Sunday, September 30, 2012

A Lazy Sunday Saying Goodbye

Though that title may lead you to believe that I’m finally going to weigh in on the dismissal of Manny Acta from Thursday, it actually refers to someone else exiting stage left, as I’ve decided to walk away from writing about the Indians on these Interwebs on a permanent basis.  While I know that I took some “time off” last off-season and there will be those that will only believe there will be permanence to this when they fail to see 3,000 words from these fingers flying at them every couple of days, the time for me to move on from this endeavor has arrived.

Maybe you could posit that this is the product of the apathy that has set in around the fanbase regarding the organization, particularly after seeing a fanciful alternate universe presented (tongue firmly in cheek) this week by AC , but the greater truth is that I’ve reached a point in my life in which this no longer fits neatly – or even messily – into any part of it.  I suppose that I could continue on in some fashion on a part-time basis, but (as you may have noticed) I generally either go all-in (inexplicably finding 4K words on bullpen usage) or simply pull the band-aid right off.

So as the band-aid is torn off, the end has arrived for me, some 7+ years after sending out the following e-mail to 11 of my buddies, prior to the 2005 season:
That question of “Too much time on my hands?” is particularly fun to look at in hindsight as each of those 11 people (plus me) have seen their lives change drastically from that time and the evolution of my life and the involvement of this website is something that I need to stop intertwining.  Interestingly, that missive was saved by the person who set up this site (Tim Bennett…or “t-bone” as he’s known in these parts) on a laptop over beers and wings one night at the Lakewood Winking Lizard and, after a site redesign a few years later by Joe Popa (a Tribe fan in Chicago who worked in Graphic Design with my sister), this place evolved into a corner of the Internet that I hope attempted to inject logic, analysis, and humor into following our Cleveland Indians.  Starting with the days in which I used to write as “Pat Tabler” as my nom de plume (before a cease-and-desist request from Bob DiBiasio, who was somehow afraid that people would think that the REAL Pat Tabler was pounding out thousands of words on Ben Broussard and Jason Davis on a bi-weekly basis) through the evolution of this site through these last 8 seasons, we’ve had happy days and sad ones, hopeful days and dark ones, but as Tribe fans we always soldiered on, connected by our complicated collective love of baseball and our (sometimes misguided and often unrequited) love of our Tribe.

Realizing that this is a place that many come to parse through the happenings at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario, with a particularly major announcement coming earlier in the week, you can read this enlightening piece from B-Pro’s John Perrotto, in which he interviewed the now-deposed Manny Acta for some insight.  In it, Acta says (in part) that, “When people say pitching and defense wins championships, it doesn’t mean bullpen and defense…when people talk about pitching and defense, they mean starting pitching, too, and our guys haven’t stepped up and gotten it done this season.”  Or you can read the piece from’s Jay Jaffe that listed Acta as on the “hot seat”, with Jaffe positing that, “there’s little debate that a team with a young core featuring Carlos Santana, Jason Kipnis, Asdrubal Cabrera, Michael Brantley and Shin-Soo Choo should be more competitive”, then going further to say that, “Antonetti and club president Mark Shapiro bear some of the blame for the dismal showing, but it’s not on them to keep players engaged on a day-to-day basis…such a slide may suggest that the players have stopped responding to Acta.”  And that last bit is something that’s interesting to consider given Castrovince’s nugget that “several hours after the news of his dismissal had gone public, Acta had only heard from one of his players offering condolences” as it goes back to whether the talent on hand was flawed on the development of that talent was lacking or both.  But that will all come out in the wash, as will the new manager for the Tribe – be it Sandy Alomar without the interim tag or with Terry Francona stepping back into the managerial fray – and I’m not going to be doing the one doing the laundry anymore.  Because my days of dropping block quotes between run-on sentences flush with too many parentheticals and dashes that would make my any English teacher I’ve ever had shudder have ended.    

That said, realizing that this place has evolved into something that I have grown very proud of and want it to continue as a small corner of logic and thoughtfulness in an ocean of overreaction, vitriol, and worse, The DiaTribe will continue as Al Ciammaichella has agreed to captain this ship on a full-time basis, with the idea that some other people may come on to help Al from time to time because…well, because this is a lot to handle for just one person at any stage of their life.  Be assured that Al will continue the high level of analysis and writing (spreading his wings from just writing about the Minors) that he’s exhibited here in the past and – if others were to hop aboard – they would be equally impressive as I’m not about to water down the level of discourse that I like to think that has been achieved here.

This has been an amazing experience as I’ve met countless people through my writing that I now count among some of my closest friends and I’m constantly humbled when I meet (in real life) a reader who recognizes my name, casually asks if I’m the Paul Cousineau that writes about the Indians, then spends the next 20 minutes talking Tribe with me.  Whether it’s happened at a wedding (in front of The DiaBride, who stood there…mouth agape) or at a tee-ball game for my oldest son, where his coach professed to be a regular reader, I’ve been nothing but amazed that me putting my pen to paper – so to speak – those 7+ years ago allowed me these opportunities and this experience.

Though I’ve never been the most…um, interactive writer (and even in the Twitter Age, there is something about limiting my thoughts to 140 characters that I still am unable to do) on the Internet, the contributions of the serial commenters and the e-mails that I get from readers brought me great pleasure as it afforded me the opportunity to engage with a very smart, very tuned-in faction of a fanbase that I’ve lost hope in too many times to count, thinking that they’d been dumbed-down by the coverage by the mainstream media of this team and the blood-sucking vapidity of sports talk radio, too eager to focus on the negative and not to enjoy baseball for what it is – a diversion that is meant to provide an escape and some level of enjoyment, even if the performance on the field makes that difficult at times.

Ultimately though, sports – and specifically for me, baseball – is something to enjoy and to appreciate.  And while disappointment is burned into our DNA as Tribe fans, that sense of enjoying a game as simply a place to lose yourself for a short time is at the heart of my love for this game and for this team.  And that enjoyment, that love, that passion that I think came across in my writing, is the same love that I hope to pass on to my children, the way that my parents did to me.  And that’s where my true passion is – and always has been – with my wonderful and growing children and with my loving and lovely wife (who has been called The DiaBride to her face too many times for me to count), who encouraged me throughout this endeavor, never asking that I take a break or that I stop writing about the Indians (still) because she knew how much I enjoyed it.  With my children getting older and getting (more) involved in their own sports and with my (real) job growing in wonderful ways that I would have never dreamed possible, the time has come for me to get my enjoyment from the things that please me most – my family and then…somewhere WAY down the line, the Indians.

That’s not to say that I’ve given up on this team or this organization as others have (particularly as of late), just to say that I won’t be banging out thousands of words as my catharsis for watching this game.  Those thousands (maybe hundreds) of words will instead be articulated with my family down at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario. 

So I hope to see you there sometime soon, I thank you for reading the thoughts of a slightly-obsessed (never at a loss for words) former member of the Little Indians Fan Club, and, as always, Go Tribe…

Sunday, September 23, 2012

A Lazy Sunday Nearing the End

While I deal with The DiaBride’s bad back (with her physical therapist recently asking her how much of a “hands-on husband” she had to limit her lifting/laundry/etc. burden), the Lazy One is coming a little short this weekend.  While that may be cause for joy in some corners, since I realize that most have turned their attention to the Browns or to the MLB pennant races – as very little has changed regarding the Indians in the past…um, two months – and as the Indians’ season s…l…o…w…l…y crawls to Game 162, most attention has been placed on whether the Indians will be drafting fourth of fifth next year (who said the Browns have a monopoly on the amateur draft generating…um, excitement) and what moves will be made to the Indians coaching staff and Front Office.

While most of that will shake out in the coming weeks/months, there is still this overwhelming sense of “what just happened here” surrounding the Tribe.  Yes, I know that it’s been a solid couple of months since the bottom fell out…with the bottom falling out a couple times after that and people at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario are running out of fingers to point in a direction other than their own.  But to watch this team absolutely slog through the last two months (and look BAD doing it) is to echo the sentiments of what a “Front Office Type” had to say to B-Pro’s John Perrotto regarding the Tribe and their recent…um, performance.  And…well, it’s not pretty:
Indians: “They might be the worst team—from a fundamentals standpoint—in the big leagues. They kill themselves with silly mistakes.”

And for as much as people can point to a flawed roster and to an unproductive off-season (both valid points), isn’t that what we see – night in and night out – a team that finds new ways to lose?

For as much promise that there seemed to be after last season with certain players, how have the Indians looked THIS bad for THIS long?

As frustrating as it is to watch the Indians in terms of stalled development and regression, the appearance of a team that’s going through the motions and is either ill-prepared or ill-equipped to compete at the MLB level is what gnaws at most of the fanbase…at least those that are still watching.  Whether that goes back to the coaching staff or the Front Office that assembled the “talent” for said coaching staff to put into the lineup and into the pitching staff is a question that’s been asked before in this space (and in others); but it’s the MAIN question facing this organization going forward.  Because it goes back to the “Nature vs.Nurture” argument from a month ago in that it has to be asked whether these players are simply flawed and were overrated in expectations for them or if the players (seemingly the whole lot of them) can regress this quickly and this profoundly.

Is there talent there – the talent that was on display at times in 2011 and (ever so briefly) in 2012 – and the execution is lacking or is the lack of execution a by-product of the flawed “talent” on hand?

Because for as much talk as there is to say, “hey, look at Oakland…THAT’S what the Indians should be and THAT’S how they should be approaching their off-season”, does everyone really realize what Oakland did this past off-season, and in the years prior to this one?

Prior to this year, the A’s have largely operated in that “no-man’s land” of 70 to 80 win seasons (the “purgatory” that everyone was so afraid of for the Tribe about two months ago…that “8th seed in the NBA playoffs” spot) for the last 5 years.  They made move after move (everyone knows they traded Carlos Gonzalez and others for Matt Holiday, who would play 93 games for them, right?) in an attempt to find the lightning in the bottle that is currently taking place in the Bay Area.  And this past off-season was probably the biggest make-over since the Mulder, Hudson, Zito days came to an end.  In case you weren’t paying attention to Oakland’s moves at the end of last October, the A’s saw Josh Willingham and David DeJesus depart via FA, along with Rich Harden, Hideki Matsui and Coco Crisp.  Though Crisp would return later in the off-season on a 2-year deal, that’s basically the ENTIRE A’s offense from a 74-88 A’s team from last year with 4 of their 6 most productive hitters (if you count Ryan Sweeney, who was traded…but I’ll get to that) from a pretty putrid 2011 offense moving on, largely via FA.

Then, from December 9 to December 28, they traded Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez, Andrew Bailey, Craig Breslow, and the aforementioned Ryan Sweeney for a group of (what was deemed at the time to be) prospects as the A’s were unquestionably seen to be “rebuilding” as the scope of what was changing from 2011 to 2012 bordered on seismic.  Just to be clear here on the players that they GOT RID OF, Cahill was a 23-year-old pitcher who had an uneven 2011 season (4.16 ERA, 1.42 WHIP), but was a season removed from his 2010 campaign, in which he posted a 2.97 ERA, 1.11 WHIP as a 22-year-old RHP.  Further than that, Gonzalez was a 25-year-old LHP who had posted an ERA of 3.23 in 2010 and 3.12 in 2011.  At the time he was traded, Gonzalez was about to enter his first year of arbitration, meaning the A’s had THREE more years of control over Gonzalez, which is actually one fewer year of control than Oakland had over Cahill, who was under club control through the 2015 season when he was traded.

So, they traded 3 years of club control over a 25-year-old LHP that had posted back-to-back seasons with ERA’s under 3.25 and four years of club control over a 23-year-old RHP that had already posted a sub-3.00 ERA season in MLB, with a career 3.91 ERA in 96 starts.  That’s their #1 and #3 starter when the 2011 season started (with Brett Anderson being their #2 starter before he was injured) that would be traded the following off-season…and pitchers that were their 2nd and 3rd most valuable starters.  They also traded their closer in Bailey and their top LH set-up men in Breslow, this after trading another of their top set-up men (Brad Ziegler) at the Trading Deadline in July of 2011, and 3 of their top 4relievers, as measured by FIP.

Again, that was a 74-88 A’s team in 2011 that gave up MULTIPLE years of control over two of their best young starting pitchers, their closer and other bullpen arms, AND watched their two best offensive players (Willingham and DeJesus) walk for nothing. 
Of course, in making those moves, they added a number of key contributors to the 2012 club that finds itself in contention (plus the Cespedes signing), but at the time those trades were consummated, few saw the players that they acquired having this much of an impact…particularly this quickly, and you should read this if you think this was expected or what they have done provides any kind of blueprint.  But to reshape their team and “create” a contender in short order from a 74-88 team in 2011, that’s what the A’s did this past off-season…

If you want to try to put that into context for the Indians in the present tense…well, you can’t because the A’s turned Cahill and Gonzalez into MORE valuable young pitching and the Indians simply don’t have an equivalent to what Cahill and Gonzalez were for the A’s last off-season.  If you want to look at the most valuable trade chips, you already know who they are – namely Cabrera and Santana, with Perez, then Masterson coming in behind those guys and Choo likely being past that, largely based on club control and assumed salaries.  Brantley would be in there somewhere, as would McAllister, but those two are still largely unproven in MLB…at least not to the extent that the players the A’s traded last off-season were.

Maybe you break up the bullpen past Perez (Joe Smith and…um…) to see if you can net more starting pitching, but the A’s are being paced by a pitching staff that boasts young arms and to acquire young and under-club-control-for-a-while arms, you need to give up something of value to receive those arms to wish on in an effort to improve this Indians’ team in the present tense and (more importantly) the future tense as pitching is what wins for small-market teams and – for as much as it would seem to make sense for the Indians to make a play for Ike Davis (if he truly is available…and a terrific write-up from Ryan Richards of LGT here on the situation – the Indians need to identify the young arms that are going to pull them out of this crevasse.  In terms of those arms that figure to be around in 2013 – and I’m not counting Fauxberto among them – none of them has been even close to league average (compared to the offense, which has a fair share of above-MLB-average players...and that list does not include The Chiz) and unfortunately you’re looking at the same arms for next year.

And what’s frustrating there is that Oakland (and I’ll keep invoking them just because they’re the “flavor of the month” and this year’s model of a small-market team that “proves” that money isn’t the biggest factor) has EIGHT starters with a better ERA+ than any Tribe starter, with five of those aforementioned A’s eight being 25 years old or younger.  Perhaps guys like Masterson and Ubaldo are able to “find” some semblance of their effective selves and maybe McAllister and/or Kluber is more than the barely-back-end-of-the-rotation fodder that we’ve seen from Tomlin/Huff/Gomez, and maybe Carlos Carrasco (who is younger than Kluber) comes back from TJ surgery to assert himself at the top-of-the-rotation going forward.  But short of those things – that ALL haven’t happened yet – happening and short of a large influx of (likely ill-advised) FA spending in a market that doesn’t have that many attractive options, the Indians are in a position not all that dissimilar to what the A’s (and a number of other small-market teams) faced last year as a case can be easily made for a complete dismantling of the roster, just as a (much less compelling) case can be made for augmenting what is already in place, with the additions coming via FA.

But that’s what faces the Indians this off-season, as much attention figures to be paid to who will be filling out the lineup card and what the Indians’ Front Office looks like when some MAJOR restructuring looks to take place.  Because over the last couple of months – where the club that (in the words whispered in Perrotto’s ear) “might be the worst team—from a fundamentals standpoint—in the big leagues” has limped and slogged to the finish line, anything that could have been looked at as a “bright spot” has been overshadowed by the pall hanging over this team and this organization. 

Whether it is truly “darkest before the dawn” is what will be tested this off-season as the alternative is…well, some awfully dark days ahead.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Let’s Make a Deal on A Lazy Sunday

Though I’m not really sure what else can be said/written about this team other than asking “they’re still playing” and “when does this end”, the attention has predictably turned to the upcoming off-season and this Fall/Winter/Spring figures to show us as much about the organization as any in recent memory as anyone associated with the team has come under heavy fire since July…and with good reason.  From ownership to the Front Office to the dugout to the clubhouse, nobody has been immune from criticism and, while that criticism is well-placed in some instances, it doesn’t remove the fact that the Indians need to move along after this disastrous second half and attempt to make the right baseball decisions for this team going forward.

Certainly, you would think that Hafner’s option will be declined/bought out and it’s hard to make ANY kind of argument that Fauxberto’s option gets picked up – regardless of the “affordability” of said option – as most of the focus now is on which of these players (if any) is a player that the Indians can rely on to make up any kind of homegrown “core” going forward.  The way that they’ve played over the last couple of months, it’s impossible to not fall into the “blow it all up” column as NOBODY has looked like a “core” player and young players have stalled and disappointed while veterans have regressed or worse.

The scout that told Hoynes that this is the “deadest team (he’s) seen in a long time” and that he thinks “they’ve quit” is on to something here and though I’m not sure “deadest” is a word, to watch this team for any stretch of time recently certainly can suck the life out of anyone.  And while that lack of a spark doesn’t bode well for Acta’s future with the team (and here is the Heyman report that he’s on the hot seat) as this team was inexplicably in first place for a couple of months, then completely fell off of the map, the rest of the Hoynes’ piece in which that scout is quoted is the direction we’re going to take today in the Lazy One.

Because while 2012 will soon become a frustrating memory, we still have to try our best to look forward and for that, we go to the Indians’ GM and how he views the upcoming off-season.  To that end
Antonetti said no player on the roster is “untouchable” as far as a trade is concerned.
“We’re not in a position to say any particular player is off limits,” he said. “Now, with that being said, all of those guys who have been rumored about at various points in time this season, they’re all still Cleveland Indians, right?  So just because teams call and ask and express interest doesn't necessarily mean we're going to trade someone.”

Obviously, this is what he has to say and this is what pretty much every GM says in terms of “hey, if the Angels offered us Mike Trout for Player X…well, we’d have to listen”.  But what Antonetti says rings particularly true in terms of going up and down the roster and failing to come up with a player that you’d say, “NO, we would not trade that guy, under any circumstances”.

Yes, Kipnis is certainly a nice player and I like what I see from Lonnie and Pestano, but is there any player on this roster that you can’t make a case for being traded, in terms of what they might bring back?

Maybe you think Santana falls into that category, but his inability to thrive defensively behind the plate and his…um, lack of leadership (compared to what Vic used to have) lead me to believe that he actually falls into the “sell high” category that is pretty rare on this roster.  But in terms of Antonetti saying that they don’t have an “untouchable” player, it isn’t all that bad of an idea because they SHOULD be saying publicly that this team has disappointed and that they’re willing to listen to any offer from any team on any player while being very aggressive in adding talent, particularly pitching, and particularly to the upper levels of the organization.

If that feels like something you’ve read here before, you have and you’re not having déjà vu…well, you’re just living in the same bad dream as me, and it’s been going on since July of 2009.  Regardless of that, this is what a not-from-Cleveland “Front Office Type” had to say to B-Pro’s John Perrotto regarding the Tribe:
Indians: “It’s going to be interesting to see what they do this offseason. Do they blow it up and start over again? They don’t have enough impact players in their farm system to build from within. They’re almost going to have to make some trades for prospects, because they’re not going to spend the money to add impact veterans.”

“Interesting” indeed, from the job security of the GM, the manager, and every coach and player donning the Chief these days…

While I think that the “they’re not going to spend the money to add impact veterans” is misplaced here (as it ignores the way that teams in markets like Cleveland are built), the line that “they don’t have enough impact players in their farm system” rings true, particularly when you consider the upper levels of that farm system and the dearth of high-end talent in Akron and Columbus this year.  If the assumption then is that “they’re going to have to make some trades for prospects” is pervasive and growing steam, what does that mean?

Certainly, the accepted line of thinking is that they’ll trade both Choo and Perez at the very least, but it’s worth asking what either of those guys brings in return.  To that end, with the Tribe facing the Rangers, Nino Colla of TCF noticed the presence of one Mike Olt (since sidelined, probably for the year with plantar fasciitis) on the Rangers’ roster and had a pretty compelling thought regarding the 23-year-old Olt, particularly because Olt is a 3B Nino notes, Texas already has a 3B in Beltre, meaning that Olt may be made available by the Rangers in the off-season.  Regardless, here are Colla’s thoughts on him being a desirable target for the Tribe this off-season:
Olt is a stud power hitter who’s blasted 28 bombs this year for Double-A Frisco. Sure he’s a third baseman, but he could play first, giving the Indians that right-handed power stick at the corner the so desperately need. I’m not sure what the Rangers plans are for Mitch Mooreland, if he’s a stopgap to Olt, or if he's someone they’d like to invest in, but if the later is the case, my first play in the offseason is trying to pry Olt away from the Rangers, and using Shin-Soo Choo to do so.

It is here that I note that LaPorta was a “stud power hitter” once upon a time, who hit 22 HR in AA as a 23-year-old, while pointing out that Olt hit those 28 HR as a RH 23-year-old in AA, but you get the direction here – Choo is not long for Cleveland and the Indians need to find a suitor that is willing to give them a young player that is near or already in MLB in exchange for Choo and take the best offer on the table.  If that’s the Rangers…great and going further, Nino goes on to say that “Choo is a much easier sign long-term than Josh Hamilton and (Texas) can hold onto a middle of the order bat” as the Rangers would have a full year to negotiate with Choo…I mean, Boras.

Maybe the Rangers make a big play for Choo for the reasons that Nino mentions, and in terms of teams that might be looking to add Choo because of a player like Hamilton potentially departing or because of their own deficiencies in RF, the Yankees may be a possible destination, depending upon what they do with soon-to-be FA Nick Swisher.  Past the Rangers and Yankees, the Giants (sans Melky) and Mariners (SECOND-HALF surprise and surge…well, until you consider their manager) would certainly be among those interested in upgrading in RF and willing to pay for 1 year of Choo with a right to negotiate with him and his agent on a long-term deal before Choo hits FA after 2013.

Allegedly the Pirates had an interest in adding Choo at the Trading Deadline and it will be interesting to see how their absolute COLLAPSE in the past few weeks (what was that about the Pirates being a small-market team showing everyone how it contention is possible) affects their off-season plans in terms of aggressiveness.  Because he would certainly be a “rental” for them and there really wouldn’t be any question that he would be a Pirate for one season…or maybe shorter.  With that in mind, they certainly wouldn’t part with top prospects Gerrit Cole (1st overall pick in the Draft in 2011, already in AAA) or Jameson Taillon (2nd overall pick the previous year, now a 20-year-old who has ascended to AA) for 1 year…and maybe ½ season…of Choo, depending upon how the first couple of months of 2013 go for the Pirates.

And that’s really the rub with projecting any kind of return for Choo, in that as much as I’d like to say that the Mariners are a great match, flush with pitching prospects that get the salivation glands going, there’s little doubt that Boras will have him ready to hit FA after 2013, with a call to Mike Ilitch probably already planned out for Choo to “solve” the Tigers’ RF issues after next season.  As much as I’d like to think that Choo would net the Indians a cadre of impact prospects, all ready to contribute in 2013 and beyond, we already looked at the returns for Hunter Pence – who has now been traded a couple of times in the last few years – which should temper expectations a little and realize that the Indians may unfortunately have to target some further-away-from-MLB prospects for what is likely one year of Choo.

Past Choo, the assumed off-season trade chip would seem to be Chris Perez (much to the delight of the aforementioned Chris Perez) and while the ideal would be to simply net a Josh Reddick (as he is known now…not as a rather-lightly-regarded Red Sox player) for Chris Perez, it’s worth looking at what kind of market would exist for Perez if (ahem…when) the Indians offered him on the open market.  That is to say, what teams would be interested in Perez’s services, with club control over him lasting through the 2013 and 2014 seasons, even if the arbitration numbers tied to those years are going to be…um, on the high side.

In terms of “Blown Saves” (and as much as I hate Save as a “stat”, the “Blown Save” doesn’t bother me nearly as much), teams that would figure to contend in 2013 that “blew” a lot of saves would be the Brewers (assuming the Grienke trade wasn’t some sort of signal of a break-up of the team), the Angels, the Red Sox (though they’re waiting for a healthy Andrew Bailey), the Cardinals, the Marlins, the…well, just look at the list here.  The Save Percentage list is pretty similar and the Angels and Red Sox are still the two teams that stand out there as I’m not sure that the Cardinals would be all that interested in re-acquiring the services of Pure Rage and the Marlins are still “committed” (at least financially)  to Heath Bell.  While I’d LOVE to see Ozzie and C. Perez in the same locker room (assuming it’s in South Beach…a LONG way away from me), the point is that it’s only going to take two teams to be interested in him to generate some interest that benefits the Tribe.

To that end, among teams whose closers are scheduled to become FA at year’s end, Valverde is scheduled to become a FA, though I can’t envision the Indians moving Perez to Detroit, where he can spout his vitriol about the Indians every time he visits the corner of Carnegie and Ontario.  Past Valverde, the Yankees have Mo Rivera still working his way back and Rafael Soriano has a player option worth $14M that he might decline to see if he could parlay his closing role in the Bronx into a longer deal.  Speaking of coming back from injury, the Giants may have an interest in him, depending upon the progress being made by Brian Wilson. 

Going further on closers that could be FA, the Rays hold an option on Fernando Rodney (for $2.5M) that they’ll surely pick up and the D-Backs hold a $6.5M option on JJ Putz that they’re likely to pick up.  So, really the FA market is pretty bare when it comes to closers, once you get past Jose Valverde, with the list full of guys coming back from injuries (Ryan Madsen, Joakim Soria) or who are largely underwhelming (Brandon League, Jon Broxton, Brett Myers, Mike Adams, JP Howell, K-Rod, etc.) looking like the FA options…so maybe an “on-the-market” Perez would generate some interest, regardless of how foolish teams are when they spend on a “closer”.

As I said, it only takes one (or two, to begin a bidding war) interested party and the invocation of the D-Backs brings me around to the third player that I think will be on the Trading Block this off-season – Asdrubal Cabrera.  Realizing that this is a topic that I’ve already broached in this space, Cabrera’s second-half slide (again) have to force the Indians into thinking that he’s their most valuable trade asset, in terms of his offensive ability and his affordability over the next two years. 

About a month ago, I alluded to the possibility that Cabrera to AZ could make sense, largely based on this report that the Diamondbacks are in the market for a SS this off-season, but the reasoning for that remains solid, particularly given the Diamondbacks’ wealth of talent with young arms.  In case you don’t remember, here’s what was written:
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.
Maybe the Indians have something in Juan Diaz (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.

Perhaps you want to figure who would be interested in Masterson (and that would be most teams as SP is in such demand around MLB), but…yes, this is what we’re left to do – to wonder what other teams that figure to contend in 2013 could use a strong-armed, middle-of-the-order RF, or a lock-down closer, or a offensively elite SS under club control through the 2014 season.  Because those exact players aren’t helping this team win games in the present tense and their greatest contributions to this team winning any time in the near future has more to do with what they might bring in a trade instead of what they might contribute on the field as a member of the Indians.

Maybe that depresses you to no end (because it does for me), but what this organization needs to do is turn these most valuable assets into the best starting pitching (prospects) that they possibly can.  Though others in, mainstream media have caught on to this idea that Oakland and Tampa are winning this year because of pitching, it’s old news here and the Indians need to identify and acquire as many young arms as they can and they need to use their most desirable assets (Choo, Perez, Cabrera, maybe Santana) to acquire them.

Perhaps that sounds like a chorus you’ve heard before as once upon a time, the term “Waves of Arms” was used to describe what was going to arrive in Cleveland and when the trades from 2009 and 2010 continued in earnest, the stockpiling of pitchers led to the dubbing of the “Layers of Arms” in this space.  Now, Carrasco is still the guy I’m most excited about in terms of players added from 2008 to 2010 with McAllister climbing that list and I’m interested to see what Kluber can do with a longer leash, but to see Dave Huff (um…kind of) succeed this September serves as a reminder that those purported
“waves” were just ripples and those “layers” crumbled pretty quickly as the Indians’ current rotation and bullpen is full of players added during the 2009 to 2011 trades…and we’ve seen how that’s gone.

Moving forward (because that’s all we can try to do), the realization comes into clearer focus with each passing day that for the Indians to compete in the MLB landscape, they need pitching – young pitching – and lots of it.  Perhaps they can turn Choo, Perez, and maybe even Asdrubal…and maybe even more into some bona-fide pitching prospects because at this point, that seems to be the best course of action for an organization in need of some bold action.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Bucking the Status Quo

If what’s past is truly prologue, perhaps it’s time to go back to the last Indians season that came close to the disappointment of the 2012 campaign and get into the silver Delorean to take us back to 2006.  In case you don’t remember (or even if you do), the Indians were coming off of a 93-win season in 2005, were returning their assumed “core” and were picked by many to make the playoffs, or better.  They stumbled out of the gate and found themselves 10 ½ games back in the division by Memorial Day, a deficit that would grow throughout the season with the team being 24 ½ out by the Trading Deadline, ultimately finishing with a “flourish” to salvage a 78-84 record, a mere 18 games out of the divisional lead.  As a quick reminder here, let’s remember that the offense featured Victor, Grady, and Hafner (with the latter two posting OPS of .907 and 1.097 VERY respectively) and boasted a starting staff of CC, Westbrook, Lee, and Byrd with Raffy Betancourt and Bob Wickman at the back-end of the bullpen.

Though this 2012 team seems like a complete failure, to look back and see that abomination (the bright spots were Jeremy Sowers’ success upon arrival – at the time – and the trade of Benuardo for Choo and Asdrubal – in hindsight – just to put it in perspective) is to recall similarly dark days as a team that looked to be young and full of potential fell flat on its collective face.  Certainly, that 2006 team was full of hope and promise, but coming off of the disappointment of 2006, the organization was left wondering how those seemingly best-laid plans that led to 2005 had come undone so quickly.

Now, this is where things get interesting as I’m not sure how many people remember this, but the Indians hired Buck Showalter – who had just been fired by the Rangers – as an “advisor” to then-GM Mark Shapiro.  His official title was “senior advisor to baseball operations”, but many saw him as a ready-to-jump-in manager in case the 2007 season careened off of the tracks early, with Eric Wedge being fired as a result of another potential slow start in 2007.

Though that “slow start” would never happen in 2007, the addition of Showalter at the time is interesting to consider in the context of where the Indians sit now.  While some have called for an outright explosion at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario, I wonder if an addition similar to what Showalter was after the 2006 season is what’s more likely to be in store.  At the time of Showalter’s hiring, the press release contained this quote from Shapiro:
“Buck Showalter will serve as a valuable resource to myself and the entire Baseball Operations staff…Buck has a unique set of skills and experiences that will greatly enhance our organization in all facets at the Major League, Player Development and Amateur levels when it comes to decision-making, instruction and mentoring our younger staff members.”

He was essentially a different voice that wasn’t cut from the same Polo-shirt-shaped cloth that the rest of the organization seemed to be (and still is) and was meant to question the methodology of why the Indians did this or how the Indians came to the conclusions that they did.  While most that covered the team at the time saw Showalter angling very sharply for Wedge’s job, his presence likely shook up the manner in which the Front Office or the manager made decisions, injecting questions where questions may have not previously existed in their decision-making and providing a dissenting voice to the cacophony of agreement that seemed to pervade the Tribe Front Office at the time.

Ultimately, Showalter would quietly make his way out of the organization and back to ESPN before he took the reins in Baltimore, but seeing his Orioles (somehow) battle their way into the AL East race…and stay there, got me thinking about what a kick in the teeth his presence must have been to people who needed a kick in the teeth and who responded accordingly to keep their jobs.  He injected a different perspective and a path in perhaps another direction to an organization that was seriously considering it at the time.  With his arrival to Cleveland, he could compare the way that things were done with the Indians with the way they had been done with the Yankees, the Diamondbacks, and the Rangers and provide insight – that didn’t exist prior to his arrival – to the Indians as to how critically assess what they were doing right, what they could improve upon, and (most importantly) how to make those improvements.

For as much as there is building momentum to scrap the entire Front Office, I’m unable to escape this idea that Shapiro, Antonetti, etc. are very well thought of in the industry (just as they were after the disaster of the 2006 campaign) and what they may need (once more) is someone to question the methods that lead them to their conclusions, just as Showalter was asked to do six years ago.  With Showalter, there was a sense that he was also being given the opportunity to view the organization from the inside to perhaps set him up for a greater level of involvement or a promotion that would include greater responsibility.

Maybe that’s the direction that the Indians take – to break up the groupthink that (from afar) looks to have pervaded their decisions and their actions.  Now, this is not a new suggestion around these parts because as far back as when Shapiro was bumped up to his new post and Antonetti ascended to the GM post, there was a line of thinking that an external – if familiar – voice was needed.  At that time, the suggestion here was Josh Byrnes, who has since become the GM of the Padres (with former Tribe Front Office member Bud Black as his manager), with the rationale for adding a guy like Byrnes, who has roots in Cleveland, but has been exposed to organizational decision-making and philosophy outside of Cleveland still ringing true.  Here’s what was written back when Antonetti became GM:
To that end, as for the rest of the Front Office promotion looking like a continuation of the status quo (when the status quo has looked woefully underprepared and unprepared in the 2008 and 2009 seasons), perhaps the rumors that former Diamondbacks GM Josh Byrnes could be joining the Indians in a Front Office role (first reported by Ken Rosenthal ) can find some favor on the corner of Carnegie and Ontario, if only to bring in that “fresh set of eyes” who has been in other organizations and is not simply resigned to accept the process because “that’s how it’s done around here” and could instead bring a discerning (and perhaps dissenting) voice to an organization that could be stuck in a rut because of tunnel-vision.

If you don’t remember, back when Byrnes was fired from Arizona, I advocated a return to his “roots” back in July, in the hopes that he would return (yes, return…and you should read this ) to the Tribe Front Office. If you want a prudent use of money this off-season, use it to acquire a talented executive who will question why the Indians do what they do and provide some fresh perspective (or at least an outside perspective) on the road they’ve already laid out in front of them for the past 2 ½ years.

That was written a little less than 2 years ago and the part that was bolded was done by me for this piece for emphasis to point out that the collaborative cohesion (to an outsider, at least) that seems to pervade the corner of Carnegie and Ontario is still in need of that discerning outside perspective.  When that was written in October of 2010, Byrnes felt like a good idea because he had “grown up” in the Tribe organization, but had spent time with the Rockies (with Dan O’Dowd), the Red Sox, and the Diamondbacks, with his time in Arizona as the GM.  Of course, a couple of months after that was written, Byrnes signed on with the Padres as their VP of Baseball Operations under Jed Hoyer.  Once Hoyer moved to Chicago with Theo Epstein, Byrnes was promoted to Padres’ GM, a position he still holds.

Regardless of Byrnes’ LinkedIn profile since that was written, what might make sense for the Indians this off-season is to find someone that knows how the Indians currently operate, but also how OTHER teams operate in an attempt to jump-start an organization that has strengths, but also obvious weaknesses.  The obvious name that jumps out with that criteria is former Tribe Assistant to the GM Terry Francona, who also used to…um, manage some team in the Northeast and while that may seem like pie-in-the-sky thinking, it would be interesting to see what Francona might be interested in doing after the season as a role similar to that of Showalter a couple of years ago might appeal to him.  He might enjoy being out of the limelight – though he’s terrific as an analyst – while being in baseball and ingratiating himself into another organization.

Remember, Francona was given his “second chance” by the Indians after his first managerial gig in Philly cratered and just last July, Francona gave an interview to Grantland recounting his first interview with Theo Epstein.  Francona told Grantland that, “Right before I interviewed for the job with Theo, I called Mark Shapiro of the Indians. He’s one of my best friends in baseball and I asked him what I should do…He gave me good advice I still use today. Mark told me, ‘Just don’t try and bullshit him.’”

Now, I don’t know what Terry Francona wants to do in the coming year or years, but if Mark Shapiro is “one of (his) best friends in baseball”, he would certainly fit the mold of a “baseball man” that knows how the Indians have operated in the past (he was with the Tribe in 2001) and is keenly aware of how other organizations – and successful ones – operate on a macro and micro level.  Maybe Francona is headed back to Boston (and here’s an interesting piece from Ken Rosenthal that says the Red Sox should try to get him back…while also mentioning Cleveland as a destination) or maybe another former member of the Tribe Front Office (John Farrell) will assume the reins again, and it’s entirely possible that Francona wants to stay in the broadcast booth.

While it’s not quite clear what the Indians are going to do with Acta, it is worth noting that what they’ve done in the 2nd half is nearly unprecedented in terms of an identical roster playing like a first-place team (certainly playing over their heads) then a last-place team (to be kind) for prolonged portions of the season.  Maybe the Indians do with Acta and a guy like Francona what they did with Wedge and Showalter after their last supposed-to-contend season that ended…um, poorly.  Or maybe the Indians fire Acta, promote Sandy Alomar (to the cheers of everyone still stuck in the 1990s in their Indians’ fandom) with a “senior advisor” brought in to lend a critical eye to the Indians’ hierarchy and organizational structure.

What was so interesting about the hiring of Showalter after the 2006 season is that he had NO ties to the team – other than spending some turbulent times in Arlington with John Hart – and was able both cast that discerning eye upon the Indians’ operations while applying some pressure as a “waiting-in-the-wings” option that was ingratiating himself with the Tribe.  For as much as everyone talks about their payroll flexibility this off-season and as everyone wanted them to give a third year to a guy like Willingham, what I’d prefer would be for them to pay the best people the most money to make decisions or fill the scouting departments – both on the amateur and pro sides – with proven evaluators so we’re not having to talk about spending money on the FA market…be that a high-profile name like Francona or lesser names like those that have catapulted the Nationals’ player development department (and here’s an interesting piece that focuses on Jay Robertson, now of the Nationals, who “spent roughly a decade alongside John Hart in Cleveland”) into the upper echelon of player development in short order.

Maybe you think a bigger housecleaning is in order – and that opinion is valid and not hard to argue for – but I tend to think that we’re going to see a shake-up in the Front Office that (finally) jettisons some of the flotsam and jetsam that has been unable to draft/develop amateur talent or identify MLB talent whose talent could help the Indians’ rebuild/reload/whatever.  Without an ounce of uncertainty, whatever scouts and/or analysts that led the push for Ubaldo as the “horse to bet on” last July need to have their offices packed up as soon as possible.  Because as much as that  trade squarely falls on the Front Office – and more acutely, Antonetti – there were scouts and/or analysts that advised him on the deal and settled on Ubaldo as the target.  It’s on Antonetti to make that final decision, but if his decision was based on “bad” scouting reports or “bad” data in terms of anyone thinking that Ubaldo was the missing piece, those responsible should be out of a job.

Maybe “those responsible” includes Antonetti – and maybe even Shapiro – but the Indians need a new voice in the Front Office to cast a critical eye to their methodology and whether that new voice comes with a “familiar” tone to it, the way that Francona’s would, or from completely outside the organization, what’s become clear this season is that the status quo is not acceptable.

In the past they’ve “bucked” that status quo with an outside influence and a similar step – at the very least – is in order once more…

Sunday, September 09, 2012

A Lazy Sunday on Folding “Aces”

While those that are still watching the Indians’ season play out find themselves either looking for reasons to hope for the future, for the Tribe to play the role of spoiler, or have already gone into full-blown “fantanking” mode (in the one sport in which draft position does not greatly impact immediate performance…in most cases), the manner in which this team fell apart over the course of better than a month still has most of the North Coast shell-shocked.  The team went from competitive, entertaining, and compelling to dreadful, unwatchable, and embarrassing in the amount of time that some people take summer vacations as the descent was swift and the collapse was complete.

With soon-to-be-ex-Indians’ closer Chris Perez dominating the (Indians) news this week, I find it unusual that a couple of months ago he was laying into the fans for not buying into this pre-collapse team – that was in 1st place at the time – because people weren’t believing that the team’s success was real…while not supporting them at the turnstiles.  Now that the collapse is complete, he has moved the periscope to set his targets on the people that constructed that same team that he wanted everyone to buy into just a few months ago.  As the wind blows and as the targets move, so do the shots that come out of Perez’s barrel.  That’s not to say that what Perez said (or has said) is fundamentally incorrect, but for as much as his comments have seemed like “someone look at me or listen to me…please” moments, because of the timing of his comments, they were largely ignored on the grand scale because of the start of the Browns’ season garnering so much (unfounded, according to Perez) attention on the North Coast and because of the death of Art Modell occupying people’s minds.

Regardless, though everyone wants to focus on what Perez said (which contains elements of truth, if overly reductive elements of those truths presented in the reactionary tone that feeds sports talk radio and 140-character “thoughts”), whether he should have said it (um…no, probably not as I’m not sure what it accomplished, other than attempting to draw more attention to HIM), whether the manager should have put a muzzle on him long ago (certainly, and more so now given this report that he threw said manager and teammates under the bus in a conversation with Antonetti as we wait to see how THAT plays in the locker room) and why he said it (and I’m in the camp of “this is who he is, willing to cast aspersions on anyone and everyone with no outside agenda” over the “he’s angling for a trade that was already going to happen” bloc), the article in which he was quoted was actually an interesting piece about small-market teams and how they’re able to (every once in a while) compete with the big boys.

In case you ignored the rest of the Jon-Paul Morosi piece where C. Perez firebombed the owner’s box and Front Office, it was essentially about how small-market teams are competing with the high-payroll teams this season.  Now, this piece gets written every year around this time with the designated small-market team of “how to do things right” changing from year to year, but what struck me was that it echoed something that’s been written here for the better part of a couple of months – that PITCHING is the separator here.  And, more than that, young starting pitching that is affordable and under club control for multiple years is how these small-market teams are able to compete with the teams that may have bigger payrolls, but are unable to match the young talent in the rotation.  If you want proof that pitching is the separator this year (and it really is every year), everyone realizes that the Indians’ team OPS of .705 puts them right between Oakland’s team OPS of .707 and Tampa’s team OPS of .702, right?

So while Perez’s vitriol may have received all of the attention, this comment (in the same Morosi piece) from the Indians’ manager on the success of the A’s struck me as Manny Acta stated the obvious (but needed to be said) truth on small-market teams’ ability to compete and contend.  
“Very impressed — especially with their pitching staff…Pitching is everything. People know that, but a lot of times they lose perspective on how really important pitching is. Those guys made some really good decisions on those trades they made.

“They stocked up a lot of good arms. I know they gave up some huge talent during the offseason, (and) people were wondering how they could do that. But they got some good value out of those trades. They got guys who were ready to contribute at the big-league level right away, and it worked for them.”

Realizing that this is not ground-breaking stuff and that I KEEP coming back to this pitching well, remember back at the beginning of the season, when the rotation was thought to perhaps even be a STRENGTH of this team?

Unfortunately, as LF and 1B and the failure of Grady to play even an inning became the bane of everyone’s existence, the starting pitching failed them, then failed them again and the performance of the rotation was horribly complicit in the freefall that happened to a team that was in contention when the All-Star break arrived.  To that end, Paul Hoynes passed along some interesting information on the nuts-and-bolts of the breakdown in a piece that posits that the Tribe was playing “Zombie Baseball” that is noteworthy for the compilation of ugliness that Hoynes puts on paper. 

A scout from another big-league team, who saw Zombie Baseball at its height, said…“I think they also have to make major changes in their pitching program. I didn’t see any adjustments being made. They brought Ubaldo [Jimenez] over there to be an ace and now he’s a No. 5. What’s going on with that?”

Talk away about how Ubaldo was on the decline when the Indians acquired him from Colorado, but he was a 27-year-old with 137 starts under his belt with a career 3.77 ERA PLAYING FOR COLORADO when the Indians acquired him and what’s happened to him since that day more than 13 months ago pretty effectively mirrors how the Indians’ organization has done more than just fall on hard times.

To be clear here, even 13 months later, I still think the Ubaldo trade was a good idea as a concept, in that the Indians recognized that they needed a top-of-the-rotation starter to theoretically pair with Masterson to make a playoff push in 2011 and have a legitimate chance in any playoff series if they did make the playoffs last year.  The fact that he was under club control through 2013 (and maybe 2014 because of the player option) made even more sense and the Indians acted boldly and aggressively to add a pitcher whose presence was supposed to settle the top of the rotation, or at least add that “stopper” that was so obviously lacking for the Indians.

That concept of adding that frontline starter didn’t translate to reality however as Ubaldo now has a 5.44 ERA as an Indian with a HR/9 rate that is double what he had when with Colorado and, unfortunately for the Tribe, his numbers (the start against Detroit Wednesday included) aren’t trending in the right direction.  By that I mean that Ubaldo’s actually getting worse as we’re moving forward.  And that may lead you to the conclusion that they chose the wrong horse to bet on, but the words of that scout are impossible to ignore, that “they brought Ubaldo [Jimenez] over there to be an ace and now he’s a No. 5. What’s going on with that?”

In terms of pure numbers, though the All-Star is a largely arbitrary date in time, check out what he’s done since arriving to Cleveland:
Indians 2011
5.10 ERA, 1.45 WHIP, 8.50 K/9, 3.72 BB/9, and 2.29 K/BB in 65 1/3 IP

Indians First Half 2012
4.50 ERA, 1.51 WHIP, 6.77 K/9, 5.10 BB/9, and 1.32 K/BB in 102 1/3 IP

Indians Second Half 2012
7.43 ERA, 1.77 WHIP, 8.64 K/9, 4.10 BB/9 and 2.10 K/BB in 59 1/3 IP

After some cause for optimism early in the year, Jimenez has been an unmitigated mess in the recent past and while he’s still getting strikeouts, he’s allowed nearly two baserunners per inning pitched over his last 11 starts and has now let up NEARLY A RUN AN INNING for the better part of two months’ worth of pitching.

Just to put those atrocities in the proper context, Ubaldo’s 7.43 ERA is the second-highest (Houston’s Dallas Keuchel’s ERA is worse) number for any pitcher in MLB that has thrown more than 40 innings since the Midsummer Classic.  His 1.79 WHIP since the All-Star game is only “bested” by a couple of Toronto starters (Henderson Alvarez and Ricky Romero) and Atlanta’s Tommy Hansen among MLB pitchers with more than 40 innings pitched.

That…that’s not acceptable for a mid-season call-up, much less a pitcher that was purported to be a front-end-of-the-rotation starter when he was added to FRONT THIS ROTATION for a couple of years.  Maybe his issues are all related to mechanics (remember this from May?), but I can’t shake what a scout told Perrotto, that I mentioned here a couple of weeks ago:
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.”

Look, maybe the Rockies knew he was damaged goods or that he was a head case or that his mechanics were simply unsustainable over the long haul, but the idea that the Indians gave up their top two pitching prospects for him doesn’t bother me as much as it bothers me to see a pitcher that had success in MLB (he pitched 851 innings for the Rockies) simply fall off a cliff upon arrival in Cleveland.  Because even if you invoke TINSTAAPP or posit that Pomeranz and White are ultimately flawed as starters and are destined for the bullpen at best and the Indians knew it and looked to “sell high” on each, the way that Jimenez has pitched as an Indian doesn’t generate much confidence that the organization is going to develop, much less sustain, pitching excellence, given Ubaldo’s demise.

And that demise and that “lack of focus and effort” is what’s most troubling, particularly considering what a scout told Perrotto in a piece that came out this week, with Perrotto passing along these words on Justin Masterson (the other purported “ace”) that…um, don’t elicit a lot of hope:
Indians right-hander Justin Masterson: “I can’t figure this guy out. He’ll be lights out one time and you think he’s ready to turn into a legitimate No.1. The next time, he either gets hit hard or walks the park. The ability is there, so you question the focus.”

If you’ve watched Masterson at all…does that sound wrong, in terms of him being “lights out one time”, then either getting “hit hard” or “walk(ing) the park”?

To put some numbers on that observation, Masterson has allowed 6 or more earned runs in EIGHT of his 29 starts and has allowed fewer than 3 runs in FIFTEEN of those starts.  So, he’s either very bad or very good and certainly that may be a result of his mechanics or his “stuff” playing from one day to the next, but Masterson is as frustrating as Ubaldo in his inability to find the consistency to put this team on his back every fifth day.

And if you want to know what has killed this team this year, it is that inconsistency from the two players that were being counted on to front their rotation.  Because when Masterson (4.84 ERA) and Ubaldo (5.58 ERA) rank in the bottom 10 among pitchers with more than 160 IP (meaning that they’ve been in a team’s rotation all year)…yeah, that’s going to sink these team – as it was put together – regardless of what Chris Perez thinks should have been done in the off-season.

Looking forward, that’s what becomes so disconcerting about this team, in that these two players – who have had MLB success and were being counted on to front the rotation – are the same two players that (right now) look to be at the top of the 2013 Tribe rotation and if the Indians’ manager (for now) reiterated his previous quote from the Morosi article to Hoynes that “this game is all about pitching,” where does that leave the Indians?

Because that quote from the scout in Hoynes’ear, the one that opines that “they also have to make major changes in their pitching program…I didn’t see any adjustments being made” rings in my ears.  It sticks because the Indians did make a concerted effort to add arms – at every level – when they cleared the decks from 2008 to 2010 and if we’re throwing in what other scouts told John Perrotto about Masterson (“question the focus”) and Ubaldo (“lack of focus and effort”), there are some major concerns brewing here about getting talent to translate to effectiveness. 

Because for as much as I want to believe that Masterson and Ubaldo are just…one…tweak…away from recapturing their effectiveness (and here’s an interesting piece on Ruben Niebla that lays out pretty clear paths for each to perhaps find success again), to think that the duo of Masterson and Ubaldo are going to be augmented by McAllister and Kluber to form a legitimate rotation for 2013 feels like wishful thinking.  That’s not to say that “wishful thinking” is in short supply here, as Al passed along this report on Cookie Carrasco’s appearance for Akron earlier in the week:
Carlos Carrasco started for the Aeros, and if this outing was any indication of what we’re going to see out of the former top prospect, look out. Carrasco retired the side in order on 11 pitches (7 strikes), inducing a bunt groundout, striking out a batter and getting a deep flyout to CF for the final out of the inning. Carrasco sat consistently between 95-97 MPH with his fastball, touching 98 and 99 once each. His curveball wasn’t too sharp, but it was effective enough against the AA competition, especially considering the speed differential between the 87 MPH offering and his high-90’s heat. In case you’re wondering, I asked the Baysox staff in the pressbox if the radar gun here is juiced, and they all said that it is a pretty accurate gun. If I had to describe Carrasco’s outing in one word, that word would be ‘electric’. It’s just one inning, but in a season when Indians fans need to take any good news they can get, it was a darn good inning. Carrasco will likely play winterball this offseason and then return to the Indians rotation out of the gate next year.

Though that has me pulling my old Billy Mumphrey act (becoming “a cockeyed optimist”), the fear is that unless the Indians are able to harness that undeniable talent and “stuff” from Carrasco going forward, we’re left with what we’ve seen from the rotation this year, with pitchers regressing…or worse.  And the reason for those regressions is what needs to be sorted out – and in short order – as the Indians are only going to go as far as their starting pitching takes them.  The seasons taking place in Oakland and Tampa (most notably) are jarring reminders of that, and how (or if) the Indians are able to piece together a cohesive and effective starting rotation is going to determine how far they go each and every year.

Their manager, who presided over the most memorable freefall in recent history, came out of the other side of said freefall spouting (to anyone who would listen) that “this game is all about pitching” and the Indians ability/inability to acquire and/or develop talent in starting pitching…then making the necessary adjustments to maximize said talent is the challenge facing this organization. 

Whether that means better people acquiring those arms or making those adjustments (or perhaps both) is the question that needs to be answered in a hurry as the Indians seem to have talent in their starting pitching ranks, just not talent that’s been effective in the recent past…

Sunday, September 02, 2012

A Lazy Sunday with Money in the Air

Since I’m not sure how many people are watching this Indians team – outside of sadists or those who are REALLY big fans of watching Matt MaTola wave at breaking pitches – and because there’s really not much else to say about this Tribe team or this season that hasn’t been said in the last couple of weeks, it’s time to go in another (albeit unfortunate) direction on the Lazy One.

Sure, I suppose we could delve into whether Acta is going to survive this as the team has lacked any kind of fire or sense of urgency for the better part of a month now or attempt to play the “blame game”.  But doesn’t everyone already have a pretty set opinion on that, one that’s unlikely to change your specific view that the slide is the fault of (pick one or…maybe more) the Dolans, the Front Office, or Manny Acta?

The fact that this team has lost 28 of its last 34 games (um…a 17% winning percentage over a course of time longer than a calendar month, and nearly ¼ of a season) should not be lost on anyone that’s making these decisions this off-season as the team has become unwatchable, incapable of generating any hope for the future, and demoralizing a fan base that needed no more demoralization.

Yes there are pertinent issues that could be discussed as it could be analyzed as to whether the Indians pick up the options for Ubaldo (now the second-worst ERA in MLB among qualified starters, “bested” only by Randy Wolf, who was released by the Brewers and is pitching long relief for the Orioles) and Fauxberto based on the maybe 40 to 50-some innings he’s going to throw this year, as “low” as those contract number seem to be on those options, or we could attempt to figure out what in the world happened to Choo and Kipnis (most notably, but certainly among others) over the last month, but those things are more depressing than what we’ve been seeing on the field.

If I wanted to churn the waters of intrigue, I could make a case past trading just Choo, Perez, and (gulp) Cabrera this offseason and wonder if they consider a move involving the recently-benched-by-Acta Carlos Santana, perhaps to a team in need of offense from the catching position and flush with young starting pitchers…like, say the Rays, in an effort to do what the Rays and A’s are doing – winning with elite young starting pitching, which is in short supply on the North Coast or anywhere near it…

But on a team where the “bright spot” of the season is purported to be Mike Brantley – a “speedy” CF (12 SB, 9 CS) with “on-base skills” (.336 OBP) who has shown “flashes of power” (6 HR…or two more than Damon in twice the PA) – doesn’t the growing sense that the string is being painfully and s…l…o…w…l…y played out threaten to color our views of any of those questions, particularly given the recent spate of games?

So, rather than delve into the atrocities that are happening on the field in Cleveland, let’s put our focus onto some off-the-field happenings on the larger landscape of MLB and how those changes are likely to affect the Indians as we attempt to move on.  With a teaser that the effect of these developments is…um, not good for the Indians going forward, let’s get loose on a Lazy One…

Obviously, the big news in MLB over the last week or so was the earth-shattering trade between the Red Sox and Dodgers where Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, and Carl Crawford (plus their contracts…and Nick Punto) made their way to Chavez Ravine in the largest “salary dump” probably in sports history as the Dodgers assumed over one-quarter of ONE BILLION dollars in salary commitments and the Red Sox cleared some long-term commitments from their books while adding some top-end pitching (!) prospects from LA.  Certainly, you don’t come here for any kind of in-depth analysis of what’s happening with Boston or LA, but the willingness of the Dodgers to assume that money gets to the (still) growing disparity that is going to be the focus here today.  If you want to talk about what the deal means for the Red Sox, LGT’s Ryan Richards had the best takeaway in terms of Boston’s future and their ability to “rebuild” in a way that most teams can’t:
(This is) how a big-market club can rebuild - not by trading good players for prospects, but by trading salaries for nothing. If/when they unload Beckett, Gonzalez, and (most importantly) Crawford, they’ll have the abilities to be players on the free agent market for anyone out there, take on someone else’s salary problems, etc.

So, the Red Sox can now completely remake their team via the FA market (Upton?) or by looking at players who are approaching FA that aren’t likely to re-up with their teams (Choo, Headley, etc.) and have the financial wherewithal and (now) flexibility to construct a roster, almost from scratch.  In doing so, money won’t really be an issue in FA, nor will the young talent needed in trades, as they continue to have one of the deepest farm systems in MLB, with the concept of what they did with Gonzalez just a few years ago – acquire him with top prospects, then extend him – perhaps being their modus operandi this coming off-season, allowing them to target players like Choo or Josh Johnson with an eye towards extending them after they become Red Sox.

But as depressing as that all sounds to Indians’ fans – as we stare down the barrel of an unsavory final month of baseball and what figures to be an…um, interesting off-season, the bigger story in the Red Sox-Dodgers deal was the Dodgers’ willingness to assume the contracts of Beckett and Crawford to add the SoCal native Adrian Gonzalez to their roster.  Though the rationale for the Dodgers to do this has been noted in many places, the impetus for the Dodgers’ “ability” to take on these contracts is the TV deal that awaits them this off-season, one that played a major role in their sale earlier in the year.

The money that is waiting for them from their soon-to-be-negotiated local TV deal wll fill their coffers to the tune of about $200M a year (which is perhaps a conservative estimate) from either FOX or Time Warner, which furthers a trend that was brought into focus in the off-season.  Grantland’s Jonah Keri goe sa bit into how local TV money is widening the gap in MLB as he identifies the Dodgers as the “dangerous” new spender on the block with the marvelous conclusion that “The Dodgers are now officially the National League’s answer to the Yankees, only more willing to accept smaller profit margins and thumb their noses at artificial spending limits.”  Realizing that this is a well-worn topic in this place, it’s one worth re-visiting with the Dodgers’ upcoming deal (remember, still not even signed with anyone and still likely to become a bidding war) further changing the landscape of MLB and how TV money affects it, even further than what we saw from the “other” LA team this off-season.  

In case you don’t remember, the Angels inked a deal with FOX that pays them $150M annually for the next 20 years and that came on the heels of a deal that the Rangers signed with FOX that pays them about $80M a year for the next 20 years.  At the time of the Angels’ deal, I attempted to come to grips with the GOBS of money that are quite suddenly in play here and why FOX (or Time Warner) would be willing to pay such exorbitant fees to broadcast MLB games.  While proclaiming that “A Brave New World” was nearly upon us in MLB, this is what was written:
What the TV companies are doing here as it doesn’t matter necessarily how many TV’s are tuned into a channel, but how many TV customers (people who pay their cable/satellite bills) have that channel that they pay for on their cable bill. To put that another way, it doesn’t matter how many people are watching the Indians or the Angels or the Rangers, it matters how many people are paying a portion of their TV bill for the chance to watch Tribe games. Because that number is lower in Cleveland than it is in LA or Dallas or…well, this could go on for a while, the rights to broadcast those games are going to be higher because the revenue that the cable company brings in is higher based on the amount of TV sets (or cable/satellite customers) in that local market.

Ultimately, live sporting events are really the last thing that anyone watches live anymore and so, yes these cable operators are going to pay a premium to air these games, particularly with MLB’s rules on local broadcasts.

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

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

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

Well, in an attempt to answer my own months-old question, you can easily find out that YES has 14 million subscribers, with each subscriber paying $2 of their monthly cable bill directly to YES, which equates to $28M per month of guaranteed income for YES, or about $336M a year.  Obviously, that doesn’t take into consideration ad revenue or any costs associated with broadcasting the games or any other content, but for as much hand-wringing as there was about the Angels getting $150M per year and the Rangers’ deal worth $80M just prior to that, it’s not hard to see that there’s is a shockingly growing disparity happening here, particularly as other large-market teams turn their population “advantages” into outrageous revenue streams that other teams can’t sniff, only based upon the number of TV sets in a particular city or region.

Just to put some of those HUGE numbers above into the proper context, as Bill Lubinger of the PD pointed out at the beginning of the year, the Brewers get $12M a year from FOX to broadcast their games and San Diego just signed a NEW deal with FOX that pays them $20M annually to show Padres’ games.  According to the Lubinger piece, STO pays the Indians about $30M a year, with a subscriber total of about 3 million people, or about 20% of the amount of people that subscribe to the YES Network, with the YES fees to cable companies and subscribers unquestionably outpacing anything that STO would receive, if the Cablevision-YES contentiousness from a couple of years ago sheds any kind of light on how demanding YES is in terms of expectations from individual subscribers.

Now, you have the Rangers and the Angels and the Dodgers (just to name a few because of their recent or upcoming deals) joining the ranks of the “elite” in terms of guaranteed money from local TV deals.  And even with the money that’s generated from the just-announced national TV deal with ESPN, the disparity in terms of the “haves” and the “have-nots” will continue to exist, because the new ESPN deal means more money for ALL teams, with Craig Calcaterra of Hardball Talk doing the heavy lifting on some of the numbers:
Beginning in 2014, ESPN’s annual payment for MLB rights will jump from around $306 million to $700 million a year. Meaning that the annual payment to each team will jump from just over $10 million to around $23 million.  That’s $13 million more in each team’s pocket per year starting in 2014, through the ESPN deal alone.

Now, figure that there will be at least similar and perhaps greater proportional annual bumps for the deals currently held by Fox and TBS. Which are bigger money overall given that they include the playoffs. And that’s assuming that baseball and their would-be network partners don’t get creative and add in a new broadcast product of some kind.

 Figure then, what, $25 million more a year on top of the ESPN bump?  $40 million? With numbers going they way they’re going right now, it’s entirely possible. The upshot of all of this means that, without doing a single thing, each major league team is looking at an increased cash payment of, at minimum, $40 million. Probably much more. Just for the national TV rights increase.

On the surface, this looks to be a great development for the Indians and it certainly is for their bottom line, but in a sport with no shared local TV revenue and with no salary cap (yes…I know about the luxury tax for exceeding the payroll threshold), it basically means that every team will be taking in more money, with no difference from team to team in terms of how this “new” revenue is distributed.  So, we’re likely to see some bumps in salaries for individual players and more teams guaranteeing more money going forward, but the disparity between the “haves” and the “have-nots” will not really change as a result of the ESPN national TV deal.

While I’m sure that fact will only generate more wailing and teeth-gnashing from the “SPEND MORE” and “SELL THE TEAM” crowd (with the only paper in town’s website inexplicably posting a story about Royals’ fans taking out a full-page ad asking their owner to sell…anything for those almighty page clicks while they stir the pot of discontent), what is becoming apparent in all of this is that the TV money being thrown around is huge, to the point that nobody’s going to be losing money here (not that they have been), and it’s just becoming about who is able to make the MOST money based on their market size with their local TV deals being the cash cows that produce milk every month for these teams via EVERYONE’s cable bill.

As a quick aside, here is a mind-blowing article on the( growing) power that ESPN has in terms of how it controls the sports landscape and the almost unfathomable money-making machine that it is, largely due to their per-subscriber rates:
The company’s revenues are growing at 9 percent a year, with a projected $8.2 billion in revenue in 2012, according to research firm SNL Kagan. Head count has doubled in the last seven years to 7,000 employees worldwide. ESPN earns one out of every four dollars earned by cable stations in America. According to SNL Kagan, ESPN charges its cable affiliates an average $5.13 per month for each of its 100 million subscribers (the industry average is about 20¢ per subscriber) while also taking in $2 billion a year in advertising revenue. 

That piece later passes along the information that the newly-created NBC Sports Network charges $0.31 per subscriber (again, ESPN charges $5.31 PER MONTH per subscriber), so it’s not as if their competition is in any kind of place to approach the revenue stream that paces ESPN.  As someone who largely tuned out ESPN a couple of years ago (I kid you not, outside of a live College Football game and the show that precedes it on Saturday morning), the piece is stunning to see how much they really have come to dominate the sports landscape…and how they’ve done it.  Frankly, if you want to place the finger of blame for the way that TV money has affected sports, here’s another piece to peruse that points out how the demand for live sporting events is making your cable bill (or Direct TV or anything else) balloon, with no real end in sight, and making the impossible money that’s changing hands as a result dictate how sports is evolving at all levels.

But back to the matter at hand as the dollars in play here are SO big and are only getting bigger, it’s impossible to see how MLB doesn’t become even more divided when it comes to team performance from year to year.  Sure, every year you’ll have a nice story to point out that “there’s no disparity” in MLB, but take a look at this year’s “feel-good” teams among small markets:
Pirates – Just now breaking their streak of 19 straight losing seasons
Rays – Lost 90+ games for 10 straight years
A’s – Last winning record in 2006
Nationals – Last winning season in Montreal in 2003 and in the 4th largest CSA 

Is any of that “prolonged” winning like we’ve seen in other places around MLB?
As a quick aside, please note in that link above (and I’ll do it here again) that Detroit is nearly double the size of Cleveland (regardless of owner) in that CSA listing from 2010 and has about 2.35 million fewer people than greater Detroit in the 2011 estimate.

And even more pointedly, weren’t the Indians that “example” of a small-market success back at the end of the last decade or the Twins just prior to that and weren’t the Brewers (16 ½ GB in their division and having already lost Prince and traded Grienke after “going for it” the last couple of years with one appearance in the LCS to show for it) held up as an organization that could sustain winning in a small market?

Unlike in larger markets, when things fall apart or a plan goes awry in places like Cleveland or Milwaukee or Kansas City (the “sexy” pick to emerge among small-market teams this year), they get bad…then they get worse.

And that’s where we are in Cleveland, although I’ll point out that this isn’t all being pointed out to provide an explanation or a justification for what’s been happening on the field over the past 2 months or so (because that’s a talent evaluation issue that I think has been discussed at great length already), but it has been over two-and-a-half years since Billy Beane told Pete Gammons, “The way the system is right now, there really is no difference between a $75 million and $40 million payroll…I think a lot of small-market clubs look at that and ask, ‘Why pay $75 million when $40 million will buy me as many wins?’”

Now, imagine if that would have been spoken by someone at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario and the pitchforks that would have been wielded as a result…
Regardless, Beane’s $55M A’s are in the playoff hunt as are the $64M Rays, while the $78M Indians are limping (badly) to the finish line this year.  The difference between those two teams in contention and the Indians’ performance this year has everything to do with player acquisition and player development (hey, look where each team ranks in ERA in the AL) and less to do with any kind of money being spent on the MLB roster.

What these teams try to do is line up similarly-aged and similarly-controlled players and hope that a home-grown “core” of players develops that can carry an organization for a couple of years.  Sometimes it works (Cleveland from ’05 to ’08, Milwaukee from ’08 to ’11, Rays from ’08 to present) and sometimes it doesn’t (Kansas City and Pittsburgh, prior to this year…because they haven’t won anything yet, being the most obvious examples of this), but that’s the blueprint that seems to be out there for teams that can’t spend away their problems via FA or by assuming money in trades. And here is where it becomes imperative for a team like the Indians (or the A’s or the Rays) to develop home-grown players – and particularly pitchers…if you’ll remember how even the large-market Giants won the WS with home-grown Lincecum, Cain, and Bumgardner leading the way – in an effort to get maximum contributions from young players, who aren’t susceptible to the money associated with the open market.  As we’ve seen here in Cleveland this year, when those home-grown players or young players acquired with the idea that they’ll become “core” players – and particularly pitchers – aren’t able to contribute enough production to win consistently, the warts that exist on those ballclubs become exposed, then put under the magnifying glass.  Essentially, when the Indians swing-and-miss (pun intended) on a guy like LaPorta or when Carlos Carrasco loses a year to injury or Atom Miller’s career is completely derailed, it leaves the team with a hole and one that can’t be adequately filled with the kind of money that’s necessary (on the FA market) to fill it, meaning that it’s ultimately filled by the mid-to-lower-tier of FA that we’ve consistently seen for the Tribe, particularly since 2010.

As hard as it is to see the light at any kind of tunnel, the structure of MLB and the money absolutely pouring into the sport – with more money going to larger-market teams – via TV contracts boggles the mind.  This means that the players will be paid more for sure, but it also means that teams like the Indians have an even smaller margin for error when it comes to evaluating and developing young talent because when players that they’re counting on – and banking on – to develop simply don’t develop into anything close to what’s been projected for them…well, then we see what we’ve seen on the field over the last 2 months.

How the Indians address THOSE issues will be worth watching over the last couple of months and in the offseason (since the team is hardly worth watching), but the resolution to those issues has to be constructed so perfectly to have any chance of contention, much less prolonged contention, that it makes EVERY decision made by a small-market team a gamble, with the effect of being on the “losing” side of too many gambles equating into…well, into a lot of “losing”.

And that’s certainly what we’re seeing now…