Baseball, like any other business, is built on them. And for Terry Francona, the relationship with the men who make the Indians’ personnel decisions began on a hotel treadmill at the Winter Meetings many years ago and a couple managerial stops ago.
Francona and Mark Shapiro got to talking in the workout room, and their conversations have evolved steadily over the years. On Friday, the conversation was about the Indians’ managerial vacancy, and on Saturday, the announcement was that Francona had accepted it.
For the Indians, this is quite a managerial coup. They’ve averaged less than $60 million in player payroll over the last three years, they’re coming off a 94-loss season and their upper-level Minor League talent is, shall we say, suspect.
Add up those factors, and this ordinarily would not be the type of job a Terry Francona — a two-time World Series winner with a resplendent reputation — would touch.
But the relationship has remained steady and sturdy, even as many changes have taken place in Francona’s life and the Indians’ various ups and downs. When the Phillies fired Francona in 2000, Shapiro, the Tribe’s newly appointed general manager, scooped him up in a special assistant role. When Francona interviewed for the Red Sox job, Shapiro and his then-assistant, Chris Antonetti, helped prep him.
They didn’t prep him for Friday’s interview; they didn’t need to. Francona’s enthusiasm for this position – enthusiasm that surprised some – was all the Indians needed to move forward. Yes, Sandy Alomar Jr. was fit for this role, and I was definitely among those touting him. But that backing was fixated on the faulty premise that Francona wouldn’t actually be interested. That he was served to surprise, though, in retrospect, perhaps it shouldn’t have, given the relationship base he’s built with the front office and his family lineage in Indians baseball.
All Francona needed was some assurance of stability. A four-year guarantee buys him that, and in recent days Francona had let on that such a guarantee is worth more than the money alone.
Now that this personal relationship between Francona and the Indians’ higher-ups has led to a more formal one, it is, of course, Francona’s job to start building relationships with the young faces on the Tribe roster. And the front office is supplied with the likely more difficult task of building up the talent level of a team aching in the one area that is most difficult to alleviate – starting pitching.
That’s why the question of whether or not Francona can win in Cleveland trends more toward “when” than “if.” There is some thought that Francona wouldn’t have taken this job without some assurances that the Indians plan to expand their player payroll. Perhaps that’s true, though more than a decade-long track record from the Dolan family of not vastly outspending projected revenues speaks for itself, and revenues from a 2012 season in which the Indians finished next-to-last in the attendance tally weren’t exactly robust. Neither are the projections for 2013.
What people need to understand is that a jump from the $60 million range to the $80 million range, even if applied appropriately, might only buy a club another win or two. Even a seismic increase in the payroll department — and that’s not going to happen in one of the game’s smallest markets, unless there’s some franchise-altering regional television deal on the horizon of which I’m completely unaware — means nothing if it’s not backed by solid baseball decisions.
Fact is, the Indians could have survived quite well (particularly in the AL Central) on their present payroll, had the personnel decisions — from the CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee and Ubaldo Jimenez trades to the amateur Drafts — not turned out so consistently unproductive in recent years.
Time will tell, as it tends to do, but this Francona hiring feels like a significant step in another, more positive direction in the decision-making. It is, however, only a small step, for the Indians are clearly much more than a manager away from contention.
But if the Indians wanted a clubhouse culture change, they’ve found it. If they wanted a guy fans can respect, a guy whose beliefs they can buy into, they’ve got one.
The Indians knew quite well, when they began the process of replacing Manny Acta, what they’d have in Terry Francona if they could get him to come aboard. And now that he’s agreed, this already long-term relationship is really just beginning.
The guy in the Travis Hafner shirt, doing pushups in the cardio room? He thinks the Indians should keep Travis Hafner.
The guys in the weight room, over there by the crossover cables? They’re intrigued by Russ Canzler.
It was an interesting experience at my local gym the other day, because people were talking about the Cleveland Indians. And while this might not sound strange, given that, you know, we were actually in Cleveland, I can assure you this was, indeed, a rare occasion, considering we’re in the middle of the NFL season and the end of an MLB season in which the Indians lost 94 games.
But it just goes to show you that there are two types of teams that attract heated discussion — those in the thick of the race, and those who are so far out of it that you can make a case for overhauling every element, right down to the bat boy.
In the former instance, every fan is a manager. They offer their opinion on each call to the ‘pen, each pinch-hit opportunity, each lineup, because every game, every inning, every last matter of minutia matters.
In the latter , every fan is an owner or a GM. They know who to hire, who to fire, who to trade and who to sign.
So, yeah, the Indians, as hard as they’ve been to watch these last couple months, have been pretty easy to discuss. Because there are plenty of talking points at play here and plenty of decisions for this front office to make in the coming weeks and months.
With that in mind, let the following serve as an addition to the discussion. Here, in my view, are the 10 most pressing, pertinent and possibly perplexing personnel issues facing the Indians in the coming weeks.
TERRY FRANCONA/SANDY ALOMAR JR.: We can’t rule out the possibility that others get involved in the managerial search, but for now all we can do is focus on these two. And if Francona is as interested in this job as he’s been telling people, I humbly and happily rescind everything I wrote in this space a week ago. I think Alomar is absolutely deserving of this opportunity, and I think a team in the Indians’ position – a team that will be young, by default, in 2013 – can afford to go with a rookie skipper. But if Francona really wants in, I think you’ve got to bring him aboard.
That’s just my opinion, of course, and it’s easy to offer that opinion when it’s not your money. Francona made $4 million in Boston. No manager is going to make that much here. So this particular personnel decision might ultimately rest with him and his willingness (or lack thereof) to take a significant pay cut. It has been noted that this might be the only job available to Francona this offseason, depending on how things shake out, and that could certainly play a part.
But there is plenty of speculation in the industry that if the Tigers don’t win the World Series, they’ll part ways with Jim Leyland (and for all we know, Leyland might make like his close friend Tony La Russa and go out on top even if they win). The Tigers job would be an extremely attractive one for a proven skipper like Francona. Ultimately, this might all come down to timing. But even if the Indians don’t land Francona, they could do a lot, lot worse than Alomar for this job.
SHIN-SOO CHOO: One of the more genuine players I’ve covered. Genuinely cares about his performance, genuinely cares about winning, genuinely wants to represent South Korea well and genuinely felt embarrassed and accountable when he made that dumb decision the night of his DUI. And there’s another genuine quality to Choo, too: He genuinely wants to take advantage of his market worth when the opportunity presents itself, and he, of course, has every right to do so.
I’m not sure that worth will be quite as staggering as some assume, given that his continuing struggles against left-handed pitching keep him well short of superstar status, and he’ll be 31 when he hits free agency. But by now, the Indians have to know where they stand with Choo and Scott Boras on this issue. And if they can flip Choo for near-Major League ready starting pitching or corner outfield help, that’s a move they have to make at this juncture. The question is: Will Choo’s trade value will be significantly greater this winter than it will be next July? Because any team that acquires him has to know he’s likely to test the market next winter.
CHRIS PEREZ: There is a mountain of evidence that suggests the Indians ought to trade this guy. From a results standpoint, closers are an erratic bunch, by nature. This particular closer brings in the added element of saying or doing whatever feels right at any given moment, sometimes crossing that fine line between passion and recklessness. He’ll also come with a price tag likely north of $7 million this season. For a team that had somewhere in the neighborhood of a $66 million payroll at the outset of this season, that’s an awfully high percentage to invest in a ninth-inning arm.
But Perez’s ever-growing reputation likely isn’t helping his trade value, which might have peaked around the time the Tribe opted to stand pat in late July. Joel Hanrahan is at least one other closing option that could be made available in what could well become a crowded market. So while the evidence says trade Perez, it’s not necessarily a slam-dunk decision for the Tribe.
ASDRUBAL CABRERA: He’s going to make $6.5 million in 2013 and $10 million in 2014. The Indians aren’t in a position where they need to shed payroll, but they are in a position where they need to bring in some controllable, projectable pieces, even if it means parting with what few marketable talents they have on-hand. Cabrera would seem to be an attractive trade chip.
JUSTIN MASTERSON: Sure, you have to at least explore his market worth. But this would definitely be a “sell low” situation, so it’s probably not the best time the pull the trigger.
The buyout of Hafner’s $13 million option for 2013 will cost the Tribe $2.75 million. Though I freely admit I could be completely off-base, it’s hard for me to imagine the Indians paying Hafner $2.75 million to play elsewhere (or nowhere) next season.
What, realistically, is Hafner’s open market worth? If, just for the sake of discussion, we follow FanGraphs’ rationale that a win is is worth roughly $5 million in free agency and Hafner, with all his injury issues, has a 0.7 WAR this season, then he might be worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $3.5 million, tops (this, by the way, is extremely debatable). If you’re going to be paying him the bulk of that anyway, is it worth it to keep Hafner around in the part-time role he’s suited for? Otherwise, with $2.75 million already doled out to Pronk, what is your best, most realistic, most cost-effective DH option in free agency? A 42-year-old Jim Thome? Or do you just rotate position players through your DH spot? And if so, do you have the kind of depth necessary — i.e. nine position players worthy of 500 ABs — to make that worth your while?
I think the vast majority of Tribe fans are simply done with Hafner. They’ve seen enough. (That guy at the gym in the Hafner shirsey is one of the few exceptions to the rule.) But 2013 might — emphasis on might — be the first time in a long, long time that Hafner’s salary is commensurate with his value, and I can’t help but wonder if the Indians will take advantage of that.
UBALDO JIMENEZ: There’s no other way to put it: The Big U has gone backward in his time with the Indians. They thought they could fix his mechanical flaws, but his performance regressed. He thought a happier environment would propel him to his past success, but the only difference is that he’s in a better mood between lousy starts. And despite all that regression, he stands to get a significant pay raise, to $5.75 million, if the Indians pick up his 2013 option.
What a country.
To decline the option would cost the Indians $1 million for the buyout, and ordinarily this would be a no-brainer. Except you might have noticed that the Indians don’t exactly have a staggering number of bodies lined up to make starts for them in the Majors next season, and that roughly $5 million saved on Jimenez won’t buy them much in the market (See: Lowe, Derek).
CARLOS SANTANA: Catcher or first base? There are few things in this game as valuable as the middle-of-the-order hitter who also serves as your catcher. But what if that hitter regresses at the plate and provides only average value behind it?
I can’t tell you that the regression in production we’ve seen from Santana this season is directly tied to him catching. But I do know the wear and tear can’t possibly help. Santana’s offense improved in the second half, and that’s encouraging. But he’s still not the dynamic lineup presence the Indians thought him to be or he seemed to be trending toward last year.
Santana works hard on his defense, and he’s gotten better this season. I’d say he’s about average. He threw out 26 percent of opposing baserunners this season – ranking him 15th among those with at least 70 starts at the position. According to Baseball Info Solutions, he provided two defensive runs saved (an improvement over his minus-6 mark of a year ago), and this ranked 13th.
Is that defense worth preserving if the position itself has any impact on Santana’s power and production on the offensive side? That’s a question the Indians grappled with a year ago. They opted for the best defensive infield alignment they could muster in signing Casey Kotchman, and he came as advertised as a terrific defender. But he also had one of the worst offensive seasons of any player at any position in the big leagues, so I’m not sure the tradeoff was worth it.
I’m not sure the Santana tradeoff is worth it, either.
RUSS CANZLER: All right, so Canzler probably doesn’t really present a “pressing” decision. But the need for left field and/or first base help for next season is glaring. The first step, of course, is to assess your in-house options. So… is this guy anything? And if so, where was he two months ago? I suppose the fact that he wasn’t in the bigs at that point is indicative of whether the Indians feel he’s a Guy or, you know, just a guy.
(Apropos of nothing: My wife saw Canzler come up to bat the other night and thought he slightly resembled a bearded Jon Hamm, “only not as attractive.” That’s no knock on Canzler, because I have the sneaking suspicion my wife doesn’t think anybody is as attractive as Jon Hamm, myself included.)
THE FRONT OFFICE: Chris Antonetti has built up too much equity in this organization to be dumped after two years on the GM job, but Antonetti would be the first to admit that the last year and a half has not gone particularly well for him on the decision-making front. So the Indians have to take a good gander at their structure, their personnel and their decision-making process and see if they might benefit from an assist from other voices brought in from the outside. Baseball men with different perspectives gleaned from different experiences in different organizations.
As Paul Cousineau of the DiaTribe points out in this piece, the Indians have shown a willingness to explore this possibility in the past, as they discussed bringing aboard Josh Byrnes in an advisory role in the fall of 2010, shortly before he wound up joining the Padres. Ironically, Cousineau’s piece came to the conclusion that Francona might be a fit for such a role. Turns out, he might have a decidedly more prominent one with the Tribe.
PS: Having just cited his work, I’m going to take this opportunity to thank Cousineau for his contributions to the Tribe scribing community over the years. Many of you who read this space also read Paul’s, and for good reason. His work is thorough and thought-provoking and, overall, fair. He’s the rare fan who doesn’t let his passion get in the way of his analysis. And I’m fortunate enough, through our mutual interest in spending an inordinate amount of time writing about the Indians, to have become good friends with him over time.
Well, Paul has decided to call it quits on the DiaTribe front, settling into a happy retirement focused on his day job and his wonderful family. I don’t blame him a bit, but I’ll miss reading his stuff (sometimes kicking myself when he presents a point I wish I had thought of first).
I hereby raise an imaginary Bombshell Blonde (a refreshing canned beer… check it out) to you, dear DiaTriber.
The repercussions of a second-half slide revealed themselves Thursday, and the Indians’ dismissal of manager Manny Acta had felt increasingly inevitable in recent weeks.
No rational person could reasonably assert that Acta was solely to blame for the precipitous descent from AL Central contender to bottom-feeder. But at the rate the Indians were losing games (42 of their last 57, to be exact) and at the rate Acta was losing clubhouse influence, a reasonable defense of Acta became increasingly difficult to muster.
And so the Indians replaced him with his bench coach, Sandy Alomar Jr., on an interim basis. And this, too, was inevitable, for Alomar is popular with fans, popular with the players and, more to the point, highly regarded in the baseball community as a manager-in-training and waiting.
But Indians general manager Chris Antonetti, who dismissed Acta three years after bringing him aboard, told a room full of reporters that this particular skipper story is not yet complete. Antonetti will perform an extensive, time-consuming search — one in which Alomar is, of course, a top candidate — to find the right man for the job.
“It’s exhausting,” Antonetti said of the process of finding a manager. “It takes a lot of time and effort and a lot of phone calls and trying to understand and get enough perspectives on individuals from a variety of areas to really have an informed opinion of someone.”
My advice to Antonetti?
Save your time, save your cell phone minutes and save everybody involved the hassle of submitting to a process that seems to have yet another inevitable result.
Just name Alomar the permanent manager and be done with it.
This is not meant to belittle the names that will be tossed into the fire of the rumor mill. While it’s silly to assume Terry Francona would leave a cushy TV gig to manager a team likely in need of a rebuild on a budget, there is no shortage of promising, up-and-coming managerial candidates available for such an opportunity. (Torey Lovullo, the Blue Jays’ first base coach, is a personal favorite, and he has past ties to the Indians’ organization as their former Triple-A skipper.)
Nor is this an affront against the benefits of careful deliberation and consideration. Even if the results are nowhere near as intended right now, the Indians do have a thoughtful process to the way they go about making decisions, and a managerial move is obviously a major decision to make.
But given these particular circumstances — with a perfectly reasonable candidate in place and many pertinent and pressing questions being posed about the direction of the franchise — I’d say Antonetti and Co. would be best-served to place their emphasis and put their time in elsewhere.
For a team in need of some positive PR at the moment, Alomar is as positive as they come. For better or worse, many fans here remain enamored with those teams from Jacobs Field’s nascent years, when division titles were as second nature as season sell-outs.
Alomar was, of course, a popular part of those teams, and, while nobody buys a ticket to see the manager in action, that popularity can’t hurt.
(Granted, the Indians will never reasonably be able to satisfy that certain segment of the fan base that only wishes to dwell on the ‘90s. Although Albert Belle did joke with an Indians staffer that he ought to be named the new manager because he is, in his words, “the people’s champ.” So there’s always that option…)
For a young team likely to endure a tough transition period, a rookie skipper like Alomar, who can grow along with his players, is a fit. Even Acta, in his conference call with reporters after his dismissal, noted what a “good baseball man” Alomar is (though Acta was also quick to joke that if he’s not qualified enough to be this club’s manager, he’s not qualified enough to give his opinion on who the next manager should be).
And for this particular assemblage of Indians players, Alomar is an ally. It’s not exactly fair, but the current crop of players seemed to sour on Acta. They didn’t feel he stuck up for them enough on blown or controversial calls. They didn’t feel he associated with them enough in the clubhouse.
Indeed, it’s telling that, several hours after the news of his dismissal had gone public, Acta had only heard from one of his players offering condolences.
Alomar is beloved by this bunch. Whether that amounts to much between the lines is a matter very much yet to be determined, because the talent level is clearly lacking. For whatever it’s worth, Baseball Reference’s Pythagorean won-loss calculation suggests that the Indians should have had four less wins than they had under Acta this season, and Baseball Prospectus’ manager data says Acta’s Indians outperformed their Pythagorean expectations more than any other AL club other than the Orioles.
When you consider those admitted approximations and when you note the fact that none of the eight men who started three or more games for the Indians this season have an ERA less than 5.00, you see that the Tribe has issues that go well beyond the managerial slot.
So that’s my unsolicited advice to Antonetti: Give Alomar his shot, and put the organizational emphasis elsewhere. Take the time you would have used to conduct that exhaustive skipper search and apply it to the other evaluations already taking place — evaluations of the scouting, drafting, development and injury prevention dynamics that put you in this hole in the first place.
Now that the ceremonial slaying has been taken care of, get down to the real roots of the problem at hand.
PS: I had a lot of fun concocting the ridiculous “Bizarro World” post that ran Monday, and hopefully the majority of you (between tears and beers, of course) took it in the light-hearted manner it was intended and didn’t seek out a short bridge from which to belly-flop.
Judging by comments posted and received here and on Twitter, some of you took it more seriously than others, and to those people I must state what ought to have been obvious: There are varying degrees of plausibility within that piece, and it is not meant as an absolute indictment of all that has taken place since the run to the ALCS in 2007 (not all of it, anyway).
But it is certainly interesting to look back at various avenues where a different course of action or the simple solution of more positive luck would have paid off handsomely. More than anything, it is also instructive to see just how much has to go right to build a big-league powerhouse, particularly in a market this size.
Nobody could reasonably expect the Indians’ front office to bat at the abnormally high percentage illustrated in that piece. But Tribe fans are certainly entitled to want and expect it to bat at a higher percentage than it has in the last five years.
It’s amazing, really, this run that has sealed the 2012 American League Central Division championship for the Cleveland Indians. But it’s the product of good decision-making and, yes, good luck every step of the way.
With 92 wins and an insurmountable edge on those disappointing Detroit Tigers, the Tribe has run away with the Central, is headed to the postseason for the first time since 2007 and is also on the verge of locking up the AL’s top seed.
What an exciting time it is here in Cleveland. Why, you can’t walk the streets downtown without bumping into somebody in a Mike Trout jersey.
The Indians are the talk of the town, especially with the Browns sitting at 0-3. (The only interest in the Browns these days revolves around the possibility of them adding a roof to their stadium… like that’s ever going to happen.)
Chris Antonetti is being hailed as MLB’s likely Executive of the Year. Some people even joke that team president Mark Shapiro ought to run for actual president. (Not that we’re in need of a change, what with the housing market booming, the budget balanced and unemployment at record lows.)
Ah, yes, it’s been a magical ride here in 2012. And if you think back, I’d say it really began with the CC Sabathia trade in 2008.
My, those were dark days in ‘08, weren’t they? The Indians were fresh off an ALCS collapse, and they stumbled out the gates in a season of high expectations. Sabathia himself struggled mightily in April, perhaps distracted by all the talk about his free-agent year (he has since, of course, acknowledged many times in many interviews that he had no intention of re-signing with the Indians and does not, for one second, blame them for dealing him at the Trade Deadline).
I still remember those final, anxious days before the trade was made in early July of that year. The Milwaukee Brewers were vying for their first playoff berth in forever, had a loaded Double-A team and were therefore viewed as the top suitors for Sabathia. The Indians did, indeed, almost pull the trigger on a trade centered on Matt LaPorta, though I think there were concerns about LaPorta’s ability to make the mental adjustments he’d need to be a viable power threat in the big leagues (LaPorta still hasn’t amounted to much).
So instead, the Indians went a different route and dealt CC to the very place he was expected to land in free agency, anyway — Los Angeles.
Well, suffice to say that trade worked wonderfully for the Dodgers, who won the 2008 World Series with CC fronting their rotation and signed him to a long-term deal. But in the back of their minds, the Dodgers still have to wonder what life might have been like with Clayton Kershaw in their rotation.
Kershaw was just eight starts into his big-league career and sporting a 4.42 ERA when the Indians landed him in the CC deal, but he was generally regarded as one of the top pitching prospects in baseball. He’s developed into a Cy Young winner, and he and Adam Miller have emerged as the most dominant one-two, left-right punch in the Majors. Throw in lefty Chris Sale, who has made a splendid conversion to starting duties just two years after the Indians took him with the No. 5 overall pick in the Draft, and this is the most dangerous rotation in the game.
No wonder the Indians are the heavy favorites to win their first World Series title since 1948.
Speaking of Miller, remember all that concern over his blister issues at the start of an otherwise blistering 2008 season at Triple-A? Well, thank God that wasn’t the result of some heretofore unheard-of finger ligament pulley issue that would have probably required… oh, I don’t know… four surgeries or so. Miller’s health has been vital to him living up to the promise and potential the Indians forecast for him when they drafted him in 2003.
Of course, on this club, picking out the best Draft pick of the last decade is easy. It’s not Miller, and it’s not Sale.
No, it’s quite clearly Trout, who was taken at No. 15 overall in 2009 and has blossomed into the obvious 2012 Rookie of the Year candidate and quite possibly the Indians’ first MVP since Al Rosen.
Yes, all those other teams that picked ahead of the Indians are kicking themselves now. The Indians recognized that the ’09 Draft was heavy on pitching from both the collegiate and high school ranks, but 10 of the first 14 picks were used on pitchers, and the herd was thinning quickly. Alex White was high on the Indians’ board, but they saw him as more of a reliever than a top-flight starting option, so, they figured, why use a top-15 pick on a reliever? Trout was the best bat available, and the Indians signed him well above slot, at $2.25 million.
Man, what a bargain. And with Trout on board, having made his first foray into the big leagues in the latter half of ’11, the Indians were able to make a clean break from Grady Sizemore last winter, after Sizemore endured another injury plagued year in the last guaranteed year of his contract.
I still can’t believe the Phillies paid Sizemore $5 million and haven’t had him on the field for a single inning this season. But oh well, that’s their problem.
With the money freed up from Sizemore’s departure, Antonetti had a brilliant offseason, didn’t he? He knew the Indians were close to being a championship-level ballclub after they finished right around .500 last year. He just had to find some affordable power in the corners.
There were concerns about giving left fielder Josh Willingham a guaranteed third year, as he was entering his age-33 season. But Willingham has alleviated all those concerns with a team-high 35 homers and an .892 OPS. At $7 million per season, he’s considered a steal.
Willingham has obviously helped the Indians remain productive against left-handed pitching, but he’s not the only reason for that success. Occasionally moving Santana to first base (keeping his body fresh) and having Allen Craig spell Shin-Soo Choo (who still struggles against lefties) in right field from time to time has worked wonders.
Yes, where would the Indians be without Craig? Remember how upset some of you fans were when the Indians dealt Asdrubal Cabrera to the Cardinals for Craig? “How can you trade an All-Star shortstop?” was the popular refrain, but the Indians… oh my, they were wily. They recognized that Cabrera wasn’t likely to repeat his home run production from 2011, and they knew he was prone to injury and second-half slides, so they traded him while his value was at its peak.
The Cards were desperate enough for shortstop help that they gave up Craig, who had some huge moments for them in the postseason last year. The Indians were criticized for dealing for a guy coming off knee surgery, but look how quickly Allen, affectionately known to the Cleveland faithful as “The Wrench,” healed and how well he slotted into the first-base spot? His 22 homers have been a big boost, and you can often spot the female fan group “Wrench’s Wenches” rooting him on from the stands.
Of course, dealing Cabrera meant Antonetti had to get creative to fill the shortstop hole. But he dealt from a position of strength in sending closer Chris Perez to the Red Sox.
“They traded another All-Star?” screamed the naysayers. “What are these guys thinking? Everybody knows All-Star selections are the best gauge of a player’s talent!”
Well, sure, it was difficult to part with Perez. He saved 36 games last year. But he was due a big raise in arbitration, and the Indians felt they could find a suitable closer through other means. Perez, who replaced Jonathan Papelbon, hasn’t had as many save opportunities on that brutal Boston team, but at least his colorful and controversial remarks (I still can’t believe he called the Fenway sellout streak “numbers-fudging fraud”) have fit right in with the drama always emanating out of that clubhouse.
Meanwhile, the Indians have received serviceable shortstop play and a few timely hits from Jed Lowrie, who has managed to stay healthy. And the real key to the deal will be the continued development of Felix Doubront, who has made a successful conversation to starting duties in the back end of the Tribe rotation. This rotation could be really good for a long, long time.
Perez has not been missed in the ninth inning, that’s for sure. Unwilling to simply hand over the closer duties to the young Vinnie Pestano (who has been brilliant in the setup role), the Indians instead instilled a more veteran presence in Fernando Rodney. For the bargain cost of $2 million (or $2.5 million less than what Perez commanded in arbitration), Rodney has had a season perhaps worthy of the Cy Young Award — a 0.64 ERA and 44 saves.
What a shrewd pickup.
I would be remiss to not point out the other trade with the Red Sox that worked out so wonderfully. The midseason trade for Kevin Youkilis was another important one, as Youkilis has joined team captain Victor Martinez as a respected leader in the Tribe clubhouse while hitting for power and drawing his share of walks.
If you think about it, the timing was amazing. Had young third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall broken his arm on, say, June 29, instead of June 24, the Indians probably wouldn’t have sent Corey Kluber and Aaron Cunningham to Boston for Youk on June 25. The division-rival White Sox might have landed him instead.
It sure has been fun watching Youkilis and all the other newcomers over the years interacting with Martinez, who creates a unique handshake for each member of the club. He has been the glue that has held this club together in recent years, the one guy who has truly seemed to love playing in Cleveland and defines what it means to be an Indian.
Not long ago, Martinez was the subject of rampant trade speculation. In fact, in 2009, sinking in the standings and looking to cut costs, the Indians considered a fire sale in which they would have traded both Martinez and reigning Cy Young winner Cliff Lee, even though both players were more than a year away from free agency (can you imagine the fan uproar that would have caused?).
Well, rather than rush a trade that would have sent Lee packing for a group of prospects highlighted by, say, an 18-year-old on the disabled list in Class A ball, the Indians opted to hold on to Lee for another year, when similar trade packages were available. (That July 2010 deal with the Rangers for a group highlighted by Justin Smoak still hasn’t worked out, as hoped, but hey… no front office bats 1.000, and the Indians bought themselves benefit of the doubt with the wildly successful Bartolo Colon and CC swaps).
And rather than trade Victor, the Indians were able to work out an extension with him that runs through 2014. If you think about it, that extension probably wouldn’t have been possible had the Indians dedicated a large chunk of their player payroll to lock up former designated hitter Travis Hafner, as so many fans clamored for in 2007. When Hafner’s ’07 season got off to a slow start, the Indians wisely backed off the extension talks, recognizing it might be crazy for a small-market club to give upwards of $57 million to a guy who can’t even play a position.
Whatever happened to Hafner, anyway?
Naturally, there were concerns about Martinez’s long-term viability at his catching position. But the Indians had Carlos Santana, who viewed Martinez as his idol, on-hand via the Casey Blake trade from 2008, and Martinez, content to spend his entire career in Cleveland (unlike so many others), accepted a move to first base and, eventually, DH.
He, too, has stayed healthy. The Indians sure do seem to have a lot of luck in the health department.
Of course, much credit for this wild ride also goes to manager Bob Melvin. It was a little ironic when the Indians, in the middle of that 2010 season, dismissed one 2007 Manager of the Year in Eric Wedge and replaced him with another, but it’s worked out.
Like Wedge with the Indians, Melvin was the fall guy for a D-backs team that did not meet amplified expectations after that 2007 NL West title and subsequent NLCS appearance. But the Indians recognized that Melvin is great working with young players (in ’07, he became the first manager in postseason history to fill out a lineup card with four rookies on it), he’s calm and conscientious, he’s a good communicator and a hands-on instructor and demands (and gets) hustle from his guys.
Melvin had been a finalist for the Astros job after the ’09 season, but Houston went with former Nationals manager Manny Acta. Had the Indians gone to full fire-sale mode in ’09, they, too, might have been searching for a skipper at that time, but they decided to give Wedge one last shot in the final year of his contract. When the 2010 season got ugly, Lee was traded, Wedge was canned and Melvin was brought in to help salvage the wreck.
Two years later, Melvin is well on his way to another Manager of the Year award. But this is a total team effort, from top to bottom.
Where would the Indians be without those successful drafts? Those shrewd swaps? Those impactful acquisitions?
They certainly wouldn’t be in the midst of this glorious 2012 season — a season that has been like a dream for so many Tribe fans.
If this is a dream, forgive them if they never want to wake up.
Last place, unappealing as it is, at least comes with a certain amount of clarity. Because at least we can say that what’s happened to the Indians these last couple months is not just jaw-dropping or bewildering or perplexing. It’s borderline historic.
Perhaps you’ve seen the note that only three teams in baseball history have been in first place after 70 games and gone on to finish last — the 1991 Angels, the 2005 Nationals and the 2006 Rockies.
Now, granted, the season is not over, and the Indians might not finish last in the AL Central. They might not even be in last by the time you read this.
But even those Angels and those Nats wound up with 81 wins, while the Rox finished with 76. These Indians, whether they finish last or not, clearly aren’t going to wind up with 76 wins or anything close to it. They are on pace to lose 95 games.
As I write this, the Indians are in last… with a caveat. The Twins are in last, too. But the Indians are 5-10 against those Twins, so consider that a tiebreaker.
This is an abomination, and it doesn’t even matter what the “right” moves are. The Indians have to consider the drastic ones.
Some will say that should start with a purge of Manny Acta and the coaching staff at season’s end, if not sooner (though many of those same people will want bench coach Sandy Alomar Jr. installed as the skipper). As rational as I try to be in this space, as much as I know a managerial change won’t change much, who am I to disagree? Heck, at this point, a dismissal might be merciful.
(This Jon Heyman report has Acta on the hot seat. As you know, Paul Dolan said a few weeks back that everybody, Acta included, was safe. But obviously those votes of confidence can go south. Besides, Dolan said that at Acta’s charity bowling function. That wouldn’t exactly seem a reasonable time to talk publicly about his performance being under scrutiny… unless, of course, you wanted to invite speculation that Acta’s on the outs if he rolls anything less than a 200.)
Nobody has been a bigger supporter of the energy level and insight Acta has brought to this club than me. Frankly, on a personal level, as a media member, I love dealing with the guy. And I can’t fault him for falling short with a flawed roster. (In fact, Baseball Reference’s Pythagorean W-L calculation estimates that these Indians should actually be five games worse than they are right now. So if you think this is bad, well….)
But who could possibly muster an artful defense of Acta and his coaches now that the Indians have won just nine of their last 43?
Wait… does that sound dramatic enough? Let’s try this again: The Indians have lost 34 of 43.
No, no, that still doesn’t quite capture it. Let’s try this: The Indians have been losing roughly eight out of every 10 games… for seven weeks.
There, I think that did it.
And while this is an issue that goes beyond coaching and beyond preparation and ultimately comes down to talent level (or lack thereof), maybe at some point you do have to send a message to your players and, yes, to your fan base that, hey, we’re going to try doing something differently, even if it can be construed as change for the sake of change.
Has Acta lost the clubhouse? Have the players stopped caring or trying? Or are they really just this bad a baseball team?
This is how Chris Antonetti answered questions of that nature Tuesday, courtesy of Paul Hoynes:
“I don’t get any sense that the guys are just finishing out the string. The balance of the year is still important to everybody. We still have mostly a very young team that is looking to establish themselves as Major League players. Everybody still has something to play for.”
So… are you picking up on that supposed sense of urgency when you watch this team play?
Look at these quick and dirty numbers since July 27:
Justin Masterson: 7.14 ERA, .295 average against, .507 slugging percentage against (including nine home runs).
Ubaldo Jimenez: 6.79 ERA, .295 average against, .498 slugging percentage against (including eight home runs).
Asdrubal Cabrera: .236/.303/.343.
Shin-Soo Choo: .237/.346/.329.
Jason Kipnis: .206/.281/.287.
Michael Brantley: .262/.323/.362.
Carlos Santana: .260/.339/.447.
Those are not some young guys in an audition or guys getting innings and at-bats out of desperation. Those are your purported anchors, your purported building blocks in the rotation and in the lineup. And aside from Santana (whose numbers are not great but are at least an improvement on his season tally), they have all regressed — in some cases, quite significantly — down the stretch (and in the cases of Masterson and Jimenez, this is regression on top of regression).
Whether that’s an issue between the lines or between the ears is probably case-specific, but one has to wonder about the overall focus level in that clubhouse right now.
But if the Indians are, indeed, going to focus on change, it has to extend beyond the coaching staff and beyond the trade department, where the markets, however limited, for Choo, Chris Perez, Cabrera, Masterson and Jimenez must, at the least, be explored this winter.
On the heels of the 11 straight losses in early August, Antonetti said it was “possible” that the Indians’ evaluators had overrated their pitching. I think we can go ahead and update that to “probable,” and the overrating quite obviously extends to some amateur and trade acquisitions on both the pitching and position player front over the years.
I don’t think it’s unfair to say Antonetti has had a brutal 14 months, dating back to the Ubaldo trade. The budget is not all that’s held the Indians back in 2012, and neither is a lack of luck.
Antonetti’s job is still expected to be safe at season’s end, and indeed he’s built up a good deal of collateral in his 13 years in this organization. But it might do the Indians well to get some new blood in the evaluative and developmental mix to pair with Antonetti and Co. Fresh ideas, new ways of scouting talent or analyzing data. Because while many of the criticisms thrust at this front office the past decade have been unfair, the criticisms start to carry more weight when a rebuild goes wrong. And aside from a 30-15 spurt of unexpected brilliance at the beginning of 2011 and contention-by-default in a bad division at the outset of 2012, very little has gone right here since the 2009 purge.
The current standings allow us to sum it all up in clear and certain terms: In 2012, the Indians expected to contend for first. For a while, they did. But now they are in last. And their place in the standings probably won’t be the last area of drastic change.
They were a game over .500 five days before the Trade Deadline. They’ve gone 4-18 since. And the dissatisfaction in their lifeless play extends off the field, where Manny Acta makes pointed remarks about the holes on the roster and Chris Perez engages in an embarrassingly ugly altercation with opposing fans.
The “window of contention” theme we took from the front office and propped up in these parts? It’s been more like one of those utility windows in your basement. Because the Indians finished two games under .500 a year ago when injuries and depth issues erased a startlingly strong start, and they have a very real chance of finishing 2012 with 90 losses or more.
If you had asked me two weeks ago (as the 11-game losing streak was winding down) if heads would roll because of the disappointing way 2012 has played out, I would have told you pitching coach Scott Radinsky and hitting coach Bruce Fields are probably both on thin ice, given the regression we’ve seen from the likes of Justin Masterson, Ubaldo Jimenez and Carlos Santana. Not to say that I think either guy was or is necessarily doing a lousy job; it’s just that this is the way the business works. So when Radinsky bit the bullet later that week, I figured that was the end of it and the Indians would plod along their mediocre route to the finish line.
But they just keep losing, and rather convincingly so. And when Major League clubs lose at the rate the Indians are losing in seasons in which they, rightly or wrongly, expected to contend, well, it tends to get ugly in the aftermath.
Right now, I can’t tell you how safe Acta’s job is. When asked two weeks ago if Acta would be back in 2013, Chris Antonetti said, “I have no reason to think otherwise.” But that was, of course, the same conversation in which Antonetti said he wasn’t contemplating any coaching changes, and Radinsky got the axe three days later. Frankly, the way the Indians are playing right now is reminiscent of the way they played in the lead-up to Eric Wedge’s dismissal in 2009. When teams go this bad this long, it gets prickly for the manager.
So, no, I wouldn’t say Acta’s job is quite as secure as Antonetti’s two-week-old words would lead you to believe. Nor do I think it’s necessarily fair to assign Acta the blame, for no amount of sacrifice bunting or on-field tirades in the faces of umpires or motivational speeches was going to get much more mileage out of this lemon.
But since when is the business of baseball fair? Ask Brad Mills about fairness.
Acta nailed it last week when he noted that the Indians “need more than four guys in our lineup to be productive” (a statement that is true, no matter the manager). He rattled off this shopping list:
“We’re going to have to find a solution in left field, we’re going to have to find a solution at first base and we’re going to have to find a solution at DH. That’s pretty obvious. And the third base situation is not determined either. Lonnie Chisenhall has a broken arm.”
All right, so… a left fielder, a first baseman, a DH, maybe a third baseman. Just reading this list, I get that same queasy feeling I get when my wife is walking around Nordstrom’s, and I’m not even the one responsible for writing the Indians’ paychecks. We know well by now that the Indians, like most teams, aren’t going to outspend revenues, and we know from the attendance tallies (and this Terry Pluto interview with Paul Dolan) that revenues aren’t exactly robust.
(By the way, about that DH spot… the buyout of Travis Hafner’s 2013 contract is $2.75 million. Count me among those skeptical that the Indians are going to pay Hafner $2.75 million to suit up for anybody other than the Cleveland Indians next season.)
But wait, we’re not even done with the shopping list. Here’s Acta with another obvious assertion a few days later:
“For us to play better, we need to pitch better. You can’t win if you don’t pitch better. It’s that simple. Pitching is the name of the game.”
Well, yeah, and the Indians have maybe the worst pitching staff in the American League. Their staff ERA (4.82) is, at the moment, a tick better than that of the Twins (4.83), but they’ve walked 85 more guys than Twins pitchers.
The Indians clearly need to improve their starting staff, top to bottom. And we must add that to the shopping list, because if this season is any indication, the answers aren’t likely to come internally.
You look at that list — put together by a guy whose usually prone to positivity about the assets he has on-hand — and you start to come to the perhaps inevitable conclusion that this club’s 2013 competitive hopes aren’t much brighter than 2012’s. You start to wonder if the Indians would, indeed, be best to move the most attractive pieces from a team that wasn’t all that good to begin with in order to bring in some younger, projectable bodies you can place around the likes of Jason Kipnis, Chisenhall, Santana and Brantley.
Yes, that could mean trading Shin-Soo Choo, who wants to be with a winner as much as he wants to sign a fat free-agent contract. Yes, that could mean trading Perez, though his reputation will undoubtedly precede him in trade talks. Yes, that could mean even mean parting with Asdrubal Cabrera, who has once again seen his production wane in the second half.
But if the Indians do it, don’t call it a “rebuild,” because that would tend to imply that something significant was previously built.
This talk of stripping this club down to its core is probably the last thing Indians fans want to hear, three years after Cliff Lee and Victor Martinez were dealt. And it’s talk that, just a few weeks back, I personally would have strayed far away from. That just goes to show how much can change in a few weeks’ time in this game, and perhaps the Indians will change this outlook in the remaining six weeks of the season.
For now, though, they just keep losing ballgames, and they look lifeless doing so. And sometimes, a lifeless ballclub leads to a lively transaction wire.
I referenced this scene in my latest column on the Tribe for MLB.com, but mentioning it inspired me to watch it and watching it inspired me to post it here.
Here, friends, courtesy of the makers of “The Naked Gun,” is a perfect encapsulation of how the last week and a half has gone, with regard to the Indians and their competitive standing in the AL Central:
They did nothing.
Well, sure, they acquired Brent Lillibridge last week and they got Lars Anderson from the Red Sox just before the deadline, but, you know, like I said:
They did nothing.
For the better part of the past two months, those of us who like to discuss such things talked about the Indians’ needs: Should they pursue a right-handed bat or starting arm? Starting arm or right-handed bat? Bat, arm. Arm, bat. Both? Tribe fans studied Jason Vargas’ game logs. They tried to talk themselves into Alfonso Soriano. And just when there seemed to be some consensus that, yes, an arm was what the Indians needed most, well, that’s when a new opinion intervened…
The Indians should sell! Yes, that’s right. They went 6-11 after the All-Star break and fell five games back of first place. Time to blow it up and start all over! Time to send your best player, Shin-Soo Choo, to Pittsburgh or Los Angeles or maybe even back to South Korea, as long as the return is Major League-ready. Send Justin Masterson — two years and two months away from free agency, mind you — back to Boston. Send Chris Perez to San Francisco and let him complain about their fans. Ship off anything that’s not nailed down… and yes I’m looking at you, Jose Lopez.
These were, to put it bluntly, especially schizophrenic circumstances, and perhaps they were unavoidable when you’re talking about a mediocre (minus-66 run differential, second-worst ERA in the league) contender (“Verlander Schmerlander”).
Rather than sway toward any side of the line, Chris Antonetti stayed Switzerland, content to let 2012 play out as-is.
It was not a surprising stance.
As discussed last week, this club’s needs were too many to address at the Deadline (and for this, the front office definitely deserves some blame, as Josh Willingham and/or Yoenis Cespedes would have been excellent and affordable additions last winter), and the trading chips on hand were too scarce. The 2012 Indians simply did not give Antonetti enough reason to pull the trigger on any trade that would have weakened an already frail farm system in exchange for a short-term rental. And that frail farm system (which, mind you, is also the fault of the front office) caught up to the Indians once again, as they don’t seem to have the adequate pieces to bring in an impact acquisition under control beyond 2012.
That addresses the “buy” situation, but what about the “sell”?
Well, when Antonetti made the Ubaldo Jimenez trade on July 30, 2011, he embraced a so-called “window of contention” based on the contractual control the Indians held on Jimenez, Choo, Masterson, Perez and Asdrubal Cabrera, each of whom would have been eligible for free agency either after 2013 (Choo, Jimenez, Cabrera*) or 2014 (Masterson, Perez).
*Cabrera, of course, has since been extended through 2014, and the contractual status remains the same for the rest.
Now, it’s my opinion that the Indians whiffed on Ubaldo. I don’t know how to put it any other way. We have no way of knowing what Drew Pomeranz (especially) and Alex White would have become in Cleveland instead of the pitcher’s nightmare that is Colorado, but the Indians at least would have had six years to find out. Instead, they got two years and two months of Jimenez, and the first calendar year has been an unqualified disappointment. Jimenez is 12-14 with a 5.08 ERA and 1.55 WHIP in 32 outings with the Indians. As my friend and colleague Jordan Bastian notes in this piece, Ubaldo currently leads the league in walks and stolen bases allowed and wild pitches thrown. He’s a mess.
But if you’re Antonetti, in the immediate, you have to make the most of that mess. You have to hope, perhaps against hope, that Jimenez, even if he’ll never become the ace-type arm he once was, at least rights himself enough to become a dependable middle-of-the-rotation guy. You have to hope the backward steps taken by Masterson and Carlos Santana this season are not indicative of future results and that the coaching staff you helped put in place is capable of righting them.
That’s the immediate, because the Trade Deadline, by nature, doesn’t seem to be the best time to make bold decisions about the future of the franchise (the Ubaldo and Cliff Lee deals, neither of which have gone particularly well, best illustrate the basis of that belief).
But the Indians are going to have an awfully interesting offseason ahead, because now that they have a feel for the outside interest levels in the likes of Choo and Masterson and Perez, maybe they’ll delve further down those roads.
I’ve expressed my opinion that the Indians ought to seriously consider parting with Perez for a variety of factors, not the least of which is money. The arbitration costs you’d save by dealing from a position of strength could be applied elsewhere, and Lord knows the Indians have plenty of places to apply them.
This 2012 season ought to serve as a lesson that, no, the almost completely left-handed lineup and the right-handed rotation do not lend themselves to the kind of sustained winning stretches it takes to be a true contender. Both of those issues absolutely need to be addressed, one way or another, if the Indians are going to contend in 2013, and perhaps Travis Hafner and Grady Sizemore coming off the books will help Antonetti do so. You can look at the Indians’ lineup, factoring in a healthy Lonnie Chisenhall and matured Jason Kipnis, and see the seeds of a competitive club. But as I wrote earlier, if the Indians do ultimately decide to deal Choo, they’d almost assuredly be taking a big step back with regard to their 2013 outlook, and that’s a tough sell to a fractured fan base.
Still, given the way the Jimenez trade has transpired and some notable core elements have disappointed this season, perhaps a step back in 2013 in order to augment the 2014, ’15, ’16 outlook is the way to proceed. I suppose that all depends on just how aggressive Antonetti plans to be (or, rather, has the budget capability to be) this winter in the construction of the 2013 club.
For now, Antonetti wasn’t aggressive at all at the 2012 Trade Deadline. I’m sure he racked up the cell phone minutes, but, ultimately, he did nothing.
And given the schizophrenic nature of a club that is not quite good enough to contend but not quite bad enough to detonate, maybe “nothing” makes sense.
On Twitter: @Castrovince
The Indians have known for two and a half years that Choo is their property through the 2013 season and not a day longer, given that he’s a five-tool talent who latched on with an agent — Scott Boras — known for getting his players to free agency as quickly as possible.
Naturally, the pending Trade Deadline, coming as it does just as the Indians spiral out of contention in the American League Central, has a way of forcing a club to take stock of its standing and its assets, both present and future. And there is no question that one of the Tribe’s greatest assets in the immediate is Choo.
It comes as no surprise, then, that interest in Choo, who has a .292 average and .862 OPS and has had an impactful presence in the leadoff spot for the Indians, is high right now. Reports have run rampant that the Pirates have particular interest, and they have the ability to dangle promising prospect Starling Marte, among others.
It comes as equally no surprise that the Indians are at least willing to listen to offers for the 30-year-old native of South Korea, because this is an organization known for trying, with varying degrees of success, to reel in returns for its top talent before that talent bolts.
Choo’s, though, is a particularly delicate case because it comes at a time when the Indians are still trying to repair relations with a fan base that largely turned its back on the latest rebuild, and his sheer presence is a key element of any effort to maximize the so-called “window of contention” the Indians have outlined for themselves.
Because beyond Choo, the Indians’ outfield arrangement at the upper levels of their farm system can best be described as barren with a side of bleak. The most illustrative moment came midseason, when former No. 1 pick Trevor Crowe, drafted nine slots ahead of Jacoby Ellsbury in the famed 2005 First-Year Player Draft, was released by an organization that too often whiffed on amateur talent.
The Indians, though, got it right on several relatively low-profile trades, and that was undoubtedly the case when they acquired Choo from the Mariners six years ago. All it cost them was Ben Broussard, the second half of their 2006 first-base platoon. The first half, Eduardo Perez, had also gone to Seattle in exchange for future All-Star shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera.
Those two swaps are still nothing short of amazing.
It’s altogether possible, six years later, that the Indians could get it right again and move Choo for a prime piece or two. They are definitely targeting upper-level bodies with the ability to play in the Majors in the present tense.
But if the return is, say, Marte, who is young (23), controllable and — bonus — right-handed (the Indians’ lineup famously leans to the left), you’re still sacrificing a good deal of 2013 output from the loss of Choo’s leadoff lumber in order to attain a longer-term projection.
And maybe the Indians are comfortable with that, given that Ubaldo Jimenez, the man whose arrival signaled the Indians’ embrace of the aforementioned “window,” has established himself as anything but an ace and Justin Masterson has also taken a step back in 2012. Those two have been leaders of the Tribe rotation only in the sense that they have been equally unsteady as the rest of the starting five.
Masterson, for the record, has also been rumored to be a movable piece, but he’s under the Indians’ control through 2014.
For this club to contend both in the immediate and in 2013, a rotation upgrade is definitely in order, and that is, of course, the most costly and difficult area to upgrade.
So maybe the Indians use a strength like Choo to address a weakness, be it in the rotation or the long-term outfield alignment. The Deadline presents a frenzied environment in which clubs act impulsively, so this could be a time to reap a robust return. Or if the Indians are really serious about dangling Choo, they can also wait until winter, when more clubs can get involved. Or they could keep him, knowing they could always monitor this market a year from now, if 2013 goes off-track.
Choo is the hotter topic at present, but if the Indians are really swaying toward “sell” mode, they would be wiser, simply as a function of in-house replacement options, to part with closer Chris Perez.
Perez won’t be a free agent until after 2014, but he’s already making $4.5 million with another raise looming after a stellar season. If his pay gets bumped to somewhere in the $7 million range, then the Indians, realistically, could be investing about 10-12 percent of their 2013 player payroll into the erratic commodity that is a closer, knowing full well that lower-cost option exists in Vinnie Pestano and that bullpens, in general, can be pieced together on the cheap. Late-game relief is definitely a seller’s market at present and could be in the winter, as well.
Naturally, the Indians have the option of standing pat and letting the 2012 season resolve itself, hoping the first sustained winning stretch this current club goes on will be the one that triggers a rapid rise in the Central standings.
But even if the Indians hold firm now, these questions will come up again in the winter. It says here that you can trade Perez and probably still build a winner next year, especially if you wisely apply the money saved. Trading Choo, on the other hand, would present a more difficult proposition for 2013.
According to Baseball Reference, Choo has created 71 runs this year, or 16 percent of the Tribe’s total output. Combine that with his rocket arm in right, and his impact is impressive. Any returns on a trade better be the same and better be ready for prime time, or else the Indians would have a tough time selling this current “window” as anything other than shut.
The Trade Deadline cometh, and what do the Indians — presumed buyers — need to take the AL Central this season?
They need at least one starting pitcher (not counting Roberto Hernandez), first and foremost.
They need at least one impact right-handed bat.
They need another proven reliever to ease the stress on the back end.
They need better depth and definitely better balance.
These needs are so many, the organizational trade options so few and the available talent in the trade market so hallow that, well, I don’t need to tell you this is complicated.
Because if you’re Chris Antonetti, and your job is to make realistic evaluations of your talent at both the Major League and Minor League levels, you’ve got to be asking yourself what, exactly, is to be gained from a Deadline deal at this juncture?
Even in the midst of understanding the “window of contention” template upon which the Tribe operates, why sell off any more of your already gaunt future stock to prop up a club that needs more than just a few finishing touches? A club that, by virtue of its left-leaning lineup and right-tossing starting staff, was not built to go on sustained stretches of success? A club whose schizophrenic personality (hit but don’t pitch, pitch but don’t hit) appears incurable?
I wrote recently about how exceedingly average this Tribe team (then .500 and now a game under as I type this) is, and how the demands of the division (or lack thereof) made that tolerable for the time being.
But those demands are increasing every day, as the Tigers (winners of 13 of 17 and expected aggressors in Deadline dealing) start to make the most of the fifth-highest payroll in the game, with the White Sox a game and a half back and benefiting from the boost of Kevin Youkilis (they also added Brett Myers over the weekend, for whatever that’s worth).
This is still one of the weakest divisions in the game, but it’s going to take more than a .500 effort to win it.
And the second Wild Card? Sure, that presumably props up the postseason odds for anybody meandering in the realm of .500. But had that second Wild Card existed from the beginning of the Wild Card era, it would have taken 89 wins, on average, to claim it in the full, 162-game seasons (1995 was, of course, shortened by the strike). Maybe it won’t take that many this year, but that’s the neighborhood you’ve got to shoot for.
It’s difficult to see this Indians team going on the kind of second-half run it would take to finish eight games over .500, and it’s difficult to see any of the realistic options (emphasis there on “realistic”) in the trade department drastically altering that bottom line.
Because remember, this Tribe team has not won more than four in a row at any point this year. This team has allowed 47 more run than it has scored. In fact, only three teams in all of MLB — the Rockies, Twins and Astros — have allowed more runs.
This team is still trying to figure out what it has in Ubaldo Jimenez (5.18 ERA in his last 30 starts), still trying to figure out if Carlos Santana will catch fire this year (1.727 OPS the last five games, so that’s certainly a start), still losing to lefties, still watching Derek Lowe wilt, still waiting (with an absence of optimism) for Grady Sizemore to come back, still hoping to stave off another second-half slide from Asdrubal Cabrera.
When asked about the Deadline, Antonetti has generally said something along the lines of, “We need the guys here to play to their potential.” In the starting pitching department, that hasn’t happened. In the run-production department, that hasn’t happened. The Indians have an offense that ranks around league average and a starting staff that sits alongside the sellers. And the absence of sustained winning streaks, to date, has to lead us to wonder if the Tribe is capable of the kind of run it would take to become a postseason team, even in an expanded postseason format.
The Trade Deadline, from the buyer’s perspective, is an opportunity to augment and enhance, not completely reshape and repair. If Antonetti and Co. see opportunities within the Deadline realm to add longer-term options who are going to help the 2013 effort, then have at it. Again, though, the Indians don’t have many valuable chips in the upper levels of their farm system to pull off significant swaps, like the Ubaldo deal last year.
This leads to a potential shift in strategy that’s already being pointed out in the national media — the possibility of the Indians becoming sellers at the Deadline.
In Chris Perez, they have a valuable commodity in a mercurial role who is due another big raise in arbitration. And in Vinnie Pestano, they have a capable replacement. So I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of a trade — provided, of course, that it brings in a Major League return that can help in 2013 and not a prospect haul.
Shin-Soo Choo, as the above FOX Sports link notes, would be the other obvious trade candidate in a sell situation, given that 2013 is the last year in which the Indians have contractual control of him and the possibility of an extension with the Indians was all but removed long ago. But unlike the Perez/Pestano situation, the Indians would be extremely hard-pressed to replace the production provided by Choo, especially given their organizational outfield abyss. I’d imagine it would take a huge haul to prompt them to move him.
Anything viewed within the prism of selling, at this juncture, would be a PR nightmare, so there’s that. Still, the dearth of sellers this season leads me to believe you can make a move with Perez, in particular, that helps the current club while also increasing the earnestness of the 2013 effort.
But as far as buying is concerned? Well, given the propensity toward overpays in a seller’s market, and given the unmistakable mediocrity we’ve witnessed from these Indians in a season now well into its second half, any attempt to augment this 2012 club with a short-term rental would seem to be a deal made for the sake of dealing.
The Indians have many needs, but they definitely don’t need that.