November 2011

“So let’s go out for old time’s sake”

By Anthony Castrovince/MLB.com

I wrote recently about what a difficult time the Indians will have replacing Grady Sizemore.

Not Grady Sizemore circa 2011, mind you. But the idea of Grady Sizemore. Someone with anywhere near his athleticism and upside simply doesn’t exist in the Indians’ system, and the thought of finding something resembling that kind of talent on the free-agent or trade markets seemed bleak, at best.

So the Indians went in an entirely different direction — one nobody, from what was being said of Sizemore behind the scenes at least, saw coming before last week’s news leak.

They’re replacing Grady Sizemore with Grady Sizemore.

Brilliant!

Of course, that important clarifier about the idea of Sizemore belongs here, too. The Indians are banking on a notion, not a sure thing… but, of course, you already knew that from the 210 games Grady has played over the last three seasons.

Just as $5 million is an adequate investment into a back-end innings eater like Derek Lowe, so, too, is $5 million a suitable guarantee for a player who dangles on that thin line between risk and reward. And the $4 million in incentives (which, I’m told, actually max out with fewer plate appearances than Grady had in any season from 2005-08), as well as a reported $500,000 bonus if Sizemore wins Comeback Player of the Year honors, ensures that Grady can earn just as much with this deal as he would have with his option, provided he holds up his end of the bargain. This appeases those who wanted the Indians to re-negotiate the option with Sizemore in the first place — something that always seemed unlikely, given the assumption that players are always going to be prone toward feeling out their market before committing to a pay cut.

Keep in mind, of course, that the Indians already dished out $500,000 when they bought out Sizemore’s option earlier this month. As of this writing, I’m not sure if that was factored into the package or if it stands as a separate transaction entirely (if so, good for Grady).

Sizemore likely would have had to work out for other clubs to land this kind of a commitment, and his current knee condition wouldn’t have allowed such a workout until the new year. So the Indians capitalized with an aggressive approach, which, come to think of it, is the theme of their offseason at this point. They are not going to be beaten to the “diamonds in the rough” department.

Nobody knows Sizemore like this team and this medical staff, so there is clearly confidence in Sizemore’s condition. By the time Opening Day rolls around, he’ll be nearly two years removed from microfracture surgery on his left knee, and he’ll be six months removed from the decidedly more tame arthroscopic procedure performed on his right. But don’t forget that second sports hernia surgery Sizemore had performed last summer (his first came near the end of the ’09 season). I remember Torii Hunter telling me this year that it took him a full year to get back to full speed after he had a similar procedure performed at the end of ’09.

You can see Sizemore and his agent working here, as Grady’s comfort level with Cleveland and the Lonnie Soloff-led medical team will put him in the best possible position to have a comeback season and get a big payday a year from now. And you can see the Indians working. Beyond that glaring hole they’re currently filling in the outfield, there is also the distinct possibility of flipping Sizemore at the July Trade Deadline. Such a thing is always a possibility in these parts, as you well know.

But with some hefty arbitration cases coming their way in Asdrubal Cabrera, Shin-Soo Choo, Chris Perez, Raffy Perez, Justin Masterson and Joe Smith, a limited payroll is about to get crunched, so the Indians’ ability to further augment the outfield with a right-handed bat (so clearly needed to not only balance out the bats but also stand as insurance in the event of another Sizemore setback) is in question. Sizemore has been brutal against lefties for the better part of his career, so that further clouds the picture.

The way things stand, the right-handed-hitting Shelley Duncan would again be counted on quite a bit, though his lefty splits (.245/.316/.363) are uninspiring. Perhaps you’ve seen the speculation about putting Jason Donald in the outfield against lefty pitchers because of his .886 OPS against southpaws in his decidedly brief career, to this point. That’s definitely spaghetti-tossing territory.

This team’s need for more power and run-production is evident, and going into the season with Matt LaPorta as the penciled-in option at first base would be unacceptable, considering all we’ve seen. But given the available options out there, the Tribe might be best-suited to just make Carlos Santana primarily a first baseman and add catching depth. That’s a move they were always reluctant to make with Victor Martinez, because his offensive numbers were more valuable behind the plate, but Santana, who hit 27 homers in his first full season, has the power to suit the position, with potentially more in store. Something to consider.

The Sizemore move was surprising, and it’s largely predicated on the kind of nightmare scenario that keeps Clevelanders up at night — a star talent leaving town and flourishing elsewhere. The Indians spent at least $5 million to make sure that doesn’t happen.

For now, it’s brilliant. It could very well backfire. But you can make a strong argument that the idea of Grady Sizemore is better than the reality of a lot of other options out there right now.

~AC

PS: More Wild Cards are coming to baseball. Some people are complaining about this. This column explains why they shouldn’t.

“You’ll be a hard act to follow, a bitter pill to swallow, you’ll be tough to replace”

By Anthony Castrovince/MLB.com

There was no great outcry of emotion or objection when the Indians cut the cord with Grady Sizemore last week.

What was once deemed in the industry to be the most team-friendly contract in the sport was cut a year short when the Indians opted not to exercise their $9 million option on Sizemore. That decision was met, predictably, with a shrug, soon washed over by the collective discourse over the Browns’ latest loss and the preparation for their next one.

Once the face of a franchise, Sizemore became an injured afterthought. A would-be weapon in the stash, perhaps, if he could ever stay on the field long enough to make a sustained impact, but few realistically planned on that plot.

Heck, even the online message board where the smitten women known as Grady’s Ladies once discussed his dimples and fawned over his physique had become overrun with spam ads — the Internet’s answer to urban blight.

It was a shame, too, because there was a time, not long ago, when Sizemore represented endless possibility for the Indians. He was the final and, it seemed, most meaningful piece of the Bartolo Colon prospect haul. A 30-30 guy and perennial Gold Glover, with marketable looks, to boot.

His coming-out party had come just three days after his first callup, in 2004. In the ninth inning of a Saturday nightcap of a doubleheader with the Royals, Grady came to the plate as a pinch-hitter in the ninth and lined the game-winning single into center.

“It was an exciting time for me,” he said after that big hit, and he said this with all the enthusiasm you might muster when you get tube socks for Christmas.

That was — is — Grady, though. The man was baseball’s most boring interview off the field, yet one of its brightest lights on it. And it was, for those of us who trekked the country to track the Tribe, a true pleasure to watch him play at his peak. An exciting time, indeed.

Sizemore’s still in what are considered to be his prime years, and there is the very real possibility that the team that signs him (don’t count on it being the Indians) will get a steal of a deal. But so clouded has that possibility become, in the wake of yet another knee surgery and the admirably reckless disregard for his personal health with which Sizemore plays, that a thin-walleted team such as the Tribe can’t afford to throw big bucks at that particular wheel of chance. Barring a shock in which the Indians are the highest bidder, Grady will be somebody else’s project, somebody else’s if-come.

But what of that great, gaping hole in the Indians’ outfield?

That’s where the mystery lies, and that’s the topic gaining traction on the corner of Carnegie and Ontario.

The Indians’ primary outfield options, at present, are Shin-Soo Choo, a five-tool talent coming off a one-star season, and Michael Brantley, a bud who still has yet to bloom. In a season smeared by a DUI arrest, broken thumb and, finally, injured oblique, Choo regressed from a .300 average/.400 on-base percentage star-in-the-making to a .259-hitting question mark, just as his arbitration price tag is rising. Brantley, meanwhile, has not shown anywhere near the on-base ability in the big leagues that he did in the Minors, and he’s coming off surgery to repair a broken hamate bone in his hand. Both have big upside, if healthy, and the Indians are going to need every bit of that upside in this outfield.

Beyond that pair, the Indians have Shelley Duncan, a terrific teammate who was a valuable contributor down the stretch in 2011. But at present, they seem likely to relegate him to some sort of left field/first base/backup DH concoction, especially with Travis Hafner disabled list stints now in the realm of annual tradition. And lastly, they have Ezequiel Carrera, your typical light-hitting speed-and-defense type, with the important caveat that he made some puzzling defensive gaffes last season. He’s not an everyday player. Not yet, anyway.

This is what the Indians have in the wake of the Sizemore era, and it’s probably not nearly enough power and run-production for a team that had the fifth-lowest slugging percentage in the league — and the third-lowest among AL outfields — last season.

If only they had another Sizemore looming in the Columbus cupboard with a bold bat, fresh legs and stale quotes. If only.

What the Indians have, instead, is an almost barren Triple-A outfield. Trevor Crowe, a former No. 1 pick, was banished back there after missing almost the entire season following shoulder surgery. Nick Weglarz was once this organization’s great red-headed hope, ever since he hammered second-deck blasts at a pro workout at Progressive Field before the 2005 Draft. But he’s spent the better part of the past two seasons on the shelf. The only other appealing possibility in the upper levels of the farm is Thomas Neal, acquired when Orlando Cabrera was sent to the Giants this summer, but his numbers from Double-A upward leave quite a bit to be desired.

So the struggle to stock the system has caught up with the Indians, and they’ll have to search outside.

No easy task. It’s dark out there. And $5 million of the money saved on Sizemore has already been allocated to Derek Lowe.

Every indication is that the Indians don’t envision Brantley as a regular center fielder, perhaps not trusting his arm or instincts. Sizemore, of course, never had much of an arm, either, even in those dazzling days before his knees gave out. So perhaps the Indians could deem Brantley’s D to be livable, if it comes down to it. For now, though, their plan appears to be Brantley in left and a player to be named in center.

Trying to fill either position in free agency is a challenge. The last time the Indians went outside the system to fill an everyday outfield spot, it was a bum-backed Trot Nixon. Before that, it was a two-headed monster known, unaffectionately in these parts, as “Dellichaels” — David Dellucci and Jason Michaels.

Remember that the Dellichaels platoon was brought in to replace Coco Crisp when he was shipped to Boston. And now Crisp is viewed as the top center fielder on the open market (which says a lot about the market). This was the first year Crisp managed to stay healthy since ’07, but he had a .314 OBP. Endy Chavez and Cody Ross are also both available, but Chavez hasn’t played regularly since 2008 and Ross hasn’t played center a great deal.

The Tribe’s best option, clearly, is to look for a trade or wait for the non-tender situations to settle. If defense is the primary concern, the Rays’ B.J. Upton was a rumored target of the Tribe over the summer, but he’s going to make $7.6 million this year.

Two options that might make a lot of sense for the Indians are Andres Torres and Angel Pagan. Both regressed in 2011 after a strong 2010. With their arbitration costs rising, Torres and Pagan could be released by the Giants (who just acquired Melky Cabrera) and Mets, respectively. If so, the Indians ought to investigate.

Another option is trying to lure back Kosuke Fukudome, who was a nice piece post-Trade Deadline. But right field is his natural spot, and he’ll likely be looking for a multi-year deal.

If the Indians decide to stick Brantley in center, their options for left field aren’t much better. There is power available in Josh Willingham and Ryan Ludwick. The downside is that Willingham is in line for a multi-year deal as the top option on the market, and Ludwick, another Tribe target in July, had a drastic decline in slugging percentage the last three seasons, from .591 in ’08 all the way down to .363 in ‘11.

One possibility, however slight, could be Delmon Young, as the Tigers might seek to address their leadoff needs with a left fielder and cut him loose, despite his impressive output for them down the stretch. It’s doubtful they’d deal him in the division, though.

When you run through the gamut of possibilities, you see why the Sizemore decision was a tough and tricky one for this team. When you look at their system, you see why the Indians are taking a hard look at Cuban defector Yoenis Cespedes, even if their chances of outbidding everybody for what has become a hot commodity seem slim.

The Sizemore era is over, and it ended with a whimper. But the hardest part is not saying goodbye to Grady.

The hardest part is replacing him.

~AC

“Most of the time, I can keep both feet on the ground”

By Anthony Castrovince/MLB.com

The Indians’ hope, with the $5 million investment known as Derek Lowe, is that the 38-year-old right-hander will keep them grounded.

Grounded in the symbolic sense, certainly, as those who have been around the block a time or 10 have a way of keeping the youngins surrounding them focused, humble and hungry. And that’s a particularly pertinent point on this pitching staff, as nary a veteran soul exists outside of Lowe. He is the only member of this staff who was in the bigs prior to 2006.

“By no means am I a know-it-all,” Lowe told the Cleveland scribes on a conference call Thursday. “But there’s definitely ways to lead by example.”

But Lowe, late of the Braves, can also keep the Tribe grounded in a physical sense.

As in, groundballs.

As in, the overwhelming object of the Indians’ affection when constructing a starting staff.

The 38-year-old Lowe has proven he can get grounders, even in the shakiest of seasons. The 2011 season, in which he went 9-17 with a 5.05 ERA, was easily the worst of Lowe’s 10 as a Major League starter, and yet he still had the second-highest groundball rate (59 percent) of anybody in the bigs. He trailed only Jake Westbrook (59.3) in that regard, and Indians fans know all about Westbrook’s grounding influence.

When he comes to Cleveland in search of a comeback campaign next spring, Lowe will have plenty of company in the groundball department. Staff ace Justin Masterson (55.1) and Fausto Carmona (54.8) ranked seventh and eighth in the bigs in groundball percentage last season. And though not nearly up to that level, Ubaldo Jimenez also created groundballs at a rate (47.2) slightly above the average (44.4).

“You want groundball pitchers, for so many obvious reasons, and we have them,” Lowe said. “I look forward to it. A lot of people didn’t give us credit or give us a chance when I was in L.A. (from 2005-08), but we found a way, because we could pitch. I think that’s how it can be in Cleveland. Any time you can put the ball on the ground, you have a better chance.”

Lowe has a chance here to reclaim his career after a frustrating 2011 that culminated in a September spiral of epic proportions for both he and his team. The Braves famously tanked despite holding a 10 ½-game Wild Card lead on the Cardinals as late as Aug. 25, and Lowe, who went 0-5 with an 8.75 ERA in five September starts, did nothing to stop it.

“I don’t want to call it laziness,” he said, “but I think we lost that edge we had all year. We felt we had such a big lead… We lost that edge we had all year of just trying to win that game, as simple as that sounds. Maybe we didn’t have the same urgency we should have had. It just snowballed out of control.”

Lowe could say the same about his own numbers. He said he and Atlanta pitching coach Roger McDowell identified a major mechanical flaw in Lowe’s delivery, but they couldn’t find a way to fix it.

“I knew what I was doing, I just couldn’t stop it,” Lowe said. “When I got in the game, my pitching was non-competitive. I was bending over so much, every pitch was flat. It’s something we would have liked to change and tried to change in a short period of time, and it didn’t happen. You learn from it, and make sure you don’t do it again.”

Lowe has already begun the process of addressing the flaw. He’s begun his offseason workout program with his trainer in Fort Myers, Fla., trying, as he put it, to get his “muscle memory” back in order.

“I’ve really done a lot of self-evaluation,” he said. “I’ve become a breaking ball pitcher. For me to have success, that’s not the best way to go. I have to command the fastball down and away. That’s something I lacked last year.”

Of course, two obvious issues are staring Lowe in the face.

One is age, and Lowe’s is not insignificant.

And the other is the transition to the AL, and that’s proven in the past not to be insignificant, either.

Lowe hasn’t pitched in the AL since the 2004 season with the Red Sox. So while he might be the veteran of this staff, he’ll nonetheless have to lean on those around him for some perspective on his opponents.

But one thing it would appear the Indians can count on with Lowe – beyond groundballs – is durability. Even as his overall numbers have sagged a bit the last three seasons, he’s averaged 192 innings pitched in that span. Ever since he became a full-time starter in 2002, he’s never made less than 32 starts in a season, never amassed less than 182 2/3 innings pitched.

What’s the secret?

“Some luck,” he admitted. “I’ll be the first to tell you. But hard work, too. I think it’s something that I’ve always believed in. You may not be able to outwork the next guy, but that’s what you try to do. I enjoy putting in the time. For me, it’s more mental. I know if you put the work in every five days, game day is the easiest day. It’s putting in the time and effort to make every start.”

The Indians didn’t waste any time grabbing Lowe this offseason. The Braves had a rotation surplus and were looking to unload Lowe and as much of his $15 million salary as possible. They ate $10 million of that total, and all they got back was a low-level Minor Leaguer named Chris Jones, who has spent all of his five professional seasons in A-ball.

So for the Tribe, Lowe is a relatively low-risk, back-end option, given the costs that can accrue in searching for a free-agent starter. And for $5 million, they hope he’ll keep them grounded in every sense.

~AC

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