October 2012

“The ties that bind”

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

What’s happening in Cleveland is a testament, first and foremost, to the value of strong relationships.

Baseball, like any other business, is built on them. And for Terry Francona, the relationship with the men who make the Indians’ personnel decisions began on a hotel treadmill at the Winter Meetings many years ago and a couple managerial stops ago.

Francona and Mark Shapiro got to talking in the workout room, and their conversations have evolved steadily over the years. On Friday, the conversation was about the Indians’ managerial vacancy, and on Saturday, the announcement was that Francona had accepted it.

For the Indians, this is quite a managerial coup. They’ve averaged less than $60 million in player payroll over the last three years, they’re coming off a 94-loss season and their upper-level Minor League talent is, shall we say, suspect.

Add up those factors, and this ordinarily would not be the type of job a Terry Francona — a two-time World Series winner with a resplendent reputation — would touch.

But the relationship has remained steady and sturdy, even as many changes have taken place in Francona’s life and the Indians’ various ups and downs. When the Phillies fired Francona in 2000, Shapiro, the Tribe’s newly appointed general manager, scooped him up in a special assistant role. When Francona interviewed for the Red Sox job, Shapiro and his then-assistant, Chris Antonetti, helped prep him.

They didn’t prep him for Friday’s interview; they didn’t need to. Francona’s enthusiasm for this position – enthusiasm that surprised some – was all the Indians needed to move forward. Yes, Sandy Alomar Jr. was fit for this role, and I was definitely among those touting him. But that backing was fixated on the faulty premise that Francona wouldn’t actually be interested. That he was served to surprise, though, in retrospect, perhaps it shouldn’t have, given the relationship base he’s built with the front office and his family lineage in Indians baseball.

All Francona needed was some assurance of stability. A four-year guarantee buys him that, and in recent days Francona had let on that such a guarantee is worth more than the money alone.

Now that this personal relationship between Francona and the Indians’ higher-ups has led to a more formal one, it is, of course, Francona’s job to start building relationships with the young faces on the Tribe roster. And the front office is supplied with the likely more difficult task of building up the talent level of a team aching in the one area that is most difficult to alleviate – starting pitching.

That’s why the question of whether or not Francona can win in Cleveland trends more toward “when” than “if.” There is some thought that Francona wouldn’t have taken this job without some assurances that the Indians plan to expand their player payroll. Perhaps that’s true, though more than a decade-long track record from the Dolan family of not vastly outspending projected revenues speaks for itself, and revenues from a 2012 season in which the Indians finished next-to-last in the attendance tally weren’t exactly robust. Neither are the projections for 2013.

What people need to understand is that a jump from the $60 million range to the $80 million range, even if applied appropriately, might only buy a club another win or two. Even a seismic increase in the payroll department — and that’s not going to happen in one of the game’s smallest markets, unless there’s some franchise-altering regional television deal on the horizon of which I’m completely unaware — means nothing if it’s not backed by solid baseball decisions.

Fact is, the Indians could have survived quite well (particularly in the AL Central) on their present payroll, had the personnel decisions — from the CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee and Ubaldo Jimenez trades to the amateur Drafts — not turned out so consistently unproductive in recent years.

Time will tell, as it tends to do, but this Francona hiring feels like a significant step in another, more positive direction in the decision-making. It is, however, only a small step, for the Indians are clearly much more than a manager away from contention.

But if the Indians wanted a clubhouse culture change, they’ve found it. If they wanted a guy fans can respect, a guy whose beliefs they can buy into, they’ve got one.

The Indians knew quite well, when they began the process of replacing Manny Acta, what they’d have in Terry Francona if they could get him to come aboard. And now that he’s agreed, this already long-term relationship is really just beginning.

~AC

“What to leave in, what to leave out”

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

The guy in the Travis Hafner shirt, doing pushups in the cardio room? He thinks the Indians should keep Travis Hafner.

The guys in the weight room, over there by the crossover cables? They’re intrigued by Russ Canzler.

It was an interesting experience at my local gym the other day, because people were talking about the Cleveland Indians. And while this might not sound strange, given that, you know, we were actually in Cleveland, I can assure you this was, indeed, a rare occasion, considering we’re in the middle of the NFL season and the end of an MLB season in which the Indians lost 94 games.

But it just goes to show you that there are two types of teams that attract heated discussion — those in the thick of the race, and those who are so far out of it that you can make a case for overhauling every element, right down to the bat boy.

In the former instance, every fan is a manager. They offer their opinion on each call to the ‘pen, each pinch-hit opportunity, each lineup, because every game, every inning, every last matter of minutia matters.

In the latter , every fan is an owner or a GM. They know who to hire, who to fire, who to trade and who to sign.

So, yeah, the Indians, as hard as they’ve been to watch these last couple months, have been pretty easy to discuss. Because there are plenty of talking points at play here and plenty of decisions for this front office to make in the coming weeks and months.

With that in mind, let the following serve as an addition to the discussion. Here, in my view, are the 10 most pressing, pertinent and possibly perplexing personnel issues facing the Indians in the coming weeks.

TERRY FRANCONA/SANDY ALOMAR JR.: We can’t rule out the possibility that others get involved in the managerial search, but for now all we can do is focus on these two. And if Francona is as interested in this job as he’s been telling people, I humbly and happily rescind everything I wrote in this space a week ago. I think Alomar is absolutely deserving of this opportunity, and I think a team in the Indians’ position – a team that will be young, by default, in 2013 – can afford to go with a rookie skipper. But if Francona really wants in, I think you’ve got to bring him aboard.

That’s just my opinion, of course, and it’s easy to offer that opinion when it’s not your money. Francona made $4 million in Boston. No manager is going to make that much here. So this particular personnel decision might ultimately rest with him and his willingness (or lack thereof) to take a significant pay cut. It has been noted that this might be the only job available to Francona this offseason, depending on how things shake out, and that could certainly play a part.

But there is plenty of speculation in the industry that if the Tigers don’t win the World Series, they’ll part ways with Jim Leyland (and for all we know, Leyland might make like his close friend Tony La Russa and go out on top even if they win). The Tigers job would be an extremely attractive one for a proven skipper like Francona. Ultimately, this might all come down to timing. But even if the Indians don’t land Francona, they could do a lot, lot worse than Alomar for this job.

SHIN-SOO CHOO: One of the more genuine players I’ve covered. Genuinely cares about his performance, genuinely cares about winning, genuinely wants to represent South Korea well and genuinely felt embarrassed and accountable when he made that dumb decision the night of his DUI. And there’s another genuine quality to Choo, too: He genuinely wants to take advantage of his market worth when the opportunity presents itself, and he, of course, has every right to do so.

I’m not sure that worth will be quite as staggering as some assume, given that his continuing struggles against left-handed pitching keep him well short of superstar status, and he’ll be 31 when he hits free agency. But by now, the Indians have to know where they stand with Choo and Scott Boras on this issue. And if they can flip Choo for near-Major League ready starting pitching or corner outfield help, that’s a move they have to make at this juncture. The question is: Will Choo’s trade value will be significantly greater this winter than it will be next July? Because any team that acquires him has to know he’s likely to test the market next winter.

CHRIS PEREZ: There is a mountain of evidence that suggests the Indians ought to trade this guy. From a results standpoint, closers are an erratic bunch, by nature. This particular closer brings in the added element of saying or doing whatever feels right at any given moment, sometimes crossing that fine line between passion and recklessness. He’ll also come with a price tag likely north of $7 million this season. For a team that had somewhere in the neighborhood of a $66 million payroll at the outset of this season, that’s an awfully high percentage to invest in a ninth-inning arm.

But Perez’s ever-growing reputation likely isn’t helping his trade value, which might have peaked around the time the Tribe opted to stand pat in late July. Joel Hanrahan is at least one other closing option that could be made available in what could well become a crowded market. So while the evidence says trade Perez, it’s not necessarily a slam-dunk decision for the Tribe.

ASDRUBAL CABRERA: He’s going to make $6.5 million in 2013 and $10 million in 2014. The Indians aren’t in a position where they need to shed payroll, but they are in a position where they need to bring in some controllable, projectable pieces, even if it means parting with what few marketable talents they have on-hand. Cabrera would seem to be an attractive trade chip.

JUSTIN MASTERSON: Sure, you have to at least explore his market worth. But this would definitely be a “sell low” situation, so it’s probably not the best time the pull the trigger.

TRAVIS HAFNER: The Indians have mercifully reached the end of the largest — and, as it turned out, most cumbersome — contract they’ve ever handed out.

Well, almost.

The buyout of Hafner’s $13 million option for 2013 will cost the Tribe $2.75 million. Though I freely admit I could be completely off-base, it’s hard for me to imagine the Indians paying Hafner $2.75 million to play elsewhere (or nowhere) next season.

What, realistically, is Hafner’s open market worth? If, just for the sake of discussion, we follow FanGraphs’ rationale that a win is  is worth roughly $5 million in free agency and Hafner, with all his injury issues, has a 0.7 WAR this season, then he might be worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $3.5 million, tops (this, by the way, is extremely debatable). If you’re going to be paying him the bulk of that anyway, is it worth it to keep Hafner around in the part-time role he’s suited for? Otherwise, with $2.75 million already doled out to Pronk, what is your best, most realistic, most cost-effective DH option in free agency? A 42-year-old Jim Thome? Or do you just rotate position players through your DH spot? And if so, do you have the kind of depth necessary — i.e. nine position players worthy of 500 ABs — to make that worth your while?

I think the vast majority of Tribe fans are simply done with Hafner. They’ve seen enough. (That guy at the gym in the Hafner shirsey is one of the few exceptions to the rule.) But 2013 might — emphasis on might — be the first time in a long, long time that Hafner’s salary is commensurate with his value, and I can’t help but wonder if the Indians will take advantage of that.

UBALDO JIMENEZ: There’s no other way to put it: The Big U has gone backward in his time with the Indians. They thought they could fix his mechanical flaws, but his performance regressed. He thought a happier environment would propel him to his past success, but the only difference is that he’s in a better mood between lousy starts. And despite all that regression, he stands to get a significant pay raise, to $5.75 million, if the Indians pick up his 2013 option.

What a country.

To decline the option would cost the Indians $1 million for the buyout, and ordinarily this would be a no-brainer. Except you might have noticed that the Indians don’t exactly have a staggering number of bodies lined up to make starts for them in the Majors next season, and that roughly $5 million saved on Jimenez won’t buy them much in the market (See: Lowe, Derek).

CARLOS SANTANA: Catcher or first base? There are few things in this game as valuable as the middle-of-the-order hitter who also serves as your catcher. But what if that hitter regresses at the plate and provides only average value behind it?

I can’t tell you that the regression in production we’ve seen from Santana this season is directly tied to him catching. But I do know the wear and tear can’t possibly help. Santana’s offense improved in the second half, and that’s encouraging. But he’s still not the dynamic lineup presence the Indians thought him to be or he seemed to be trending toward last year.

Santana works hard on his defense, and he’s gotten better this season. I’d say he’s about average. He threw out 26 percent of opposing baserunners this season – ranking him 15th among those with at least 70 starts at the position. According to Baseball Info Solutions, he provided two defensive runs saved (an improvement over his minus-6 mark of a year ago), and this ranked 13th.

Is that defense worth preserving if the position itself has any impact on Santana’s power and production on the offensive side? That’s a question the Indians grappled with a year ago. They opted for the best defensive infield alignment they could muster in signing Casey Kotchman, and he came as advertised as a terrific defender. But he also had one of the worst offensive seasons of any player at any position in the big leagues, so I’m not sure the tradeoff was worth it.

I’m not sure the Santana tradeoff is worth it, either.

RUSS CANZLER: All right, so Canzler probably doesn’t really present a “pressing” decision. But the need for left field and/or first base help for next season is glaring. The first step, of course, is to assess your in-house options. So… is this guy anything? And if so, where was he two months ago? I suppose the fact that he wasn’t in the bigs at that point is indicative of whether the Indians feel he’s a Guy or, you know, just a guy.

(Apropos of nothing: My wife saw Canzler come up to bat the other night and thought he slightly resembled a bearded Jon Hamm, “only not as attractive.” That’s no knock on Canzler, because I have the sneaking suspicion my wife doesn’t think anybody is as attractive as Jon Hamm, myself included.)

THE FRONT OFFICE: Chris Antonetti has built up too much equity in this organization to be dumped after two years on the GM job, but Antonetti would be the first to admit that the last year and a half has not gone particularly well for him on the decision-making front. So the Indians have to take a good gander at their structure, their personnel and their decision-making process and see if they might benefit from an assist from other voices brought in from the outside. Baseball men with different perspectives gleaned from different experiences in different organizations.

As Paul Cousineau of the DiaTribe points out in this piece, the Indians have shown a willingness to explore this possibility in the past, as they discussed bringing aboard Josh Byrnes in an advisory role in the fall of 2010, shortly before he wound up joining the Padres. Ironically, Cousineau’s piece came to the conclusion that Francona might be a fit for such a role. Turns out, he might have a decidedly more prominent one with the Tribe.

~AC

PS: Having just cited his work, I’m going to take this opportunity to thank Cousineau for his contributions to the Tribe scribing community over the years. Many of you who read this space also read Paul’s, and for good reason. His work is thorough and thought-provoking and, overall, fair. He’s the rare fan who doesn’t let his passion get in the way of his analysis. And I’m fortunate enough, through our mutual interest in spending an inordinate amount of time writing about the Indians, to have become good friends with him over time.

Well, Paul has decided to call it quits on the DiaTribe front, settling into a happy retirement focused on his day job and his wonderful family. I don’t blame him a bit, but I’ll miss reading his stuff (sometimes kicking myself when he presents a point I wish I had thought of first).

I hereby raise an imaginary Bombshell Blonde (a refreshing canned beer… check it out) to you, dear DiaTriber.

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