Sunday, January 30, 2011

A Lazy Sunday Spent Prospecting

With the calendar about to flip to February, meaning that Spring Training is inching ever so closer, and as the Indians are out in full force on their “Tribe on Tour” in an attempt to drum up some interest for the coming season, the big news of the week comes in the form of a couple of prospect lists emerging from various sources with the Indians not being as well-represented as some corners might have expected them to be, given the…um, roster turnover since July of 2008.

Specifically, there seems to be some concern brewing over the fact that the Indians placed only one player in’s Top 50 prospects, “only” three among Keith Law’s Top 100 and that Law ranked the Indians as the 17th best team in terms of organizational talent. Certainly the organizational ranking by Law was eyebrow-raising (he had the Indians #4 last year), but it was something that’s Jordan Bastian attempted to contextualize on his blog when he said that, “there is good depth and many players on the cusp of reaching the big leagues, but the club lacks a pile of players that make the top-prospect-list-makers drool all over themselves.”

That would probably be the case for most organizations, but for a team that is in the midst of a “Rebuild/Reload/Whatever”, most Indians’ fans want to see the Indians at or near the top of all of these lists, with the players acquired for CC, Lee, and Victor dotting the top of them (and they really can’t, by virtue of most of those players no longer being “prospects” having accumulated either 50 IP or 130 AB…but we’ll get to that) or the recent high draftees at least coming in high enough to keep them warm in the cold of January.

Bastian goes further to alleviate whatever fears may be out there (and he links some of the “fears” articulated to him via Twitter in the aforementioned linked piece) as he gets used to the nature of the Cleveland sports fan, attempting to talk some folks down off of the 480 bridge:
Rest assured, Tribe fans, the Indians’ farm system is in good shape. Sure, the jury is still out on the overall return of the CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee deals, but Cleveland’s Minor League system is widely considered one of the best in baseball. Last year’s Draft haul only added to that evaluation.
If you like going with Baseball America, then know that BA has the Indians ranked seventh in the 2011 organizational rankings (ESPN’s Keith Law disagreed, ranking them 17th). That’s the third year in a row that the Tribe has cracked BA’s Top 10 (third in 2010 and seventh in 2009). BA also rated the Indians’ 2010 First-Year Player Draft as the best in the game.

For some background on this, here are Law’s organizational rankings, listing the Tribe at #17, his ranking them at #4 in his organizational rankings last year, as well as his Top 10 Prospects for the Tribe this year, via the ABJ. For your further reading enjoyment as long as we’re talking ranking organizational talent on the farm, here is B-Pro’s ranking of the Indians as having the 3rd most organizational talent last year (B-Pro ranked them #12 prior to the 2009 season), with B-Pro’s organizational rankings for 2011 still not yet available.

Regardless, it was a near certainty that the Indians would drop in their organizational rankings, if only based on the players no longer eligible for these lists, most notably Santana, Carrasco, and Brantley along with Marson, Donald and, to an even lesser degree, Jeanmar and Tomlin. However, the list of players that graduated after 2009 (LaPorta and C. Perez most notably, among others) or younger players on the team despite exhausting their “prospect” status a couple of years ago (Cabrera, Masterson, among others) speak to how young the players are who are already in MLB for the Tribe.
By the end of the year, the team could have players in the lineup all of whom are 26 or younger, except for Choo, Hafner, and Sizemore. Additionally, the only pitchers that figure significantly into the 2011 rotation that are older than 26 are Carmona and Talbot (both 27) and Rafael Perez (29).

So if these young guys now on the parent club have “graduated” from prospect status and people are gripping about only The Chiz making the list and only 3 players (The Chiz, Kipnis, and Drew Pomz) making Keith Law’s list when the Indians have been making trades for young talent for the better part of 2 ½ years, wouldn’t it be instructive to look at where the current group of Indians’ players (acquired via trade or drafted or however) have shown up on these prospect lists, even if it was when they were in the Brewers’ organization, the Phillies’ organization, the Cardinals’ organization, or while a member of the Tribe?

Just to keep the hand-wringing to a minimum, let’s do that and, for the purposes of “brevity”, I’ll use Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus, Keith Law,, and John Sickels for context here, listing the rankings only when the players have appeared in the Top 100 rankings of MLB for any of those rankings. As an aside, it is worth noting that John Sickels breaks up his lists to Top 50 hitters and Top 50 pitchers, so just be aware of that difference as it still makes up a “Top 100”, just not as cleanly.

Going back as far as I can find lists that are applicable (and BA goes back the furthest while I can only find Keith Law’s lists for the last two years) and announcing that while I’d love to provide links for each applicable ranking, in the best interests of my sanity and time...just trust me on these.
Let’s go around the diamond and I’m keeping this (for now) limited to guys that have been on these prospect rankings in the last three years:

Carlos Santana
Pre-2010 - #3 Keith Law
Pre-2010 - #8 B-Pro
Pre-2010 - #10 BA
Pre-2010 - #11
Pre-2010 - #5 John Sickels Hitting
Pre-2009 - #13 Keith Law
Pre-2009 - #33 B-Pro
Pre-2009 - #26 BA
Pre-2009 - #17 John Sickels Hitting
Not too much left up to the imagination here as Santana steadily rose up all of these lists from the time he arrived.

Lou Marson
Pre-2009 - #66 BA
Pre-2009 - #43
Yes, Lonnie Chisenhall is’s 36th ranked prospect going into this year...two years ago, had Louis Glenn Marson (who could a convoluted platoon partner for Hafner going forward, something touched on in the latest “Jon & Paul Plus Baseball”) at #43.

Matt MaTola
Pre-2009 - #30 B-Pro
Pre-2009 - #27 BA
Pre-2009 - #14
Pre-2009 - #29 John Sickels Hitting
Pre-2008 - #31 B-Pro
Pre-2008 - #23 BA
Pre-2008 - #19 John Sickels Hitting
Those are nearly universal top 50 rankings (remember, I can’t find Law’s list for Pre-2009 or Pre-2008) from the time that he was drafted until he was no longer a “prospect” - as determined by plate appearances. He’s been a major disappointment to this point, but let’s see where LaPorta stands after 2011 to see if these rankings were illusory or justified.

Jason Kipnis
Pre-2011 - #56 Keith Law
It will be interesting to see where The Kipper comes in on the BA, B-Pro, and Sickels’ lists for this year as he certainly asserted himself to the point that he was the 4th highest rated 2B by and, according to Jordan Bastian, if the “was Top 100, Indians prospects Jason Kipnis, Alex White & Drew Pomeranz would all likely be included.”

Jason Donald

Pre- 2009 - #69 BA
As is the case with Tofu Lou, it is often forgotten that Donald was, in fact, a Top 100 prospect (at least according to BA) in the off-season prior to him being part of the Lee deal.

Lonnie Chisenhall

Pre-2011 - #39 Keith Law
Pre-2011 - #36
Pre-2010 - #26 Keith Law
Pre-2010 - #43 B-Pro
Pre-2010 - #31 BA
Pre-2010 - #55
Pre-2010 - #25 John Sickels Hitting
Here’s a great example of how these prospect lists vary as The Chiz moved up in’s ranking from last year to this (going from #55 last off-season to #36 in the most recent edition) and moved down in Law’s rankings for the same time period (#26 last off-season to #39 this past week).

Mike Brantley
Pre-2010 - #71 Keith Law
Pre-2010 - #46
Pre-2010 - #50 John Sickels Hitting
Like Donald and Marson, Brantley often gets overlooked in the context of being a “top” prospect as Law,, and Sickels all had him in their Top 100 (or even Top 50) going into last year.

Nick Weglarz

Pre-2009 - #83 B-Pro
Pre-2009 - #57 BA
Wegz seems to have fallen off of the radar after getting some love prior to the 2009 season, but now that he’s in AAA, he could be a name that surprises in 2011. Of course, he could just as easily be a name that floats away.

Carlos Carrasco
Pre-2009 - #43 B-Pro
Pre-2009 - #52 BA
Pre-2009 - #28
Pre-2009 - #24 John Sickels Pitching
Pre-2008 - #68 B-Pro
Pre-2008 - #54 BA
Pre-2008 - #28
Pre-2007 - #37 B-Pro
Pre-2007 - #41 BA
Pre-2007 - #31 John Sickels Pitching
That’s three straight years on Top 100 lists (peaking on the lists at #28 for two years in a row) and while the stagnation on these lists is noticeable, Carrasco was unquestionably a Top 100 prospect...and not just for a short time.

Justin Masterson
Pre-2008 - #53 B-Pro
Pre-2008 - #64 BA
Pre-2008 - #40 John Sickels Pitching
Masterson is an interesting one as the Red Sox moved him quickly up the ladder of the Minor League system and into their bullpen, which means that he didn’t really spend more than one year as a “top prospect”. In the year that he was, he easily made the cut of the Top 100 of multiple lists.

Mitch Talbot

Pre-2007 - #36 John Sickels Pitching
Yeah, back before the 2007 season, even Talbot Unleashed his own brand of Fury on one of these listings.

David Huff
Pre-2009 - #36 John Sickels Pitching
I’ll get to the “misses” on these lists (that I’m not listing here as they aren’t still on the 40-man), but Huff on a list, ranked higher on Sickels’ pitching list than Masterson was the previous year and just 12 slots behind Carrasco on Sickels’ Pre-2009 Pitching list.

Chris Perez
Pre-2009 - #67 B-Pro
Pre-2009 - #91 BA
Pre-2009 - #20 John Sickels Pitching
Pre-2008 - #69 B-Pro
Pre-2008 - #97 BA
Though Perez has always been a reliever (and relievers aren’t usually very highly rated on these lists), here’s a great example of a player that hangs around these lists at the bottom end of them and explodes onto the scene when promoted to MLB.

Alex White
Pre-2010 - #77 B-Pro
Pre-2010 - #65 BA
Pre-2010 - #31 John Sickels Pitching
Like his 2009 Draft mate Jason Kipnis, it will be interesting to see where White falls on the BA, B-Pro, and Sickels’ lists as you’ll remember (or maybe you won’t) that Jordan Bastian passed along that White (as well as Kipnis and Pomz) would have been on’s list had it gone to 100 and Keith Law dismissed White as more of a reliever than a starter.

Drew Pomeranz

Pre-2011 - #60 Keith Law
Since Pomeranz (who was interviewed by B-Pro’s David Laurila in an interesting piece here) has yet to throw a pitch for the Indians, this is all based on reports prior to him being drafted so my guess is that he’s going to come in higher than this on BA’s list (as they LOVE them some high draft picks) and will probably come in around here on B-Pro’s list. Regardless, all of this is based on nothing having to do with Pomz throwing a pitch in the Minors yet, so we’ll see…

Jason Knapp
Pre-2010 - #82 B-Pro
Pre-2010 - #64 BA
Like Pomz, this one is still based largely on projection and I wouldn’t be surprised if Knapp shows up somewhere on the still-to-be-announced lists as his 47 K in 28 IP last year is likely to cause some scout somewhere to drool over his radar gun.

Hector Rondon
Pre-2010 - #51 Keith Law
Pre-2010 - #32 John Sickels Pitching
Often a forgotten man after he went down last year, Rondon figures to be out all of 2011 after undergoing Tommy John surgery.

Nick Hagadone

Pre-2010 - #100 Keith Law
Pre-2010 - #91 B-Pro
Pre-2010 - #44 BA
Pre-2010 - #56
Seeing as how Hagadone was one of the more highly-rated players in the system going into last year for Hagadone and with news that he’s officially going to be transferred to the bullpen, it will be interesting to see if he sticks around on the BA or B-Pro lists for Pre-2011, based on projection.

All told, every single one of those players have been rated as Top 100 prospects at some point since prior to the 2007 season. The other “veterans” on the team have found themselves similarly on prospect lists through the years (listed without comment), and let’s look at those as an introduction to the point of this whole discourse:
Fausto Carmona
Pre-2006 - #50
Pre-2004 - #76 BA

Travis Hafner
Pre-2003 - #46 BA
Pre-2003 - #10 John Sickels Hitting

Pre-2005 - #51 BA
Pre-2005 - #25 John Sickels Hitting
Pre-2004 - #44 John Sickels Hitting
Pre-2003 - #23 John Sickels Hitting

Grady Sizemore

Pre-2005 - #17 John Sickels Hitting
Pre-2004 - #9 BA
Pre-2004 - #11 John Sickels Hitting

Jayson Nix

Pre-2004 - #94 BA
Pre-2004 - #26 John Sickels Hitting
Hafner, Choo, Cabrera

Interestingly, Asdrubal Cabrera never was listed as a Top 100 player by any of the rankings that I could find and looking at these lists in the context of what these players became (and I’m talking about the former incarnation of Pronk, not the Pronk Lite we see now) as the only one of those players that ever cracked a Top 20 overall was Sizemore.

Of course, the Indians had some “can’t miss” players in the past like Victor and CC that panned out, but the highest that Clifton Phifer Lee was ever rated was as the 30th best prospect from BA prior to the 2003 season, which is only 23 spots lower than the #53 rating that Jeremy Sowers would receive prior to the 2006 season.

That’s the rub in all of this inexact science as the old BA lists are littered with former Indians like Atom Miller or Wes Hodges or Chuck Lofgren or Trevor Crowe (seriously...who came in at #60 on the pre-2007 B-Pro list and #64 on the BA list from the same year, with Dustin Pedroia coming in at #77) or Beau Mills (#87 on the pre-2008 BA list...ahead of Chris Perez), who did in fact finish in some of these Top 100 lists in a particular year

With the benefit of hindsight, you see how absurd the idea of a Pre-2006 prospect list looks with Jeremy Sowers at #17, putting him behind Marte, (#7 on the same list), and ahead of Anthony Reyes (who was #26), and Fernando Cabrera (#43)...and three of those players figured to contribute to a 2006 Tribe team that was coming off of the 93-win 2005 season.

We all know how that played out and these lists are an endless source of fascination, when you go far enough back and look at some of these lists, you see Marte ahead of...well, everyone and Mike Aubrey ahead of Ryan Howard and Hanley Ramirez or Anthony Reyes ahead of Matt Cain.
Even better – there’s Josh Barfield one slot ahead of David Wright on the Pre-2004 BA list.
This could go on and on...

Regardless, you get where this is going as these prospect lists are great conversation fodder and certainly the inclusion on any of these lists is a positive in terms of a particular player’s perception. However, all it takes is a cursory glance at past prospect lists to see if these ranking services have as many “hits” and “misses” as most organizations do as some of these players flame out while others who are ranked lower on these lists (or not ranked at all) surprise when ascending to MLB.

Don’t take that to mean that my assertion is that the Indians will be justified by their current batch of prospects when it all comes out in the wash. Rather the crash-and-burn of the likes of Sowers, Miller, Aubrey, Crowe, Lofgren, and Hodges have given me pause to simply equate the prospect ranking of a particular player to an assumed amount of success (if any) for said player.

Again, sometimes players surprise (Choo peaked at #51 on the BA list all the way back in 2005 and Asdrubal never made a list), others fail to reach the level of success predicted for them for reasons as varied as a pulley strain (Miller) to an inability to adjust to MLB (Sowers), while the rare special players fulfill their potential (the way that Sizemore, CC, and Victor did) and continue to develop until they attain the star status “expected” of them.

That’s not to discount these rankings or any prospect rankings as there certainly seems to be an order in any organization of highly-thought-of prospects (with the current group for the Tribe being Chiz, The Kipper, Al White and Pomz quite universally) and somewhat- promising guys that are either going to take the next step, simply be 40-man fodder, or disappear completely.

The truth is that I don’t know which guys, either on the parent club or in the Minors, fall into which category and neither do any of these other national lists. While this is treading over old territory, I know, the only way to accurately determine which of these young players (whether they retain “prospect” status or not) succeed in MLB is to get them up to the parent club (assuming they’ve “earned” it) and to find some gold among the iron pyrite.

Regardless of that fact (and that many people realize that), whenever these things come out, there is the requisite celebration or gnashing of teeth...but to what end?

In the Indians’ situation (as well as about 24 other teams in MLB), they need to not only assemble talent, but assemble talent that arrives all at once or only a couple of years apart from each other. In Acta, they seem to have a “hands-on” manager who seems genuinely excited about the future that lies ahead, sometimes at the expense of common sense. However, this organization assembled talent that arrived all at once from 1993 to 1995 and experienced success based on the contributions of those young players and did it again from 2003 to 2005 and experienced fleeting success based on the assembled young talent.

While there is some truth that not much can truly be gleaned from these lists, how about the fact that the current Indians are well-represented in the BA lists from 2009, with the specific players and rankings here:
2009 BA Top 100 Prospects
#26 – Santana
#27 – LaPorta
#52 – Carrasco
#57 – Weglarz
#66 – Marson
#69 – Donald
#91 – C. Perez

Beyond that, there’s Masterson the 2008 list (#64) that “graduated” and players that appeared for the first time on the BA Top 100 in the 2010 list:
2010 BA Top 100 Prospects (only those appearing for 1st time on BA list)
#31 – Chisenhall
#44 – Hagadone
#64 – Knapp
#65 – White

That’s 12 players, 7 of whom will be on the Opening Day roster and 3 of whom (Chiz, White, and Wegz) who are likely to ascend to the parent club at some point in 2011.

Further, we’ll add Kipnis and Pomeranz in a few weeks to that list of players that appeared in the BA Top 100 lists of the last three years when they are ranked in the Pre-2011 rankings as players that figure to play roles in the next incarnation of the Indians.

Seeing as how the Indians that appeared in the 2007 BA list were Atom Miller (#23), Chuck Lofgren (#54), Trevor Crowe (#64), and Brian Barton (#86) and knowing how all of that turned out, the influx of talent – though painful – puts the Indians back to where they need to be, attempting to get another group of young, similarly-aged and similarly-advanced players all at the big league level or just beneath it in an attempt to push open yet another “window of contention” when they’re still smarting from the last window slamming shut on their fingers so fast.

Is that enough?
With teams built like this and with the young players that make up those teams, only time will tell...

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Stranded at Third Base

As we move ever so slowly closer to pitchers and catchers reporting (while ignoring odd leaps of logic on these Interwebs), there is one position that continues to stick in my head as the 3B situation has inexplicably become cloudier than it was when the 2010 season ended and it was as clear as mud back then. So as much as I’d like to focus on the fact that I think that Carlos Santana is going to provide a major lift to the Indians’ offense or that Carmona, Masterson, and Carrasco are going to provide some stabilization to a rotation badly in need of it in 2011, and realizing that more e-ink has been spilled on the Tribe 3B this off-season, the stunning realization persists that the Indians are exactly where they were when the off-season started (and perhaps worse off and more confused)...all of which unfortunately leaves us all unable to get past 3B.

Of course, getting past 3B is an issue that many men deal with at some point in their lives, but the new wrinkle comes in the (now-not-so-new) news that the Indians are now considering moving Jason Donald to 3B in an attempt to find a stop-gap at the Hot Corner. Since the assumption most of the off-season was that Donald would be the 2B in Cleveland until Kipnis forced his way onto the roster, the way that 3B is somehow all wrapped up with 2B, let’s (inexplicably) start at 2B as that is (inexplicably) how the Indians seem to be approaching the 3B situation.

Everyone have their bases straight here...yeah, me neither.
Regardless, the Indians have three middle infielders in Jayson Nix (a 2B), Jason Donald (primarily a SS throughout his MiLB career), and Cord Phelps (a 2B) as the most obvious options to play 3B in 2011. Given that the Indians have summarily dismissed Goedert as an option (and I’ll get to that dismissal) and Lonnie Chisenhall (ranked recently as the #36 overall prospect by is going to start the year in Columbus (I’ll get to that as well), that trio of middle infielders join Minor League signing Jack Hannahan in a convoluted “derby” to determine who will be the 3B to start 2011 with the assumed starter at 2B being intrinsically tied to it.

While most of these options are unappealing to most as they wait around for The Chiz and Kipnis to ride in on white horses to rescue these two positions, let’s take a step back and realize that Jason Donald is not that bad of a “placeholder” at either position, assuming some level of defensive proficiency can be reached. In his first exposure to MLB, Donald had an OPS+ of 94, meaning that he was below league average and while the “harrumph, harrumph” crowd gets their “harrumphs” ready, realize that there were only 19 2B/SS who were better than league average at the plate in 2010 with 30 teams still playing one of those two positions, or less than a third of the middle infielders in MLB posted offensive numbers that were better than league average.

Further attempting to provide some context, how about the fact that Donald actually finished 27th of the 61 players who played the majority of the season in the middle of the infield and who accumulated more than 300 plate appearances?

You know which middle infielders he outperformed at the plate in 2010?
JJ Hardy, Orlando Hudson, Marco Scutaro, Reid Brignac, Derek Jeter, Asdrubal Cabrera, Jimmy Rollins, Gordon Beckham, Chone Figgins, and I could keep going if you’d like me too...

Is this to say that Donald is a long-term answer in the infield?
Of course not, as the Lesson of Louie V (he of the OPS+ of 90 in 2009, followed by the OPS+ of 51 in 2010) applies here, but look at what Indians’ 2B have put forth for the past 8 years, in terms of offensive production in the context of MLB:
2010: .624 OPS (29th of 30 MLB teams)
2009: .704 OPS (22nd of 30 MLB teams)
2008: .658 OPS (28th of 30 MLB teams)
2007: .639 OPS (30th of 30 MLB teams)
2006: .745 OPS (10th of 30 MLB teams)
2005: .726 OPS (18th of 30 MLB teams)

Really, since Ronnie Belliard left after 2006, the Indians’ 2B have peaked at a .704 OPS, good enough to nearly crack the production among the top 2/3 of MLB. In case you’re wondering, Bill James’ projections has Donald posting an OPS of .714 and ZiPS projects an OPS of .687 for Donald.

Look again at those numbers from 2B above and realize that Bill James’ projection would be the best production out of 2B since 2006 and the moribund ZiPS projection would outpace the production of the Tribe 2B in 3 of the last 4 years!

Of course, a major factor in Donald playing at 2B in 2011 is a presumption that Donald will improve on this as a 2B when he looked like a fish out of water at the position for the parent club in 2010. That being said, here’s a factor that might have played into that whole “fish out of water” thing for Donald as a 2B – he had played all of three games in the Minors at 2B prior to 2010!, the (not-so-new) news comes that he may be playing 3B?
Care to hazard a guess as to how many games has he played at 3B in the Minors in his career?
Again, three.

Certainly, Donald looked horrible in Cleveland at his “natural” position of SS last year filling in for an injured Cabrera, but most projections had Donald moving across the bag to 2B at some point in his development and career. While he may have struggled in his first taste there, the idea of adding another position for him to learn as he’s attempting to adjust to MLB strikes me as odd. Maybe he does convert over to 3B smoother than...oh, I don’t know NIX, but shouldn’t there be more thought to this than simply a prolonged trial-and-error period, particularly in MLB?

Aren’t there paid employees at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario who should have been able to reasonably project whether Donald would be better as a 2B or a 3B prior to last year, given the gaping holes at each position last off-season?

The idea that Nix would pick up 3B crashed and burned, perhaps prompting this suggestion to move Donald to 3B, to clear a spot for Nix at 2B (you know, the 27-year-old with the career .635 OPS when he joined the Tribe...because the White Sox cut him), but this is all getting too confusing to follow. Maybe Nix is the best defensive 2B and this is me talking out of both sides of my mouth on this subject as I’ve been driving the bandwagon to create the best infield defense behind a groundballing staff as best possible, but the whole 2B/3B thing to start the year feels too much like the Indians trying to fit square pegs in round holes.

As a quick aside here, did anyone know that Jason Donald and Jayson Nix joined Matt MaTola and Lou Marson on the 2008 Olympic roster in Beijing?

Nevertheless, there seems to be the idea that any configuration would be a short-term situation with Kipnis and The Chiz supposedly lined up for promotions at some point in the year. But is anyone else a little uncomfortable with how much they’re counting on those two (and particularly The Chiz to be the salvation at 3B)...perhaps a little too much?

After an off-season of inactivity and a “new” plan to slot Donald over to 3B, it is stunning how much this team is simply assuming that The Chiz is going to come and rescue 3B. The assumption that has proclaimed Lonnie as “The Answer” at 3B is a corner that they’ve painted themselves into, with the first coat being laid back when The Chiz was still in Kinston.

There really is no “Plan B” past putting The Chiz at 3B and, in the context of the Indians dismissing Goedert as an option at 3B (and really that’s what this Pluto piece does), how about Ross Atkins proclaiming that “to play third in the big leagues, you are talking about an .800 OPS along with playing a demanding defensive position.”

Hold on there...I understand “perfect world production” as much as the next guy, but let’s remember what we’ve been dealing with here in Cleveland at 3B before you make that proclamation. Not to wear out the gears on the silver DeLorean, but the Indians’ 3B OPS for the past decade has been as follows:
2010: .700 OPS (22nd of 30 MLB teams)
2009: .719 OPS (19th of 30 MLB teams)
2008: .703 OPS (25th of 30 MLB teams)
2007: .728 OPS (21st of 30 MLB teams)
2006: .688 OPS (27th of 30 MLB teams)
2005: .630 OPS (30th of 30 MLB teams)
2004: .815 OPS (13th of 30 MLB teams)
2003: .729 OPS (17th of 30 MLB teams)
2002: .636 OPS (29th of 30 MLB teams)
2001: .729 OPS (21st of 30 MLB teams)

So, for Atkins to assert that “to play third in the big leagues, you are talking about an .800 OPS along with playing a demanding defensive position” is all well and good as a criteria, but it comes off as arrogant in the way the quote is presented, as a dismissal of Goedert. Maybe Goedert’s glove is shaped like a frying pan, but in the context of what we’ve seen from 3B in the last decade (when the Tribe 3B surpassed an .800 OPS once and never came within 71 points of it in the other 9 years) and particularly with that 2010 number...yeah, that kind of rings hollow as a statement from anyone associated with the Indians in dismissing anyone as a candidate to play 3B.

Yet here we sit with the current group of contenders and all hopes pinned to The Chiz to pull the Indians out of this 3B abyss. Perhaps Jason Donald takes to 3B the way that Nix never did, but if you look at the way that the system breaks down going into Columbus, it’s hard to figure how Cord Phelps lookd like a 3B option going forward as he is unlikely to get significant reps at 3B in AAA to start the year know, Lonnie Chisenhall is the 3B for Columbus.

To take that a step further, going back to last week’s “Sunday Notes” column from Pluto, he passed along that “the Indians want Chisenhall (at third) and Kipnis (at second) to receive regular work. That makes Phelps a swingman between different positions, although he is expected to play every day -- somewhere” mentioning 2B, 3B, and LF as places that Phelps could play.

So if The Chiz and Kipnis “receive regular work” at their respective positions and Phelps plays every day with the intent to make him a “swingman” by playing in the field every day, doesn’t that mean that Phelps will primarily play LF?

Isn’t Nick Weglarz the assumed LF in Columbus?
This gets even more confusing if you extrapolate out what Pluto says and it means in Columbus:
2B - Kipnis
3B - Chiz
LF - Phelps
If they’re all “playing everyday” with an emphasis on defense development (particularly for Chiz and Kip), that’s it, right?
Yes, Phelps will sub some at 2B and 3B, with Chiz and Phelps maybe being the DH if they don’t get the day off, but does that now move Wegz to 1B or DH and with Goedert assuming the opposite “position” (1B or DH) of Wegz?

If the idea to turn Phelps into a “swingman”, how is he going to get reps at 2B or 3B in Columbus with the team’s top 2 prospects (rightfully) being regulars at those two positions. Based on Pluto’s notes (which come from the Indians ever Sunday), it certainly doesn’t sound like he’s going to be getting a real shot at maybe even being a stop-gap at 3B, which gets more convoluted the deeper you get.

All of this moving around the diamond with these guys makes my head hurt and causes me to wonder if it isn’t just a better idea to pick positions for some of these guys and go with it. Maybe this conjures up too much of the “Broussard in the OF” or “Ryan Garko - LF” or even Nix as a 3B, where guys are trying to learn a new position at the MLB level.
Realizing that versatility is great in some guys...why do we force it on so many of these guys?

Not all of these guys are Casey Blake (whose versatility was woefully underutilized) and attempting to transform somebody into that seems to only stunt development. Give these guys a position and be done with it. If they’re legitimately “blocked” by someone in Cleveland, so be it...but let’s cross that bridge if we ever get to it.

The argument could be made that not all of these guys are young, with the exception of The Chiz (who just turned 22), as Nix is now 28, Donald is now 26 while Phelps just turned 24 with Kipnis turning 24 in April and it’s time for one of them to assert themselves at one of these positions, but how this all shakes out to start the season could go any number of ways.

If the Indians are suddenly thinking of Donald at 3B and Nix at 2B with Phelps being the “swingman” in Columbus, mainly playing LF, the only guy in that equation playing his natural position is know, the now-28-year-old that had a .635 OPS before joining the Indians. Maybe Hannahan enters the mix at some point or maybe Donald and Phelps force the Indians’ hand in Goodyear (although this organization has been reticent to change a plan once one is devised) to become the two starting infielders out of the gate for the parent club.

Regardless, The Chiz and Kipnis can’t arrive soon enough to the Indians infield clean up this mess and stabilize two long-standing Tribe problem spots....which is hopefully something that they both can do.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Repeating History on A Lazy Sunday

As horrible as this off-season has been for Indians fans as we feel like that kid looking out of the window at recess time, watching everyone else have so much fun while we sit quietly away from all of the action, let’s attempt to gain some perspective again, if only to combat the pervasive “the Indians are on the cusp of walking through the desert for another 40 years” rhetoric that has become accepted as fact locally and (at least when they mention the Tribe) nationally.

Is it depressing to see three of the four other AL Central teams making prudent, high-upside deals as the Twins retain Pavano and Thome (at reasonable numbers and years) while adding a middle-infield import that should upgrade their team, as decimated as their bullpen has been with departures?

Of course, just like it’s painful to acknowledge the fact that the White Sox and Kenny Williams put on their annual rabbit-out-of-the-hat off-season, signing Adam Dunn to the deal that I think most will look back on as the best deal of the off-season, retaining Paul Konerko, replacing Fat Bobby Jenks with Jesse Crain, and keeping what looks like the best rotation in the AL Central intact and potentially healthy?

As much fun as it is to think about everything that could go wrong in Motown (with their perpetual “we’ll think about tomorrow some other time” contracts), even the Royals overcame their initial stumble out of the gates (with Francouer and Melky) to add some rotational fodder in Francis and Chen to deals that I wouldn’t have minded seeing the Indians taking on?

Even going outside of the AL Central, news that the Rockies signed Joe Crede to a Minor League deal has Tribe fans wondering why Jack Hannahan will be in Goodyear this Spring and not Crede, given the nature of both signing Minor League deals. Forget that I spend some days convinced that Jack Hannahan is going to be the 3B out of Spring Training because everyone else who is a candidate there feels like a square peg/round hole situation.

There’s plenty of time to get to that though as the season approaches and once the season starts and begins to flesh out as the performances of Francis and Chen will be on display in our division and the paths that Crede and Hannahan take in 2011 will be obvious once April begins. For now, let’s get into a Lazy One as I don my little green visor (Google tells me it is a “green eyeshade”) and pull out my leather-bound ledger to get off on some Tribe talk and run some numbers and attempt to provide some context for those numbers.

The reason that numbers and calculators come up coincides with the big news of the week of the arbitration signings and how they, in effect, set the 2011 payroll somewhere around $46M or so, and I’ll use the $46,413,000 that the IPI salary chart lists.

As I pull my hair out, let me just shreik “OH THE HUMANITY!” I doing this right?
Kidding aside and thinly-veiled shots at the “DOLANZ R CHEEP” crowd out of the way, take a deeper look at that link to IPI and check the salaries by year for the Tribe, with the last decade looking like this, with the inclusion of 2000 being important because it represents the first full year of Dolan ownership, but also because the 2000 payroll it was the highest payroll in Indians’ history…until the next year, when the Dolans would once again preside over the highest payroll in Tribe history. For your enjoyment, here’s an interesting link to an announcement of the sale in November of 1999, full of tidbits that I just don’t remember.

Nevertheless, here’s the payroll by year:
2011: $46,416,000
2010: $61,453,967
2009: $81,579,166
2008: $78,970,066
2007: $61,673,267
2006: $56,031,500
2005: $41,502,500
2004: $34,319,300
2003: $48,584,834
2002: $78,909,499
2001: $93,360,000
2000: $76,500,000

If you want to go back further, you can see that the shining beacon of Cleveland baseball, Mr. Dick Jacobs, presided over a payroll of $8,236,166 in 1992, which was less than half of the 4th lowest payroll of the Orioles.
Seriously, check this list out...

Of course, that 1992 team had guys like Albert Belle, Carlos Baerga, Kenny Lofton, Sandy Alomar, Jr., Jim Thome, Charles Nagy, and Jose Mesa on the team that would finish 76-86 and still reek of unrealized potential and with the team’s highest paid players being Felix Fermin ($950K) and Joel Skinner ($700K), really.

But wasn’t that the “Original Plan” back in the assemble a massive amount of young talent, allow the wheat (Thome, Belle, etc.) to separate from the chaff (Glenallen, Whiten, Jack Armstrong, etc.) and sign the players that distinguished themselves to long-term deals?

The payrolls increased slowly (1993 - $15.72M, third lowest in MLB for a team that would go 76-86 again; 1994 - $28.49M, 10th lowest in MLB in strike-shortened season and so on) as the players that the Indians identified as “core” players accumulated service time and were paid at higher rates (usually with long-term deals that gave them up-front money while buying out FA years) as the years progressed. As much as everyone remembers the Indians of the late-1990s, with John Hart wheeling and dealing and the Indians being major players on the FA market (thanks to the revenue stream provided by a new ballpark), the way that the Renaissance of baseball in Cleveland started was the accumulation of young near-MLB-ready alent and the identification of certain players as a “core” to build around.

As I remember, it worked out pretty well from those humble beginnings, essentially rescuing baseball in Cleveland and setting the stage for the “Golden Age” of the franchise. Not to continue to bore you with history as I’m sure you’re aware of all of this, stay with me here and take a look at what happened after the Indians started anew in the early-to-mid-2000s, after the roster had been purged and the majority of high priced “talent” found themselves elsewhere. Remember that whole idea that the optimistic view of the 2011 season would be to duplicate the performance of the 2004 team (80-82), with certain young players stepping forward with significant production?

Well, since most of the criticism of the Indians is that their roster consists of veteran question marks, a couple of players who are underpaid (by virtue of service time) and league-minimum fodder, check this:
2004 payroll - $34,319,300
Here’s the list of players on that 2004 team that DIDN’T simply make the league minimum:
Matt Lawton - $7.25M
Omar Vizquel - $6.25M
Bob Wickman - $6M
CC Sabathia - $2.7M
Ronnie Belliard - $1.1M
David Riske - $1.025M
Jake Westbrook - $925K
Lou Merloni - $560K
Scott Elarton - $480K
Tim Laker - $450K
Every other player on the team made $352K or less, including Hafner, Victor, Clifton Phifer and Blake.

What about the following year, for the team that won 93 games?
2005 payroll - $41,502,500
Again, here is the list of players on the 2005 team that made more than the league minimum:
Kevin Millwood - $7M
CC Sabathia - $5.25M
Arthur Rhodes - $3.7M
Aaron Boone - $3M
Jake Westbrook - $2.9M
Bob Wickman - $2.75M
Ronnie Belliard - $2.5M
Casey Blake - $2.25M
Jose Hernandez - $1.8M
David Riske - $1.425M
Alex Cora - $1.3M
Bob Howry - $900K
Scott Elarton - $850K
Victor Martinez - $700K
Juan Gonzalez - $600K
Scott Sauerbeck - $500K
As a quick aside here, do you notice where a lot of the money is spent on that 2005 team – in an attempt to construct a bullpen because of a lack of internal options? There is $9.25M on that list being paid to relievers (only one of which was “homegrown” in Riske), meaning that 22% of the payroll was tied up in 4 relievers as the Indians attempted to cobble together a bullpen, perhaps providing a glimpse at what would be the Achilles’ heel of the team for the next few years...if not 2005 specifically. To that end (and I know I’ve hit on this before as have others), the Indians certainly seem to be putting much more of an emphasis on that “homegrown” bullpen, with Jordan Bastian hitting on a couple of relevant names with some great information in this piece that lends some credence to the idea that a lesson was at least learned in terms of bullpen construction in the mid-2000s to what we see today.

Nevertheless, back to that 2005 payroll, realize that (again) Hafner and Lee find themselves below the names on list above, now joined by Sizemore and Peralta, among others on that 2005 team as players being paid league minimum on a 93-win team that had a $41.5M payroll.

What was that 2011 payroll looking like...$46M or so?
Compare the lists above to the one provided by Bastian of players on the 2011 Indians that will be pulling in paychecks above league minimum:
2011 payroll - $46,416,000
Again, these are the players that will be paid salaries higher than the league minimum:
Travis Hafner - $13M
Grady Sizemore - $7.5M
Fausto Carmona - $6.1M
Shin-Soo Choo - $3.975M
Chris Perez - $2.225M
Asdrubal Cabrera - $2.025M
Rafael Perez - $1.33M
Austin Kearns - $1.3M
Joe Smith - $870,000
Jensen Lewis - $650,000

Anyone else notice that the number here (10) is the same number on the 2004 team that was paid above league-minimum salary?

Probably not, but I think you understand where this is attempting to go in providing some context with the last two “rebuilding” processes that the Indians undertook at the beginning of the 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s.

While the success of those two rebuilds is public record (and the sustenance of the rebuilds is the main separator, though not the only one), so is the salaries associated with the players that keyed those rebuilds and the manner in which the team built a team from the bottom up. Whether what we’re currently experiencing is going to replicate the “success” (as lasting or as fleeting as that may be) will be ultimately be determined by the talent on hand or just beneath the surface.

Ultimately, it’s on the young minimum-salary players to prove that they’re “core” players just like those linchpins of the 1990s did and the way that the players that we just said goodbye to did in the mid-2000s.

Around the diamond and on the mound, the Indians seem to have options that have shown enough talent to be highly considered – and just recently Chisenhall was named the 2nd highest rated 3B in MiLB, with Kipnis being ranked as the 4th highest rated 2B in MiLB and thank goodness because the situations at those positions are horrifying, made worse with the news last week that the Indians are considering moving Donald to 3B and made somewhat palatable when Andrew Humphries at LGT invoked every vaudeville comedy act (well, at least two of them) possible to point out the absurdity of both situations, evolving as they may be – but whether all of this potential is realized or not will determine how far the Indians move towards contention.

Ultimately, talent will determine if this team finds its way back to success, not payroll and there are certainly question marks up and down the roster as it pertains to future success, with Anthony Castrovince providing a nice synopsis of the area of biggest question - the starting rotation, putting a bow on where the Indians have failed (which of course, played a huge role in a lack of sustainability after 2007) and where the Indians almost have to succeed to be close to contention.

With that talent however, the situation really isn’t different from 1993 or 2004 as the group, as it stands right now, doesn’t look to have too many departing FA or pending FA in the next couple of years. Yes, Sizemore’s guaranteed years are up after this year (and I’ll get to him) but the rest of these guys are locked in for at least the next three years. As much gripping as everyone does about Choo being a FA, isn’t it odd that everyone sees Hafner as a guy who will be around forever...but that both he and Choo are under club control for the exact amount of years, through 2013?

Going further than that and keeping it associated with payroll, as IPI’s handy-dandy chart tells us, the only addition to the arbitration crowd (Choo, Perezes, Cabrera) next year will be Justin Masterson and guys like Carlos Santana and Carlos Carrasco won’t even be eligible for arbitration until after the 2013 season, so the “fixed costs” for a lot of these players (much of them being league-minimum) are known more than a couple of years into the future.

Given the Modus Operandi for this team in the past, wouldn’t you think that once some of these guys establish themselves as potential “core” players for the next team’s incarnation into (hopefully) contention, that long-term deals get bandied about?

Don’t forget that back in January of 2005, the Indians gave a 31-year-old Casey Blake a 2-year deal worth $5.4M with a club option for 2007 ($3.75M) that bought out his 2nd year of arbitration eligibility in an attempt to lock down known salaries for even the stop-gap guys when they felt that Blake was able to help them as a complementary player to what was then their burgeoning “core”.

Who among the current Indians (either in Cleveland or below) is going to constitute that “core” going forward?

That’s the big question that will be answered by as little questions find answers but in the process of finding those answers (big and small), the Indians shouldn’t be adding to their payroll simply for the sake of having a higher number because they shouldn’t be spending on the band-aids that aren’t going to help this team get to the level of competence where contention looks plausible.

To flesh this idea out, consider Kansas City GM Dayton Moore’s comments after the news that Gil Meche would be retiring because of shoulder problems, essentially giving up the $12.5M that was guaranteed to him (yeah, seriously) as Moore said that the Royals would not be spending that “found” money, explaining the rationale thusly:
“Our plan is not going to change with regards to the young players we have on the horizon. We aren’t going to do anything with long-term contracts that will restrict their transition to the majors. I don’t see a lot out there that’s better than what we have or will potentially have in 2011 or 2012.”

This is not the first time that I’ve mentioned this coming out of Kansas City (who just locked up Billy Butler in a 4-year deal that will pay him $30M AND buys out a FA year) and realizing that praising the Royals for anything is opening myself up to criticism, but doesn’t that sound like a more cogent and logical explanation than what the Indians have been spouting?

By the way, the Royals’ payroll figures to be about $40M in 2011 as they wait on their young players to emerge from the Minors to potentially form a “core” of their own, something that has been missing in KC for far too long...

Regardless and back to the corner of corner of Carnegie and Ontario, perhaps the financial climate has irrevocably changed for the Indians and we are witnessing the beginning of what could has been termed the “spiral of death” by some, but depending upon what happens in 2011, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the Indians approached Cabrera, C. Perez, and Masterson regarding some deals that might buy out their FA years past 2013 and past 2014.

To be honest, I wouldn’t be all that surprised if the Indians picked up Sizemore’s 2012 player option and attempted to add on some years to his deal if Sizemore shows any kind of resemblance to his former self as that would not be without precedent for the Indians, who did exactly that with CC Sabathia in 2005. In case you don’t remember that CC situation, with a $7M club option for the 2006 remaining, the team guaranteed that option prior to the 2005 season, adding two more years on the deal for $17.5M additional in 2007 ($8.75M) and 2008 ($9M) with incentives tied into those two extra years.

If Sizemore shows anything to start the season, the Indians could pick up that club option that represents a higher number (the club option is for $9M) than Grady would conceivably get on the open market, given his recent injury history. In exchange for that guarantee of $9M in 2011 (and remember, we’re talking about Grady showing something to justify this), the Indians could ask for Sizemore to add a couple of years to his deal just as they did with Sabathia, though they’d likely ask for a discounted rate due to Sizemore’s injury history of the past few years.

Earlier in the week, Grady showed up on some radars as Buster Olney had a nice, little fluff piece on Sizemore recovering from his knee injury, relaying all of the “it’s difficult to watch these guys play” and “I can’t wait to be out there again” quotes that litter any comeback piece. While the focus of the piece was supposed to be highlighting Sizemore’s comeback, much of the attention was paid to the following paragraph from the piece:
If Sizemore comes back and is a star again, a whole lot of logical questions will follow: Because Sizemore’s current contract has a 2012 option for $8.5 million, would it make sense for the Indians to pick up the option? Would it make sense for them to trade him, in their effort to rebuild their pitching?

Since Buster Olney has apparently been using Jim Ingraham as a resource for Indians-related material, let’s revisit this proviso in Grady’s contract that if he’s traded during this season, his club option for 2012 (which was bumped to $9M because of incentives previously reached, not the $8.5M that Olney references) becomes a player option, meaning that if a team acquired Sizemore during the 2011 season, the decision to exercise his 2012 would fall to Sizemore.

This is interesting in two ways, largely dependent upon Sizemore’s performance as if Grady shows some promise but is light-years away from being his former self and the Indians trade him, Sizemore could survey the FA landscape (for about a second) and exercise the $9M option that his new team would be on the hook for. Conversely, if Grady somehow turns back into the player whose rank in WAR from 2005 to 2008 was 17th (2005), 3rd (2006), 17th (2007), and 8th (2008) in all of MLB, he could decline the $9M option with the idea that he would earn more on the open market as a FA.

Regardless of how the Sizemore situation plays out over the course of the year, he still represents what the Indians have done and what they are likely to replicate over the next few seasons. Sizemore’s presence on the list of players from the previous incarnation of the Indians that remains on the Indians’ payroll still is the reminder of what kind of players the Indians target, the risks they do assume after they put a particular player in their crosshairs (remember that they gave him a 6-year deal after playing just one full season in MLB…and read this for some “WOW” moments and quotes with the benefit of hindsight), and the manner in which they are likely to build this next group of players into a contender.

As much attention is paid to total payroll and FA inactivity this off-season, retention of in-house talent once they prove to be worthy of long-term deals (or extra years) is where the Indians are likely to spend money at any point in the near future and the parsing of the group of players to find that next “core” figures to be on display on the field in 2011…and hopefully beyond.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Choo-sing A Plan

By now you know that the scary specter of an arbitration hearing is gone (I were gripping about it) and Jerry Browne remains relevant on the North Coast for one more year (at least) as the Indians closed out their potential arbitration cases to start the week and to essentially set the payroll for 2011.

While the 2011 payroll is a topic for another day (how does Sunday sound?), the Indians cleared their arbitration decks as Cabrera re-upped for $2.025M on Monday (delved into deeper in a piece over at TCF’s “Hitting the Fan”) and on the next day, the Indians completely closed their arbitration cases out as Rafael Perez signed a deal worth $1.33M in his second year of arbitration eligibility and Chris F. Perez agreed to terms on a $2.225M deal in his first year of arbitration eligibility.

While his case was largely ignored, it is important to note that Chris Perez was designated as a Super-2 this year, meaning that he is under club control for 4 more full seasons meaning that he’s not eligible to be a FA until after the 2014 season, unlike the other 1st year arbitration eligibles Cabrera and Choo, who are (at present) under club control through the 2013 season.

As for why Pure Rage’s case was overlooked, now that Choo’s name has been invoked, let’s take one last swipe at that dead horse over there and examine not just what happened, but more importantly, what is still on the horizon for Choo and the Tribe.

Starting off, realize that this process played out just like it was supposed to (at least if you’ve been keeping up) as the Indians inked Choo to a one-year deal worth $3.925M that buys out his first year of arbitration eligibility. While the Indians and Boras/Choo will give some lip service to a long-term deal that would buy up some of Choo’s FA years, short of the Indians doling out a deal on par with the Carlos Gonzalez deal meted out by the Rockies (7-years, $80M...and the Indians shouldn’t given that CarGo is 25 years old and Choo is 28 years old), it looks like the Indians are likely to go year to year with Boras/Choo in his remaining two arbitration years.

That being said, the Indians could approach next year’s negotiations a little differently and attempt to get some cost certainty for his final two years of arbitration eligibility as (if you’ll remember) the 3rd year of arbitration allows comparisons to players on the open market, something easily seen by Prince Fielder signing a $15.5M deal for his 3rd year of eligibility, brokered by Fielder’s agent...wait for it...Mr. Scott Boras, Esquire.

What do I mean by that, in the “cost certainty”?
Well, the 3rd year of arbitration is where agents are able to compare players and salaries to those on the open market (prior to that, they can only compare them to players with similar service time) and that 3rd year of arbitration number could be a big one. While that may be a concern for another day, if the Indians are smart about this, they would wait to see how 2011 goes for Choo and enter next year’s negotiations attempting to solidify the numbers for not only 2012, but also 2013, even if it means not buying out any FA years because of the way that 2013 number figures to ramp up significantly.

If you’re looking for a precedent on this rationale (and an awfully good one), consider the case of Dodgers’ Andre Ethier and how it relates to Choo. While it was reported that the Dodgers’ Matt Kemp was used as a comparable to determine Choo’s 2011 salary, a better approach to examine (in terms of prudence) is the one that the Dodgers took with Ethier last year as perhaps it presents a blueprint for the Tribe for next season’s negotiations, whether or not they could get Scott Boras to go along with it.

For some perspective on this, Ethier was eligible for arbitration for the first time prior to the 2009 season, so all of the totals and numbers and comparison to Choo have to do with service time accumulated and not calendar seasons. Since the plate appearance difference leads to a disparity in 2B, 3B, etc. that doesn’t accurately reflect the similarities, I’m using the 162-game average for both players with the idea that they’re at the same point in service time, if not plate appearances:
Ethier’s career line entering 1st year of Arbitration (1,542 PA)
.299 BA / .364 OBP / .482 SLG / .846 OPS (118 OPS+)
162-game average - 35 2B, 6 3B, 17 HR and 76 RBI

Choo’s career line entering 1st year of Arbitration (1,921 PA)

.297 BA / .391 OBP / .488 SLG / .880 OPS (138 OPS+)
162-game average – 38 2B, 5 3B, 21 HR and 95 RBI

As we all know, Choo will be paid $3.925M in 2011, while Ethier’s salary after posting that line was $3.1M for the 2009 season. Sure, Choo has the better overall stats among those two lines and will be paid more in his first year of arbitration eligibility (because…you know, this is how arbitration years work), but this is where it gets interesting and relevant to the Choo situation going forward.

In 2009, with Ethier heading towards his second season of arbitration eligibility in the off-season, he posted this line with the Dodgers:
.272 BA / .361 OBP / .508 SLG / .869 OPS (131 OPS+) with 42 2B, 3 3B, 31 HR, and 106 RBI

If the Indians can get that out of Choo in 2011, it would more than a bit of a rousing success, as it would represent a career high in 2B, HR, and RBI. Best case scenario for Choo and Boras, no?
But that means it would also catapult Choo’s salary into the stratosphere after this season, right?

Not after THAT 2009 season, Ethier avoided arbitration by signing a 2-year deal worth $15.25M that paid him $5.75M in 2010 (his 2nd arbitration year) and will pay him $9.25M in 2011 (his third arbitration year), his last season before Free Agency in what was a great move by the Dodgers. Reason being that, if you remember the way that arbitration works, in that the 3rd year of eligibility allows comparison to any player (and not just ones with comparable service time), which causes that 3rd year arbitration salary to jump.

The Dodgers, with Ethier coming off of a career year were able to avoid arbitration for his final TWO years (at awfully reasonable salaries, given the production) and prevent Ethier from entering the arbitration process for that 3rd year, when the money gets higher (ahem...Fielder) by anticipating what it would take to lock Ethier down for two years.

While you might be saying, “wait, I thought you just said that the Reds locking up Votto for his arbitration-eligible years without getting FA years was too risky...but what the Dodgers did isn’t?”
Well...yes, if only because Ethier was one year closer to FA, which takes the risk assumed by the team down a full 1/3.

Of course, these kind of negotiations are still a full year away (with an actual baseball season scheduled to take place in the meantime), but if you’re looking for a blueprint of how the Indians could approach Choo going forward, that’s probably a best-case scenario as Boras is not going to give up just one (or two) FA years and, frankly, it’s questionable as to whether he’d even be amenable to a deal like the one Ethier inked last Winter. If Ethier signed a deal that paid him $5.75M and $9.25M in his final two years, would Choo and Boras go for something similar next year, with small increases to both years (let’s say $6M and $10M) to avoid what just happened with Fielder and Milwaukee?

At this point, it’s folly to guess, and after all of the hand-wringing, nothing has really changed with the Choo situation as he remains under club control through the 2013 season (as much as parts of the “doom-and-gloom” media wants to manufacture this into something it is not, with Exhibit A being this absolutely atrocious Ingraham piece that you should read at your own risk as it defies both logic know, facts), and the long-term deal that looked unlikely looks just as unlikely. Instead, it certainly looks like the Indians will pay Choo through his arbitration years at a rate commensurate with his production and service time…which is where we started this whole thing.

For Choo, it’s now on him to keep producing to receive bigger and bigger paydays leading up to his FA off-season after the 2013 season.

For the Indians, while the idea that Choo will sign away his FA years for upfront money has virtually disappeared (although it was gone from the time The BLC changed agents and hired Boras), they will now pay Choo for his performance on the field from year to year, with very little risk assumed if a regression or injury occurs, perhaps with a new strategy in their pocket for next off-season.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Arbitration Clarification

The arbitration process has started in MLB and the mere mention of the word and the process has Indians’ fans bracing themselves for the worst as it relates to Shin-Soo Choo...but why?

Is “arbitration” really the dirty word that it has been made out to be on the North Coast this off-season?

Not at all and perhaps because nearly everyone knows that the Indians haven’t gone to arbitration with a player since The Guv’nor (that’s Jerry Browne for the uninformed) did in 1991...a full twenty years ago, there is a level of uncertainty and trepidation around the whole process when it is largely undeserved. Given that Jerry Browne bit of trivia and because of the way that the Indians have avoided it by inking young players to long-term deals buying out their arbitration years as an incentive to buy out FA years, most people who follow the Indians aren’t all that familiar with arbitration or the process that leads up to it.

Don’t take that to mean that I’m going to wax poetic on how the whole process works, but with players who are arbitration-eligible beginning to sign deals around the league (thus avoiding arbitration), I thought it would be instructive to re-visit how all of this works and how it relates to the most famous arbitration eligible players in the history of MLB...or at least on the North Coast – The BLC.

Trust me, I’m not anxious to tread once again over this well-worn ground as I’ve been over this too many times already this off-season, going back to linking the MLBTR piece on legitimate comparables for Choo, proposing the even-loaded extension in an attempt to buy out some FA years by guaranteeing more money up front, to finally attempting to contextualize the arbitration process with some pertinent links to B-Pro and ending up with the idea that perhaps the best thing for all parties is to simply go year to year on contracts in these three arbitration years.

You can re-read all of those if you’d like as it certainly has been a long, strange trip...

However, the Choo situation becomes relevant once again (unfortunately) as this is the week that teams and agents will exchange numbers as a prelude to arbitration. Again, I’ve gone through those potential numbers more times that I’d like to count, but the interesting development over the weekend of Joey Votto signing a 3-year deal with the Reds worth $39M brings some renewed focus to the situation because most Clevelanders will see the Reds making this kind of signing and wonder, why aren’t the Indians doing something like this with Choo?

Actually, the better question is – frankly, why would they?

Joey Votto, prior to the signing of this “long-term extension” was scheduled to become a FA after the 2013 season.

Joey Votto, after signing this “long-term extension” is now scheduled to become a FA after the...say it with me...2013 season.

Despite all of the good press that Cincinnati has garnered for this “signing”, the only benefit that the Reds gained in this deal was cost certainty and insurance that the next two years of Votto’s arbitration eligibility would have put that 3-year cumulative contract at a higher number than $39M. In guaranteeing $39M to Votto, they did not gain any more control over him than they held prior to the “extension”, which was really just a 3-year deal instead of the three consecutive one-year deals that the majority of MLB players deal with.

So really, what was the point?
As I said, they didn’t buy out any of his FA years (the way that the Indians famously did in the early-1990s or even as they did with CC, Cliff, Grady, Victor and many more in the early-to-mid-2000’s), they just bought out his arbitration years with fixed salary numbers. Despite the fact that they gained no more control over him, the move is seen as a “commitment” by the Reds’ ownership to “keep a homegrown player” when said player was staying put for the next three seasons anyway.

He’ll still be a FA after the 2013 season, same as he would have before this deal was inked and the real story here is that by assigning fixed salary numbers to 2011, 2012, and 2013, the Reds now assume nearly all of the risk associated with any kind of injury or regression that could befall Votto in the next three years.

The Reds are not completely devoid of rationale as Votto’s comparables (notably Ryan Howard) have commanded big numbers in their arbitration-eligible years and attempting to gain control of those numbers by this deal means that the Reds know what Votto will cost them for the next three years.

What’s interesting though is that’s not how the piece gets reported as the fact that the Reds just locked in numbers isn’t what gets the most run. Rather most people will go along with this idea that this is “another big expenditure to retain talent” as it was first reported for the Reds and not realize that it actually represents a puzzling move for the Reds, as John Fay asked after the news had marinated, wondering “why would the Reds be willing to give Votto market value for three years with no guarantee that he’ll stay beyond three years?”

In the context of the Choo situation, the Votto “extension” is instructive as it points out how little people know about the way that MLB service time, arbitration, and contracts are structured.

With that in mind, watch how the news that Choo has been signed to a one-year deal or a two-year deal (and remember that Boras agent Prince Fielder signed away his first two years of arbitration in a contract) or however this shakes out is presented and received by the usual suspects. When he’s “signed”, people will see it as a positive sign in that the Indians are keeping if that has ever come into question, given his service time status.

Any news that announces that the Indians have signed Choo to a contract is not cause for celebration, nor should any deal that doesn’t buy out FA years because they can go through this number exchange, an attempt to find middle ground, and (lastly) leave it up to an arbiter not only this year, but in 2012 and in 2013 as well.

Really, that’s how it works and while the Indians haven’t gone to arbitration since Jerry Browne, they have dealt with arbitration-eligible players throughout the last decade, as recently as last year with Rafael Perez and earlier this week with Asdrubal’s just that the team and Perez found middle ground after exchanging numbers with the team last year as Cabrera did this week and never took the final step of sitting in front of an arbitration panel.

This may be news to you or it may not be, but regardless of how the Choo arbitration process goes forward, given what we just saw with Votto and given that fewer and fewer arbitration-eligible players are going to be willing to sign away FA years (unless it comes in the form of an 8-year contract), let’s see Boras and Choo attempt to somehow turn the first year of Choo’s arbitration eligibility into something it is not.

By that I mean, it should be noted that Adam Jones just avoided arbitration with the Orioles, signing a 1-year deal worth $3.25M...but, so what?

While I know that there are vast differences between Adam (Not Pacman) Jones and The BLC, consider this:
Jones 2010 - .284 BA, 25 2B, 19 HR, 69 RBI in 149 games
Choo 2010 - .300 BA, 31 2B, 22 HR, 90 RBI in 144 games

Could I invoke OPS and OPS+ and WAR and all sorts of metrics that show that Choo is a VASTLY superior player than Jones?

Of course, but as was pointed out by Maury Brown at “The Biz of Baseball” when he examined the case of Tim Lincecum last year, those aren’t used in the arbitration process:
(Arbitration) is the last bastion in MLB where advanced statistics are not used. The reason is simple: a player’s “case” if it goes to hearing is heard by a 3 member arbitration panel from the American Arbitration Association; they are not “baseball people”. While the panel members are familiar with baseball statistics, the “old reliables” are still the focus. No WHIP. No VORP. No WAR. Instead, ERA, AVG, IP, Ks, BBs, etc. are the focus.

You’ll see that the example uses pitching stats (ERA, IP, K over WHIP, WAR) and while that is not cleanly identical to the Choo situation, realize that the fact that the front page of Baseball Reference shows everyday at the bottom that Choo posted the 2nd highest WAR in MLB in 2010...that doesn’t matter here. Boras could come guns blazing and with enough portfolios to fill a dump truck extolling the worth of The BLC, but the career numbers (and not just the 2010 numbers) for the pair is extraordinarily relevant here as it means that they’re a closer comparison when you “dumb” the discussion down and exclude the advanced statistics and metrics would so obviously point out that Choo is the more valuable player:
Adam Jones (Career) - .274 BA, 50 HR, 208 RBI in his 473 career games
SS Choo (Career) - .297 BA, 59 HR, 270 RBI in his 459 career games

Does Choo look better there...sure, but by how much if those are the numbers you’re looking at?

Remember when I inexplicably brought up that Adam (not Pacman) Jones just settled on a 1-year deal worth $3.25M with the Orioles?

Well, his agent and the Orioles didn’t go through the arbitration process to come up with that number as they likely exchanged numbers (both familiar with how arbitration works) and found middle ground for a one-year deal which, in this case, was $3.25M. Doesn’t that go back to that MLBTR piece that stated that “a $3.5MM payday in 2011 seems within reach” for Choo?

The Indians and Boras will exchange numbers, look for a middle point and, if they are unable to find out, will proceed to arbitration where a panel of arbiters will look at comparable players with comparable traditional stats with comparable service time and choose between the Indians and Boras. Those presentations before arbiters have been known to get nasty and are something the Indians should avoid, if only to not be forced to present a case AGAINST Choo...with Choo in the room.

If it gets to that point, it gets to that point...but if Boras and Choo are willing to eschew the guaranteed money of long-term deal that would buy out FA years – and if you want the real debate that should be existing, it involves whether the Indians SHOULD be looking to buy up FA years from Choo, given that he’ll be 31 when he’s scheduled to hit FA and given that the contract given out to Jayson Werth (age 31) has established a baseline that would give any team (and particularly one) still carrying Travis Hafner’s contract (signed when he was 30 years old) reason for pause – then the Indians should prepare their number, attempt to avoid the actual arbitration process, and accept the bleats of adulation when they agree to terms with Choo, for whatever the life of the contract will be.

Cleveland fans may not be used to the arbitration process but, in this case, the fear of the unknown doesn’t portend awful things happening...perhaps for a change.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Setting the Bar on a Lazy Sunday

While the rationalization over the hiring of Pat Shurmur occupies most minds across the North Coast, now that pitchers and catchers officially report in less than a month, a quiet off-season will finally give way to the crack of the bat and the smack of the ball into the glove, albeit in Arizona. Given that most Indians’ fans have been waiting for this time since the final out of 2010 and given that little has changed regarding the make-up of the team from that final out to today, perhaps it’s time to take a look at expectations for the 2011 Indians.

Thus, now that the ceilings have been painted throughout my house and with the driveway as clear as anyone could ever imagine with the amount of accumulated snow around said driveway, let’s get loose a Lazy Sunday attempting to determine what can realistically be expected from the 2011 Tribe and what the performance of the team, in relation to those expectations, mean to the overall health of the franchise…

You’ll remember (or maybe you won’t) how this past week’s Tomahawks closed out, scratching the surface on the idea that “if the Indians were to even stick around .500 for the first couple of months of the season…there may be some seeds of interest sewn around a building team that (quite suddenly) doesn’t look as far away or seems to be on par with the other major sports franchises of the town”.

If that arbitrary thought planted any kind of seed, leave it to Anthony Castrovince to grab his gardening gloves and watering can as he took great care in nurturing that “seed” of an idea to fruition in a fantastic piece taking that idea and running with it. If you haven’t yet seen it, I would encourage you to go and read the whole missive as snippets aren’t going to do it justice.

That being said, these would be the two most pertinent thoughts as it relates to where this Sunday is heading in this space:
Never mind that the Indians’ last rebuild, tenuous as the end result might have been, saw the club win 93 games and barely miss the postseason just three years removed from the initiation of the process. And never mind that such a turnaround looks like -- wait for it, “Spaceballs” fans -- “ludicrous speed” when compared to the ongoing and longstanding droughts in places like Pittsburgh and Kansas City. Cleveland possesses a bit of an impatient fan base. A nearly 50-year wait between titles will do that to a town.
While 2011 is not projected to see the Tribe take that grand leap into contention, it is most definitely a time when this team, which attracted the lowest attendance total in the Majors last season, has a chance to win back the hearts of -- or, at the least, generate some interest from -- even the most fickle fans.

With that groundwork laid, AC then itemizes the major determining factors for the season that I’m not going to cherry-pick from as (again) the whole piece is worth a read as a reminder as to where the Indians currently stand and what needs to go right for them to make 2011 a “success”.

But that idea led me to wonder, what would it take – in terms of on-the-field-performance – to consider 2011 a successful season?

Are there benchmarks that would push it one way or another?
Certainly, individual development of particular players plays a major role here as certain players (LaPorta, Masterson, and Brantley) need to take leaps to consistency while other players need to re-capture consistency (Carmona, Sizemore, and Hafner) while still more players need to build upon the lessons, and limited success, learned in their brief time in MLB (Santana and Carrasco, most notably).

But those individual’s performances are easily quantifiable and will start to reveal themselves in the first few months of the season and, while those individual performances are going to go a long way in determining the success or outlook for the team, what would constitute “success” or a sunny “outlook” for the team in a big picture view in terms of a win total?

Just to introduce some context, the 2003 Indians were 68-94 (lest you’ve blocked it out of your synapses, the 2010 Tribe was 69-93) and the following year, that young group of players at the beginning of the last decade took a CONSIDERABLE step forward in their development, winning 12 more games in 2004, going 80-82. Players like Victor, Hafner, and Westbrook asserted themselves very firmly as “core” players and while others showed flickers that would never catch fire (Broussard, Coco, Matt Miller…no seriously, look at that team) and others failed to achieve consistency (two particular LHP come to mind…again, look at that team) or began their fade into oblivion, the building blocks started to fall into place. Of course, that same group would make another SERIOUS jump of 13 wins the next year, in their 93-win campaign in 2005 with more success ahead of them.

Regardless, at a certain point in that 2004 season, the Indians’ “Plan” turned into something that fans could very easily see and perhaps even buy into as a young group of unproven talent began to prove themselves. After a slow start (the 2004 Tribe was 18-26 on May 26th), the young Indians would never go further than 8 games under .500, actually reaching the .500 mark for the 1st time on June 21st at 34-34. In a weak AL Central, the Indians climbed their way out of an early hole and started to show that they were capable of at least playing .500 baseball or better, despite the obvious youth of the team and the question marks on the team.

Interestingly, the 2004 team (after reaching the .500 mark towards the end of June) would not actually break past the .500 mark until July 25th, as they spent over a month hovering around .500, bouncing between 3rd and 4th place in the division. After putting an impressive run together to start August, the Indians found themselves at 63-55 on August 14th, just 1 GB of the division-leading Twins. From that point until the end of the season, the Indians dropped in the standings, going below .500 a mere two weeks later, with a late-season bid to finish 81-81 coming up just short.

Why is it instructive to look at that timeline of the 2004 season?
Realistically, it likely represents what would be considered a best-case scenario (or at least and “awfully-good-case” scenario) for the Indians of 2011. While I’d love to say that “if everything broke right for the 2011 Indians, they might sniff some contention in what is a stronger, if still flawed, division”, the more pragmatic approach to what to expect from the Indians has them finishing somewhere between the low-70’s and the low-to-mid-80’s in wins.

While that’s a pretty wide range of victories, it’s an idea that is delved into pretty deeply by Adam Van Arsdale at LGT, who attempts to legitimately find a range of finishes for the 2011 Tribe based on two sets of projected WAR (optimistic and pessimistic…or “good” and “bad”) for the principals of the 2011 Tribe. The entire piece is fascinating to read, though beware if you’re unsure about how WAR works and how Adam uses it to come up with his predictions – which, truth be told, is mid-60’s in wins as a low end and the low-80’s at the high end – you might find yourself confused due to the vagaries of WAR and through no fault of the author. That being said, the process is well-done and the conclusions hold up in terms of realistic “guesses” for 2011 records.

Of course, if you’re looking for a comprehensive “guess” as to what the entire MLB standings might look like this Fall, RLYW has their projections based on the CAIRO projection numbers and, in case you’re wondering (and I’m guessing you are), the CAIRO projections have the Indians finishing with a 74-88, “good” for 4th in AL Central.

If you’re wondering how accurate this system has been in the past at correctly predicting records, here are the 2010 CAIRO projections for the AL Central, rounded off to the nearest number with the actual records in parentheses shown after:
White Sox: 88-74 Projected (88-74 Actual)
Twins: 82-80 Projected (94-68 Actual)
Indians: 76-86 Projected (69-93 Actual)
Tigers: 75-87 Projected (81-81 Actual)
Royals: 71-91 Projected (67-95 Actual)
With the exception of the Twins, there’s about a win disparity of between 4 and 7 wins from the projections to actual records. If that disparity still existed for 2011, that would put the Indians’ possible records between 67 and 81 wins…or about what Adam’s piece at LGT came up with in terms of mainly negative and mainly negative performances.

Let’s say that’s the range then, in terms of projected wins at the high end, with the Indians potentially hitting the .500 mark or (in the most optimistic of projections) just eking over it. Would a season like that do enough to capture the attention of the city or would it be termed a “success”?

As AC adroitly pointed out in his aforementioned piece, “fans here were slow to warm to even the 2007 team that won an AL Central title and finished a win shy of the World Series, and they’ll be slow to adopt this latest incarnation of the Indians, too” coming up with the same conclusion that the Indians would have to “hover around .500 to register on the radar again” in terms of compelling the fanbase to take notice.

However, a large part of whether they are able to generate any kind of excitement will come from the manner in which the team reaches that final record. If they’re able to make a run at some point in the season and spend some time above .500 as the 2004 team did, even if they fall back beneath that watermark (again, as the 2004 team did), the sense that success is feasible will become plausible.

But is success feasible, or is even thinking that the Tribe can be a .500 team outrageously optimistic?
One of the most interesting aspects of the CAIRO projections to me is how it uses Runs Scored and Runs Allowed projected for each team, plugs it into the Pythagorean Expectation and spits out a projected record. That aspect is interesting because of the way that the 2010 teams was projected to perform, resulting in the 76-86 projection for last year, which the Indians obviously never reached.

Here are the 2010 CAIRO projections and the 2010 Results for the Tribe, with ranking in the context of the rest of MLB as follows:
2010 CAIRO Projections
778 Runs Scored - 8th highest projected total for all of MLB
833 Runs Allowed - 5th most as a projected total for all of MLB

2010 Results
646 Runs Scored - 5th lowest in MLB
752 Runs Allowed - 7th most in MLB
While the Indians’ pitching staff didn’t allow nearly the amount of runs projected for them, their final ranking in the bottom quarter of MLB is on par with what was projected, the big difference from what CAIRO projected in 2010 and what actually happened comes on the Runs Scored side of the ledger. Of course, Terry Pluto wrote prior to the 2010 season that he “knew the Indians would hit”, something he ended up writing about 4 more columns backtracking off of or attempting to explain his rationale, but it speaks to the level of ineptitude of the hitters in 2010, particularly after what was expected from them.

Obviously, many factors contributed to the underwhelming final number (injuries to Sizemore, Cabrera, and Santana as well as poor performances by Sizemore, Cabrera, LaPorta, Brantley…do I need to go on…), but if you look at the 2011 CAIRO, you’ll see that the offense is again expected to outperform the pitching. In the 2011 CAIRO projections, the Indians are projected to score 728 runs (which projects to the 11th highest in the MLB) and allow 802 runs (which projects to the 4th most in all of MLB), which is how the 74-88 record comes about. That doesn’t look too far off, and maybe that overestimation of the offense is in the cards again and maybe the pitching will surprise to some extent, but it got me wondering in terms of some of the other projections out there, what kind of Runs Scored in particular could be expected from the other two projections that are readily available – ZiPS and Bill James, via the player pages at Fangraphs.

Using the Lineup Analysis tool at Baseball Musings (and not even allowing this to open up as a discussion for what the 2011 Batting Order should be…because that is baseball discourse at its lowest level), plugging in the ZiPS projections for the 9 assumed starters on the Indians results in an offense that would average 4.87 runs per game, or about 790 Runs Scored on the season. Realizing, of course, that the Lineup Analysis tool assumes that the same 9 players will be in the lineup every day and…well, that just doesn’t happen (ahem, Hafner), it is interesting to note that the Bill James projections for the same players results in a team that would average 5.02 runs per game, or 844 Runs Scored on the season.

Those are pretty big numbers and both projections are extremely top-heavy, with the majority of the production coming from Santana and Choo, with complementary contributions by Sizemore, Cabrera, and Hafner, as the projections for the bottom half of the lineup border on nauseating. However, after the Indians’ offense fell on its collective face last year, there is reason for optimism with Choo, a presumably healthy Santana, a less-than-presumably healthy Sizemore, with Cabrera hopefully looking to get untracked once more as a dynamic young player who just turned 25 last November with 1,610 PA under his belt in MLB and with a 101 OPS+ in his career as a middle infielder.

Are there places in the lineup that you have to squint to see that glass as half-full?
Of course and as Pluto reports some disconcerting infield alignment news that it could be Donald at 3B (where he actually played LESS in the Minors than he did at 2B) and Nix at 2B with Cord Phelps starting in AAA as a 2B/3B/LF(?) being “a swingman between different positions, although he is expected to play every day -- somewhere “, it would certainly seem that the Indians are attempting to find the best “fit” among the square pegs for the round holes and continuing to ignore the idea that defense is…um, kind of important in the infield with a slew of groundball pitchers. Pluto goes on to predict that Valbuena or Everett looks like the Utility IF as it stands now (and it won’t be Louie V), and after reading all of that, let’s hope that this can change out in Arizona (although remember that Pluto gets his Sunday “Notes” from the organization) because the idea floated out there this morning actually makes the infield look worse than it did yesterday…which I didn’t think was possible. It could be that finding a spot for Nix strikes me as underwhelming and because I’m higher on Donald than most (so the Indians will make the obvious move to further his development by making him learn ANOTHER new position at the Big League level), but when a revelation like this has me wondering what Jack Hannahan could do at 3B…yeah, that’s not good news.

Regardless of what they do to start the season at 2B and 3B, the Indians have their top two hitting prospects (with Jordan Bastian laying out some of the question marks heading into Goodyear and possible answers) at those positions and, while that may not translate to a obvious over .500 season in 2011, it starts to lay the groundwork.

Perhaps that’s the progress that needs to be seen this season – seeing the cement poured and begin to dry over the infrastructure that’s been laid over the course of the last 2 ½ years.

For the pitchers, we saw Carmona, Masterson, and Carrasco (most notably) at their best and their worst throughout 2010. While neither the ZiPS projections nor the Bill James projections predict many good things from the rotation (and the Bill James ones are exceedingly more optimistic, with better projected ERA’s most notably for Masterson – 4.11, Carmona – 4.26, and Carrasco – 4.45), if a couple of them are able to show the consistency that eluded them in 2010, it becomes much easier to see how the Indians plan on attempting to contend in the coming years and how that poured cement leads to a smooth ride, rather than a bumpy one.

If Carmona is able to build on his reclaimed career by incorporating his new change-up into his arsenal to keep hitters more off-balance or if Masterson can limit damage done by LH hitters or if Carrasco is able to avoid the HR ball, the Indians start to boast more “known” quantities going forward, an absolute must in the rotation. Beyond that idea, if two or all three of those pitchers find consistency and success, the Indians begin to cobble together a rotation that, at its best, can be very good.

That being said, if the trio of Carmona, Masterson, and Carrasco all continue to struggle to find that consistency, the rotation becomes more full of questions than answers and, as a result, the depth that is likely ill-prepared significantly in 2011 because of a lack of experience (White, Pomeranz, Gardner, among others) or because they possess back-end-of-the-rotation ceilings (Huff, Laffey, Tomlin, Gomez, among), the Indians will find themselves scuffling to get a lead to Chris F. Perez in the 9th inning.

Perhaps the Indians’ pitching staff surprises as it did in 2010 and the presence of C. Perez at the back end of the bullpen provides stability that hasn’t existed since…um, Mike Jackson, but the presumed struggles of the rotation may have to be offset by the projected increase in offense for the 2011 Indians to “hover around .500”, as a means to provide some optimism that this incarnation of the Indians is destined to follow the path of the mid-1990s Indians or, more accurately, the mid-2000s Indians instead of...say, the mid-1980s Indians or the mid-1970s Indians or the…well, you get the idea.

Certainly, a .500 record doesn’t capture the imagination the way that a division pennant does, but it shows growth and improvement for a team and, if I’m looking at the path by which the Indians need to take to get to that .500 mark, it’s not all that difficult to envision. A healthier offense with more consistent contributions from various spots up and down the lineup, a more settled bullpen with a stopper at the back end and some promising arms in the rotation make .500 a realistic end point for the 2011 Indians.

Whether they get there or not and whether they are able to get some breaks and some pleasant surprises that they haven’t gotten since 2007 (except for the emergence of Choo) will determine whether 78 wins or 84 wins is a pipe dream or a real possibility. But whether they get there or not in 2011 will be a huge determining factor as to where this organization goes past 2011.

To say that this is an important year for the Indians is an understatement as the negative rhetoric surrounding them has become pervasive and the questions around the organization are constant. An ability by the 2011 Indians to show improvement (even incrementally) goes a long way to justifying the actions of the organization since the middle of 2008 and a failure to show improvement (again, even incrementally) provides more cannon fodder for the shots to the hull (some justified, some not so much) that this organization has taken since the middle of 2008.

The importance of 2011 certainly doesn’t mean that contention should be expected, but a team that is able to show signs of life or feature compelling young players (like Choo, Santana, Carrasco, and others) for a fanbase still licking their collective wounds after the last few Julys, would go a long way to changing the tone of the perception of this team going forward as the team could point to tangible improvement both in terms of individual players and overall record. As for that overall record, what level of “improvement” is necessary for that feeling that the Indians are, once again, heading up the mountain instead of continuing to travel downhill?

The baseline for noticeable improvement probably starts around 75 wins and realistically sits closer to that .500 mark in as much as it would take those totals to generate some interest in the Indians around town. That bar may not look all that high in the context of MLB, but whether this Indians’ team is able to achieve it (and if they are, how they go about doing it with captivating players leading the way) will determine whether contention in 2012 or 2013 is plausible or whether it is laughable.