, much less take control of it. But as last night showed, this Indians’ team has the resilience and talent of a team that either doesn’t know when they’re supposed to be out of a game or is good enough to stay in any game.

Regardless, if there is going to be an aspect of the team that keeps them in the race (and stop me if you’ve heard this before), it will be the starting pitching as, with the addition of Ubaldo (1st start considered), the Indians have a top of the rotation that cannot be matched in the AL Central, with rotational depth that the Tigers cannot approach and top-heavy rotational strength that is better than what the White Sox have to offer. While we’re not quite “Justin and Ubaldo and pray for…snow”, the Indians have set themselves up to feed off of those two arms at the top of the rotation, with the hope that Tomlin, Carmona, Carrasco, and Huff can fill in adequately behind them and that the “Bullpen Mafia” (© Nino Colla, 2011) can recapture their earlier success and support a still-young, still-depleted lineup.

But don’t take my word for it, as Tim Kurkjian stated as much in a piece evaluating the Indians as they stand as they project for the remainder of the season, in the context of the addition of Ubaldo:
It is clear that the only way the Indians are going to pass the Tigers and hold off the White Sox and Twins in the AL Central is to outpitch everyone. And Jimenez at least gives them a chance. Half the people you talk to believe Jimenez is still an ace despite his drop in velocity from 96 to 93 mph in the past year or so. The other half are suspicious about why the Rockies would trade an ace, believing that something must be wrong with him.

As has been said here, what Ubaldo actually “is” will come out in the wash, but what is often lost in this acquisition of an “ace” in Jimenez is the fact that the Indians really already have one in their hand with Justin Masterson and now have to hope that a pair of aces is enough to win the hand in the underwhelming AL Central. Lest you think I’m prematurely ordaining Masterson as an “ace”, if his standing in ERA and FIP (among others) aren’t enough to convince you, how about his last 2 months of starts:
Masterson’s last 11 starts
1.97 ERA, 1.03 WHIP, 63 K, 16 BB in 77 2/3 IP with a .577 OPS against

Yeah, that’s over two months…
While Ubaldo’s 1st start as an Indian…um, underwhelmed, the idea that the Indians can throw these two pitchers out there in 40% of the games that remain have to provide some sort of confidence boost, regardless of what the offense may or may not look like coming down the stretch. While some continue to paint Ubaldo as a “paper ace”, there’s this little nugget from Jayson Stark regarding Boston’s pursuit of Jimenez as he wrote that, “the Red Sox made a bigger run at Ubaldo Jimenez than most people realized late last week…the Rockies preferred the sort of trade they made with Cleveland, fronted by high-ceiling pitching prospects.”

Having watched the Red Sox face the Indians this past week, with their otherworldly offense, does it strike anyone else that the Red Sox are focusing on pitching and more pitching, to the point that Ken Rosenthal even reported that “The Sox made a late push for Indians righty Fausto Carmona” as well?

Maybe that doesn’t make you feel any better about the Sawx’ pursuit of Ubaldo as the fact that they were pushing for Carmona could be interpreted to mean that they were looking for any useful arm, but it brings to light something about the way that most teams know that they need to build to compete, not just for divisional crowns…but for World Series trophies – with pitching. Certainly, the Red Sox pitching has been decimated by injury (Lester) and ineffectiveness (Lackey, etc.), but Boston was out there combing through the detritus (they got Bedard when it was all said and done) because they know that offense, as good as any offense may be, doesn’t carry a team in October – pitching does.

While it may have been true at one point that “Chicks Dig the Long Ball” (and how odd is it to look back at that ad campaign in light of what we know now), the truth is that “October Loves the Live Arm”. Just to bring this back to the AL Central for a moment, think about what the 2005 White Sox, the 2006 Tigers, and the 2007 Indians had that the Twins teams of the past four years did not have – elite starting pitching. What nearly carried the 2005 Tribe to the playoffs and what took out the “juggernaut Yankees” and pushed the eventual WS Champs to the brink in 2007 for the Indians?

Their starting pitching and some combination of CC, Jake, Fausto, Cliff, and Byrd allowed the Indians to make those playoff runs and, most importantly, make some noise in the playoffs instead of disappearing with a whimper the way that the “built-for-the-regular-season” Twins of the recent past have done. Now with Ubaldo and Masterson fronting the rotation (with some talented, if inconsistent, arms behind them), is it that hard to see that the Indians are making a play for the AL Central for the next couple of years, but also aligning themselves to actually gain some traction in the playoffs if they get there, on the strength of those two right arms?

Whether Ubaldo can carry on the success that he experienced in Colorado remains to be seen, but to go back to Kurkjian briefly, he points out that one of the reasons that the Rox parted with Ubaldo is because “they badly underachieved this season and, as a mid-market team, they can’t plan things year-to-year; they have to do so in three-year blocks.”

Call it what you want – “blocks” or “windows” or whatever, but the Indians had their fast start to this season, saw a group of young and talented players that could mature and congeal as a group for the remainder of the season and for the next couple of seasons and acted in an effort to stand on that “block” or jump through that “window”…whichever imagery you prefer. While some see this as the Indians acting preemptively (for a team that isn’t quite ready to truly compete), take a look at what Kurkjian calls these “blocks” for the Indians in the recent past:
2002: 74-88
2003: 68-94

2004: 80-82
2005: 93-69
2006: 78-84
2007: 96-66
2008: 81-81

2009: 65-97
2010: 69-93

Admittedly, I could group those years into “blocks” in a number of different ways, but the Indians essentially laid the groundwork in 2002 and 2003 for what SHOULD have been a 5-year run through the end of 2008 and spent 2009 and 2010 laying the groundwork for what the Indians seem to be at the precipice of, in terms of contention…if they aren’t already there.

Most Indians’ fans who have grown disgusted with this “tear-down/build-up” method of managing a roster recall the 1990s “Era of Champions” as a period of time in which the Indians always competed and didn’t have to worry about these “blocks” or “windows”. Others have scoffed at the aggressiveness of having to achieve their current top-of-the-rotation at the start of this “window” by painting the Ubaldo trade as a “win-now” move, but consider what Oakland GM Billy Beane had to say to SI’s Tom Verducci in a piece that addressed the evolution of the Trade Market:
What you’ll find is that the window for a small market team will grow smaller and eventually go away completely…We had seven years. Tampa Bay -- and they are very, very smart -- has made it to the playoffs two out of the past three years, and may not make it this year, and then what? To have any kind of window will take building a team organically, having to have something like 80 percent of your roster [homegrown]. That is extremely hard.

While the Indians are far from having 80% of their roster “homegrown”, they accelerated the process of “growth” on the farm by acquiring the very players that you see out there every night this season as they have now attempted to jump through that shrinking window for small-market teams that Beane bemoans as a possible memory in the near future. The Indians, as they cleared the decks of everything that wasn’t nailed down in 2008, 2009, and last year, assembled a group of similarly advanced, similarly aged talent that has carried them to the top portion of the AL Central with Ubaldo and his contract fitting into that timeframe.

Now, it is worth mentioning in this context that Beane has one of my favorite quotes ever on this new age of baseball when he had this to say to Sweet Pete Gammons (in a piece on the growing disparity in MLB revenue) on small-market teams, payroll, and records:
“The way the system is right now, there really is no difference between a $75 million and $40 million payroll,” said Oakland GM Billy Beane. “I think a lot of small-market clubs look at that and ask, ‘Why pay $75 million when $40 million will buy me as many wins?’”

The Indians’ payroll this year is $49M and they’re on pace for 81 wins while the Athletics’ payroll this year is $67M…they’re on pace for 71 wins.
So, yeah…

What Beane is referring to in the two wildly-related quotes is the fact that there is a growing disparity in MLB in which teams like the Yankees and Red Sox have now been joined by the Phillies (5th biggest city) and the Rangers (4th biggest city) as teams that have essentially figured out how to parlay their inherent financial advantages to take control of their respective divisions. While some point to the fact that neither LA team nor neither Chicago team can be counted among the “automatic” playoff berths that the Yankees, Red Sox, and Phillies have become, realize that if the Dodgers or the Cubs were to ever operate in a manner closer to the Red Sox or Rays or if the Angels or Mets ever realized that signing over-the-hill players to astronomical contracts (or acquiring those contracts), the “haves” will reside mainly in the larger cities in America, propped up by local TV revenue and supported by the 4-letter word in ESPN, whose “coverage” of large-market teams may mean big ratings, but also affect the perception of which teams really “matter” in MLB.

Stepping off of the soapbox and regardless of what the Indians and A’s have done in terms of wins per dollar, just to bring this back to the here and now with the AL Central for this year and beyond and how the Indians are now uniquely positioned in the division, take a look at the embarrassingly low payroll obligations for the Tribe going forward…go ahead, go look. Now, compare them to the payroll commitments for Tigers ($74M already committed for next year), the White Sox (who owe Alex Rios and Adam Dunn a total of $83.5M AFTER this year, and even the Twins (who owe Joe Mauer $18M per year through the 2018 season) and realize how well-positioned the Tribe is going forward, compared to their AL Central counterparts.

Could the Indians have been looking around the division, at those payroll commitments, and at the rosters around the rest of the AL Central and used that as a factor in determining whether they were going to bring Ubaldo Jimenez into the fold?

Obviously, those teams can and will outspend the Indians, but if the Indians have laid the groundwork of this team over the last few years, bringing together a group of talented, under-club-control players that figure to be on the North Coast for a while, it would make sense for them to sense that open window and attempt to squeeze through it. If (or is it when) the Indians are able to wriggle through that window, the only way for them (or a team like them) to compete with the “elite” of the AL and to defeat them in the playoffs is with strong pitching, and more specifically strong starting pitching. As we watch Justin Masterson mature into a top-of-the-rotation horse and as we welcome Ubaldo into the Reservation, a new “Plan” is certainly starting to come into focus.

With the scales of “competitive balance” in the AL as unbalanced as they are, the Indians are attempting to load up the front-end-of-the-rotation in an attempt to not only win the AL Central, but to compete with the likes of the Yankees, the Red Sox, and the Rangers in the playoffs, hoping to win on the strength of their now-assembled arms.

Of course, in that equation, winning the AL Central is the 1st order of business and as the Indians continue to hang around in the AL Central, with a(nother) crucial stretch of games staring them down, the Tribe is still looking at that open window in front of them, hoping that it doesn’t crash down in the coming weeks…


ron said...

Thanks for this as always, Paul. I think what hit me this week (and that trade made me sick to my stomach when I first heard of it) is that Antonetti and Shapiro think they've started their new infield, that they have two outfielders in Brantley and Choo who are pieces, they have a hitting catcher who might be a stud, and the makings of a young bullpen with other arms in the pipeline. While I still think that Pomeranz may be a stud, I think they're doing the D-backs strategy from years ago, when they beat the Yankees with Schilling and Johnson and duct tape and chewing gum.

And maybe that's the way to do it. Rather than slavishly follow Moneyball or any other well-established strategy, including the new defense-oriented one (b/c Kipnis, LaPorta, and Chisenhall are definitely defensive wiz kids), Antonetti is trying to win the World Series, not just make the playoffs.

Talk about high risk high reward...not sure my nerves can stand it...

spinske said...

On the other hand, I also wonder if the trade was more than a roll of the dice and and an attempt to create a viable 3 year window. After all, with so many young players under their control, one could argue that the Tribe could have waited for White and Pomerantz to arrive. Why the rush and the risk? What I think is that management felt they need to create a contender now to attract fans and change the negative climate. I'm not sure the Dolans with huge debt incurred in the Jacobs fell they can wait for a team to mature. Sometimes, teams make moves out of necessity rather than foresight.

Elia said...

Most pitchers take years to figure out how to be good. Sabathia took at least five or six years before he was the front end of the rotation guy we all came to love. Lee had ERAs over 5.00 twice in his four years, left off the post-season roster he was so bad, before he came out of no where.

So let's give White and Pomz the benefit of the doubt and say it takes three years to figure it out, to become the front of the rotation guy we can all cry about when they leave. That makes White a viable front-end starter in 2015 and Pomz in, say, 2016? If we look at who will still be on the roster then and our window is opening now and we know it takes two front-end pitchers to win a WS then neither pitcher helps the Tribe through this window of contention. I don't like it either but I do understand what Antonetti must be thinking.

One other thought based on those committed salary numbers. The Dolans have spent money when it comes to contention. Twice payrolls have been over $90M and both times were when Dolan thought the Indians could win the Series. If that is the case and history repeats itself then there is something like $150M available for this window of contention left to be spent. Obviously some will go to our own players but that is a lot of money to fill in some missing pieces in free agency.

Adam said...


Great column as usual. This year has been awesome so far and very, very fun. It's really cool watching these young kids that are the future start to gel. That being said, I do have a concern. I'm getting a little exasperated with Chris Perez as the closer. I mean, you could make the argument that the difference between the Indians and Tigers is the difference between Perez and Valverde. Valverde is an elite closer and has converted ALL of his save oportunites this year, whereas Perez has 4 blown saves (seems like alot more). I think you also have to factor in the tied games he entered and coughed up runs that led to losses and there have been 3 or 4 of those.

Look, I realize that closer is an extremely difficult job but my concern with Perez is that he not so much lacks the mental makeup but simply does not have good enough command. He constantly falls behind guys and even walks people in the 9th innings. There's just no way to justify walking a guy with a multiple run lead. It's flat out bad and good closers just don't do it. Also, he really only has two pitches and I think hitters guess right on his slider far too often.

I guess my question would be do you have any of these same concerns? Or am I just fretting too much? If so, what our our options as far as the future with the closer position? Do we have any likely candidates in the minors? What about this Lee guy that's mowing people down in AAA? Or Putnam? I realize that Perez will likely be the closer for the rest of this year...but moving forward it'd be nice to have some options.

Paul Cousineau said...

I think that there are definitely concerns about Perez. While some can fall back on "a save is a save", nearly all of Perez's peripherals are worse than they were last year and eventually that's going to catch up with anyone.

Though I've long thought that saves are overrated and managers should utilize their bullpen based on situation/lineup instead of adhering to pitching in specific innings, there is a school of thought that a certain mental approach is needed to get the ball in the 9th inning. Perez has better stuff than Borowoski or Wickman, but he's going to have to start recapturing some of his past success to assuage the growing worry.

As for other options, Pestano is probably the most attractive to me, based on his ability to miss bats and his off-kilter demeanor, which might suggest that he could step into the role if needed.

And...I'm with Elia on the previous stuff. What he said...