Friday, January 27, 2012

Epicenter: Detroit

After Al Pujols spread his Cardinal wings and flew West for summers for the next decade, conventional wisdom seemed to dictate that Prince Fielder, the other FA 1B prize this off-season, would find no shortage of suitors as the Marlins and the Cardinals (among others) were connected to Pujols at one time or another. With Fielder four years younger (at least) than Pujols, it seemed that he would find a home in short order, even if his deal wouldn’t match that of Pujols in terms of years or dollars. However, as days turned into weeks and weeks threatened to turn into months, the Marlins found other uses for their dollars and the Cubs passed on acquiring the Prince. The Rangers hemmed and hawed and the Blue Jays always remained on the periphery as most anticipated Fielder ending up in our nation’s capital, if for no other reason than the fact that Scott Boras (Fielder’s agent) had recently made a number of deals with the Nationals and that Boras would somehow convince the Nats that nine or ten years for Fielder would not burden the franchise the way that the contract of another Boras agent – Jayson Werth – seems destined to.

In Cleveland, the pursuit of Fielder was compelling from the standpoint of the idea that the Indians certainly looked to be interested in adding a 1B, but the market for 1B had stagnated with Prince still on the market. Obviously this is all background information to the events that took place over the last two weeks as news broke from Motown that Victor Martinez had been lost for the season as the window seemed to be opening a bit for the Indians, even if the idea that the Tigers might swoop in and ink a Carlos Pena on a 1-year deal to make up for the loss of Victor started to marinate. While some floated the idea out there that Fielder could perhaps be a short-term fix for the Tigers, that idea was put to rest by Detroit’s GM Dave Dombrowski, who said that Fielder was “not a good fit” for the Tigers.

Of course, we all know what happened next as Prince landed in Detroit (the result of an ongoing relationship between Boras and an organization…just not the Nationals) in a seismic move (must…avoid…weight…joke) that sent shockwaves through the AL Central, with the effect certainly being felt in Cleveland.

Though we’ll certainly get to the effect that the deal has for the Indians, in terms of the 9-year, $214M deal that sent Fielder back to the city where his estranged father made himself famous (although the “best” Tigers’ team that Cecil played for won 85 games, despite the elder Fielder’s slugging prowess in Detroit), the move has been nearly universally panned from a long-term perspective by the cognoscenti around the game from Cliff Corcoran’s piece at SI that the Tigers were “unwise” to ink Prince to Craig Calcaterra’s “All Kinds of Crazy” article that asks many of the pertinent questions when it comes to this deal. Now, it is worth mentioning that most of the harrumphs about this deal from a national perspective focus on the length of the deal, the…um, shape of Prince’s body and the Tigers’ logjam when Victor returns in 2013. Corcoran’s piece goes in-depth into all of this as he concludes that, “all of which makes a nine-year investment in Prince Fielder problematic at any dollar amount”.

Truthfully, I don’t think anyone’s debating that this is going to be an odd amalgamation of players whose best position will all probably eventually be DH in Prince, Miggy, and Vic once Vic returns in 2013. But since the focus of the Indians’ near-term future came into sharper focus with the Ubaldo deal, let’s keep this about 2012 when…um, this isn’t all that problematic for the Motor City Kitties as Fielder and Miggy will sit in the middle of their lineup with Prince making up for the loss of Victor and then some (at least offensively) for the 2012 season. While those not writing the checks to Fielder can talk all day about how the Tigers will rue this deal (eventually) and how Detroit was the destination that perhaps made the least sense (particularly on a long term deal like this), let’s not overlook the fact that Fielder is an elite player and, concerns about his body type considered, he’s missed a TOTAL of 12 games since the beginning of the 2006 season.

What can’t be dismissed in the deal (other than the length) is the effect that it will have on the Tigers’ defensive alignment, particularly with the news that Miggy will be the full-time 3B which should present some “interesting” moments, especially if you consider that the Tigers are committed to Jhonny’s Peraltian stylings at SS, now adding Prince’s lack of range at 1B to and infield for a team that has 3 starting pitchers (Porcello, Penny, Fister) in the top 14 among AL starters in terms of GB rates. While some will attempt to categorize exactly how bad the Tigers’ defense could be with defensive metrics that I don’t trust, please don’t take this to mean that the presumed defensive struggles of the 2012 are going to push them to the AL Central cellar as the reality is that they’re going to hit their way out of many of the problems (and you can include Delmon Young’s continued butchery in LF in there) that their defense may present. That said, it’s not something that can be overlooked in the whole situation as Indians’ fans are far too familiar with how defensive deficiencies at a particular position can frustrate fans and change the tenor and outcome of any number of games.

Of course, they could come to their senses, move one of Fielder or Miggy to DH and limit those defensive concerns in 2012, but that doesn’t change the fact that it remains to be seen how they manage Prince, Miggy, and Victor (particularly with Avila in the fold) in a lineup for 2013 and beyond. But let’s not gaze too far into the future as the Indians stand at the precipice of the 2012 season and the question becomes what the Fielder signing for Detroit means for the Tribe…this year.

Well, there has already been the requisite wailing and gnashing of teeth as most cle.commers have handed the Tigers the 2012 AL Central crown and while I don’t think that the wailing and gnashing is necessarily an irrational response – particularly that when Victor was lost for the 2012 season, the window seemed to creep open a little more – it is certainly premature to throw up one’s hands and concede the division based on this signing. Of course, the Fielder signing for Detroit as a wildly aggressive reaction to a hole in their lineup stands out in stark contrast to the Indians, who have been “targeting” a 1B or OF all off-season, with Aaron Cunningham and a batch of NRI’s (though I do like the signings of Spilborghs and Wheeler) to show for what they’ve added from outside the organization, offensively-speaking. To this point, the Indians stood pat as perhaps they were waiting for Prince to sign to shake out the 1B market, assuming that he was heading to Arlington or the nation’s capital, with some other 1B becoming available as a result or waiting for a Pena, Kotchman, or Lee to come to them after Fielder find a home.

Of course, the events leading up to the Fielder signing are about the worst-case scenario (particularly as Fielder was added to the team that was already assumed to be the AL Central front-runner) for the Tribe and one can’t help but see the unfortunate timing of the Carmona/Hernandez Heredia situation in terms of money that could actually be available to spend. By that I mean that with FC/RHH on the restricted list and with no guarantee that he’s even going to make it back to the US this season (and how long it will take him to get back into game shape should not be discounted in terms of a timeframe), the Indians could ostensibly have about $7M that they had set aside for FC/RHH that could be spent elsewhere. In a cruel turn of events, Carlos Pena signed a one-year deal for $7.25M with the Rays JUST before the FC/RHH situation happened. Now, maybe Pena wasn’t coming to Cleveland regardless of what the Indians offered (and certainly Prince was never coming here), but the Indians are now not only back to square one in terms of still looking to add a 1B, but now they’re forced to do it without Pena on the market and with their chief rival unquestionably improving their 2012 chances by guaranteeing $214M to Fielder.

Now, in the talk of how this affects the Indians, let’s not discount how big of a risk the Tigers are taking here on Fielder as the dollars associated in this deal are HUGE, as passed along by Maury Brown in the middle of a piece at B-Pro:
To place the Fielder deal in perspective, the nine-year, $214 million contract ranks him behind only A-Rod (twice, 2001-10 at $252 million and 2008-17 at $275 million) and Pujols (10-year,$240 million base salary) in terms of total dollars. For first baseman, Fielder crushes the eight-year, $180 million deal that Mark Teixeira reached in 2009. The average annual value (AAV) on Fielder’s deal ($23.8 million) ranks him behind only the two Rodriguez deals, Cliff Lee’s $24 million AAV (as part of his five-year, $120 million deal that runs 2011-15), and Ryan Howard’s $25 million AAV as part of his five-year, $125 million contract that runs 2012-16.

Having Victor Martinez go down with what is likely a season-ending ACL tear surely played into the deal, as well. According to Jayson Stark, the Tigers will see a significant amount of Martinez’s salary covered by insurance. “Significant” could be as much or little as 50 percent.

For a guy that was unsigned in January, without the “usual suspects” at the negotiating table, Prince did just fine for himself thanks to the largesse of Mr. Ilitch because…you know, “Mike knows his investments. His businesses are successful”.
Or so said Prince’s agent two years ago, talking sweet about his Sugar Daddy, in a piece I’ll link again in case you didn’t read it the first time

Certainly, Ilitch’s role in this signing cannot be discounted as his “ability” to lose money or at least the stomach for it is something that is unique in MLB (much less sports) as he’s certainly looking to find his way to a WS trophy before he…well, before he dies. Let’s not forget that the Tigers lost $29M in 2010 alone and since Ilitch is worth about $2B (that’s a “B”) on the strength of selling crappy “pizza” at his Little Caesars’ stores and selling the American dream one slot machine pull at a time at the Motor City casino, his desire to bring the WS trophy to Motown is a major factor here. As Kurt Badenhausen of Forbes points out “Ilitch has only two playoff appearances and no World Series titles to show for his 20 years as the owner of the Tigers” and while Badenhausen also notes that the “Tigers don’t have the revenues to support this kind of payroll and still make money”, Ilitch has signed off (and maybe even forced Dombrowski’s hand) on this Fielder signing.

The obvious comparison that most Indians’ fans will go to next (now that ownership has been mentioned) is to continue to blame the Dolans for this signing (and Tom Moore had a great piece on this very topic) and for the Indians’ “insistence” in fiscal responsibility. Without even getting into that (because I’ve weighed in on it enough over the years), let’s not forget that even though Badenhausen writes that the “Tigers don’t have the revenues to support this kind of payroll and still make money”, the Tigers have outdrawn the Indians by 3,690,801 paying customers over the last four seasons (DET – 10,873,112, CLE – 7,182,311 since 2008) and while some of that can certainly be traced to the…um, unhappiness in Cleveland as the Indians tore everything down from July of 2008 to the end of 2009, that is not a small amount…and even with those revenues, the Tigers have lost (and figure to continue to lose) money.

Obviously, most baseball fans don’t care about owners that are millionaires or billionaires losing money for their entertainment, but perhaps more important than the Tigers averaging about 900K more than the Indians at the turnstiles over the last four years is the fact that Detroit has 4.3M people in their Metro market (12th largest in the US) while Cleveland has 2.07M people in their Metro market (28th largest…and there are still about 2.4M people in the CSA around Detroit as there are in the CSA around Cleveland) so we’re not really talking apples to apples here as much as people would like to assume that Detroit and Cleveland are similar in terms of recent economic trouble. While many would like to lump Detroit and Cleveland in the same “small-to-mid-market” pile (and remember how TV money and the number of TV sets in a media market is going to continue to change this game), it really isn’t a legitimate comparison, particularly when the Tigers are now operating under the deal that they signed with Fox Sports that pays them $40M a year. That may not be Angels/Rangers TV money, but that certainly plays a role here..

Regardless of what the personal finances of these owners are and how the market size affects payrolls and revenues, let’s go back to the question that becomes relevant in this space, specifically “what do the Indians do now?”
Is Casey Kotchman, warts and all, in the offing on a 1-year deal?

Or if an trade is the manner in which the Indians make an addition (and there’s still no guarantee that they even will) and even a trade where additional payroll is added, is the money that is/was owed “Carmona” possibly in play here as it doesn’t look like he’s coming stateside anytime soon?

Do they get more aggressive in terms of a trade as serial poster MTF suggested in making a move for a similarly impactful bat like Kevin Youkilis (under control for 2012 for $12M with a $13M option for 2013), even if it costs them a player like Asdrubal Cabrera to net that impact bat?

Unfortunately (as usual), there are more questions than answers at this point and while some are quick to equate the Fielder signing to another AL Central crown in Motown, we all know that games aren’t played on paper (or in January) and that the WS trophy bestowed upon the Red Sox this time last year never actually made it’s way to Yawkey Way. It would be foolish to assume that the Tigers will just run away with the division the way that the 1995 Tribe team did, as I can’t remember a more top-heavy team (pun intended) in recent memory and the last time the Indians had a couple of “stars” on the team heading into the season was 2008, when CC was supposed to front the rotation and Sizemore, Hafner, and Vic were supposed to make the offensive engine purr. Lest you forget, CC posted a 7.88 ERA in the month of April that year and Vic and Hafner played a combined 18 games together with Ben Francisco batting 3rd for the team in early June, a spot in the lineup that he would actually occupy for a solid two months.

That said, the sledding for the 2012 AL Central crown just got more treacherous for the Indians and while things happen in a baseball season that change the course of a team or teams, the Tigers certainly made the needle on the Richter scale move with the Fielder signing. Unfortunately for Tribe fans, “things” also happen in the off-season that alter the direction of a franchise and between the two top teams in the AL Central heading into the season, Detroit’s move has caused cracks and fissures in the idea that the Indians will be able to keep pace with the Tigers, much less overtake them.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Tangled Web

Last Thursday began the way that most days have begun in my house in the past few months, with my now-2-year-old waking up around 6 AM and proceeding to wake up the rest of the house, eventually prodding his parents into beginning their preparations for work and for the day. With the kids fed and bundled, they were taken over to the babysitter’s house so my wife and I could begin our work days, which we concluded in the early afternoon as we had plans to go to Milwaukee for a long weekend with the in-laws. After returning from work, we loaded up the car, picked up the kids and proceeded west on I-80/I-90 with the kids entertained in the back by Cars 2, then The Music Man and with their parents in the front, talking about kindergarten options for the oldest next year while their iTunes account provided the background noise.

Just so you don’t think that I’ve completely lost it, it was during this trip that the whole Carmona/Hernandez Heredia thing broke, so imagine my surprise after driving for 7 hours with 3 kids in a car on a random January night…but I’ll get to this #55 thing if you allow me this early digression.

Anywho, upon arrival to Milwaukee, we enjoyed a weekend with the grandparents in the way that we always do during Wisconsin winter weekends - with trips to libraries and museums, a day of sledding, enjoying meals with extended families, and with the evenings usually ending with a group of us sitting around the fireplace or at the card table with some drinks. Yesterday, we made our way back home in the warm cocoon of the Family Truckster as rain and snow fell in Illinois and Indiana, eventually arriving to our house on the North Coast, attempting to get back into everyday life after some time away as well as sliding back into our professions that allow us to live in the manner that we have become accustomed to, even if we are probably not thankful enough for the life that we have grown into.

This is not meant to bore you with the minutiae of a largely uneventful weekend away for a couple of 30-somethings and their three kids in the Midwest, but rather to serve as a sort of introduction to point out that even about 4 days after this news broke that the Fausto Carmona that we’ve watched for the better part of 6 years is a man not named Fausto Carmona, I have no idea what to think about this false identity story as I simply lack the context (or even the capability to assume context) to understand the decision that was made by a 20-year-old Roberto Hernandez Heredia some eleven years ago in the Dominican Republic.

Fortunate enough to be born where I have been born, when I have been born, with the ability to create the life that I now find myself living, to even attempt to walk a mile in the shoes of that 20-year-old in the Dominican Republic is simply something that I cannot begin to imagine. If these words are meeting your eyes via a PC or a laptop or a Smartphone or a tablet, it’s possible that the decision that was made by a tall, skinny, RH pitcher may not something that you’re able to properly evaluate either as the world that Hernandez Heredia occupied prior to that decision is one that most of us have probably only seen on TV, in pictures, or perhaps during a brief taxi ride from an airport to an all-inclusive resort during a honeymoon. Obviously, the impetus for that decision – to escape his situation in the Dominican Republic through the betterment of his life as the money of MLB could allow – is just the jumping off point for this, but it’s one that I don’t think has received enough attention as the disparities between the lives of most of us and what was staring Hernandez Heredia in the face as a 20-year-old unable to get the attention of MLB scouts is something that cannot be underestimated.

Perhaps I shouldn’t speak for anyone else, but to attempt to understand the enormity of this situation is to begin with the idea that eleven years ago, a 20-year-old Dominican named Roberto Hernandez Heredia decided to assume the identity of a man three years his junior named Fausto Carmona, earning the rapt attention of scouts - under the impression that Hernandez Heredia was now 17 years old, not 20 years old, which would have caused scouts to likely ignore him because of that 3-year difference – eventually making his way into the Cleveland Indians’ organization, beginning a meteoric rise through the Minor Leagues, ending up in Cleveland as a fireballing RH pitcher at the tender age of 22...or so we thought.

Did Roberto Hernandez Heredia break the law by assuming the identity of a man named Fausto Carmona?
Absolutely...and there’s no question that there are some prominent ethical issues that fill this story in terms of assuming another man’s identity, paying that man “hush money” to keep quiet about the falsehood, and continuing to live that lie on a stage as big as MLB, signing contracts and seeing jerseys sold with another man’s name and your number in Team Shops across Ohio.

However, what compelled Hernandez Heredia to make those decisions should not and cannot be glossed over in the telling of this story as his “shedding” of three calendar years in one fell swoop certainly put a foot in his MLB door and, while that foot didn’t technically belong to him, he was the one that kicked it down by virtue of his talent as the opportunity has been there for countless young players, with Hernandez Heredia using the opportunity that was presented to him (even if under false pretenses) was used to catapult him into what is now a 6-year MLB career with nearly 935 MLB innings under his belt. Certainly, his “age” afforded his opportunities along the way that they wouldn’t normally have (his rookie season wouldn’t have provided the optimism it did if people knew he was 25 years old and not the 22 that he was reported to be), but ultimately #55 thrived in MLB (albeit intermittently) and whether he was Fausto Carmona or Roberto Hernandez Heredia, he is still the player that finished 4th in the Cy Young voting and authored one of the best games that I’ve ever seen against the Yankees in the ALDS as midges could not affect his gaze that has been so out of focus ever since.

If Roberto Hernandez Heredia had not lied about his age, would the opportunities he “enjoyed” have been put in front of him?
Maybe though probably not, and while some can pontificate from their towers built on 140 characters or less that the Indians should void his contract and cut ties with him based on his duplicity, don’t think that the ability to have those opportunities didn’t play a major role in the decision to assume a new identity AND to pay hush money to keep that information concealed for eleven years now. Ultimately, the person who was pitching all these years for the Indians is the one that earned the salary that has been meted out to him even if the initial opportunity and the idea that he was as old as he said he was played a role in how long his leash has been as well as the long-term contract that he signed.

Certainly it’s unlikely that the Indians would have approached him about that long-term deal that they did when they did if his true age was known, but let’s be real about this as he’s been paid just over $elevenM over the last two years (4.47 ERA, 399 IP) and has cashed paychecks totaling $15,157,000 in his career. That’s certainly not a paltry sum, but let’s remember that Derek Lowe (4.52 ERA, 380 2/3 IP in the last 2 years) will be paid $15,000,000 this year alone by the Indians and the Braves. For a 20-year-old Dominican, the opportunity to earn that generational-altering wealth would be a dream come true…one that Roberto Hernandez Heredia realized, just not without deception and with a whole tangled web of lies that eventually ensnared him.

There are many emotions from a fan’s perspective (as well as that of just a human perspective) in this – sadness, confusion, anger, doubt, and more – but it certainly calls into question how most of us can even relate to the decision that was made by #55 those many years ago. Playing a major role for me in formulating a rational reaction to this has been the fact that for the last couple of years, I’ve made a concerted effort to divorce myself from getting too attached to these players – call it attempting to root for the name on the front of the jersey and not the back – but there are a few players that have tested this effort. Most of those “personal” connections have ended in disappointment in recent years, from watching the bodies of Sizemore and Hafner wilt when prolonged success seemed imminent for both or enduring the sight of Victor weeping at his locker, I’ve rooted for these guys and wanted them to succeed not just because they wore the laundry that I rooted for but because they represented something that I did not grow up with as a child of the mid-to-late-1980’s – legitimately elite MLB talent that figured to be in Cleveland for a while. Similarly to the soft spot that I have in my heart for those players, Fausto always held a special place for me…maybe it was because of that midge game or because he famously pounded on Sheffield’s head, but there was a part of me that hitched my dream wagon to his star and always hoped (probably against logic) that Fausto v.2007 was someday going to magically return after his star began to fade.

Today, that idea that he’ll ever return to a level of effectiveness for the Indians looks even more foolish than it did when he was sent to the deep Minors to be re-built or when he would deconstruct before our very eyes – a combination of prolific amounts of sweat and jangly nerves – every so often in the past few years. For all of those seasons that we would assert that the year would depend on whether “which Fausto” would show up, the idea that a “Good Fausto” and “Bad Fausto” existed and were constantly at war with each other seems almost too prophetic. Here he was, living this lie, trying to keep it all together while attempting to keep the lid down on a Pandora’s Box that must have ready to burst after that 2007 season, after that ALDS game, after his big contract, and (most recently) after the Indians picked up that $7M option for the 2012 season.

For years, we would read about Fausto going to the Dominican Republic in the off-season to “work on his farm” and keep a low-profile, but now we know what #55 was really trying to do – to wake up one more day living in his castle built on sand instead of seeing it crumble around him.

Now, it has collapsed for him and there are very serious questions about what the future holds for Carmona/Hernandez Heredia in terms of securing a visa to even re-gain entry into the US and as the Indians have already moved towards ostensibly replacing him with Kevin Slowey in what is only the most recent move that the Indians have made that was directly affected by the man who was thought to be Fausto. By that I mean, it’s hard not to see how that one decision in the Dominican Republic in 2000 has affected the decisions made by the Indians since Carmona’s breakout 2007 season, from assuming that they could rely on Carmona after that 2007 season (“sure CC, we don’t need you all that much anymore…we have a 23-year-old Fausto to front the rotation”), or the hopes that he could right himself year after year as the Indians didn’t pursue more pitching because of the idea that a 25-year-old or 26-year-old or 27-year-old player could right his ship.

Whether #55 will ever be donned again at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario by Carmona/Hernandez Heredia remains to be seen as the Indians’ acquisition of Slowey (and…um, they can stop the whole “we thought of getting him before this Fausto” notion unless they started talking to the Rockies when they found out about it, which could have been as long as 3 weeks ago, which is when Hernandez Heredia was outed in the DR, with the Indians probably having somebody on the island who would know that) certainly could lead one to the assumption that the Indians aren’t counting on Hernandez Heredia to be toeing the rubber for them this year, as the Tribe would ostensibly attempt to survive with some combination of Slowey, Barnes, Gomez, McAllister, Huff, and others to hold down the #5 spot in the rotation.

Among those names, the newly-acquired Slowey is certainly the most interesting (and the fact that he has an option and could perhaps be under the Tribe’s control for 3 more seasons if he spends about 2 months in the Minors this year) as he’s always been a pitch-to-contact hitter who had fallen out of favor in Minnesota. He’s not going to walk hitters and he’s not going to strike too many hitters out, but he’ll operate in that Josh Tomlin world where we watch a lot of fly balls go into the air with bated breath but will do so efficiently. Giving up a young player like Zach Putnam is difficult to see in terms of the idea that Putnam looked like a player on the precipice of getting a serious shot at contributing to the MLB bullpen for the next couple of years, but if the Indians can squeeze some back-end-of-the-rotation innings out of Slowey, it’s certainly worth a young, unproven reliever for a team that’s teeming with relievers up and down the farm and is short on legitimate MLB starting options to start 2012…thanks in part to this fiasco with #55.

According to the team, the Indians have apparently been interested in Slowey for a while (he has a career ERA+ of 90 in 532 2/3 IP) and it’s possible that Slowey needed a change of pace from the “Minnesota Way” and will take this newfound opportunity and run with it by asserting himself into the back-end-of-the-rotation. It’s not like the other “competitors” for that 5th spot have picked it up and run away with it and some combination of Slowey and a guy like Scott Barnes intrigues me far more at this point than to see another combined 80 IP from Jeanmar and Huff for the 3rd straight season. Of course, it should be mentioned that despite the early season success of Josh Tomlin, there is a very real possibility that Tomlin struggles in 2012 the way that he did down the stretch in 20eleven, meaning that one of Tomlin’s options could be used in the upcoming season, making the addition of Slowey all that more important in terms of throwing another arm on the pile to fill out the rotation. Regardless of how those arms at the back-end-of-the-rotation sort themselves out, the idea that those players (or someone like Slowey) would get extended looks this season has bubbled to the surface as the Indians attempt to pick themselves up off of the floor after this whole Carmona/Hernandez Heredia episode.

Perhaps that’s why analyzing these guys for a rotation spot feels so odd, as (despite the faults of #55…and there have been many) Carmona/Hernandez Heredia has been an assumed starter for this team since he broke out in 2007. Obviously, his opportunity to break out came about because of false pretenses and falsehoods and he now finds himself attempting to put the cork back in the bottle as the ocean of lies that he’s perpetuated over the last eleven years consumes his life.

Despite this, the inescapable feeling that I have in all of this is sadness – sadness at what that 20-year-old must have been feeling those many years ago as he attempted to “bargain” his way out of poverty (and the fact that his new name was “Fausto” is surreal), sadness at watching a man caught up in the success that he earned through duplicitous desperation, and sadness at knowing that a player that we’ve rooted for as he rode the roller coaster of the last few years has possibly reached the end of his MLB ride.

Ultimately, there is an inherent sadness in the reality that the baseball player that we have known as Fausto Carmona is no more and Roberto Hernandez Heredia will never be the man that he once dreamed of becoming as the lies of one man have caught up with him in a swirling mess, thrown him off course in a way that those midges were never able to, and now threatens to engulf him.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

1st and (Still) Foremost

The new year is upon us and since things have been quiet on the corner of Carnegie and Ontario, there hasn’t been too much to ruminate on pertaining to the Indians as they are only so many times that one can read (or write) about the 1B situation, breathlessly follow 140 character proclamations that “the #indians are in on…”, or dissect the current roster much more. However, seeing as how there seems to be some movement on how the Indians are approaching their 1B…um, “situation”, I figured it would be as good a time as any to weigh in on what’s been happening (or what could be in the works) with YOUR Cleveland Indians.

While nearly all of the focus for the Indians since the Sizemore deal has centered on adding a bat (preferably RH…preferably one that can play 1B or LF or both), here we are in mid-January and the situation has remained almost completely unchanged since the end of the 2011 season. Yes, Aaron Cunningham has entered the fray (though saying that his presence “changes” the situation is a bit of a stretch) and the Indians have been “in” on Josh Willingham and Carlos Beltran, but with about 6 weeks until pitchers and catchers report, the Indians are looking at a 1B and LF situation that pretty much resembles the one on the North Coast a few months ago. Though the contracts meted out to Jason Kubel and Coco Crisp (both got 2 years and $7M or more annually) make the Josh Willingham deal with the Twins that much more palatable and adding another OF because of the injury concerns regarding Grady still seems like a prudent idea(and count me as still intrigued by Marlon Byrd, particularly now that the Cubs have added David DeJesus and Reed Johnson and are obviously building for another day), the obvious hole that has existed since Matt LaPorta proved to be Matt MaTola and continues to exist is at 1B, where the alignment of internal options that may factor into 1B is getting some new attention.

Of course, this new “attention” is merely a resurrected line of thinking out there regarding the Indians’ 1B situation (as it’s an idea that AC posted on his blog a few months ago), but it does come via Pluto’s Sunday notes, which means that it does come from the Indians. It started last weekend as Pluto passed along (and remember, his Sunday notes come from what the Tribe is telling him) that “the Indians would like to do something about a first baseman. They appear committed to Carlos Santana against lefties, with Lou Marson catching. When a right-hander is on the mound, Santana will catch. No commitment has been made to Matt LaPorta.”

And with that (and as Matt LaPorta started perusing Columbus apartments on Craiglist), the seed of an idea that Santana could be shuffling up and down the 1B line in 2012 and that a full-time 1B may not be coming was re-planted as Marson catching against LHP meant that the Indians would essentially be looking for a 1B to face RHP, when Santana would be catching. Starting off, this makes loads of sense from the Marson vs. LHP perspective as Marson has a .763 career OPS vs. LHP and a .529 career OPS vs. RHP. In fact, Marson’s .793 OPS vs. LHP in 2011 ranked him 3rd on the Tribe against LHP among players with more than 90 AB against LHP (Santana and Hannahan were higher), so if Marson’s production at the plate against LHP goes along with his defensive prowess to justify his inclusion in the lineup against LHP…I’m all for it.

However, as noted above, the player that posted the highest OPS vs. LHP on the Indians last year was one Carlos Santana, so The Axe Man obviously is a big part of the equation vs. LHP, begging the question whether Marson being behind the dish vs. LHP pushes Santana down to 1B line against LHP or perhaps if a better utilization of roster management exists. By that I meant that everyone seems to be content to simply move Santana down to 1B on a part-time basis, but what about moving him into the DH spot vs. LHP since Hafner had a .638 OPS vs. LHP in 2011 (2nd lowest among Indians with more than 100 AB in 2011 vs. LHP) to essentially maximize both Marson AND Hafner’s effectiveness in 2012?

Truthfully, that’s the way I would handle the Marson/Santana “platoon”, by using this alignment for that duo and Hafner, dependent upon the starting pitcher:
C – Marson
DH – Santana

C – Santana
DH– Hafner

Is it ideal to have a $13M a year platoon player in Hafner?
Of course not, but as disparate as Marson’s splits have been the last couple of years, check these…
Hafner Splits 2011
.886 OPS vs. RHP
.638 OPS vs. LHP

Hafner Splits 2010
.863 OPS vs. RHP
.706 OPS vs. LHP

Hafner Splits 2009
.866 OPS vs. RHP
.696 OPS vs. LHP

If you’re saying that those numbers aren’t THAT bad against LHP, consider that Hafner has 22 XBH in his last 309 PA against LHP and has 5 HR against LHP in his last 219 PA…seriously. That’s not to say that Hafner would become a largely “part-time” player as it is worth mentioning that the average number of AB per team in MLB vs. LHP was 1,470 while the average number of AB per team in MLB vs. RHP was 4,053. So if each team has about 5,500 AB to give out per season, only about ¼ of those AB come against LHP, so Hafner would be more of a ¾-type player which, given the chance that there are only so many swings in Hafner’s shoulder every year, sounds just about right.

While the idea might exist that pushing Santana down to 1B for those 25% of the games against LHP makes more sense, with somebody like Duncan playing the RH DH role, consider that Hafner had the 25th lowest OPS vs. LHP in the AL last year among players with more than 100 PA vs. LHP in 2011. On the Indians, only Mike Brantley was worse on that list, with the 3rd worst Indian on that list being…wait for it…Shelley Duncan, whose .638 OPS vs. LHP ranked him 33rd from the bottom.

And here’s where things get kind of odd in planning out these alignments as one would think that the RH Duncan would have more success vs. LHP to the point that you could suggest a Duncan/Hafner timeshare at DH but strangely enough, the RH Duncan actually hit RHP better than LHP in 2011:
Duncan vs. RHP – 2011
.273 BA / .331 OBP / .587 SLG / .981 OPS in 133 PA

Duncan vs. LHP – 2011
.245 BA / .316 OBP / .363 SLG / .679 OPS in 114 PA

Now if you’re ready for the REALLY weird part in this whole Shelley Duncan split thing, look at what Shelley Duncan’s splits looked like prior to the 2011 season:
Duncan vs. RHP – Prior to 2011
.198 BA / .275 OBP / .357 SLG / .632 OPS in 229 PA

Duncan vs. LHP – Prior to 2011
.261 BA / .337 OBP / .476 SLG / .813 OPS in 187 PA
Certainly, these are all still pretty small sample sizes, but Duncan historically struggled against RHP prior to the 2011 season, when he inexplicably thrived against them, with the opposite being true against LHP prior to and during last season. However, it brings some question to the idea that Duncan represents a suitable “partner” with Hafner at DH, simply by virtue of him being RH. Maybe Duncan reverts back to his pre-2011 performance vs. RHP or maybe his 2011 struggles against RHP are the beginning of a trend, but simply asserting that Hafner can be spelled against RHP is a stance that would be hard to legitimately support.

Truthfully, all this lefty-righty stuff makes my head hurt (and Pluto suggested – in a roundabout sort of way – that Sizemore, Hafner, and Brantley would all sit from time to time against LHP…not that those thoughts aren’t justified, particularly with Brantley, meaning that there’s going to be a lot of lineup fluctuation based on the opposing pitcher), but the idea is essentially put these guys into situations in which they can be most productive and maximize the talent that is on hand.

If you’re fleshing out the C/DH platoon idea, you’d have Santana playing C about 120 games and filling the DH role for 40 games with Marson playing 40 games at C and Hafner getting about 120 sporadic starts at DH to keep him fresh as the season goes along since he played in only 94 games last year, after his 118-game 2010 campaign. To me, that looks like a pretty good solution that doesn’t put Santana at 1B every so often (when his defense is lacking there) and keeps him fresh throughout the season, while resting Hafner to the point that he can (hopefully) remain healthy and effective for an entire season, and utilizing Marson correctly – as a sort of super-backup catcher, who plays against LHP – which again, keeps the Indians’ best offensive player (Santana) rested and hopefully healthy for the season.

Obviously, this situation does nothing about 1B, but if there are concerns about Santana’s ability to play 1B (and there are, particularly with a groundball staff) and the idea is to keep Santana as fresh as due to the wear and tear or the duties of catching because of his offensive potential, perhaps using him in a convoluted platoon for C and DH makes more sense for the Indians to maximize production from Santana for the whole season, but also to put Marson and Hafner in situations that they are most ideally suited for at this point in their careers.

As stated above, this arrangement would still do nothing to fill the still-gaping hole at 1B and would actually deepen the crevasse as the idea that Santana would be an option at 1B would be lessened and the Indians would be left to cobble together some odd amalgamation of Shelley Duncan, Matt MaTola, and (gulp) Mike Brantley at 1B. Of course, here is where the obvious declaration comes that the Indians STILL need to find an everyday 1B comes across again.

To that end, does it strike anyone else as odd with pitchers and catchers reporting about five weeks from now (Tribe P&C report on February 20th) that Prince Fielder, Carlos Pena, Casey Kotchman, and Derrek Lee all remain unsigned?

Maybe the flurry of activity is waiting on Prince’s deal (and that looks like it will be in the nation’s capital, perhaps making Adam LaRoche or Chris Marrero an option…but that’s another story), but after Pujols had more than a few suitors, the 1B market has certainly hit a dry patch. With the Cubs acquiring Anthony Rizzo and the Padres netting Yonder Alonso (neither of whom interested me all that much as a 2011 solution, largely because of the bitter LaPortian taste in my mouth regarding top 1B prospects and the idea that Rizzo and Alonso are still just that…prospects), some teams looking for 1B this off-season have moved to get their “1B of the Future”. But that means the options who represent the “1B of the Present” (Fielder, Pena, Kotchman, and Lee) are still basically out there, just with fewer suitors that had a hole that needed to be filled at 1B.

What does that mean for the Indians?
Well, it means that they might be able to essentially wait this out and sign whatever player (not named Prince) is still left standing in this game of Musical Chairs once the music stops or they could target one of Pena, Kotchman, or Lee as soon as Fielder signs to act quickly and add the 1B that is so obviously lacking on this roster, something brought into clearer focus with all of this talk about platooning inferior options (Duncan, Brantley, Donald, etc.) at 1B.

If you’re talking about the trio of Pena, Kotchman, or Lee being feasible additions to the team (and remember that the Beltran “offer” showed that they’re willing to hand out some dollars to the “right” FA this off-season…and none of those guys figures to command a long-term deal at this point), the trio represents an upgrade over what the Indians would be able to have at 1B as it stands now, but that doesn’t mean that each doesn’t come with serious concerns and obvious warts. If you’re looking strictly at 2011 offensive stats, Pena posted the highest OPS (.819) and wOBA (.354), with Kotchman coming in 2nd in both categories (.800 OPS, .351 wOBA), and Lee’s 2011 numbers (.771 OPS, .335 wOBA) being the “worst” among the three, even if they look Pujolsian compared to the Duncan/LaPorta/Donald/Brantley idea. Beyond that, all three have solid defensive reputations, finishing in the Top 12 (Kotchman – 8th, Pena – 9th, Lee – 12th) in John Dewan’s 2011 Fielding Bible voting, something that can certainly not be said for Santana, much less that 4-headed monster that is reportedly being considered to split time there.

So, if we’re talking about offensive prowess, Pena’s 2011 numbers look the best…but that doesn’t mean that Pena does not come with legitimate concerns offensively, with the main concern being voiced by a scout in John Perrotto’s piece at B-Pro called “Best Players Still on the Board”:
Scout’s view: “He can still help someone, but you better have a good right-handed hitter to platoon with him. He’s completely helpless against left-handers now, so you can’t play him 155-160 games anymore. At this stage of his career, he’s a complementary player rather than a major cog in a lineup, and I’d pay him accordingly.”

“Completely helpless against left-handers now”…oof, we already have a couple of those. Unfortunately, what the scout sees bears out in the numbers as Pena posted a .594 OPS vs. LHP in the NL last year, which comes on the heels of a .675 OPS vs. LHP campaign in 2010 for the Rays. In the last 3 years, Pena has a .704 OPS vs. LHP, a number that has trended down since the 2009 campaign. As a quick aside, Hafner’s OPS vs. LHP over that same timeframe (the last 3 years) is .680, so Hafner has actually been less effective than Pena vs. LHP since the beginning of the 2009 season…and since there would only be one Carlos Santana to go around, you’d still be looking for a RH platoon partner for Pena (or Hafner) if a guy like Pena is signed, warts and all.

If you think that Pena’s performance against LHP is underwhelming, realize that Casey Kotchman has a .610 OPS vs. LHP since the beginning of his 2009 season and while his .709 OPS vs. LHP last year was the highest of his career, there is a very real concern with Kotchman that his 2011 offensive numbers will represent the outlier as his 2011 production took SUCH a big jump (Kotchman had a LaPortian .717 career OPS coming into the 2011 season with only 49 career HR in 645 games going into last year) perhaps paced by a supernatural BABIP in 2011 that the very real possibility that Kotchman may not be that much of an upgrade over LaPorta throws up enough red flags to fill the sky.

Thus, if Pena is “completely helpless against left-handers now” and Kotchman could come screeching back to Earth after a solid (though not great) 2011 season in Tampa, would Derrek Lee represent the best option, given that he doesn’t have the HUGE platoon split that Pena and Kotchman do and with his production still relatively steady, if waning?

Maybe that’s damning with faint praise, but Lee is the only one without a DRASTIC platoon split, either in the near or distant past, so he may be more of the “everyday” 1B the Indians so desperately need even if Bastian reports that “Lee’s camp did not return the interest that the Indians showed” early in the FA process. Perhaps that changes as the season draws closer (after all, Lee ended up in Baltimore last year, so minds can be changed) and Lee finds himself on the outside looking in, with the Indians maybe coming into the fray with a one-year deal for Lee that would guarantee him everyday PA at 1B…something he may not be able to find anywhere else.

So what can be made of this 1B situation?
Well, maybe the Indians are looking at a Pena or a Kotchman to play that LH role at 1B (with Santana playing the RH part of the “platoon”) and while that’s far from an ideal situation (as I’d prefer Santana spelling Hafner at DH against LHP), it would still represent a decided upgrade from what’s staring at the Indians as the roster currently stands.

Maybe something happens on the Prince Fielder front that makes another 1B available via trade (though my Gaby Sanchez jersey looks to be gathering mothballs) and maybe the Indians still have a trick up their collective sleeve, but with the 1B market as stagnant as it is right now, with as many players still looking for contracts with fewer opportunities around MLB, and with the Indians reportedly still aggressive in their pursuit of a 1B, I’d be surprised if the Indians actually went to Goodyear with the idea that they’d be able to form a quality 1B out of some twisted amalgamation of Santana, Duncan, LaPorta, and (gulp) Brantley.

Then again, maybe “surprised” isn’t the right word.
Perhaps “disappointed” would be a better fit…