March 2014

“On with the show, this is it”

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

openingdayI like to look at the start of the 2014 season as our big, collective flip of the bird to Mother Nature here in midst of the Endless Winter.

Oh, sure, she pounded Cleveland with another spring snowstorm over the weekend, and it says here that she’s bound to wreak havoc on that sin of scheduling – Padres at Indians in the second week of April. But we’re doing this thing, Mother Nature. You can pause us, but you can’t stop us. We will make this work, come hell or high water (both of which, I’m sure, are in the forecast for the home opener).

The baseball season has begun, and it’s a highly anticipated season for your defending American League First of Two Possible Wild Card Spots champions.

Here are 14 thoughts as we enter ’14.

1. As a long-time advocate of getting Carlos Santana out of the backstop role and into a position where his power can be maximized, I’m happy to see that the third-base experiment was encouraging enough for the Indians to ride it into the season proper. Truth be told, it would have had to have been a total train-wreck for them NOT to go in this direction. This team needs flexibility, and the 27-year-old Santana is simply more valuable at third base than he’d be as a full-time DH, particularly given the way the Tribe utilizes its bench. Don’t underestimate the mental grind of the DH duties, especially for guys who aren’t eager to embrace the role.

2. Santana at third is not an ideal defensive arrangement, obviously (especially with Asdrubal Cabrera at short), but, then again, neither was having Lonnie Chisenhall at the hot corner (and to that point, color me skeptical about the whole “Chisenhall-as-late-game-defensive-sub” speculation). In a perfect world, Chisenhall would a full season’s worth of at-bats to determine whether or not he can succeed at this level. But on a team built to win now – and one so dependant on roster flexibility – that’s a tough sell in the present tense. I have no earthly idea what Francona is going to do with the Chiz Kid at the outset of this season (there are some people in the organization who have wondered for a while now if Chisenhall might need an Alex Gordon-like move to the outfield), but Chisenhall is obviously going to have to make every at-bat count.

3. This will be the year Jason Kipnis puts up two good halves. I’m not nearly as confident that Kipnis will sign an extension, but, given that he’s a second baseman under control through his age-30 season, I’m not sure I see the point of an extension right now, anyway.

4. For a team built to contend, the Indians sure have an awful lot riding on three guys – Corey Kluber, Zach McAlllister and Danny Salazar – with less than 100 big-league starts between them. The development of Salazar’s slider is particularly important, but his impact will again be somewhat limited by his workload.

5. That said, I’d be less worried about the rotation than about center field and right. That Michael Bourn has already injured the same hamstring he had surgically repaired at season’s end is an ominous start for a speed-dependent 31-year-old. And what the Indians will get out of the David Murphy/Ryan Raburn concoction in right is an absolute mystery.

6. The Indians learned so much about Yan Gomes last season. The six-year, $23 million investment they’re making in Gomes is not just an investment in last year’s .359 weighted on-base percentage at the plate or his 10.9 called-strike percentage and 40.8 caught stealing percentage behind it. The investment is in the attitude and aptitude Gomes displayed, his diligent work with Kevin Cash, Ty Van Burkleo and strength and conditioning coach Joe Kessler to improve every facet of his game and his routine. I think Gomes is going to be hard-pressed to maintain last year’s offensive numbers over the course of a full season, because enduring the grind of the everyday catching duties from the outset and almost doubling last year’s 322 plate appearances is going to be a big adjustment. But Gomes’ defensive value makes the extension worthwhile right off the bat, and the Indians know they’ve got a guy who won’t short-change them in his approach and preparation.

7. Obviously no surprise that the Indians went with Carlos Carrasco over Josh Tomlin in the rotation, given their respective Minor League options situations. But it will certainly be interesting to see how long of a leash Carrasco gets here. In the grand scheme, he’s only thrown 238 innings on the big-league stage, and FanGraphs.com goes into great detail here to explain why he might still be on the rise. Personally, I’m leaning toward the bullpen being the more realistic landing spot for Carrasco long-term, because we’ve seen how his mind plays tricks on him over the length of starts. I wouldn’t be shocked if he’s closing games as soon as the end of this season.

8. So who makes more Major League starts in 2014: Trevor Bauer or Shaun Marcum? I’m going with Marcum.

9. The bullpen should be fine. I’d write more, but previewing bullpens is even more fruitless than previewing the rest of this stuff.

10. When Nick Swisher arrived last year, I can’t tell you how many friends asked me, “Is this guy for real?” It was hard to know if the perpetually upbeat personality was factual or phony and, more to the point, if it would grow tired by season’s end. But what I’ve seen from Swisher is a genuine embrace of this team and this town. Passing out the “Unfinished Business” T-shirts, paying for a late-September fireworks display, getting in Kenny Lofton’s mug… Swisher’s passion is unquestioned. Now he just has to produce like the middle-of-the-order bat he is in this offense. Nobody’s balking at the nine straight seasons of 20-plus home runs. That’s a consistency you don’t see much in today’s game. But last year’s shoulder struggles are worrisome for a 33-year-old who has played at least 145 games every season since 2006. Swisher’s left shoulder appears to be healed, but it will remain an important source of monitoring and maintenance as the season progresses.

11. Can totally see Nyjer Morgan/Tony Plush following a Mark Reynolds-like timetable (OK, not that extreme) in which his impact is greatest in April.

12. We enter 2014 with the same question we’ve had about Michael Brantley since 2009: Is there more power in the tank? His .382 slugging percentage is the fourth-lowest among outfielders with 2,000 plate appearances since ’09.

13. Asdrubal in a contract year. So much of his panache is tied to his 2011 homer breakout, which is likely unrepeatable. Last year, his strikeout rate rose while his walk rate declined. He needs to be more selective, focus on making contact and forget the ’11 surge ever happened.

14. My gut says there will be meaningful baseball played at Progressive Field this September, in an AL Central division that ought to be more competitive. You can look this thing up and down, left and right and throw out all the projected records and numbers you want, but, in the end, that’s all that really matters.

~AC

“Better ask questions before you shoot”

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

It’s late at night as I write this, so I’m not going to waste our time by getting into the whole “Player A” vs. “Player B” game in which I wow you with the sleight of hand of statistics attached to anonymity.

Let’s just get right to it:

Justin Masterson (2011-13): 3.86 ERA, 615 1/3 IP, 100 ERA+, 1.313 WHIP, 2.24 K/BB, 0.6 HR/9, 3.71 xFIP

Jake Westbrook (2004-06): 4.01 ERA, 637 2/3 IP, 108 ERA+, 1.325 WHIP, 2.00 K/BB, 0.7 HR/9, 3.86 xFIP

These stats beg the question: What is Justin Masterson?

ImageWell, he’s the ace of the Indians, right?

Why, yes, of course he is. Masterson’s value to this organization in the immediate is considerable, particularly in the wake of Ubaldo Jimenez cashing in on his Mickey Callaway-aided overhaul and Trevor Bauer trending dangerously close to the “S” (or possibly, depending on your particular opinion, the “T”) in the game of B-U-S-T and Carlos Carrasco still looking like he might very well be bullpen material and so much unknown about the staying power of Corey Kluber and Zach McAllister or the secondary stuff of Danny Salazar and the presumption that there isn’t a secret assembly line pumping out another Salazar or two down in Akron and Columbus.

Add to that the influence he infuses, the clubhouse clout he wields and the generally pleasant personality he provides, and Masterson’s importance is unquestioned.

With the notable caveat that it ain’t my money, I was among the many in favor of the Indians taking Masterson up on his proposal of a shorter-term (and we now learn, via Ken Rosenthal, that it was a three-year deal with a lower average annual value than Homer Bailey’s $17.5 million arrangement with the Reds) contract, because, eternal optimist that I am, I think Masterson’s 2014 will more closely resemble his 2013 than his 2012.

But at a time when so many Tribe fans are shaking their fist at their Twitter feed and joining what DiaTriber Paul Cousineau used to call the “Dolanz R Cheep” chorus, I do think a little context counts. After all, we are all products of our times and subjects of our specific circumstances. And when you look at those above numbers, you are reminded that our perception of Masterson is significantly weighted in what’s surrounding him.

In 2014, Justin Masterson is an ace to the Indians.

In 2007, in an Indians clubhouse that contained CC Sabathia and the Artist Formerly Known as Fausto Carmona and the seeds of Cliff Lee, Justin Masterson would have been Jake Westbrook (albeit with a better strikeout rate).

ImageAnd understand, there was value in Jake Westbrook. So much value, in fact, that the Indians signed him to a three-year, $33 million extension before that ’07 season (the extension was added to his pre-existing deal running through ’07 and therefore went through 2010), knowing full well that their chances of extending CC a year later would be remote, to say the least.

But that contract proved to be cumbersome. Westbrook was a completely capable No. 3 starter in 2007, when he still yielded the budget price of $6.1 million. But he blew out his elbow in ’08, missed all of ’09 and had an ERA+ 15 percent below league average when the Indians dealt him to St. Louis midway through 2010.

So for $33 million over three years, the Indians got 26 starts and a 4.26 ERA. Not great value.

They did, however, get Kluber in the three-way trade involving the Cards and Padres, so it wasn’t a total loss.

Still, though, not great value.

None of this to say that Masterson is going to follow the same path as Westbrook (my NCAA bracket is already testament to my inability to forecast the future), but, if we can take a moment to view this news through this particular prism, it does help settle the stomach a tad.

On a psychological level, declining the opportunity to lock up your ace at what is, by today’s standards, a reasonable ace rate is troubling, and the Indians will find themselves under specific public pressure to address the rotation in other ways next winter.

But on a pure statistical level, if $33 million over three for Westbrook didn’t turn out so swell, you can certainly see the hesitancy to fork over somewhere in the neighborhood of $50 million over three for Masterson.

Of course, it’s only March, which means there are a lot of directions this could still go. As it stands, Masterson is in line for the same Draft pick compensation crunch that forced Ubaldo to play the waiting game for his $50 million deal (that one stretches over four years, for the record) and prompted Ervin Santana to bite the bullet and sign the very monetary guarantee ($14.1 million) he turned down mere months earlier.

Masterson’s career, while uneven, does not contain as disastrous a dip as those two endured at certain points on their path to free agency, so I presume he’ll fare well in the free-agent field. But projecting something six months out in said field is a fool’s errand. A 2013-like effort, and the qualifying offer shouldn’t be a hurdle. A step back, and the qualifying offer could be a goal.

Time will tell, as it tends to do.

All that can reasonably be said, for now, is that the Indians are taking a big risk here. Realistically, though, it might not be any more of a risk than they’d be taking by inking a $50 million extension with a guy whose numbers have, on measure, been pretty much Jake Westbrookish over the last three years.

The PR hit hurts, both in public and clubhouse perception. But it is, of course, the public’s reluctance to embrace last year’s efforts that only encourages the long-standing need to get bang for the buck. And as we’ve seen many times over — with the Westbrook deal or the Travis Hafner deal or the Ubaldo trade, to name but a few — public perception is a moving target.

~AC

PS: In case you missed my piece on the spunkiness of this Indians squad, check it out here.

“Dream beneath the desert sky”

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

planes

Greetings from Goodyear, home of cacti and high skies and the only Spring Training ballpark that makes you suspiciously hungry for guacamole.

My flight to Phoenix was presumably one of the last non-stops from the flubbed hub of Hopkins to Sky Harbor, what with United’s Cleveland operations largely going the way of the planes of the past that sit in the graveyard within eyesight of the Big Chipotle. And one initial takeaway from my return to Goodyear is the increasing proliferation of planes in that area. Many of them, in fact, are former Continental jets that I’m fairly certain I must have boarded at some point while on the Tribe beat and accruing enough OnePass miles for a round-trip ticket to Uranus.

In fact, let’s consider this little blog post a public plea to United to at least maintain the Phoenix non-stop on a seasonal basis. The flight, after all, is routinely full this time of year (mine, in fact, was oversold, due, as they once said on “The Simpsons,” to the airline’s policy of overselling flights), and the good people of Cleveland, who have no doubt been through enough already, should not be denied the opportunity to come see their favorite ballclub in Spring Training without experiencing the physical, mental and emotional turmoil that is an O’Hare layover.

Anyway, it stunned me to realize this is actually the Indians’ sixth spring in Goodyear. Time flies. Even if those Continental relics don’t.

Here’s what’s going on in Tribe camp.

EXCRUCIATING MINUTIAE FROM SPRING TRAINING CAMP…

  • I wrote about this yesterday, but Justin Masterson has been very public about his desire to stick around, and it’s more than just lip service. In fact, Masterson’s candidness and openness about this negotiation process has been refreshing, and the prevailing sense – always subject to change, of course — in these parts is that something will get done.
  • As good friend and former DiaTriber Paul Cousineau pointed out, the thought of Masterson forgoing free agency to take on a shorter-range contract with the Indians is somewhat reminiscent of the hometown deal CC Sabathia gave them in 2005, with the notable caveats that Masterson is not vintage CC (few are) and he’s not left-handed. And sure, there will always be fear that he’ll revert to something similar to what we saw in 2012 or that his big body will break down. But if you’re the Indians, and you have a chance to lock down your ace with a deal of a length that aligns with the rest of your core, you obviously have to do it, as long as the price point makes sense. Unfortunately, the cost of keeping even league-average output (and Masterson’s adjusted ERA over the last three seasons is precisely league average) is substantial these days. But paying that cost sure beats trying to replace his innings and his influence.
  • That influence, for the record, is immense. Guys like Josh Tomlin and Corey Kluber talk about Masterson reverently. When I asked Danny Salazar who has been the best influence on him in this organization, he pointed at Masterson and said, “That guy.” The work ethic and focused are unmatched, as is the uniquely pleasant personality in a game that can lend itself to so much surliness.
  • The slow-play with Salazar, who will finally see his first game action (well, OK, it’s a three-inning intrasquad, but still counts) on Friday, has been an interesting, if not all that surprising, situation. And it’s one that Salazar has handled with patience and maturity. “They know more than me what’s better for me,” Salazar said. “They’ve got more time and more experience than me.” The Indians know they can slot Salazar into the fifth spot of their rotation and not use him for the first nine days of the season, and given Salazar’s injury history, combined with the reinvention of his delivery that preceded his 2013 breakout, a cautious course is understandable.

Image

  • The hope, though, is that Salazar does get enough quality innings under his belt this spring to establish a comfort level with his secondary stuff (primarily his slider). There’s no question he was aggressive with his use of that explosive fastball early and often in counts last season, and it’s unrealistic to expect him to continue to get swinging strikes on the pitch 14 percent of the time. The refining of the repertoire is particularly important against lefties, against whom he was essentially a two-pitch pitcher. But part of Salazar’s allure is, as Chris Antonetti put it, “his aptitude, his ability to process information.” He’s a sharp kid who is both confident and eager to learn – two necessary qualities — and you combine that with his athleticism to make for a potentially complete package.
  • Even by minutiae standards, any analysis of Carlos Santana at third base at this point and in these games would be considered minutiae, so let’s not even go there yet. Let’s just say that the work and want-to is there, the early results are mixed. But there is, at this point, every reason to believe he will, at the very least, be a part-time option at the position. All that’s left to be decided is how many games per week we’re talking about here, and the Indians are a long way from that sort of decision.
  • And by the way, isn’t it nice to have a Spring Training storyline that wasn’t actually settled before camp started? That’s actually fairly rare.
  • Dave Wallace, who managed top prospect Francisco Lindor at short-season Mahoning Valley in 2011, said the highly touted shortstop is as big a team player as they come. Wallace told the story of Lindor hauling two huge laundry loads – the dirty jocks and jerseys worn by both himself and his Scrappers teammates — on his shoulders after games. “You don’t see that a lot from that type of player,” Wallace said. “From day one, he’s been a guy that helps. That’s pretty special.”
  • By the way, it’s been nice seeing Wallace climb quickly up the coaching ranks in the Indians’ Minor League system, where he’ll take over the Double-A RubberDucks this year in Akron. He claims he’s merely the “luckiest Minor League manager” in the world because of the way opportunities have lined up for him, but there are no shortage of people in this organization enamored with the way he works with young players and his skillset as a big-league-manager-in-training.
  • Speaking of guys getting promoted in-house, former head athletic trainer Lonnie Soloff was named “director of medical services” over the winter. The main thrust of his role is helping to improve and refine the Indians’ injury prevention and performance development operations. As Antonetti explained, part of that is doing a better job of identifying the attributes that make players develop successfully and painlessly. “Yan Gomes is the perfect example,” Soloff said. “We identified a skillset, we knew he had a good makeup, but we probably didn’t know fully how good that makeup was. You look at how he’s evolved as a player and how he’s viewed now versus. a year ago. That’s a credit to Yan and his work ethic. He was never satisfied and wanted to get better, whether it was working with [hitting coach] Ty [Van Burkleo] or [bullpen catcher Kevin] Cash or [strength and conditioning coach] Joe Kessler or Lonnie with his shoulder program and recovery.” In other words, the Indians struck unexpected gold with Gomes (and, for that matter, with Salazar, who made radical changes to his delivery but maintained his ability to throw hard and effectively). So how do you set up a system in which you can more accurately identify that gold in the future? Interesting stuff.
  • Lindor might have his shot to transition to the big league club at some point this season, and the Indians simply have more depth on the position-player side of things than on the pitching side. But right-hander Cody Anderson, a 14th-round pick from 2011 who went 9-4 with a 2.34 ERA and 112 strikeouts against 31 walks in 123 1/3 innings last year at Class-A Carolina (he also made three starts at Akron), is a quick-riser who could impact the ’14 club. He’s not as high on the radar as Salazar was a year ago, but he could help. Jordan Bastian profiled Anderson over the winter.
  • ImageIn case you missed it, I reviewed George Christian Pappas’ new book about the 1990s Indians, a clear highlight of which is the inclusion of this photo of Paul Hoynes and Albert Belle.
  • Speaking of interesting characters, I caught up with our old friend Brandon Phillips. Never a dull moment.
  • Jim Rosenhaus has been receiving unsolicited suggestions for a new home-run call, easily the worst of which is, “And Bob’s your uncle.” As in, “Fly ball, waaay back… and Bob’s your uncle.” Evidently, this is another way of saying, “And that’s that.” Google confirms. But that doesn’t make it right.
  • Apparently, David Murphy is a huge fan of Superman, the native Clevelander with the nom de plume of Clark Kent who mistakenly claims to have been born on Krypton and who fled to Metropolis to work at the Daily Planet when the Plain Dealer stopped publishing seven days a week (I think that’s how the story goes). Anyway, this would seem to make Murphy a prime candidate to pay visit to Superman tribute near baggage claim at Hopkins.
  • It’s only March 6, but Bobby DiBiasio’s tan is in midseason form.
  • “Anthony Castrovince,” I said to Nyjer Morgan, as a means of introduction. “Tony Plush,” he replied with a handshake. Highlight of my morning.

~AC

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