Archive for the ‘ Uncategorized ’ Category

“Maybe everything that dies someday comes back”

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

When the Tigers finally arrived to Progressive Field on Monday afternoon, their unexpectedly long Boston layover behind them, Victor Jose Martinez arrived with them.

Nine years old, husky and happy as ever, “Little Vic,” as he’s come to be known, has spent countless hours at that ballpark, following faithfully in the footsteps of his famous dad and immersing himself daily in the pregame rituals of a sport he clearly loves. But on this day, he was wearing an aqua T-shirt bearing the name of a basketball player:

LeBron James.

victorIn Cleveland.

“Uhoh,” his dad said with a laugh. “He doesn’t know any better!”

We’ll forgive the transgression, because Victor Jose still has Cleveland in his heart, much like his old man. And that leads to a conversation that, while taking place obnoxiously early, is worth bringing up on the day the Indians activate a 43-year-old Jason Giambi off the disabled list for the second time in the young season.

Could Victor Martinez, a pending free agent, reunite with the Indians this winter?

Martinez, for one, is intrigued by the possibility.

“Anything can happen in this game,” he said. “It would be special. The Indians were so great to me and my family. I’ve got three kids. The first two were born here. It would be special, but we’ll see.”

Alas, there are a couple obvious obstacles to this potential reunion:

1.    The finances. The way Indians aren’t exactly drowning in dough, and Martinez’s incredible production at this early stage of the season points to a proper pay day that might be out of their reach, particularly given his defensive limitations and the value Terry Francona, like the majority of AL managers today, places on flexibility with the DH spot.

2.    The compensation issue. It’s simply not a free and open market for guys tied to Draft pick compensation, and, the way things are looking, the Tigers would have every incentive to extend a qualifying offer to V-Mart. This would likely be a deal-breaker for the Indians, given their evergreen need to stock the system. The only solution is not a satisfying one: If the Indians finish the season with one of the 10 worst records in baseball, their first-round pick would be protected. (Right now, only five MLB teams are off to a worst start than the Tribe.)

So, yeah, those are some big hurdles, and, as we’ve seen with Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn so far, post-prime position players can be an awfully inefficient area in which to do business, especially at a time when so many teams are starved for offense.

Where the Victor possibility lives, then, is purely on the sentimental side.

Who knows? Maybe that’s enough. Per Baseball Reference, he’s made nearly $73 million in his career, and, knowing how much this team and this town means to him (he still leaves tickets every home series to his host family from his Mahoning Valley Scrappers days) the incentive to finish his career where it began might be a strong one. Of all my memories from the years I’ve been around this team, that image of Victor Jose sitting on his daddy’s lap and the two of them crying at his locker on the day he was traded (Victor Jose had asked that morning, “Are we still an Indian?”) remains the most distinct.

The Tribe’s decision to trade Martinez and Lee in July ’09 — one year and two months prior to their free-agent eligibilities — is still a source of fascination to me, and not because the Lee trade has netted them literally less than nothing (combined Cleveland WAR of Carlos Carrasco, Jason Donald, Lou Marson and, um, Jason Knapp: 2.0; Lee’s WAR from August 2009 to the end of ’10: 5.9).*

*By the way, if you’re really into the WAR game (generally speaking, I’m not, but it’s an easy way to get away with analyzing complex situations), Victor’s WAR in his one year and two months with Boston was 6.1, while Justin Masterson’s WAR in three full and two partial seasons with the Indians, so far, is 7.5.

The reason it’s fascinating is because, in the grand scheme, it wasn’t that long ago, and yet the sport has fundamentally changed enough in that short span that it’s hard to imagine a team in the position the Indians were in at that point making moves of a similar magnitude today. Punting not only on a current season but the following season, now that there are two Wild Cards, a bigger influx of national TV money and a greater sense of competitive balance, would be inconceivable (at least, to me), even in this market.

And yes, to some, it was inconceivable back in 2009, too.

Anyway, that’s all analysis of the rearview. The real focus here is speculation about the future, which is probably more fun. And the basic point is that perhaps Victor’s sentimentality is strong enough to lead to a reunion.

And hey, while we’re at it, maybe LeBron will come back, too.

~AC

“Hey baby, they’re playing our song”

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

If you thought instant replay review and the policing of home-plate collisions were the biggest rule changes in Major League Baseball this season… um… you’re right.

But a much-lesser change must be noted here: The policing of at-bat music.

musicYes, the tunes have been limited this year to a scant 15 seconds, barely enough time to determine what, exactly, Mann is Buzzin’ about each time Nick Swisher steps to the plate.

(It is, however, enough time for A’s fans to be treated to the sweet and soulful sax that opens WHAM!’s “Careless Whisper” when Josh Reddick comes to bat, so all is not lost.)

Anyway, at-bat music lives on, in some measure. And I’ve been doing these posts compiling the songs used by the Indians each season since 2008, back when Michael Aubrey and Josh Barfield still roamed the earth. They’ve been pretty enjoyable.

But people much smarter and trendier and marketing-savvy than me realized it would be a good idea to synthesize most of this information into the useful At the Ballpark app, so I’m not sure how much value there is to this little dog and pony show anymore. This, therefore, might be the last at-bat music entry here.

With the help of scoreboard operations manager Annie Merovich (and as a lead-in to Friday’s Springsteen fireworks extravaganza), let’s take a stroll through the sounds of Progressive Field, shall we?

(One important note: These guys have been changing up their songs even more than usual this year, especially in the midst of some slow offensive starts. So these are always subject to adjustments.)

Asdrubal Cabrera: “Ready 2 Go” by Ale Mendoza, “Ella Lo Que Quiere Es Salsa” by Victor Manuelle, “6 a.m.” by J Balvin. Favorite “Ready 2 Go” lyric: “You turn me into a crazy man…” when you rule my cycle-clinching triple to be a double and an error.

Nick Swisher: “Buzzin’” by Mann, “Check Yo Self” by Ice Cube. I know on Opening Day he used “Happy,” but then he started out 10-for-61, so he was probably less happy. Favorite “Buzzin’” lyric: First you wanna step to me, now your #$@ screamin for the deputy.” Remember that, Lofton.

Jason Kipnis: “Satisfaction (RL Grime Remix)” by Benny Benassi & The Biz, “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See” by Busta Rhymes. Favorite “Put Your Hands..” lyric: “Look at shorty, she a little cutie yo/The way she shake it make me wanna get all in the booty yo.” That’s how dad met mom.

Carlos Santana: Every year, it seems, there is some mystery to Santana’s choices when I get this list. This year, all it says is, “Two Spanish songs.” Rather than ask follow-up questions, I prefer to offer blind speculation that one of them goes a little something like this…

Michael Brantley: “Walk Thru” by Rich Homie Quan. Favorite lyric: “I done walk thru with Gucci on my feet/Who got more money, you or me?” Definitely you, Dr. Smooth.

Ryan Raburn: “Kiss My Country $#@” by Rhett Atkins, “Whistlin’ Dixie” by Randy Houser.”

Yan Gomes: “Dream” by Lecrae. Favorite lyric: “Dream of being the player that will lead a team to Christ.” So this song clearly has the same vibe as “Check Yo Self.”

David Murphy: “Where I Belong” by Building 429, “City On Our Knees” by TobyMac. They play these songs on that station David Puddy listens to.

Jason Giambi: “Wolfpack” by C-Murder. Theme song for New World Order in World Championship Wrestling. They don’t play this on that station David Puddy listens to.

Mike Aviles: “Hit ‘Em Up” by Lil Wayne. Favorite lyric: “Quit the diarrhea.” Hey, believe me, I’d love to, but the Pepto-Bismol ain’t working.

Lonnie Chisenhall: “Crazy Train” by Ozzy Osbourne.

Michael Bourn: “We Dem Boyz” by Wiz Khalifa, “Show Da World” by Lil Boosie and Webbie, “My First Song” by Jaz-Z. Favorite “My First Song” lyric: “I’m bout to go golfin’ man/Ay, I might even have me a cappuccino.” Totally did not see that coming.

Nyjer Morgan: “Flight of the Valkyries” from WWE. What? You expected T. Plush to come out to some Jim Croce?

Justin Masterson: “Rebirthing” by Skillet.

Zach McAllister: “Return of the Mack,” by Mark Morrison.

Corey Kluber: “Radioactive” by Imagine Dragons, “Thunderstruck” by AC/DC. These two tunes get Kluber really fired up. He looks like this when he listens to them…

kluberDanny Salazar: “Humo” by El Alfa & Musicologo, “Jefe” by Daddy Yankee, “En El Cielo No Hay Hospital” by Juan Luis Guerra.

Josh Tomlin: “A State of Texas” by Old 97’s. Favorite lyric: “Where the stars at night are a hell of a sight/And the honkey-tonks never close.” If there’s one thing people from Texas love, it’s Texas.

Scott Atchison: “Heartland.” At first, I thought this might be the great U2 song. But then I remembered Atchison is also from Texas, so…

Carlos Carrasco: “Enter Sandman” by Metallica. Shouldn’t this have been retired alongside Mariano Rivera? Doesn’t feel right for somebody else to use it.

Cody Allen: “The Outsiders” by Eric Church, “Take It Outside” by Brantley Gilbert, “Sound of Madness” by Shinedown, “Pickin’ Wildflowers” by Keith Anderson, “The Only Way I Know” by Jason Aldean. So basically, they asked Allen for his entrance music, and he listed every song on his iPhone.

Bryan Shaw: “My Songs Know What You Did In The Dark (Light Em Up)” by Fall Out Boy. Uhoh. The 2013 postseason music is back. Watch out, mups!

Josh Outman: “Quutamo” by Apocalyptica, “Chorus of Angels” by Haste the Day and “Let It Go” from “Frozen.” We officially have a new winner for most eclectic Indians music selection since I’ve been doing this. Well done, Outman.

Mark Rzepczynski: “Down With The Sickness” by Disturbed.

John Axford: “Working Man” by Rush. If there’s one thing Canadians love, it’s other Canadians.

~AC

“Einstein is scratching numbers on his napkin”

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

I’ve been delving into some end-of-April statistical oddities for an annual column on MLB.com, and a regular reader passed along this nugget via the Twitter:

All right, so that particular note is not what you’d call “statistically correct.” It is, however, “emotionally correct,” and as we know too well in life, in love, in politics, in religion and, above all else, in sports fandom, emotional correctness rules the day.

But right here, right now, right as the Indians are close to wrapping up what has been a not-too-encouraging April, let’s splash some statistical correctness on the canvas and speculate about what, if anything, it illustrates.

Here are some interesting numbers from the first four weeks of the season (all stats through April 28).

Minus-23

Upholding that point about the “emotional correctness” of the above defensive data, this is the Indians’ defensive runs saved tally, per Baseball Info Solutions. Not pretty (the Tigers are the only team with a worse mark, at minus-24). And while the various advanced defensive metrics often disagree with each other, they are in agreement on the Indians. Baseball Prospectus’ defensive efficiency tabulation shows they’ve converted just 67.9 percent of balls in play into outs, ahead of only Boston (67.4). And if good, old-fashioned errors are your point of emphasis, well, the Indians, with 24, offer plenty of those. Only the Dodgers, Nats and D-backs have more.

So by any measure, the Indians’ glovework has been grotesque. And as Terry Francona has stated time and again, this is not a team that can afford to give outs away on either side of the equation. This might, in fact, be the fundamental reason the Indians are where they are (last place in the Central), as they’ve already given up 15 unearned runs.

You knew they were sacrificing some D with Carlos Santana at third, but he’s actually been fairly low on their list of glaring defensive issues (and high on their list of glaring offensive issues). The early throwing and receiving woes of Yan Gomes are the most puzzling concern, because it had seemed a good guess that his defense would remain steady and his offense would slide in his sophomore year. Baseball, man. Funny game.

188

That’s the number of qualifiers with a higher batting average than Carlos Santana (.140). Only Curtis Granderson (.129) is lower. Santana has already hit into seven double plays (equaling last year’s total), his isolated power has dropped 82 points, and he’s just 3-for-25 from the seventh inning on. He has, however, drawn 21 walks, so his plate discipline remains intact, and that’s an encouraging sign as Francona sticks with him in the cleanup spot. The dude’s simply been in a deep slump, and Monday’s performance might be his first step out of it.

.500

Lonnie Chisenhall’s (obviously unsustainable) batting average on balls in play. Hey, get it any way you can, and Chisenhall has gone from 25th man to a clear (and welcomed) lineup complication. He’s not necessarily enough of a defensive asset to necessitate moving Santana to DH, but he has become a must-start against right-handers, and Francona has to be tempted to give him more opportunity against lefties, too, even with Mike Aviles aboard. Could it be that Chisenhall, unlike Santana, benefits from the increased attention placed on every at-bat in the DH role? I have no earthly idea. I just know that something has clearly clicked for Chisenhall early on, and I’m as curious as anybody to see how Francona continues to adjust and adapt to this pleasant surprise.

9.02

This is the Tribe starting staff’s strikeouts-per-nine-innings mark. A profound area of difference between the 2012 (6.12) and 2013 (8.56) squads, it has remained at an elite level (second in baseball), despite the losses of Ubaldo Jimenez 9.6 K/9 last year) and Scott Kazmir (9.2). But we’ve certainly seen with Danny Salazar (11.0) and Carlos Carrasco (9.4) that there’s a lot more to quality starts than a quality K rate.

1.022

Speaking of Carrasco, this is (or should I say was) his opponents’ OPS the second time through the order. I wrote a bit about this recently, but Carrasco’s struggles to maintain over the course of an outing signaled what appears to be the end of his term as a starter on this staff. This was merely a 32 at-bat sample here in 2014, but it’s a .939 OPS the second time through the order in his career. And while 44 starts isn’t the greatest base upon which to build judgments, the Indians, given their issues elsewhere and the magnitude of this season, simply couldn’t afford to keep running Carrasco out there every fifth day and hoping he figures it out. Bring on Trevor Bauer or Josh Tomlin.

88.7

I mentioned the “magnitude of this season,” and much of that, of course, comes down to the pending free agency of the Tribe’s top starter. Masterson, though, has not been doing his part to maximize the remaining time and has, in fact, only affirmed our previously stated suspicion regarding his contractual requirements. For all the inconsistency in Masterson’s career, to date, this number is the chief concern at the moment. It’s his average fastball velocity, and it’s down almost three full ticks from his 2013 average of 91.6. Because Masterson throws 80-percent fastballs (everything else is a slider), this has been worthy of worry. However, against the Angels on Monday night, Masterson’s release speed on his four-seamer averaged out at 92.5, per BrooksBaseball.net, and the results, obviously, were much better. Keep an eye on this.

0.85

Aaron Harang’s ERA. Look, Harang is one of my favorite people in baseball, but even I couldn’t see much reason to keep him at the end of spring. Carrasco was out of Minor League options, and the Indians had to exhaust his opportunity as a starter. And while the slow-playing of Salazar was a sure sign the Indians would again be careful with his innings, he had nothing more to prove at Triple-A, where he’d just blow by people with his fastball. Harang deserved the chance to seek out a starting opportunity on an Atlanta squad decimated by injury, and Lord knows he’s made the most of it. It’s one of the great stories in baseball in the early going. But Harang is certainly benefiting from the NL and from one of the best defenses in baseball (the Braves rank first in defensive runs saved so far). The Indians, obviously, offered neither.

.500

This is David Murphy’s batting average with runners in scoring position. He’s 8-for-16 with 16 RBI in those situations. That’s not sustainable, of course, and, for all we know, maybe Murphy goes the way of one Mark Andrew Reynolds in terms of offensive impact this calendar year. But remember that the Indians really felt this guy was a victim of poor luck in 2013, when he batted just .220 on balls in play. Their scouts and video guys saw a lot of hard outs. And thus far, in 2014, Murphy has been a hard out in those so-called clutch situations.

284

This is the average distance (in feet, of course) of Michael Brantley’s home runs and fly balls (per FanGraphs), a marked improvement over his 276 average last season. And remember, he’s done this primarily in cold weather. I like Brantley a lot, but I didn’t love the extension the Indians gave him only because it seemed to represent a fair arbitration market price – and not a bargain – for a player with so little pop. So if Brantley got hurt or regressed, where was the value? But as is quite often the case, I might have been totally wrong in assuming Brantley, who turns 27 next month, didn’t have much more power in the tank. He’s hitting the ball with more authority (his isolated power has jumped from .112 to .168, or from poor to slightly above average) and is on pace for 25 homers and 25 steals.

.326, .163

Those are Jason Kipnis’ batting average with nobody on base and with runners on. I’m not saying this is instructive of absolutely anything whatsoever. Just pointing it out.

50

Percentage of games Cody Allen and Bryan Shaw have appeared in. The bullpen, relatively speaking, has done its job, and John Axford, despite some walk woes and one stinker in Chicago, has held his own in the ninth. You just naturally worry about overuse of the key setup men when some of the starting spots have struggled to go deep.

Minus-18

The run differential. The Indians are the only AL Central club with a negative one. I guess that pretty much sums it up for now.

~AC

“I feel a change comin’ on”

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

The good news is that the Indians have better reason to feel comfortable about the state of their starting pitching depth now than they did going into the year.

The bad news is they already have pretty ample reason to consider dipping into it.

Justin Masterson stopped his string of less-than-encouraging outings Friday night, but the rotation’s two weakest links – Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar – remain a work in progress and a source of interest.

Indeed, the hot hand of Trevor Bauer has to be a source of organizational temptation right about now, and clubs with large hopes and tiny room for error (especially in light of some current holes in the lineup and some sloppy defensive play) have to take the hot hands as they come.

ImageThat the Indians had so much riding on the young Danny Boy, who has just a little more than 500 innings of professional experience dating back to his 2007 rookie ball debut, was always a risk. The Indians don’t need him to carry their rotation — not yet, anyway. Still, the maximization of the window of the current core, particularly if Masterson walks (though I still think an All-Star break continuance of the contractual conversation is in the offing), is a much more embraceable idea if Salazar’s impressive stuff is in the strike zone.

Salazar, after all, has the greatest amount of upside of any member of this current crop of starters, Masterson included, and that’s what’s makes his 7.71 ERA and 1.929 WHIP through three outings so tough to stomach.

Those early numbers, though, do not necessitate a ticket to Triple-A. At that level, it’s quite possible he’d simply use his high-90s heat to overpower the opposition and gain nothing from the experience. Salazar’s struggles seem purely mental, and he’s better off working with the Tribe’s chief mental mechanic — pitching coach Mickey Callaway, who once turned a jalopy named Ubaldo Jimenez into a $50 million collector’s item — right now, even if it means taking his lumps.

“I think he came into the season trying to live up to what he did last year instead of going out and pitching and having fun,” Callaway said. “I talked to him [Friday] about that. I think he’s going to go out and have fun and not put too much pressure on himself.”

Let Salazar stay in the rotation. Give the kid some time.

Carrasco, though? Let’s just say the leash should be as short as his stamina in his last start in Chicago.

The Indians were rightly frustrated to hear Carrasco tell reporters he was “tired” two innings into that April 11 outing, when his velocity dipped from the 94-97 mph range to 90-92. If Carrasco did not already have a track record of mechanical mishaps and stamina issues, that would be one thing. But his career stats speak for themselves:

First time through the order: .252/.322/.384 opponent slash line (376 plate appearances).
Second time through: .337/.385/.543 (373).
Third time through: .328/.375/.560 (280).

Smells like a reliever to me.

Carrasco will get at least one more opportunity to assert himself in the starting role Sunday against the Blue Jays, and that’s one day before Jason Giambi’s planned activation from the disabled list will cause a little roster shuffling.

“He’s going to get the ball,” Callaway said of Carrasco. “We’ll see what he can do. We asked him to make a lot of mechanical adjustments in a short period of time, because he was out of [Minor League] options and we thought these mechanical adjustments were necessary for him to go out and succeed in the Major Leagues. That’s a tough thing to do. He’s still really battling the inconsistency with those mechanics. The one thing I do know is when he maintains those mechanics over the course of a game, that’s when he has some pretty good outings for us.”

The guess here — and it’s purely a guess — is that Carrasco will either extend his leash or get strangled by it Sunday, because the Tribe really can’t afford too many more clunkers.

Nor can they afford to let the suddenly stalwart Bauer waste away in Triple-A. Through three starts in the season proper — two in Columbus and one spot start against the Padres last week — he’s piled up quality innings and, undoubtedly, a healthy dose of confidence in his resuscitated delivery. His velocity is back, as is the feeling that the Indians took a worthwhile risk in targeting him in trade talks, despite Arizona’s obvious frustration with his approach.

The Indians’ had their own frustrations with Bauer last year. His decision to experiment with pitching out of the stretch in his own Chicago meltdown last summer was a veritable tragi-comedy. But he’s earned his way back into the Major League staff’s good graces with an eager-to-please attitude and a reclamation of mechanics and mindset that once made him successful.

“His last probably six outings — the last few in Spring Training and the three this season — have been great,” Callaway said. “He’s commanding the ball down with his fastball, throwing about 67 percent fastballs. He’s mixing pitches and throwing strikes.”

Right now, that sounds like a satisfying recipe for a rotation that entered the weekend with the third-highest ERA in the Majors. If Carrasco stumbles again Sunday, Bauer looks to be worth another look.

It’s not about overreacting to small samples. It’s about taking the hot hands when you can get them.

~AC

“We swore we’d live forever”

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

Jason Kipnis didn’t get the bunt down in the ninth inning Wednesday night. But that’s not the part of the story that intrigues Terry Francona.

It was what Kipnis did afterward.

kipnisFor one, Kipnis made the most of what had quickly become a two-strike count by advancing the runner from second to third on a fielder’s choice. He then swiped second to set up the two-run single from Michael Brantley that would give the Tribe the go-ahead in what turned out to be a 6-4 win.

Equally important, though, Kipnis offered no complaint about getting the bunt signal in the first place, even though it was a rare request for a No. 3-hole hitter.

“You see a lot of guys not get the bunt down,” said Francona, “strike out, come back, and they’re mad at you because you asked them to bunt. And we lose.”

The Indians won last year in large part of the system of selflessness Francona helped instill. With the wins came the so-called culture, the camaraderie and the looseness with which this club gets the most out of its talent and has fun doing so.

And with all of the above has come, in recent weeks, the contractual stability that will keep this club largely intact for the long haul.

Kipnis’ six-year, $52.5 million deal was announced Friday as an appetizer to a highly anticipated home opener. It was the latest in a string of affordable extensions that also roped in Brantley (four years, $25 million) and Yan Gomes (six years, $23 million).

Staff ace Justin Masterson is, to this point, left out of the loop, given that the going average annual rate for established starters – even on short-term deals – can be a punitive one for a small-market club. For his part, Masterson still holds out hope he’ll join his buddies in the extension assembly line at some point this season, and Indians general manager Chris Antonetti said Friday that the Kipnis/Masterson equation was not an either/or. The club still has the financial flexibility to make something happen, should talks re-engage at, say, the All-Star break.

“I imagined a lot of these [deals] would be happening here in some way, shape or form,” Masterson said. “There’s still some hope there. It’s just about what’s reasonable. We’re all working through it.”

On that front, the future forecast for the rotation is still largely uncertain. But what the Indians have accomplished in this signing spree is a sense of stability in the lineup that simply didn’t exist a relatively short time ago. And if you ask their AL Central peers, they’ll tell you it was a lineup worth locking into.

“Their parts all work together,” Twins manager Ron Gardenhire said. “They can run, they can steal, they hit-and-run, they’ve got great bunters in situations, they’ve got a little bit of pop in there, too. They’re a tough baseball team. There’s really no breaks in their lineup.”

Compare the Tribe’s situation now, with the core largely intact and 16 members of the 25-man roster under contractual control through at least 2016, to the winter before 2012, when a certain segment of the fan base was misguidedly freaking out about the lack of veterans under control beyond that pending season, and it’s night and day.

The industry perception of the Indians has evolved, as well. The arrival of Francona and Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn before the 2013 season was a welcomed departure from the days in which the Indians were akin to second-class citizens in the free-agent circuit. The Wild Card playoff entry that followed legitimized the rhetoric and created an aura of expectation for 2014.

“Having stability is good,” Francona said, “but having it with the right guys is better.”

Brantley’s contract is a reasonable estimation of his arbitration value, with a bargain-basement bid on what would have been his first free-agent year. It will be an equal exchange of dollars for production if Brantley stays the course. If he improves in the power or speed department, it could be a steal.

The Gomes contract is, in some ways, a more courageous one on the part of the Indians, simply because the sample-size upon which it was conceived is so tiny. Of course, that’s why the total investment is so relatively tiny, too, and Gomes seems capable of living up to his end of the bargain with his defensive input alone.

As for Kipnis, the Indians already controlled him through 2017, which is his age-30 season. So you could argue there wasn’t a great deal of incentive to rush to the bargaining table, knowing what we know about how rapidly second basemen can start to show their age. That said, a $52.5 million guarantee seems like a great value, especially when compared to the six-year, $72.5 million extension Brandon Phillips signed with the small-market Reds just two years ago — <i>entering</i> his age-30 season.

The 27-year-old Kipnis is already considered an elite second baseman, with even more upside if he can put together two halves as strong as his first half from ‘13. The Indians have reason to feel it’s coming, in part because Kipnis has already demonstrated the diligent work ethic it took to convert to second base from the outfield in the first place. In the wake of a year in which Kipnis finished third among MLB second basemen in OPS (.818), second in stolen bases (30) and third in RBI (85), he and the Indians finally found common contractual ground, more than two years after they first engaged in extension talks.

Naturally, this deluge of deals lends itself to comparisons to the early 1990s, when John Hart and the Indians practically invented the extension scheme. But in today’s game, it’s the only way to do business. The key, of course, is having guys worth investing in. The Indians are fortunate not only to have core pieces that fit the formula but also genuinely work well together and demonstrate the selflessness it takes to succeed without superstars.

“When you have teams that are beating you and laughing in the dugout, too, guys [on the other side] are like, ‘We don’t know what to do with this team,’” Kipnis said. “That’s the best atmosphere to be in.”

It’s an atmosphere the Indians are going to great lengths to maintain.

~AC

PS: In case you missed it, a feature on the first 20 years and the next 20 years of Progressive/Jacobs Field, as well as Tom Hamilton’s Top 10 memories (so far) at the ballpark.

“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

“You know the man could blow an educated axe”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

~AC

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For a little while, anyway.

~AC

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