Monday, December 26, 2011

The Curious Case of Mike Brantley

A Note From Paul: A couple of weeks ago I wrote how I was going to bring a couple of new writers into the fold here at The DiaTribe to change the pace from time to time and I’m pleased to present a piece from my friend Tyler (who has written here before) on Michael Brantley. With all of the talk of the Indians making multi-year offers to Josh Willingham and Carlos Beltran in the last couple of weeks – moves that would ostensibly move Brantley into a quasi-utility role or into a role of the 4th OF, Tyler brings up some salient points on Brantley, regarding both his present and his future.

“When you trade back-to-back Cy Young Award winners (CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee) in back-to-back seasons (2008 and 2009), you need to say more than Michael Brantley is the best player that you have received in return -- and he’s a career .265 hitter (.675 OPS). Brantley is 24 and it’s far too early to write him off, despite a mediocre 2011 (.266, .702 OPS with seven homers and 46 RBI in 496 plate appearances). Of the eight players obtained in those deals, only Brantley is likely to be a starter next season.”

So says Terry Pluto in the Christmas Sunday PD. I think Pluto commits an oversight here -- intentionally or not, he tries to connect dots between Brantley’s slot on the depth chart and the outfielder’s relative success compared to the other players lassoed in the Sabathia and Lee trades. Yes, Brantley was a better hitter than LaPorta, and no, his elbow doesn’t need sewn back together like Carrasco’s. What does that have to do with his playing time?

To be sure, it’s difficult to fault the Indians for trying to will Brantley’s bat to life. About a year ago (forgive me; I can’t pin down the link), Andrew Humphries had a nice Let’s Go Tribe post pointing out that Brantley’s apparent physical talents and sheer outward likability can obscure his failings. As the figment of a lineup card forms in our eggnog-addled brains, though, bear four questions in mind:

1. Is Brantley a center fielder, or even an especially valuable left fielder? I don’t profess any acuity in scouting or reading defensive stats. I’ve watched him for parts of three seasons now, and I still couldn’t tell you whether he’s an asset with the glove. (For what it’s worth, WAR and Zone liked Brantley pretty well in 2011.) If, for example, Brantley had the chops for day-after-day center field, we could live with a .700-ish OPS. Conversely, if Brantley’s relegated to left, we’d have to put his offense under a higher-powered lens. The Indians are talking about giving Brantley reps at first 2012, and they keep acquiring bargain-bin outfielders; based on that evidence, I’ll argue we should reach for the 10x magnifying glass and leave it at that.

2.Is Brantley still fast? Worse yet: Is he a good baserunner? He stole 13 bases last season. He was caught 5 times. As a baserunner, he was, not to put too fine a point on it, both unproductive and inefficient. There are batmen whose lack of power you can abide by virtue of their baserunning. Brantley LOOKS like such a batsman, and we were led to expect same. Are those expectations still justified? He slugged .384 in 2011. Even his much-maligned former Brewer compatriot Matt LaPorta slugged .412. I know, I know -- LaPorta’s an older, slow first baseman who’s supposed to slug .500, context is everything, all that jazz. But the margin for error we accord Brantley is a product of his defense and baserunning, which in turn rely on his speed. Again: Does he still have any?

3. Will Brantley ever be a threat versus left-handed pitching? He collected 68% of his 2011 plate appearances versus right-handers, but those PAs accounted for 100% of his home runs, 100% of his triples, 83% of his doubles, and -- salt in the wound -- 12 of his 13 stolen bases. Brantley’s 2011 line versus southpaws: .214/.282/.243. That level of production ranks somewhere between Columbus and God-awful. I’ll admit that lots of everyday left-handed hitters are glorified platoon players at the plate; for instance, Grady Sizemore’s triumphant 2006 campaign was undistinguished versus lefties. But, then, Sizemore was still a threat to go yard, still a disruptive force on the basepaths, and still a competent up-the-middle defender. In what way will Brantley balance the ledger?

4. Is Brantley robust enough to be a starter? I suppose I ought to have made this No. 1 instead of No. 4. Put simply, “core players” have to stay on the field. Last season, with hardly a soul to compete with him for reps in left and center, at only 23 years old, Brantley still couldn’t crest 500 plate appearances. And this may be only my memory, but his tenure as an Indian, both on and off the 25-man roster, seems shotgunned with injuries and ailments. We might, of course, cut him some slack for this reason; perhaps we’ve just yet to see Brantley running on all eight cylinders. But by the same token, health itself is a skill that professional athletes simply have to master, and to date it is fair to say that Brantley hasn’t.


The great counter-point to all of this is Pluto’s -- Brantley turns 25 this May, and has done a good bit of maturing under MLB lights. An organization as starved for position player depth as are the Indians cannot afford to cast aside (ostensibly) toolsy young outfielders.

And yet, consider the Indians’ outfield depth signings this winter. Aaron Cunningham turns 26 next year. Felix Pie will only be 27. Both have pedigrees not dissimilar from Brantley’s, and both have diminished as Major Leaguers, now mere fourth outfielders. Brantley is, as Pluto says, “likely” to be a starter in 2012. I hope he can earn it.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Regarding Risk and Reward

As the Indians’ off-season rolls on quietly (relatively speaking), the biggest news that has come out of the corner of Carnegie and Ontario is not this stockpiling of RH bats in minor trades (Aaron Cunningham) or NRI (Pie and Lopez with Andy LaRoche perhaps to come) to fill out organizational depth and equate to Travis Buck-esque lottery tickets. Rather, the biggest events of the last couple of weeks pertaining to the Indians have been the signings of Josh Willingham by the Twins and Michael Cuddyer by the Rockies as those two bats seemed to be the ones that most clearly fit the mold (RH LF or RH LF/1B) that the Indians were purportedly targeting this off-season.

So while the hand-wringing has begun over the Felix Pie and Jose Lopez minor league deals and the already-apparent warts of Aaron Cunningham are being put under a microscope, the very real sense is creeping in that the Indians are making plans to begin the 2012 season with the roster essentially as it stands right now. Certainly, a trade could be in the offing (remember, the DeRosa deal was done on New Year’s Eve) and perhaps Antonetti has a trick still up his sleeve, but with Willingham off to the Twin Cities and Cuddyer headed to the thin mountain air, the idea that the Indians will appreciably upgrade this team via FA as essentially vanished.

Now this shouldn’t come as a major surprise as (despite the beat reporters’ INSISTENCE on constantly focusing on the FA market) any major offensive Indians’ addition was (and still is) always likely to come via the trade route. But since the Indians were allegedly in on Willingham and since Cuddyer and Willingham are similarly skilled, similarly aged players that just found their way to destinations other than Cleveland, let’s take a look at the deals that they got, the Indians’ apparent reticence to assume the risk associated with these “long”-term deals, and what it means for 2012.

Starting with Cuddyer and Willingham inking their new deals, they’re both interesting guys as they represent very clearly the inefficiency of augmenting a team via FA with mid-tier players. Both are solid hitters, if flawed players, who would immediately upgrade nearly any team they would have joined (the Indians certainly included) who hit the FA at nearly the exact same age. For their services, the Rockies doled out a 3-year deal worth $31.5M for Cuddyer and the Twins essentially replaced Cuddyer with Willingham, handing out a 3-year, $21M deal for Willingham.

What I find intriguing about the two deals (particularly the Willingham deal for less money) is the idea that both netted 3-year deals, particularly because the Indians were apparently only willing to offer Willingham a 2-year deal, using the convenient excuse of Willingham’s defensive limitations to explain why they weren’t willing to top (or match) the Twins’ offer. The reason that Willingham represented such a compelling option is that he’s been strikingly consistent throughout his career, posting an OBP between .332 and .389 every year, a SLG between .459 and .496 every year for the last six years. Over his career, he’s played in nearly 800 games and he has a .836 OPS and a 121 OPS+. Among players with more than 2,500 PA over the last six years, those numbers put Willingham 38th in OPS+, just below Jayson Werth and above Billy Butler.

Essentially, Willingham has been a good (though not great), consistent hitter throughout his career, even if there are red flags that exist. In terms of those red flags, Willingham had the highest K rate of his career (26.6% this past year) while posting the lowest BB rate (9.9% in 2011) since his rookie year. While those numbers aren’t astonishingly different than what he had done prior to 2011, it is worth noting that his lowest K rate came in 2010, which is the same year he had his 2nd highest BB rate. For a little perspective on that 26.6% K rate in 2011, it was just a tick below what Austin Kearns put forth (27.6% K rate) as an Indian, even if that’s just taking one aspect of hitting and ignoring the rest…with Willingham vastly outpacing the production of some of the Indians’ more notable windmills last year. Maybe that is overanalyzing things a little, but Willingham did have the 7th highest K rate in 2011 among qualified hitters and the fear would be if he’s trending in that direction, given his uptick in strikeouts in 2011.

And these “upticks” and possible “trends” is where some suspicion and doubt starts to creep in, given Willingham’s age and what similar players to Willingham (and Cuddyer) have done through their low-to-mid-30s. For that we go to a mind-blowing snippet put together by Matthew Pouliat at Hardball Talk comparing Cuddyer to similarly-aged players who had posted similar numbers in their age 30-32 seasons, concluding that “Occasionally you’ll get a (Matt) Stairs, but the players here most similar to Cuddyer — (Dante) Bichette, (Ron) Gant and (Kevin) Millar — all turned into borderline regulars at 33-34.” Certainly, this is not the most scientific or exhaustive look at how players age (and Pouliat completely ripped the Cuddyer signing from the start with a piece actually titled “Rockies pick a foolish way to break the bank”), but it is worth noting again that Willingham and Cuddyer are similarly skilled and similarly aged (Cuddyer is one month older), so it comes down to the question of what can legitimately be expected for either player and whether that expected (not past) production justifies the money and years involved…with Matt Stairs being a sort of best-case-scenario.

For teams like the Indians (and actually for most teams), these guys have to be paid for future production, not what they’ve already accomplished and if we move away from what Pouliat thinks can be expected from Cuddyer (and that wasn’t pretty) and move to Willingham, here’s what Rob Neyer had to say on Willingham’s deal with Minnesota:
Of course, Willingham is almost 33 years old and it’s quite possible that we’ve seen his best. I would love to have him for one season, and I would like to have him for two. Three ... well, that might be a season too far.
Or it might not be. If he’s healthy and keeps pulling the ball, he could certainly be worth $21 million over three seasons. Probably will be, now that I think about it.

“If he’s healthy and keeps pulling the ball” is the qualifier there as Willingham has never played more than 144 games in a season and has two seasons in his last six in which he played fewer than 115 games. Perhaps that scares the Indians in terms of the fact that they already have an injury risk in his mid-to-late-30’s (which is weird to write because these guys are my age) in Hafner that’s making hefty money and have plenty of other injury risks up and down the lineup to the point that Willingham’s injury history played a role.

However, the 3-year, $21M deal for the Twins feels like less of a “gamble” than most and looked palatable for the Tribe, particularly with Hafner coming off of the books after this season. Maybe Willingham still would have constituted a “gamble” nonetheless as he’s not the perfect player…but the “perfect player” just signed a 10-year, $275M deal to take his talents to…well, you get the idea.

As I wrote in the off-season “road-map” piece (the one where I put forth the idea that the Indians should sign Cuddyer to a 3-year deal) at the end of the season, “in this Brave New World of MLB, the Indians aren’t going to sit at the table with the Fielder and Pujols to crunch numbers if they’re going to venture out on the FA market and that ‘second-tier’ of players is the top-end of where they realistically get to choose.” That “second-tier” of players on the FA market has and always will be comprised of players like Willingham and Cuddyer – far from sure things that are going to be overpaid by someone in terms of years or dollars (or both) – who represent an imperfect upgrade to a team like the Indians. Though that upgrade may be “imperfect”, the upgrade would still have been significant, given the internal options…which I’ll get to.

Given that adding a Willingham would have unquestionably upgraded the roster and deepened the lineup while removing a marginal player from the everyday conversation, wouldn’t now seem like the time to assume some of the risk of a 3-year deal associated with signing a Willingham?

That is to say, if this is the “window” of contention that was so clearly opened by the Ubaldo trade (and it was), why not add the extra year?

Allegedly, the Indians went out to 2 years with Willingham but stopped short of adding that 3rd year…but was it really just because he wasn’t a defensive fit? The guy could play LF and provide insurance against the Sizemore/Hafner injury that we know is coming and upgraded the lineup for 2012…so why is it that the 3rd year was the dealbreaker?

This stated reticence to include a 3rd year piqued my interest and, while age obviously plays a role here, if we go back to that Pouliat piece that he did on Cuddyer’s “peers” and what they accomplished as Willingham is a month older than Cuddyer, there is decent data that Willingham’s production is going to tail off as he ages, meaning that the Indians would be paying “market value” for the first couple of years of the deal while likely ruing that 3rd year…when that 3rd year arrived.

But this idea of “market value” and the Twins’ inclusion of the 3rd year in the offer intrigued me as it certainly seems that these concessions/risks are what it takes in terms of signing players (even mid-level ones) on the FA market. That is to say that to get a player that is likely to present a significant upgrade (be it a position player or pitcher) is going to be costly on the FA market, with the new team essentially overpaying in terms of dollars or years (or both) to gain the services of the signed player.
With the assumed risk comes the possibility of reward…

This is far from ground-breaking stuff, I know…but (just to keep this with FA position players and, more specifically, OF) want to look at the big FA signings that covered 3 years or more among OF over the last four years?
Carl Crawford – 7 years, $142,000,000
Jayson Werth – 7 years, $126,000,000

Matt Holliday – 7 years, $120,000,000
Jason Bay – 4 years, $66,000,000
Marlon Byrd – 3 years, $15,000,000

Raul Ibanez – 3 years, $31,500,000
Milton Bradley – 3 years, $30,000,000
Juan Rivera – 3 years, $12,750,000

Torii Hunter – 5 years, $90,000,000
Aaron Rowand – 5 years, $60,000,000
Jose Guillen – 3 years, $36,000,000

That’s it…there have been three or fewer OF that have inked deals longer that were 3 years or longer each year in the four years prior to this off-season and not even going back to the absolute abomination that the 2006 list was, which of those deals look good in hindsight?

Holliday (though he hasn’t even played out ½ of that deal) and maybe Hunter or perhaps Ibanez for the first 2 years of that deal, but…oof.
Crawford, Werth, and Bay have been complete disappointments with their new teams to date and Bradley, Rowand, Rivera, and Guillen couldn’t have worn out their welcome any quicker if they tried and it’s possible that Byrd becomes available in this, his final year of his deal (particularly with David DeJesus on the North Side), bringing into clearer focus of how these guys generally don’t justify the length of their deals.

Maybe there’s the rub with these FA deals as the idea is to (quite obviously) pay for future production and not past accomplishments, but even among the OF deemed to be most deserving of long-term deals in the past few years, their “future production” paled in comparison to their past accomplishments.

What does that mean for Willingham going forward?
Well, we’ll get a front row seat as he laces them up in the AL Central to find out, but as much as there is obvious risk in giving a guy like Willingham a 3-year deal (based on Pouliat’s comparables for Cuddyer and the…um, fickle nature of OF who netted FA deals in the past), this is essentially how FA works. A team is going to overpay for the services of a player and while that player’s contract may outlive his usefulness to the team and, given where the Indians are with their current group of players (and this “window”) and the internal options that figure to see expanded roles if this is the end of the additions (save the token lottery tickets and NRI’s), wouldn’t it stand to reason that THIS was the appropriate time for the Indians to overpay for the services of a player?

Maybe that’s talking out of both sides of my mouth (pointing out regressions for players and how long-term FA deals haven’t worked out recently while saying the Indians should be taking this leap) and I’ve been advocating the trade market since the end of the season, but seeing as how there haven’t been compelling names that have moved in other deals (and…yes, I know that Yonder Alonso was traded to San Diego, just as I know that Cord Phelps had a better hitting line in the same AAA league as Alonso), shouldn’t the Indians have recognized this and been more aggressive on the FA market, pitfalls of said FA market (ahem…Jason Kubel’s 2-year deal) considered?

Apparently, there is a line of thinking that what’s out there now is really no better than the Indians’ internal options and namely that Shelley Duncan could play the role of “RH bat”, bouncing around between 1B and LF and providing some insurance for if/when Sizemore and/or Hafner spend some time on the shelf. Maybe that’s true if you’re talking about Coco Crisp or Juan Pierre…but if the idea is that what WAS out there (namely Willingham and Cuddyer) weren’t that much of an upgrade over those internal options (namely Duncan) to justify the risk that would have been assumed by giving either of those players, 3-year deal, I would point out that Shelley Duncan just turned 32 and (if you’ll remember from that Pouliat piece) if solid MLB bats turn into borderline regulars around the age of 32 or 33, what do borderline regulars become?

Let’s not forget what Shelley Duncan’s career line was from the start of his career in 2007 through September 2, 2011:
.234 BA / .308 OBP / .413 SLG / .721 OPS with 23 HR and 24 2B in 582 PA

Of course, we all know that Duncan went on a tear in those last 3 weeks of the season, posting a .981 OPS in his final 87 PA in 24 games, stroking 7 HR in those 24 games. But which player do you think is closer to the real Shelley Duncan…the one that posted a .721 OPS in 205 games to start his career or the one that posted a .981 OPS in his last 24 games of 2011?

Truthfully, Duncan’s career line up to that little hot streak in September isn’t all that dissimilar to what Matt LaPorta did in 2011 (.247 BA / .299 OBP / .412 OBP / .711 OPS), with LaPorta being a full 5 years younger than Duncan and people (present company included) can’t wait to move on from MaTola at 1B, so the idea that Duncan represents something on par with what was/is available on the FA market or via trade makes sense how?

Don’t take this to mean that Duncan is without value as he’s a RH bat that can be used (and here’s the key word) sporadically as a pinch-hitter or occasional starter against a tough LH starting pitcher. A role that is larger for him is akin to simply going back to the idea that LaPorta will become a player that he has not shown to be.

Is this to say that LaPorta is part of the answer for the Indians at 1B in 2012?
Absolutely not, as he’s destined for Columbus…and with good reason. Rather, it’s an attempt at providing some perspective on counting on Shelley Duncan to be any kind of platoon-mate or deserving of more than an occasional start or a stint as a PH for this 2012 team. Essentially, it’s a way to point out that if Duncan is part of a Plan A at 1B or Plan B in the OF if (when) Grady gets hurt…yeah, that’s bad planning on the part of the Indians as a fundamental failure to upgrade from even Shelley Duncan.

Maybe something more is coming or maybe the Indians have found a diamond-in-the-rough in Aaron Cunningham (or Thomas Neal) just as they did a number of years ago with SS Choo, seeing something that another (or in the case of Cunningham, multiple) team(s) did not and will be able to find a long-term solution to an OF that has issues in 2012 and beyond. That’s awfully hard to see with Cunningham’s body of work and regardless of that, if Cunningham (or Neal) does become a find for the Indians, it still doesn’t appreciably upgrade 1B. While I can see the merit in playing Santana more frequently at 1B (here is where The Axe Man ranks in wOBA among “1B” last year), it means that the Indians are going to be playing more of Lou Marson on an everyday basis (and here is where Marson ranked in wOBA among C last year), meaning that while the defense would certainly get a boost with Marson behind the plate, the offense would remain relatively unchanged, or maybe worse.

Ultimately, as Willingham then Cuddyer went off the board and the Indians stocked up on Cunningham and Pie (most notably), the sense that this is what the roster is going to look like on Opening Day began to creep in. While nobody of sound mind believes that Cunningham represented THE RH bat that was being targeted, his addition seemed to signal that they were starting to build depth around the current roster instead of letting parts of the current roster (namely Brantley and Duncan) morph into that depth. That’s a depressing thought as the organization went all in with the Ubaldo deal and while I don’t think that things are going to go screeching off of the cliff when the end of 2013 arrives, the idea that they’ll find that “RH bopper” in July of 2012 means that the lessons of 2006 (when the team was 10 ½ games back on Memorial Day after a promising 2005 season) or 2008 (when a team boasting CC and CP Lee was 11 ½ games back by the 4th of July after the ALCS appearance the year before) haven’t been learned.

In what seems to be the last “winnable” division in the AL (as the Rangers and Angels have become a new “Axis of Evil”), the Indians have the opportunity to take control of the AL Central and their failure to appreciably upgrade a lineup in need of upgrades could be remembered as an opportunity lost, as the inactivity of off-seasons in the past now are. To make those upgrades, the Indians may have to expose themselves to a level of risk that puts them outside of their comfort zone – much in the way that the Ubaldo trade did – but by taking little risk (other than the Grady Gamble), they’re setting themselves up for little reward. Don’t take that as a “JUST DO SOMETHING…ANYTHING” screed as the FA market is obviously flush with dumpsters in which money is deposited and some trade options that have been thrown out there look like Matt LaPorta with a different name, but essentially going into 2012 with the lineup that obviously had holes in 2011 seems risk-averse to the point of paralysis.

Maybe they’re counting on full and fully healthy years from the pieces in place, but if past truly is prologue, having some depth and having some legitimate options beyond what is currently in place should (continue to) be the focus of the off-season. Up to this point, the inability to make additions to the lineup or the decisions to not make certain additions to the lineup look short-sighted and could become regrettable in short order if and when injuries/regressions occur in 2012.

The off-season is far from over and (as I’ve been saying since the end of the season) trade avenues should be explored to the point that nearly no player should be excluded from trade discussions. Perhaps the idea that a bullpen arm could be flipped for something of impact value is further from reality (though Houston’s haul for Mark Melancon was compelling, with the Red Sox allegedly not done looking for relievers), but the Indians have taken risks and been creative on the trade market in the recent past, so the onus certainly seems to be back on that ability to find a hitter via trade before the team departs for Goodyear.

A failure to do so could be an organization-changing decision as the window that feels so recently opened could start shimmying down in a hurry…

Friday, December 16, 2011

Indians Sign Two, Trade One

The Indians made three minor moves today, signing outfielder Felix Pie and infielder Jose Lopez to minor league deals, and trading last year's Akron Aeros closer Cory Burns to the Padres for outfielder Aaron Cunningham.

Pie was a top prospect when he was coming up through the Cubs organization, peaking at #27 in all of baseball during the 2006 offseason according to Baseball America. That prospect pedigree however, has never really translated to major league success. In 1051 major league at bats, he's hit .249/.298/.374 with 17 HR and 97 RBI. His best season came in 2009 with the Orioles when he played in 101 games and put up a .763 OPS. He's a solid but unspectacular defender who can play all three outfield positions, and bats lefthanded. He can earn up to $1 million in incentives if he plays well, and as indicated earlier he was signed to a minor league deal with a spring training invite. It's a low-risk, moderate reward signing that really can't hurt anything, and is typical of what most teams are doing this time of year.

If you like low-risk, moderate reward minor league deals, let me introduce you to Jose Lopez. Unlike Pie, Lopez found some success in the major leagues, being named to the all star team in his first full season back in 2006. He's a righthanded hitter who's shown some pop, hitting a career-high 25 HR in 2009 with Seattle. Between 2006 and 2009, Lopez hit .277/.308/.419 with 63 HR and 326 RBI, all while calling Safeco Field his home park. Pretty solid numbers for a young 2B. However, after 2009, Lopez fell off a cliff. In his next two seasons, split between Seattle, Colorado and Florida, Lopez hit just .233/.263/.348 with 18 HR and 79 RBI. His approach had always been poor, as he sports a career 3/1 K/BB ratio, but gone was the power and average that helped to offset that ratio. Like Pie, he was signed to a minor league deal that will pay him less than $1 million if he hits all of his incentives. He's definitely behind Jason Donald for at bats as a utility guy, and will likely fight with Cord Phelps to be the first infielder called up from Columbus if something goes wrong at the major league level.

The third move the Indians made today was dealing relief pitcher Cory Burns to San Diego for outfielder Aaron Cunningham. My full scouting report on Burns from last offseason can be found here, and he was featured in my Arizona Fall League article above. Long story short; he's a guy with great numbers but who's stuff never matched up with the results. He has a very deceptive motion that fools hitters in the minors, but is never really likely to translate to the major league level. Cunningham is a 25-year old corner outfielder who hits righthanded, and has spent part of the past four years in the majors with Oakland and San Diego. He was originally drafted in the 6th round by the White Sox in 2005, then dealt to Arizona before heading to Oakland as part of the Dan Haren deal. From Oakland he moved on to San Diego in the Kevin Kouzmanoff deal, and now is packing his bags for the North Coast. His career major league numbers, in 355 at bats, are .231/.290/.375 with 6 HR and 44 RBI. He's seen as a 4th OF at least, with the potential to be an everyday guy in one of the corner OF positions. He's still young, but he's out of options so will have to either make the club out of spring training in 2012 or be put on waivers. Even if he ends up on waivers, I like the Indians odds to keep him. There are plenty of teams sneaking plenty of guys through at the end of March. His career minor league line is .306/.379/.490, and he's traditionally hit lefthanded pitching pretty well. He joins the previously mentioned Felix Pie, Zeke Carera, and Thomas Neal as guys who will be fighting for the last OF spot in spring training.

All in all, three solid but unspectacular moves. Again, this is what most of the teams around baseball are doing this time of year...signing low-risk vets in an effort to catch lightining in a bottle. Most of the moves don't amount to much, but it's more than work the time and money invested in these guys in case they turn into something. The national media won't be writing stories about it, ESPN won't break away from the latest Miami Heat scrimmage to report on it, but these are the type of moves that have a chance to pay off in 2012. And if they don't, it sure doesn't hurt much. I'm not going to sit here and tell you that I love these deals and that I think one of these guys will be the missing piece to the 2012 playoff run, but to bemoan the deals and cry about the Dolans R cheep, yo, isn't really my style, as I'm sure you're all aware by now.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Arizona Fall League in Review

The elite Arizona Fall League has come and gone, and my favorite offseason league is once again in the past. The AFL pulls togetherMcFarland 3_580x800 some of the top prospects from all around baseball, and with the mid-August signing deadline, plenty of 1st round picks made their professional debuts in the desert. The Indians didn’t send any prospects who will rank in the top-100 in all of baseball to Arizona this year, but did send an interesting group of guys that I was anxious to see perform against some of the top talent in minor league baseball. The Indians prospects were sent down to the desert to compete for the Phoenix Desert Dogs along with players from Oakland, Toronto, Cincinnati and the New York Yankees.

Each team is permitted to designate one of the pitchers they send as a starter. For the Indians, the designated starter was Akron lefty T.J. McFarland. McFarland made two starts in Kinston last year before being promoted to AA Akron in April. On the season, he went 9-10 with a 3.75 ERA. He struck out 115 and walked 51 in his 149 1/3 innings of work. Most importantly, the groundball specialist posted an impressive 2.49 GO/AO ratio. McFarland isn’t a big strikeout guy, but finds success pitching to contact because of his impressive sinker and ability to command it within the strike zone. Arizona has always been known as a hitter’s environment, and I thought there was a chance for a guy like McFarland to struggle down there. Those fears proved to be unfounded, as T.J. went 3-0 with a 3.18 ERA in his 8 appearances for the Desert Dogs. McFarland threw 28 1/3 innings, striking out 22 and walking 13. His GO/AO ratio was 2.11, and he gave up more than 2 ER in just one of his starts. Overall, it was an impressive showing for the 22-year old McFarland, who has solid MOR potential at the big-league level.

Aguilar1 621x800As far as hitters go, the guy I was most excited to see perform in the AFL was Big, Bad Jesus Aguilar. When I last saw Aguilar hit in the dry Arizona air, he launched a couple of home runs in minor league spring training games last year that still haven’t landed. That was against the Reds low-A squad though, so the better pitching of the AFL would challenge him a little more. Or so I thought. Aguilar put up an impressive .339/.458/.610 line in his 59 at bats, popping 3 HR and driving in 9. He did strike out 18 times against 11 walks, but as long as the extra-base power comes along with it, that’s a ratio I can live with. Aguilar hit 23 HR last year in 462 AB between Lake County and Kinston, and really established himself as a guy to keep an eye on. One thing the Indians are short on is power, and Aguilar is one of the few legit power prospects in the organization. A 1.069 OPS against pitching from AA and AAA is a nice sign that the power is real, and will continue to mature in the next couple of years. Aguilar is just 21 and should open 2012 in Carolina, with a good chance to be in Akron by the all-star break.

Those that have read my articles here for a while probably know that when I play baseball, I catch. That being said, I have a soft spot in my heart for all catchers, but especially guys who dedicate themselves to the position defensively. It’s the toughest position on the diamond, and one of the toughest in sports. I tell you this to help explain my affinity for the light-hitting defensive superstar Roberto Perez. Perez caught for Kinston last year, and was the best defensive catcher in the Carolina League. He’s fundamentally sound, controls the other teams running game, and handles pitchers extremely well. Every pitcher in the Indians org I’ve talked to that’s thrown to Perez raves about his defense. The Indians sent him down to Arizona this year to see if that would jump-start his offense, as he hit just .225/.365/.310 with 2 HR and 30 RBI in 284 AB for Kinston in 2011. Some power materialized in the desert for the backstop, as he hit 4 HR in just 53 AB. The rest of his stat line though was pretty typical, as he hit .226/.382/.472. The .854 OPS is impressive, but the .226 AVG is not. One offensive skill Perez has consistently shown is patience at the plate, as he’s never posted an OBP of below .360. That continued in Arizona, as Perez walked 13 times against 10 strikeouts. His upside is probably that of a defense-oriented backup catcher, but he’s still one of my favorite guys in the organization.

As I noted earlier, each organization sending players to the AFL is only allowed to designate one as a starter. Naturally then, there are Burns 6_800x670plenty of relievers sent down to the desert. The most high-profile RP that the Indians sent was Akron closer Cory Burns. Burns posted a 2.11 ERA and nailed down 35 saves for the Aeros last season, striking out 70 and walking just 15 in 59 2/3 innings pitched. Those numbers probably have you picturing a big, imposing fireballer who blows hitters away with his fastball, but Burns is anything but. The 6’1, 180lb righthander gets it done more with deception than with overpowering stuff, as his fastball only touches the low-90’s. Burns has a sidewinding, deceptive delivery that he uses to hide the ball from hitters, which helps him rack up the strikeouts. Burns threw 11 innings of relief for the Desert Dogs this year, giving up 6 earned runs (4.91 ERA), striking out 12 and walking 3. A decent performance, but really too small of a sample size to draw any meaningful conclusions.

Another reliever who gets it done more with deception than pure stuff is former Kinston closer Preston Guilmet. Guilmet tied Burns with 35 saves last year, putting up a 2.16 ERA with 60 K and 11 BB in 58 1/3 IP for the K-Tribe. Like Burns, Guilmet’s fastball rarely gets into the 90’s. Also like Burns, he has a deceptive delivery that hides the ball well from the hitter, coming straight over the top with a little hitch in his windup. The arm angle helps make his splitter a true swing and miss offering. Guilmet threw 14 innings in the desert this fall, and got roughed up to the tune of a 6.43 ERA. He had 12 K’s and 11 BB, pitching against some pretty tough hitters. Guilmet did settle down after some early struggles, closing out his AFL campaign with 5 straight scoreless outings, spanning 6 1/3 innings.

The final reliever sent to Arizona had a quietly solid season in 2011. Tyler Sturdevant split his time primarily between Kinston (41 IP) and Akron (30 IP), while making a brief stopover in AAA Columbus as well for 3 2/3 innings. Between all three levels, he went a combined 7-3 with a 2.65 ERA with 82 K and just 19 BB. Sturdevant, who turns 26 on December 20, had a solid campaign in Arizona this fall. He didn’t record a decision out of the bullpen, but did throw 12 innings, giving up just 4 ER while striking out 13 and walking 4. Look for Sturdevant to be part of a crowded Columbus bullpen in 2012, with an outside shot at pitching in Cleveland at some point during the season.

An example of a guy who didn’t have a very good campaign in Arizona is outfielder Chad Huffman. Huffman put up an uninspiring .246/.351/.415 season for AAA Columbus last year, and followed that up with an extremely disappointing .214/.313/.343 line in 70 AB for the Desert Dogs. Huffman hit 6 doubles, one HR and drove in 11. For an experienced guy in a hitter’s league, that’s a pretty poor stat line. Huffman reinforced my view that he’s little more than organizational depth, lurking in Columbus in case of a series of injuries to the guys above him

Two outfielders who are higher on the organizational depth chart got a few at bats in Arizona, but nothing that really lets us draw any kind of conclusions. LF Tim Fedroff had four hits, including a pair of doubles, in just 11 at bats for Phoenix in the beginning of October. Later in the season, RF/CF Carlos Moncrief went 4-23 with a 2B. Neither player really had enough playing time to make their campaign worthwhile.

We’re closing in on Christmas, which means crowded shopping malls, meaningless Browns games and plenty of snow in Cleveland. But there’s light at the end of the tunnel, as it also means that we’re less than two months until pitchers and catchers report to Arizona for Spring Training. The Tribe should be a young, exciting team this year, and with guys like McFarland and Aguilar on the horizon, help is on the way in case options at the big league level happen to falter.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

A Lazy Sunday in A Brave New World

The Winter Meetings have come and gone and while all it may have done is re-affirm our greatest fears about the role that local TV revenue is going to play in the coming decade to further separate big-market, mid-market, and small market teams, the Indians’ brass returned from the North Coast with essentially the same roster that they had when they arrived in the Lone Star State. While calling it “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” for the Tribe may be a little overdramatic, the Indians’ trip to Dallas mainly netted them some airline miles, some hotel points, and (hopefully) some groundwork on some moves to come. Because moves for the Tribe at the Winter Meetings were only hinted at, with Antonetti’s unfortunate comment that a trade proposal that would never be guessed only prompted speculation in all corners when the Indians left Dallas without consummating a deal, either on the FA market or via trade.

That’s not to say that this “unbelievable” trade proposal isn’t something that could still crystallize, but the Indians figured to be quiet at the Winter Meetings and…well, they were. So, the inactivity in Dallas should come as no surprise. Of course, that didn’t prevent all of Cleveland (OK…a small portion of Clevelanders) from watching with bated breath this whole “El Hombre” saga play out as the idea that Pujols-to-Marlins would have meant that mean that Gaby Sanchez could have been made available, something that’s been alluded to in this space for a couple of months, with “could this get Gaby” scenarios popping up everywhere.

Alas, as Pujols went to Orange County (prompting the immediate “GET TRUMBO” or “TRADE FOR MORALES” cries…with both options underwhelming me, but I’ll get to that), the Indians found themselves likely to be less than enthused about Pujols coming over to the AL and (much more importantly) likely terrified at how the Angels were able to sign Pujols AND CJ Wilson and how the activity of the Halos is only the most recent indication that the landscape of MLB is changing. And those changes are not likely to benefit the Cleveland Indians or the vast majority of the league.

Before we get to that Angels’ issues, let me point out an article that has stuck with me for the last couple of months as it was contained in an SI piece from the magazine, touting the Rangers’ presence in the World Series. The whole piece was written with the idea that the Rangers weren’t the Yankees or the Red Sox and had made all of the right moves to put themselves in the position to be playing for their first World Series Championship. While none of that is untrue (the Rangers were adept at acquiring talent and mining some hidden gems), there was a passage that stood out and it’s one that I’ve been unable to forget, with the events of the past week bringing them racing back to the forefront.

The paragraphs of interest have to do with the Rangers’ new TV deal:
But the Rangers’ biggest off-season signing was a monster $1.6 billion TV contract with Fox Sports Southwest that, starting in 2015, will bring them more than $80 million in annual revenue. It’s the kind of deal that helped turn the Yankees and the Red Sox into economic superpowers; both franchises have been enriched over the last decade by extremely lucrative local television income. The Rangers will not be a middle-class team for much longer: Their TV money will put them in a position where no free agent is out of their price range—including Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder, who will be the biggest fish on the market this winter.

That was from 2 months ago and, while it was the Angels (and not the Rangers) who netted Pujols with TV money, here is the money quote on the TV deal – “It’s the kind of deal that helped turn the Yankees and Red Sox into superpowers; both franchises have been enriched over the last decade by extremely lucrative local TV income” – with the article going on to point out that the Rangers play in the 5th largest media market in MLB. Again, that deal will bring the Rangers “more than EIGHTY MILLION DOLLARS in annual revenue” just for the rights to broadcast Rangers’ games on Fox Sports Southwest.

Now, we’ve all seen that the Angels announced (after the signings of Pujols and Wilson) that they have a deal in place that NEARLY DOUBLES what the Rangers got last off-season. It will pay them $150 million annually for the next 20 years and we saw late last week what that new TV deal in Anaheim allows the Angels to add – namely the top hitter and top starting pitcher on the FA market – with much of the risk associated with it. Lest you forget, the Angels play in the 2nd largest market and, though they share that market with the Dodgers, Fox Sports West will pay them $3 Billion over the next 20 years for the rights to broadcast their games.

If the Rangers’ deal sent shivers down your spine as a fan of the Indians, the Angels deal should have sent you into full-blown shock as this Brave New World of local TV money figures to initiate a seismic shift in MLB teams, in terms of revenue, ability to take risks, and the FA market as a whole. Maybe you’re thinking that the Angels are a “hot ticket” with the Dodgers in disarray and that local interest is at an all-time high, justifying this amount of money. Well…no, as they got this deal despite, as Bill Shaikin passes along (in the piece that is linked again, because you should read it), having “the second-lowest local television ratings among major league teams last year, according to Sports Business Journal.”

And that fact on the Angels’ ratings last year pull into sharp focus what the TV companies are doing here as it doesn’t matter necessarily how many TV’s are tuned into a channel, but how many TV customers (people who pay their cable/satellite bills) have that channel that they pay for on their cable bill. To put that another way, it doesn’t matter how many people are watching the Indians or the Angels or the Rangers, it matters how many people are paying a portion of their TV bill for the chance to watch Tribe games. Because that number is lower in Cleveland than it is in LA or Dallas or…well, this could go on for a while, the rights to broadcast those games are going to be higher because the revenue that the cable company brings in is higher based on the amount of TV sets (or cable/satellite customers) in that local market.

Ultimately, live sporting events are really the last thing that anyone watches live anymore (remember the Flash Mob dancing guy in the train station commercial from Tribe games or Jimmy Fallon embarrassing himself during the MLB playoffs…name a time when you said “not this commercial again” other than during live sporting events) and so, yes these cable operators are going to pay a premium to air these games, particularly with MLB’s rules on local broadcasts.

Where do you think they’ll be willing to spend the most money?
Perhaps where the largest number of TV viewers exists?
Notice where these deals are getting done right now?
LA, Dallas…you know, the largest TV markets.

Go read that LA Times piece again (or if you haven’t yet as this is the last chance) and realize that the final line from that article is that “the bidding between Fox and Time Warner Cable for the Dodgers’ television rights is about to start, and the over-under is $4 billion” and that it is all based on the cable/satellite subscribers in a particular market.

So, Fox and Time Warner will throw perhaps MORE money at the Dodgers (perhaps $200M/year) to broadcast their games…does anyone want to guess what kind of revenue the Yankees get from YES, given that NY is larger than LA and one of the offerings on MY cable package is to order the YES network as a stand-alone channel?

Perhaps MLB Advanced Media, with the Internet package or the streaming video that’s available (out of market) will level this playing field a little bit, but remember that the revenue from those deals is split evenly between the 30 teams and that the great majority of the money that these teams receive for TV comes from their local TV deals, all of which are/will be based on the amount of people in a geographic area. Additionally, it’s unlikely that Fox is signing these 20-year deals if they think that the TV landscape within MLB is going to change radically in the near future.

Ultimately, the Angels’ new TV deal sets the precedent (as if the Rangers deal didn’t) for local TV deals and certainly throws a wrench into the idea that teams in MLB occupy anything close to a level playing field, which is only going to get worse as more TV deals are re-negotiated or bid on in the larger markets. Granted, not every team is going to take advantage of these inherent market advantages, but if FOX Sports or Time Warner (who gave the Lakers a $3 BILLION contract to air their games for the next 20 years, an increase of the Lakers’ TV revenue by FIVE TIMES, likely prompting this Fox-Angels deal) are going to be setting up bidding wars in most of the larger markets across America, wouldn’t it stand to reason that the markets with the most TV sets (and here’s a reminder of market size, both in Metro Areas and Combined Statistical Areas) are going to see the biggest influx of cash in a TV deal…and cash that is guaranteed?

What does that mean to the Indians?
In the long term, in light of the recent leveling of the playing field at the place where it was LEAST needed (in the draft and with signing bonuses) in the recent CBA, it means that the Indians are going to be swimming upstream to capture their first World Series Championship since 1948, as if they weren’t already. Maybe this is depressing to a level that many can’t stand in terms of the system being broken and actually getting worse, but luckily for the Indians, they operate in a division in which two of the higher payroll teams can’t seem to get out of their own way recently, with the White Sox officially rebuilding, and the Twins signing Jamey Carroll (with all due respect to Carroll…who fell into the “Casey Blake, Inexplicably Reviled” Category to quickly in Cleveland) to be their everyday SS.

In the short term, with a group of young players currently on the roster all around the same age and under similar levels of control, the Indians are betting that (as we saw in 2007) once a young, talented team gets into the playoffs, as they say, anything can happen. With an extra Wild Card berth in play now, maybe the Indians can sneak into the playoffs even if they don’t win their division, though that doesn’t look likely now with two heavyweights in the AL East and the AL West, but it certainly brings the focus back to the Indians as they stand today.

Unfortunately, we are in a place that is not unfamiliar to us as we’re left to play the connect-the-dots game of “if this guys does this, then maybe we can do this” and for whatever reason the prospect of giving a 3-year deal to fair-to-good players like Josh Willingham or Mike Cuddyer is becoming less appealing as this off-season goes forward. That’s not to say that I think that the Indians should stand pat where they are (far from it), as I’m of the belief that improving 1B is a must (and color me uninspired by the idea that Santana, Brantley, Duncan, and Donald somehow combine to a level of “improvement”) as is the idea that they still need an OF that is more of a starting OF than a 4th OF, given the injury history of the current troika of OF (and particularly Sizemore) and the concerns over Mike Brantley as an legitimate everyday OF.

Starting with 1B, the obvious names of Mark Trumbo and Kendry Morales emerged with the Pujols deal, but with Morales’ injury history (combined with the current injury concerns on the Tribe), I’d be less than inclined to look at Morales as much more than a buy-low player, if the Angels really are willing to sell low…and it doesn’t look like they are as they will tender him a contract. Now that doesn’t mean that he won’t be available, but he would likely come with a $4M price tag and no guarantee that he’d be ready for Opening Day. After holding out the tiniest sliver of hope that Nick Johnson could return to form and seeing that he couldn’t, I’d pass on Morales.

As for Trumbo, while his gaudy HR total (29) in his rookie year draws some eyes, to look at his overall line is to see a player that doesn’t look all that different from our own Matt Mattola. Since they played in a different number of games, here is how the rate stats for each compare in 2011:

Trumbo – 2011
.254 BA / .291 OBP / .477 SLG / .768 OPS / 113 OPS+ / .327 wOBA
10.7 XBH%, 20.9%, 4.4 BB%, and 5.1 HR%

LaPorta - 2011
.247 BA / .299 OBP / .412 SLG / .711 OPS / 97 OPS+ / .309 wOBA
9.1 XBH%, 22.6 K%, 6.0 BB%, and 2.9 HR%

Now, did Mark Trumbo have a better 2011 season than LaPorta did?
Of course (and Trumbo’s a year younger), but Trumbo posted a lower OBP than LaPorta with a similar K rate, a lower BB rate, and hitting about the same amount of extra-base hits as LaPorta per Plate Appearance. If we’re looking for a decided upgrade from LaPorta, as nice as Trumbo’s 29 HR last year looks, there are some major red flags there. According to some reports, Trumbo may not even be available as he’s allegedly being pegged to play 3B, so this may all be moot, but Trumbo seems to me to be a player that (to borrow a Wedgism) “ran into one” more often that LaPorta did last year, with the two players being more similar than you would hope if Trumbo is being seen as an obvious upgrade.

What does that mean in the search for a 1B?
Well, it means that we still wait for the other chips (Fielder, Pena, etc.) to fall to see what may be available or to look at a player like the Mets’ Daniel Murphy, whose 2011 actually compares favorably with the two names attached to the Indians as “solutions” at 1B/LF:
Daniel Murphy – 2011
.320 BA / .362 OBP / .448 SLG / .810 OPS / 125 OPS+ / .350 wOBA

Josh Willingham – 2011
.246 BA / .332 OBP / .477 SLG / .809 OPS / 121 OPS+ / .350 wOBA

Mike Cuddyer - 2011
.284 BA / .346 OBP / .459 SLG / .805 OPS / 121 OPS+ .354 wOBA

Maybe those numbers from Murphy are an aberration and maybe he is just a Jason Donald type who has seen success in MLB, but his cost would certainly be less than that tied to Willingham or Cuddyer. Now, it is worth mentioning that Murphy tore his left ACL last August (which would come into play given the other injury issues on the roster), but last year he played 1B, 2B, 3B, and LF for the Mets, perhaps providing some versatility that the Indians could utilize. There have been rumblings that the Mets are willing to shop him (and they need bullpen help) despite the fact that he won’t be arbitration eligible until after next season and is under club control through the 2015 season, so perhaps the Indians could find a match there to add a player that may be as productive (if not as well-known) as Cuddyer or Willingham and one who wouldn’t be on the downslope of his career and represents more of a long-term addition to the burgeoning core. While it is true that Murphy is LH, if he’s not going to cost the Indians a 3-year deal at $8M to $10M a year and provide the versatility (and perhaps production) that looks so attractive with Willingham and Cuddyer, his is a name to remember.

Another name to consider came by way of LGT’s Adam Van Arsdale, who mentioned Boston’s Josh Reddick as a possible target if the Red Sox are looking to upgrade their bullpen. As is the case with Daniel Murphy, Reddick may not have the cache of a Willingham or Cuddyer, but consider what B-Pro’s Kevin Goldstein wrote recently about Reddick and fellow Boston OF Ryan Kalish:
Kalish and Reddick have come up together through the Red Sox system and have similar potential as corner outfielders. Kalish is the more athletic of the pair, but Reddick has more power and the stronger arm. As of right now, Reddick is the starting right fielder in Boston, but as one scout put it, “They’re both good enough to play every day in the big leagues… just not for the Red Sox.” Both could be involved in potential deals that return older, more expensive upgrades.

Now, everyone remembers Ryan Kalish because he played Pete Rose to Carlos Santana’s Ray Fosse (to critical derision) a couple of years ago, but Reddick is intriguing as he’s 24 years old, was ranked as the 75th best prospect in MLB prior to the 2010 season and is coming off of a 2011 season in which he posted a .784 OPS and a .335 wOBA and while those numbers may not jump off of the page, the Indians (still) need a versatile OF. Reddick played all three OF positions last year and (though he too is LH) could slide into the LF/insurance for Grady spot that is currently occupied by Duncan, Donald, and Zeke.

Both Murphy and Reddick could represent the long-term options that Gaby Sanchez would (hey Prince…have you met Ozzie?) and adding a player like them would benefit the team…as would Marlon Byrd, who may be more available with David DeJesus is on the North Side. If it seems sad that these are the players that are being brought up, realize that the Indians need to be cognizant of their current state, but also the future incarnations of the team, particularly in light of the new TV deal in Anaheim (and Arlington) and the money that’s going to be flowing through the FA market, perhaps at a rate that is going to (gasp) increase.

Regardless of how depressing the TV deal in Anaheim may be for the long-term health of the sport we love, there are still some moves to be made by the Tribe and, as much as most in the local media can’t get their FA blinders off as they seem to ONLY follow these FA, the Indians still have some fungible pieces (both Perezes, Cord Phelps, perhaps Joe Smith) that could re-make the parent club’s roster to make it more competitive not only for 2012 but beyond.

Those moves might amount to “tweaking” or could be full-scale “reshuffling” (in the bullpen), but the Indians have the opportunity to make a push in the AL Central as their young players mature and establish themselves. How they augment that group of young talent could go a long way in determining when the next legitimate playoff shot comes on the shores of Lake Erie, particularly considering a TV revenue landscape in MLB that is spinning wildly out of control.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

A Lazy Sunday with the New CBA

A Note From Paul:
As you may have noticed, the posting has become a bit more sporadic around these parts as my “big step back” has certainly afforded me some nice decompression time, even if it hasn’t completely removed me from the equation. Since this site started in 2005, it has always provided me the cathartic outlet to write about the Indians and, while this has never been the most…um, interactive site on these Interwebs, this has been a labor of love to foster an intelligent place to read and dissect the Indians and since I think that I’ve accomplished that to some degree, it is not something that I’m willing to simply fade away.

Truthfully, this desire to keep the site active is tied to the fact that I think that this place provides an alternative to the website for the only newspaper in a one-paper town posting “stories” that simply link to an out-of-touch and irrelevant writer like Ingraham or (worse) post a reader comment as a “story” with a headline as groundbreaking as “Indians Still Need to Get Better – Comment of the Day” to stir the pot of discontent or attempt still dictate public opinion in a town with a major inferiority complex by appealing to the lowest common denominator.

At this point, I’m proud that the amount of RSS “followers” that subscribe to the site dwarfs the numbers that similar sites (and even mainstream media members) boast and the Twitter followers (as infrequently as I’m on Twitter) show that there is interest in continuing to visit this place more frequently than once every couple of weeks. With that in mind, I’m going to start to fold in some regular contributors to the site and the obvious first addition is Al Ciammaichella, who has filled in for me in the past on Lazy Sundays and who has written extensively on the Indians’ farm system. Al’s writing is insightful and entertaining and I think that he’s a welcome addition to the full-time cycle of stories that will continue to post here. The posting still doesn’t figure to be nearly as regimented or as regular as it has been (so hit up the RSS feed or follow on Twitter), but in this age of instant information and 140-character “analysis”, this site will remain what it has always been – a place for similarly-minded Indians’ fanatics looking for something more, in terms of insight and analysis.

With that, here’s Al with a great piece on the newly signed CBA and the impact that it figures to have on OUR Cleveland Indians…


Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Union quietly negotiated a new collective bargaining agreement over the past few months, and announced on November 22 that they have a deal that will extend labor tranquility for the next five years.
This ensures that MLB will continue to operate without a work stoppage of any kind since the 1994/1995 strike wiped out the ’94 playoffs and the beginning of the ’95 season. It’s the longest such streak in professional sports, which is a good thing. Some of the provisions in the new CBA though, seem somewhat short-sighted and may serve to hurt small-market clubs like the Indians. In fact, the deal takes options off the table for small-market clubs and does virtually nothing to correct the massive revenue imbalance that currently exists between the big-market teams like New York and Boston and the smaller-market clubs such as the Indians and Pirates. Given an opportunity to fix a clearly broken system, the players looked out for their own salaries and the owners took an opportunity to line their own pockets at the expense of amateur athletes.

The Good

First, let’s hit the high points in the new CBA. One change that I fully endorse is moving up the signing date for Rule 4 draft picks from mid-August to mid-July. Most of the high $$ players signed at the deadline anyways, with several of them having deals in place in advance but having to hold off on announcing them because MLB didn’t like them going over the “suggested” slot. The earlier signing date means that more players will sign in time to make their professional debuts the sam

The second change that I’m in favor of is increasing the use of instant replay to fair/foul and trapped/caught balls in the outfield. The goal is to get the call right, and hopefully this will save baseball the potential of further embarrassment by the on-field performance of an umpire. Ball/strike and safe/out calls are still not reviewable.e year they are drafted, rather than having to wait until the following season. This means they will develop a little quicker, and really means that we’ll get to see them play sooner, which is my major reason to like the change. The mid-August date always seemed arbitrary and pointless, so might as well have an arbitrary date earlier in the process.

To throw a bone to the small market clubs out there, baseball has instituted a “competitive balance lottery.” Basically, it’s welfare.

5. Competitive Balance Lottery

A. For the first time, Clubs with the lowest revenues and in the smallest markets will have an opportunity to obtain additional draft picks through a lottery.
B. The ten Clubs with the lowest revenues, and the ten Clubs in the smallest markets, will be entered into a lottery for the six draft selections immediately following the completion of the first round of the draft. A Club's odds of winning the lottery will be based on its prior season's winning percentage.
C. The eligible Clubs that did not receive one of the six selections after the first round, and all other payee Clubs under the Revenue Sharing Plan, will be entered into a second lottery for the six picks immediately following the completion of the second round of the draft. A Club's odds of winning the lottery will be based on its prior season's winning per

D. Picks awarded in the Competitive Balance Lottery may be assigned by a Club, subject to certain restrictions.

So the teams in the 10 smallest markets get entered into the lottery (good), as well as the teams with the 10 lowest revenues (bad). I understand the small market idea, but I have no clue why MLB wants to reward teams for not making money. While it is true that revenue is to a point tied to your market size, teams in small markets can still perform well and make money (see Tampa Bay for the latest example). So I like the idea, just not a huge fan of the execution.

The final point I’ll cover here is a brief one, but one that Indians fans should care about. Any player who is arrested for a DUI will undergo mandatory evaluation by the league. I’m not clear on what this mandatory evaluation will consist of, or if it will cause the player to miss any games on the field, but this is a good thing. We all remember the Miggy Cabrera incident from spring training last year, and of course the S.S. Choo DUI from midseason that he admittedly had trouble moving past. These incidents are bad publicity for the league, the team, the player involved, and more importantly they are just plain unsafe. Hopefully this serves to stem what appeared to be an increasing tide of alcohol related incidents involving MLB employees, and we never see a Leonard Little type incident where an MLB player actually kills somebody behind the wheel while drunk. It should serve to increase awareness, decrease incidents, and allow those involved to receive appropriate counseling and move past it. Aaaaaaand I’m off my soapbox.

The Bad

Now, we come to the not so nice side of the new CBA. Bud Selig stated publicly that his #1 priority in the negotiations was to “fix the Rule 4 draft.” What exactly he was trying to “fix” is unclear, as I don’t think anyone was really thinking that the draft was broken other than Selig himself. So what we ended up with was this; a “luxury tax” on teams spending more than the commissioner’s instituted limits on how much each team can spend on the draft. Here’s how it looks like on paper:

3. Signing Bonus Pools
A. Each Club will be assigned an aggregate Signing Bonus Pool prior to each draft. For the purpose of calculating the Signing Bonus Pools, each pick in the first 10 rounds of the draft has been assigned a value. (These values will grow each year with the rate of growth of industry revenue.) A Club's Signing Bonus Pool equals the sum of the values of that Club's selections in the first 10 rounds of the draft. Players selected after the 10th round do not count against a Club's Signing Bonus Pool if they receive bonuses up to $100,000. Any amounts paid in excess of $100,000 will count against the Po

B. Clubs that exceed their Signing Bonus Pools will be subject to penalties as follows:
Excess of Pool Penalty (Tax on Overage/Draft Picks)
• 0-5 percent; 75 percent tax on overage
• 5-10 percent; 75 percent tax on overage and loss of 1st round pick
• 10-15 percent; 100 percent tax on overage and loss of 1st and 2nd round picks
• 15-plus percent; 100 percent tax on overage and loss of 1st round picks in next two drafts

So the teams picking earlier in the draft will have more $$ to spend overall than the teams picking later, but there are some pretty severe penalties for going over your limits by as little as 6%. Also, if you miss out on signing a pick, you can’t bank the $$ for overslot signings later in the draft, you just lose the opportunity to spend the money. So if the Indians dare to go overslot on signing their 1st round pick and then go on to sign high-upside guys later in the draft for overslot, they will pay up to double for their trouble, not to mention lose their 1st round draft pick in the following season. Again, let me stress that the commissioner’s office has decided that the draft, the easiest and cheapest way for teams to add elite talent, should be rigged so that teams cannot add the most amount of talent, to the point where teams lose their 1st-round pick if they dare go over Lord Selig’s recommended spending level. Per Baseball America’s Jim Calis, a whopping twenty teams (including the Indians) would have been 16% or more over the recommended bonus pool this year, which would put them in the highest possible tax bracket and cost them a pair of draft picks. I’ve always advocated overslot spending in the draft as the best possible way for a small market team like the Indians to compete, and now that advantage is being taken away by King Bud in his attempt to “fix” the draft. You could even argue that the change benefits teams from the larger TV markets, as they can afford to spend overslot, pay the tax, give up the pick(s) and then just do the same thing next year. Because if you think this will cause agents like Scott Boras to take a step back and start asking for lower bonus money, you’ve got another thing coming. So this could actually force the higher level talent to the big-budget teams, because only they will be able to afford to select them and pay the accompanying luxury taxes. So how exactly does this “fix” the draft? A draft that wasn’t broken in the first place? Beats me. For what it’s worth, the tax revenue and lost draft picks will go to teams that don’t go over the cap. I’m going to break a personal rule here and link to a Pittsburgh paper, because Pirates writer Dejan Kovacevic really hits the nail on the head in his piece looking at the same issue. I hated Selig’s unnecessary slot recommendations, I hated how his office forced teams and players to keep the lid on deals that they had agreed to for weeks at a time, and now I hate the latest changes he’s made with respect to the Rule 4 Draft. To say that I’m not a Bud Selig fan right now would be a bit of an understatement.

As if that weren’t enough, MLB has decided to “fix” the international free agent signing process in much the same way. Here’s the new rule, in its entirety:

5 f. International Talent Acquisition
1. By December 15, 2011, the parties will form an International Talent Committee to discuss the development and acquisition of international players, including the potential inclusion of international amateur players in a draft or in multiple drafts.
2. For the 2012-13 signing season, each Club will be allocated an equal Signing Bonus Pool.
3. For each signing period after 2012-13, Clubs will be allocated different Signing Bonus Pools, based on reverse order of winning percentage the prior championship season (i.e., the Club with the lowest winning percentage the prior season shall receive the largest Pool).
4. Bonus Regulation of International Amateur Players
A. Beginning in the 2013-2014 signing period (July 2, 2013 - June 15, 2014), Clubs may trade a portion of their Signing Bonus Pool, subject to certain restrictions.
B. Clubs that exceed their Signing Bonus Pools will be subject to the following penalties in the 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 signing periods: Excess of Pool Penalty (Tax on Overage/Draft Picks)
• 0-5percent; 75 percent tax
• 5-10 percent; 75 percent tax and loss of right to provide more than one player in the next signing period with a bonus in excess of $500,000.
• 10-15 percent; 100 percent tax and loss of right to provide any player in the next signing period with a bonus in excess of $500,0000.
• 15-plus percent; 100 percent tax and loss of right to provide any player in the next signing period with a bonus in excess of $250,000.
C. The penalties for exceeding the Signing Bonus Pool will increase beginning with the 2014-2015 signing period if a draft or drafts is not agreed to by July 2014.

So basically, starting next year, teams will get to spend $2.9 million on international free agents. Per team. Total. So teams like the Texas Rangers, who have invested heavily in their international facilities, scouting, and signing will now have to go from spending $17.6 million like they did last season alone to about 1/6th of that starting next year or face draconian penalties. Much like the draft, international scouting and signings have been seen as a way for smaller market teams to get some more bang for their buck in terms of elite talent. Texas, Cincy, Cleveland, Seattle, Toronto and Boston have historically been among some of the big spenders in Latin America. With the exception of Boston and Texas, those are small market teams. New York no longer needs to worry about spending time and money in their international scouting budget to keep up. More savings for them to waste money on crappy starting pitching in the free agent market. Potential advantage, lost. Not to mention the Latin American athletes who will now be more drawn to soccer and basketball as alternatives to baseball with the bonuses drying up. So for those of you who were thinking that the team could shift draft resources to the international market, no dice.

If you thought this was it, and there was no way the new CBA could possibly have any more provisions that hurt the Indians, I’m afraid I have one more. The new CBA raises the league minimum salary 16%, from $414,000 to $480,000, beginning in 2012. For most teams, that won’t make too much of a difference. But as Jon over at WFNY points out, the Indians had 16 players making the league minimum on their 40-man roster, most in the American League last year. If this year’s roster is similarly constructed, that’s an additional $1 million plus in salary flexibility that the Indians lose without making a single move. For a team that has less than $10 million to play with overall, more than 10% of the FA budget is toast because of the raise. Cause, you know, it’s awfully hard to survive on JUST $414,000 a year, plus per diem. Thank God they stepped in and bumped that up.

The Undecided

Not all of the provisions in the new CBA are necessarily good or bad. Some I am just plain undecided on, or really don’t care about. The ones I don’t care about, such as the Astros moving to the AL, I’m just not going to talk any further about. Some though, have a potential to effect the Indians and baseball as a whole as the years go by, so I’ll at least touch on several of them here.

The players and owners agreed on a HGH testing program for the first time.

Commencing in Spring Training 2012, all players will be subject to hGH blood testing for reasonable cause at all times during the year. In addition, during each year, all players will be tested during Spring Training. Starting with the 2012-2013 off-season, players will be subject to random unannounced testing for hGH. The parties have also agreed on a process to jointly study the possibility of expanding blood testing to include inseason collections.

Sounds great, right? Well, it’s a little unclear on a couple of points. Not to sound like a lawyer, but what does “reasonable cause” mean? I know about probable cause, and I know about reasonable suspicion, but I’ve never heard of reasonable cause. Also, the blood test can only pick up HGH if it has been in the system in the past 3 days. So unless a player is actively using, the test really isn’t going to be effective. It’s really more of a PR move than anything, but I’ll hold off on any harsher judgment for now.

MLB has also decided to change the way they give out compensation picks for free agent losses. The Type-A/Type-B designation is done away with, and now compensation is tied entirely to the offer that the team losing the free agent makes to the player. If the team doesn’t offer at least a guaranteed 1-year contract equal to the average of the 125 highest paid players in baseball, then there’s no compensation for losing the free agent. Here’s the text of the new provision:

b. Draft Pick Compensation
1. Starting in 2012, "Type A" and "Type B" free agents and the use of the Elias ranking system will be eliminated.

A. Only Players who have been with their Clubs for the entire season will be subject to compensation.

B. A free agent will be subject to compensation if his former Club offers him a guaranteed one-year contract with a salary equal to the average salary of the 125-highest paid Players from the prior season. The offer must be made at the end of the five-day free agent "quiet period," and the Player will have seven days to accept the offer.

C. A Club that signs a player subject to compensation will forfeit its first round selection, unless it selects in the top 10, in which case it will forfeit its second-highest selection in the draft.

D. The Player's former Club will receive a selection at the end of the first round beginning after the last regularly scheduled selection in the round. The former Clubs will select based on reverse order of winning percentage from the prior championship season.

This would mean that a team would have to offer about $12 million or more to a player in order to qualify for draft pick compensation. So if Sizemore comes back and has a solid but not great season and gets a 3-year, $33 million offer from the Red Sox and the Indians don’t offer him at least $12 million for one season, no draft pick compensation when he leaves. This is a pretty neutral change overall; the Red Sox were known for exploiting the draft pick compensation loophole, and a lot of middling relief pitchers and #4 starters ended up garnering draft pick compensation for no real reason. If the Indians develop and lose a real free agent of note down the road, they’ll likely at least make the token $12 million offer in order to be compensated.

The third provision of the CBA that I’m undecided on is the inclusion of an additional wildcard team, starting as soon as 2012. The two wild club teams will now play a one-game playoff for the right to be THE wild card team in each league. Unfortunately, this was not in place in 2000 when the Indians finished a game out of the playoffs. It’s a way for MLB to add drama down the stretch and say that they’re more balanced than they really are by adding another “playoff” team. I’m not a huge fan, but I’m not dead-set against it either. We’ll see how it works out.

The silliest provision in the new CBA, to me at least, is the rule banning all forms of tobacco from all major and minor league dugouts and the playing field once the gates have been open to the fans. Look, I don’t use chewing tobacco. Never have. My teammates in college sure did, but I never got into the stuff, mainly because I think it’s disgusting and causes cancer. But MLB is overreacting by banning the substance from the field entirely. If these guys want to chew, let them chew. I know of very few kids who have started dipping just because their favorite big league ballplayer has a can of snuff in their back pocket on the diamond. Trust kids to be smarter than that. Trust that they can make their own decisions. Don’t take the ability to choose away from the players on the field. That’s just a gross overreaction, and is typical of Selig’s mentality.

So there you have it, sports fans. The new CBA in a nutshell. A really, really long nutshell. Selig and the players union thought it was more important to line their own pockets than to even the playing field with respect to small and large market teams, and the only player population that will suffer are the amateurs, who (surprise surprise) had no voice in the negotiations since they are of course not in the players union yet. Funny how that works out. They “leveled the playing field” in the draft and the international FA market, traditionally the two cheapest methods of adding elite talent to a ballclub, but did nothing to curb free agent spending, the most expensive method and the method in which the Indians cannot hope to be significant players. The new CBA is a win for labor peace, and a win for big-market teams like the Red Sox, Yankees and Mets at the expense of the little guys. It’s now easier to put together a ballclub if you’re rich, and more difficult to do so if you’re smart. Thanks a lot, Bud.