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…

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Nature vs. Nurture

It was about a week ago that the “Five Stages of Grief” was mentioned in this space and – at the risk of invoking another topic based in deeper topics of human nature – the events of the last week certainly all have us feeling like we’re on the psychologists’ couch again, either attempting to cope with this unprecedented (well…probably unprecedented) collapse of the Indians, trying to figure out what went wrong or attempting to be rational and even try to hazard a guess as to where it goes from here.  So even though I’ve already leaned on the psycho-babble for column fodder in the recent past, the events of the last month and quotes from the last month have me wondering about how this team fell off the cliff so profoundly and whose fault it is. 

Because coming into the season, there was some thought that the young players that showed promise in 2011 would build on their successful (to varying degrees) years last year and would keep the Indians around in the AL Central pennant race, with the Indians needing a little luck and a lot of good health to perhaps make a push towards contention throughout the season.  At this point, with September on our doorstep, to say that none of that has happened (developing players, pleasant surprises, health) is too sweeping of a statement, but it isn’t that far off-base.  While so much of the focus has been placed on the failures of the past off-season, with Santana’s power outage, Masterson’s regression, Cabrera’s ordinariness, and Kipnis’ recent struggles, the players that looked like they could form a backbone to a team that resembled a contender disappointed and put the onus of production on a supporting cast that was poorly-designed and ill-equipped to assume it.

So what happened here?
While I’m not about to launch into a series akin to the 2008 “Things Fall Apart” series, where the reasons for the Tribe’s non-contention and the beginning of the tear-down were examined in minute detail, the question that I keep coming back to on this is that THESE  young players – that are faltering so badly down the stretch and whose development seems to have stalled to the point that a “window of contention” built around them seems more laughable with each loss – were supposed to carry this team in 2012 and they simply haven’t.  So who bears the responsibility for that?

Is it the Front Office for assuming that these players were/are more than what they seem to be?
Is it the Manager and the Coaching Staff for not putting these players in the best situation to succeed and – to borrow a trite football phrase – “coach them up” to the point that they are maximizing potential?
Is it the players, who seem as lifeless and helpless as I can remember ANY Tribe team as the string is slowly – and painfully – played out?
To expand on the title of the piece, is it these players’ individual shortcomings (their DNA) or is it the failure of the organization to develop them and put them in the best environment to succeed?

There’s enough blame to go around here, but as this team becomes increasingly difficult to watch and is certainly less compelling and less likable than ever (and the fact that I returned from some time away last weekend to find an e-mail from a TMZ…um, operative regarding this ugliness with Chris Perez in Oakland provides a pretty concise indication of how horribly this team has fallen) as a group of players, it seems that the internal discord has started in terms of pointing fingers.  The first finger was pointed by the Tribe’s manager when Acta dropped this bomb, regarding how the struggles of Kipnis and Asdrubal (apparently, he hasn’t noticed Choo falling off of a cliff in the last month) aren’t the “problem” for this team:
“Realistically, I can’t expect those guys to be on top of their game for 162 games,” said Acta. “That’s why we do need more than four guys in our lineup to be productive.”
How will the Indians correct that for 2013?
“It’s no secret, we’re going to need to improve our offense,” said Acta. “We’re going to have to find a solution in left field, we’re going to have to find a solution at first base and we’re going to have to find a solution at DH. That’s pretty obvious.
“And the third base situation is not determined either. Lonnie [Chisenhall] has a broken arm. The guys that are here right now are fine and doing what they can, but we expect more.”
When Acta was told that’s quite a shopping list, he said, “We gotta have it.”

Though I remain firmly on the record that the rotation is this teams’ biggest issue – both now (starters’ ERA is now FIVE POINT SEVENTEEN) and going forward – if Manny wants to talk about offensive deficiencies, I’ll play along…

So as the current manager, coaching staff, and Front Office runs for cover, Acta’s comments – while not untrue – struck me as oddly reminiscent of the ol’ Cholly Manuel line that the Front Office was giving him 3-tool players (he was referring to Milt Bradley) and telling him to win with all of the 5-tool players that they’d assembled in that it looks on the surface like a stinging indictment of the supporting cast around those “four guys” (and it is), but it also sounds to me like Acta is saying that those “four guys” are not impactful enough to carry an offense.

Going into this season, it was easy to look at 1B, LF, and 3B as probable problems and though we were forced to read all Spring Training about how Shelley Duncan deserved a shot to be a full-time LF and Hannahan switching to a heavier bat meant that he had suddenly turned into an effective hitter with the LASIK surgery for Casey Kotchman leaned on as the “reason” for his improved offensive numbers, anyone who was pretending that those players represented even suitable options was being pretty optimistic.  But more than those spots being black holes (and they were…and are), it’s hard not to see how the likes of Choo, Cabrera, Santana, and Kipnis were being counted on to do much of the heavy lifting for this offense by design with their track records, both long (Choo) and short (Santana, Kipnis) providing some inkling of optimism that the quartet – with some hope that other pieces like Brantley and/or Chiz would emerge or that Grady (oof) or Hafner (double oof) would be healthy – could lead the Indians offensively, with similar hope for young(ish) pitchers - most notably Masterson - to do the same for the pitching staff.

But that simply hasn’t happened and, though there have been some offensive bright spots, those players that were thought to perhaps form a core going forward have been too inconsistent to legitimately carry an offense (much less a pitching staff) on their own or even as a group.  What’s happened is that they’ve looked like complementary pieces – granted, nice complimentary pieces – and that’s pretty much your worst-case scenario here, particularly for players like Santana, Masterson, and Kipnis.  Yes, those three (and the two offensive players in particular) are young players that are still developing and maturing, but with 2012 representing a step back for them, who gets the blame for that?

Did the Front Office assume too much from a player like Santana to anchor the lineup or did the Coaching Staff fail in helping Santana (since I’m using him as the example) make the necessary adjustments to continue to succeed or does some of the blame fall at Santana’s cleats?

Obviously, these are all hypothetical “blame” questions that have been around as long as baseball, but with this group of assembled players – acquired because they’re similarly-aged and similarly-controlled – supposed to be taking that next step in 2012 and actually falling backwards down the steps (in what has to be the longest flight of stairs in recent memory), that’s what we’re left doing, asking questions that have very ambiguous answers.

And while some will firmly purport to have those “answers”, assigning “blame” in black-and-white terms is akin to predicting success or failure in absolute terms from Lake County to Cleveland. 

Why did Santana’s power desert him?
Was Masterson’s 2011 a mirage?
How did someone not see that LaPorta couldn’t hit an MLB curveball?

Maybe you think all (or at least most) of the blame falls at the feet of the Front Office for assembling THIS particular group of players and hoping for the best, or for their failure to augment this group of players externally in the off-season, and those aren’t unfair criticisms.  But for as much as I hear “WILLINGHAM” screamed amid a cacophony of “harrumphs”, everyone knows that Ryan Ludwick has a higher OPS than Josh Willingham right now, right?

That’s not meant to add “LUDWICK” as a new calling cry amidst the “harrumphs”, but Ludwick was signed in early February for $2.5M with a 2013 option by the Reds, after the Indians had added other OF “options” (and this is a great recap of all of those off-season “options” added from Andrew Clayman) to hopefully help the assembled talent.  So was Ludwick all set to “break out” this year and the Indians simply whiffed on him, or is he a product of his environment in Cincinnati last year and he would be – had he signed with the Tribe – mentioned in the same breath as Duncan and Kotchman and every other “unsuitable” addition to this team?

Because isn’t that what gnaws at us as fans?
To see Beltran and Willingham and (now) Ludwick succeed while the Indians’ LF continue to flail away, with the manager joining the chorus heard across the North Coast begging for an answer?

But that’s where this thing gets cloudy in terms of “Nature vs. Nurture” in talent acquisition as the White Sox are competing this year with a motley cast of characters, with players that were thought to be injured, flawed, or AWFUL additions (Rios, Dunn, Peavy) carrying that team, augmented by a group of lesser-known players that are thriving with little fanfare.  So Kenny Williams is lauded for pulling this group of players together – on the fly and with a barren farm system…and if someone can explain to me how he poached Youkilis and Liriano, giving up nearly nothing in return, I’m all ears – even if nobody can figure out how he’s doing it.

But is Williams simply prescient when it comes to acquiring these guys or are they developing and contributing at the MLB level because they’re being put in the right positions to succeed while being coached to maximized their potential?

Remember when Brennan Boesch (the 15th ranked prospect IN THE TIGERS’ SYSTEM, not in all of MLB, prior to the 2010 season) came out of nowhere a couple of years ago to post at least league-average production for the Tigers or how Quintin Berry (a 27-year-old rookie) held down the fort this year when Austin Jackson was missing in Detroit?

How are those teams hitting on those under-the-radar additions to plug holes while the Indians languish away and continually struggle to build depth of any kind?

Certainly, some of it is the black hole of drafting for the better part of the decade (though things have gotten better, laid out in Al’s terrific piece this weekend to Adam Van Arsdale fleshing out the 2005 to 2010 drafts), but there are TWO players on the White Sox with more than 75 PA this year that were drafted by Chicago and those two (Beckham and Morel) have been two of their worst offensive contributors.  In Detroit, 4 of their drafted-and-developed players have more than 200 PA, but Boesch, Avila, Raburn, and Dirks (the Tiger draftees) have not paced their offense.

Though I know I’m not comparing apples-to-apples here as the White Sox are winning with a rag-tag group of players assembled (some off of waivers, with some big price tags on players that were pretty unattractive when they arrived on the South Side) by Kenny Williams while the Tigers are winning on the largesse of Mike Ilitch’s dying wish (and yes…I know he’s not dying) to win a World Series as the Tigers’ owner, it is worth noting that the White Sox and Tigers get production from unlikely sources (particularly on offense) with the question coming back as to why that is, when that does not seem to happen for the Indians on a regular basis…

Obviously, you could say that the White Sox are paced by Konerko, just as the Tigers are led by Miggy, Prince, and Jackson, but doesn’t that get back to that point that Acta made?

He seems to be saying that the Indians need 7 to 8 productive bats in the lineup – since he names Choo, Cabrera, Kipnis, and Santana as his “quartet” and says he needs bats for 3 more positions (LF, 1B, and DH) while leaving Brantley and Chiz out of the conversation – when that kind of up-and-down-the-lineup production isn’t all that prevalent…well, anywhere.  Most teams are built on the backs of the middle-of-the-order hitters with the ancillary pieces fitting around them and that reason is one of the things that keeps leading me back to this idea that Acta doesn’t think that the hand he’s been dealt is all that compelling – with issues surrounding those purported “middle-of-the-order hitters” perhaps being the unspoken message.

What’s so troubling about this idea – that Choo, Santana, Kipnis, and Cabrera (plus Brantley and Chiz) CANNOT pace an offense – is that those are the pieces that were put in place when this rebuild/reload/whatever started (with LaPorta) and continued in earnest.  And if those guys are not good enough to form a productive offense as 2/3 of a lineup, that doesn’t leave a lot of room for hope for them maturing into those pieces as a group, much less individually.  Sure, you can say that LF and 1B, most notably, have been complete black holes, but their production from C has been middle-of-the-road, and their OPS from 2B and CF are merely a little above-average as we enter the final month of the season.

And with expectations high for players like Santana and Kipnis coming into the season, if this is what is to be expected from the players that are thought to be the burgeoning top-to-middle-of-the-lineup, suddenly a full-scale blow-up doesn’t seem as implausible as it may have just a couple of weeks ago.  Maybe that’s extreme and asking too much of too many young players, but AC sums it up pretty well here:
You start to wonder if the Indians would, indeed, be best to move the most attractive pieces from a team that wasn’t all that good to begin with in order to bring in some younger, projectable bodies you can place around the likes of Jason Kipnis, Chisenhall, Santana and Brantley.

Yes, that could mean trading Shin-Soo Choo, who wants to be with a winner as much as he wants to sign a fat free-agent contract. Yes, that could mean trading (Chris) Perez, though his reputation will undoubtedly precede him in trade talks. Yes, that could mean even mean parting with Asdrubal Cabrera, who has once again seen his production wane in the second half.

Maybe that seems harsh, but we’re essentially watching the team that is going to be around for 2013 and unless you’re seeing a big leap forward for some of those players (the ones that didn’t take those leaps this year) in 2013, you’re looking at a team that now has the FIFTH-worst record in all of MLB after being 2 games out of the AL Central Lead on the Fourth of July (and check out this graphical representation of the playoff chances for the team just dropping off of a cliff from a 41% likelihood on July 5 to a 0% chance just 31 days later on August 6) and a team that now sports the SECOND-worst run differential to boot, lest you think that the bad (and getting worse) record was “flukey” in some way.

The freefall somehow cannot find a bottom and with the Manager sniping at the Front Office as the young players that were thought to lead this team in 2012 and beyond continue to struggle with their consistency, the question that sticks is whether those players are struggling because they’ve been misevaluated on the high side or if they’re not reaching their potential because of a lack of adjustments. 

It’s a question that becomes more pointed with each loss, with an “answer” (however that is gleaned) likely costing someone in the Indians’ organization their job this off-season, with the hope that the correct “answer” is eventually found.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Talent Acquisition on a Lazy Sunday

The Indians can’t draft well. They’re in this mess right now because they miss on too many of their draft picks. I know it’s true, everyone says so. Fire Antonetti and Shapiro! They haven’t drafted a good player since Ray Fosse! Right? The Indians clearly went through a dry spell in their amateur talent acquisition from 1999 through 2008. The club drafted lefthanded pitcher Carsten Charles Sabathia in 1998, then basically sat back and said “C.C., you’ve got this.” From 1999-2007, the best player the Indians drafted was Jeremy Guthrie, their first round pick in the 2002 draft. And he went on to have most (all) of his success in cities other than Cleveland. OK, in the interest of full disclosure, the best player they drafted was Tim Lincecum, with their 42nd round pick in 2005. But Lincecum wanted too much to sign and went to college instead, and grew up to be The Freak that Giants fans know and love today. Sure, there were some other decent picks; Vinnie Pestano in the 25th round of the 2006 draft for one. But the Rule 4 Amateur Draft was not kind to Director of Scouting John Mirabelli, who assumed the role in 1999 and relinquished it in November of 2008.

Enter Brad Grant. Grant was promoted to the Director of Amateur Scouting role in 2008 when Mirabelli was inexplicably promoted to his current title of Vice President, Scouting Operations. I can’t be the only onewho finds it funny that the press release touting Mirabelli’s promotion plugs his international signings of Masa Kobayashi (retired), Jason Smit (retired) and Sung-Wei Tseng (guess what? retired). Grant became responsible for the club’s amateur draft and international signings while Mirabelli was mercifully promoted to a more administrative role. The good news for Grant is that he had (has) an extremely low bar to vault over when it comes to talent acquisition. If he can draft more than Jeremy Guthrie, he’s a better drafter than Mirabelli. If he can sign international free agents who’s cumulative contributions equal more than Faus…Roberto Hernandez’s one glorious summer, he’s acquired more talent in the international realm than Mirabelli. But simply being better than Mirabelli isn’t going to be enough to propel the Indians to contention. With a budget that’s not going to allow for significant free agent signings to cover for continued misses in the draft, Grant has to be in the top echelon of his peers when it comes to signing that precious talent that is under club control at a reasonable cost for a significant period of time. Some fans see the lack of top-100 prospects in the Indians organization (only Lindor made the list this offseason) and assume that Grant is as bad as, if not worse than, Mirabelli. After taking a little more in-depth look at Grant’s record, I couldn’t disagree more.

In 2008, the Indians had the 29th overall pick, the highest they’d drafted since the “Era of Champions” Indians back in the late-90’s. Grant’s first ever draft pick was a shortstop out of Pitt Community college named Lonnie Chisenhall. The Chiz pick was roundly criticized at the time, as most saw a position switch to 3B and a bat that wouldn’t play at a corner. Some thought that Wichita State 3B Conner Gillespie would have been a much better selection. Chisenhall flew through the Indians system, appearing as a top-50 overall prospect in both 2010 and 2011 before passing the Rookie of the Year thresholds, and at age 23 he’s accumulated 284 MLB AB and is seen as the Indians 3B of the future. I think we can safely give that pick a passing grade.

With their 2nd pick (#79 overall), Grant and the Indians took Nacogdoches, TX RHP Trey Haley. Haley is currently 22 years old and in AA, his development slowed by some arm and groin injuries the past two years. But on the mound, Haley has a legit triple-digit fastball and a knee-bending curveball. He’s seen as a likely reliever down the road, but he has the arm to close. Other highlights from the 2008 draft include infielder Cord Phelps (3rd round), relief pitcher Zach Putnam (5th round), outfielder Tim Fedroff (7th round), pitcher Eric Berger (8th round), starter T.J. House (16th round) and catcher Roberto Perez (33rd round). Phelps and Putnam have already appeared in the major leagues. The other four should get there at some point. None appear in the top-100 prospects, and none project to be future all-stars, but that hardly makes them useless.

Contrast the Indians’ 2008 draft with that of everyone’s small-market darlings, the Tampa Bay Rays. Tampa had the #1 overall pick and selected SS Tim Beckham. Beckham is 22, in AAA, and has fallen completely off the top-100 lists as well. His 2011 OPS of .736 is his career high. I wouldn’t trade Lonnie Chisenhall for Tim Beckham. No players from the Rays 2008 draft have appeared in the major leagues. No players from the Rays 2008 draft appear in the most recent top-100 prospect lists. I do not point this out to pick on the Rays, but to give context to what a “good” draft is. The Red Sox didn’t do much better; their 1st round pick, pitcher Casey Kelly, was rated as the #27 overall prospect in 2012, but none of their other choices appear in the top 100. Their 7th round pick, 3B Ryan Lavarnway, is 24 and has a .594 OPS in 63 MLB at bats. None of the players they selected have done anything in the major leagues. The Tigers hit on 5th round pick Alex Avila, but little else. All this is a long way of saying that no matter how you stack up the Indians 2008 draft, Brad Grant did a pretty good job in his first year at the helm.

If we flip the calendar to 2009, we see a similar story. Picking #15 overall, the Indians took RHP Alex White. Some saw White as a future bullpen arm with only two pitches, but the Indians kept him in the starting rotation and saw him rank in the top-75 in prospect rankings in both 2010 and 2011 before making his MLB debut in the 2011 season. White pitched well, got hurt, and was included in the trade package for Ubaldo Jiminez (not Grant’s doing). The real home run in the draft though was in the 2nd round, when Grant took Arizona State outfielder Jason Kipnis with the 63rd overall pick. When the Indians made it known that their intentions were to transition Kipnis to 2B, the derisive cries of “Trevor Crowe redux” were heard long and loud across the North Shore. Kipnis was a preseason top-100 prospect in 2011 before his successful MLB debut in the 2nd half of the season, and the 25-year old narrowly missed being named to the all-star team in his first full season in the show here in 2012. Other than wunderkid Mike Trout of the Angels, Jason Kipnis is far and away the best major league player from the 2009 MLB draft. Grant didn’t do as well in the later rounds of the draft as he did in 2008, especially with 4th round pick Austin Adams going down with a shoulder injury this offseason, but pitchers Preston Guilmet (9th round), Tyler Sturdevant (27th round) and Matt Packer (32nd round) all have MLB potential. If we again look at the Yankees, Rays and Red Sox, we see no MLB talent and no top-100 prospects from their 2009 drafts. The Tigers did snag pitcher Jacob Turner, but would you trade Kipnis for Turner right now? I wouldn’t. So despite a lack of overall depth in 2009, I think that Grant is now 2-2 when it comes to Rule 4 Drafts.

Just one player that the Indians drafted and signed in 2010 has played in the majors; 5th overall pick Drew Pomeranz. Pomeranz of course was the co-headliner of the deal that brought Ubaldo Jimenez to Cleveland after ranking in the top 75 prospects in baseball prior to the 2011 season. He was a consensus top-50 guy prior to 2012, and is now over the ROY thresholds with mixed results in Colorado. Five players from the first round of the 2010 draft have appeared in the majors, and only 1st overall pick Bryce Harper and Chris Sale have produced more in the show thus far. Second round pick LeVon Washington has shown glimpses of talent, but has been injured too much to really have an accurate judgment of type of player he’s going to be. Third round pick Tony Wolters, skipped over low-A completely, started 2012 slowly but has come on to have a solid season for high-A Carolina. He’s splitting time between 2B and SS, but his glove profiles better at 2B with shortstops Ronny Rodriguez and Francisco Lindor also in the system. Catcher Alex Lavisky (8th round) has a power bat and the defensive chops to stick behind the plate, and 10th round OF Tyler Holt looks a lot like Trevor Crowe (which is ok since he was drafted in the 10th round instead of the 1st). There aren’t many other guys who look like potential major leaguers in the rest of the draft, but that makes the third time in three years that Grant has hit on at least the Indians first round pick, something that hasn’t happened for a long time in Cleveland in any sport.

Leading up to the 2011 draft, many of the “experts” had the Indians selecting another college arm for the 3rd year in a row. In one of the most talented drafts in years, there were eight elite level talents, and the Indians had the 8th overall pick. The college arms that were projected to be on the board at #8 were not among those elite talents, and I was on pins and needles hoping that Grant would take the best player available rather than the top available college arm. Fortunately, he came through and took high school shortstop Francisco Lindor (as I’d fervently hoped all along). Lindor is now the undisputed top prospect in the Indians organization, and a consensus top-10 prospect in all of baseball. He’s ranked higher than all but two of the 2011 draft picks, and projects as an above average everyday SS on the low end, and a perennial all-star and gold glover on the high end. In addition to Lindor, 23rd round pick Cody Allen was the 2nd player in the entire 2011 draft class to make it to the majors when he was promoted last month, and looks like a potential back-end arm in the bullpen. It’s still awfully early to judge the rest of the draft, but 2nd round pitcher Dillon Howard was seen as a first round talent prior to the draft, 7th round catcher Eric Haase looks really interesting, and there are a number of arms later in the draft that could end up in a major league bullpen down the road. So if you’re scoring at home, that makes it 4-4 for Grant in the first round of the MLB draft.

It’s far too early to judge the 2012 draft that took place just about two months ago, but if we’ve learned anything in this article so far it’s that Grant has earned our trust by drafting better than…well, probably better than any Cleveland executive in my lifetime at least (born in 1981). So let’s move on to the other method Grant has used to infuse talent into the organization; international free agency. Grant has hit on a number of players since coming onto the job, players who are starting to take over the Indians top prospect lists. Ten of the Indians projected top-50 prospects in this coming offseason’s countdown are IFA’s that have signed under Grant’s watch. In 2008, reliever C.C. Lee, catcher Alex Monsalve and 3B Gio Urshela came into the fold. Lee was on the cusp of reaching the Indians bullpen when he went down with Tommy John surgery this spring. The 20-year old Urshela is a slick-fielding 3B who wasn’t doing much with the bat coming into this year, but is putting up career highs in OPS, HR and AVG in the pitcher-friendly Carolina League. Monsalve was a Midwest League All-Star last season, and is up with the Mudcats now and has already matched his career high in HR.

Grant followed that up with a pair of toolsy infielders in 2009, SS/3B Jorge Martinez and 2B Jose Ramirez. Martinez is 19 years old, and has one of the better bats in the Arizona Summer League right now, hitting .340/.376/.543 with 6 HR and 31 RBI in 28 games. He’s a work in progress in the field, but should be able to develop into at least an average 3B. Ramirez is a second baseman, and led the Indians organization last year with a .325 batting average in the Arizona Summer League, and is hitting an impressive .343/.399/.428 for Lake County in his first experience in full-season ball. Ramirez is also just 19, and while he doesn’t have much power (2 HR in 406 pro AB), he makes a ton of contact, has good speed and legit top of the order on base skills.

Never one to rest on his laurels, Grant signed two more potential impact players in the international market the very next year. In 2010, the Indians inked 2B turned CF Luigi Rodrigez and SS Ronny Rodriguez (no relation). Luigi is one of the fastest, most athletic players in the system. He’s hitting .264/.330/.394 with 9 HR and 20 SB in 105 games with the Captains this year, and is fast becoming a legit CF. He’s got the speed and the arm to play CF, he just needs more experience reading flyballs and patrolling the OF to improve his instincts. He’s got plenty of time to improve though, as he’s still just 19 years old. Ronny Rodriguez made his stateside debut last year with the Captains, hitting .246/.274/.449 and 11 HR in 98 games. He moved up to high-A Carolina this season, and has improved on that batting line, going .267/.304/.451 with 16 HR and 61 RBI. It’s not a line that sets the world on fire, but when you consider that he’s a 20-year old in his first full season stateside, playing above-average defense at SS and that those 16 HR are tied for 5th in the Carolina League…well, that starts to look a lot better now, doesn’t it? Rodriguez has the potential to be a top-100 guy this coming offseason, and is looking more and more like the #2 guy in the Indians organization every day.

So the trend for Grant seems to be that he adds two solid international free agents per season, and 2011 was no different. Grant signed OF Anthony Santander and SS Dorssys Paulino out of the Venezuela and the Dominican Republic, respectively. Santander is a 6’1”, 190lb OF who’s hitting .302/.361/.488 with 4 HR, 30 RBI and 6 SB in 35 games in the Arizona Summer League. He projects to LF defensively, and is just 17 years old. As impressive as that line is, what SS Dorssys Paulino is even more eye-opening. Paulino is also just 17-years old and making his stateside debut, and is hitting .358/.406/.606 with 5 HR, 14 doubles, 6 triples, 29 RBI and 8 stolen bases in 39 AZL games. To put those numbers in the proper context, let me refer you to a Baseball America article that compares Paulino’s debut tothat of some elite infielders around baseball: 

Dominican teenagers who come to the U.S. for their pro debut aren't supposed to make it look this easy. Robinson Cano hit .230/.330/.365 in 57 games in the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League when he was 18. When Placido Polanco was 18, he hit .213/.259/.268 in 32 games in the AZL, while a 19-year-old Rafael Furcal (.258/.335/.342 in 50 GCL games) didn't fare much better.

Hanley Ramirez exploded on to the scene for the Red Sox 10 years ago as an 18-year-old in the GCL, where he hit .341/.402/.555 in 45 games, while Starlin Castro hit .311/.364/.464 in 51 AZL games at 18. Yet in addition to being a year older than Paulino at the time, both Ramirez and Castro had spent a season in the Dominican Summer League before making the jump to a U.S. complex league. The Indians have thrown Paulino into the fire, and he's responded by making the Arizona League look like Little League.

The Indians are not going to make the playoffs in 2012. Consider this my bold prediction on that front. The Indians do not have impact talent in AAA or AA that will step up next year to augment the big league club to fuel a run to the playoffs next year. When you look back at how this roster was built, you see a few good trades (Santana, Asdrubal, Masterson) working desperately to overcome a decade of terrible drafting. That’s not a good business model, on a number of levels. That’s also not Brad Grant’s fault. Since taking over in 2008, Grant has gone 4-4 with his first round picks in the Rule 4 Draft which is four more than the previous administration can claim. Between the draft picks and international signings, the lower levels of the Indians minor league system are well-stocked and loaded with potential impact talent. That talent of course is a long ways from the corner of Carnegie and Ontario, and a lot can happen between Lake County and Cleveland. But when you’re calling for heads to roll in the Indians front office, make sure that Brad Grant is spared your wrath. He’s making a lot more good decisions then bad, and whenever the next “window of contention” cracks open, it’s going to be either because players that Grant acquired are playing at a high level in the show, or because they were used to trade for older guys to help pry open that window before the core of Kipnis, Droobs, Santana, Chiz, Brantley and Masterson hit free agency.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Tomahawks with Grief & Regret

As I stared at the back of Corey Kluber’s jersey this past Sunday afternoon, before I decided to continue on with my Sunday (oh…about 1:30 PM) without the Tribe, I was struck that Kluber’s last name reminded me of a name that I saw those many years ago at some Psych 101 class at the University of Dayton.  Bored as I watched the Red Sox batter Kluber, I did a quick search on the Interwebs, which drew me to the name Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross.  Now, if you have taken any kind of Psychology class, that name might look familiar to you as Kubler-Ross famously wrote “On Death and Dying”, in which she identified her “Five Stages of Grief” regarding terminally ill patients coming to grips with their mortality.

Though I will NEVER attempt to equate something as meaningless (in the grand scheme of things) as baseball or a Cleveland Indians’ season and a terminal patient and/or death, reading through Kubler-Ross’ Five Stages, I was struck by how every Indians’ fan (and maybe every Cleveland sports fan) currently finds themselves in one of these categories…particularly since the season (and perhaps organization) defining losing streak a couple of weeks ago.

Though I don’t think too many people are in “Denial” (although anyone who thinks that Matt MaTola still represents a viable option for this team going forward or if he “deserves that chance” is certainly in denial) about what’s happened here and probably “Anger” is where most of the North Coast sits right now, with “Bargaining” probably coming in the off-season as trades involving Dave Huff, Zeke Carrera, Jeanmar Gomez and Mark Trumbo are bandied about among Tribe fans.  Certainly, “Depression” and “Acceptance” are feelings that can be found among the fanbase, although “Apathy” is probably more applicable than “Acceptance” to the particular situation, even if the Tribe is no longer at the bottom of the MLB Attendance list.

But this season certainly has a terminal feel to it and, regardless of where you sit on Kluber…I mean, Kubler-Ross’ Stages of Grief chart, know that there are others right there with you, even if we are still just talking about baseball.  But “talking about baseball” is what we do in this space, so with that said (and with you remembering how you got that Psych requirement in pursuit of your degree) let’s get some Tomahawks in the Air…

With the Indians now having won 4 of their last 7 since the end of the 11-game losing streak (hey, that’s better than average) against the Red Sox and the Angels, anyone else noticing a trend in terms of the games the team is winning and those they’re losing?

Somehow, when the Indians get good starts (McAllister on Saturday, Masterson on Monday), they win.  Conversely, when they get lousy starts (Kluber on Sunday, Ubaldo on Tuesday), they lose.  Who had that one figured out?

Wait…it’s tied into PITCHING, and STARTING pitching at that?
I thought that the oft-repeated choruses involving some combination of “RH Bat”, “Damon/Duncan”, and “Kotchman” buried this team.  You’re telling me it was the pitching and, more specifically, the starting pitching?

While I know that you think that this dead horse has been beaten, then beaten some more (particularly by me), I will point back to something that I wrote in this space just a week ago, particularly as this “Roberto Hernandez” fellow is ready to take a turn on the bump for the Tribe.  Lest you forget, last July the Indians had a rotation going of Masterson, Carrasco, Carmona, and Tomlin all looking pretty solid (even if the wheels were starting to come off for Carrasco and Tomlin and Fausto had been…well, “Bad Fausto”) with the Indians making the decision to add Ubaldo to that mix.  Again, even if this was just written here last week, this cannot be overstated in terms of the starting pitching and the events over the last 13 months:
What has transpired since that trade has been beyond catastrophic for the organization, as Carrasco went under the knife, Fausto was exposed as being the Dominican Don Draper, and Ubaldo didn’t come close to resembling the front-end-of-the-rotation “stopper” that they thought they were getting.

So now here we sit, with Ubaldo and Masterson looking alternatively good and bad, Tomlin likely out for an extended period of time (and does anyone else wonder if Tomlin has been dealing with this injury for a while and didn’t fully reveal it, being in MLB and all), and with Zach McAllister looking like the best starting pitcher for a team that has purported itself to rely on starting pitching from the day that the current regime took office.  Now, Fauberto’s return to the mound this week really brings to a point how “catastrophic” the turn has been for the rotation and how it really took the Front Office by surprise, both in terms of injury (Carrasco and now Tomlin), regression (Masterson/Ubaldo), and fraud (Carmona/Hernandez) to the point that I don’t think they even considered the “Plan F” that was going to be necessary when things started imploding. 

If you don’t think that the Fauxberto thing caught them off-guard, here’s what Hoynes (never one to mince words) wrote on Fauxberto’s deception and his re-worked option:
The Indians must decide if they exercise Hernandez’s watered-down $6 million option for 2013. The option was originally worth $9 million, but the team was so upset at Hernandez’s fraud, and the fact that he could not leave the Dominican Republic for more than half the season, that they restructured his deal.

It’s important to remember that Lowe was acquired in November, leading Grantland’s Jonah Keri to proclaim the Indians’ pitching staff as “Worms’ No. 1 Enemy”, with the rotation of Masterson, Ubaldo, Carmona, Lowe, and Tomlin/Gomez/McAllister figuring to pitch the majority of the innings for the Tribe in 2012.  Two months later, Fauxberto was exposed and the young, high-level, high-impact depth that was compromised by the Ubaldo deal and the Carrasco injury left the Tribe looking at Tomlin and Gomez with guaranteed spots in the rotation and with Lowe as their de facto #3 starter…after the Braves basically paid the Tribe to take him.

Certainly, Lowe and Gomez (most notably) started out strong, but there’s a big difference between Gomez and Tomlin battling it out for the 5th spot and BOTH of those pitchers being in the rotation from Opening Day through mid-June (in the case of Gomez) and into late-July (in the case of Tomlin) for a team that had any thoughts of contending as Fauxberto’s exclusion from the team – and he’ll have about 10 starts this year, which is 2 less than Mitch Talbot (remember him) had for last year’s club – threw the organization back on its heels at a time (in January) when most FA arms have already been signed for a month or longer.

Though I’ll get into this a little later, since the beginning of the 2008 season, the player that has worn #55 for the Tribe has been affecting the plans that the organization has and hasn’t made because of expectations for him and because of his assumed “presence” in the rotation.  This season, “presence” has had nothing to do with it as his surprising “absence” – and the timing of that news – was just as, if not more, impactful than any point than any season…

So with no guarantee that Fauxberto – who always seems to throw a wrench in the Indians’ best-laid (or seemingly best-laid plans) – will even be back in a Tribe uniform (though that $6M salary is almost too enticing when Aaron Harang got a 2-year, $12M deal last off-season...and check the whole list) and with Carrasco still on the mend with Tomlin about to hit the shelf, it’s been well-documented (here) about how the Indians’ starting pitching remains their weakness going forward.  

With little of interest expected to emerge from the Farm next year in terms of starting pitching and with McAllister, Gomez, and Kluber all largely unproven (and, for whatever reason, I see Gomez as the long man and Kluber as a bullpen arm in the future), what do the Indians do?

Certainly, there are questions all over for the organization, but I do think that it is worth noting that the Indians have actually been active on the FA market in the past when it came to adding a veteran SP to fill a hole…and I don’t mean Derek Lowe, as he was acquired via trade.  Rather, it’s worth pointing out that when the Indians were full of a talented lineup and a young and uneven (if talented) pitching staff in the mid-2000s, they did go out and augment the rotation because nothing was ready to contribute from the Minor Leagues to complement the pieces already in place.  Of course, I speak of that “magical” Kevin Millwood signing (for $7M) in 2005, then Paul Byrd getting a 3-year, $21M deal back in 2006 to “replace” Millwood as examples when the Indians did go out and spend some money on the FA market to add to the starting rotation with a veteran arm.

Now, you may say that neither Millwood nor Byrd was a top-tier FA arm, or a “stopper”, which is what this team needs, it might be interesting to see what the Indians do this off-season in terms of dedicating some payroll – in terms of years and dollars – to an arm.  Though they might have thought they were doing that in the Ubaldo deal and FA starting pitchers are NEVER cheap – in terms of years and dollars – the Indians may survey the scene, look at their projected payroll (and this “guess” at the 2013 payroll is pretty solid and suggests that there may be some room for flexibility), and decide to make a move to add to their obviously-depleted and in-need-of-help rotation.

While I’m ACUTELY aware of the presumed Modus Operandi of this ballclub, I can’t help but shake this idea that the ownership and Front Office aren’t also ACUTELY aware of that presumed Modus Operandi and go out to make an addition that falls closer to the Byrd signing (again, 3-years at $7M per) than the Carl Pavano ($1.5M guaranteed with a lot of incentives) as they have to realize that they’re at a crossroads in terms of their ownership and the Front Office regime with the Tribe.  Certainly, I’m not suggesting that Zach Grienke is about to don the Chief, but players (as mentioned in the aforementioned payroll article) like Joe Blanton, Brandon McCarthy (assuming health), Shawn Marcum (assuming health), or Dan Haren (say it with me…assuming health) might all be intriguing options for the Indians to look at, particularly if the Trade Market doesn’t develop for them in terms of adding a starting pitcher.

Because, short of internal help and not being able to count on an arm coming via trade (without having to give up Choo…with no suitable replacement anywhere close), the other way to add pieces to a team is via FA.  And while the Indians have certainly dabbled in FA, their shopping habits – which is closer to rummaging around the bargain-bin with about 22 to 25 other clubs in MLB – may have to change if they want to seriously consider making a run in 2013.  Maybe ownership won’t even let THAT happen, but with the Padres (THE PADRES) being sold for $800M (and yes, $200M of that is upfront money as part of the Fox Sports San Diego media rights deal scheduled to take place), you would have to think that the Dolans could make one last push as owners before seriously considering whether this whole “I want to own the Indians” dream is more of a nightmare.

That one last “push” – if it were to come – would be nice to see about 60 feet and 6 inches from home plate in 2013, particularly given the state of the starting rotation and of the franchise…

Finally and speaking of the “state of the franchise”, with the return of Fauxberto on our doorstep and with the Indians’ DL (again and still) populated by Hafner and Sizemore, it is worth noting that the 3 players that the Indians essentially “bet” on to carry them through contention for a couple of years back in 2007 and 2008 are still on this 2012 roster together…likely for the last month or so here.

Though I know that nobody needs a history lesson – as it’s all too painful to recall – dating back in April of 2008, the Tribe signed a thought-to-be-24-year-old pitcher coming off of a dominant year in 2007 to a contract that guaranteed him “only” $15M, AND gave the team flexibility to potentially control him through the 2014 season at what looked to be pretty affordable numbers.  What has happened since has been well-documented and tragic on many levels, but 6 months after #55 stared down the Yankees between the midges, he was inked to a deal that he’s still working off of (if at a reduced rate), even if the end of his Indians’ career may be in sight.

If Fauxberto may not be long for the Tribe, the player for whom the end has almost certainly been reached as an Indian is Travis Hafner.  Remember, less than a year before the Carmona extension, the team extended Hafner in July of 2007 with the largest guaranteed contract ever handed out by the team that kept him under club control through 2012.  The deal came on the heels of a 3-year stretch in which Hafner was among the game’s elite hitters (third in wOBA, in fact, in all of MLB over those 3 years), with the other names on that list still plugging away as the elite among MLB hitters these 5 years later.  As we all know, Hafner’s career was derailed by too many injuries to recount, with the latest just feeling like the final straw for a player whose greatness (yes…“greatness”) at the plate for that 3-year stretch will unfortunately be overshadowed by what happened after that 3-year stretch of time.

Speaking of 3-year stretches, the 2008 season started with Grady Sizemore just having finished a 3-year stretch (from 2005 through 2007) in which he was the 5th most valuable player in MLB, just having turned 25 in August of 2007.  His career comparables after that 2008 season were flush with recognizable names, some of whom would end up in the Hall of Fame.  Now, as he struggles to even get on the field having just turned TWENTY-NINE, with the glimpse provided in 2011 of what he once was and what we thought he could become still leaving those pangs of regret, Grady has also likely played his last inning with the Indians, a career unrivaled – really in all of MLB – in terms of promise and potential at a young age being completely snuffed out far too early as we all still wonder what might have been.

And “what might have been” is the overwhelming feeling with those three as the end of the 2007 really wasn’t all that long ago, in terms of flips of the calendar.  But for those three, these five years could not have been more unkind and since the beginning of that 2008 season through today, the career paths of that trio have mirrored that of the organization that they were once thought to lead into a new “Era of Champions” or at least of contention once again.  Instead, each faded away in their own way, just as the promise of that 2007 season faded away into just a “what might have been” memory…

Sunday, August 12, 2012

A Lazy Sunday Wondering “What…Now?”

With the Indians’ season bottoming out in the course of about two weeks, the team has attempted to turn the page past 2012 (despite more than 50 games remaining) with an eye towards…yes, next year.  The moves that put an end to the 2012 incarnation of the Indians have already started with Lowe, Damon, and Lopez giving way to Kluber, Zeke, and Donald…in a roundabout way at least.  Going further, Hafner is on the DL…again, and maybe this time for good, with a new pitching coach in the dugout as Radinsky’s head was put up on a stake to proclaim “there will be casualties here”.  And while I’m not going to pretend to know if Radinsky was part of the problem or part of an unreachable solution, it is interesting to note that Ubaldo said of Radinsky, upon his firing that “he did everything possible…It’s my fault”, showing that Jimenez is pretty acutely aware of his role in the shocking descent of the team over the last year, the last month, and the last few weeks.

Of course, Ubaldo assuming blame for the firing doesn’t get Radinsky his job back or anything and we’re left here looking down the barrel of a little more than 50 games (think about the fact that the season is only 2/3 of the way over) wondering what happens now.  That is, there is no real chance of contention this year and the Indians have already largely cleared the decks of veterans that don’t factor in next year, with Kotchman being the lone remaining “not-under-contract” player for 2013 (and I imagine they’ll move him in an August trade at some point as his glove is still compelling and he has a not-all-that-embarrassing .723 OPS since July 1) with all of the other players on the roster still under club control…even Duncan (under club control through 2015 and still affordable and useful as a RH bench bat), who is often lumped into the Lowe/Damon column.

But, really…what now?
Unfortunately, it becomes a time where evaluation takes place and players try to build some momentum for next year, the way that Santana seems to be doing, or gaining confidence in their ability to compete at the MLB level, the way that McAllister and a couple of the young relievers are doing.  While that isn’t really all that interesting, as it feels like what we’ve been doing from August on since 2009, the Indians are full of players that they need to either figure out as useful parts or parts whose “use” is most valuable elsewhere, either via trade or as an open 40-man roster spot.

Certainly, they should be taking a look at Marson every day (or close to it) as a catcher, particularly given that the DH spot is open (probably for the rest of the year) and 1B could be open soon, meaning that Santana could focus on his hitting for the rest of the year while staying healthy.  Perhaps they could find that their “problem” at 1B could be solved by Marson catching with Santana at 1B in 2013 and beyond if Marson is able to show some semblance of consistency at the plate.  In addition, they should be seeing if Donald is able to handle the Utility role (as in, can he be a viable back-up SS) so they don’t have to subject themselves to any kind of external Brent Lillibridge-ian player as an “addition” to the team in the off-season.  Likewise, they should be giving Zeke as much exposure as they can in both LF and CF (giving Brantley some days at DH or off) to see if he can actually look like the “best defensive OF” that he’s been purported to be, in essence to see if Carrera is a legitimate possibility as the 4th OF next year.  Additionally, they should continue to try to build Cody Allen, Esmil Rogers, and Tony Sipp (back) into viable back-end-of-the-bullpen options for next year while continuing to see if McAllister and Kluber are about to take any kind of Westbrook-ian leap into a permanent starting rotation spot for the foreseeable future.

But frankly, all of that isn’t all that interesting (even to someone like me) and that’s really just talking about the periphery of the roster in terms of a back-up catcher, a utility IF, the middle of the bullpen, and the back-end-of-the-rotation.  Not to say that it isn’t useful to find answers to some questions on these guys – or even seeing if they could build up some trade value for a guy like Lou Marson or Jason Donald as a throw-in for an off-season trade – but the performance of those guys down the stretch isn’t likely to have a big impact on the 2013 team, even if some of the performances down the stretch here could affect some of the decisions (and there are lot of them) facing this team this off-season, in terms of FA, trades, and internal pieces. 

Even more important than seeing if any of those peripheral pieces can legitimately be counted on for 2013 (affecting how/if the Indians augment this group), the players that could have a big impact on 2013 are the ones that we’ve been watching all year long, with few “new” answers likely to come in the final months.  How the organization handles those players (Choo and Perez, most notably) this off-season is going to determine whether they think of the future of this group of currently assembled players in the short-and-long term.

Because as much momentum as there seems to be for the “blow it all up”…um, strategy, let’s remember that the Indians acquired these particular players back from 2008 to now (via trade and draft) because they were similarly-aged, similarly-controlled, and (hopefully) talented enough that they would mature into a contender.  Though the Ubaldo deal threw a bit of a wrench into those works, there are still pieces and parts – particularly on offense – that align very nicely on the field and in terms of controlled years, particularly when you remember that Santana and Kipnis are under club control through the 2017 season.  That’s why I have such difficulty seeing the “trade anything/everything of value” and try to envision a day 3 to 4 years from now – when Brantley, Santana, and Kipnis (just to name a few) are playing out the end of their days with the Tribe – when the High-A and Low-A talent that would come from a complete blow-up/rebuild now are hopefully maturing and congealing into a contender…because didn’t we just see that attempted?

That said, don’t think that the…um, “strategy” to start anew is unique to observers on the North Coast only as a “Front Office type” had this to say about the Tribe to B-Pro’s John Perrotto, who passed along outside perspectives on a number of franchises, with the analysis on the Tribe looking like this:
Indians: “They are in a really tough spot. They don’t have much talent on their big-league club, and they don’t have anything in the farm system. If I’m running that club, I’m trading Justin Masterson, Chris Perez, and Shin-Soo Choo over the winter and trying to collect as much young talent as I can. They need to rebuild, and it's going to be a long process if they do.”

So about 3 to 4 years after trading everything that wasn’t nailed down in an attempt to collect as much young talent as they could, this “Front Office type” is telling Perrotto that they’d trade the biggest assets (and those closest to FA) in an attempt to “collect as much young talent as (they) can”.

And that’s why this Front Office (assuming they’re still the Indians’ Front Office in 3 months) faces such a difficult off-season as they aligned Santana, Kipnis, Brantley, Masterson, Perez, and others to be “ready” to contribute in the final years that Choo and Ubaldo are under contract, with Cabrera under control for another two years.  Though they’re unquestionably handcuffed by a lack of payroll that would allow them to compete for the Hamiltons and Grienkes of the world and the prospects to make a splash in the Trade Market, they’re left with the unenviable decision to try to make the right moves to augment the current club in place or go for a full-bore rebuild, which would be a pretty hard sell to ownership so quickly after the last “rebuild/reload/whatever” less than 5 years ago.

Since the more likely of the two “alternatives” is to augment and reshape the current roster – as I don’t think the full-scale bomb is dropping soon – and they take it about 1/3 of the way or ½ way from what that “Front Office type” suggested, meaning that don’t move Masterson, but gauge market interest and return for Perez and Choo, what are we looking at here, and is any kind of assumed return for either (or both) enough to make 2013 much more palatable or are we quite suddenly writing off 2013, once thought to be the “target date” when Ubaldo was added?

In other words, is it possible to move Perez and/or Choo this off-season and expect this team to still think about contention in 2013?

In terms of what could reasonably be expected for a trade that would involve Perez and/or Choo, the assumption that the Indians can add a ready-for-MLB starting pitcher or 1B seems to be floating out there, but is that realistic?

If they were to move Perez – and it has been suggested that he should be traded for some time, for reasons listed pretty accurately here – they would be dealing from a position of strength and it would seem that they have a ready-made replacement in Vinnie Pestano for the 9th inning.  If the assumption is that Smith/Rogers/Sipp/Allen/name a MiLB reliever can settle themselves into roles for the 6th through 8th innings, it makes sense to attempt to “sell” Perez (who my son has taken to call “Babyface” with his beard gone) when his value is at its peak and before he gets (too) expensive via arbitration.

But what could they expect to get for him?
Certainly, the ideal is what the A’s received for Andrew Bailey and Ryan Sweeney, namely OF Josh Reddick, who currently has 21 2B, 25 HR, and a .849 OPS to date in Oakland.  And you can simply say…let’s turn Chris Perez into a ready-to-be-an-All-Star corner OF like the A’s did last year with Bailey (and Sweeney) for Reddick.

But let’s remember that, when that deal was consummated, Josh Reddick had played in 143 games for Boston, with 10 HR and a .706 OPS in a little more than 400 PA and he was likely slated to start the season in AAA.  Even if he was a name that was bandied about here (and other places…and check this out from last December from Adam Van Arsdale, suggesting Reddick for C. Perez) that came largely based on this from B-Pro, written about Reddick (again, 21 2B, 25 HR, .849 OPS to date) and Ryan Kalish (only 85 PA with the Red Sox this year, with a .922 OPS in AAA Pawtucket) and how each had “potential” coming into the season:
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.

So how do the Indians find another Josh Reddick and would some team be willing to trade a young, under-club-control OF (as an example) for an about-to-get-more-expensive closer in C. Perez?

That’s the question at hand as, yes…in an ideal world, the Indians simply deal Perez, get a ready-to-step-in bat (or starter) and call it a day, but finding that situation – when they probably did gauge interest and return for Perez at the Trading Deadline – is what it will come down to.  Certainly, they could get some package of prospects for Perez, but what would a trade like that mean for 2013 or even 2014?

Even more confusing is the Choo situation as he (unlike Perez) is entering his walk year and the Indians have NO compelling options anywhere in the organization to replace him.  Don’t get me wrong here, at some point, they’re going to have to eventually replace him as Choo is going to leave either by hook (via trade) or crook (Messr. Boras) at some point in the next 14 months or so.  But again, if the Indians do look to move Choo, what expectation should there be that they could add a ready-to-contribute starting pitcher (or OF or 1B) when recent trades involving other still-under-control OF have resulted largely in prospect packages.

Perhaps the best example of this is to look at the packages that netted Hunter Pence in the past two years, with the Astros sending 2 ½ years of club control of Pence to the Phillies and the Phillies recently trading 1 ½ years of club control to the Giants.  Now, realizing that this isn’t a “this is the going rate for an OF on the Trade Market” proclamation, it is interesting to look to see what the Astros, then the Phillies were able to get for Hunter Pence…and Hunter Pence for longer than what the Indians would be giving up in Choo.

When the Astros sent him to Philly, they added Jarred Cossart as the main piece closest to MLB, who at the time was a 21-year-old pitcher in AA who was listed as the 70th best prospect in baseball prior to the 2011 season.  Since then, he’s ascended to AAA (just recently) and was BA’s 50th best prospect coming into the 2012 season and could perhaps contribute to the Astros next year…or about 2 years after Houston added him.  Past Cossart, they acquired OF Jonathan Singleton, who was in High-A ball at the time and ranked as the 39th best prospect prior to last season by BA, “improving” to the #34 slot prior to this year, where he is currently a 20-year-old in AA.  In addition to those two main players, they added an older arm in Josh Zeid (now 25, with a 6.08 ERA in AA) and a very young OF in Domingo Santana (now 19 years old and playing in High-A) as the PTBNL.  After having traded Pence about a year ago, the Astros have yet to see any kind of MLB contributions from the players they added, even if Cossart may not be too far away, depending upon his performance in AAA.

Now, just a year later, the Phillies sent Pence off to the Bay Area for the Giants to retain club control over him for 1 ½ years.  The Phillies’ return for those 1 ½ years of Pence from San Francisco was an interesting 20-year-old catcher that was recently promoted to AA in Tommy Joseph and a hard-throwing relief prospect in Seth Rosin that figures to start 2013 in AA, though he could move quickly as a late-inning reliever.  So…two guys that – while interesting with high ceilings – are likely to spend the 2013 season in AA, maybe making it to AAA in 2014, with an eye towards a call-up to MLB (assuming things go well) towards the end of 2014, or about the time that Francisco Lindor should (knocking firmly on wood) be getting close to MLB.

And the reason that I put all of the ETA’s in there for those players is not coincidental as both packages revolved around players either in AA or High-A ball, meaning players that weren’t going to arrive to MLB in any kind of short order.  Perhaps the Astros, then Phillies, desired lower-level players and demanded that those particular players be included in the deals, but one would assume (particularly with the Phillies) that most clubs would prefer to get closer-to-MLB players, assuming that their pedigree was in line with those below them in the Minors.

Maybe they can target closer-to-MLB players or insist upon already-established MLB players under club control for the foreseeable future, but there are you returns for 2 ½ years of Hunter Pence and 1 ½ years for Pence.  Certainly, I realize that Choo is a better player than Pence, but he’s also a Boras client who is unquestionably going to test the FA waters at the end of 2013 and the likelihood that he signs with any team that would acquire him in the off-season is as laughable as the idea that he’s suddenly going to ink a deal with the Tribe.

All of that context brings us back to the idea that the Indians can simply make a deal to bolster their MLB rotation immediately by moving Choo or would be able to find his replacement in RF by essentially trading for him.  If the Pence deals provide any insight, the Indians might be looking at a package that would include players further away from MLB and, lacking an obvious replacement for Choo, how they handle the Choo situation is going to be the move/non-move that tips their hand about expectations for 2013, most notably.

The assumption that the Indians can simply trade Choo (or Perez) for guys that step in right away is a tough one to envision on a tit-for-tat scale, particularly given the limited control that any acquiring team would be getting with Choo (or Perez) in a move.  Yes, there have been moves that have involved MLB players being dealt for MLB players, but those deals (Garza-for-Young, Hamilton-for-Volquez) often involve young players under control for a longer period of time than the one year remaining on Choo’s deal.  And yes, there have been deals like the one involving Josh Reddick last year heading West to Oakland, but the Indians would have to hit on one of those deals – and hit a HR doing so – to make 2013 not feel like a step back or just another plea to “wait until these guys are ready”.

Because that “wait until these guys are ready” day has already arrived for the current group of Indians and how the organization envisions them in 2013 – as a contender in need of a few tweaks/additions or as a non-contender – is going to become clear in what is shaping up as a franchise-altering and ownership-defining off-season for the team.