“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.

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  • 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

“A little shot of something to improve your health”

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

The unbridled optimism of offseason chatter and, possibly, the confusion that comes from translations sans context created an unnecessarily strong proclamation in some corners that the Indians do, indeed, intend to use Carlos Santana as their primary third baseman this season.

“Right now, I see myself preparing to play third base, no other position,” Santana was quoted as saying in an ESPN Deportes story translated from Spanish to English.

ImageOf course, what Santana sees is nowhere near as important as what Terry Francona sees, and the Tribe skipper continued to couch all comments about Santana’s immediate future with the caveat that Spring Training will go a long way toward settling the situation.

“I think I probably shouldn’t read too much,” Francona said Wednesday, “because every time I read something I get confused.

“Carlos offered to go play third base in winter ball [in the Dominican Republic], which we all thought was terrific. And it sounds like he’s improving. But we don’t need to make any kind of decisions today, nor will we at the beginning of Spring Training. But, if he can handle playing third — some, a lot, little — we’ll see. That’s all part of Spring Training. If he can handle it, it gives us another option with our middle-of-the-order bat.”

That’s really all that needs to be said right now.

By the Indians’ officials, at least.

The rest of us can take this a step further and say the following:

They need this to work.

On some level, at least.

Francona needs Santana as a realistic option at the hot corner on more than just a “every third Sunday when it’s raining and the cock crows three times” kind of basis. He needs him as an option on a somewhat consistent, if not every day, basis, because that would buy a club that has established itself as very much bench-dependent the versatility it feeds upon.

The lineup became the canvas upon which Francona did perhaps his best work in his Manager of the Year debut in the Progressive Field dugout, because it was where all his well-documented team-building, player-propping, culture-building strengths bore tangible fruit.

Francona eked every ounce of value out of the self-described “Goon Squad” (i.e., Jason Giambi, Mike Aviles, Ryan Raburn and Yan Gomes, with Gomes eventually graduating from the goons and into a starting role) through his expert ability to place them in the best possible position to be successful. It’s a science that sometimes went beyond statistics (“You can’t ever forget that they’re people,” Francona said), though one stat that stood out was that a Tribe team augmented by three switch-hitters batted with the platoon advantage 71 percent of the time in 2013, a Major League-high.

If you don’t think that narrative will remain of pivotal import in 2014, well, the Tribe’s transaction tracker ought to convince you otherwise. David Murphy is the lone signing of significance from a position player perspective, with hope held out that Jeff Francouer or Nyjer Morgan will assert themselves this spring to the point of worthiness of a fifth outfield spot that may or may not exist, depending on Giambi’s status and what the Indians do with the backup catcher slot (if it isn’t Santana, then non-roster invitee Matt Treanor is one option, and perhaps Kelly Shoppach will be another).

In other words, the Indians’ best shot at improving upon the AL’s fourth-best run-production total (production that tended to come in bunches, not streams) from a season ago is going to have to come from within. That means improvement out of veterans Asdrubal Cabrera, Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn, certainly, because the Indians’ overall success despite their subpar seasons could be an unrepeatable feat. But it also means coaxing all possible projectable power out of the bat of Santana, who is their greatest middle-of-the-order weapon and is undoubtedly entering what ought to be his prime years.

Now, granted, maybe this is the year Lonnie Chisenhall blossoms. And the Indians obviously don’t want to impede that. But Chisenhall, a former No. 1 pick, simply hasn’t materialized to this point, either with the bat or the glove (he might be an Alex Gordon type who would benefit from a position switch). And for a team counting on contention and in need of more offensive upside, especially with so many questions in a revamped rotation, patience is not always a virtue.

The simple truth is that the Indians are a weaker defensive team when Santana is behind the plate, and the wear and tear of the position is such that it’s all-too-easy to assume his career slugging percentage (.446) is weaker than it would have been elsewhere.

The Indians’ higher-ups long debated whether Santana’s shortcomings behind the plate were a worthwhile trade for the better-than-average production he provided from that position and also whether he might become an even more reliable run-producer if they moved him to first base. But it wasn’t until Gomes inserted himself into the conversation last spring that they actually had a better backstop option to force the issue.

Of course, by that point, Swisher was aboard, and so Santana, at just 27 years young, became a man without a position. In the throes of a playoff chase, this was not a particularly tough sell (though Santana, perhaps understandably, did a bit of pouting behind the scenes). In the quiet of winter, it’s a different story, because now you’re talking about a potentially permanent shift to DH for a guy who is young and talented enough to want more. And we don’t yet have a large enough sample to know whether such a shift actually benefits him statistically (his 2013 OPS was actually lower in the DH role than it was at catcher or first base) or whether the over-analysis of each at-bat that accompanies a bat-only job will work to his detriment.

DH duty might sound like a sweet gig, but it’s a drastically different sort of mental grind, and it’s a job that Santana doesn’t seem interested in exploring on anything other than a part-time basis, hence his volunteer duty down in the Dominican.

More pivotally, it isn’t a recommended avenue in this era of roster-construction. The long-awaited expiration of the Travis Hafner contract after 2012 lifted the shackles of a “traditional” DH situation and allowed the Indians the freedom of flexibility, upon which Francona capitalized in ’13.

The reality of the roster indicates that Francona will need that flexibility again in the coming year. A hybrid catching situation doesn’t seem constructive, given the inconsistency it could cause in the calling of the game and the controlling of the opposing running game. And with first base available on only a limited basis, an essentially all-DH solution is not ideal, given that it would limit Francona’s ability to rotate and Santana’s ability to feel involved.

Granted, none of the above is even worthy of discussion if Santana is a train-wreck at third. But by all accounts, that’s not the case. At least, not in the low-profile platform of Dominican winter ball. And if we want to dumb down this conversation completely, we’ll just say that if Miguel Cabrera can play third base for a World Series contender, anything goes.

But let’s not dumb this down. Let’s just state what ought to be obvious: The Indians will be a fundamentally better team if Santana sticks at the hot corner. As Francona’s comments indicate, they don’t want us to read too much into this experiment. But I do know they’re quietly rooting for a positive result.

~AC

“You learn to sleep at night with the price you pay”

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

ImageOn the day Robinson Cano got $240 million from the Mariners and Curtis Granderson got $60 million from the Mets and Scott Feldman got $30 million from the Astros, Chris Antonetti met with reporters in the Terrace Club at Progressive Field to discuss… uh… the chicken marsala lunch special?

No, no. Antonetti had plenty else to discuss in this little pre-Winter Meetings gathering. Starting outlook and bullpen roles and Carlos Santana’s flirtation with the hot corner and David Murphy’s kindergarten teacher somehow breaking the news that the outfielder had signed with the Tribe a couple weeks back.

It’s just that all of this discussion pales in comparison to the seemingly daily round of ridiculous news emanating elsewhere in the Major League landscape.

And that’s pretty much what the Indians expected all along.

Antonetti wanted absolutely no part of this wild winter. He saw it coming a little more than a year ago, when the new national television contracts were negotiated and it became clear clubs would have new revenue streams come 2014. Better, Antonetti surmised at the time, to overpay at that point for a weakened free-agent crop than to drastically overpay for an even weaker crop here in 2013-14.

And Antonetti was right, not only because the prices this winter have been unbelievable even by free-agency standards but because the Indians’ surprising investments of a year ago (borne out of their own regional TV deal) help orchestrate a 24-win upturn and the top AL Wild Card spot.

Alas, the good vibes from a one-and-done playoff berth only last so long, and the AL Central is increasingly complex (maybe not better or worse, but certainly more complex), based on what we’ve seen thus far from the Tigers, Royals and Twins this winter. With a hole ripped through his rotation and the back end of the bullpen, Antonetti has found the business of augmenting what should still be a solid club predictably difficult.

“We came into the offseason in a much better position than we have in prior offseason with the quality and quantity of our alternatives that we currently have on our roster and within the organization,” Antonetti said. “That said, we’re going to continue to try to find a way to improve it.”

Pitching is the central focus, because the Indians seem to feel good enough about the offense, now that Murphy is aboard as a left-handed bat, to let it ride. They’re careful to downplay the importance of Santana’s dabble in the Dominican with third base, but the mere possibility of that proving a worthwhile pursuit is enough to add another layer of intrigue to their Spring Training plotline, which would otherwise revolve around praying Lonnie Chisenhall turns it on.

Granted, I, personally, don’t have the slightest bit of money or job security or even personal pride riding on this statement, but I wouldn’t put it past Santana to make it work at third. The motivated professional athlete is a powerful thing, and Santana, bound to the Indians under the terms of a team-friendly deal that they have no need to shop, has to be motivated to become something other than a 28-year-old DH.

As far as the pitching is concerned, Scott Kazmir is gone, and Ubaldo Jimenez is presumably not far behind, even though the Draft pick compensation that will be owed to the Indians has undoubtedly impacted his market. This left Antonetti dabbling in the middle tier of the dilapidated starter’s market, and that tier has all but disappeared quite quickly.

When it became clear Kazmir would accept a one-year, $14.1 million qualifying offer, the Indians, concerned about his injury history and the number of minor injury issues that cropped up over the course of his comeback season, opted not to offer it to him. Kazmir went into the offseason more inclined to take a one-year deal to further build up his value, but that was before teams like the A’s got increasingly serious with the bidding.

Kazmir might turn out to be the biggest steal of the offseason, or maybe those small issues will turn into something more substantial. Whatever the case, the Indians didn’t want to pay $14.1 million – or $22 million, for that matter – to find out, and it’s hard to blame them.

They were aggressive on Tim Hudson, but they weren’t alone. The Giants lured him with a pitcher’s park and $23 million over two – an impressive haul for a 38-year-old coming off an ugly ankle injury.

They talked to Feldman’s agent and liked him as an under-the-radar signing with upside. But a $30 million guarantee for Scott Feldman? What a world.

Maybe you could fault the Indians for this cautious approach if you didn’t factor in the extension they hope to work out with staff ace Justin Masterson. Or the possibility that there might be other bounceback candidates a la Kazmir — John Lannan is one such guy that would seem to make sense — looming on the horizon. Antonetti did say he has offers and proposals on the table on both the free-agent and trade front, so we’ll see.

What’s increasingly clear, though, is that the Indians, given the starter’s market conditions, are probably better off devoting what limited financial resources remain to adding another option or two to the reconstructed bullpen. Even there, though, the internal depth is not quite as bleak as you might assume after the loss of Joe Smith and the dismissal of Chris Perez.

Carlos Carrasco, for instance, will be on the Opening Day roster one way or another, and there is ample reason to believe, given his high-velocity fastball, his solid career groundball rate and his struggle to put everything together as a big league starter for a significant stretch, that a long-term relief role might suit him well.

As it stands, Carrasco, Josh Tomlin and the enigmatic Trevor Bauer will compete for the final spot in a rotation currently set to include Masterson, Corey Kluber, Zach McAllister and Danny Salazar. That’s a lot to dream on and not much to bank on, but I’d expect Antonetti to be aggressive in the unheralded but sometimes-productive area of Minor League signings to try to find another diamond in the rough.

Hate to say it, but Murphy might wind up being the Indians’ most significant financial expenditure this winter. And when you note that Garrett Jones, who has similar career splits against right-handed pitchers, just signed up for two years with the Marlins and will make $4.5 million less than Murphy over those two years, you wonder if that expenditure was entirely worthwhile.

But this, for better or worse, is the kind of 2013-14 Antonetti envisioned when he went on a protected-Draft-pick-aided spending spree in 2012-13. He knew the free-agent market was about to spiral out of control, and, with Terry Francona aboard, he opted to speed up the timetable, so to speak.

It’s only natural for fans to want the follow-up to a fascinating season to be a fascinating winter, but the price tags scrolling across your screen demonstrate how unrealistic that was.

For all their activity last winter, the 2013 Indians became a playoff team largely on the might of the under-the-radar moves, and Antonetti will have to come up with more of the same to build a winner for 2014. Fortunately, he’s not in need of another 24-win improvement. And fortunately, his pantry isn’t barren in a winter in which the market prices have skyrocketed.

~AC

“Tell me how do we get this thing started?”

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

NOTE: This post has been updated with news of the Indians coming to an agreement with David Murphy.

A small sliver of insight into the Tribe’s offseason spending strategy rests in the simple fact that when Tim Hudson fielded final offers earlier this week, the Indians had made what they felt to be an aggressive one — and that offer constituted pretty much the extent of their cash on hand.

murphySpurned by Hudson, they apparently turned their attention elsewhere, because reports swirled Tuesday night that they had come to terms with former Rangers outfielder David Murphy. The Dallas Morning News’ Evan Grant had it at two years and more than $10 million for Murphy (Note: Cleveland.com’s Paul Hoynes now has it at two years, $12 million), who would likely see ample time in the outfield corners.

Murphy’s defense and his personality are unassailable, but his offensive numbers took a nose-dive after a 2012 surge that proved unrepeatable. This is once again a matter of the Indians making a modest (yes, in this market, $6 million a season is modest) investment in an asset that could help them maximize the impact of their pitching staff. Murphy’s presence could/should allow the Indians to shop Drew Stubbs, who is due a raise in arbitration and has value (that’s why I would resist, for now, the temptation to compare Murphy to Stubbs until we see what the Indians have up their sleeve on the trade front).

But the primary question still looms: Who will be added to that pitching staff, and how much will it cost?

The first and most fundamental thing that must be understood here is that the spending spree borne out of special circumstances one year ago isn’t going to be duplicated here in 2013-14. The Indians might still  go heavy on one short-term starting pitching solution (and the market offers a few interesting options in that regard), but don’t expect much beyond that.

After 2012, the Indians had some salary relief on the books with the departures of Travis Hafner and Grady Sizemore, among others, and, most importantly, they had a protected top-10 pick that freed them up to pursue guys tied to Draft pick compensation. Giving Chris Perez the boot saved the Tribe some salary, but with a Justin Masterson extension an expected item on the to-do list and the Draft compensation system no longer working in their favor, the Tribe has to be quite a bit more careful this time around.

That said, they’re not completely out of the picture.

While I’m not privy to the actual number Chris Antonetti and Co. placed before Hudson, it’s believed to have been competitive with the two-year, $23 million pact he made with the Giants. If Hudson eschewed more or similar money with the Indians in order to sign elsewhere, he’d be far from the first, even though Terry Francona’s arrival has undoubtedly improved the attractiveness of the Cleveland clubhouse (and, indeed, Hudson and Francona talked at length a couple weeks back).

But the decision made by Hudson, who was always considered a good fit for San Francisco, is not the focus here. The point is that the Indians, with Ubaldo Jimenez long gone and Scott Kazmir possibly right behind him, rightly prioritized the purchase of a proven, innings-eating arm in their bid to extend the magic act of 2013. Perhaps the Murphy news is an indication that Hudson was the one guy they would go to great lengths to attain and now they’re applying their available assets elsewhere.

We knew long ago the Indians would be perusing the bargain-bin for free-agent finds, but, if anything can be gleaned from the early days of the Hot Stove season, it’s that there really is no such thing as an outright bargain in this cash-crazed market. Ervin Santana is looking for $100 million. Tim Lincecum had the 11th-highest ERA among qualifiers and got two years, $35 million (you’ve got to really, really love FIP to love that one). Hudson is 38 and coming off a gruesome ankle injury, and he still commanded more than $20 mill.

All of which serves to give Ubaldo, who is arguably the top stateside starting option on the open market (and all on the basis of about six months of work – the first half of 2010 and the last half of 2013), the leash to get a four- or possibly five-year commitment. And Kazmir, who has both age (29) and occupation (lefty starter) on his side, should get at least the second year the Indians are reluctant to give him, if not a third.

Letting Ubaldo walk in these conditions is a no-brainer. He’s high-upside but high-maintenance, and the Indians, literally and figuratively, can’t afford to commit half a decade to his unpredictability.

Kazmir is as wild a wild card as they come, because there’s no discernible forecast to be gained from his bizarre trajectory from Sugar Land to C-town. Kazmir could probably do quite well for himself on a one-year deal with more money (eight figures, perhaps) up front, in which case the Indians would still have a shot at securing his services (there’s no such thing as a bad one-year deal… well, unless it’s a one-year deal given to Brett Myers). But if he wants a greater semblance of security (two years, possibly with a vesting option) that changes the formula.

With neither guy expected back, the Indians turned their attention to the second (or is it the third?) tier — a tier that, as the quick-hit Hudson deal illustrates, could actually thin out more swiftly than the so-called upper echelon.  Jimenez, Santana, Matt Garza and Japanese posting posterboy Masahiro Tanaka make up the upper-echelon, so the term is used quite loosely. And in these market conditions, Bronson Arroyo, Ricky Nolasco and Jason Vargas are also likely to get three-year commitments, at minimum.

ImageThe market is flush with cash but also with the recent example of a Red Sox team that gained great value from short-term, high-dollar investments, and that model will be aped across the landscape, for better or worse. That’s why Hudson didn’t twist in the wind for long, and neither did Josh Johnson, who reportedly came to terms on a one-year, $8 million pact with the Padres.

With those guys off the board, the Tribe would still seem to have the flexibility and would, indeed, be wise to make a strong push for the 30-year-old Scott Feldman “…From Across the Hall!”, who posted a solid 1.183 WHIP despite a 5.60 ERA in nine starts at Camden Yards. Age is on his side. Same goes for Phil Hughes, who could be a classic change-of-scenery type after he was unable to live up to unrealistic expectations in the Bronx.

Guys like Scott Baker, who spent basically all of 2013 enduring a Tommy John recovery road littered with potholes, Jason Hammel, who has endured forearm and knee issues since 2012, and former World Series hero Ryan Vogelsong, who missed two months of 2013 with a broken hand suffered while he was hitting (gotta love pitchers batting), fall in the justifiable-risk realm. If they don’t strike you as outright attractive, well, neither did Kazmir a year ago. You never know.

What we do know is that the Indians have at least been active in the starter’s market, and that should remain true in the wake of the Murphy signing, which, like the Indians’ offseason in general, seems to be focused more on run-prevention than run-creation.

~AC

A loss. And a win.

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

crowd

When it was over, and the sea of red had begun to disperse, revealing the undertow of green plastic seats, a few hundred fans remained near the home dugout, standing, applauding.

This American League Wild Card game against the Tampa Bay Rays did not go to plan Wednesday night. The Indians didn’t exactly love the matchup with Alex Cobb and his confounding curve and changeup to begin with, and Cobb did not exactly do anything to make them feel better about it as the game went along. The Indians stranded nine runners, got an 0-fer evening from the likes of Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher and Jason Kipnis and Asdrubal Cabrera and asked more than was reasonable out of young Danny Salazar and his fascinating fastball.

And so they lost, 4-0, here at Progressive Field, ending their storybook season and tossing the “Terry Francona returns to Boston” script into the trash.

“This sting,” Swisher said, “is going to be there for a while. But after the sting goes away, we’ve got to look at the big picture of what we gave this city.”

That’s why some small but meaningful percentage of the city stood there in the aftermath, expressing appreciation for the mere opportunity to watch something worthwhile, to congregate and call up memories of October days gone by.

This particular October entry was short but memorable, spurred as it was by a September spurt that nobody could have reasonably seen coming. And the Indians, by and large, were equal parts optimistic and realistic about their chances of extending that September stretch into another month and a more substantial setting. It’s a whimsical game, after all, especially in October and especially in this one-and-done arrangement.

So your disappointment with the result could only rest in direct proportion to your understanding that the Indians had already clinched a wildly successful season.

“We’re excited,” catcher Yan Gomes said. “We’re excited for what we’re building. I’m sure a lot of people didn’t expect us to do this good. We didn’t come out with the win today, but that doesn’t mean we should hang our head. We need to look at the future.”

Now, the temptation is to say that this was only the beginning for the Indians. As long as Chris Antonetti isn’t going anywhere, neither is Francona. Core piecaces Justin Masterson, Carlos Santana, Kipnis, Michael Brantley, Gomes and — maybe most importantly — Salazar will all be back next year, as will key bench cogs Mike Aviles and Ryan Raburn. Swisher and Bourn are signed through 2016.

But we were saying similar things in the wake of the loss to Francona’s Red Sox in Game 7 of the 2007 ALCS. Back then, you couldn’t have imagined the core of CC Sabathia, Victor Martinez, Grady Sizemore, Jake Westbrook and Travis Hafner would be one-and-done when it came to postseason berths. The thought would have been especially difficult to comprehend had you known Cliff Lee was about to become a 22-game winner.

Baseball assails assumptions, so let’s not make the mistake of making them.

Understand, though, that Francona has made Cleveland a much more attractive destination to outsiders, and you wonder what reverberations that might continue to cause. Even with Brett Myers, Mark Reynolds and, likely, Chris Perez off the books, the budget is made tricky by the rising salaries of Swisher and Bourn and Asdrubal Cabrera, not to mention the pending free agency of Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir. The Indians will have to be creative. They will always have to be creative. But the remarkable way they revamped a once-bumbling ballclub invites optimism about the state of their creative process.

At the risk of reading too much into a single result, this game might have illustrated what was evident in various stretches this season: The Indians need another bat. It doesn’t have to be a premier bat, but another professional one capable of working counts and coming through in the clutch couldn’t hurt.

Better, though, to be entering the offseason in search of augmentation than to enter it in search of an identity. The Indians have an identity now, and that’s made all the difference.

“I feel like we’re a family,” Santana said in the aftermath of this loss, and this was coming from a guy who basically lost his job this season, banished to DH duties at the age of 27.

Francona handled Santana’s situation the way he handles every situation — with grace and calm and charm and an honesty that earns loyalty. Up and down the roster, guys bought into those qualities this season, and the Indians, not too coincidentally, turned out to be one of those lovable overachievers.

Next year will be trickier. It’s inherently more difficult when more is expected of you. But the culture and camaraderie that was created here will have a lingering effect.

“I want them to remember how much me and the staff care about them,” Francona said. “It was an honor to go through the season with them. That’s what I’ll remember more than anything.”

With any luck, the fans will remember, too. Hopefully they’ll remember what this felt and looked like long after they’ve come to terms with the final score.

The Cleveland community was everything you’d want and everything you’d expect in this setting: vociferous, vigorous, zealous, a tad nauseous in the tense moments.

More than anything, they were present.

“The game’s over,” Swisher said, “and I’ve still got goosebumps thinking about it.”

This was the same fan base ripped all summer for not adequately supporting a winning team. There was skepticism built into that base, but this club kept chipping away at it until it crumbled. And the Wild Card game revealed the beating heart that was waiting beneath.

“My first reaction is that it almost upsets me,” Kipnis said, “because I wish I could play in front of a crowd like this every single night. But it’s a long season. You knew if we made the playoffs, Cleveland would rally behind us and come out. You tip the cap to them. They came out, they were loud, they were amped up.”

Indeed, in shirts of red and towels of white, they painted a beautiful backdrop to a ballgame that frayed their nerves and sharpened their baseball senses, which, frankly, had been dulled in recent seasons by the devastation of departed Cy Young winners and losing baseball.

That’s the grand takeaway here. The whole “Tribe Town” thing morphed from a marketing slogan to something substantial. And even if it was just for a month or a week or a single night, it was real, and it mattered.

It mattered enough that, even in defeat, the Indians had finally given their fans something to applaud.

~AC

“You’ve got to walk it, talk it, in your heart”

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

The last club Terry Francona managed went 7-20 in September to complete one of the great collapses in baseball history and end his otherwise successful tenure in Boston.

ImageThis Tribe club managed by Francona went 21-6 in September to complete a stunning surge that, while undoubtedly schedule-aided, rejuvenated local interest in the Indians and propelled them to the postseason.

What was behind this surge?

“We stayed away from chicken and beer,” Francona said, earning a laugh and more than a few retweets in the Twitterverse.

But beyond the schedule and the off-the-field shenanigans (or lack thereof), there is definitely something to be said for the manner in which the Indians had to win games this season and the way that experience applied down the stretch.

As you know, this is not a team with a devastatingly deep lineup or overwhelmingly accomplished roster, in general. It’s a team that has had to maximize its talent level by getting contributions off the bench, by playing a clean game, by throwing strikes, etc. When the Indians have strayed from those principles, they’ve lost. Sometimes in bunches. When they put together a cohesive effort, they’ve won. Sometimes in bunches.

And so this club, despite its lack of stars or status, would seem fairly well-conditioned for what lies ahead in the win-or-go-home environment of the Wild Card game. This is the kind of club Francona wanted to manage after his experience in Boston went so awry. He wanted to be part of the baseball business, not the entertainment business. He wanted a cohesive unit that makes the most of what it has.

“That’s the way we have to play,” Francona said. “And I’m ok with that, because it’s baseball. It just goes to show you that when you play the game right, the sum of all of our parts can be a pretty good team.”

They’ve been a pretty good team, and especially lately. And the Indians’ return to the postseason brings about a triumphant return of the…

EXCRUCIATING MINUTIAE OF THE DAY (Terry Francona press conference edition)…

  • If the Indians are a better club than the sum of their individual statistics, then perhaps it’s only fitting that Francona believes their MVP is a guy who has a WAR mark of minus-0.6. I’m talking, of course, about Jason Giambi, who had just 34 hits all season and yet had a Win Probably Added of 0.25 or more six times this season (including five team victories). He had the biggest hit of the season with the walkoff winner against the White Sox last week, and his clubhouse influence has been touted all year. But MVP? Really? Is Francona taking his admitted “man crush” (he copped to kissing Giambi on the cheek during the post-clinch celebration in Minnesota) too far? Perhaps not. “When you’re a manager or coach or whatever, there are a lot of headaches that come with the job,” Francona said. “When you get a guy like that, sometimes it can be once in a lifetime. I would be crazy not to enjoy and use his ability throughout the club. That’s why I keep saying… Kipnis has turned into one of the best players in the league, [but] I think Giambi is our MVP. I think he’s made everybody he touches better. That’s a very special person.”
  • Totally understand what Tito’s saying. But I still think Kipnis is the MVP. His offensive surge saved the season when it was getting off-track in June.
  • Speaking of Giambi, Francona said his forearm, which he tweaked over the weekend, should be fine. Same goes for Michael Bourn, who pulled up lame on a stolen-base attempt Sunday. They were both getting treatment, but Francona seemed to think they’d both be available.
  • Giambi has started five of the Indians’ last six games (all must-wins, obviously) in which a right-hander was on the mound for the opposition. Will be interesting to see if Francona continues that trend Wednesday (as of this writing, it seems most likely the Rays would go with Alex Cobb and the Rangers would go with Matt Garza for that game, but stay tuned) or if he goes with Carlos Santana at DH, Nick Swisher at 1B and either Ryan Raburn or Drew Stubbs in right field.
  • Francona didn’t address the Wild Card roster much yet. But the roster is the biggest differentiation between this game and a Game 5 in the Division Series or Game 7 of the LCS and World Series in that teams can tailor their rosters specifically to this single game’s demands. So, obviously, the Indians won’t carry a full starting staff, though I would not be surprised to see Zach McAllister and/or Corey Kluber included to potentially piggyback Danny Salazar if a need arises. Francona indicated he’d have a nine-man bullpen at his disposal.
  • One man in that bullpen will of course be Justin Masterson, and Francona is downright giddy about the length Masterson can provide in the late innings. “That guy’s a weapon,” he said. “We plan to use it.” Francona did not confirm whether the “closer by committee” approach put in place in Minnesota (where no save situations arose the last three games of the regular season) will remain in use for this game. Maybe they’re hoping they get a lead and they’ll give it to Masterson in the seventh and let him run with it?
  • Francona said the toughest decision in a game like this is when to yank your starter. He said the temptation is there to have a quick hook because of the depth of the bullpen, but you don’t want to go to it too soon.
  • One thing that is confirmed about the postseason roster: Jason Kubel, Blake Wood and Preston Guilmet will not be on it. They were all informed the Indians won’t be needing them going forward and have gone home.
  • The real Tito Francona might be the only man Francona loves more than Giambi right about now. And Terry and his dad had a nice phone conversation while Terry was boarding the team bus after the clubhouse clinch party. “My dad, after games, he’ll leave messages after fun wins,” Francona said. “A lot of times I’ll just see him leaving a message on my cell when I come into my office. I’ve kind of gotten used to it. It’s kind of a nice reassuring thing. Yesterday, walking to the bus, I gave him a call. It was one of the funner moments for me.”
  • Tito has been following this season closely via the magic of the MLB Extra Innings package from his home in New Brighton, Pa. He was in town for Opening Day, but he generally likes to watch from the comfort of his couch. I remember him telling me on Opening Day that he didn’t attend a single game at Fenway during Terry’s tenure there. As of Monday afternoon, Terry was unsure if his dad would be in attendance for the Wild Card game. But if Tito’s been watching this win streak from home, superstition might ultimately guide his decision.
  • We’re in a bit of a speech- or meeting-obsessed sporting culture, but that doesn’t always apply to baseball. Francona said he does not plan to address this team before the game. “Sometimes you can overdo it,” he said. “The game is the game, and I think the best way to do things is pretty much the routine that you’ve done all year. So we’ll kind of stick to the routine.”
  • Danny Salazar began the season in Double-A. Now he’s entrusted with the season, essentially. Pretty amazing ride for the kid. And while Francona didn’t exactly see this coming, he did see something special in Salazar way back in December. “You go all the way back to when I went down [to the Dominican Republic] with Mickey [Callaway] to see Ubaldo, and he was playing catch with Danny,” Francona said. “I said to Mickey, ‘Who is that guy?’ he said, ‘You’re going to love him. He’s going to fly through the system.’” He sure has.
  • The Wild Card game didn’t sell out until we had actual confirmation that there will, indeed, be a Wild Card game in Cleveland. But it sold out all the same, and fans are finally buying into this team. “I don’t doubt this place will be electric,” Francona said. “I think fans have been dying for that. I think it’ll be fun. And fun means winning in front of your home fans, so hopefully that’s what happens.”

~AC

“Surprise, surprise, come on open your eyes”

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

celebrationTotally did not see this coming.

I was optimistic, but not this optimistic.

I was a believer, but not this big a believer.

I knew the Indians would be better this year, and not just because things couldn’t have gotten much worse than the 2012 freefall. I knew an injection of veteran presence would help add enough stability to probably finish at or around .500. The break-even point itself would have been a 13-win improvement over a year ago, which in this game is major progress.

But 92 victories? A Wild Card berth? And home-field advantage in the Wild Card round?

Totally did not see this coming.

I knew that Terry Francona knew what he was doing. I knew he had a knack for getting the most out of his players because he supports them, backs them and goes to great measures to understand them. But I also knew that those Boston clubs in 2004 and 2007 – heck, even 2011 – had a lot more established talent than this 2013 Tribe club. I didn’t know Francona would be such an expert tactician with a versatile bench, and I didn’t know his optimism and excitement about being here would prove so unshakable even in the season’s darkest days. I didn’t know he’d put together what is arguably the greatest managerial job of his career, World Series or not.

I knew the Indians, with an outfield of Michael Bourn, Michael Brantley and Drew Stubbs, would be more athletic, more agile, more defensively stout. I knew that Jason Kipnis was capable of taking the next step toward stardom. I knew there was more power in Santana’s bat if his time behind the plate was managed appropriately. I knew there were a lot of reasons to like this team, but I didn’t know there’d be this much to like.

Totally did not see this coming.

I knew that under-the-radar moves have often been the strength of the front office in the Mark Shapiro-Chris Antonetti era, and so the Mike Aviles acquisition was an eye-catcher. I didn’t know what a steal that trade would turn out to be. I didn’t know that when Lou Marson got steamrolled by Desmond Jennings at the plate in early April, it would open the door for Yan Gomes to eventually supplant Santana as the regular catcher, maximizing this Tribe roster to the full extent of its capabilities.

I knew the Indians were high on Mickey Callaway and the work he had done within their Minor League system. I didn’t know he’d be the savant who would finally solve the Ubaldo Jimenez riddle, to say nothing of the strides made by Corey Kluber and Zach McAllister, the return to prominence of Justin Masterson and the incredible comeback of Scott Kazmir, all of which happened under his watch.

I knew Ubaldo, like most players, would be inspired in some measure by the pull of possible free agency. I didn’t know he’d be one of the best pitchers in baseball in the second half, rescuing the rotation when Masterson went down with an oblique strain. (And no, I did not know Masterson would return and be so effective in the ‘pen).

Totally did not see this coming.

I knew Nick Swisher was excited (he used the word “excited” 16 times in his introductory press conference), but I didn’t know how genuine that excitement would turn out to be. I didn’t know he’d still be excited and hopeful and believing in big things when he was hitting .239 and nursing a throbbing shoulder at the end of June. I didn’t fully appreciate how much his past pennant race experience would come to help this team in the September stretch, when Swish was at this absolute best. I didn’t know how seriously he’d take his leadership role on this club, showing up unannounced at a ticket sales meeting and doling out $15,000 to finance an end-of-season fireworks display. I didn’t know he’d be the rare free-agent addition who, by the end of his first season, would feel like he’s been here all along.

I knew Jason Giambi was appreciative of this opportunity to prolong his playing career. I knew a guy who nearly nabbed the Rockies’ managerial job over the winter (and how thankful are the Indians right now that the Rox went with Walt Weiss?) would provide immeasurable input and influence behind the scenes. I didn’t know Giambi, despite a sub-.200 average, would contribute some of the biggest hits of the season, including arguably the biggest – the walkoff winner against the White Sox last Tuesday.

Totally did not see this coming.

I knew the Shin-Soo Choo trade was one worth making (and this is coming from the biggest Choo fan there is). But I didn’t know the real value in that trade would come not from Trevor Bauer but from Stubbs and from bullpen pieces Bryan Shaw and Matt Albers, who would join Cody Allen and Joe Smith and in-season addition Marc Rzepcynski to pick up the pieces in the ‘pen as Chris Perez and Vinnie Pestano regressed.

I knew Ryan Raburn was an underrated pickup. I didn’t know he’d hit 16 homers and drive in 55 runs in a reserve role.

Totally did not see this coming.

From the day I arrived in Spring Training camp in Goodyear and saw the remnants of the “Harlem Shake” video shoot, I knew the Indians would be looser and generally more interesting than they’ve been in years. But I didn’t know the looseness would last even in the face of an eight-game losing streak. I didn’t know the fun would outweigh the frustrations. I didn’t know there would be 11 walkoff wins. I didn’t know there would be seven four-game sweeps. I didn’t know they’d not just take advantage of but absolutely own a favorable September schedule, winning 21 of their final 27 and all of their last 10.

I knew that 4-15 record against the Tigers would come back to bite the Tribe. I didn’t know they’d finish just one game back of a Detroit club that had nearly double their Opening Day payroll. But oh well.

I knew this season would be fun. I didn’t know it would be this fun.

Totally did not see this coming.

And there’s still more to come.

~AC

“One step closer to knowing”

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

Within a whisker of a postseason berth, the Indians are coming to the conclusion that they have no closer.

Chris Perez is not a closer right now. With a 7.85 ERA, .350 average against and 1.116 OPS against in 18 1/3 innings over his last 19 appearances, he’s a hot mess.

ImageBut what happened Thursday night – Perez nearly blowing a cushy 6-1 lead in the ninth on a night when Terry Francona was just trying to get him some pick-me-up work – could turn out to be a very good thing for the Indians. They did win the game, after all, so there’s that bit of bottom line. But from a forward-thinking standpoint, Perez provided confirmation of the growing assumption that he can’t be trusted in the ninth, and now the Indians are freed from the shackles of the closer role at a time of year when they need to just be riding whatever hot hands or positive matchups they have at their disposal.

Perez has been this club’s closer since 2010, and, no matter what you think about him personally, no matter how much undue controversy he’s invited, no matter how much stress he’s induced, he’s handled the job better than most. But the job, unfortunately, is not built to last. Perez is one of just three closers in all of MLB (Mariano Rivera and Craig Kimbrel are the others) who held the job for their club in 2011 and still hold it today.

There’s a reason for that stat. Staying power is not a strength of the modern reliever. The reason a reliever is in the bullpen in the first place is because his arsenal isn’t deep enough to work elsewhere. And the reason closers not named Rivera tend not to hold the job long is that, sooner rather than later, the league adjusts to your strengths or your arm starts to wear down from the abuse or your mind starts to wear down from the demands.

You know how many guys have saved 30 games in a season over just the last 10 seasons? I’ll tell you how many: 86! In 10 seasons! That’s a staggering statistic. There are no repeats in there. That’s 86 individuals who saved 30 games in a single season, certainly refuting the notion that the ninth inning is some sacred ground upon which only a select few are suited to tread.

Why have so many guys have been such successful closers, even if their time on the job is merely temporary? Because it’s harder to come back in the ninth than it is to protect the ninth, and I’ll refer you to something Joe Posnanski wrote about that earlier this year about that. But the bottom line is that teams leading going into the ninth win roughly 95 percent of the time. And that has less to do with “proven” closers than it has to do with the difficulty of mounting a rally at this level.

So, this day was going to come eventually for the Indians. And maybe, to some, the timing doesn’t seem ideal. But better to have some clarity regarding the closing situation than to enter these final three games – and, possibly, October – utilizing the “Perez and pray” model.

The Indians used and abused that model for as long as they could, and this disastrous two-month stretch makes it all the more clear why the organizational inclination to cut ties with Perez this winter, before his final round of arbitration-eligibility, is so wise. It’s nothing personal against Perez; it’s just that no team ought to be paying upwards of a $10 million premium on a “proven closer,” and certainly not a team in the Tribe’s financial situation.

All right, so, now what? That’s the question everybody in Cleveland has been asking today, and the prevailing thought, it seems, is that the Tribe ought to anoint somebody new – Justin Masterson, perhaps, or maybe Joe Smith – in the ninth.

Awful idea.

To be honest, it was an awful idea back in late May, when Perez got hurt and Francona named Vinnie Pestano his closer. Pestano was already enduring his own struggles at that point – carrying a 5.54 ERA – and had shown notable and alarming declines in velocity. But Francona, like just about every manager in the Majors, preferred conventional closer wisdom over cold, hard common sense.

Thankfully for the Indians, that didn’t come back to bite them. Well, frankly, the closer situation was a non-factor the first half of June, because there were hardly any leads to protect. In the second half of the month, Pestano blew one tie against the Nationals, but then he converted six straight save opportunities despite allowing eight hits and five walks in an eight-inning span. It was a successful stretch, certainly, but not one that made the Indians feel all that comfortable as a group.

Francona would be wise not to press his luck this time around. He knows the potential pitfalls of the “closer by committee” that erupted in Boston the year before he arrived there, and I’m sure that knowledge plays heavy in his mind right now. But it’s a different thing to open a season with a relief platoon than it is to – ahem – close one, because now Francona has a full season of data – involving both his own team and the Twins and whatever other opponents might await – at his disposal to make educated guesses. In Smith, Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw, Marc Rzepczynski and, yes, even Masterson or Danny Salazar or Carlos Carrasco, he has an array of arms with which he can play percentages or exploit weaknesses.

Maybe, at the start of or in the middle of a season, this setup would be a tough sell to guys who supposedly thrive on knowing their roles. So, whatever, if you want to anoint the Chosen One in the ninth next March, by all means.

But there are no rules in September and October. These are must-win games, and it’s all hands on-deck and no-holds-barred and … I’m running out of buzzwords and catch phrases… but you get the idea. I think my friend Paul Cousineau, the retired DiaTriber, expressed it best in an e-mail exchange we had earlier today:

“Perhaps on the night when Mariano rode off into the sunset, Tito has been put into the position to minimize the over-usage of the ‘closer’ role that has developed in the last decade or so – largely because of the unmatched dominance of Rivera.”

Exactly. What happened Thursday, believe it or not, was a good thing. Because now Francona doesn’t have to massage any egos or anoint any saviors or remain betrothed to the confusingly conventional bullpen groupthink that has brought so much silliness to this sport.

He can just use the best guy in the best situation and hope it works. It’s still an imperfect arrangement (95 percent, sadly, is not 100), but, if the last two months are any indication, it’s better than “Perez and pray.”

~AC

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