February 2014

“You know the man could blow an educated axe”

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

We talked – well, OK, I talked – a little bit yesterday about the John Axford signing, which not only allowed the Indians to keep Cody Allen in a lower-profile role but also, potentially, suppresses Allen’s eventual arbitration worth.

I like the Axford signing. As I’ve written here, the importance of “proven closers” is drastically overstated, and, as the Indians proved with the Kerry Wood signing some years back, it is all-too-easy to waste your money on the ninth inning.

But in today’s climate, a $4.5 million investment in someone who has had success in the role before and who showed drastic improvement at the tail end of an otherwise rough 2013 is a worthwhile move, particularly if it does positively impact your future financial bottom line with a young guy like Allen.

ImageAxford’s a great story — a Canuck who got dumped by the Yankees in 2007 and spent the next couple years selling cell phones and bartending (“I actually made more money bartending than I did playing Minor League baseball,” he told me in 2011). He held an open audition for scouts and, because of a snowstorm, only one showed up. The guy was from the Brewers, and he liked Axford. The Brew Crew signed him, encouraged some mechanical adjustments and, by the end of 2009, was in the big leagues. He was an almost instant hit with fans for his facial hair and Twitter movie reviews. He learned a lot about work ethic and preparation and pacing yourself from the great Trevor Hoffman. And in 2011, Axford was one of the best closers in baseball, on a Brewers club that reached the NLCS.

Well, as so often happens with relievers, the story went a little flat after that. Axford had a 4.67 ERA in 2012, and he had a 4.45 ERA in 62 appearances in 2013 when the Cardinals claimed him off waivers in late August.

All right, so this takes us to the latest twist in the story — one that has been regurgitated several times in recent weeks. As Axford told Paul Hoynes of the Northeast Ohio Media Group, he arrived in St. Louis and was immediately informed by the Cardinals’ coaches that he had been tipping his pitches:

“The fact that their coaching staff knew, that their players knew and that they could point it out and show me on video,” Axford said, “definitely opened my mind, and I realized I needed to change a few things.”

Something must have changed, because Axford had a 1.74 ERA in 13 games for the Cards, and he had a 1.42 ERA with 18 strikeouts against six walks in 12 2/3 innings in October.

But it’s never really that simple, is it? I talked to Brewers GM Doug Melvin about Axford recently, after the National Post first reported the tipping-pitches thing, and this is what he said about it:

“We talked about it with him in May. I saw that article, and it’s funny because the Cardinals hitters never hit Axford.”

It’s true, you know. For all his struggles with the Brewers last season, Axford had a 1.17 ERA in seven appearances against the Cards, who hit .240 with a .663 OPS against him. In his career, Axford limited the Cards to a .204 average and .581 OPS against. The only issue is that he walked 20 batters in 27 2/3 innings.

So you really have to wonder how much of an issue the pitch-tipping was, at least as it pertained to St. Louis. No telling if other teams had picked up on it.

If nothing else, though, at least the Cards were effective in getting Axford to rethink his ways.

“I don’t know what they did to convince him to make the change,” Melvin said. “I had the same question as you: Why didn’t we identify that? But our coaches had identified something in May. Sometimes those things happen.”

Well, I don’t know who or what to believe there, but it is true that sometimes guys need a wake-up call such as a trade before they’re open to new interpretations of what might work for them. Thing is, Axford gave up five home runs in the first week of last season and just six the rest of the way, so his numbers are inherently skewed by his poor start. Over time, he threw more strikes, probably gained more confidence and then was presented with a rival’s scouting report that seemed to open his eyes and helped rebuild his value. Suffice it to say the Indians don’t sign Axford as their closer if he doesn’t finish 2013 the way he did, so, hey, whatever works.

That storyline about tipping pitches, though, strikes me as a little too simplistic, particularly given the statistical evidence against it. Axford is an asset not because he benefited from a Super Secret Scouting Report bestowed upon him by the St. Louis gods but because he routinely hits the mid-90s on the radar gun and, when he’s on, spots his pitches. And guys who can do that and are open to instruction on how to maximize that skill will be successful at this level, more often than not.

“People think you can find closers anywhere,” Melvin said. “Problem is, you may go through five guys to get there. Every team is going to win 60 games, and, out of those 60 games, somebody’s going to save 30 of them. It’s the extra 15-18 saves that are the difference-makers in the tight games.”

Axford has been a difference-maker before, and maybe, with rediscovered confidence, he can be one again. With any luck, the experience with the Cards was the beginning of him reclaiming his status as one of the game’s more effective ninth-inning options.

But a bullpen, ultimately, is only as good as its options and its ability to exploit matchups. The Axford signing isn’t a good one because he overcame his pitch-tipping plight to become the second coming of Mo Rivera. It’s a good signing because $4.5 million is an entirely reasonable sum to buy time for guys like Allen or C.C. Lee (and I still can’t believe that freaking name) or Vinnie Pestano or maybe even Carlos Carrasco to settle into the season without being instantly thrusted and trusted in the ninth.


“Sooner or later, it all comes down to money”

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

ImageThe money matters involving the Indians are always interesting to me because, well, the money matters. Every last dime of it.

This was a club that was able to stomach a decline in attendance last season (a playoff club drawing just 1.5 million fans in a town that will bend over backward to express belief, in word and in dollars, in an NFL franchise that has now burned through eight coaches and seven general managers since 1999 with only one playoff game to show for it, but of course I run-on and digress…) if only because of the accordant rise in revenue that came from the limitation of promotional freebies and the selective ballpark staffing made possible by the “buy early and save” dynamic pricing strategy.

Oh, sure, the sale of STO allowed a pump-up to the payroll, and a protected Draft pick allowed the Tribe to capitalize on a flawed compensation system. But that was a one-time free-agent feast. Fiscal responsibility remains the backbone of the Indians’ ballclub-building business, and it has been fascinating, in recent days, to watch how that mindset applies to the current clubhouse.

You know, of course, that Vinnie Pestano became the answer to perhaps the world’s nerdiest trivia question last weekend when he became the first Indians player to go to an arbitration hearing since Greg Swindell and Jerry Browne in 1991.

(Man, even though I’ve been off the Tribe beat for several seasons, I find it odd that this is likely the last time I’ll be using Greg Swindell and Jerry Browne in the same sentence. We had a nice run, fellas.)

Josh Tomlin’s on deck, with a scheduled hearing Friday.

Pestano lost his case, with a frustrating reassignment to the Minors in 2013 (as well as a slight second-half decline in 2012) serving as the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s… bid for $1.45 million. But Vinnie P. still nearly doubled his 2013 salary. And although the experience exposed him to the ugly details of the process, which, as he told our Jordan Bastian, included the use of his own words in the press against him (and perhaps this explains Raffy Perez’s consistent silence lo those many years in the Tribe ‘pen), a victory in the hearing room might have put him on an even shorter leash, in the long run, than the ones typically afforded right-handed relievers whose unorthodox mechanics made them low-profile Draft picks in the first place. 

Tomlin is in a similar situation, and it’s a tough situation to be in while trying to secure a spot in the Opening Day rotation. It would be surprising to see his $975,000 request upheld after spending most of 2013 recovering from elbow surgery, but I suppose stranger things have happened. The more pertinent point, in the long frame, is that the Indians have, at least on a situation-specific basis, embraced a file-and-trial strategy that, more often than not, works, as SI’s Ben Reiter recently explained. And if it takes a public quibble over the relative pittance of $175,000, well, then so be it.

What’s not so new, of course, is the Indians’ embrace of the in-house extension — a practice they didn’t invent but did master in the 1990s. They nailed one down with Michael Brantley earlier this week, and, personally, I’m split on the merits of that “Smooth” move.

ImageBrantley is steady and speedy and amenable to lineup changes. He’s a genuinely good dude and the only asset of any value to come out of the CC Sabathia swap. But now his future value is intrinsically tied to a $25 million guarantee. The contract is a reasonable estimation of Brantley’s arbitration worth should he maintain his 2012-13 output (.286/.340/.399 with 29 steals in 42 attempts and average outfield defense) over the next three seasons, and it buys out his first free-agent season (2017) at a rate below current market value.

But it also leaves little to no wiggle room for injury or regression, and unless Brantley suddenly discovers a power stroke that has not yet revealed itself or becomes a bigger asset on the basepaths (a la his Minor League days), you struggle to see where he’d <i>exceed the value of this commitment, outside of that 2017 season that, in baseball terms, is a long ways away.

I guess what I’m saying is a player like Brantley, consistent though he may be, is often the kind of guy who you’re willing to go through the arbitration process with, because that allows you to ensure his year-to-year salary is commensurate with his most recent worth.

(That said, I’m happy for “Dr. Smooth,” because he’s one of my favorites, no matter what you might think of his nickname.)

Jason Kipnis, on the other hand, is a guy who more commonly profiles as a prime extension candidate in his pre-arb years, for he is a middle-of-the-diamond talent whose performance drastically exceeds the league average at his position (by 33 percent last year). Kipnis’ openness to the idea of an extension is one the Indians are naturally going to explore this spring, just as they did last spring. But as Charlie Wilmoth of MLB Trade Rumors helpfully points out in this piece, there is an argument to be made against locking up a second baseman who won’t hit free agency until his age-31 season (Kipnis turns 27 in April), because the position is fraught with the risk for regression. A compelling point.

ImageAnd what of Justin Masterson, whose contractual situation has been perhaps the most interesting plot point of an otherwise tame Tribe winter? Certainly, you always want to make every effort to lock up your staff ace, particularly given what’s lined up in the pipeline. But the sizable, $3.75 million gap between Masterson’s request ($11.8 million) and the Indians’ offer ($8.05 million) only illustrates how difficult his value is to pin down at present, if only because his excellent 2011 and 2013 seasons did not come in succession.

Still, Masterson’s been durable, and he’s overcome the stigma that his splits might make him more effective as a relief option than a starting one. Trouble is, he’s too tantalizingly close to free agency to go overboard in his generosity at the bargaining table. The Draft pick compensation issue that has cratered Ubaldo Jimenez’s market has to be a point of concern for Masterson, because a 2012-like year could put him in a similar situation (assuming, of course, the Indians would make a qualifying offer at that point). But anything resembling his 2013 effort would probably solve that problem, because his track record doesn’t vary between two extremes the way Ubaldo’s (and Ervin Santana’s) does. Personally, I think he’d fare well.

All right, one last monetary matter, while I’m obsessing over the subject. The Indians signed John Axford to a one-year, $4.5 million contract to make him the closer. And the move made sense as a cost-effective option that allows Cody Allen to remain in a less-pressure-packed setup role, where he can hopefully continue to thrive.

But was that the totality of the thinking behind the deal? Here’s an interesting article from Matthew Murphy at the Hardball Times that paints this kind of move in a bit of a different light. It’s tailored to the A’s acquisition of Jim Johnson, but it certainly applies to Axford, as well.

The point of the piece? Signing a so-called “proven closer” at a price you’re comfortable with protects you from having a young kid put together an arbitration profile that you’re uncomfortable with. The arbitration process is all-too-tied to the antiquated notion of the value of saves, and suppressing that stat means suppressing the dollars doled out to an arb-eligible reliever.

Well, something to chew on. Soon enough, though, they’ll be suiting up for marginally meaningful games out in Arizona and we can stop talking about money matters.

For a little while, anyway.