Sunday, April 13, 2014

Lazy Sunday Looking at Young Pitching

Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
Another week is in the books, and the Indians starting rotation continues to remind us of Jeckyll and Hyde. Sometimes we see the dichotomy not just from game to game or inning to inning, but from at-bat to at-bat. I’ll get into Danny Salazar’s historically odd start much more later on, but the offense is not blameless in the Tribe’s less than optimal start to the season. The Indians have grounded into 11 double plays as of Saturday, 3rd highest in the league. Santana (4) and Brantley (3) are responsible for over half of those between the two of them, and while I don’t think that’ll necessarily continue for the entire season, it’s been really frustrating to watch here in the early going. Regardless of how good or bad the team is playing right now though, take a deep breath and realize that we are now just 7% of the way through a very long baseball season. There is a lot of baseball to be played, and I think the Indians are going to be in contention and playing interesting baseball throughout the season. So let’s get at it on a busy Lazy Sunday with all the news that’s fit to link…

Former minor league pitching coach Doug Thorburn knows more about pitching mechanics and instruction than anyone reading this right now, unless Mickey Callaway is a secret Lazy Sunday fan. He writes for Baseball Prospectus, and I’ve featured his stuff a number of times in the past and will continue to do so because he is so much better at breaking down mechanics and predicting whether a change is legitimate and repeatable than anyone else out there right now.  As you’ll no doubt notice this week and throughout my time here at The DiaTribe, I lean pretty heavily on the Baseball Prospectus guys for insight and analysis. They don’t pay me for promoting their stuff, and I don’t get a free subscription or anything, I just find that they’ve assembled a fantastic staff of major and minor league writers who provide a service that no other baseball site can replicate. It’s $40 to subscribe to them for a full year, and if the price was $100 I’d probably still pay it (but don’t tell them that.) I’m not here to tell you how to spend your money, but if you’re on the fence about subscribing, you can do a 1-month subscription for just $5. Give them a try, and I think you’ll be pleased with what you read.

Back to Thorburn and his “Raising Aces” series though; Thorburn was nice enough to take a look at Trevor Bauer’s mechanics this week, specifically comparing them to prior analysis from a November 2012 start. Thorburn loves breaking down Bauer’s mechanics, and is a believer that the talented young righty can get it together and succeed at the major league level. Bauer of course started in game 2 of the doubleheader against the Padres this past Wednesday, going 6 innings and allowing 2 runs (1 ER) on 4 hits and 2 walks, striking out 8 and hitting a batter. It was an impressive result, but one had to question the legitimacy of the numbers. It was against the light-hitting Padres after all, and Bauer had teased us with glimpses of excellence in the past only to regress to a mechanical mess in his next start. Would the scouting reports agree with the stat line? Was Bauer really making strides towards becoming a legitimate major league option? Thanks to Pitchf/x and Thorburn, we have some pretty encouraging signs that yes, this was a legitimate step forward for Bauer and not just a one-start aberration. First, let’s look at Thorburn’s mechanical grades from Wednesday’s start in juxtaposition with his November 2012 report card. Again, this is Doug Thorburn’s report card, not mine:
Nov 2012
April 9, 2014
Release Distance

Bauer’s overall mechanics gained a full letter grade, and he made strides or held his ground in every category but momentum. Keep in mind that this is on the 20-80 scouting scale, where 80 would be Hall of Fame level, and 50 is considered average. Nowhere on Thorburn’s card did Bauer grade any lower than average. If you click on the link (which you should’ve done already), Thorburn provides GIFs illustrating the change in Bauer’s mechanics from the 2012 version to today’s. He breaks down the changes in very clear terms, illustrating how this could be the Trevor Bauer we’ve all been waiting for since he was acquired in the Choo trade with Arizona. Thorburn’s bottom line:

He is a student of the game who studies biomechanics and utilizes strategic methods to get an edge on the competition, but his adjustments have often overcomplicated his task and deterred Bauer from the critical component of locating pitches. He made some notable adjustments again this past offseason, and the early returns suggest that he may have found the mechanical key to unlock his ceiling.
Going a step further, the Pitchf/x data available on the also-excellent shows us how much better Bauer’s stuff was Wednesday than in 2013. Bauer threw 62 fastballs, averaging 94.8 MPH and topping out at 97 MPH. While he was in the majors last year, Bauer’s fastball around 93 MPH and rarely topped 95 MPH. That 2 MPH can make a difference, especially when contrasted with his mid-70’s curveball. Brooks Baseball also shows us an interesting change from last year to this year. First, take a look at this chart showing Bauer’s release points from a 2013 start:

Then, here’s the same chart for Wednesday’s start:

Why are the 2013 release points so much more varied? Bauer used to change the side of the rubber he was pitching from based on the hitter. He’d slide from the extreme right side of the rubber to the extreme left. That’s a change he’s eliminated in 2014, something that might be responsible for the greater consistency in his delivery. Bauer has always been a tinkerer, changing his approach from start to start and even inning to inning. The fact that he “only” threw four different pitches last start (no reverse sliders) and is cutting back on the purposeful variance in his delivery are signs that he’s simplifying his approach to pitching and letting his tremendous stuff do the work.

During Bauer’s start, he was victimized by MLB’s silly tinkering with the rulebook in conjunction with replay this year. I won’t belabor this because it happened a few days ago and I’m sure everyone has seen the play by now, but if you haven’t seen it you can check out Jason Collette’s site where he put up a couple of interesting videos, including the Elliot Johnson “non-catch” from Wednesday. Collette is also confused over the new rule, although by the letter of the law (that was clarified on Tuesday, the day before the controversial play) it does appear that the umpires and video replay crew in NY interpreted it correctly. A “catch” used to be pretty simple, and I’ll quote here directly from the MLB rule book:

A CATCH is the act of a fielder in getting secure possession in his hand or glove of a ball in flight and firmly holding it; providing he does not use his cap, protector, pocket or any other part of his uniform in getting possession. It is not a catch, however, if simultaneously or immediately following his contact with the ball, he collides with a player, or with a wall, or if he falls down, and as a result of such collision or falling, drops the ball. It is not a catch if a fielder touches a fly ball which then hits a member of the offensive team or an umpire and then is caught by another defensive player. If the fielder has made the catch and drops the ball while in the act of making a throw following the catch, the ball shall be adjudged to have been caught. In establishing the validity of the catch, the fielder shall hold the ball long enough to prove that he has complete control of the ball and that his release of the ball is voluntary and intentional.
In my mind, Johnson established secure possession and dropped the ball while in the act of making the throw. He held the ball long enough with complete control, taking several steps after catching the ball and running into the wall. But again, just the day before the play, MLB put out new guidance surrounding what is/isn’t a catch. Jordan Bastian digs into it for us here:

…umpires and/or replay officials must consider whether the fielder had secured possession of the ball but dropped it during the act of the catch. An example of a catch that would not count is if a fielder loses possession of the ball during the transfer before the ball was secured by his throwing hand.
Johnson clearly lost control of the ball before securing it in his throwing hand. So by the letter of the law, that’s not a catch. The issue here isn’t with the umpires on the field or the replay officials, but with the insane caveat that a player needs to secure the ball in his throwing hand before the umpire can deem it “caught.” By the letter of the law, an OF could secure the ball in his glove for ostensibly the 3rd out of the inning, jog into the dugout before transferring it into his throwing hand and have taken the ball out of play, awarding all baserunners two free bases. That’s probably never going to be called, but I’m mystified as to why MLB feels the need to constantly shake things up seemingly for the sake of confusion. New replay rules and new catcher collision regulations (which I still hate) weren’t enough; let’s change a rule that has existed since players started wearing gloves in the late 1800’s. I’m going to move on now because I’m getting angry even as I sit here and relive the play, which of course proved to be extremely significant in the Indians 2-1 loss. Suffice to say that while I think replay in general is a good thing for baseball (getting the call right is always the end goal), this tinkering and resulting confusion on the field is an unfortunate and unnecessary byproduct.

Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
Danny Salazar started his second game of the season on Thursday night, and he produced one of the most unique stat lines I’ve ever seen from a pitcher, and it gets weirder and weirder the deeper you look at it. On the surface, it’s strange enough; L, 3 2/3 IP, 6 H, 5 ER, 2 BB, 10 K. Recording 10 strikeouts in fewer than 4 IP is something that’s been done exactly one time since 1900, so that’s remarkable in and of itself. But Salazar didn’t record a single traditional out; every batter either struck out, walked or got a hit. The only out recorded other than a strikeout was when Adam Eaton was struck out trying to stretch a single into a double. So Salazar’s BABIP (Batting Average on Balls in Play) allowed was a “perfect” 1.000. He was somehow both extremely hittable and utterly unhittable at the same time. He gave up two HR and a double on the only three balls that the White Sox put in the air against him, for a 66.7% HR/FB rate. He’s ERA for the game was 9.82, but his xFIP (expected fielding independent pitching, see here for full explanation as to how it is calculated) was 0.48. These stats come from far too small of a sample size to be significant, I’m just bringing them up because it helps illustrate just how strange the outing really was.

It’s easy to see where Salazar got into trouble against the White Sox. Looking at this strikezone plot from innings two through four on Thursday, all of the hits allowed by Salazar except one were pitches left in the middle of the plate and from the mid-thigh to the beltline of the hitter. The lone hit from outside of the strikezone came on a single that Adrian Nieto reached out and slapped through the right side for a seeing-eye single. The double and home runs (indicated by the orange and pink squares on the plot below) were all right down the heart of the plate:

That’s a recipe for disaster, even with stuff as electric as Salazar’s. He threw a couple of quality sliders and splitters, but also left a couple of spinners and hangers up in the zone that got hammered. Those mistake pitches aren’t always going to leave the yard, and sometimes there’s going to be a laser hit right at someone. That didn’t happen on Thursday, so Salazar ended up getting chased after 3 2/3’s. The good news is that Salazar has excellent stuff and can strike out 10+ on any given night. The bad news is that if he continues to locate his pitches in this manner, he’s going to continue to give up way too many HR to be an effective starting pitcher. Salazar is always going to be a guy with a higher than normal pitch count. It takes a lot of pitches to strike guys out, and adding questionable command and several walks to that equation is only going to hurt that much more. It’s way too early to panic about a guy with Salazar’s talent, as evidenced by the 10 K on Thursday. It’s also way too early to pencil him into the #2 spot of the rotation moving forward, as evidenced by the walks and 5 ER on Thursday. Salazar starts are required viewing for me (they were anyway), and it’ll be interesting to see how he responds the next time on the mound. There are adjustments to be made, and I have a feeling that Salazar and Mickey Callaway will be spending plenty of time together prior to his next start in Detroit on Wednesday.

Baseball Prospectus does a “prospect 10-pack” at the beginning of each week. During the season, the 10-pack generally features players who are performing at a high level, but will occasionally look at a highly regarded guy who is struggling. Sometimes the 10-pack has a specific theme, and this is one of those weeks. The BP prospect staff took a look at the players they are most excited to scout this season, and Nick Faleris chose to focus on none other than the Indians 2013 1st round draft pick, Clint Frazier:

Frazier is on the short list of my favorite amateur players ever scouted, with perhaps the most beautifully violent swing this side of Javier Baez. Over the years he’s shown me a little bit of everything. I’ve seen him run a sub-6.5 sixty and 4.2 home-to-first from the right side. I’ve seen plus-plus arm strength from the outfield (albeit prior to some elbow issues that stuck with him through his senior year at Loganville and first professional summer). I’ve seen him consistently square up the best of his contemporaries through the high school showcase circuit, and I saw him hit 22-plus home runs during a BP session prior to a high school game. Later that evening I saw him hit a ball so far that the second baseman congratulated him as he rounded the bases. Then he homered again. He’s set to ship to the Midwest League early this summer -- how could I not be excited to see what he has in store for me next?
So…yeah. Frazier was one of the only players I didn’t get to see in action this spring, as he was dealing with a minor hamstring issue in Goodyear and the Indians were playing it safe with their million dollar bonus baby. He was walking around the fields, coaching 1B during intersquad games, receiving instruction from coaches on situational stuff and doing some light running on the training fields. I went down there to see him hit though, so needless to say I was a little disappointed in his non-participating status. But he’ll be in Lake County before too long (likely after it warms up a little), and it’ll be interesting to see how he handles the pitcher-friendly Midwest League. He’s got a violent swing and an ultra-aggressive approach, so there’s a chance that professional pitching could exploit that early on and he’ll have to make some adjustments. He’s immensely talented and could move quickly, but he needs to learn how to be a professional baseball player, not just a really good baseball player.

Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
Lindor watch takes a special focus this week, as national prospect guru Jason Parks polled baseball insiders and his own Baseball Prospectus prospect team to see which top prospect shortstop they would choose to build their team around. Chicago Cubs prospect Javier Baez has been lighting the minor leagues on fire, hitting 20 HR in just 54 AA games last season. The Astros took prep SS Carlos Correa with the first overall pick in the 2012 MLB draft, and he’s been drawing rave reviews since his debut that year. Oakland prospect Addison Russell is a consensus top-15 prospect in the game and considered a potential force on both sides of the ball. I expected Baez to be the runaway winner of this survey, with Correa coming in second because of his offensive potential and Lindor and Russell to come in 3rd and 4th in some order. Boy was I wrong.

Lindor collected six of the ten industry votes to easily carry that poll. He also scored seven of the fourteen BP votes, to finish with 13 of the 24 possible votes. No other SS tallied more than 5 (Baez). I was both a little surprised and extremely excited after reading the article, as all of those that preferred Lindor talked about his superior defense and makeup, and his underrated potential with the bat as well. All agreed that he has the highest floor of any SS prospect in the minors, and has the defensive chops to succeed at the position at the highest level of the game. As Parks himself says about his choice of Lindor:

While I can’t speak for those who cast votes for Lindor over Baez, I can echo the preference and explain my own choice, even if it comes off a bit skewed. I think Javier Baez is the superior prospect, a player who has dazzled me with his bat speed since he signed, and pushed me to the point of Baezmania this spring with his offensive firestorm. But to the specific question being asked, as much as I love Baez and his pornographic offensive potential, the player I would look to build a franchise around is Francisco Lindor, mostly for the reasons that were so aptly articulated by Nick Faleris and Chris Mellen. Give me the guy I can pencil in at shortstop for the next decade who brings near-elite defensive skills to the position, in addition to a switch-hitting profile at the plate with on-base potential and gap power.
As for the industry vote--even though it’s just a small sample of front office opinion—it does speak to the value baseball attaches to premium defenders at premium spots, as well as the intangibles qualities that are sought in a franchise face. While not always documented in specific detail, several of the debates and discussions with industry personnel and prospect team staff centered around the safety and security of Lindor’s profile as compared to the volatility and uncertainty of Baez’s—both in terms of baseball skill and makeup—even though it was universally acknowledged that Baez held the highest ceiling and most impact potential should he maximize his physical tools. Baez has the most “come back to bite you on the ass potential” of anybody in the minors, but when it comes down to it, the majority of people were willing to accept that possibility in favor of a more stable player, despite the lower ceiling.
With the possible exception of catcher, shortstop is the most important defensive position on the field. A spectacular defensive shortstop can offset a lot of offensive deficiencies, something Indians fans should know better than most after having watched Omar Vizquel at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario for so long. Lindor is projected to offer more value with the glove than with the bat, but the bat isn’t going to be lifeless. He’s a switch hitter with a solid approach and a good command of the strike zone, and is filling out to the point where he could have slightly below average power. That’s an incredible prospect, one that I can’t wait to see in an Indians uniform. Oh, and he hit a walk-off HR in the 13th inning of Friday night’s game, giving him as many HR in 2014 (2) as he hit in all of 2013. I’m going to get to see Lindor in a few days when the RubberDucks travel to Bowie to take on the Baysox, and although I’ve watched him play over a dozen times already, I can’t wait to see what he has in store for me this time out.

Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
Speaking of minor league performances, I was in Frederick, MD this week to see the Carolina Mudcats, and was able to see Dylan Baker make the first A+ start of his career. All Baker did was set down all 18 hitters he faced, hurling 6 perfect innings to earn the victory. Baker’s fastball sat in the 94-96 MPH range with some nice arm-side run, and he flashed a plus curveball and slider as well. He did a really nice job commanding his fastball in the strike zone, getting ahead of hitters all night and inducing weak contact with his offspeed stuff. The first curveball he broke off locked up Frederick’s #3 hitter for a strikeout, and showed tight spin with excellent 11-5 movement. Baker only threw a few changeups during his start, but was clearly working on getting a feel for the pitch as he threw 2-3 in between every inning during his warm-up tosses. Baker was my #25 prospect in this offseason’s countdown, but I hadn’t seen him pitch like he did on Tuesday before. If he keeps throwing 3 potential above-average pitches, he could end up in the top-10 of next year’s list.

Last season’s extremes are already starting to show signs that they’re regressing to the mean, as the Indians 17-2 record against the White Sox last year isn’t going to be repeated in 2014. The White Sox are better in 2014 than they were last year, but there’s also a pretty significant luck factor involved when you win 17 of 19 against one opponent, and that luck is something that varies significantly from season to season. The good news is that the Indians aren’t likely to go 4-15 against the Tigers again this year, with the same caveats applying in that matchup. We’ll get to see pretty soon, as after an off-day tomorrow the Indians travel to the Motor City to renew their rivalry with the Central Division powerhouse Tigers. Will the rivalry be as one-sided as it was in 2013? I don’t think so, and here’s an early chance for the Indians to show the Tigers that it won’t be a cakewalk to the Central Division crown. It’s just a three-game series in a 162 game season, but I think it’s important for the Indians to go into Detroit and come out with a series victory. After what happened last year, the club needs to show both the Tigers and the fans that we won’t see another 4-15 record against the AL Central favorite. 

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Extending the Core on a Lazy Sunday

Photo Credit: TribeVibe
Opening week has come and gone, and the Indians sit in 2nd place in the AL Central with a 3-2 record after the season’s first five games. We’ve woken up bleary-eyed after late night wins on the west coast, seen Swisher give an O-H-I-O to the crowd after hitting a go-ahead HR, watched Tony Plush giveth and taketh away, Kluberbot struggle and Masty shine. Thundercat Salazar didn’t have his best stuff, but battled through the home opener to give the offense a change to wake up. Lever Yan Gomes did Yan Gomes things, throwing out runners foolish enough to test his arm and hitting a big HR in the opener to wake up the slumbering offense. Blake Wood impressed with his high-90’s fastball. Cookie Carrasco was his consistently inconsistent self. As Jordan Bastian tweeted last night, Indians SP other than Justin Masterson have combined for a 6.75 ERA, 2.14 WHIP and 1.42 K/BB in the early going. The fact that the Indians are 3-2 despite the spotty starting pitching the first turn through the rotation is actually a pretty encouraging sign. All in all, there’s really not a whole lot that we can really determine from such a small sample size, other than enjoyment that Indians baseball is finally back for the next 6 (or hopefully 7) months.

In addition to all of the pageantry that comes along with the first week of the regular season on the field, there was plenty of action off the field from the front office this week. And unlike the Masterson news that came out a couple of weeks ago, the recent developments from the front office have been overwhelmingly positive. Let’s start with the “smaller” of the two contract extensions that were announced this week, that of Indians catcher Yan Gomes. The Indians announced that they signed Gomes to a 6-year, $23 million extension that will keep Gomes in an Indians uniform through 2019. In addition to the guaranteed money, the Indians hold club options in 2020 ($9 million) and 2021 ($11 million). It’s the biggest pre-arbitration contract for a catcher in baseball history, and the Indians gave it to a guy with barely a full season of MLB service time. They clearly feel that Gomes was a huge part of their success last year, and that keeping him in an Indians uniform long-term will keep the organization set at the catcher position for the length of the contract. To understand why the front office did what they did with the Gomes contract, one only needs to look back a couple of weeks to my interview with Mark Shapiro. The club president came out with flowery and unsolicited praise for Gomes’ work both behind and at the plate, describing Gomes as one of the main “levers” that were pulled to improve the team last season. Not only does Gomes provide right-handed power (.826 OPS in 293 AB last season), his well-rounded defensive game helps control the opposition’s running game and his pitchers get calls around the periphery of the strike zone.

Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
Forgetting his offense for a minute, let’s take a look at the pitch framing metrics that the club was able to look at when considering this contract. Baseball Prospectus has been providing fantastic and comprehensive coverage of catcher framing for the past year or so, and have come out with their own statistics to measure catcher framing. They’re able to use the past statistics to provide a predictive model, and with that model, BP’s Harry Pavlidis predicts that Gomes will save 25.5 runs in 2014 with his framing alone.  That’s a huge impact in just one facet of the game. That 25.5 figure is 4th highest in all of baseball, and only gets better when you put it in context with the disinterested manner in which Carlos Santana received the baseball during his days as an everyday backstop. From 2008-13, Santana averaged -21.8 runs prevented per season by his horrific “framing” behind the plate. So if these numbers play out as expected in 2014, Indians pitchers will give up around 40 less runs than if Santana were still the everyday catcher based on Gomes’ framing ability alone.

The point of this article is not to rag on Carlos Santana’s defense. I’m just trying to illustrate just how much of a difference the Santana-Gomes switch behind the plate could make over an entire year. Forty runs over a season can easily be the difference between making the playoffs and not making the playoffs for a club like the Indians. And it’s not just framing; BP tells us that in 2013, Gomes saved 7 runs with his blocking ability behind the plate (Santana was exactly neutral in 2013, neither saving a run nor giving any up with his blocking). So that’s a 47 run difference between Gomes and Santana defensively. Add to that his fantastic 41% caught stealing rate in 2013 (2nd in the AL; league average was 26%, and Santana was at 18% last year), and you begin to see just how impactful Gomes can be behind the plate. Defensive metrics, especially the framing statistics, are generally much more consistent and less susceptible to regression than offensive stats. There’s no BABIP to consider (Gomes’ was .342 last year for the record; high, but not abnormally so). Defense, especially behind the plate, is something that players have a lot of control over. Even if Gomes’ offense proves to be a total fluke (which I doubt will be the case), he’ll be worth the AAV throughout the contract based on his defense alone. Oh, and in case you didn’t notice, a guy by the name of Max Marchi was one of the architects of BP’s framing data, including their predictive modeling. That would be the same Max Marchi that the Indians hired earlier this offseason. Think that’s just a random coincidence? I sure don’t. The Indians now control Gomes through at least his age 31 season, and hold club options for age 32-33. If they’re right about his ability at and behind the plate, this contract is going to be a fantastic value for the team.

In addition to the Gomes deal, the Indians extended the contract of 2013 all-star 2B Jason Kipnis on the morning of the home opener. The deal gives Kipnis $52.5 million through the 2019 season, and also includes a club option for 2020 ($16.5 million). Kipnis was scheduled to be a free agent following the 2017 season, so this deal buys out his arbitration years as well as two seasons of free agency (with a club option for a third). That means Kip will be an Indian through at least his age 32 season, so feel free to buy a #22 jersey with at least some degree of confidence that it won’t be obsolete in the near future. The contract provides cost certainty through Kip’s arbitration seasons, buys out two years of what are likely to be expensive free agency, and provides flexibility on the back end with a club option. It’s not a steal for the club, nor is it an overpay. Both sides gave a little to get Kipnis extended and to secure his future on the North Coast. As expected, Jon over at Waiting For Next Year hits the nail on the head with his take on the deal:

I think this is a really good deal for the club. It's good because Kipnis is their best player and they locked him up for what the smart money would suggest will the best years of his career (let's not forget that the aging curves suggest he's about to get better, not worse). It's good because the replacement cost for an All-Star 2B will only go up in the next four years. It's good because he's probably the third best 2B in the league, and the youngest of that group. It's good because he's a fan-favorite, and that's a real thing a team like this should occasionally care about.
Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
The deal is very similar to the contract that Cardinals 2B Matt Carpenter signed earlier this offseason (Kipnis got just $500k more overall), and the always-fantastic David Cameron over at Fangraphs was nice enough to break down the respective deals for us. Carpenter is about a year and a half older than Kipnis, and doesn’t have the track record that the Indians 2B has, but he also had a better offensive season than Kip last year. Cameron does an exhaustive rundown of the two players, trying to decide which one he likes better now and over the life of the contract. It’s a difficult decision, as both players are excellent and both are signed to contracts that provide them with long-term security at a reasonable rate for their respective clubs. In the end though, he gives the slight edge to…well, I’ll let him tell you himself:

Going forward, I think I’d take Kipnis; the age and athleticism do matter, and all things equal, I think you’d rather have a physically gifted guy than someone who has probably already maxed out his tools. But, right now, Carpenter may very well be the better player, especially if we’re viewing them outside of the context of their current organizations and give Carpenter credit for being able to play second base at a reasonable level. So, I don’t choose Kipnis with any kind of strong conviction. Both are terrific, and the Indians and Cardinals should be glad that they each have one of the game’s better young players under team control for the next six years.
The Indians now have 16 current major league players under club control through at least the 2016 season (full list can be found here). And that list doesn’t even include Francisco Lindor, Trevor Bauer, Tyler Naquin, Clint Frazier or any of the other top prospects in the Indians organization. The club has cost controlled talent locked up, and with a little influx in revenue, they’re going to be able to spend for a couple of pieces to augment the in-house talent that’s already on the North Coast. Cost certainty is a big deal for the Indians, and they can now basically pencil in the club’s payroll for the next three seasons with a pretty high degree of confidence.

While the Indians were busy locking up their core guys, Central Division nemesis Detroit came up with a contract extension of their own. The Tigers inked the 2nd best position player in baseball to a…wait for it…8-year, $248 million contract extension. They did this two full seasons prior to Miggy Cabrera reaching free agency. Just for good measure, Cabrera got a pair of $30 million vesting options at the end of the deal. The options vest if Cabrera finishes in the top-10 of the MVP voting in the season prior to the option year. It’s an insane amount of money to pay a guy through at least his age-40 season, even a guy as talented as Cabrera. Ben Lindbergh of Baseball Prospectus does a fantastic job encapsulating the concerns with the contract, so I’ll sample from his long and extremely comprehensive (no subscription required, so go read the whole thing) piece here:
The Tigers, unlike St. Louis, haven’t laid the groundwork to succeed without their superstar. Put yourself in the place of owner Mike Illitch (who’s old enough not to worry about the back-end of Cabrera’s contract) and GM Dave Dombrowski, who may have just closed the door on bringing Scherzer back, and you can see why the thought of Cabrera walking away would make them antsy.
Here’s the thing, though: He wasn’t walking away. Not now, and not after this season. Cabrera wasn’t due to hit free agency until after the 2015 season, which means that Detroit could have taken its time with these talks…
…The Tigers had two full seasons of Cabrera control remaining—two seasons (or at least one, if they didn’t want to go down to the wire) in which they could have learned more about what kind of player he’ll be at age 40. If, at any point from 2014–2015, Cabrera’s body breaks down, or his bat starts to slow, or his conditioning slips, or his problems with alcohol abuse recur, the Tigers won’t be able to adjust their offer accordingly. They’ll be forced to pay him what they thought he’d be worth in March 2013, before they had that additional info…
…For Detroit, this isn’t just buying high. It’s buying high knowing that you’re likely to have a chance to buy lower later. It’s not just the money that makes this extension a mistake. It’s not just the timing, either. It’s the combination of the two: this amount of money at this particular time…
…Even if you assume that teams are already paying $7 million per free agent win, and even if you assume that that rate will rise by five percent per season, you can’t quite get Cabrera’s expected value to equal his certain cost.
So the Tigers acted, probably prematurely, and got a premium player at a premium price, giving back some of the surplus value from Cabrera's first Detroit contract. In the process, they darkened the short-term future of the free-agent market, widened the smile on the face of Mike Trout’s financial planner, and appalled, shocked, and disgusted 29 other owners and front offices. Writing about extensions can be boring, because it usually takes time to feel their effects. In a sense, that’s true of this one, too: our projection for both Cabrera and the Tigers in 2014 are unchanged from two days ago. But in another sense, Cabrera’s extension seems significant. This is one of those moves that makes wins cost more.
Far be it for me to suggest that locking up Miguel Cabrera was a bad idea for the Tigers. But as Linbergh so artfully explained, it was an unnecessary idea, at least at this point in time. The Tigers didn’t get a discount. They didn’t prevent Cabrera from walking away, or from forcing his way out of town via trade. They handed out the highest AAV contract in sports history two full seasons prior to the player hitting free agency, every dollar of which is guaranteed. One only needs to look to the recent Albert Pujols albatross of a contract to see how this could break bad for the Tigers. It’s not going to hurt their playoff chances in 2014, but if the contract keeps the Tigers from resigning Max Scherzer, it could hurt them as soon as 2015. While Detroit is busy inflating the free agent market for everyone else (especially the big market clubs), the Indians are busy locking down their own talent at a fair and reasonable rate. It can’t help but give you a good feeling about the job that the Indians front office is doing to set up the club for 2014 and beyond.

Photo Credit: Al Ciammaichella
Something I’d like to make a weekly feature here during our Lazy Sunday together is a little something that I’d like to call Lindor Watch, 2014. It works better if you say it in your Bryan Fantana “PANDA WATCH” voice from Anchorman. I’ve made no secret of my love for Lindor, who’s shaping up to be one of the top prospects in all of baseball and a potential contributor on both sides of the ball when he does finally reach the major leagues. Lindor has opened the 2014 season with AA Akron as a RubberDuck, and you really should get out and try to see him play in Canal Park while he’s still there. He’s ready to contribute at the major league level as soon as this season, and will likely get at least a cup of coffee at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario at some point in 2014. So I’ll keep tabs on him for you as long as he’s in the minors, and report back to my loyal readers just what Lindor is doing from week to week. Akron opened the season this past Thursday, and they’ve played three games as of this morning. So far, Lindor is hitting an impressive .385/.385/.615, going 5-13 with a HR, 2 RBI and a stolen base in the first three Eastern League games of the season. Again, way too early to draw any sort of meaningful conclusions, but it’s good to see that the power Lindor was displaying in Arizona is already showing up in Akron.

As I’m sure all of you remember, former Indians fan-favorite Grady Sizemore signed with the Red Sox this offseason, and managed to make it through spring training unscathed and uninjured. He opened the 2014 season the Sox starting CF, and has gotten off to a hot start here in April. Sizemore is hitting a robust .300/.417/.600 (3-10 with a HR and a SB) in three games for the Red Sox. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t hurt a little to see Sizemore succeed in Boston, but I can’t help but pull for the guy. He always gave 100% as an Indian, never got into trouble, never said anything bad about the city on his way out and was a generally likeable guy throughout his tenure in Cleveland. I’m glad he’s back playing baseball again, and while I wish it was with the Indians, I’m not going to begrudge the fact that it isn’t. I hope Sizemore stays healthy and productive for the Red Sox this year, and if he takes them all the way to the ALCS, that’s fine too. Just as long as that ALCS run ends at the hands of the World Series-bound Indians, of course.

Finally, as we all know this is the 20th anniversary of the opening of Jacobs Field. I can’t think of two better people to reminisce on the memories made at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario than Tom Hamilton and Anthony Castrovice, so this is just about the perfect article. Castro and Hammy counted down their top-10 favorite moments at The Jake, beginning with Giambi’s walk-off during the playoff run last season and culminating with opening day 1994, when Wayne Kirby hit a walk-off single to send the sellout crowd home happy. Like many of you, I have very fond memories of these and other Indians moments from throughout my childhood, and taking this walk down memory lane sure was a lot of fun. It remains to be seen whether the Indians can come up with a moment or two in 2014 that will replace something on this list, but you’d better believe that a World Series victory would immediately vault to #1 before the confetti even settled on the ground. Does this team have a run like that in them? Time will tell, but I have to think they’ll be playing fun and compelling baseball throughout the season. It’s going to be a fun season, and I can’t wait to see what Tito and the crew have in store for us.