July 2012

“Everybody’s doing something; we’ll do nothing!”

By Anthony Castrovince/MLB.com
On Twitter: @Castrovince

The MLB Trade Deadline has passed, and what did the Indians do?

They did nothing.

Well, sure, they acquired Brent Lillibridge last week and they got Lars Anderson from the Red Sox just before the deadline, but, you know, like I said:

They did nothing.

For the better part of the past two months, those of us who like to discuss such things talked about the Indians’ needs: Should they pursue a right-handed bat or starting arm? Starting arm or right-handed bat? Bat, arm. Arm, bat. Both? Tribe fans studied Jason Vargas’ game logs. They tried to talk themselves into Alfonso Soriano. And just when there seemed to be some consensus that, yes, an arm was what the Indians needed most, well, that’s when a new opinion intervened…

The Indians should sell! Yes, that’s right. They went 6-11 after the All-Star break and fell five games back of first place. Time to blow it up and start all over! Time to send your best player, Shin-Soo Choo, to Pittsburgh or Los Angeles or maybe even back to South Korea, as long as the return is Major League-ready. Send Justin Masterson — two years and two months away from free agency, mind you — back to Boston. Send Chris Perez to San Francisco and let him complain about their fans. Ship off anything that’s not nailed down… and yes I’m looking at you, Jose Lopez.

These were, to put it bluntly, especially schizophrenic circumstances, and perhaps they were unavoidable when you’re talking about a mediocre (minus-66 run differential, second-worst ERA in the league) contender (“Verlander Schmerlander”).

Rather than sway toward any side of the line, Chris Antonetti stayed Switzerland, content to let 2012 play out as-is.

It was not a surprising stance.

As discussed last week, this club’s needs were too many to address at the Deadline (and for this, the front office definitely deserves some blame, as Josh Willingham and/or Yoenis Cespedes would have been excellent and affordable additions last winter), and the trading chips on hand were too scarce. The 2012 Indians simply did not give Antonetti enough reason to pull the trigger on any trade that would have weakened an already frail farm system in exchange for a short-term rental. And that frail farm system (which, mind you, is also the fault of the front office) caught up to the Indians once again, as they don’t seem to have the adequate pieces to bring in an impact acquisition under control beyond 2012.

That addresses the “buy” situation, but what about the “sell”?

Well, when Antonetti made the Ubaldo Jimenez trade on July 30, 2011, he embraced a so-called “window of contention” based on the contractual control the Indians held on Jimenez, Choo, Masterson, Perez and Asdrubal Cabrera, each of whom would have been eligible for free agency either after 2013 (Choo, Jimenez, Cabrera*) or 2014 (Masterson, Perez).

*Cabrera, of course, has since been extended through 2014, and the contractual status remains the same for the rest.

Now, it’s my opinion that the Indians whiffed on Ubaldo. I don’t know how to put it any other way. We have no way of knowing what Drew Pomeranz (especially) and Alex White would have become in Cleveland instead of the pitcher’s nightmare that is Colorado, but the Indians at least would have had six years to find out. Instead, they got two years and two months of Jimenez, and the first calendar year has been an unqualified disappointment. Jimenez is 12-14 with a 5.08 ERA and 1.55 WHIP in 32 outings with the Indians. As my friend and colleague Jordan Bastian notes in this piece, Ubaldo currently leads the league in walks and stolen bases allowed and wild pitches thrown. He’s a mess.

But if you’re Antonetti, in the immediate, you have to make the most of that mess. You have to hope, perhaps against hope, that Jimenez, even if he’ll never become the ace-type arm he once was, at least rights himself enough to become a dependable middle-of-the-rotation guy. You have to hope the backward steps taken by Masterson and Carlos Santana this season are not indicative of future results and that the coaching staff you helped put in place is capable of righting them.

That’s the immediate, because the Trade Deadline, by nature, doesn’t seem to be the best time to make bold decisions about the future of the franchise (the Ubaldo and Cliff Lee deals, neither of which have gone particularly well, best illustrate the basis of that belief).

But the Indians are going to have an awfully interesting offseason ahead, because now that they have a feel for the outside interest levels in the likes of Choo and Masterson and Perez, maybe they’ll delve further down those roads.

I’ve expressed my opinion that the Indians ought to seriously consider parting with Perez for a variety of factors, not the least of which is money. The arbitration costs you’d save by dealing from a position of strength could be applied elsewhere, and Lord knows the Indians have plenty of places to apply them.

This 2012 season ought to serve as a lesson that, no, the almost completely left-handed lineup and the right-handed rotation do not lend themselves to the kind of sustained winning stretches it takes to be a true contender. Both of those issues absolutely need to be addressed, one way or another, if the Indians are going to contend in 2013, and perhaps Travis Hafner and Grady Sizemore coming off the books will help Antonetti do so. You can look at the Indians’ lineup, factoring in a healthy Lonnie Chisenhall and matured Jason Kipnis, and see the seeds of a competitive club. But as I wrote earlier, if the Indians do ultimately decide to deal Choo, they’d almost assuredly be taking a big step back with regard to their 2013 outlook, and that’s a tough sell to a fractured fan base.

Still, given the way the Jimenez trade has transpired and some notable core elements have disappointed this season, perhaps a step back in 2013 in order to augment the 2014, ’15, ’16 outlook is the way to proceed. I suppose that all depends on just how aggressive Antonetti plans to be (or, rather, has the budget capability to be) this winter in the construction of the 2013 club.

For now, Antonetti wasn’t aggressive at all at the 2012 Trade Deadline. I’m sure he racked up the cell phone minutes, but, ultimately, he did nothing.

And given the schizophrenic nature of a club that is not quite good enough to contend but not quite bad enough to detonate, maybe “nothing” makes sense.

~AC

“I choo choo choose you”

By Anthony Castrovince/MLB.com

On Twitter: @Castrovince

ImageWhat will the Indians do with Shin-Soo Choo? The answer will tell us quite a bit about the Indians’ evaluation not only of their 2012 season going astray but also about 2013, too.

The Indians have known for two and a half years that Choo is their property through the 2013 season and not a day longer, given that he’s a five-tool talent who latched on with an agent — Scott Boras — known for getting his players to free agency as quickly as possible.

Naturally, the pending Trade Deadline, coming as it does just as the Indians spiral out of contention in the American League Central, has a way of forcing a club to take stock of its standing and its assets, both present and future. And there is no question that one of the Tribe’s greatest assets in the immediate is Choo.

It comes as no surprise, then, that interest in Choo, who has a .292 average and .862 OPS and has had an impactful presence in the leadoff spot for the Indians, is high right now. Reports have run rampant that the Pirates have particular interest, and they have the ability to dangle promising prospect Starling Marte, among others.

It comes as equally no surprise that the Indians are at least willing to listen to offers for the 30-year-old native of South Korea, because this is an organization known for trying, with varying degrees of success, to reel in returns for its top talent before that talent bolts.

Choo’s, though, is a particularly delicate case because it comes at a time when the Indians are still trying to repair relations with a fan base that largely turned its back on the latest rebuild, and his sheer presence is a key element of any effort to maximize the so-called “window of contention” the Indians have outlined for themselves.

Because beyond Choo, the Indians’ outfield arrangement at the upper levels of their farm system can best be described as barren with a side of bleak. The most illustrative moment came midseason, when former No. 1 pick Trevor Crowe, drafted nine slots ahead of Jacoby Ellsbury in the famed 2005 First-Year Player Draft, was released by an organization that too often whiffed on amateur talent.

The Indians, though, got it right on several relatively low-profile trades, and that was undoubtedly the case when they acquired Choo from the Mariners six years ago. All it cost them was Ben Broussard, the second half of their 2006 first-base platoon. The first half, Eduardo Perez, had also gone to Seattle in exchange for future All-Star shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera.

Those two swaps are still nothing short of amazing.

It’s altogether possible, six years later, that the Indians could get it right again and move Choo for a prime piece or two. They are definitely targeting upper-level bodies with the ability to play in the Majors in the present tense.

But if the return is, say, Marte, who is young (23), controllable and — bonus — right-handed (the Indians’ lineup famously leans to the left), you’re still sacrificing a good deal of 2013 output from the loss of Choo’s leadoff lumber in order to attain a longer-term projection.

And maybe the Indians are comfortable with that, given that Ubaldo Jimenez, the man whose arrival signaled the Indians’ embrace of the aforementioned “window,” has established himself as anything but an ace and Justin Masterson has also taken a step back in 2012. Those two have been leaders of the Tribe rotation only in the sense that they have been equally unsteady as the rest of the starting five.

Masterson, for the record, has also been rumored to be a movable piece, but he’s under the Indians’ control through 2014.

For this club to contend both in the immediate and in 2013, a rotation upgrade is definitely in order, and that is, of course, the most costly and difficult area to upgrade.

So maybe the Indians use a strength like Choo to address a weakness, be it in the rotation or the long-term outfield alignment. The Deadline presents a frenzied environment in which clubs act impulsively, so this could be a time to reap a robust return. Or if the Indians are really serious about dangling Choo, they can also wait until winter, when more clubs can get involved. Or they could keep him, knowing they could always monitor this market a year from now, if 2013 goes off-track.

Choo is the hotter topic at present, but if the Indians are really swaying toward “sell” mode, they would be wiser, simply as a function of in-house replacement options, to part with closer Chris Perez.

Perez won’t be a free agent until after 2014, but he’s already making $4.5 million with another raise looming after a stellar season. If his pay gets bumped to somewhere in the $7 million range, then the Indians, realistically, could be investing about 10-12 percent of their 2013 player payroll into the erratic commodity that is a closer, knowing full well that lower-cost option exists in Vinnie Pestano and that bullpens, in general, can be pieced together on the cheap. Late-game relief is definitely a seller’s market at present and could be in the winter, as well.

Naturally, the Indians have the option of standing pat and letting the 2012 season resolve itself, hoping the first sustained winning stretch this current club goes on will be the one that triggers a rapid rise in the Central standings.

But even if the Indians hold firm now, these questions will come up again in the winter. It says here that you can trade Perez and probably still build a winner next year, especially if you wisely apply the money saved. Trading Choo, on the other hand, would present a more difficult proposition for 2013.

According to Baseball Reference, Choo has created 71 runs this year, or 16 percent of the Tribe’s total output. Combine that with his rocket arm in right, and his impact is impressive. Any returns on a trade better be the same and better be ready for prime time, or else the Indians would have a tough time selling this current “window” as anything other than shut.

~AC

“Somehow all you ever need’s never quite enough”

By Anthony Castrovince/MLB.com
On Twitter: @Castrovince

The Trade Deadline cometh, and what do the Indians — presumed buyers — need to take the AL Central this season?

They need at least one starting pitcher (not counting Roberto Hernandez), first and foremost.

They need at least one impact right-handed bat.

They need another proven reliever to ease the stress on the back end.

They need better depth and definitely better balance.

These needs are so many, the organizational trade options so few and the available talent in the trade market so hallow that, well, I don’t need to tell you this is complicated.

ImageBecause if you’re Chris Antonetti, and your job is to make realistic evaluations of your talent at both the Major League and Minor League levels, you’ve got to be asking yourself what, exactly, is to be gained from a Deadline deal at this juncture?

Even in the midst of understanding the “window of contention” template upon which the Tribe operates, why sell off any more of your already gaunt future stock to prop up a club that needs more than just a few finishing touches? A club that, by virtue of its left-leaning lineup and right-tossing starting staff, was not built to go on sustained stretches of success? A club whose schizophrenic personality (hit but don’t pitch, pitch but don’t hit) appears incurable?

I wrote recently about how exceedingly average this Tribe team (then .500 and now a game under as I type this) is, and how the demands of the division (or lack thereof) made that tolerable for the time being.

But those demands are increasing every day, as the Tigers (winners of 13 of 17 and expected aggressors in Deadline dealing) start to make the most of the fifth-highest payroll in the game, with the White Sox a game and a half back and benefiting from the boost of Kevin Youkilis (they also added Brett Myers over the weekend, for whatever that’s worth).

This is still one of the weakest divisions in the game, but it’s going to take more than a .500 effort to win it.

And the second Wild Card? Sure, that presumably props up the postseason odds for anybody meandering in the realm of .500. But had that second Wild Card existed from the beginning of the Wild Card era, it would have taken 89 wins, on average, to claim it in the full, 162-game seasons (1995 was, of course, shortened by the strike). Maybe it won’t take that many this year, but that’s the neighborhood you’ve got to shoot for.

It’s difficult to see this Indians team going on the kind of second-half run it would take to finish eight games over .500, and it’s difficult to see any of the realistic options (emphasis there on “realistic”) in the trade department drastically altering that bottom line.

Because remember, this Tribe team has not won more than four in a row at any point this year. This team has allowed 47 more run than it has scored. In fact, only three teams in all of MLB — the Rockies, Twins and Astros — have allowed more runs.

This team is still trying to figure out what it has in Ubaldo Jimenez (5.18 ERA in his last 30 starts), still trying to figure out if Carlos Santana will catch fire this year (1.727 OPS the last five games, so that’s certainly a start), still losing to lefties, still watching Derek Lowe wilt, still waiting (with an absence of optimism) for Grady Sizemore to come back, still hoping to stave off another second-half slide from Asdrubal Cabrera.

When asked about the Deadline, Antonetti has generally said something along the lines of, “We need the guys here to play to their potential.” In the starting pitching department, that hasn’t happened. In the run-production department, that hasn’t happened. The Indians have an offense that ranks around league average and a starting staff that sits alongside the sellers. And the absence of sustained winning streaks, to date, has to lead us to wonder if the Tribe is capable of the kind of run it would take to become a postseason team, even in an expanded postseason format.

The Trade Deadline, from the buyer’s perspective, is an opportunity to augment and enhance, not completely reshape and repair. If Antonetti and Co. see opportunities within the Deadline realm to add longer-term options who are going to help the 2013 effort, then have at it. Again, though, the Indians don’t have many valuable chips in the upper levels of their farm system to pull off significant swaps, like the Ubaldo deal last year.

This leads to a potential shift in strategy that’s already being pointed out in the national media — the possibility of the Indians becoming sellers at the Deadline.

In Chris Perez, they have a valuable commodity in a mercurial role who is due another big raise in arbitration. And in Vinnie Pestano, they have a capable replacement. So I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of a trade — provided, of course, that it brings in a Major League return that can help in 2013 and not a prospect haul.

Shin-Soo Choo, as the above FOX Sports link notes, would be the other obvious trade candidate in a sell situation, given that 2013 is the last year in which the Indians have contractual control of him and the possibility of an extension with the Indians was all but removed long ago. But unlike the Perez/Pestano situation, the Indians would be extremely hard-pressed to replace the production provided by Choo, especially given their organizational outfield abyss. I’d imagine it would take a huge haul to prompt them to move him.

Anything viewed within the prism of selling, at this juncture, would be a PR nightmare, so there’s that. Still, the dearth of sellers this season leads me to believe you can make a move with Perez, in particular, that helps the current club while also increasing the earnestness of the 2013 effort.

But as far as buying is concerned? Well, given the propensity toward overpays in a seller’s market, and given the unmistakable mediocrity we’ve witnessed from these Indians in a season now well into its second half, any attempt to augment this 2012 club with a short-term rental would seem to be a deal made for the sake of dealing.

The Indians have many needs, but they definitely don’t need that.

~AC

Acta impacts, impressed by scholarship recipients

By Anthony Castrovince/MLB.com
On Twitter: @Castrovince

Manny Acta’s ImpACTA Kids Foundation’s annual scholarship program seeks to positively change the lives of two young scholars from the Cleveland area.

But every year, as he looks over the essays submitted by hopeful students, Acta can’t help but feel impacted himself. What he finds are stories of kids overcoming physical or financial difficulty or kids who simply never fail to put in the extra time and attention necessary to become aces in the classroom.

This year, Acta was blown away by the submissions of two young women — Twanisha Taylor of Maple Heights and Halle Herringshaw of Chardon. Both met the scholarship’s requirements — a grade-point average of at least 3.3, enrollment in a four-year university with a plan to major in the field of science, technology or business — but both had stories of experiences that went above and beyond.

“These girls,” Acta said, “are awesome.”

Taylor and Herringshaw each received a $2,500 scholarship as they prepare for their first year of college. Taylor plans to study biomedical engineering at Ohio Wesleyan University, while Herringshaw is enrolled to study biology at John Carroll University.

In her essay, Taylor, said she has known she wants to study biochemical engineering since her sophomore year at MC2STEM High School, where she became one of the startup school’s first graduating seniors. As part of a school project, Taylor, who finished school with a 4.3 GPA, helped create a survey that tested her school’s obesity rate, a presentation that included the Chinese language and an artificial heart using a motor.

“I have been hooked on a career in engineering ever since,” Taylor wrote.

Herringshaw was a member of the Chardon High School community that grieved in the aftermath of the school’s terrible February tragedy. She’s also endured personal difficulty, having been diagnosed with scoliosis that left her in constant back pain. Herringshaw had to make the decision whether to live with the pain or undergo a difficult and dangerous surgical procedure to repair the curve in her back.

“I knew the risks of the surgery included paralysis, extensive nerve damage and a possible shortened life expectancy,” Herringshaw wrote. “I also knew two eight-inch metal rods and 14 two-inch screws would be new residents to my body.  Without the risk, though, there was no room for improvement and plenty of room for regret.”

She went through with the surgery and two months of difficult recovery. Now, Herringshaw, who graduated with a 4.0 GPA, hopes to be an inspiration to others, just as a young woman named Jane, who has muscular dystrophy and is permanently handicapped, was an inspiration to her during her recovery.

“I realize how truly extraordinary life is and that it should never be taken for granted,” Herringshaw wrote. “Life is too short to not be thankful for every single day that I can move with ease, breathe with certainty and love compassionately.”

Words to live by.

~AC

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