Sunday, August 26, 2012

A Lazy Sunday on The Freefall & The Road Ahead

In the first game after the All-Star game, Justin Masterson combined with Vinnie Pestano and Chris Perez to shut out the Blue Jays in the first game of the series in Toronto, bringing the Tribe’s record on the year to 45-41, three games back in the AL Central.  It represented a positive first step as the Indians embarked on the second half of their season, particularly with Masterson’s start providing some hope that the front-end-of-the-rotation, which had been inconsistent all season, would settle into some sort of groove and propel the Indians to a consistent pattern of winning with the AL Central looking more winnable with each passing day in early July.

The next game, Ubaldo lasted only 2 1/3 innings giving up 8 earned runs paced by 7 hits allowed, 4 walks allowed and 2 HR allowed as the Tribe would fall to former Tribe LH Aaron Laffey and the Blue Jays.  Though many did not know it at the time, the Indians’ season would never get back on track as they have now gone 10-30 since Masterson’s victory the previous day, winning 25% of their games over the course of the next 6 weeks as the Indians’ season and any “hope” for the Indians’ future (short-and-long-term) became dimmer with each passing loss.  There were a few moments when “hope” returned – notably the 7th inning against Verlander – but for the most part, the Indians’ season has reached levels of desperation and despair that I can’t remember feeling as an Indians’ fan…and it all happened over the course of about a month and a half.

For a fanbase that never really bought into the start of the season, the last six weeks has resulted in a level of disenchantment, apathy, and outright anger about an organization that now finds themselves facing some very difficult questions, where it would seem that nobody involved in this absolute freefall will be excluded from assessment…and nor should they be.  Yes, I know that almost everyone from the Indians attended Manny Acta’s charity event and things were said Paul Dolan about how nobody’s jobs were in jeopardy, which was groused over and overanalyzed in all corners, but what did anyone expect Paul Dolan to say about the Front Office or the manager – whose CHARITY EVENT he was attending – in terms about their future?

What would have been accomplished had he said, “we’re a mess…this obviously isn’t working and people IN THIS ROOM are going to get fired for this disaster of a season”?

That’s not to say that I know that this guy or that guy won’t be around come November though frankly, I’m not sure how Acta/Antonetti/Shapiro survive(s) this season with the recent performance and this growing feeling of a disconnect between manager and Front Office – Antonetti’s comment a while back that “THESE players need to play better” show you everything you need to know about what he thinks about the assembled talent – leads me to believe that the blow-up that’s coming may not be limited to the 25-man roster regardless of any statements made at The Corner Alley at the end of August, and both “blow-ups” are looking more and more necessary and inevitable.  While you certainly wouldn’t have guessed that back around the Fourth of July, when the Tribe was only a few games out of the AL Central race, what’s happened since – with multiple extended losing streaks and with a homestand that could get U-G-L-Y in the coming week – usually causes changes to be made, regardless of any “progress” that can be pointed to or any larger “plan” that is used to justify the end result.

Because that “end result” as we’ve seen over the last month is about as bad as I can remember for a team that was in contention mid-season, just simply falling off a cliff without an obvious injury or regression to point to as the impetus for the sudden descent.  And that’s why I think everyone is so shell-shocked here because the team that we’ve seen over the last month is the same team – in terms of lineup, rotation, and bullpen – that overachieved their way into contention for nearly 3 months.  Now that “overachievement” is undeniable, but the Indians actually made upgrades to the team that was vying for 1st place for a couple of months, in terms of adding McAllister and Allen to the mix, and still the team has simply fallen off of the table at an unprecedented rate.

Again, I’m not going to get into the minutia of why that might have happened as I think that the topic has been…um, delved into a couple of times over the last week, but it is interesting to note an exercise that Joe Posnanski did in analyzing WAR for all MLB teams to this point in the season and how the contributions of individual players have played out in terms of teams’ records.  You may not like WAR or understand WAR or may not want to understand WAR and Posnanski’s piece is a great introduction to anyone who has any of those feelings, but his findings – particularly on the Tribe – are telling.  Personally, I’m probably what Posnanski identifies as a “WAR agnostic”, who thinks “that it’s a stat in progress, that there are good and bad things about it, that it’s hardly one-stop stat shopping but that it adds to the picture”, particularly when it comes to using the stat to measure the performance of a player over half-of-a-season or even over a full season, but what Posnanski found about the Indians’ offense and pitching is worth noting, particularly in the context of the rest of MLB and in light of Acta’s recent declaration that the Indians need 3 more bats to compete, because Posnanski’s exercise concluded that:
The Indians offense -- led by Shin Soo Choo, Carlos Santana, Michael Brantley, Asdrubal Cabrera and Jason Kipnis -- actually rates higher than Detroit or Chicago. And that’s what’s keeping them from a historically bad season. That pitching staff is performing poorly enough to lose 110.

“That pitching staff” now has a 4.80 ERA, which ranks as the 10th worst in club’s 112-year history and while my feelings on the short-and-long-term expectations for the pitching staff are well-documented, what I keep coming back to as we watch this trainwreck of a month of baseball is that – short of major FA additions and assuming they stand pat on the trade front – what we’re currently seeing is what is lined up for 2013, particularly in the rotation.  Yes, you have Carrasco coming back (as well as Lonnie on the offensive side) and you have a full season of McAllister instead of Tomlin as well as a presumed full year of Fauxberto instead of Lowe with the likes of Kluber, Gomez, and the other litany of young arms that may or may not pan out or even make it to MLB without a trip to Dr. Lewis Yocum or Dr. James Andrews.

But if you’re looking at essentially the same team coming back, particularly in the rotation – and I threw out the idea that they needed to add an arm via FA a couple of weeks back, before things went from bad to worse – why are we to expect much different results than a pitching staff that, as Posnanski writes, “is performing poorly enough to lose 110” games?

Essentially, what you’re hoping for at that point is best-case scenarios out of Masterson, Ubaldo, and Fauxberto for next year and that looks more than a little hopeful, as here’s what a couple of scouts had to say to B-Pro’s John Perrotto over the last couple of weeks on Jimenez and (in a bit) #55:
Indians right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez: “It seems like most of the time he wants to be anywhere in the world but on the mound. He doesn’t give 100 percent very often. He’s become an embarrassment to himself with his lack of focus and effort.”

And that’s the killer on the Ubaldo deal as I think that the Tribe Front Office saw the gaping hole on this 2012-2013 team at the top of their rotation, in need of that “stopper” that was so obviously lacking to prevent long losing streaks…ahem, and for the rest of the rotation to feed off of.  They took the “bird in the hand” in Ubaldo over the “two in the bush” in White and Pomz and Ubaldo – the purported “known” quantity – now has the second-highest ERA in the AL among qualified starters.  So, while his acquisition was meant to settle the team’s biggest need in the short-term, what he’s done since arriving (particularly this year) when coupled with what it took to get him has put in the Indians in the hole in the short-and-long-term in terms of their rotation as he continues to confound and enrage as he flails away and doesn’t seem to care about what’s happening or show much interest in improving.  If you think that’s projection, realize that Ubaldo had this to say about his increased HR rate this year, “It’s crazy…I don’t know what it is. I guess it’s just that every time I fall behind in the count, I try to throw a fastball in there and they’re hacking hard and getting it out of the park.”

Just to make sure I have his quote right here, a pitcher that has thrown a little more than 1,050 innings in MLB is surprised that “every time (he) falls behind in the count” and tries to “throw a fastball in there”, the hitter is waiting for said fastball and resorts to “hacking hard and getting it out of the park”.  The scouts’ words that Ubaldo has “become an embarrassment” is spot-on as I don’t think that there’s much doubt that Ubaldo’s failure to (or reluctance to) make adjustments to his approach has led to his disastrous time here as well as Radinsky’s dismissal.

Indians right-hander Roberto Hernandez: “I wasn’t a fan of before he got busted for using a false name (Fausto Carmona) and being three years older than he claimed, and I’m not holding out hope that he’s going to anything more than he is now—a guy who will tease with some good games but generally be a below-average starting pitcher on a bad team.

Now, I will give you that this is just the opinion of one scout talking to Perrotto, but does anyone who has watched Fauxberto since 2008 think any differently?

That’s 40% of the assumed rotation for 2013, and the veteran part at that, and think back to how those 2005 to 2007 teams won – with strong starting pitching – and look at how the A’s and the Rays (and this is good stuff on pitcher development in Tampa) and the other “small-market darlings” are winning these days, with young, top-of-the-rotation talent under club control acquired incompletely different ways that will be around for a while and you start to see where the pessimism sinks in as the Indians don’t have that young stable of ready-to-compete-in-MLB arms and are left with two pitchers whose best days are obviously behind them. 

And that’s where the frustration comes in when you think about the construction of the future of the rotation in the past 5 years, because the Indians made three big bets on their starting rotation since the beginning of the 2007 season – they extended Westbrook, extended Fausto, then after it was seemingly “re-built”, they made the move to get Ubaldo.  

With Fausto and Ubaldo likely to be in this rotation next year because of their “affordable” options (and they actually are if you look at what veteran FA pitchers get on the open market), to see Jake Westbrook inking an extension in St. Louis is to realize that the one that doesn’t factor into the 2013 plans for the Tribe is likely to be the best pitcher next year…albeit in St. Louis.  And, as a quick aside here, does anyone else think that after the Indians paid Jake $31M for 162 1/3 IP over three years, now seeing him top that TOTAL inning total in each of the last two years for the Cardinals, that we may have an organizational rationale to perhaps (gulp) keep Grady and Hafner around next year because they’re afraid of seeing something similar happen with Grady and Hafner if they cut them loose…which they so obviously should?

Regardless and back to the matter at hand, the Indians face major hurdles this off-season to improve upon what we’re seeing now and some bold moves may be in the offing to perhaps jump over those hurdles or at least not lead to the bloody hands and knees that we’re seeing now.  Though I think it’s pretty well-established that Chris Perez is not long for the Indians and the argument to keep Choo for next year – or even half of next year – loses steam with each mounting loss with even the Indians reportedly feeling that way, the move that is suddenly looking more likely to me is what’s been suggested in many places to add in an effort to add more talent (namely pitching) to the current group, and that’s to trade Asdrubal this off-season.

Over at LGT, Ryan Richards has a great piece on Asdrubal as the #84 Indian of All-Time, complete with the lead-up to Asdrubal’s arrival on the North Coast, and though it feels like not that long ago that we were looking at potential FA to ADD to this group or players scheduled to be FA after this year as potential trade targets, we’re forced to go in the opposite direction because of what has transpired over the course of the last month as the Indians need to not only review their organizational set-up, but they need to analyze and make very hard decisions on players on the 25-man roster, particularly players that aren’t under club control as long as the likes of Santana and Kipnis are and decide how to handle those players this off-season.

This is brought up because it was reported that the Arizona Diamondbacks, having just traded Stephen Drew, are in the market for a SS this off-season and it may not be one that they’re going to find on the FA market:
“We’ve been thinking about (next year's shortstop) all year already,” General Manager Kevin Towers said. “There’s not a lot on the free-agent market, so more than likely it’s going to take a trade. We’ll probably have to trade a good player -- or a couple of good players -- to find one.”

Now, this is brought up because if the Indians are open to trading Choo for the right package, you’d have to think that they’d at least listen to offers for Cabrera, who is only under club control for one year longer than Choo, with an extension already in his pocket meaning he’s unlikely to sign another one to remain an Indian.  Even more than that, this Diamondbacks’ report is relevant because Arizona is FLUSH with young arms like Trevor Bauer, Archie Bradley, Tyler Skaggs, and Patrick Corbin, among others, with Bauer (21 years old), Skaggs (20 years old and LH), and Corbin (22 years old and also LH) making their MLB debuts this year.  Now, it is true that Bauer was #11on B-Pro’s preseason top prospect list, “graduating” from that list by making it to MLB, and that Bradley was #18 and Skaggs was #19 on Kevin Goldstein’s mid-season top 50 list a couple of weeks ago, so wishing for any of that trio for two years of Asdrubal may represent pie-in-the-sky wishing.

But given that the Snakes have Wade Miley (their #10 prospect going into the season and currently sitting on a 2.80 ERA in his first full year) and Trevor Cahill topping their rotation with Ian Kennedy still on board for a while, Arizona might be willing to part with some of their pitching depth to acquire an elite offensive SS if they’re serious about making a push in the next couple of years.  If they are, the Indians might be wise to explore such a deal in an effort to add an arm/multiple arms at the upper levels that might be able to contribute/begin maturing immediately for the parent club with an eye towards some place past 2013 or maybe even 2014.

To do it, they’d be sacrificing the offensive contributions of Asdrubal for the next couple of years, as he is signed through 2014 and while most thought that the control that the Indians gained in his extension aligned nicely with an ETA for Francisco Lindor (prospect slobbering over Lindor here from B-Pro’s Jason Parks) to eventually replace him, if the Indians need to revamp this roster – and particularly add upper-level arms that project as more than 5th-man fodder – considering a deal for Cabrera should be considered as most teams would be interested in him playing on what would be a 2-year, $16.5M deal that would control his age-27 and age-28 seasons and paying a premium in terms of players/prospects to add him.

In terms of what the Indians would do at SS prior to the arrival of Lindor or Ronny Rodriguez, they would have Lillibridge and Donald as obvious replacements which are…well, more than a little uninspiring.  Or they have a player like Juan Diaz, who has suddenly become a pretty interesting guy as he’s a switch-hitter who is just 23 years old, holding his own in both AA and AAA this year.  Maybe the Indians have something in him (he has 13 HR and 24 2B in 104 games on the year as a 23-year-old SS in the upper levels) or maybe they don’t (he is averaging a K per game in MiLB), but if 2013 doesn’t look like a year where contention is likely, much less plausible, he might be a somewhat-suitable replacement, particularly if the Indians can turn 2 years of Asdrubal into players that would be able to step in and contribute with their years of control aligning more closely with Kipnis, Santana, Brantley, and Pestano than those of Choo, Perez, and Masterson.

Would that be a “bold” move?
Of course, but after the events of the last month, isn’t there a sense that a “bold” move is what’s necessary?

Maybe that “bold” move involves sweeping out the Front Office – parts of it or maybe all of it…though I think “parts” is more likely – and changing organizational philosophy because a simple managerial change doesn’t represent a “bold” move by most standards.  Those “bold” moves though should extend to the 25-man roster as the current 25-man roster is exactly what we’re looking at for the 2013 season and to expect better performance from the same players – particularly on the pitching side – with few additions is to ignore reality and rely on “hope” as a plan.

Because as we’ve found out over the last month, “hope” is not really a plan…


CLohse said...

Anybody read Jonah Keri on Grantland today? I appreciated the candor and reference it here as it relates directly to the idea of the Indians' rebuilding phase that is, doubtless, on the horizon.

One question I'd ask is whether we should pity the Indians' small market woes or, rather, think of them as simply less fortunate than the mighty Yanks (and others). I'm pretty sure that, overall, the owners of the Tribe aren't loosing money. Just sayin'...

CLohse said...

It occurs to me also that, with the Dodgers soon to shoot way over the luxury tax barrier, there is another question to ask: IF the Dodgers win a bunch of games going forward, WILL the Sox, Yanks, Angels et. al. follow them into luxury tax territory in an effort to stay competitive? If/when this happens, what will that do to the budgets of teams like the Indians and their ilk?

Clecago Joe said...

After reading the first paragraph, I realized that the worst case scenario occurred this year. Our run differential of over -70 at the ASB was a blazing siren that the wheels were going to come off at some point but our record didn't allow the front office to sell off the parts that would be useless post-2012 (I know, not much there anyway). We were stuck in no mans land. Guess it could have been worse. The FO could have ignored the run differential and actually been trade deadline buyers.

Paul Cousineau said...

That's stunning stuff in terms of the Dodgers and the TV money floating around. Now, with the new ESPN TV deal announced, I'll focus on that this week instead of...blech, what's happening on the field.

CLohse said...

Here's another question to ponder on if you're so inclined: If the Tribe is going to build through the draft going forward, and we can expect a single draft to provide two above average players to the bigs in a good year, how many years in a row do the Indians need to have good drafts in order to be competitive with a young, cheap squad?

Hyde said...

Essentially, what you’re hoping for at that point is best-case scenarios out of Masterson, Ubaldo, and Fauxberto for next year and that looks more than a little hopeful...

Fair enough, but would that be any more unlikely than what happened with Cliff Lee during the 2007-08 offseason? If Jimenez's issues are mental and mechanical and not physical, then it's something that can be fixed. Does anyone doubt that if Ubaldo was in the hands of Dave Duncan, he'd be back on top before long? So let's go out and hire a qualified pitching coach this time, rather than simply looking down the list of folks already employed in the organization and seeing whose "turn" it is.

One question I'd ask is whether we should pity the Indians' small market woes or, rather, think of them as simply less fortunate than the mighty Yanks (and others).

The system makes it harder to win in places like Cleveland, and definitely harder to win consistently. But it's not impossible, and since the front office will likely be spending this coming offseason trying to persuade gullible fans of the contrary, it's important to remember this.

Look at it this way: once this current season is over, it's very likely that there will only be two major league teams working on a string of at least 5 straight seasons without a winning record--that's right, just two. Those two: the Royals and the Indians.

CLohse said...

That's fair, I suppose. Personally, I view the Ubaldo trade as a fireable offense.

MTF said...

In the midst of this ugly set of losses, and this five year streak, it is hard to maintain any sort of perspective at all. But it seems certain the starting pitching isn't really this bad, the defensive play can't suck this much, and the offense can't really be this lame. I hope Manny can find some inspiration that works better than "lets go out there and see what happens!", and soon.