July 2014

“Yeah, a statue!”

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

In the city of Trieste, a mid-sized seaport on the Adriatic, there is a statue of Italo Svevo. He was a native and largely unheralded writer who was born Aron Ettore Schmitz and gave himself a pen name that literally translated to “Italian Swabian,” reflecting his whereabouts on the border of Italy and the former southwestern Germany region of Swabia.

IMG_1045Svevo self-published a novel, Confessions of Zeno, that would have gone unnoticed, were it not for the persistence of Svevo’s mentor, James Joyce. And the book was influential enough that the people of Trieste honored its late author by establishing a life-sized tribute to him in the Piazza Hortis, where he used to take his daily strolls. It sits not on a dais but on flat ground, and “life-sized,” in this instance, is (and this is what I love about the Svevo statue) an unimposing 5-foot-6 or so.

While in Trieste a couple summers ago, we took a picture of my equally vertically challenged dad next to the statue and the plaque that bears the most famous line from that novel:

“Life is neither ugly nor beautiful, but it’s original!”

Here in Cleveland — specifically at Progressive nee Jacobs Field — we’re getting a new statue this weekend. It is statue of Jim Thome that, in true American form, is bigger than life. It will stand above us mere mortals, and it will showcase the Thome pose we know so well — the one where he points his booming bat in the direction of the pitcher, a la Roy Hobbs, while digging in and looking to launch one of his 612 career home runs.

This statue — symbolic, significant, persistent and permanent — is either a point of pride or a point of controversy, depending on who you ask.

Some people around here are outraged that a defector is being cast in bronze, forever hailed. They still can’t get over a guy claiming, “They’ll have to rip this jersey off of me” and then leaving for Philadelphia financial freedom.

More people, I would assume, have long ago forgiven Thome for leaving the Indians in the winter after the 2002 season, understanding the game’s economics and the Indians’ changing competitive state at the time he made his move. Thome mended many mental fences when came back briefly at the end of 2011, hit a movie-made home run on Jim Thome Appreciation Night and was largely well-received. To them, the statue sits just fine.

Then there is a third group — a group of which, I must say, I am a member.

This group recognizes that you can hold nothing against Thome the Man and still be conflicted about Thome the Statue. Because while Thome might, indeed, be the perfect subject to celebrate a unique (and this is one of the few instances in which the word “unique” is being applied appropriately) era of Indians baseball, I’m not sure the specific statue they’ve selected adequately addresses it.

Now, let’s expound upon that subject of celebration, first and foremost. Because within the chorus of complaints about the Thome statue, there is a small but vocal segment of the fan base that would prefer Larry Doby, the AL’s first black player, be immortalized before Thome.

dobyIn the grand scope of the Indians’ 114-season history, Doby is as good an option as any after Bob Feller, whose statue has rested outside Gate C ever since the Indians ended their long-term run as Municipal Stadium tenants and got a room of their own. Doby’s significance as the AL’s first black player does too often get lost in the grand shadow of Jackie Robinson. The Indians and the city of Cleveland renamed Eagle Avenue, the street that runs behind the left-field bleachers, “Larry Doby Way” two years ago… but, you know, that’s no statue.

This 114-season history, though, is not the target. The target is and ought to be Jacobs Field itself. What it meant to these people. What it meant to this city. What it meant to a long-suffering franchise. The impacts, both economic and emotional, that the ballpark had on Northeast Ohio in the mid-1990s cannot be overstated, and the 20th anniversary season serves as an appropriate time for some sort of salute steeped in relative modernity.

The Indians had long thought Thome to be a suitable point of emphasis. When they tried to woo him in that aforementioned winter of ’02, they could no longer sell themselves as the AL Central standard-bearers (his contract alone would have made it tough to maintain a consistent winner) but they could sell him on the allure of legacy. They promised him a statue. They harped on the benefits of continuity, of representing something bigger than yourself, of forever being remembered as the face of a franchise. These were things Feller himself capitalized on from the day he hung ‘em up in 1956 until the day he died in 2010, and Feller could attest that, yes, there was, indeed, monetary value in this association. It wasn’t nearly enough to bridge the financial gap between the Indians’ $62 million offer to Thome and Philadelphia’s $87 million guarantee, but it was real (LeBron James, who I’m sure will have a statue of his own here someday, will discover this, too).

ThomestatueI think, in an honest moment, Thome would tell you that he wishes he would have stayed, but that’s only easy to state in the retrospect of a career that never again reached the World Series stage after he left Cleveland. And by 2011, when the Indians did bring him back as August waiver wire fodder, Mark Shapiro was already waxing poetic about the value of 12 mostly standout seasons in an Indians uniform in today’s transient times. Certainly, it’s easy to understand the significance of being the franchise home run king and a homegrown product who, much like Feller, arrived like a gift from the Midwest corn fields and turned his country strength into Cooperstown-worthy production. Over time, the free-agent defection simply ceased to be all that big a deal to the Indians’ higher-ups.

So Thome gets his statue, after all. He didn’t ask for it, and he even admits he’s a little “uncomfortable” and a little embarrassed by it. This is not a surprising utterance out of the mouth of Jim Thome, whose humility and good nature are as worthy of celebration as his stats.

But here’s the problem with the Thome statue: It honors Thome and Thome alone.

I know that sounds ludicrous, because that is, unmistakably, the goal of most statues, isn’t it? But I think the Indians could have honored both the man and his time in a way that satisfies all sides.

Think about those teams, those runs to five straight AL Central titles (with a sixth title tacked on in ’01) and, most meaningfully, two AL pennants in ’95 and ’97. What is the first memory that comes to mind?

I’d venture to guess I could poll 10 of you and get 10 different answers.

Maybe it’s Tony Pena’s late-night homer heroics in Game 1 of the ’95 ALDS, or Albert Belle pointing to his bicep that same night. Maybe it’s Belle’s grand slam off Lee Smith. Maybe it’s Sandy Alomar going deep off Mariano Rivera in the ’97 ALDS. Maybe it’s Game 3 of the ’97 ALCS, Omar Vizquel botching a suicide squeeze and Marquis Grissom streaking home with the winning run on the passed ball. Maybe it’s Wayne Kirby’s game-winning hit in the ballpark’s opener. Or maybe it’s just the sight of those stands, filled night after night after night after night for 455 freaking games.

95indiansHey, maybe you’re masochistic, and your first memory is the generous strike zone afforded the Braves in the ’95 Series or David Justice’s clinching Game 6 home run or — gulp — Jose Mesa in Game 7 in ’97.

Actually, what am I saying? This is Cleveland. Of course, your first memory is Jose Mesa in Game 7 in ’97.

But that’s not the point. The point is that there were too many magical moments, too many crazy characters, too many flowing emotions associated with those teams to narrow it all down to a single person.

I think that’s the issue with the Thome statue. You can’t look at Jim Thome’s pointed bat and see Omar’s golden glove or Albert’s menacing glare or Kenny Lofton’s swift feet. It doesn’t evoke memories of Carlos Baerga’s “Hello, Cleveland!” commercials or Manny Ramirez’s “Baby Bull” salad days or Alomar’s All-Star Game awesomeness. You don’t look at it and remember what Dick Jacobs and John Hart built and what Mike Hargrove tended. It doesn’t point the mind to a time when established stars like Eddie Murray and Orel Hershiser and Dennis Martinez actually wanted to be here, when Cleveland was an honest-to-goodness baseball destination.

You just see Thome. And I’m sure, to some, that’s acceptable.

But I’m probably in the minority of people whose most immediate memory of Thome has nothing to do with one of his mammoth taters. It has to do, oddly, with one of this defensive plays.

It is that pop-up off the bat of Jeff Huson, sailing high into the sky on Sept. 8, 1995, landing safely in Thome’s glove near third base and igniting a party that had not been seen in these parts for 41 years:

 

Yes, the moment was inevitable, because that ’95 club ran away with the Central in the strike-shortened season. But as Tom Hamilton (who uttered the great call, “And the season of dreams has become a reality”) told me recently, “It was almost like a city didn’t believe it was going to happen until it actually happened.” There were hugs and tears and wild shouts of unhindered ecstasy. There was, in the immediate aftermath, an airing of Garth Brooks’ “The Dance” as a fitting tribute to Steve Olin and a reminder of how far this team, this family, had come in the wake of those awful Spring Training deaths of ’93. For hours after that out, you could hear the sound of blaring car horns in the parking lot and the city streets – a practice that would be repeated many times in October days ahead.

You could have made a statue out of that moment. Thome, left arm raised, ball in glove, triumphant. The productive product of a potent farm system completing the out a town had been thirsting for in the ballpark that, really, made it all possible.

Heck, you could even make it like the Italo Svevo statue and put it on flat ground, a reminder that the moment belonged to everybody in the building and in the city that supported it.

That, to me, would have been the more satisfying statue. It would have been a better representation of an era unlike any other around here. Those Indians teams didn’t win a championship, but they did stir something in people’s souls, and that out was the breakthrough — the moment when the travails of the past were forgiven and the door to the future sprung open.

It was neither ugly nor beautiful, but it was original.

~AC

“No retreat, no surrender”

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

Was that the alluring, tonal, British voice of Dido I heard coming out of Terry Francona just now?

“There will be no white flag above my door,” Francona said.

Well, no, he didn’t say or sing that specifically, but he came quite close.

“We will never raise the white flag,” Tito said after the Justin Masterson trade. “That’s not an option. We’re going to play.”

My guess is Francona will have to say something similar very soon, when the Indians do what some would say is the responsible thing and trade Asdrubal Cabrera.

Or maybe he’ll say it after the Indians acquire John Lackey.

mastersonHeck, maybe they’ll make both moves before 4 p.m. ET Thursday.

But whether or not another move is made, Francona is right. This isn’t front-office fluff; this is the way business is done in baseball today. The notion of Trade Deadline “buyers and sellers” is far too black and white for the current competitive climate, as Chris Antonetti artfully explained.

“I think oftentimes people look at it as one or the other,” Antonetti said. “That you’re either buyers or sellers. I think teams may take a more nuanced approach to that. You may have different goals heading into the Deadline. It could be repositioning your roster, taking advantage of a position where you have some depth to supplement another area.”

Did you notice that, at the same time the Indians dealt their former ace pitcher and preached competitiveness, the last-place Cubs traded for Felix Doubront mere weeks after selling off other assets? The Deadline is free-flowing. It is a time for general managers to be opportunistic, because it is a prime time for evaluating rosters, scouting systems and, above all else, prompting action.

Realistically, the Indians’ already faint 2014 postseason hopes (12.7 percent, per Baseball Prospectus’ playoff odds) aren’t much – if at all – worse without Masterson than they were with him. And they’re probably not much worse without Cabrera (whose lackluster performance in high-leverage situations I cited earlier) than they are with him.

Sure, that sounds purely pessimistic on a lot of fronts. For one, it’s pessimistic about Masterson, who, for all we know, might have two months of brilliance in him if he’s now mechanically and mentally right after his DL stay.

But the Indians would have paid a handsome price to find out the effects of that retooling period. They would have given up any opportunity to acquire young talent in exchange for Masterson (the qualifying offer wasn’t going to happen at this stage) and, oh by the way, paid the big right-hander another $3 million.

I love what the Indians did here. James Ramsey adds another outfield bat to a system suddenly teeming with them, and the offensive abyss of this era means you can never have enough bats on hand. MLB.com had Ramsey ranked as the Cards’ sixth-best prospect at the outset of the year, and he automatically becomes the Indians’ fifth-highest-rated prospect.

And as I wrote in analyzing Cabrera’s case earlier this week, the $3 million savings is not chump change. Not when 60 percent of your 2015 roster is tied up in seven guys. If they can save another $3 million in moving A-Cab, all the better.

The Indians don’t have a No. 2 starter behind Corey Kluber right now. They just don’t. They have Danny Salazar finally figuring out that he needs to flash his fastball from the very beginning of outings instead of trying to go all 2011-era Justin Verlander on the opposition and ease into things. They’ve got T.J. House, who has shown some flashes. They’ve got Trevor Bauer, who has made giant strides this season. This is, by no means, an overwhelming, overpowering group. But I’d rather keep running the kids out there on a regular basis than pine for something that might never come back again. Besides, no bridges have been burned with Masterson. He remains eminently signable, remains quite fond of the organization, and his price tag has dropped precipitously.

Maybe Masterson would have become that No. 2 (or No. 1) starter again. But he would have had to do it damn quickly to make it worth the Indians’ while, and walking six guys in Columbus the other night was not a great start.

The Indians are in a position where they have to take even the slightest shot at contending seriously. But at the same time, they’re in a spot where they can’t ignore opportunities to capitalize on value. This seller’s market has afforded them a big opportunity. The Cardinals actually bid pretty boldly on Masterson’s two-month potential. The long list of clubs in need of a middle-infield upgrade could lead to a bold bid for Asdrubal.

In this particular area, the Indians were and are in a good spot. They can pounce on those opportunities without waving the white flag.

~AC

Too many words about Asdrubal Cabrera

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

Asdrubal Cabrera makes $10 million this year.

Somehow, this is a fact that floored me when somebody brought it up the other day. The hypocrisy of the hippocampus is such that a person might quickly recall the precise date of his last dental appointment but not his own social security number. There’s really no telling what the mind will deem important enough to remember, and somehow in the midst of more pressing matters – including, but not limited to, a brilliant Food Network game-show idea that I can’t reveal much about other than to say it involves the boiling of pasta, the racing of the clock and the pressure of instantaneous mental math – the particulars of Asdrubal Cabrera’s backloaded contract escaped me. My apologies.

But I do believe you’ll join me in opining that $10 million is (in the Cleveland market at least) a lot of money for Asdrubal Cabrera.

asdrubalNow, this is all a relative discussion, because Cabrera has “only” made a little north of $24 million his career, to date, while providing substantially more on-field value to the Indians. And even at this stage in which his sum far exceeds far value, $10 million for roughly league-average production from your shortstop is certainly superior to, say, the $7 million spent on Brett Myers last year or the $5 million spent on Grady Sizemore in 2012 or the $28.5 million being paid to Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher in the present.

Sports salaries are often out-of-whack with reality, players are paid for past – not present – performance and the Food Network’s not returning my calls. That’s life.

All that said, as the Indians sit a game under .500 on their last off day before the Trade Deadline, dangling on that increasingly nebulous line between the “buy” and “sell” side of the equation, Cabrera’s contract has to count for something, doesn’t it?

You keep hearing things like Cabrera “has value” at this Deadline, given the sort of lackluster options in the middle infield that keep Dan Uggla employed. But it’s hard to say what this means, exactly. Chase Headley still had “value” in the trade market with a .651 OPS for the Padres, and that “value” translated to a 27-year-old journeyman named Yangervis Solarte and a 23-year-old Class A pitcher named Rafael De Paula, <i>minus</i> $1 million.

For the Padres, it was a trade weighed against the value of literally doing nothing and reaping nothing, and they acted accordingly.

For the Indians, it might amount to a different sort of equation. The value, as it were, might lie most meaningfully in the value of dumping the prorated portion (roughly $3.3 million) of that $10 million sum. That’s not a lot, but, to a club that has already committed probably 60 percent of its 2015 payroll to seven guys (one of whom is named Ryan Raburn), it’s not nothing, either.

The Indians, therefore, would be remiss not to at least explore all options with Cabrera. No, they have no immediate plans to promote Francisco Lindor, and, in fact, the odds, at present, are probably against him coming up earlier than a month or so into 2015, given the arbitration issues at stake there. But a Cabrera trade could change that equation come September, if (and only if) the Indians are still in it, and their market size and payroll realities do demand capitalizing on situations such as these.

In this trade market, Cabrera’s value might be at its height at second base, not short. The Giants, owners of the aforementioned Uggla, have a need, as do the Blue Jays, Yankees, Orioles and A’s. With Ryan Zimmerman out with a severely injured hamstring (and Anthony Rendon, therefore, back at third), the Nats might play in that market, too.

All of this lends itself to an internal examination of what Cabrera is currently worth to the Indians. Would a combo of Mike Aviles (.626 OPS) and Jose Ramirez be satisfactory enough at short if the Indians still hope to contend? Hmm. Obviously, the status quo ain’t cutting it, as the 52-53 record and sometimes-stagnant offense demonstrate, and Cabrera’s .157 average and .517 OPS in what Baseball Reference describes as “high leverage” situations (versus a .744 OPS in low leverage spots) are telling.

That said, it is hard to trade your starting shortstop without sending a message to your clubhouse that you’re conceding defeat. And you saw how well the Indians fared when he missed most of the past week with back spasms.

It will all come down to that value equation. What Cabrera is worth to other teams, in terms of prospect or big-league-ready chips, is hard to say. It was a different market and a different time, but (courtesy of Baseball Reference) look at Cabrera’s current numbers compared to those of Jhonny Peralta (who was playing third base but essentially dealt to the Tigers as a shortstop exactly four years ago today) in 2010 with the Tribe:

Cabrera: 95 games, .249 AVG, .309 OBP, .392 SLG, 9 HR, 40 RBI, 99 OPS+, minus-0.1 defensive WAR
Peralta: 91 games, .246 AVG, .308 OBP, .389 SLG, 7 HR, 43 RBI, 94 OPS+, 0.6 dWAR

Again, all markets are different, but it is worth remembering that the Indians also sent the Tigers the remainder of Peralta’s $4.85 million salary in exchange for Giovanni Soto, a wiry teenage left-hander who is currently in Double-A and, to date, has not yet distinguished himself as the most successful player to bear his own name (Geovany Soto can still rest comfortably).

So eating Cabrera’s contract might be the only way for the Indians to get even a warm body back for Cabrera at this stage. While it would be interesting to see the Indians pull off a big-leaguer for big-leaguer swap and land some back-end starting or relief help in exchange for Asdrubal, I don’t know if that’s especially realistic.

Honestly, it could be that their best option — if they do move Cabrera — is to just try to recoup some cash. But try putting that in a press release.

Another option, of course, is to keep Cabrera and see where this thing goes. On the heels of a bizarre road trip that saw the Tribe take three of four from the Tigers only to drop 5 of 7 to the Twins and Royals, it’s hard to be overwhelmingly encouraged by the playoff odds. But the league at large remains remarkably forgiving. The Indians are sub-.500 yet still just 3 ½ games back of a Wild Card spot.

You could say the Indians’ 2014 season has at least successfully sorted out that which needed sorting out on the infield front. And what I mean by that is the Tribe no longer entertains visions of carrying baseball’s first-ever third baseman/catcher/cleanup hitter hybrid in Carlos Santana, no longer wonders when or if Lonnie Chisenhall will emerge, no longer has much rational reason to believe the $56 million investment in Swisher was all that much better than the $57 million investment in Travis Hafner (though it still remains to be seen if “Brohio” enjoys longer staying power as a marketing mechanism than did “Pronkville”).

Chisenhall’s your third baseman, Santana’s your first baseman and Swisher is your switch-hitting designated hitter who should probably be a bit more restricted from the right-hand side.

Shortstop, meanwhile, is the same as it ever was – Lindor in the long frame, Cabrera in the meantime.

How much more meantime will be determined in the next few days.

~AC

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