July 2013

More than meets the eye

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

Chris Antonetti just held a press conference to discuss the Indians’ acquisition of a guy who was demoted to Triple-A by the Cardinals mere hours earlier.

ImageOn its face, this seems a silly reason to create such a formal setting, but, hey, it’s Trade Deadline season, Antonetti was in the building, reporters were in the building, and, so, why not get everybody together in one room to talk about the trade and joke about the difficulty of spelling Marc Rzepczynski’s name?

It struck me, though, that maybe these are the types of moves the Indians ought to be getting more attention for. Because if we’re being honest, with the exception of the organization-altering hire of Terry Francona last October, the reason the Indians remain firmly in the playoff hunt here at the end of July is not because of the moves that earned them the most discussion, ink and Internet bandwidth.

If anything, the Indians are where they are in spite of the difficulty endured by their most high-profile acquisitions.

As of this writing, Nick Swisher’s batting .218 with a .634 OPS since the first of June. Michael Bourn’s .337 on-base percentage is actually two points lower than that of Tribe leadoff men a year ago, and he’s stolen just 13 bases in 21 attempts. Mark Reynolds’ bat, after a transcendent April, became the Indians’ equivalent of Amelia Earhart’s plane or Jimmy Hoffa’s body. It has simply vanished off the face of the earth, and so, too, has Brett Myers (though I’m not sure the latter disappearance is all that regrettable). The Shin-Soo Choo trade has been notable more for the speed and defense supplied by Drew Stubbs than anything we’ve seen out of the much-more-touted Trevor Bauer, who might not pitch up here again this season after his pitching-from-the-stretch shenanigans in Chicago.

Point is, the guys we put so much emphasis on in the offseason have been but bit players in an Indians season that has been nothing if not entertaining and, it turns out, mathematically meaningful, too.

Certainly, the exceeding of external expectations has come about because some core pieces — chiefly, Justin Masterson, Jason Kipnis, Michael Brantley and Carlos Santana — have taken needed developmental steps (Santana’s defense notwithstanding) and because Ubaldo Jimenez has been at least a passable fifth starter type. But it’s also come about because some completely overlooked acquisitions — Corey Kluber from the 2010 Jake Westbrook trade, Zach McAllister from the ’10 Austin Kearns trade, Mike Aviles and Yan Gomes in last winter’s Esmil Rogers trade, and Jason Giambi, Scott Kazmir and Ryan Raburn from the scrap heap — have played their respective roles with aplomb. It’s made for a team altogether more interesting than the sum of its parts.

“If you talk about building a culture Imageor a tradition, Tampa is a prime example,” Giambi said. “The way they play as a unit is unbelievable. Longo [Evan Longoria] is the central piece, and they have this cast of players that are all about winning. What they’ve done over there is something you look at and want to build. That’s what I think we’re building here.”

Giambi himself is a prime example of the positive effects of the Tribe’s team-building approach. He’s hitting a buck-ninety-seven. But sometimes it seems each and every one of his 17 hits has come in a big spot. Arguably, none was bigger than the walkoff shot to beat the White Sox here Monday night, when Giambi became the oldest player in history to hit a game-ending homer (45 days older than Hank Aaron was when Hammerin’ Hank hit one in 1976). And Giambi has, of course, been a glue guy off the field, which you knew going into the year.

“It’s a dream when you can create something special and be a part of it,” Giambi said. “That’s what anybody longs for in life. That’s the exciting part. To be part of a unit is, to me, gratifying. There’s not many things in life you get to go 25 guys in one direction. It’s hard to find. To get two people to go in the same direction can be hard.”

This is a team that’s been awfully difficult to explain. A team that can go into the funkiest of funks yet come out better for it. A team that has received nowhere near the return expected out of this ownership’s unexpectedly (and unprecedentedly) aggressive offseason investment yet carries on all the same.

It’s a strange team, but baseball’s a strange game. Four years ago next week, Jose Veras was designated for assignment by the Indians. He had to go, because the Tribe had to make room for… Jess Todd. Four years later, Veras, fresh off a successful stint as closer on a bad Astros team, is lauded as a prized acquisition for the Tigers, who will use him as their seventh-inning guy.

On Tuesday, the Indians responded not by acquiring the top-end starter they might have coveted (and might very well need) or even by landing a veteran LOOGY with a desirable 2013 track record.

No, they landed the Scrabble man, a guy appealing more for his arbitration status (he’s under club control through 2015), his ’11 postseason success, his bound-to-improve BABIP and his Triple-A splits than anything you’d glean from his 2013 numbers.

It was not a sexy acquisition. Which, on this team, can only mean it was a genius one.

~AC

“Got to begin again”

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

Questions facing the Indians as the second half — ceremonial as it may be — arrives:

1. Do they add a frontline starter?

At the moment, I doubt it, only because of the quality of starters purportedly available and the fact that so few teams are currently identifying themselves as sellers. There is little sense in the Indians going all-in on a short-term fix like Matt Garza. This team is built to contend beyond just 2013, and it’s definitely doubtful they’d be able to lock up Garza beyond 2013.

budnorrisStill, the Indians could benefit from another starting arm atop the rotation. Not that getting Zach McAlllister back won’t be a huge boost. Not that Corey Kluber hasn’t been encouraging. Not that Danny Salazar didn’t grab everybody’s attention in his big-league debut. But the rotation lacks the kind of tangible track records that would make you feel better about the postseason potential.

As far as outside options are concerned, Yovani Gallardo strikes me as Ubaldo 2.0, except without the absurdly excellent half a season Ubaldo had put together at the start of 2010. Rising pitch counts and declining velocity are not a good combo, and there would be questions about how well Gallardo would transition to the American League. On the bright side, he’s under contractual control for $11.25 million for 2014, which is not all that unreasonable given the market conditions.

Bud Norris seems to make more sense. He has already made the transition to the AL and has a 3.63 ERA at the break, though his WHIP has risen and his K/BB ratio has lowered. Still, he keeps the ball in the yard, he’s averaging six innings per start and he’s making just $3 million this year with two more arbitration seasons looming. That’s the kind of guy the Indians need to be targeting, to the extent that they’re going to pull the trigger on a deal at all. Maybe they’ll feel more comfortable going with what they’ve got. It would be hard to blame them, given the costs of an upgrade. We’ll see.

2. Can they fix the bullpen?

The bullpen has not been the team strength it once was, though Chris Perez’s numbers since his return (0.90 ERA, .216 average against) have been extraordinarily encouraging. The guy who worries you is Vinnie Pestano, because (and understand I’m only speculating here) it’s hard to believe he’s not fighting his way through some sort of physical limitation. Undoubtedly, ramping up quickly for the World Baseball Classic did him no favors. Whatever the case, not having Pestano settled into that eighth inning exposes Joe Smith to more wear and tear, and the Indians have to be careful with Cody Allen’s innings in his first full season. So you can sense the need for another setup option, though I’m not sure the Indians are inclined to delve too deeply into that market. What I do expect is for them to at least explore another left-handed setup option, because the trade market affords quite a few of those, as MLB Trade Rumors breaks down.

3. Do they trade Asdrubal Cabrera?

This question — one that came to the forefront upon Buster Olney’s speculation last week about a potential match between the Indians and Cardinals — prompts a question:

Now?

Listen, not that my opinion matters even the slightest, but I’ve been on the “trade Asdrubal” bandwagon (if such a thing exists) since the end of ’11. I thought, at the time, that his value would never be higher.

asdrubalI remained convinced they ought to trade Asdrubal last winter, when it seemed the Indians, with Mike Aviles in hand and questions about their status as true contenders hanging in the air, could take advantage of a weaker-than-weak free-agent shortstop market.

And however this 2013 season turns out, I’ll remain in favor of moving Asdrubal elsewhere, because he’ll still have trade value and the Tribe has reasonable bridges on-hand and on the farm to get to the Francisco Lindor era (with front-office fingers crossed in the hope that the Lindor era is more fruitful than, say, the Andy Marte era).

But right now, the Indians are in the thick of a division race or, at worse, a Wild Card race, and as much as it might make long-term baseball sense to deal Asdrubal for a top-end pitching prospect, that deal makes little sense in the immediate. I know he’s having a subpar season, and I know there are questions and concerns about the Tribe’s ability to hang in this division race. But they’ve made it this far, and dealing your starting shortstop/weakening your bench would be an awfully difficult sell to that clubhouse.

Again, I get trading Asdrubal, and I expect the Indians to do their due diligence and explore his worth. I just don’t necessarily agree with trading him now.

4. What are they going to get out of Nick Swisher and Mark Reynolds?

Reynolds is batting .178 with a .532 OPS since May 7. Swisher is batting .192 with a .587 OPS since May 30. These are completely arbitrary endpoints on my part, but there’s enough distance between the endpoints to make you sweat a little bit, if you’re Terry Francona. Swisher’s shoulder situation can’t possibly be helping matters, and Reynolds is a guy prone toward boom and busts. But because there is little reason to believe the Indians are going to target a position player before the Trade Deadline, it’s incumbent upon these two to perform up to their perceived par. The Indians have actually scored the sixth-most runs per game in the Majors since June 1, but it was a fundamentally deeper offense when Reynolds was on a prodigious pace and Swisher was serving as a serviceable No. 4. They don’t need either of those guys performing out of their minds. But they need something.

5. How illustrative is the record against the Tigers?

The Indians are 3-9 against the Tigers, but the Tigers are 43 and 39 against everybody else. So there’s the difference in your division race, right there. If you’re going to beat them, you’ve got to beat them. The perceived schedule strengths of these two clubs are fairly similar, so there’s no denying the importance of Aug. 5-8 at Progressive Field and Aug. 30-Sept. 1 at Comerica Park.

Most of us are assuming the Tigers will outlast the Indians on pure talent level in the rotation and lineup. That’s not a knock on the Tribe, just the reality of a Little Caesar’s-aided investment on the part of Mike Ilitch. But the Indians still have the ability to alter that opinion, and it starts with the head-to-heads.

~AC

“No matter what I do, ain’t good enough for you”

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

ubaldoroyals

They ask themselves the question in the Indians’ front office, and the fact that it’s a question at all gives us a hint at the answer:

Is this rotation good enough?

Good enough to outlast the Tigers in the American League Central race? Good enough to survive a postseason series?

Look, the Tribe rotation has been better than anybody — even those in the front office — could have reasonably expected, given the circumstances, and that’s one reason the Indians find themselves in the division race post-Independence Day.

Going into the season, there was simply not enough track record or tangible upside to label the rotation anything other than a work in progress. And there has been progress, no question.

Justin Masterson is the ace he was in ’11. Ubaldo Jimenez needs about 30 pitches to complete an inning (and he certainly didn’t complete that sixth inning Thursday in Kansas City), but he’s not the total train wreck he had been for too much of his Tribe tenure. Scott Kazmir has made an incredible comeback, Corey Kluber has shown some flashes of strike-throwing brilliance and Zach McAllister will provide a second-half boost, provided he’s not dealing with the fickle finger of fate, a la Adam Miller.

These are good things.

But is that good enough?

Well, quite possibly not, which is why the Tribe’s primary trade target will be an area that’s costly and tricky to target. While the offense has shown a streaky side borne out of some instability in the Nos. 3 and 4 spots, it’s deep, balanced and multi-faceted enough to be left alone. While the bullpen has been a shell of its former self, the left-handed hole so evident in setup situations is likely repairable without sacrificing the future of the franchise.

The rotation, though, is tricky, and right now Chris Antonetti and Co. are weighing the benefits of going all-in on upgrading it.

They know they have depth. They know that with McAllister on the mend and Trevor Bauer and Carlos Carrasco on the farm, they have enough bodies to get by, if nothing else.

But do they have the horses to truly tango with the Tigers down the stretch? If the season was at stake in a late-September, three-game series, how would the Indians’ best three match up against the opposition’s best three?

The problem with this rotation right now is that it can’t be trusted to take the pressure off a beleaguered bullpen. The fundamental difference between the Indians’ rotation and that of the Tigers is that Tribe starters have recorded an out in the seventh inning 31 times while the Tigers’ starters have done so 45 times. That’s the kind of difference that’s going to assert itself over the course of 162.

With the Trade Deadline now less than four weeks away, the Indians would love to address that issue, if they can find a fit. They see no point in looking for back-of-the-rotation alternatives, because they already have plenty of those. Adding a veteran merely for the sake of adding a veteran solves nothing (and in the case of Brett Myers, it cost $7 million more than nothing).

We know the names in the rumor mill, for whatever that’s worth, and the list of No. 1-3 types is predictably short. Cliff Lee makes too much money, Jake Peavy likely won’t be dealt within the division, Ricky Nolasco is probably going to command a significant overpay. Jason Vargas would be a nice improvement if he was healthy (he’s not), as would Matt Garza. But the Indians never envisioned 2013 as an all-or-nothing effort, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see them place more emphasis on guys like Bud Norris, Jeff Samardzija and Yovani Gallardo, who are contractually controlled beyond this season.

Two years ago, the Indians were in a similar situation at this point in the calendar, leading the Tigers by a game and a half after the Fourth and searching for more starting stability. They wound up dealing their top two pitching prospects for Ubaldo, comfortable with the knowledge that he’d be around through at least 2012, with two team options beyond.

Well, to pull off a move of similar import (and hopefully of more impact), the Indians would have to get quite a bit more creative, for the majority of their prominent prospects are in Double-A or lower. They do, however, have a decent stash of middle-of-the-diamond talent (Francisco Lindor, Dorssys Paulino, Tyler Naquin, Ronny Rodriguez, Luigi Rodriguez, Tony Wolters), so an impact trade is not out of the question.

It’s incredibly difficult to imagine the Indians trading Lindor, but, then again, it was equally difficult to imagine them trading Drew Pomeranz two years ago. There is a growing suspicion, internally and otherwise, that the Tribe’s overall roster composition is more legit this year than it was in ’11. And postseason opportunities are precious, so you can’t rule anything out.

The Indians have a chance, but they also have a need that becomes a little more apparent just about every time a starter not named Justin Masterson takes the mound. This rotation is better than expected, but is it good enough? Right now, the Indians are asking themselves how far they’re willing to go to address that question.

~AC

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