Friday, November 25, 2011

One More For Sizemore

In a rather stunning about face, it seems that Grady Sizemore will remain an Indian…at least for one more year, as he agreed to a one-year, $5M deal (with about $4M in incentives) to remain with Cleveland. To say that the growing scuttlebutt that a deal was imminent and the actual terms of the deal were surprising is an understatement as most indications were that Sizemore would dip his toe into the FA waters after the Indians declined his $9M club option for 2012 as Grady would attempt to re-establish his market value elsewhere with an eye towards a bigger contract after the 2012 season. After some grandstanding by his agent and after Grady’s name was attached to a myriad of other teams – with the word “intriguing” always preceding his name in those reports – Sizemore will return to patrol the OF at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario…at least as much as his body will allow. The deal answers one question of the off-season (how will the Indians attempt to replace Grady…with GRADY!), even if it opens many more in terms of how much this team is realistically counting on contributions from Sizemore (and Hafner, for that matter) as they attempt to make a push in 2012.

But there’s plenty of time to get to that as there is certainly some intrigue to get to as to how Sizemore ended up back on the North Coast after most assumed that the declining of his option spelled the end for Grady, the Indian. To start, let’s go back to that option, which was a $9M club option that the Indians were told by Grady’s agent, Joe Urbon, to either pick up or decline it as the renegotiation looked to be in everyone’s best interest never seemed to find traction. With that, the line in the sand was drawn by Urbon, and the Indians responded as one would have thought they would respond – declining the option, asking Urbon to keep them abreast of the demand for Grady, and staying “interested” in having Sizemore return in a deal that was likely similar to what they were offering as part of the renegotiated option.

Apparently convinced that the interest in Sizemore would be enough to find a one-year deal with a higher guaranteed amount than the Indians were offering, Urbon began seeking suitors other than Cleveland. As the weeks progressed though, it was obvious that Urbon had been overly hopeful about the interest that existed on the open market for Sizemore. Though he was in front of microphones and cameras, touting teams that showed an interest in Sizemore’s services for 2012, it became increasingly apparent that most teams’ interest fell in line with what the Indians were probably willing to risk on a one-year deal for Grady, a low guaranteed amount with some incentives built in.

Frankly, though speculation came out in various outlets that Sizemore would be able to find a one-year deal close to the $9M option that was declined, I never really understood this idea that Sizemore was going to hit the FA market and find a team willing to give him a deal (even if it was a one-year contract) that was going to be anywhere close to the that $9M, regardless of market size or any particular team’s appetite for risk. But that idea existed and continued to exist as’s Jon Heyman JUST wrote earlier this week that he thought that Sizemore would get a one-year deal with SEVEN MILLION guaranteed “plus a lot of incentives”, something that Sizemore didn’t even sniff.

Maybe the $7M guaranteed deal that Heyman predicted and the $5M guaranteed deal that Sizemore inked don’t look all that different, but remember that Sizemore and his agent looked for a better (or even comparable) deal than the Indians presumably offered as a renegotiation of that option and still came back for less that ¾ of the amount that Heyman offered as a “guess” just this week. Instead, Sizemore will get the $5M with about $4M in incentives and those incentives aren’t all that easy to trigger when you consider not only Sizemore’s recent injury history, but also where the incentives start to kick in. In case you haven’t seen Grady gets $250,000 for reaching each of 450 and 475 plate appearances, and $500,000 for reaching each of 500, 525, 550, 575, 600, 625, and 650 with a tied-in $500,000 bonus for winning comeback player of the year.

As much as I hate those incentive bonuses tied to “awards”, the fact that Sizemore’s incentives don’t kick in until his 450th PA is not insignificant…and it actually has less to do with Grady’s assumed health than you might think. To provide some context here, three players (Cabrera, Santana, and Brantley) on the Indians last year had more than 450 PA last year and only two (Asdrubal and The Axe Man) had 500 or more. It’s true that a total of 84 players in the AL had 450 PA last year (about six players per AL team), but 450 is not a given for a player that spends ANY amount of time on the DL or experiences sporadic playing time. The fact that the incentives start SO high (in terms of PA) are just another indication that the Indians’ offer to Sizemore that brought him to the table (which resulted in him signing) was pretty significant compared what else was out there for him. That may be terrifying for Indians fans or maybe this “unfinished business” thing that Sizemore’s touting holds some level of water, but it also makes the stance of Sizemore’s agent regarding the option (either pick it up or decline it) all the more puzzling as while it may never be known what the Indians were offering him to renegotiate that option, it’s pretty likely that it was close to the deal that he just signed…with one big exception – the fact that Sizemore’s new deal contains no club options past the 2012 season, something they almost certainly would have demanded in a renegotiation of that club option.

While that may not seem like a big deal on the surface (particularly among those who think that Grady is finished and that $5M is a waste of money on him…apparently because Tribe fans only like Indians’ players who have been away for longer than a decade), the fact that the Indians were not able to include a club option means that Sizemore is very likely to walk away from the corner of Carnegie and Ontario at the end of the 2012 season, particularly if he is able to stay healthy and productive in 2012. For the Indians, the lack of an option of the deal is the only real downside as they figure to be stuck in the same situation next year (needing an OF) regardless of how Grady performs in 2012. If he’s truly finished, the Indians need to replace him (probably in June) and if he dons his cape and becomes SuperSizemore again, he moves on to the BIG deal that every ballplayer has dreamed about, having already given the Indians two “hometown discount” deals in his career. If he re-establishes his value, the Indians get to enjoy that re-establishment (and maybe some playoff games) in 2012 then watch him walk away as the bloodthirsty fans are thrown more red meat for the “DOLANZ R CHEEP” refrain that they are so quick to sing.

Ultimately, Sizemore doesn’t really get the deal that his agent thought was out there for him and the Indians don’t get the option year that they likely wanted to attach to this deal. That’s not to say that this is a “lose-lose” for both parties (and I’ve actually seen it called a “win-win”) as Sizemore returns to the medical staff that knows him best, to an organization that is likely to give him a longer rope and a greater opportunity than he might have found elsewhere. Meanwhile, the Indians get to hold onto the hope that Grady v.2005-2008 is coming back in some form in 2012, offering them the dynamic bat that he showed, albeit briefly, in 2011.

Perhaps it could be said that if neither party is completely satisfied with the outcome of a negotiation that it’s a fair deal, and my hope that the Indians and Sizemore could have agreed on a contract that would have had a lower base salary (but more guaranteed money) which included a couple of option years and a lot of (more easily reached) incentives that would pay him commensurately is all but dashed.

Despite what everyone is going to say, this really isn’t the IDEAL outcome that anyone wanted as much as it was two parties that knew each other signing deals that represented the best options available for each. Neither is doing back-flips about this nor is either bemoaning this deal as it represents a chance for Sizemore to re-establish his value with the medical staff that is most familiar with him while the Indians take one last shot that the ol’ Grady is somewhere in that battered and scarred body. Sure, the Indians wanted Sizemore back at a lower price, but they also probably wanted some option years attached to it in case he did return to his old level of production, just as Grady and his agent wanted a higher base salary and probably some incentives that were “easier” to reach.

Regardless, what’s done is done and Sizemore is back in the fray as the Indians are left to wonder (or is it hope) what they can legitimately expect from Grady and that “battered and scarred body” as they are supposedly penciling him in for CF in 2012 for Opening Day with the hope that he’ll be able to play the “vast majority” of the games there. Certainly, that idea sets off the sirens in the head of any Indians’ fan as the continued issues with Sizemore and Hafner over the last few years has the fanbase feeling justifiably skeptical that the stars that those players once were will ever return, much less for an extended period of time.

However, the interesting thing about that is that Sizemore returned in mid-April of last year and (as I wrote back in May) despite the fact that he was coming off of microfracture surgery, “Suddenly, he was that Grady that we all like to remember, posting a .974 OPS with 16 XBH in only 18 games…that is until he hurt his ‘other’ knee sliding into 2B on May 10th, landing him back on the DL.” So, is that player that posted a .282 BA / .333 OBP / .641 SLG / .974 OPS when he returned in April still somewhere within that #24 jersey and, much more importantly, can that player stick around for longer than 3 weeks?

That’s what the Indians are counting on, as he remains potentially dynamic as a hitter, but that “potential” comes with a giant asterisk as (outside of those 3 weeks last April and May) he really hasn’t performed at a consistently high level since August of 2009 before he was derailed in September of that year, when he decided to undergo a surgery on his left elbow, which had troubled him all season. And that’s the rub with Sizemore, in that he tries to play through injuries, to the detriment of his performance and the Indians have historically given him a wide berth in terms of allowing him to play hurt as Sizemore at 75% usually represents an upgrade over the obvious alternative. Which brings us back to the last couple of weeks with Grady coming to terms with the Tribe, as if we’re talking purely from a talent standpoint, Grady is probably unrivaled in terms of talent that was available on the FA market as an OF (though I could make the argument for Beltran), but talent isn’t the only factor here…obviously.

Durability is a major one and we’ve been through this too many times to count, but if the Indians are counting on Grady Sizemore to carry some of the offensive burden again in 2012 (and I mean REALLY counting on it and not just hoping for it), it is misplaced confidence and something that could undermine their 2012 season as a “Plan B” is needed with Sizemore going into the season and the current options in place are…um, a little underwhelming. Essentially, as nice as the re-signing of Sizemore looks to us dreamers out there (that think that THIS is the year that Grady stays healthy and returns), the reality of the situation is that the Indians should still focus on adding two more veteran bats, and one of those bats needs to be an OF…and not a 4th OF type.

Maybe you want to buy into the idea that Shelley Duncan and Jason Donald are decent enough options for OF depth, but I’m not buying the Donald and Duncan as 4th/5th OF idea, much less as the “Plan B” in case Grady were to go down. To put that another way, if Grady does in 2012 what Grady’s done for the last couple of years, the Indians’ OF suddenly becomes Donald and Duncan filling in around Brantley (who I’m not as high on as most…but I’ll get to that) to fill out an OF.

Don’t get me wrong, I like Jason Donald as a player and think that he’s going to play a LOT more than people think he’s going to in 2012 (mainly spelling the IF positions), but these visions of Luis Valbuena in LF are burned in my synapses. Of course that’s not fair as I have yet to see Donald patrol the OF grass, but somebody, somewhere in the Indians’ organization had the idea that Valbuena would be more versatile if he could play in the OF and he played 11 games as a LF for the Clippers. To be clear, Donald has never played a minor league game in the OF and despite the idea that reports may be glowing about his ability to handle the OF, I’m not all that interested in seeing Donald as the 4th OF in 2012, or really ever. As AC so succinctly put in a piece earlier in the week, speculation that Donald represents REAL OF depth is “spaghetti-tossing territory”.

As for this idea that Shelley Duncan represents legitimate option, a good amount of that is tied to the idea that Duncan finished the season with an .808 OPS (3rd highest on the Tribe for players with more than 225 PA), but if that’s what is inspires so much confidence, let’s take a look at what Duncan actually put forth last year, in terms of the timeline of his hitting:
Opening Day through September 2nd
.253 BA / .313 OBP / .404 SLG / .717 OPS with 4 HR & 10 2B in 160 PA

September 2nd to End of Season
.273 BA / .345 OBP / .636 SLG / .981 OPS with 7 HR & 7 2B in 87 PA

Again, Duncan had a .717 OPS on September 2nd (for context, Matt MaTola had a .711 OPS on the season) and just because Duncan’s numbers getting a HUGE boost in September, I couldn’t help but remember another player who looked Ruthian for a couple of North Coast Septembers:
Karim Garcia – September 2001
.311 BA / .360 OBP / .711 SLG / 1.071 OPS with 5 HR & 2 2B in 50 PA

Karim Garcia – September 2002
.278 BA / .295 OBP / .593 SLG / .887 OPS with 10 HR & 4 2B in 112 PA

Just to put a punctuation mark on that, Karim Garcia was 25 and 26 in those two seasons, while Shelley Duncan turned 32 a couple of months ago. Of course, don’t take this to mean that Shelley Duncan is not a useful player as he certainly brings a level of energy and leadership to the clubhouse which could be lacking next year and his RH bat is a nice complement to the current Indians’ lineup (and Hafner in particular). But if Shelley Duncan is the Indians “Plan B” in case something was to go SPROING with Grady…well, that’s not a well-thought-out “Plan B”.

Now, you may be saying that it’s unfair to dismiss Duncan’s success over a three week period while looking at what Sizemore did over a different three week period to project that Sizemore could find success again, but let’s be clear about what’s being compared. For Grady, the track record for elite production at the MLB level is/was there, and with Sizemore still 3 years younger than Duncan (who had 422 career MLB PA going into the 2011 season), you’re talking about a potentially elite player returning to what he’s been and a player who has likely reached his ceiling hanging around at the level of production that he’s attained which, to date, has not earned him an extended shot in MLB at the age of 32.

When it’s all said and done with the Sizemore signing, another bat in the OF is necessary and what the Indians should be targeting is a player that legitimately projects as a starter on his own, not as a 4th or 5th OF who represents little more than what Duncan or Zeke Carrera has to offer. While I still think that Marlon Byrd is a nice option to have that can be moved around LF and CF as well as subbing in at DH, a player of Byrd’s ilk (if not specifically Byrd) is essentially what I’m looking at here. If it means that the “other” OF starts the season in LF and pushes Brantley to the bench/4th OF status, so be it…on one hand for the sake of depth and on the other hand because I’m not all that sure that Brantley tops out as much more than a nice 4th OF on a good team right now. Perhaps that’s overly harsh for a 24-year-old, but if the Indians are truly looking to contend in 2012, I’d like to see them put the best team on the field every day and have the flexibility and quality on the bench to allow players like Sizemore and Hafner (and others) to get the days off that they’re likely to need, to say nothing of the inevitable injuries that figure to befall the Indians. It’s been written here before, but the position player cupboard is essentially empty (unless Nick Weglarz miraculously stays healthy) at the upper levels so what you saw in the 2nd half of last year in terms of OF depth is pretty much it.

With that said, if the Indians can creatively add that LF via a trade (and they have yet to move any of their trade chips though they’ve added Lowe and Grady), I’d push Brantley into a quasi-4th OF role as this pervasive fear that he’s a poor man’s Coco Crisp is something I can’t shake, not helped by the fact that Bill James has a projected .690 OPS for Brantley in 2012. Realistically, there are too many injury risks on this team (Hafner and Sizemore, not to mention that Asdrubal, Choo, and Santana have all missed SIGNIFICANT time to injuries in the last two years) to figure that adding a LF would bury Brantley in any sense. With Sizemore and Hafner, the Indians need to find players that they can count on for depth that aren’t named Zeke, Shelley, or (heaven forbid) Trevor.

If they do go into the season with a “renewed” confidence that everyone will stay healthy, it will be a mistake and, perhaps this is just reading into the moves that Antonetti has made since he’s been handed the GM reins, I don’t think that the moves are done for the Tribe. To this point in the off-season, they’ve been aggressive, adding a starting pitcher and (hopefully) a CF before Thanksgiving and without committing any money to either past 2012 and without giving up any trade chips of any real significance. How much can really be expected from Lowe and (more pointedly) Sizemore can only reveal themselves once the team gets to Goodyear and after they leave the Arizona sun, but the Indians have significant needs that remain.

Despite the “addition” of Sizemore, the Indians still need an OF, not to mention a 1B that represents a measurable upgrade over LaPorta. Though most thought that the Indians would let the market shake out at the top, then come up with a game plan, the Tribe has added pieces for what they hope will be a 2012 run at contention. For the sake of that presumed “run at contention”, let’s hope that the Sizemore signing isn’t the end of the game plan that’s been drawn up.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Looking for Lumber

Now that the dust has settled on the North Coast after the option decisions and the acquisition of Derek Lowe, the focus has turned to what the Indians are going to do to add position players and, specifically, how the Indians are going to “replace” Grady Sizemore (and I’m still of the belief that Grady will start going SuperSizemore again in 2012, you know…because I’m a Clevelander) in the OF and how the Indians are going to shore up their hole at 1B. This being the off-season, flush with rankings of FA and with reports linking every FA to nearly every team, much of the focus to date has inexplicably been on that FA market with Paul Hoynes even devoting a whole column to the FA market for OF and 1B (in which he writes that Josh Willingham would “look good in right field”, apparently forgetting about the Indians RF, who was an elite player in the three years prior to know, The BLC), while ignoring the fact that the Indians aren’t likely to add veterans (or anyone) of much significance via FA.

While that idea that marquee FA are unlikely to end up in Cleveland shouldn’t come as a surprise and only leads the “DOLANZ R CHEEP” crowd to en masse, let’s think about how teams like the Indians add value to their team while minimizing risk (contracts that last too long) and how the last couple of moves by the Indians have involved a particular type of acquisition. Those recent acquisitions involved adding a player who had signed a regrettable contract that was entering the last year of said contract, with their team looking to get out from the financial albatross that they strapped around their own neck.

Remember Fukudome last year?
Lest you forget, Kosuke Fukudome earned more than Hafner did in 2011 and was a disappointment in Chicago, largely because of the money paid to him and the expectations that accompanied that salary. With lower expectations (and a low price tag), he was a revelation of sorts in Cleveland, mainly because he represented an upgrade over the “Zeke and Shelley Show” and because those preconceptions about his monetary worth didn’t play a role in how he was perceived as it was on the North Side.

Now, I’m not saying the Indians should re-sign Fukudome as he’s now back out on the FA market and the Indians would have to overpay for his services, when they were able to basically take him off of the Cubs’ hands last year, for a nominal price. But the Fukudome deal is just one example…does the scenario sound familiar in terms of the Lowe addition with the Braves looking to move a player and willing to absorb money in the process?

If you’re talking about essentially signing Lowe to a one-year deal for $5M, it makes it pretty understandable, particularly when you consider that the detritus of the FA starting pitcher market is going to look for 2-year deals or incentive-laden deals while the Indians’ risk with Lowe is minimized to a 1-year, $5M deal while giving up a non-prospect. Truthfully, I know I’m not breaking any new ground here as there was a blurb in Terry Pluto’s Sunday column a couple of weeks ago along these lines that may have gotten overlooked (and I’m not talking about Pluto using the save “statistic” as a justification for C. Perez as the closer, which is like saying that Dave Huff’s 11 wins in 2009 were a “good sign”) as it was the final bullet point:
While the Indians will bid on some free agents, they have a much better chance of finding a hitter via a trade where they pick up part of the contract. The Tribe did that with Kosuke Fukudome last season when he was acquired from the Cubs, and are paying $5 million of Lowe’s $15 million salary in 2012.

Realizing that Pluto’s Sunday Notes column comes from conversations with the Indians every week, how does this revelation get buried as the last bullet point and why is there still so much focus on THIS FA class as Carlos Pena and Josh Willingham continue to get all of the attention, despite the fact that they’re unlikely to come to Cleveland?

If you think it was just a concept in passing that Pluto was passing along, realize that Pluto led with it again in his most recent Sunday piece (which, again, generally comes from the team) as he wrote:
The best way for the Indians to add an outfielder who can hit is through a trade. Yes, fans can demand that they spend a lot of money to sign a free agent such as Michael Cuddyer, but it’s not going to happen.

Of course, Pluto then went on to again look at the underwhelming FA market that is “not going to happen” in adding an OF as the names that everyone keeps saying (Willingham, Pena, Ludwick, Lee, Kotchman, etc.) are examined and revealed for what they are – flawed options that are going to cost too much in terms of money on the FA market and (this is important) that are probably going to command more than one-year deals when they aren’t really all that deserving of them. For a team like the Indians, whose financial flexibility is a key to their success as this new “core” of players matures and evolves, the prospect of giving Josh Willingham a 3-year deal is more than unsavory and, if you’re following along here, it’s pretty likely that these 3-year deals aren’t being given all that much thought at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario as perhaps a different strategy is at play.

So why are we still talking about the FA market if we’ve all seen this movie and know how it ends up?
Really, if nobody else is going to connect these dots, let’s pull out the ol’ pencil and start connecting here…

Which brings us all back to how this team is going to add bats if they’re unlikely to via FA. Truthfully, my astute friend Tyler e-mailed me this idea a few weeks back (prior to the Pluto articles) saying that perhaps the “answer” to where the Indians add bats to this team isn’t on the FA market or a “blockbuster” deal, but in players that would essentially be other teams’ salary dumps, as both Fukudome and Lowe were. As Tyler wrote me, “They’re expensive in upfront cash but low in long term risk. It’s either cash or bust in terms of talent acquisition. Given that ... it seems that payroll relief deals are the cheapest route available. Give us your perennially disappointing, your over-priced, your moderately wounded ...”

Maybe “cash or bust” isn’t the accepted Modus Operandi of this organization and “perennially disappointing”, etc. is not exactly inspiring, but he’s exactly right…

The names that the Indians are going to be targeting are the guys that maybe have one-year left on their existing deal (as Lowe did) or who underperformed their original contract (as Fukudome did) meaning that their current team may be looking to move their salary to jettison what they deem as flotsam and jetsam. Perhaps some of those guys are on the list of potential FA after the 2012 season, seen here, and the trade is the way to get them here.

Right off of the bat, I’ll ignore Carlos Lee and Bobby Abreu on the list due to their defensive…um, stylings and while the name that practically jumps off that list belongs to “BJ Upton”, as Anthony Castrovince wrote in a piece last week (that deserves a full read and I’ll wait right here until you finish…OK, done?), Upton is “going to make $7.6M this year” and he’s not going to come cheap in terms of prospects, even if he’s essentially a one-year rental. The Rays are looking to stockpile their cupboard with more prospects and the Indians having to give up prime prospects AND pay Upton $7.6M in arbitration (and don’t think that the Rays are throwing money in) for one year of playing doesn’t seem like the best use of resources.

Rather, what the Indians should be doing is targeting players like the ones that AC goes on to mention in the piece:
Two options that might make a lot of sense for the Indians are Andres Torres and Angel Pagan. Both regressed in 2011 after a strong 2010. With their arbitration costs rising, Torres and Pagan could be released by the Giants (who just acquired Melky Cabrera) and Mets, respectively. If so, the Indians ought to investigate.

Pagan is particularly interesting, because of his ability in the OF and his speed…plus the fact that the Mets were rumored to be discussing non-tendering him, meaning that he could perhaps be had for a pittance. For a player that posted a 3-year cumulative line of .294 BA / .344 OBP / .441 SLG / .785 OPS from 2008 to 2011, that may be a player that could fill a hole in the Indians’ OF.

Maybe a player like Pagan is underwhelming in terms of the desire to add a middle-of-the-order RH bat, but there are other players that would (and should) interest the Tribe. Perhaps those guys aren’t players you want on long-term deals or even on incentive-laden deals, but they’re productive enough that if a team is looking to jettison them or save some money, the Indians can pick up the remainder of their salary (or a portion of it) and get some production out of these players that would dwarf what could be legitimately expected of internal options without any future commitment to them past this year.

Just like they did with Fukudome and Lowe (and even DeRosa back before the 2009 season), perhaps could do with another player in the final year of his deal who may be available this off-season and could step into the Indians’ void in the OF and lineup and represent an upgrade over the internal options without tying up money for the next few years – Marlon Byrd.

Just for some background here, Byrd is scheduled to make $6.5M in 2012, the final year of the three-year contract he inked before the 2010 season. While his 2011 (.719 OPS) was his worst season since 2006, he accumulated a .294 BA / .350 OBP / .456 SLG / .807 OPS from 2007 to 2010, with some of that time spent in the AL as a Ranger. While it is true that Byrd is not a HR hitter (21 HR combined in the last two years), he’s averaged 30 2B over the last 5 years and could represent that player that could be had for lower prospects or whose current team may kick in money on his 2012 salary that the Indians have focused on recently.

Now is Marlon Byrd going to change the balance of power in the AL Central?
No, but I could assure you that he’d be an upgrade over Zeke Carrera or even Shelley Duncan as an everyday OF. Maybe that isn’t enough for those who still have visions of that “BIG RH BAT” in their heads, but Byrd is a RH hitter that can play CF who is going to hit more than Coco Crisp (who will probably get a multi-year deal this off-season because of the dearth of OF options on the FA market) or Juan Pierre. For some perspective here, if Juan Rivera is getting $4M from the Dodgers after posting an OPS of .701 last year and a .721 OPS in 2010 and THAT’s the going rate for a marginal OF on the FA market…um yeah, maybe the FA market isn’t the place to be.

Perhaps you would prefer BJ Upton to a Marlon Byrd if the Indians are going to make a move for that one-year rental (considering that Upton’s going to earn about $1.1M more than Byrd in 2012), but consider the following lines put up by each over the last three years:
BJ Upton: 2008-2011 – 1,876 PA
.240 BA / .322 OBP / .408 SLG / .730 OPS averaging 17 HR and 22 2B per season

Marlon Byrd: 2008-2011 – 1,711 PA
.285 BA / .334 OBP / .437 SLG / .771 OPS averaging 14 HR and 35 2B per season

Maybe a guy like Upton offers more “upside”, but if we’re talking about recent performance or what can be expected for one year only in 2012, a veteran hitter like Marlon Byrd would be the preference here. Additionally, the Rays feel that they have a valuable commodity in Upton that they’ll auction off to the highest bidder (in terms of prospects) while the Cubs likely feel that they’d like to give a young player a shot in the OF and would likely move Byrd for lesser prospects or would subsidize some of the remaining money on Byrd’s contract.

Admittedly, Byrd is a flawed player who actually hits RHP better than LHP despite being a RH hitter, but in case you don’t remember, the Cubs have a new power structure in place, and the new regime has no ties to Marlon Byrd. As Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer try to get out from under some contracts and start to re-make the Cubs in a manner that will help them compete in the long-term, maybe they look at a player like Cord Phelps and throw some money in with Byrd to net a player like Phelps, who could step into their 2012 starting lineup and fill an organizational hole while the Indians deal from a position of strength (middle infield depth) to fill a 2011 hole, even if it largely represents a short-term fix.

Perhaps you think that a longer-term fix is preferable to adding a player like Byrd (or someone else of his ilk, made available on the Trade Market) and I wouldn’t disagree with that. Of course, I still think that the Indians are going to add two position players this off-season via trade, one of the “long-term” variety and one from the “band-aid” category with the “long-term” answer still coming from wherever Pujols/Prince land and the dominoes that fall as a result.

Realizing that I’ve been harping on this for a while, it is worth noting that pretty much every national outlet is reporting that the Marlins are interested in Pujols and/or Fielder (though more likely Prince) and that they can upgrade pretty significantly, despite the fact that they have Gaby Sanchez as their current 1B. Of course, as the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel’s Tom Haudricourt writes, “Even though the Marlins have a first baseman in Gaby Sanchez, he isn’t Prince Fielder. You could move him elsewhere or trade him or whatever.”

Yes…trade him. To Cleveland, for relievers. Maybe one in particular.
While I know I’ve floated this out there a couple of times, if the Indians could flip Chris Perez for Gaby Sanchez, it would represent a coup for the team in terms of moving Perez before he starts to get expensive in arbitration and finding a long-term solution at 1B. Though I’ve been told that this is pie-in-the-sky thinking and that teams don’t REALLY value closers this much, that there’s no way any team would move an under-club-control 1B for one, realize that the Blue Jays are telling folks that they have “sticker shock” at what FA closers are looking for and “may turn to the Trade Market instead”.

With SO many teams looking for closers or bullpen help (Red Sox, Mets, Angels, Rangers, Cubs, Giants, and…ahem, the Marlins) and in light of the fact that the Phillies just gave Jon Papelbon a FOUR YEAR DEAL worth $50M, this FA closer market is about to go bananas and the trade market for closers is going to look awfully attractive to a team that doesn’t want to tie up that much money and that many years in the closers out there on the FA market.

Ultimately, the Indians (still) need to find a couple of bats and FA probably isn’t how they’re going to add them as they can allow the Trade Market to come to them, whether that be teams looking to move veterans on the last year of their deals (like Byrd) or to take advantage of a “FA Closer Market Gone Wild” to sell high on Chris Perez to perhaps solve one of their positional holes. They have fungible pieces in the middle of their infield (and Asdrubal is not “fungible”…just trust me on that) and in their bullpen to find some trade partners to add bats.

Those bats may not come in the form of Mike Cuddyer or Derrick Lee or Carlos Pena (which means it doesn’t attract the attention of making that FA “splash”), but if recent history is any indicator, the Indians might be able to get creative on the trade market to add players like Marlon Byrd and Gaby Sanchez to their roster. If they are able to add players that upgrade their lineup significantly (and Byrd and Sanchez are both significant upgrades) and do so without locking themselves into overpaying players on the FA market, they could set themselves up for a nice run at the 2012 season and even beyond.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

The Hot Stove Heats Up Early

Sometime after finishing the Early Bird Special on Saturday and en route to the shuffleboard courts at Del Boca Vista (remember…I am “retired”, according to some), news broke that the Indians would be picking up the $7M option on Fausto Carmona and declining the $9M option on Grady Sizemore, deciding to pay the $500K to decline Sizemore’s 2012 option. The decision was made official on Monday, but the Indians weren’t satisfied with just those two moves before the end of October as the Tribe added Derek Lowe from Atlanta for non-prospect LHP Chris Jones, assuming only $5M of the $15M left on Lowe’s contract. And suddenly, before clocks were even turned back and with leaves still on the trees on the North Coast, the Hot Stove season was upon us, quite unexpectedly.

Thus, with a bit to get to, let’s start to take some of these things in order, starting with the option decisions that faced the Tribe with Grady and Fausto. While this topic is something that I’ve already spilled too much e-ink on already (and I’m not going to provide the links…because you’ve already read them) and with the acknowledgement that Carmona’s option was essentially guaranteed once news hit that Cookie Carrasco would get the Tommy John treatment, the big news here is that Grady Sizemore has likely played his last game as a Cleveland Indian. Sure, it’s possible that Sizemore explores his options on the FA market and ends up returning to Cleveland, but it would seem that Sizemore would intrigue enough teams this off-season (and the teams with a bigger margin for error than the Tribe) that he’s going to wind up elsewhere, particularly given the dearth of other OF options on the FA market.

While there was some thought (namely in this space) that the most desirable path to keeping Sizemore on The Reservation was a re-negotiation of that $9M option into an incentive-laden deal that would run over the course of multiple years, the old saying of that “it takes two to tango” stepped in and erased any thought of that as Sizemore’s agent essentially told the Indians that they could either pick up the $9M option or pay $500K to decline it with no middle ground to find. In a way, it’s not difficult to understand Sizemore’s angle on this as, though he’s been playing in MLB since 2005, he’s “only” earned about $24M, doing so by virtue of him signing the contract that bought out his arbitration (and a couple of FA years) lo those many years ago. While $24M is a LOT of money, it is worth providing some perspective here that TWO of Sizemore’s former teammates will make more than that in 2012 alone and it’s not hard to figure that Sizemore (being probably the best player on those teams of the mid-to-late-2000s…CC considered) figures that he’s going to see what’s out there to hopefully reclaim some of the money that he could have earned but forfeited with the deal that removed arbitration or FA as it would have been normally scheduled.

With Sizemore’s Tribe career essentially (or is it probably) over, there is no doubt that the story is a sad one as the 2012 option always looked to be an absolute lock (up until probably mid-2010) as Sizemore’s “club-friendly” contract was once seen the way that Evan Longoria’s contract is referred to – a player choosing the security of guaranteed money early in his career at the expense of being eventually paid the “going rate” when Sizemore was unquestionably one of the game’s elite talents. But the days of being considered an elite talent feel like they were a long time ago with Grady and the Indians were faced with the question of whether the $9M option represented a good deal to pay to a player that has only played in 104 games over the last two years, regardless of the pulls at the heart strings or the memories that Grady gave the team or the promise that he once so clearly represented. Of course, the answer from the organization came back with a negative and Grady will now hit the open market for the first time in his career as the Indians saved $8.5M (there was a $500K buyout on the $9M option) with one decision, which led to the obvious question of where (or if) the Tribe would use that money to improve the team for the 2012 season.

Before speculation could begin on the (still) underwhelming options out there to replace Sizemore in the OF, some of the answer as to the use of the money arrived with the news that the Indians traded for Derek Lowe, who wore out his welcome in Atlanta and was essentially jettisoned by the Braves, who essentially paid $10M for Lowe to NOT be on Atlanta’s roster next year. Sure, they got a LH pitching prospect in Chris Jones (who, it should be noted, has spent FIVE years in the organization and has not made it past Kinston), but this was pretty much a player dump for the Braves.

So, the Indians received a player that was ostensibly “dumped” by the Braves, who paid $10M (more money than the Indians will pay anyone this year, except Hafner) to NOT have him on their team…sounds great for the Tribe, right?

That’s disingenuous, of course, as the Braves’ rotation is stocked with young arms that were going to push Lowe out of the rotation and any kind of salary relief for him in Atlanta was a welcome respite. Also, Lowe had a particularly horrible final two months (6.24 ERA) as the Braves frittered away their playoff spot and Lowe’s…um, standing among the Brave faithful was somewhere around that of Brooks Conrad.

As a result of his disastrous finish, Lowe’s overall 2011 line – 5.05 ERA, 1.51 WHIP – was fairly ugly, though it bears mentioning again that Lowe’s sputtering to the finish line colored those numbers the ugly shade of brownish ick that they are. In fact, Lowe’s numbers at the All-Star Break of last year – 4.30 ERA, 1.38 WHIP – were more than acceptable and looking a little deeper at his numbers over the past few years shows that Lowe’s peripherals in 2011 were fairly consistent with where they had been in the past few years, when he had experienced more success on the mound.

Just to compare Lowe’s peripherals from his 2010 (4.00 ERA, 1.36 WHIP) and his 2011 (5.05 ERA, 1.51 WHIP) suggests that Lowe may have been a victim of bad luck as much as anything last year. If you remember that FIP and xFIP are generally pretty good indicators of HOW a pitcher pitched, independent of factors out of his control (namely, defense), take a look at the numbers for Lowe’s 2010 and 2011 seasons, with the GB% numbers thrown in for the groundball-inducing Lowe:
Lowe 2010 (4.00 ERA, 1.37 WHIP)
3.89 FIP, 3.54 xFIP, 6.32 K/9, 2.83 BB/9, 58.8 GB%

Lowe 2011 (5.05 ERA, 1.51 WHIP)
3.70 FIP, 3.65 xFIP, 6.59 K/9, 3.37 BB/9, 59.0 GB%

Pretty similar numbers (other than the increase in BB/9 between the two seasons) as Lowe’s peripherals have been fairly consistent, if the ERA that has resulted from those peripherals has not. Don’t take that to mean that the Indians just added a SP that’s poised to post an ERA around 4.00 as Lowe’s fastball has lost some zip and he is now 39 years old. But his 2011 may be more similar to his 2010 than his final ERA and WHIP would lead you to believe, meaning that Lowe’s “downturn” in 2011 may not have been quite as severe as you might think at first glance. Now, you may remember a similar instance of this (comparable seasons with disparate results) being pointed out when the Indians added Ubaldo at the end of July (and the jury is still out on whether Jimenez can recapture his past success that eluded him in 2011), but with Lowe, you’re really talking about a pitcher that is likely to figure into the middle-to-back-end-of-the-rotation and is not being counted on to be much more than the innings-eating veteran that he’s been since 2002 instead of fronting the rotation as Ubaldo is expected to do. Perhaps it is unsettling to see the Indians now counting on TWO pitchers, attempting to resolve their issues of last year WHILE making the transition from the NL to the AL, but that’s where we’re at.

And “where we’re at” isn’t so bad in terms of the Lowe addition as, looking through the detritus that makes up the FA SP list, the Indians being able to slot Lowe into the middle-to-back-end of the rotation for what amounts to a 1-year, $5M is pretty desirable, considering the premium (in terms of dollars AND years) that is paid to SP in the FA market, deserved or undeserved. Frankly, if he can even sit at the back-end of the rotation for $5M, the Indians pulled off a coup, in terms of what they gave up for him and the alternatives on the FA market, and what each alternative would have commanded. That idea that he can “even sit at the back-end of the rotation” may ultimately look laughable depending upon whether Lowe can recapture his success (while coming back to the AL, no less) in 2012, but the Indians actually have a track record of success with these kinds of guys – Millwood, Byrd, Pavano – if you ignore the whole Jason Johnson fiasco.

But even if we’re talking about a Jason Johnson redux (though I’m not sure that we are, given Lowe’s pedigree versus that of Johnson), the Indians will have some stability to start the season in their rotation (with few truly compelling internal options that he’s ostensibly “blocking”) and will trot Lowe out there every 5th day from Opening Day. As a result of adding Lowe, the Indians won’t have to rely on the idea that they need to find the “right” guy from Day 1 from the Gomez/Huff/McAllister pile to fill out their rotation and can let those guys sort themselves out in Columbus or see if a guy like Scott Barnes can parlay his 2011 success into a strong start and leapfrog the 5th starter pile that looks to be growing in the state’s capital. If you figure that the Indians now have Masterson, Jimenez, Carmona, Lowe, and Tomlin to start out their 2012 rotation, with that quintet being known at the beginning of November, with the rest of those names slotting themselves in AAA to be the 6th, 7th, and 8th starters, the Indians at least have some sort of stability in their rotation this early in the off-season, even if that rotation is still fraught with question marks up and down the starting five.

In looking at that group of five, it is worth noting that the Indians now have 60% of their rotation made up of extreme groundball pitchers, with Lowe (2nd), Carmona (7th), and Masterson (8th) all ranked in the Top 8 among all MLB starters in terms of GB% in 2011. This focus on groundball pitchers is nothing new if you remember (or even if you don’t) the piece that appeared back in July of 2010 with that oh-so-clever title of “The Groundlings” that focused on the Indians’ penchant for stockpiling groundball pitchers. Of course, some of the guys mentioned in the 2010 piece have moved on (Laffey, Westbrook, White, Gardner, etc.), but the strategy has remained in place, and the 2012 rotation will bear that out with Masterson, Carmona, and Lowe presumably inducing groundballs at a rapid rate.

Of course, the natural offshoot from the realization that Masterson, Carmona, and Lowe are going to make the infielders a busy bunch next year is to wonder how the Indians figure on improving their infield defense, or at least maximizing it to make these groundballs that figure to be in play result in outs instead of seeing-eye singles. Certainly, one would think that Asdrubal and Kipnis figure to get the majority of the playing time in the middle of the infield, given their offensive contributions, but does this emphasis on groundball pitchers (even if it isn’t new) mean that the Indians are perhaps going to give the slick-fielding Jack Hannahan an expanded role in 2012 and beyond or that they’ll be filling their 1B hole with a glove-first 1B?

On 3B, I’d be awfully surprised if Hannahan is given the nod over Chisenhall (nice piece here on The Chiz), who has been touted as a top prospect for years, whose defense has always been at least average, particularly now that he’s been exposed to MLB and began to show signs of being a special player down the stretch in 2011. Maybe Hannahan sticks around as a defensive replacement or a 2nd Utility IF (Donald is probably the main Utility IF), but I would guess that the Indians are going to give The Chiz the majority of the playing time at 3B in 2012, even if he’s not the Opening Day starter…though I still think he is.

If you figure that The Chiz, Asdrubal, and Kipnis are going to be playing 3B, SS, and 2B for most of the 2012 season, the only real opportunity to upgrade the defense of the infield over what currently exists in the organization comes at 1B and, since the Indians were already probably in the market for a 1B, the question becomes what role defense will play in their decision, in terms of who to add at 1B. That is to say that the Tribe would be wise to not play a player out of position at 1B (though they’ve done it before…at MANY other positions) and should perhaps focus on adding a slick-fielding defender at 1B as they look to augment the 2012 roster and maximize the effectiveness of their pitching staff.

In terms of how to measure the defensive ability of 1B, you’ve heard this from me before but the current defensive metrics (UZR, dWAR, etc.) are awash with inaccuracies and red herrings (and anyone who asserts otherwise or uses WAR as the end-all, be-all statistic without mentioning the faults of defense as a component of it, particularly as a one-year metric, is engaging in overly simplistic analysis) and one of the only sources that I trust in the evaluation of players’ fielding comes by way of a composite scoring system at John Dewan’s Fielding Bible site. What it attempts to do is use various “experts” to rank players at their positions and using those rankings to compile a list of the best fielders at each position. While it may not be the most scientific method, it uses a number of qualified experts, from various walks of life, and attempts to balance out perception and reality while using both computers and the eyes of scouts and those who follow baseball very closely.

Regardless, here is the voting for the 2011 season and you can see that the 1B on the list vary from the game’s all-around elite (Pujols, Gonzalez, and Teixiera) to players (Loney and Barton) whose glove is probably their best attribute. If the Indians are truly looking to upgrade their defense at 1B, guys like Loney and Barton may be available (and may even be non-tendered) and it becomes a question of whether the Indians are willing to put up with the offensive shortcomings of Daric Barton (.590 OPS in 2011) or James Loney (average of 12 HR over the last full 4 years) for their defense?

Yes, there are other names on that list of Fielding Bible vote-getters that are available, but Carlos Pena isn’t going to come cheap (particularly once Pujols and Prince sign and those on the outside looking in are still searching for a 1B) and Casey Kotchman is about to get overpaid because of his 2011 season (which certainly looks like an offensive outlier), meaning that the Indians are in a difficult position when it comes to finding the 1B that they are still likely to add. Maybe a player like Daniel Murphy or Ike Davis (who rated highly in last year’s voting) from the Mets becomes available, but 1B remains a major question going forward this off-season.

That said, one of the questions coming into the off-season was answered very quickly with the addition of Lowe to fill out the rotation as the Tribe can cross one “need” off of their off-season “To-Do” list. But needs still remain and 1B is just one of them as the Indians now definitely have to fill their hole in the OF, particularly given the Sizemore is unlikely to find his way back to the North Coast. Hopefully, they get creative again as signing an “on-base” guy like Coco Crisp or (worse) Juan Pierre that doesn’t really get on base for $4M or $5M is terrifying to me to man CF, particularly if they’re keeping Brantley (another “on-base” guy who hasn’t gotten on base in his career to date) to patrol LF.

Speaking of Brantley, is anyone else a little worried by Pluto passing along that the Indians don’t really like Brantley’s defense in CF in a couple of his Sunday columns (which basically come directly from the Indians) in terms of accepting Brantley as the new CF?

Though it seems that LF can be “found” by every other team in MLB, everyone knows that the average production from LF in the AL was a .702 OPS, right…which is EXACTLY what Brantley’s OPS in 2011 was?

This idea that LF just fall out of trees in MLB may not be too accurate in this “new” era of MLB and I don’t think I need to remind anyone how it went the last time the Indians decided to go out on the FA market for a LF…OK, I will.
“He” went by the name of Dellichaels…

Which brings it all back to Sizemore as declining Grady’s option may have been the prudent move (and spare me this argument of removing all of the emotion from it), but the move to “replace” Grady is ten times more important to the fate of the 2012 team. We know that some of the money “saved” will be spent on Lowe’s 2012 salary, but what’s important now is that the Indians find a suitable solution for CF/LF while hoping that Grady doesn’t don his cape once again in 2012, when he figures to wear a new uniform.

Truthfully, that’s the scary thing in this (if you want to call it that) and maybe the Clevelander in me can’t shake the idea that Grady’s going to head off to San Francisco to thrive in a Giants’ uniform or go to the North Side of Chicago to make Theo look like a genius or (gasp) take his talents to South Beach to join the President of the Grady Fan Club, Mr. Ozzie Guillen, to re-assert himself among the game’s elite talents while the MLB world wonders “how could the Indians have let this guy go?”

Again, that’s the Clevelander in me – expecting the worst and often realizing it – and perhaps putting too much stock in those three weeks when Sizemore came back in May of this past year and was ripping extra-base hits all over the place, but with a gaping hole still existing in the OF, it will be interesting to see how the Indians approach the needs that still remain for this team.

As we’ve found out, Antonetti acts quickly and decisively and while other teams were still making option decisions, the Indians were shoring up their rotation and spending the money “saved” by declining Sizemore’s option. Not content to let the market dictate their moves, the Indians of 2012 is in clearer focus today, even if some blurry spots still remain. The Hot Stove is already kicking some heat off and, in what figures to be another dark, cold winter on the North Coast (particularly sports-related), that qualifies as good news.

As for me, “retirement” (or at least a “step back” and less regimented posting) is suiting me just fine. Now, if you’ll excuse me…I have to go back to work on this Tom Collins and my tan…