I’m sitting here at Progressive Field, where the gates are open and a day-night doubleheader against the White Sox is already in delay mode prior to the first pitch. There are maybe a couple hundred people in the stands at the moment — maybe — and this is not at all unexpected, given that it’s a Monday in early May and it’s raining.
But the low attendance total for this specific situation is a small part of the bigger picture that is the lowly attendance trend taking place with the Tribe. The Indians entered Monday in first place in the AL Central but dead last in the Majors in average attendance (15,355).
“They will come,” manager Manny Acta said when the topic was broached this morning. And, sure, he’s correct. Indians attendance figures tend to be late-blooming, no matter the weather or how well the team plays in the early going. We saw that last year, and we saw that in 2007, when a Tribe team that eventually reached the ALCS housed ho-hum crowds until at least August.
I did a couple radio interviews over the weekend where the hosts asked me about the attendance issue, asked if it’s a surprise. I must admit that Friday night’s crowd (16,147) was a bit of a head-scratcher, given that a fellow first-place club was in town, it was a fireworks night, a student ID night and the weather was wonderful.
But really, when it comes to the Tribe and attendance, not much surprises me.
The Indians, even with the 30-15 start last year, finished with the seventh-lowest attendance mark in the Majors, were dead last in 2010, were fifth-lowest in 2009 and were 22nd out of 30 a year after reaching the ALCS.
This is what’s called a trend, and it’s part of the package here in a town that’s endured declining population and economic downturn and really doesn’t have baseball on the brain. It should surprise absolutely nobody that the city that ranked first nationally in TV ratings for the NFL Draft is the same city that ranks 30 out of 30 in MLB attendance, because this is a Browns town, through and through, and the once-in-a-lifetime Indians sellout streak of the 1990s was the product of a combination of unique factors (no Browns, strong economy, new ballpark, great team, downtown renaissance, etc.) that will never combine again.
I hear from fans all the time who say they’ll support the team when it spends more money. And Indians ownership has made it clear that it will spend in accordance with revenues. And so around and ‘round we go.
In the end, the simple fact is that among Cleveland’s three major professional franchises, none has delivered on its promise to field a competitive club as frequently over the last two decades as the Indians have (this, in spite of the obvious advantages payroll limits provide for small markets in the NFL and NBA). And yet we saw in 2008, in the aftermath of the ALCS, that the wait-and-see mentality is very much in effect with the public in these parts. And we saw it again this April. For while the Indians were pushing their way to the forefront of the AL Central standings, the NFL Draft utterly dominated the conversation on the airwaves and among the populace, as reflected in those Nielsen ratings and in those Progressive Field attendance totals.
This is not meant to come across as preachy or accusatory. People can spend their money and their time however they see fit. The point, however, is that none of us should really be shocked or amazed by the attendance tallies, to this point.
Acta’s ultimately right. If the Indians keep playing at this level, the fans will come out in greater numbers. And even regardless of how the Indians play, it’s only natural that the numbers will pick up as the weather continues to warm and kids get out of school.
But in the grand scheme, the Indians are still going to finish in the lower-third in the Major League attendance tally. Because that’s the reality of baseball in Cleveland, and it has been for some time.
For just the fourth time in the last decade, the Indians exited April with a winning record. And they exited it in sole possession of first place in the AL Central, despite a minus-1 run differential.
So for all their faults – and undoubtedly some faults were flashed in the season’s first 20 games – the Indians can consider April to be a successful month, on the whole.
But which elements of April were illusions, and which were illustrative of what to expect in 2012? Let’s take a look at some of the most noteworthy developments and try to find out, shall we?
THE RETURN OF PRONK: Travis Hafner hit a home run to the Area Formerly Known as “Pronkville” (and now known as the “Subway Extreme Fan Zone”) on April 11 — a standout moment in a standout month for Hafner, who has a .295/.450/.459 slash line.
Hafner continues to struggle against lefties (.176/.318/.412), and so the Indians would be wise to continue to limit his opportunities when southpaws are on the mound. The idea is to stick to his strengths, and right now his greatest strength is a 1.89 walk-to-strikeout ratio that is the best in baseball and worlds better than the 0.63 career mark he had coming into the year.
Doubtful the walk rate is sustainable, and Hafner was 3-for-19 in his last six games of the month. The return of Pronk? We’ll stay in wait-and-see mode on this one.
I CHOO CHOO CHOOSE YOU: With Grady Sizemore still out of the picture, the Indians’ greatest area of upside from their 2011 offensive performance rests in a return to form for Shin-Soo Choo.
It hasn’t happened yet, and that’s a credit to the early success opposing pitchers had in jamming Choo on the inside part of the plate. Just as he began to cheat a little bit in his swing to account for that attack, he hurt his hamstring last week, and so Choo ended the month with a .697 OPS, still seeking his first home run.
Dating back to the beginning of 2011, Choo has a disappointing .379 slugging percentage. Right now, the plummet in power is his established trend (his isolated power mark of .085 ranks 28th-worst among all qualifying hitters this season), but there is enough track record prior to 2011 to lead one to believe it will return.
CORNERSTONES AT PREMIER SPOTS: My friend Paul Cousineau did a fine job expounding upon the notion that the Indians have established star talents at shortstop and catcher in Asdrubal Cabrera and Carlos Santana, so I’ll turn you to him for full context.
But the quick and dirty analysis is that Cabrera (.808) ranks fourth among all Major League shortstops in OPS, while Santana (.863) ranks sixth among catchers. Their 2011 track records back this up as more than an April illusion, and so the Indians continue to get elite production from two positions not always known for it.
ACES IN THE HOLE: Want to hear a depressing stat? Two of the top four walk rates among Major League starters, entering Tuesday night, belong to the Indians’ top two starters — Justin Masterson (12.7 percent) and Ubaldo Jimenez (13.3).
Personally, I’m inclined to give Masterson the benefit of the doubt. He was dominant on Opening Day against the Blue Jays, and 35 percent of the earned runs against him came in a single inning in Seattle.
Ubaldo? Well, I’m not as confident, simply because his complicated delivery has proven so difficult to repeat over the years. He has a 4.50 ERA with 5.3 walks per nine innings. If we were to somehow remove his magical first half of 2010 from the equation (a 2.20 ERA in 18 starts), he has a 4.02 ERA and 4.05 walks per nine in his career (135 starts). So I would expect some improvement from Jimenez over the long haul of the season, but I wouldn’t hold out hope for a major surge into elite status, based on the bulk of his career.
The Indians targeted Lowe because they saw some flaws in his mechanics from his brutal year with the Braves and felt they could fix him. And what’s encouraging about Lowe’s early success is that many of the numbers he’s posting (9.9 hits per nine, 0.6 homers per nine, 2.8 walks per nine and a 1.30 groundball-to-flyball ratio) are right about in line with his career norm and therefore don’t appear fluky. Even his .289 batting average on balls in play is only slightly below his career norm of .299.
But Lowe’s success has come in spite of a ridiculously low strikeouts per nine tally of 2.6 (career average is 5.9) that will likely have to rise in order for him to keep this up.
HOT-HITTING HANNAHAN: Jack Hannahan had a .976 OPS through April 24 (when he had a game-winning hit against the Royals), prompting me to pen this column on his surprising success. That OPS has fallen 198 points in the five games since, and, well, that’s not wholly unexpected when you look at Hannahan’s track record.
The line on Hannahan is that you sign up for the defense and take anything you get offensively as a bonus. He reversed that notion by committing four errors while logging some big hits in April. Over the course of a full season, however, I think that notion will hold up.
THE BLACK HOLE: American League hitters with a lower OPS than Casey Kotchman’s .494 mark? There are two. Brent Morel of the White Sox (.426) and Mark Reynolds of the Orioles (.467).
So suffice to say that Kotchman has been one of the worst-performing regulars in the big leagues thus far this season. And while he’ll almost undoubtedly improve by default, remember that his OPS+ of 91 (or nine points below league average) from 2004-2010 is his norm and his 128 mark (28 points above league average) from 2011 is the outlier.
Kotchman’s poor performance is juxtaposed against the 1.210 OPS Matt LaPorta is logging in Triple-A Columbus right now. But it’s best not to get too caught up in that for the moment, given the early juncture in the calendar and the fact that LaPorta has a .994 career OPS at the Triple-A level and we’ve seen how well that’s translated to the big-league stage.
The other obvious areas for concern are left and center fields. Shelley Duncan is 5-for-his-last 34 with 16 strikeouts, and so it would appear Johnny Damon — whatever he has to contribute at this point in time — is arriving on time. But Damon or no Damon, we knew all along that left field would be a spot where the Indians could likely count on below-average production.
Another ho-hum start for Michael Brantley, who has a .321 OBP, is the bigger disappointment, but he finished the month strong, going 8-for-20 in his last five games.
ABOUT THE BULLPEN: The bullpen’s 4.35 ERA ranks ninth among the AL’s 14 teams, and so it has not been the team strength it was considered to be entering the year. But Chris Perez has a 1.08 ERA and .406 OPS against since Opening Day, Joe Smith was solid all month, Vinnie Pestano and Tony Sipp appeared to find their footing their last few times out and an extended look at Nick Hagadone is, in my view, a good thing.
The concern with the ‘pen is obviously in the middle innings, and that leads to the greater concern that is innings provided by the starters. Tribe starters worked just 5.83 innings per outing in April. Among AL teams, only the Royals, Twins, Tigers and Yankees rotations worked less. Sure, that puts the Indians in good shape with regard to what has, so far, been a weak division, but this is one area that must improve in order for the Tribe to maintain its position atop the AL Central.
PS: For a look at some interesting April stats from around MLB, click here.
On Twitter: @Castrovince
Anyway, I distinctly remember Opening Day in the Euclid Boys’ League in 1990, when me and my teammates on the Action Auto Body Astros — the class of the 9- and 10-year-old division — took the field in Memorial Park, with tunes — glorious, galvanizing tunes — blaring from the press box speakers. It all felt so professional. This was the first — and, as it would turn out, last — time the dude running the scoreboard would go the extra mile and play some songs between innings. And so, when I came to bat to lead off the second, a song greeted me as I stepped to the plate.
And that song just so happened to be “I Go To Extremes” by Billy Joel, a sweet cut off the Storm Front cassette (yes, cassette, of course).
Now, I’m not saying that if I had the opportunity to choose my tune at that point that I would have necessarily gone with “I Go To Extremes.” But I’d say it’s a safe bet I probably would have dropped some Billy Joel on the crowd. Maybe “Only The Good Die Young,” which would have taken on added prominence and profoundness if the opposing pitcher beaned me in the head and I fell to the turf, or “You May Be Right,” with that opening sound of glass shattering a fitting accompaniment to my ensuing foul ball (because Lord knows I didn’t hit many fair ones).
But “I Go To Extremes” would have been just as appropriate a selection as any, and so its placement at this point in the program caught me by pleasant surprise. I think I might have even been inspired enough to rip a base hit, though I’d have to check Baseball Reference to find out for sure.
The point is that music moves us, takes us to higher ground, and that’s why at-bat music has become such a blaring presence at your local big league ballpark.
And as has become tradition here at CastroTurf, I am here to share with you the list of songs the 2012 Cleveland Indians have selected for the speakers when they step into the batter’s box or on the mound.
Thanks, as always, to scoreboard operations manager Annie Merovich for the list. Note that active players not listed here simply instructed the scoreboard crew to play whatever they want.
Michael Brantley: “Hustlaz Ambition” by Young Jeezy, “Wherever I May Roam” by Metallica.
Asdrubal Cabrera: “Super Estrella” by Don Miguelo, “Bachata en Fukuoka” by Juan Luis Gerra, “Hasta Abajo” by Don Omar.
Lonnie Chisenhall: “Crazy Train” by Ozzy Osbourne.
Shin-Soo Choo: “International Love” by Pitbull.
Aaron Cunningham: “Bright Side of Life” by Rebelution.
Jason Donald: “Get On” by Third Day, “Ain’t Talking About Love” by Van Halen (NOTE: Hey, I’m all for switching things up, but Donald used to come up to “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” by The Stones. This is a downgrade).
Shelley Duncan: “Dragula” by Rob Zombie.
Travis Hafner: “Burn It To The Ground” by Nickleback (NOTE: Really, Pronk? Really?), “The Game” by Motorhead, and Brock Lesnar’s intro song from WWE. (Yes, folks, this is the first time Hafner is coming to the plate to anything other than Rammstein).
Nick Hagadone: “The Night” by Disturbed.
Jack Hannahan: “Just Can’t Get Enough” by the Black Eyed Peas, “The Show Goes On” by Lupe Fiasco, “Untouchables” by John Cena, and, of course, an Irish jig.
Roberto Heredia (formerly Fausto): “Stronger” by Kanye West.
Ubaldo Jimenez: “Rie y Llora” by Celia Cruz, “Run This Town” by Jay-Z with Rihanna and Kanye West.
Jason Kipnis: “Sweet Child of Mine (remix version)” by Guns ‘N Roses, “L’Amour” by Bingo Players.
Casey Kotchman: All that’s listed for Kotchman is “silence.” Now, perhaps that refers to some band or song named “Silence” of which I’m not aware. Or maybe Kotchman really just wants a little peace and quiet when he comes to the plate. But he used to come up to “Till I Collapse” by Eminem, and he’s currently hitting .140. So silence works just as well. UPDATE: Kotchman has updated his entrance music to “Boom” by Snoop Dog, featuring T-Pain.
Derek Lowe: “Turn the Page” by Metallica.
Lou Marson: “All Mixed Up” by 311, “She’s An Easy Lover” by Phil Collins (NOTE: Yes!), “Louie Louie” by the Kingsmen.
Justin Masterson: “Bingo” by Still Trill Christians.
Chris Perez: “Firestarter” by The Prodigy.
Rafael Perez: “Scoreboard’s choice.” And as readers of this blog should know, that choice ought to be silence.
Vinnie Pestano: “Welcome Home” by Coheed and Cambria, “No More Sorrow” by Linkin Park.
Cord Phelps: “It’s A Long Way To The Top” by AC/DC.
Carlos Santana: All it says here is “Spanish songs.” He used to come up to “Chambonea” by Omega.
Tony Sipp: “Man On Fire” by Big K.R.I.T.
Grady Sizemore: “John” by Lil Wayne.
Joe Smith: “My Kinda Party” by Jason Aldean.
Josh Tomlin: “I Use What I Got” by Jason Aldean, “Good to Go” by Jason Aldean, “Runnin’ Down A Dream” by Tom Petty.
Dan Wheeler: He’ll come out to “any classic rock,” thank you.
Also worth noting:
When the Indians win, the scoreboard blares “Cleveland Rocks” by Presidents of the USA, “My Town” by Michael Stanley, “Again Tonight” by John Mellencamp, “I Love This Town” by Jon Bon Jovi or “When It’s Over” by Sugar Ray. After daytime wins, Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days” is added, and after night wins, it’s “Rock & Roll All Night” by Kiss.
When the Indians lose, it’s “Lost” by Coldplay or “Just One Victory” by Todd Rundgren’s Utopia.
And sadly, nobody uses “I Go To Extremes.”
On Twitter: @Castrovince
It is time, then, to once again marry two of my loves — The Boss and baseball — for the annual Springsteen setlist doubling as an Indians lineup. (And for a similar concept not settled solely on Springsteen, check out Paul Cousineau’s annual at-bat music entry over at The DiaTribe.)
By now, you know the drill. I’ll go through the projected Opening Day order and pick out a Bruce tune that seems an appropriate play for the player in question. Last year, I used “Back In Your Arms” as the theme for the season, because the Indians were desperate to win back their fan base after finishing last in the AL in attendance in 2010. Thanks to a 30-15 start, they did just that, but injuries helped bring the “Wrecking Ball” to the Tribe’s playoff hopes.
For this year’s theme, we turn to the last tune on the new album. Everybody and their mother is picking the Tigers to run away with the Central. The Indians, though, are banking on the belief that they if they get and stay healthy, they can duel with Detroit. They’ll attempt to stand up and remind us, “We Are Alive.”
Here’s the lineup:
1. Michael Brantley, CF – “Soul Driver”
Brantley is a big, big X-factor for this lineup, especially in light of the Grady Sizemore situation. We already know how the Matt LaPorta element of the CC Sabathia trade turned out, and the simple fact is that Brantley will be cast aside as similarly disappointing if he can’t stay healthy and can’t deliver the good eye and the stolen-base skills he’s showed at the Minor League level. If Brantley shines, this lineup could do the same. If he flops, well, you get the picture. So he’s a driving force here. And for whatever reason, “Soul Driver” seems like an apropos title to attach to a man known in the Progressive Field press box as “Dr. Smooth.”
2. Asdrubal Cabrera, SS – “Eyes on the Prize”
UPDATE: I wrote this last week, before the Tribe completed the Cabrera extension. But here’s hoping he keeps his eye on the prize, anyway.
The Indians didn’t make much effort to lock Cabrera up for the long-term in his first round of arbitration, and he responded with a breakthrough season from the power perspective, hitting 25 home runs after hitting 21 combined in his first four seasons. You know the guy is gunning for that big contract, be it here or elsewhere, and if he stays hungry (uh, not literally), he can make it happen. Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on.
3. Shin-Soo Choo, RF – “Gotta Get That Feeling”
There was a time not long ago when Choo’s five-tool potential seemed limitless. He hit 20 homers, stole 20 bases, batted .300 and got on base at a .401 clip in 2010, and that’s a pretty special combination of stats. He plummeted to the depths of DUI and disrepair in 2011, and so he enters 2012 trying to “get that feeling back again.”
(Note: Another acceptable entry, for the man who compared himself to a frog last season, would have been “Froggie Went A Courtin’” from the Sessions disc.)
(Note Part 2: This video’s from the last public performance with Clarence Clemons. Just felt that was worth mentioning.)
4. Carlos Santana, C – “Break Out”
This is a “Darkness On The Edge Of Town” outtake. I have absolutely no idea what the words are. They’re indecipherable. But the tone of the tune fits the implications of the title, and I think it works for the “Supernatural” Santana. His batting average aside, the kid showed some serious star potential by belting 27 home runs and 35 doubles while drawing 97 walks last season. He could break out in a big way in 2012 (even though I think the Indians should have given more serious consideration to making him a first baseman).
5. Travis Hafner, DH – “It’s A Shame”
What more can be said about this guy and this contract. It’s a shame for all involved. This organization invested in the man known as Pronk in a way it has never, before or since, invested in a player, and all the Indians have to show for it are an average of 103 games played over the last five seasons with an OPS of .804 in that span. Mercifully, the contract comes to its conclusion at year’s end, and it will be interesting to see if Hafner is still on board by year’s end or moved elsewhere. In the meantime, the Indians would be wise to utilize him almost solely against right-handed pitchers, because he can still be a productive piece in those situations.
6. Casey Kotchman, 1B – “The Little Things (My Baby Does)”
The Indians imported Kotchman on a one-year, $3 million deal to do the little things. His position might traditionally provide power, but they’ll be happy if he just gives them the stellar defense he’s come to be known for as well as the on-base ability he showed last season (.378 OBP). This was obviously not a sexy signing, but sometimes the little things go a long way.
7. Jason Kipnis, 2B – “You’ve Got It”
Kipnis wasted absolutely no time becoming a fan favorite last season (as the “We Are All Kipnises” signs demonstrate), and Manny Acta is already calling him a “cross between Dustin Pedroia and Chase Utley.” That’s a pretty bold comparison on Acta’s part, but I actually get part of what he’s saying there. Certain players just have a swagger to them – a confidence on and off the field, with leadership potential, to boot. I’d be lying if I told you the Indians have produced a lot of players who have that swagger, but Kipnis has got it. Now he has to translate it to an impactful first full season in the Majors.
8. Shelley Duncan, LF – “I’ll Work For Your Love”
This guy arrived to Cleveland two years ago, a Yankee castoff nearing 30 and looking for his first legit Major League opportunity. He’s worked his you-know-what off to put himself in good standing with this organization, and he’s about as good a teammate and as quality a competitor as exists in the game. With injuries hampering the outfield, Duncan, at this moment, figures to get regular at-bats here at the outset of the season. Perhaps he’ll build on the base he created in the final two months of 2011, when he posted a .915 OPS, and perhaps not. Either way, he’s endeared himself to the Tribe and he figures to retain a role on this club in some fashion.
9. Jack Hannahan, 3B — “Jack Of All Trades”
His name’s Jack, so… there you go. While Hannahan opens the season as the regular third baseman, the Indians have to hope Lonnie Chisenhall rakes in Columbus and earns his way back to the big leagues. And at that point, Hannahan can shift back to the part-time role that seemed to suit him well in the second half last season. With his glove, Hannahan can probably plug in at second and first, as well. With Hannahan, the Indians can “use what they’ve got, and learn to make do.”
RHP Justin Masterson – “The Rising”
A highly spiritual song for a highly spiritual guy. The doubts (expressed here and elsewhere) that he’d ever amount to much of a Major League starter because of his struggle against left-handed hitters must have hung on him like a “60-pound stone.” But Masterson rose up in a big way last year, establishing himself as the ace of the rotation. And now he has the Opening Day starting nod to show for it.
RHP Ubaldo Jimenez – “The Price You Pay”
The price the Indians paid for this guy was unquestionably steep, and no reasonable person would chalk it up as a price worth paying at this point. Jimenez was dreadful when he was needed most — against Detroit — down the stretch last season. But the Indians still have two more years of contractual control to get him right. They were encouraged by his conditioning this winter, if not his results this spring. He still has tremendous upside, of course, and so the Tribe will continue to work with him and ensure they get adequate and, they hope, exceptional value out of the price they paid last summer.
RHP Roberto Hernandez – “Brilliant Disguise”
I made this connection before, when the news about Robby Hernandez first came out over the winter, but it bears repeating – Fausto told a lie, and it was a successful one, given that he likely wouldn’t have had the same opportunity to rise through the Indians’ system and make millions of dollars if he had remained true to his age. It was a brilliant disguise, but now the mask has been removed. Will be interesting to see what the artist formerly known as Carmona has left in the tank after another typically inconsistent season at the ripe old age of 31.
RHP Derek Lowe – “Rocky Ground”
An appropriate title for a groundball specialist coming off perhaps the rockiest year of his long Major League career. The Indians don’t need Lowe in his prime (though that would be nice). They are hopeful he can eat up innings in the back end of their rotation while lending an experienced eye to the rest of this decidedly young staff.
Closer Chris Perez, setup men Vinnie Pestano, Joe Smith, Tony Sipp, et al. – “Atlantic City”
It only stands to reason that a song with such overt organized crime references and implications should be used for the group known as the “Bullpen Mafia.”
CF Grady Sizemore – “We Take Care Of Our Own”
Sure, the Indians could have let Grady walk and ply his trade elsewhere. But to see him overcome his injury ailments and reclaim his star status in another uniform would have been painful, and he was, sadly, the most attractive outfield option on the open market. So better, it seemed, to plunk down $5 million for Sizemore, even though all that $5 million has bought the Indians so far is the right to continue monitoring his rehabilitation. They’ll be taking care of this guy for another six months, at least.
Manny Acta – “Local Hero”
Getting to know Acta in his initial days as the Indians’ skipper, you could just tell his attitude, energy and enthusiasm would win people over in these parts. I think that’s happened, thanks in no small part to his entertaining tweets and, of course, the Tribe’s early season success last year. Cheesy as it sounds, Acta helped get the Indians believing in themselves last season, and they started out 30-15. With injuries already impacting the outlook, he’ll have to direct them down the same path right from the get-go in 2012. And if this club is as successful as Acta believes it can be, he’ll truly be a local hero.
On Twitter: @Castrovince
Ubaldo Jimenez is the bad guy here. There’s no getting around that, and nobody’s buying his claim that he wasn’t “looking for trouble.” Rockies manager Jim Tracy called Jimenez’s obviously intentional plunking of Troy Tulowitzki on Sunday “gutless.” It was also senseless and selfish. Jimenez deserves a suspension for his actions, and a suspension would force the Indians to juggle their already thin rotation at the start of the season.
All because Jimenez is still feuding with a team whose decision to trade him looks wiser by the day.
The Rockies didn’t rework Jimenez’s contract after his outstanding 2010 season. Jimenez pouted. Then he struggled. Then he got dealt.
In the aftermath, there has been a bit of back-and-forth between Jimenez and the Rockies. Ubaldo called the Indians organization “heaven” and said he felt unwanted in Colorado when they offered more lucrative contracts to Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez.
All this served to make Jimenez look petty at best and delusional at worst.
When you sign a contract, as Jimenez did before the 2009 season, you are bound to that contract. Just because you have an excellent season in the midst of said contract doesn’t mean the team should tear it up and agree to give you more money. By the same token, one wouldn’t expect a player who has a poor season in the midst of a long-term deal to agree to tear it up and take less money.
By commenting on it all, long after the fact, Jimenez opened old wounds and prompted a response from his old mates.
“If someone doesn’t want to be here,” Tulowitzki told the Denver Post, “we always say, ‘Please, go up to the manager and tell him you want to leave or that you don’t think this is the best place for you.’ That was kind of the case with him.”
Rather than sticking it to his old team with a prime performance on the Spring Training stage (his only opportunity, given that the two clubs don’t face each other in Interleague this year), Jimenez took the cheap and classless way out. Tracy was right to call him out on it, and the Commissioner’s Office (Bud Selig was reportedly in attendance) would be right to suspend him.
I’ll say this for Jimenez: His rift with the Rox has managed to take some of the attention away from his disconcerting spring performance. He posted a 7.43 ERA with 30 hits allowed and 15 walks in 23 innings, his velocity has been slow to come and his ability to efficiently put big-league batters away is still very much in question.
Jimenez can explain away his 2011 decline by citing his thumb and groin injuries and the fact that he didn’t build up arm strength by pitching winter ball. Fine, whatever. But he simply didn’t deliver for the Indians in the home stretch of the season, and he’ll be effectively out of excuses once the 2012 season proper starts.
Fact is, between his on-the-mound issues and now this incident Sunday, Jimenez has done little to endear himself to his new surroundings. Trades of this magnitude are best judged with the benefit of time, of course, but one important element of this acquisition (the late-season race with the Tigers last year) can be chalked up as a loss, and all the Indians have learned about Jimenez in the last eight months is that he’s an unpolished, unfinished project, not an ace. And now his maturity is being called into question, as well.
Jimenez — and only Jimenez — can alter that reality. He can make the Indians look wise for acquiring him and make the Rockies rue the day they dealt him. But the only way to do that is to refine that complicated delivery, harness those raw emotions and recapture that 2010 form.
Unfortunately, that guy who took the mound Sunday did not appear ready to do any of those things. Here’s hoping it’s a different guy on the mound in-season.
UPDATE: Jimenez has received a five-game suspension and been fined an undisclosed amount for intentionally hitting Tulowitzki with a pitch. Manny Acta told Jordan Bastian that Jimenez will appeal the suspension.
On Twitter: @Castrovince
“Today the Indians optioned INF LONNIE CHISENHALL and INF MATT LaPORTA to the Triple-A Columbus Clippers.”
Not a pleasant one, I would surmise.
After all, two years ago at this time, the expectation was that these two guys were eventually going to be the anchors of the Tribe infield, once Chisenhall reached the bigs and LaPorta was no longer blocked by Russell Branyan at first.
Chisenhall was, of course, one of the organization’s top prospects, ticketed for Triple-A Akron and two years removed from the Indians taking him with the 29th overall pick in the Draft. LaPorta was penciled in for 500 at-bats, either at first base or in left, two years removed from the Indians acquiring him in the CC Sabathia trade.
The expectation, at that point, was that LaPorta’s Triple-A days were done, given that he posted a .917 OPS at that level the year before. And the expectation was that he would build on his initial exposure to the Major Leagues with an impactful sophomore season.
LaPorta broke into the big leagues in 2009, played 52 games and stepped to the plate 198 times, with the following result: .254 average, .308 on-base percentage, .442 slugging percentage, seven homers, 13 doubles, 21 RBIs, 99 OPS+.
Chisenhall broke into the big leagues in 2011, played 66 games and stepped to the plate 223 times, with the following result: .255 average, .284 on-base percentage, .415 slugging percentage, seven homers, 13 doubles, 22 RBIs, 93 OPS+.
Looks pretty familiar, doesn’t it?
Here’s something the Indians hope doesn’t look familiar by the end of 2012: .221/.306/.362. That, of course, is LaPorta’s slash line from the 2010 season — a season in which he logged 110 games (mostly at first base, after the Branyan situation resolved itself with a midseason trade).
What, then, should we make of Tuesday’s announcement that “The Chiz Kid” is headed back to Columbus?
Well, two things…
1. The Indians, perhaps drawing from their experience with LaPorta, aren’t sold on Chisenhall as an everyday player at this stage.
2. Jack Hannahan is the new Russell Branyan. Sort of.
Like Branyan in 2010, Hannahan is a bit player who is going to retain an everyday role on this club purely on the basis of one standout skill. With Branyan, it was, of course, home runs (he hit one every 17.1 at-bats in his time with the Tribe in ’10). And with Hannahan, it’s his defense at the hot corner — a skill especially appreciated when extreme groundball pitchers Justin Masterson, Derek Lowe or Roberto Hernandez are on the hill.
With LaPorta two years ago, the situation was actually a little more complicated. Branyan arrived to bump LaPorta to left, but then another veteran hired hand, Austin Kearns, got hot in left, and suddenly the struggling LaPorta was a bench-warmer, eventually ticketed for Triple-A until Branyan was dealt.
With Chisenhall, the situation is somewhat remarkable if you step away and look at it broadly (as esteemed Tribe scribe Paul Cousineau did in his latest “DiaTribe”): The Indians are, for the moment at least, blocking one of their more highly regarded young talents — a guy who already got that first, initial exposure to the big leagues out of the way — by giving what would have been his everyday at-bats to Jack Hannahan, a 32-year-old with a lifetime OPS of .675 in 1,347 plate appearances.
And it’s even more amazing when you look elsewhere around the diamond and note, as Cousineau did, that the Indians, at this moment, project to have three guys in their everyday lineup who were non-roster invitees in their camps just one year ago — Hannahan at third, Shelley Duncan in left and Casey Kotchman at first.
Hey, at least corner spots aren’t considered pivotal power-producing positions or anything…
But while Kotchman qualifies at first because LaPorta failed and Kotchman is coming off a career year (if he repeats his .378 OBP while playing stellar defense at first, the Indians will have gotten their money’s worth) and Duncan qualifies in left because, well… because he’s standing, Hannahan vs. Chisenhall was a legit competition. One that Chisenhall didn’t win, even as Hannahan battled a back injury.
The thinking in the Indians’ camp is that Chisenhall pressed too hard to win the job, resulting in his .205 average in 16 Cactus League games. They were pretty pleased with his D. I certainly don’t think the Indians were so wowed with Hannahan’s second-half surge (.321 average, .874 OPS in 121 plate appearances… all in a part-time role) that they think he’s suddenly going to reach his peak in his early 30s. Because that’s crazy talk.
It’s a simple matter of coincidence that LaPorta’s inevitable demotion and Chisenhall’s marginally controversial one occurred on the same day.
But perhaps there’s a lesson to be learned in it.
What the Indians don’t need — for Chisenhall’s future or their own — is for The Chiz to struggle out the gate and/or share or split time with a short-term solution like Hannahan. They need him playing every day, and they need him feeling confident in the process, not looking over his shoulder and waiting to be replaced.
I can’t say I whole-heartedly agree with this decision, but I get that element of the thinking behind it. If Chisenhall’s not ready, you can’t force it. He’s 23.
But I will say this: The Indians better hope Chisenhall tears it up in Triple-A, because a lineup with Jack Hannahan, Shelley Duncan and Casey Kotchman in three of the four corner positions is in dire need of some offensive upside.
On Twitter: @Castrovince
NOTE: The following has absolutely nothing to do with baseball. Sorry.
Somewhere along Interstate 77 — the main artery connecting Athens, Ohio, to Chapel Hill, N.C. — there is a Flying J gas and diesel station. It’s the kind of place where truckers bathe and weary passengers re-energize themselves with 64-ounce fountain drinks.
And at this particular Flying J on a particular afternoon in February 2002, the great American dream that is the 99-cent footlong corndog was indeed a reality.
There were five of us crammed into a Chevy Cavalier (a vehicle that, as any owner of a Chevy Cavalier can attest, comfortably holds about 2 3/8 people) when we happened upon this Flying J and this amazing luncheon availability, and my buddy Brad was inspired enough to call the emergency assistance phone number listed on the side of the highway to report neither an accident nor a disturbance but rather the corndog discovery.
So began, in earnest, one of the more remarkable road trips of both my journalistic and my college career. In that car were four aspiring sports reporters and one corndog-crazed poly sci major from Ohio University, traveling to Tobacco Road, bound for the Dean Dome come hell or flat tire. Our Bobcats were facing the North Carolina Tar Heels on national TV, but, for us, mere ESPN2 would not be sufficient enough for a matchup of this magnitude.
I was, at the time, an OU junior and Athens Messenger beat reporter. Also shoved in that car were three fellow J-schoolers named Dana, Bryce and Matt, all of whom worked for the campus TV station. And then there was Brad, a good friend for whom I had rather unethically finagled a Messenger press pass, so that he could see his beloved Bobcats on the big stage.
The seven-hour trek to the UNC campus was marked by the cramped quarters, the bad jokes, the fast-food stops and an untimely empty gas tank at Fancy Gap. But we made it. And to a group all-too-accustomed to half-empty Mid-American Conference gyms, there was something mystical about stepping into that arena, packed with patrons in poofy blue.
Brad and I took our spots on press row behind one of the baskets. I instructed him that we must refrain from showing any emotion. “No cheering in the press box” and all that. But who was I kidding? For one, Brad was that rare Ohio student who was actually a fan of the school’s teams (he invented the greatest fan tradition that never became a tradition — “The Claw,” which was some kind of hand motion vaguely resembling an attacking cat but that really just wound up looking like a lame show choir routine). And though I’d like to think I did a fine job of maintaining some semblance of impartiality during my four years as a student reporter, this was about as close to the national stage as any OU team had come in my tenure there, and I wanted them to shine.
Really, that entire 2001-02 season was supposed to be special. This was an OU team that entered the season as the purported class of the MAC. They had a CC Sabathia-sized power forward named Brandon Hunter, who could often be found driving his oversized Hummer down the tiny brick streets of Athens. They had a lanky beanpole of a center named Patrick Flomo, a true man about town who my friend and fellow writer Jon Greenberg once described as “an ebony exclamation point on a campus of white dots.” They had a couple sharp-shooters named Steve Esterkamp and Jon Sanderson and a sixth-man sparkplug named Sonny Johnson, who averaged about 16 points per game.
It was a good team, one I was certain would go deep into the MAC tournament and maybe, just maybe, reach the NCAAs. OU had dumped its longtime leader Larry Hunter after a 19-win season the year before and hired a rookie head coach named Tim O’Shea, who had this awesome habit of name-dropping Boston College (where he had served as an assistant) and Troy Bell (whom he had recruited) in every single press conference he ever conducted. He was quirky and cocky and quotable and therefore was a dream to cover.
O’Shea had scheduled this UNC game as the Bobcats’ national coming-out party, and he had good timing. The Tar Heels were terrible. They were in the thick of the utterly abominable Matt Doherty era, en route to an 8-20 finish.
Still, it was North Carolina, and these were the former stomping grounds of Smith, of Worthy, of Jordan. This was a distinct change of pace from the Toledo Rockets and Akron Zips.
The game remains one of my favorite sporting events I’ve covered to date. OU took a 33-29 lead into the half. Then they went up 69-53 late in the second half on a two-handed dunk by the Ebony Exclamation Point. It was all Brad and I could do not to stand up and start deliriously high-fiving and hugging each other.
Then came the run. It all happened so quickly that the details don’t even register anymore. All I know is that from about the six-minute mark to the two-minute mark, UNC went on one of those NBA Jam-type outbursts where the basket goes aflame. I’ve been to countless (OK, actually 34) Springsteen concerts, I was there when Nelson Cruz couldn’t catch David Freese’s line drive in Game 6, I’ve sat next to crying babies on airplanes. But perhaps because I was emotionally invested in this titanic tilt, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything louder than the eruption when UNC cut the OU lead to 73-70 that night.
Suddenly, the whole experience was in jeopardy. If OU blew this lead, the corndogs wouldn’t be the only things causing indigestion.
He played the point.
A 6-foot-7, 270-pound beast of a man took the ball, waved his teammates down the court as if to say, “Get out of my way,” dribbled behind his back, drove through the paint and dished it to Flomo, who put down another thunder dunk.
The Tar Heels never threatened again.
And the Bobcats, frankly, were never all that fun to watch again. Not only did they not win the MAC tourney that year, as so many had predicted, they didn’t even advance out of the opening round, despite playing the tournament’s 13 seed at home. They were similarly disappointing my senior year.
In the time since, the entire culture of OU athletics has changed. The football team, which went 1-10 my junior year, now goes to bowl games (even, ahem, when it blows 20-0 halftime leads in the MAC title game). The basketball team has been to the NCAAs not once not twice but thrice in the last seven years, beating Georgetown in 2010.
And now, for the first time since the tournament field expanded to 64 teams, the Bobcats are in the Sweet 16.
And they’re facing North Carolina.
I am, needless to say, utterly envious of the student reporters traveling to St. Louis this weekend, and I hope they soak in every element of the experience not just for their own clips and broadcasts but for the stories they’ll one day be passing down. And I am, of course, a very, very proud Ohio fan and alum.
I don’t know what’s going to happen Friday night. I suppose the odds are pretty decent that the Bobcats will get drilled by a UNC team vastly superior in size and standing.
But then again, in a world in which you can buy 99-cent footlong corndogs by the side of the road, anything seems possible.
UPDATE: Found a YouTube video of that evening… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BLfX1G6TLF4
On Twitter: @Castrovince
Albert Belle was back in the news this week, and my mind got to reminiscing…
We scalped tickets to Albert nee “Joey” Belle’s first Major League game. It was a Saturday night — July 15, 1989 — and, for one of the few times in my lifetime of going to games at old Municipal Stadium, a decent crowd was expected to be on-hand.
And so my dad, brother and I couldn’t commence with our usual routine of showing up at the gate, buying a general admission ticket in right field and parking ourselves in the amply available front-row seats behind Cory Snyder.
Besides, in what certainly signaled the beginning of the end of the remarkable Cory Snyder Era, it was Belle getting the starting nod in right field.* And the arrival of this power-hitting prospect, combined with a Nolan Ryan appearance for the visiting Rangers and the fact that the Tribe was actually flirting with .500 after the All-Star break, all added up to an announced crowd of nearly 30,000 in the 74,000-seat stadium — an overwhelming tally at the time.
*When I look at Baseball Reference now, it’s little wonder Snyder wasn’t starting that night. I see that he was 9-for-his-last-49 and batting .233 with a .640 OPS on the season. This can’t possibly be correct, though, because, in my 8-year-old mind, he was on pace for the Triple Crown.
We scalped a trio of tickets in the upper deck, but not without incident. A cop approached as my dad bartered with the broker and threateningly informed them that no scalping on stadium grounds would be tolerated.
“Oh no, officer,” my dad assured him, “we wouldn’t do that. This is my cousin!”
My dad and the complete stranger put their arms around each other and carried on about old times and old acquaintances.
All of which would have been believable, had my father not been a 5-foot-3 Sicilian and the scalper not been a 6-foot-3 African-American.
But hey, it worked. The cop shook his head and walked off.
It was at this moment that my 8-year-old Catholic conscience (long since departed) got the best of me. My hands shaking, my lips quivering as we headed into the ballpark and up toward our seats, my dad asked me what was wrong.
“You lied to that police officer!” I said through tears.
Ah, but the tears would quickly give way to the smiles provided by the beauty of ball. That’s how it is when you’re 8, after all.
The game itself? Well, it was one of those nights that instill and affirm your love of the sport at an early age. Belle got a base knock off Ryan for his first Major League hit, the immortal Joe Carter went 3-for-4 with four RBIs, Ryan got rocked and Greg Swindell went the distance. The Indians won, 7-1.
Truth is, though, I don’t even remember caring too much whether the Indians won or lost back then. Most of the time, we’d end up leaving a couple innings early and listening to Herb Score call the rest of the game (on “3WE… WWWE… Cleveland,” as the in-game station identification would go), and the outcome was, quite typically, defeat.
But something changed that particular night — something that could only be gathered in retrospect. Albert Belle made his debut, and he would prove to be the first piece of the larger puzzle.
In December of that year, the Indians would net Sandy Alomar Jr. and Carlos Baerga in the trade that sent Carter to the Padres, and Alomar would emerge as the Rookie of the Year in 1990 — the same year Charles Nagy first appeared in the bigs.
In ’91, Belle (a year removed from an alcohol treatment program at the Cleveland Clinic and the reclaiming of his birth name, Albert) and Baerga became Major League regulars, and Jim Thome debuted.
In ’92, Kenny Lofton arrived from Houston and Paul Sorrento from Minnesota.
By the time they moved south to Jacobs Field in ’94, with Omar Vizquel acquired from Seattle and hired guns like Eddie Murray and Dennis Martinez brought aboard in free agency, the Indians had, at long last, assembled a legit contender in the newly formed American League Central Division.
And in ’95, they were a powerhouse — one of the greatest teams in history to not win a World Series.
It all began on July 15, 1989, when Joey Belle stroked a single off Nolan Ryan to bring home a run.
And I wouldn’t have been there to witness it without the help of my first cousin, once removed.
On Twitter: @Castrovince
For 18 games of the 2011 season — you know, after he missed a couple weeks while finishing off the rehab on his left knee and before he hurt his other knee sliding into second base — the Indians got the real Grady Sizemore.
It was an 18-game burst of brilliance. A .974 OPS and 16 extra-base hits. The Sizemore of old, the Sizemore who had been welcomed into the good graces of the 30-30 club and an annual AL All-Star locker assignment, had returned, but briefly.
And that 18-game stretch, combined with the cachet of good will and sound reputation he had accrued over a decade of hard work in front of and behind the curtain, was enough for the Indians to take a $5 million gamble that they’d be getting that Grady again for a more sustained stretch in 2012.
Maybe that gamble looks foolish now in the wake of yet another Sizemore injury — this time, a strained back while fielding groundballs in the outfield, a fate that would be comic if it weren’t so tragic — and the news that the glass-bodied Grady will miss yet another Opening Day.
But even though my last optometrist appointment confirmed 20/20 hindsight, I still can’t fault the Tribe front office for this one, given their obvious budget constraints.
To me, the Sizemore deal remains a chance that was very much worth taking.
Remember, this was — is — a $5 million guarantee, with added incentives that the Indians would be pleased to pay, because that would mean Sizemore is a regular member of their lineup.
What does $5 million buy you in the free-agent outfield market? I think you know the answer to that question, but let’s explore it anyway.
The only true comparable from a year ago was when the Rays paid a 37-year-old Johnny Damon $5.25 million to be their left fielder (he eventually became their DH, after Manny Ramirez flaked out) and got 1.5 wins above replacement, as calculated by Fangraphs.com. But just to further assist the discussion, Coco Crisp was in the second year of a two-year, $10.75 million contract with the A’s (making $5.75 million) and delivered a 2.2 WAR.
WAR is not a perfect estimation of a player’s contributions, by any means, but it gives us a decent estimation of what $5 million can buy you in this particular department. A player of marginal impact.
Now, obviously, Sizemore at his healthiest was a player of substantial impact. He had a 5.8 WAR in 2005, 8.0 in ’06, 6.2 in ’07, and 7.4 in ’08. And even when he played virtually the entire ’09 season with elbow and abdominal issues and was shut down in early September, he contributed a 2.0 WAR that is comparable to what the Rays and A’s got from Damon and Crisp, respectively, last year.
I know, I know. That version of Sizemore is gone, and likely for good. But as that ’09 season demonstrated, if you could just get the guy on the field, the potential for $5 million worth of assistance was there.
And if he’s actually in a position where he’s feeling healthy, well, who knows? That taunting, teasing 18-game stretch from last season had the Indians holding out hope for much more. And rightfully so.
The decision to re-sign Sizemore makes even more sense when you look at the other, decidedly unappealing options that existed on the free-agent and trade markets. For one, none other than Crisp himself was considered the top center fielder on the market (he got two years, $14 million). The Tribe’s best trade options, as far as I could tell, were Andres Torres and Angel Pagan, and they ended up getting swapped for each other. No telling if the Indians had the right piece to land either guy, and there’s certainly no telling what either will contribute after decidedly down years with the Giants and Mets and with no discernible track record beforehand.
The best outfield options, regardless of particular position within the outfield, were Michael Cuddyer, who got three years and $31.5 million from the Rockies, and Josh Willingham, who got three years and $21 million from the Twins.
Cuddyer was never a realistic possibility, at that price, whether the Indians signed Sizemore or not. But the Sizemore signing actually didn’t preclude them from being finalists for Willingham. They were in on him until the bitter end. Perhaps if they didn’t sign Grady, they could have upped their Willingham offer, but now you’re talking about a three-year contract in excess of $21 million for a player who, in a career year last year, contributed two wins above replacement. Not what I’d consider a sound investment.
Maybe the Indians could have gotten lucky with some other investment, a la the Royals last year with their $2.5 million deal with Jeff Francouer or the Cardinals with their $8 million deal with Lance Berkman. But that’s the kind of luck the Indians (an organization that, quite famously, does not major in luck) were/are counting on with Sizemore.
Maybe the Tribe could have used the Sizemore savings in other areas, such as increasing their offer to first baseman Carlos Pena. They reportedly offered Pena $8 million to come to Cleveland, and he opted instead to sign with the Rays for $7.25 million. Maybe if they threw a couple more million on the pile, they could have reeled him in. But then you have to ask yourself if Carlos Pena is worth eight figures.
The long-winded point here is that there are any number of opportunities the Indians could have explored beyond Sizemore, but none of them strike me as particularly appealing. And none of them featured the kind of upside the Grady deal presented (and perhaps, depending on the severity of this back situation, still presents).
No, if you want to criticize the Indians at this point, criticize the system, not the signing.
This club simply did not infuse enough quality outfield talent into its system through the Draft and trades to come to the forefront in times like these. Remember, this is the club that took Trevor Crowe when Jacoby Ellsbury was still on the board and Beau Mills one pick ahead of Jason Heyward. This is the club that, to date, has not reaped any meaningful returns from Matt LaPorta and Michael Brantley — the two top acquisitions in the CC Sabathia trade. (And yes, that 20/20 hindsight is kicking in again.)
And so what the Indians are left with now is hope, however feint, that Sizemore’s back troubles subside quickly enough for him to still provide meaningful at-bats in the 2012 season. And in the meantime, they have to hope that the Shelley Duncans and Aaron Cunnighams and Felix Pies and Ryan Spilborghs of the world — all guys who were cast aside by other organizations and given new life with the Tribe — can hold serve until he returns.
This Sizemore injury is damaging, no doubt, though not in the way further malfunctioning of the Ubaldo Jimenez project would be. Sizemore’s contract was, from the beginning, a $5 million gamble in which the risk-reward factor was clear and present. Hey, at least this time, it didn’t involve a knee.
Maybe Grady gets healthy before long. Maybe he extrapolates that 18-game stretch from 2011 into a more meaningful timeframe.
For this team, in this market, on this budget, with this farm system, that hope is all the Indians have.
And that’s all they’ve had all along.
On Twitter: @Castrovince
Asdrubal Cabrera picked up his Professional Athlete of the Year trophy at the Greater Cleveland Sports Awards last night, and I’m told the first half of his acceptance speech was much better than the second.
This begs the question: What is Cabrera worth, and how long will he be worth it?
Cabrera has asked for $5.2 million for 2012, while the Indians have countered with an offer of $3.75 million. Either way, Cabrera will get a sizable raise from the $2.025 million he made in 2011, and it’s much-deserved after the best season of his career. He hit 25 home runs, the most of any shortstop in franchise history, while also batting .273 with 92 RBIs in 151 games. He was a leader, both vocal and emotional, even as the injuries piled up and the Indians fell out of contention.
But Cabrera, as you well know, saw his own performance fade along with those hopes of an AL Central crown. Look at his month-by-month splits, from baseball-reference.com:
Split G GS PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB CS BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS April/March 26 26 123 107 17 28 4 1 5 17 2 0 9 19 .262 .333 .458 .791 May 26 26 114 106 18 35 7 2 5 19 5 0 5 15 .330 .372 .575 .947 June 27 27 118 111 17 33 10 0 3 11 5 1 6 22 .297 .339 .468 .807 July 25 25 105 94 10 25 4 0 4 14 1 2 8 22 .266 .333 .436 .770 August 27 27 125 109 16 26 4 0 4 17 3 1 12 25 .239 .320 .385 .705 Sept/Oct 20 20 82 77 9 18 3 0 4 14 1 1 4 16 .234 .280 .429 .709
What you see there is the root of all fears the Indians possess with regard to Cabrera. His physical conditioning has constantly come into question. And until he demonstrates the ability to sustain his performance over the course of a full season, it will remain a question.
Cabrera played through a ton of pain last year. After playing just 97 games in 2010 because of a fractured forearm, he appeared in 151 out of 162 in ’11. And he took his power productivity to new heights. His .460 slugging percentage was 66 points higher than what had been his career norm, coming in.
The leadership, the willingness to gut it out when his body is barking at him, the comfort level he’s displayed on the Major League stage literally from the day he arrived in 2007… those things aren’t going anywhere. You invest in that.
But the Indians have to understand that if they’re buying into Cabrera for the long-term right now, they’re buying high. He might never top the run-production he provided in 2011, and his defensive range (for what it’s worth, his UZR, as calculated by Fangraphs.com, has dropped each season at shortstop, all the way down to 11.8 points below average last year) doesn’t figure to improve, either.
And yet, because they clearly aren’t looking to trade him while his value is at its perceived peak (a half-baked idea I discussed at the time of the Winter Meetings), they have no choice but to try to extend him. Because if he matches his performance of 2011, his price tag increases exponentially, a year ahead of free agency (and we all know how well the Indians fare in that environment). And even if he doesn’t match those ’11 numbers, the organization is not exactly brimming with upper-level shortstop supply.
This organization’s top prospect (at short or elsewhere) is Francisco Lindor. He’s 19. So, too, are highly regarded shortstops Ronny Rodriguez and Tony Wolters (who might profile better as a second baseman, anyway). Even if those guys pan out and get to the Majors, it’s going to be at least a few years before they get there, let alone settle in. This year, the Tribe will have a light-hitting shortstop in Columbus in Juan Diaz and another in Akron in Casey Frawley. Their only other viable option for short at the Major League level is Jason Donald, and nobody is counting on him as an everyday player at that position.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but the prospect pool at this position in the upper levels is basically barren. Cabrera is the be all and end all for the foreseeable future.
The Indians never showed much interest in a Cabrera extension in the past, largely because of his conditioning. But his dramatic improvement in ’11, combined with their dearth of options coming through the pipeline, have forced the issue.
Now that the issue is at hand, we can expect some sort of compromise on the arbitration issue for 2012 — $4.48M would be the midway point, and it certainly seems reasonable. Buying out Cabrera’s third and final arbitration year would probably take another $2M-$2.5M raise, so you’re looking at a salary somewhere in the neighborhood of $6.75 million for ’13. And then, to buy out one or two or three of Cabrera’s free-agent years (the only way such a deal would make any sense whatsoever for the Indians), J.J. Hardy’s recent extension with the Orioles (three years, $22.5M) seems a worthwhile comparison. That deal has an average annual value of $7.4M.
Add it all up, and you’d be looking at a three-year guarantee of about $18.6M, a four-year guarantee of about $26M and a five-year guarantee of about $33.4M. Perhaps the Indians could coerce Cabrera to make one or two of those club option years, but you get the idea.
Is Cabrera worth that type of commitment? Especially to a club recently burned by the Jake Westbrook and Travis Hafner extensions? Well, frankly, none of us knows. The power Cabrera displayed last season could very well be a fluke, and the second-half slide could very well be a warning signal.
But knowing what little is on the immediate horizon and knowing how well the Indians fare in free agency, it might be time for them to invest in what they have.