February 2012

“It looked good on paper”

By Anthony Castrovince/MLB.com

On Twitter: @Castrovince

ImageFor 18 games of the 2011 season — you know, after he missed a couple weeks while finishing off the rehab on his left knee and before he hurt his other knee sliding into second base — the Indians got the real Grady Sizemore.

It was an 18-game burst of brilliance. A .974 OPS and 16 extra-base hits. The Sizemore of old, the Sizemore who had been welcomed into the good graces of the 30-30 club and an annual AL All-Star locker assignment, had returned, but briefly.

And that 18-game stretch, combined with the cachet of good will and sound reputation he had accrued over a decade of hard work in front of and behind the curtain, was enough for the Indians to take a $5 million gamble that they’d be getting that Grady again for a more sustained stretch in 2012.

Maybe that gamble looks foolish now in the wake of yet another Sizemore injury — this time, a strained back while fielding groundballs in the outfield, a fate that would be comic if it weren’t so tragic — and the news that the glass-bodied Grady will miss yet another Opening Day.

But even though my last optometrist appointment confirmed 20/20 hindsight, I still can’t fault the Tribe front office for this one, given their obvious budget constraints.

To me, the Sizemore deal remains a chance that was very much worth taking.

Remember, this was — is — a $5 million guarantee, with added incentives that the Indians would be pleased to pay, because that would mean Sizemore is a regular member of their lineup.

What does $5 million buy you in the free-agent outfield market? I think you know the answer to that question, but let’s explore it anyway.

The only true comparable from a year ago was when the Rays paid a 37-year-old Johnny Damon $5.25 million to be their left fielder (he eventually became their DH, after Manny Ramirez flaked out) and got 1.5 wins above replacement, as calculated by Fangraphs.com. But just to further assist the discussion, Coco Crisp was in the second year of a two-year, $10.75 million contract with the A’s (making $5.75 million) and delivered a 2.2 WAR.

WAR is not a perfect estimation of a player’s contributions, by any means, but it gives us a decent estimation of what $5 million can buy you in this particular department. A player of marginal impact.

Now, obviously, Sizemore at his healthiest was a player of substantial impact. He had a 5.8 WAR in 2005, 8.0 in ’06, 6.2 in ’07, and 7.4 in ’08. And even when he played virtually the entire ’09 season with elbow and abdominal issues and was shut down in early September, he contributed a 2.0 WAR that is comparable to what the Rays and A’s got from Damon and Crisp, respectively, last year.

I know, I know. That version of Sizemore is gone, and likely for good. But as that ’09 season demonstrated, if you could just get the guy on the field, the potential for $5 million worth of assistance was there.

And if he’s actually in a position where he’s feeling healthy, well, who knows? That taunting, teasing 18-game stretch from last season had the Indians holding out hope for much more. And rightfully so.

The decision to re-sign Sizemore makes even more sense when you look at the other, decidedly unappealing options that existed on the free-agent and trade markets. For one, none other than Crisp himself was considered the top center fielder on the market (he got two years, $14 million). The Tribe’s best trade options, as far as I could tell, were Andres Torres and Angel Pagan, and they ended up getting swapped for each other. No telling if the Indians had the right piece to land either guy, and there’s certainly no telling what either will contribute after decidedly down years with the Giants and Mets and with no discernible track record beforehand.

The best outfield options, regardless of particular position within the outfield, were Michael Cuddyer, who got three years and $31.5 million from the Rockies, and Josh Willingham, who got three years and $21 million from the Twins.

Cuddyer was never a realistic possibility, at that price, whether the Indians signed Sizemore or not. But the Sizemore signing actually didn’t preclude them from being finalists for Willingham. They were in on him until the bitter end. Perhaps if they didn’t sign Grady, they could have upped their Willingham offer, but now you’re talking about a three-year contract in excess of $21 million for a player who, in a career year last year, contributed two wins above replacement. Not what I’d consider a sound investment.

Maybe the Indians could have gotten lucky with some other investment, a la the Royals last year with their $2.5 million deal with Jeff Francouer or the Cardinals with their $8 million deal with Lance Berkman. But that’s the kind of luck the Indians (an organization that, quite famously, does not major in luck) were/are counting on with Sizemore.

Maybe the Tribe could have used the Sizemore savings in other areas, such as increasing their offer to first baseman Carlos Pena. They reportedly offered Pena $8 million to come to Cleveland, and he opted instead to sign with the Rays for $7.25 million. Maybe if they threw a couple more million on the pile, they could have reeled him in. But then you have to ask yourself if Carlos Pena is worth eight figures.

The long-winded point here is that there are any number of opportunities the Indians could have explored beyond Sizemore, but none of them strike me as particularly appealing. And none of them featured the kind of upside the Grady deal presented (and perhaps, depending on the severity of this back situation, still presents).

No, if you want to criticize the Indians at this point, criticize the system, not the signing.

This club simply did not infuse enough quality outfield talent into its system through the Draft and trades to come to the forefront in times like these. Remember, this is the club that took Trevor Crowe when Jacoby Ellsbury was still on the board and Beau Mills one pick ahead of Jason Heyward. This is the club that, to date, has not reaped any meaningful returns from Matt LaPorta and Michael Brantley — the two top acquisitions in the CC Sabathia trade. (And yes, that 20/20 hindsight is kicking in again.)

And so what the Indians are left with now is hope, however feint, that Sizemore’s back troubles subside quickly enough for him to still provide meaningful at-bats in the 2012 season. And in the meantime, they have to hope that the Shelley Duncans and Aaron Cunnighams and Felix Pies and Ryan Spilborghs of the world — all guys who were cast aside by other organizations and given new life with the Tribe — can hold serve until he returns.

This Sizemore injury is damaging, no doubt, though not in the way further malfunctioning of the Ubaldo Jimenez project would be. Sizemore’s contract was, from the beginning, a $5 million gamble in which the risk-reward factor was clear and present. Hey, at least this time, it didn’t involve a knee.

Maybe Grady gets healthy before long. Maybe he extrapolates that 18-game stretch from 2011 into a more meaningful timeframe.

For this team, in this market, on this budget, with this farm system, that hope is all the Indians have.

And that’s all they’ve had all along.

~AC

Extending Asdrubal

By Anthony Castrovince/MLB.com

On Twitter: @Castrovince

Asdrubal Cabrera picked up his Professional Athlete of the Year trophy at the Greater Cleveland Sports Awards last night, and I’m told the first half of his acceptance speech was much better than the second.

With Cabrera in town, and he and the Indians attempting to avoid an arbitration hearing, there is talk of a multiyear deal potentially in the works.

This begs the question: What is Cabrera worth, and how long will he be worth it?

Cabrera has asked for $5.2 million for 2012, while the Indians have countered with an offer of $3.75 million. Either way, Cabrera will get a sizable raise from the $2.025 million he made in 2011, and it’s much-deserved after the best season of his career. He hit 25 home runs, the most of any shortstop in franchise history, while also batting .273 with 92 RBIs in 151 games. He was a leader, both vocal and emotional, even as the injuries piled up and the Indians fell out of contention.

But Cabrera, as you well know, saw his own performance fade along with those hopes of an AL Central crown. Look at his month-by-month splits, from baseball-reference.com:

Split          G GS  PA  AB  R  H 2B 3B HR RBI SB CS BB SO   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS
April/March   26 26 123 107 17 28  4  1  5  17  2  0  9 19 .262 .333 .458 .791
May           26 26 114 106 18 35  7  2  5  19  5  0  5 15 .330 .372 .575 .947
June          27 27 118 111 17 33 10  0  3  11  5  1  6 22 .297 .339 .468 .807
July          25 25 105  94 10 25  4  0  4  14  1  2  8 22 .266 .333 .436 .770
August        27 27 125 109 16 26  4  0  4  17  3  1 12 25 .239 .320 .385 .705
Sept/Oct      20 20  82  77  9 18  3  0  4  14  1  1  4 16 .234 .280 .429 .709

What you see there is the root of all fears the Indians possess with regard to Cabrera. His physical conditioning has constantly come into question. And until he demonstrates the ability to sustain his performance over the course of a full season, it will remain a question.

Cabrera played through a ton of pain last year. After playing just 97 games in 2010 because of a fractured forearm, he appeared in 151 out of 162 in ’11. And he took his power productivity to new heights. His .460 slugging percentage was 66 points higher than what had been his career norm, coming in.

The leadership, the willingness to gut it out when his body is barking at him, the comfort level he’s displayed on the Major League stage literally from the day he arrived in 2007… those things aren’t going anywhere. You invest in that.

But the Indians have to understand that if they’re buying into Cabrera for the long-term right now, they’re buying high. He might never top the run-production he provided in 2011, and his defensive range (for what it’s worth, his UZR, as calculated by Fangraphs.com, has dropped each season at shortstop, all the way down to 11.8 points below average last year) doesn’t figure to improve, either.

And yet, because they clearly aren’t looking to trade him while his value is at its perceived peak (a half-baked idea I discussed at the time of the Winter Meetings), they have no choice but to try to extend him. Because if he matches his performance of 2011, his price tag increases exponentially, a year ahead of free agency (and we all know how well the Indians fare in that environment). And even if he doesn’t match those ’11 numbers, the organization is not exactly brimming with upper-level shortstop supply.

This organization’s top prospect (at short or elsewhere) is Francisco Lindor. He’s 19. So, too, are highly regarded shortstops Ronny Rodriguez and Tony Wolters (who might profile better as a second baseman, anyway). Even if those guys pan out and get to the Majors, it’s going to be at least a few years before they get there, let alone settle in. This year, the Tribe will have a light-hitting shortstop in Columbus in Juan Diaz and another in Akron in Casey Frawley. Their only other viable option for short at the Major League level is Jason Donald, and nobody is counting on him as an everyday player at that position.

Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but the prospect pool at this position in the upper levels is basically barren. Cabrera is the be all and end all for the foreseeable future.

The Indians never showed much interest in a Cabrera extension in the past, largely because of his conditioning. But his dramatic improvement in ’11, combined with their dearth of options coming through the pipeline, have forced the issue.

Now that the issue is at hand, we can expect some sort of compromise on the arbitration issue for 2012 — $4.48M would be the midway point, and it certainly seems reasonable. Buying out Cabrera’s third and final arbitration year would probably take another $2M-$2.5M raise, so you’re looking at a salary somewhere in the neighborhood of $6.75 million for ’13. And then, to buy out one or two or three of Cabrera’s free-agent years (the only way such a deal would make any sense whatsoever for the Indians), J.J. Hardy’s recent extension with the Orioles (three years, $22.5M) seems a worthwhile comparison. That deal has an average annual value of $7.4M.

Add it all up, and you’d be looking at a three-year guarantee of about $18.6M, a four-year guarantee of about $26M and a five-year guarantee of about $33.4M. Perhaps the Indians could coerce Cabrera to make one or two of those club option years, but you get the idea.

Is Cabrera worth that type of commitment? Especially to a club recently burned by the Jake Westbrook and Travis Hafner extensions? Well, frankly, none of us knows. The power Cabrera displayed last season could very well be a fluke, and the second-half slide could very well be a warning signal.

But knowing what little is on the immediate horizon and knowing how well the Indians fare in free agency, it might be time for them to invest in what they have.

~AC

“We need to adjust, adapt and improvise”

By Anthony Castrovince/MLB.com

On Twitter: @Castrovince

As far as ambassadors go, few represent the Dominican baseball community as well as Manny Acta.

The Indians skipper is a board member for the Dominican Prospect League, managed the Dominican team in the first World Baseball Classic and has created a charitable organization to rebuild ballfields in his hometown San Pedro de Macoris.

So the “Fausto Carmona” situation pains Acta. Not just because he’ll be without his No. 3 starter this spring (and perhaps beyond), but because Carmona, who was arrested outside the U.S. consulate in Santo Domingo two weeks ago for falsifying his name and birth date, is further proof of the widespread identity fraud issue that has plagued Dominican baseball.

“It’s been brewing for years because of the flawed system,” Acta says. “It’s as simple as that.”

Major League Baseball has stepped up its efforts to address the flaws. Last month, the International Talent Committee was formed to address “issues related to the development and acquisition of international players.” The primary goal of the committee is to come up with a structure for a potential international draft. But draft or no draft, it has become clear that reforms must be made in order for teams to trust that the players they sign are indeed the age they claim to be.

In the wake of the arrests of Carmona, who was revealed to be 31-year-old Roberto Hernandez Heredia, and Marlins closer Leo Nunez, who was revealed to be 29-year-old Juan Carlos Oviedo, it has been speculated that the surface has only been scratched and that several more established Major Leaguers could be outed as having fabricated their age and identity.

“These are like time bombs,” Mark Newman, the Yankees’ senior vice president for baseball operations, told the New York Times.

Baseball is interwoven into the fabric of the Dominican culture and economy, which is why the government there has also increased its vigilance against those who cheat the system.

But the problem is systemic. After all, the culture of Dominican players shaving years off their birth certificates was essentially created by stateside scouts and evaluators showing little to no interest in Latin American players above the ages of 18 or 19. And until teams take a more open-minded approach to those evaluations, one can hardly fault a player for being tempted to cheat the system if it’s the only way to make a better life for himself and his family.

“The younger kids are more attractive,” Acta says, “because signing them young gives you a bigger window of two to three years of adjustment to acclimate them [to the United States]. If you bring an older kid over here and it takes him a couple of years, he is already going to be 22. But at some point, people are going to have to start taking those chances.”

Acta looks at it this way. Here in the States, a kid can be drafted out of college at the age of 21 in the first round and claim a multi-million dollar signing bonus. And as we speak, teams are lining up to potentially bid tens of millions of dollars for 26-year-old Cuban free agent Yoenis Cespedes.

But to a kid in the Dominican, the age of 19 is viewed as the cutoff — your absolute last chance of attracting interest from a professional team.

“So they have been pushed over the years to commit these types of things,” Acta says. “Nobody is condoning that, but that’s how it is.”

The Dominican has produced 542 Major Leaguers and 68 All-Stars (Carmona included), according to baseball-reference.com. The country’s prospect pool is rich enough to necessitate just about every Major League club operating a Dominican academy where players can become educated and acclimated, but the players must be a minimum of 16 years old and are limited to a stay of 30 days, at which point the club must make a decision on whether or not to sign them.

One aim of the Dominican Prospect League, then, is to provide an environment in which Major League clubs can get an extended look at a player before signing him and the players can become not only exposed but educated. Players are given proper instruction, both from a physical and mental standpoint.

“The kids are being developed under a good atmosphere where they are playing games,” Acta said. “In the past, they all tried out, and you sign a guy. Now it’s a great opportunity for the scouts to see guys actually play games and evaluate them properly. It’s a great tool, and we’ve made a lot of progress.”

Perhaps the Carmona and Nunez cases that have brought the age and identity issue to the forefront will promote further progress. But as long as there are clear incentives to being younger on a professional contract than you are in reality, some players will undoubtedly try to cheat the system.

“We need to adjust, adapt and improvise,” Acta says. “We can’t continue to do things the way we have 100 years ago. Because if a guy can get out college here at 21 and can be a first-round pick or a free agent from a different country can be 24 and attractive to the baseball world, why can’t a kid from [the Dominican] be attractive if he is talented enough to play? I think everyone is working together to fix that. It’s going to take some time.”

~AC

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