Indians: More of the Same (More or Less)

Baseball season is here again… and I view it with the same eagerness as a trip to the dentist.

Of the 10 sports books I’ve worked on as a writer, researcher or editor, 6 have been on baseball. But of the 80 posts I’ve published, 2 have been about the Indians (Of the 40 unpublished drafts, only 1 Indians). I’ve grown to detest writing about this front office.

I approach teams from two perspectives:

  • Using statistical analysis tools I first learned from working with Bill James in the 80’s.
  • Using management consulting techniques I’ve employed for most of the last 30 years.

Like every front office in the city, the Indians are frustrating on both counts. But unlike the Browns or Cavs– who at least make different mistakes from year to year, or interesting mistakes, or at least change the names of the people making them– the Indians keep Mark Shapiro and Chris Antonetti employed, and they keep doing the same things, getting more or less the same results.


For One Brief Shining Moment…


Unlike many people, I don’t see any significant difference between any of the teams that Mark Shapiro has run. The level of talent from year to year varies: the 2003 team (which won 68 games) obvious had less than the 2007 club (96 wins). That division-winner had more talent , the 2011 club (80 wins) and probably the 2015 team.

But the result, in ay given year, is primarily due to chance. Every year the front office make a few smart decisions and an enormous number of stupid ones. When they win, random events daisy-chain to produce a talent bubble (I mean that in the Wall Street sense). In losing years, those random events set up a domino effect.

Compare and contrast the season following the Indians’ only two trips to the playoffs in the Shapiro era

2014: The Indians, who had won 92 games and reached the playoffs in 2013, went into the season hoping 31-year-old John Axford could be their closer. It was a foolish belief; Axford had good seasons in 2010 and 2011, but lost his control in 2012 and went 5-8 (nine of which were blown saves) with 35 saves and a 4.67 ERA.

His 2013 was equally bad (6-7, 4.45 ERA). Milwaukee let him pitch only six times in save situations: he blew all six.  He inherited 19 runners, 8 scored. But when St. Louis (who were desperate for bullpen help) traded for him late in 2013, he posted a 1.74 ERA in 10.1 innings,

Those 13 games as a Cardinal were, if you looked closely, dreadful:

  • He pitched in only one save situation– he blew the save.
  • He inherited 5 runners; 3 scored.
  • In his 10.1 innings, he gave up 11 hits, 3 walks and a hit batsman– almost as bad as his 2012 season as a closer.

The low ERA was But the Indians acquired him last winter, because (to use the sort of rationalization Terry Pluto will print every Sunday) “they believed he had worked out his problems in St. Louis.”

Result: Axford washed out by May 9th– he was 1-3 with a 4.50 ERA and two saves blown in 11 tries. Fortunately for the Indians, setup man Cody Allen (who was 1-1 with a 1.88 ERA and seven holds), took over and locked down the ninth inning for the rest of the eyar.

The damage Axford turned out to be fairly minor– 3 losses and 3 blown saves. If you’re looking for a reason that the Indians fell from 92 wins to 85, he’s a pretty large percentage of the reason.

Now here’s the matched set:

2008: The Indians, who gone 96-66, but fell to 81-81, went into the year hoping Joe Borowski could be the closer. This was even dumber than the Axford delusion. Borowski had been wretched in 2007 (45 saves, but a 4-5 record and a 5.07 ERA).

Also he was 37, and a competent front office had turned thumbs down on his arm. Borowski didn’t sign with the Indians by choice in the 2006-07 offseason– he rejected them to sign a two-year deal from Philadelphia.

But he failed the medical exam– the Phillies’ doctors said there was no way his arm could hold up for two years. The front office rescinded the deal and offered a one-year contract.

Shapiro was willing to give Borowski a one-year deal with a team option for a second year at the same salary.At the end of 2007, despite the 5.07 ERA he exercised the option.

Result: Borowski went on the DL in April, with a 0-2 record, 2 saves and an 18.00 ERA. He came back in late may, limped along for a month and the Indians finally released him in July. He never pitched again; his final season stats: 1-3, 7.56 ERA; 6 saves in 10 tries.

The Indians had a flamethrowing righty ready to step in… but Jensen Lewis was no Cody Allen. Lewis went 0-4, with a 3.82 ERA and 13 saves. ) couldn’t pick up the slack.

And that’s always the way, when you replay them, that the good seasons seem to go in the Shapiro era. The Indians did something dumb, but it ended up OK. When things go bad, they do something stupid, and fate didn’t save them.

  • In 2013 (when they win 92 games), Ubaldo Jimenez (who’d had dreadful seasons in both 2011 and 2012) had a great contract year and cracks the top 10 in ERA.
  • In 2005, Kevin Millwood (signed on a one-year “fix your career here” deal) leads the league in ERA and the Indians win 93 games.
  • In 2009, the Indians sign Carl Pavano, he puts up a 5.37 ERA in 21 starts and they ended up (for reasons not entirely his fault) at 65-97.

In 2013– and again this season– the Indians were saved from a really stupid idea by divine intervention.In 2013, Cleveland signed Brett Meyers— who was 32, hadn’t started since 2011 and went 7-14 with a 4.46 ERA in the National League (which has no DH, so ERA’s are lower) that season. He had a dreadful 2013 that thankfully ended after four games (0-3, 8.02), and the Indians went on to try people like Zach McAllister and Corey Kluber.

If all had gone according to the front office’s plans the 2015 Indians would be starting Gavin Floyd— who hasn’t been healthy since 2012 and was a .500 pitcher with a below-average ERA that season. With Kluber, Carlos Carrasco and Trevor Bauer locked in, Danny Salazar would be forced to root for T.J. House to fail to get a shot.

Thankfully, THE LORD decided to spare us the pain of watching that.

So that’s what 2015 will come down do: how will events that can’t be predicted (and should not be necessary) affect the results? The Columbus Clippers have four players who could make the lineup and contribute:

  • SS Francisco Lindor (who is 21) is hitting .284 with a .763 OPS. If he came up, he could take over shortstop and let the Indians shift 22-year-old Jose Ramirez (a second baseman being played out of position at short) to his natural position and put Jason Kipnis (a centerfielder badly miscast at second) to either the bench or his natural position.
  • 3B Lonnie Chisenhall isn’t a great player, but he is serviceable. But the Clippers have 23-year-old Giovanni Urshela, who could be a great one. Last year he hit .285 with an .825 OPS, playing mostly in Akron; he’s currently hitting .364 with a 1.091 OPS in Columbus. His defense is no worse than Chisenhall, but the Indians are DH-ing him so that 31-year-old Ryan Rohlinger can be ready instead.
  • 24-year-old 1B Jesus Aguilar won’t win any gold gloves, but he did hit .304 with 19 homers (.905 OPS) in Columbus last year. He took the demotion hard and is struggling– which lets the Indians say “See, we knew he wasn’t ready.”
  • CF Tyler Holt is 26 and unlikely to set the world on fire. But he does hit for a decent average (.309 in 334 plate appearances in AAA), does walk (.5=415 on base in AAA), has stolen 132 bases in six seasons and plays better defense than Michael Bourn (at this point).

But we have zero idea whether any of them will play in Cleveland this season– all a dedicated fan can to is hope that Kipnis, Bourn and one of the RF-DHs on the roster decide to begin juggling chain saws.

The more likely outcome is that:

  • Holt will remain in AAA unless Bourn gets hurt.
  • Urshela will stay in AAA all year long, as the Indians try Rohlinger (who could be described as “A poor man’s Jack Hannahan”) or Zach Walters (the poor man’s Russ Branyan).
  • If Lindor comes up, Ramirez will go down– while Kipnis struggles theough 2015.
  • Aguilar will only be called up if (a) the Indians try to move Carlos Santana back to catcher and (b) Nick Swisher is run over by a rogue Zamboni.

Bubble, Bubble, Toil and Trouble…


Every spring, it is fashionable to talk about the Indians’ commitment to player development, and how it is about to start paying off. I pay little attention to this, because the vast majority of young talent the Indians have, in any given year, is either:

  • Obtained from another team in a fire sales for a regular whose contract is coming up, or
  • A fringe player having a career year– or a star taking a last hurrah.

This is also why I am sure winning seasons are produced primarily by chance. Very few of the stars of any given season turn out to be good players over the long-term.

In 2014, the Indians won 85 games and had seven players who were more than 2.0 Wins Above Replacement (abbreviated as WAR)– which means they were were better than average. Five of the seven— the top five, in fact– were obtained in fire sales:

  • Corey Kluber (7.4 WAR) came in a three-way trade in 2010 where the Indians sent Jake Westbrook to St. Louis, to help the Cardinals get over the top.
  • Michael Brantley (7.0 WAR) was partial payment for C.C. Sabathia in 2008.
  • Yan Gomes (4.4 WAR) was traded by Toronto in 2012 for Esmil Rogers.
  • Carlos Carrasco (3.7 WAR) came in 2009, for Cliff Lee.
  • Carlos Santana (3.1 WAR) arrived in 2008, when the Dodgers wanted Casey Blake
  • T.J. House (2.0 WAR) was Cleveland’s 16th round-pick in 2008.
  • Cody Allen (2.0 WAR) was drafted by the Indians in the 23rd round in 2011.

Neither of the two homegrown prospects were high picks– people many people predicted would succeed. They’re just guys the Indians drafted in late rounds who played well.

And, not to be rude– it’s still early and they could both fix things– but both House and Allen have double-digit ERAs. It’s also possible, though less likely, that Kluber and Carrasco will fall off quite a lot.

You see the same thing if you look at the 2007 team, which won 96 games and reached the ALCS. Actually, those Indians had more home-grown talent contributing– 5 of the 11 players with 2.0+ WAR were players they developed:

  • Obtained in trade: Grady Sizemore (5.5), Travis Hafner (2.8), Franklin Gutierrez (2.1) and Westbrook (2.0).
  • Veteran free agents: Rafael Betancourt (4.3) and Casey Blake (2.8).
  • Home-grown talent: Sabathia (6.3), “Fausto Carmona” (6.2), Victor Martinez (4.3), Jhonny Peralta (2.7) and Rafael Perez (2.3) were developed by the team.

I didn’t omit Cliff Lee– that was the year he want 5-8 with a 6.29 ERA, flipped off the fans after being shelled and Eric Wedge threw him off the roster and told him he wasn’t coming back unless he changed his behavior. But Lee was also obtained in star liquidation.

You can talk about the players on the 2015 roster who appear promising– who might cross the 2.0 WAR threshold that designates a player who contributes. But if you look closely at the 2007 list, you can see why I’m not counting on it. Three of the players– ‘Carmona’, Perez and Betancourt– had their best years ever; Gutierrez, Peralta and Sizemore had years very close to were their peak.

Martinez, Peralta and Betancourt are the only ones who lasted even 2-3 years.

The player who has a fluke All-Star season and flames out is a characteristic of the Indians in the Mark Shapiro era. Very few key players on Shapiro’s winning teams turn into reliable performers over the long haul. They had a big season the year the Indians won– and that’s is why that team won.

To illustrate that, let’s compare the 2014 and 2007 teams to the only other winning seasons in the Shapiro era– the 2013 and 2005 clubs.

2013: The 92-win team (the only other playoff team) had eight players who were 2.0 WAR or better. Normally, if you compare a list of the best players on a team that has consecutive winning seasons, you see substantially the same people– 5-6 holdovers.

But only three players (the names in blue) were stars of the team in both years:

2013 WAR 2014 WAR
Jason Kipnis 5.9 Corey Kluber 7.4
Carlos Santana 4.3 Brantley 7.0
Yan Gomes 4.2 Gomes 4.4
Nick Swisher 3.8 Carlos Carrasco 3.7
Justin Masterson 3.4 Santana 3.1
Ubaldo Jiminez 2.7 T.J. House 2.0
Michael Brantley 2.4 Cody Allen 2.0
Ryan Raburn 2.2

Now maybe you believe Kipnis has a comeback in him– or Swisher will heal and do better than 2014. But does anyone think Masterson, Jiminez and Raburn just had off-years last year?

You see the same thing when you compare the 2007 team (96 wins, 11 players with 2.0 or more WAR) and the 2005 club (93 wins; 9 players)– only five holdovers:

2005 WAR 2007 WAR
Grady Sizemore 6.6 C.C. Sabathia 6.3
Travis Hafner 5.4 “Fausto Carmona” 6.2
Victor Martinez 5.2 Sizemore 5.5
Jhonny Peralta 5.1 Rafael Betancourt 4.3
Ronnie Belliard 4.5 Martinez 4.3
Coco Crisp 4.3 Hafner 2.8
Kevin Millwood 4.0 Blake 2.8
Cliff Lee 2.5 Peralta 2.7
Casey Blake 2.0 Rafael Perez 2.3
Franklin Gutierrez 2.1
Jake Westbrook 2.0

Stars who can’t maintain a high-level of play are a key reason the Indians didn’t have consecutive winning seasons until 2013-14. When a player has a career year– then doesn’t have another one– it takes years for the front office to face up to it and move them out

If the 2015 team plays well, the odds are its heroes will be players who weren’t expected to carry a huge load, but did– just as Carrasco, House, Allen, Lonnie Chisenhall and Jose Ramirez did in 2014.


Same Old Song & Dance


It isn’t just that Shapiro & Antonetti repeat the same decisions, getting the same results that annoys me. It’s that their decisions aren’t fundamentally different than Gabe Paul & Phil Seghi, who made my lifer miserable in the 1970’s and early 80’s. I look at both regimes and see the same characteristics:

1. Neither had a blueprint for building a baseball teal– at least not anything they’d stick to, through thick and thin

Gabe and Phil would trade pitchers to get hitting, lose games 6-5 for a year, then and then trade hitters for pitchers and lose 3-2 the next year. They’d say they were going to play kids– then trade them for veterans.

These Indians don’t change their minds as drastically. But they never make a plan and execute it. After the World Series, I was repeatedly asked “Why can’t we be like the Royals?” The answer is very simple: Kansas City decided they wanted to win with pitching and defense, then obtained or developed pitchers and fielders.

  • Three Royals (LF Alex Gordon, 1B Eric Hosmer and P Salvador Prrez) won Gold Gloves.
  • The front office shifted Gordon from third base to left, and Billy Butler from first base to DH to improve the defense.
  • Kansas City obtained SS Alcides Escobar and 2B Omar Infante specifically for their defensive ability (never mind that they don’t field well) and overlooked their offensive ineptitude.

Mark Shapiro claims be wants to build around pitching, but he’s never bothered to give then a defense. He’s used shortstops like Peralta and Asdrubal Cabrara (who wee hitters first and fielders never), second basemen like Belliard and Kipnis and catchers like Martinez and Santana. You can”t build a championship-quality defense with fielders that bad.

You can win with those players– but only if you either (a) shift them to defensive positions they can play well, or (b) stop using (as the Indians do) corner infielders and outfielders who can’t hit and build a lineup that beats opposing pitchers to death.

John Hart didn’t care much for defense, but he went all-in on offense. He never used corner players who didn’t hit. Shapiro negates the impact of Cabrera’s 2011 (273 average, 25 homers) by playing Hannahan (.250; .719 OPS) beside him.

The Indians care so little about defense that they don’t even teach their pitchers to field their positions. Year in and year out, advanced defensive stats show the Indian pitchers cost the team 10-20 runs a year with errors or failure to field balls.(Last season was a good years– only 8 runs below average).

2. Both front offices assumed players were interchangeable widgets, who could be moved anywhere they were needed, and perform equally well.

Gabe and Phil played centerfielder Gary Alexander at catcher; outfielder Alan Bannister at second and frequently would try their best starting pitching prospect as the closer. They obtained ground ball pitchers– then supported them with Jack Brohamer and Frank Duffy, or Duane Kuiper and Tom Veryzer, and wondered why they struggled.

Gabe and Phil also ignored the following issues that can affect a player’s performance:

  • The ballpark’s impact on stats (favorable conditions where he was, or Cleveland Stadium, with the wind howling in from right field).
  • The weather (latin players or guys from the Deep South rarely play well in the cold).
  • His proximity to home
  • Whether his personality is a good fit for Cleveland.

Those factors arguably shouldn’t matter. But the data shows it often does. And those issues live on in Cleveland.

The National League has always been a fastball hitters league. The Dodgers, Giants and Cardinals (the three top franchises) preached that you throw your best pitch in key situations; they always looked for fastball pitchers. Few NL teams even platooned, so they’ve been very slow to adopt Moneyball-type stats.

AL pitchers throw more breaking stuff; the Yankees (under both Joe McCarthy and Casey Stengel,) Al Lopez (first in Cleveland and then Chicago) and Baltimore (first with Paul Richards, then with Earl Weaver) taught that you pitch to the hitter’s weakness. Almost every team crunches numbers extensively.

It is no secret that Michael Bourn doesn’t handle breaking pitches well. It’s why he drew very little interest as a free agent; none of the AL teams wanted him. Anyone who knew the data knew he wouldn’t succeed in the AL.

But the Indians signed Bourn, hoping he’d be able to adapt. He hasn’t; the the Indians are stuck with a .254 hitter (.661) OPS who will cost them between $28 and $40 million between now and 2017.

Carlos Santana led the AL in walks last year– he’s been in the top three in walks for the last four years. He also has power and sometimes hits for average. This is why he can be an above average player even when he hits .231, as a he did a year ago (his OPS was .792).

In his career in Cleveland (not the minors– just in the majors) the Indians have used him at (in order of deployment) catcher, DH, first base, left field and third base.

When he plays first base, Santana is a career .270 hitter with an .887 OPS. He was a .241 hitter with a .790 OPS as a catcher– until people harped on his defense so much that he finally told the team he didn’t want to catch. They ruined his 2014 season by playing him at third base for 113 plate appearances, where he hit .129 with a .509 OPS.

Jason Kipnis was an excellent centerfielder in college; it looked like he could supply close to a .300 average with 10-15 homers and 30 steals. He isn’t a good leadoff many– he doesn’t walk (207 career walks, 398 strikeouts)– bvut ce certainly can be a good centerfielder– even a decent corner outfielder.

The Indians, when they needed a second baseman, shifted him to second base. It ism, after catcher, the defensive position hardest to learn (because you have to make the pivot) and most likely to cause injury (you have to jump all the time).

At second, Kipnis is a below-average fielder. His best season was 2012 (he was +3 runs) and he was down to -11 last year. The distraction and daily wear and tear playing second hurts his play, so he doesn’t hit as well and keeps getting hurt.

Unless they are breaking a pitcher into the majors through long relief, most teams shift a player from the bullpen to the rotation reluctantly. They’ll only move a starter to the bullpen if he demonstrates that he can’t get through the lineup 3-4 times a game, either due to arm strength or lack of pitches.

The Indians do it with 3-5 players every year, and they often take a player from the rotation to the bullpen and then back again in the same year. It occasionally works (Carrasco saved his 2014 with a trip to the bullpen), but it often makes things worse.


OOO-EEE-OOO-AH-AH
(ting-tang, wallla-walla-bing-bang)


3. They ignore injuries and don’t understand how to rehab.

A major problem the Indians have is their total ignorance about injuries and medical knowledge. I don’t know if the Indians have the worst sports medicine staff in the universe (the section title is from “The Witch Doctor Song“, featuring Alvin and the Chipmunks), or if they don’t pay any attention. But something hurts them every season, costing 5-10 wins on the average.

At some point, a pitcher will lose 5-10 MPH off his fastball, his control will slip and he’ll begin complaining of soreness. They’ll keep using him, seeing worse and worse outings, until he has a stress-induced injury.

A hitter will suffer an injury that, on any other team in the majors, would incapacitate him for 30-60 days. The Indians will rest him for a few days, saying he’s day-to-day, then put him on the 15-day DL (retroactive, usually), send him to the minors for two games and then begin playing him again.

Teams that understand pitching believe it takes a pitcher one year to come back from Tommy John surgery– just to get to where he can throw– and then a second season to regain his strength and coordination. But the Indians were ready to dump Carrasco (who had surgery late in 2011) because he wasn’t 100% in 2013. Had Francona not refused to give up on his arm, Shapiro and Antonetti probably would have dumped him or stranded him in Columbus.

Cleveland is one of the few teams in baseball that still drafts or acquires (as a key part of a major deal) pitchers who have had major elbow and shoulder injuries. They sign or acquire players who missed major parts of the last season– or multiple seasons.

A list of the players where the Indians ignores a stress injury include Jason Knapp (the other pitcher they received for Lee), Tony Sipp (though he was a 45th-rounder, so it was OK) and Nick Hagedone (the only payment left for Victor Martinez). That willingness to overlook what for most teams is a deal-breaker is a big reason the Indians’ 2008 fire sales underwhelmed.

We’ll never know if Travis Hafner or Grady Sizemore might have been able to last longer if Sizemore had played 600 plate appearances (not 725) from 2005-08, or if he’d been shut down promptly in 2009 or not rushed back in 2010. Could intervention in 2007 (when Hafner’s OPS dropped 250 points) have fixed him before his shoulder totally blew up?

I don’t know, but it’s clear they didn’t get proper handling.


Lack-Of-Money-Ball


The most damaging similarity between the two front offices is:

4. They pay no attention to statistical data– and, as a result, fill the roster with overpaid fringe players or stars on the downhill slide.

Gabe and Phil would bring up players who were younger than 22 and wonder why they seemed unpolished or overwhelmed. Often they became frustrated with a rookie’s ineptitude, and would send him away before the player turned 25 (the point when most players reach the majors to stay)– sometimes years before he turned 25.

At the same time, they’d acquire players who were 30-32– who had played well for years but then struggled and been put on the market by their front offices– and wonder why they weren’t playing nearly as well as they had. (Vada Pinson, Boog Powell, Rico Carty, Bobby Bonds, Willie Horton…  )

Shapiro and Antonetti (who would rather die than make a player younger than 26 a starter) have ended the first practice. But they continue the practice of bringing in men at the end of their career and hoping they won’t decline.

Bourn is the most obvious example. Almost all of his value was based on speed. He covered a lot of ground in the outfield, could beat out ground balls for hits, turned any line drive in the gap into a double or triple and could steal 40+ bases. Other than that, he was useless:

  • He doesn’t walk
  • He can’t bunt (he has only 36 career sacs) and he’s no good at situational hitting (only 18 career sac flies).
  • He strikes out so often (114 times in 106 games) that he can’t be used on the hit-and-run.
  • He isn’t a great baserunner (he’s been caught 82 times), so much as he has always been able to outrun his mistakes.
  • He has a weak arm.

When a player like that loses his speed– which they do in their 30’s– they have no value. The Indians signed Bourn when he was 30, giving him a 4-year, $48-million contract. Through his first two seasons, he’s missed 88 games. His defense (which was once 30 runs above average) has been below average both years. The leg injuries have robbed him of the little pop that he used to have.

But they have him for this year ($13.5 million) and next year ($14.5 million). Worst of all, he can get a contract for 2017 automatically added if he gets 500 plate appearances next year.

The Indians would be better off with Kipnis is center. In fact, they might be better off with Tyler Holt. At the very least, Holt could hit .240 for less money.

But Bourn is a minor issue compared to the four-man trainwreck waiting to happen at the positions that normally provide most of the offense:

1. 33-year-old Ryan Raburn is prima facie evidence the front office is incompetent. He’s 33 years old; his OPS has been below .550 in two of the last three seasons. He can’t walk, steal, bunt, run, throw or hit behind the runner. He’s a .254 career hitter who’s been in double-digits in homers four times, whose only good defensive position is left field. Yet somehow he has gotten two contracts– and might get a third this winter..

2. David Murphy is 32. Over the last two years, he’s hitting .249 with a .679 OPS. But Cleveland gave him 462 chances to hit last year, and he’ll probably get a bunch more.

3. The Indians traded for Brandon Moss, who will turn 32 this September. The Oakland A’s, who have a proven eye for discards, pulled him off the scrap heap three seasons ago and got a lot of value out of him. At the end of 2014, they looked at his age, medical issues and the salary he was probably going to get from an arbitrator, and decided to move him out.

The Indians decided to bet a $6.5 million salary on his staying healthy. Moss’s big achievement is lasting longer than Gavin Floyd did.

4. The Indians will pay 34-year-old Nick Swisher $15.1 million this year. When the Indians handed him a 4-year, $56-million deal two years ago, everyone who understood data could see Swisher was on the downside side. His OPS (which used to be in the 800’s) fell to .763 in year one, .608 last year… and now he can’t even play.

So, according to Baseball Reference, the Indians have an $87.7 million payroll. $30 million of it is tried up in four cadavers. Add Bourn’s $13.5 million and you have half the payroll committed to pond scum.

Floyd (whose agent, by the way, is the Team President’s father) is making $4 million. Mike Aviles— an adequate defensive shortstop (27 runs saved in 2,786 innings, or 310 games) with no offensive skill– makes $3.5 million.

Fans often claim owner Larry Dolan is cheap. I believe he’s one of the most generous owners in baseball. Who else would play people who add no value such enormous sums?

And this is not an aberration. Every year, the Indians have tens of millions of dollars tied up in players who can’t help them– that nobody else would have signed.

A team that was trying to win on a budget would have virtually no money tied up in aging veterans. It would have fill the lineup with players in their early and mid-twenties, who don’t have enough service time to become free agents or go through arbitration.

The team would have the largest scouting staff in baseball– the most farm teams. It would spare no expense on minor-league coaches and managers.

Most, importantly, it would, every time it could, replace a higher-paid veteran with a younger and more talented prospect.

But not only do the Indians not do this, they often use players, who (a) are playing badly and (b) not in their plans.


Letting Your Losers Run


In both gambling and investing (though those are often the same things), the maxim is “Cut your losses short and let your winners run.” The Indians prefer to do the opposite.

1. Justin Masterson: In 2013, when the Indians won 92 games, one of the heroes was Justin Masterson. Masterson’s contract would expire at the end of 2014, so he wanted an extension in the 2013-14 off-season, making the Indians a very reasonable (see note) offer of $51 million for three years.

Note: At the time. he made the offer, he was coming off a 14-10 season with a 3.45 ERA. Over the previous three years, he’d made 96 starts, pitched 615 innings and was 37-35 (for a team that went 240-246) with a 3.86 ERA.

If you believed that was his true level of ability, $17 million was very reasonable.

The Indians refused the offer, telling the media that Masterson’s velocity had dropped and they didn’t think he could repeat his great 2013– much less pitch well for three years after that.

Which was a perfectly reasonable belief. In fact, it is something I’ve said many times. Masteron’s fastball isn’t unhittable; he has no other top-of-the-line pitches. He’s a deluxe ong reliever who struggles his third time through.

But if you believe the guy is going to tank, then trade him. Cash him in when his value is high– before he can get knocked around and bring it down. Masterson was an All-Star in 2013, top ten in wins, complete games and shutouts. Someone who thinks they can make the playoffs if they get more pitching will give you soemthing for him.

But, having decided he wasn’t good enough to keep, the Indians made him their opening-day starter, and let him make 19 starts. He went 4-6 with a 5.51 ERA, and the best they could get for him, by the time he departed, was James Ramsey, a 25-year-old centerfielder with a mediocre glove and middling (.798 OPS) bat.

2. Asdrubal Cabrera: The last time Asdrubal Cabrera was an above-average player was 2012. The last time he was good was 2011. And in both seasons, Cabrera wasn’t an all-around player– he was a great hitter whose fielding you tolerated (his only outstanding season in the field was 2008).

The Indians let him hit .242 in 2013 and play bad defense. They turned down his attempts to negotiate an extension, and wondered why nobody wanted to offer a frontline player for him. After letting him hit .246 for 97 games in the final season of his contract, Cleveland finally shipped him to Washington for Zach Walters.

3. RF-DH: A year ago, the Indians had the same problem they have today, but somewhat easier to figure out. Instead of Moss (who had a decent 2014 and was going to make $6.5 million) they had Swisher, Murphy, Raburn and 43-year-old Jason Giambi.

Now that ought to be easy to sort out.

  • Giambi (who hit .133 in a platoon role) you just dump.If he wants to be a coach fine. Otherwise, you give the roster spot to… well, anyone.
  • Swisher (who hit .208 with a .608 OPS) you shut down. Obviously he’s hurt– he isn’t normally a .208 hitter– and you tell him to get surgery and rehab. The sooner he gets treatment and begins the rest/recovery process, the better he’s likely to be in 2015(Prince Fielder, who got shut down after 42 games, is now hitting .355.)
  • Raburn you can ditch. Who needs 33-year-old platoon player hitting .233? If you must keep him, you lock him into a platoon role with Murphy.

But the Indians didn’t do that. They let Swisher have first base, Giambi the DH spot and Raburn and Murphy right field. That blew up in a number of ways:

  • The four players consumed a combined 1,145 plate appearances (that’s two full seasons of play) and hit a combined .224 with a .626 OPS.
  • Because they played three of the five positions where you normally get offense (left field and third base the others), the Indians struggled to score runs.
  • Prompted the Indians to switch Santana (whose 4.3 Wins Above Replacement in 2013 made him their second-most valuable player) to third base, a position which no one outside the Cleveland area thought he could play.
  • Forced Santana into a competition for playing time with  25-year-old Lonnie Chisenhall, a former #1 pick and one of their few young position players.

When I explain this stuff, people often say “It’s easy to point at the things that didn’t work after they happen” or “OK, so it didn’t work. Stuff goes wrong.”

The reality is that the Indians do these things every year. In 2012, they gave the first base job to Casey Kotchman. Kotchman (.229 average, .612 OPS) played every bit as badly as Swisher (.208; .608), with two differences:

  • Swisher was hurt. Kotchman was a terrible player.
  • Swisher was signed to a multi-year contract. Kotchman was on a one-year deal.

In 2012, the Indians decided that 38-year-old Johnny Damon was the solution to their outfield problems. He hit .222 with a .610 OPS before re-retiring.

The Indians sincerely believe that there is some magical difference between a veteran major leaguer– no matter how poorly he plays– and a minor-leaguer (no matter how well he plays). Where you might look at a AAA player and say “Wonder how good he could be?”, the Indians say “What if he doesn’t work out?” and tap Jerry Sands, who:

  • Is 27,
  • Is now with his fifth organizations (Dodgers, Red Sox, Pirates, Rays),
  • Has hit .264 in 364 games of AAA ball (.830 OPS), and
  • Is a terrible outfielder.

The 2014 Indians were saved from disaster by three lucky breaks.

First, Chisenhall went on a tear. He broke out of the platoon role by going 1-2 in his first game played, 2-3 (with a double and walk) in his second and hitting .448 (1.105 OPS) in his first ten games.

With the lineup struggling. manager Terry Francona decided to ride the hot hand. Chisenhall stayed hot until July (he was hitting .332 with a .915 OPS at the break). By then, he won the job so thoroughly that even the league figuring him out (.218 average and .591 OPS after the break) didn’t get him out of the lineup.

In 2007, the Indians had a similar situation: Ryan Garko and Eduardo Perez were going to platoon at first. Garko hit .471 in his first five games, had an OPS of .825 late in the month and the Indians finally traded Perez to Seattle for Cabrera- who took over second base in the pennant-winning stretch.

Second, Swisher broke down. He was playing hurt in 2013 (even though the Indians refused to acknowledge it). But in 2014, his bat died– and he stopped being able to bend over to pick up ground balls.

On June 7, after 61 games of wretched play, the Indians finally sat Swisher down for a rest and moved Santana (who was hitting .162) at first base.

Third, Santana exploded. He played the next nine games at first and Lord knows what would have happened had he merely played OK during that period– a .257 average with a .745 OPS might not have kept him at first.

But Santana made the decision really easy, by hitting .344 with a 1.091 OPS in those games. Francona has his shortcomings, but he isn’t a blithering idiot. Santana had started only four games at first before June 7. But he started 89 of the remaining 100 at that spot.

Santana hit .274 when playing first base in 2014. His OPS was .915. If you shave the 93 plate appearances at third (where he hit .129 off his season), his season looks phenomenal.

But if Swisher hadn’t gone on the DL, it’s entirely possible Santana wouldn’t have gotten a chance to play regularly at first.

Two final components saved the club:

Fourth, Ramirez stepped in. When the Indians finally gave up on Cabrera (his last game was July 30), they went with Ramirez, as opposed to Aviles.(Most likely because Aviles and Chris Dickerson were playing left field at the time, because Brantley had switched to center because Bourn was out).

Ramirez hit poorly (.262 average, but no walks or power, so only a ,646 OPS), but he contributed by (a) 13 sac hits and a sac fly, (b) 10 steals in 11 tries, (c) hitting .292 (.676 OPS) against lefties and acceptable defense (4 runs above average in only 56 games at short).

Fifth, House and Carrasco took over for Masterson and Josh Tomlin. House’s performance after replacing Masterson was a surprise (3.35 ERA in 19 starts, but only 5-3– usually because he pitched 5-6 innings and left the outcome to the bullpen), but it wasn’t a shock.

Except for an inexplicable 2011 (when he posted a 5.12 ERA in Kinston, after having an ERA of 3.91 in a full season there in 2010), House has had ERAs between 3.15 and 4.17 every year. He’d allowed fewer hits than innings, averaged 7 strikeouts per game and struck out twice as many as he walked.

I don’t know if he’ll pitch as well as he did in 2014, but he should be an above-average pitcher, if his arm holds up.

Carrasco (who was dominating in the bullpen) replacing Tomlin (whose arm blew up before hitting 250 career innings) was a huge surprise… because I was sure he was never coming back. Thankfully, Francona liked his arm more than the media (who dislike all latin players and seem to feel it’s better to play white guys who already know English and are better interviews).

The Indians, who were struggling badly (53-55 at the end of July) went 18-9 in August and 14-13 in September, missing the playoffs, but doing a lot better than they might have.

At the end of the 2014 season, the Indians had:

  • Viable players at catcher, first, third and left
  • A solid rotation (albeit not fully proven) and a very good bullpen
  • Prospects at first (Aguilar), second (Ramirez), short (Lindor) and third (Urshela)
  • Enough veterans to cobble together a solution in right and DH.

How the Indians Could Win in 2015


If I were running the team, I’d have set by opening-day lineup as follows:

  1. Immediately put Lindor at short. The kid can play (he hit .300 in spring) and he will be ready at some point during the season. There’s no reason he couldn’t begin learning in the majors; the Orioles and Dodgers would start a season with a player (even if he weren’t quite ready in April) rather than bring him up in mid-year (which they considered disruptive).
  2. Move Ramirez to second. He’s 5’9 with outstanding eye-hand coordination; a prototype second baseman. In 16 games at second, he’s 20 runs above average. He has the range and arm of a shortstop’ he can get to balls that a normal play can’t. He is an order of magnitude above Jason Kipnis and would make life much better for pitchers.
  3. Either trade Kipnis or move him to center field. Look at the difference between Santana at catcher (or third base) and first. Imagine that same production leap in center. Kipnis is a bad second baseman, but would be a good centerfielder.Or, if you get a better offer from a team who thinks he is a second baseman, trade him and play Holt in center. Either option will be better than Bourn.

The Indians could cobble something together between Swisher, Murphy and Moss at right and DH (or if Swisher isn’t ready, Raburn– but not all four guys), while waiting to see if Urshela or Aguilar is ready. (If so, you trade Chisenhall; he’s a mjor-leaguer and teams will pay for him).

But, of course, the Indians are not doing it and will never do it. They’d prefer to have veterans who can’t play, because they always see a rookie’s risk, rather than his potential.


How the Other Half Lives


I have two friends who work for the team. I have to be careful not to blow a cover, so let me say one is in player development, one in management (which might or might not be baseball operations).

I talked with one of them about the season. “Detroit is extremely vulnerable,” the person replied. “We see weakness on the left side of the infield, in all three outfield spots three of the five rotation spots and the closer.”

It’s enough to make you scream:

1. At shortstop, the Tigers have Jose Iglesias, who had a terrific season in 2013, at 23, before missing all of 2014 with an injury. You might wonder if he’s recovered– or if he can hold up– but the talent is absolutely not in question.

2. At third, Nick Castellanos is 23. He didn’t hit quite as well as you want a third baseman to and was terrible defensively. But he was playing 150 games in the majors at age 22.

3. Left fielder Yoenis Céspedes might or might not be 29 (he’s a Cuban emigre, and who knows if he pulled a Carmona with his age) .He has only three years in the US and never played college or minor-league ball.

In three seasons, he had a .263 average with a .780 OPS playing mostly in Oakland— not an easy place to hit. He’s 29 (maybe older) so he doesn’t have enormous growth potential. But how is a guy who hits 22 homers and bats .260 ‘weak’?

4. Centerfielder Anthony Gose is one of bajillion-tool players who might or might not not turn out to be any good. In three years in Toronto, he hit only .234 with a .633 OPS, so his offense is questionable.

But he is 24. He had only 552 plate appearances in those three years. He can run and throw, his defense is OK He has been rushed to a degree that even I find worrisome. I see him as a gamble, but not a ridiculous one.

5. Rightfielder J.D. Martinez had a good year last season, but his time in Houston wasn’t impressive, But he’s a career .334 hitter in the minors (.942 OPS) and the Astros aren’t the world’s greatest player development organization.

Plus, who are the Indians to call these people risks when they’re playing Murphy, Moss, Swisher, Bourn and Raburn? Maybe some of those Tigers will blow up, but I’d bet on the chance that Gose (the weakest of the five) outplays Bourn.

I’m not sure which of the three starters they don;t like because after the comment “Even if Cespedes develops further, we believe Detroit significantly weakened themselves by trading Rick Porcello.” I lost my temper, and pointed out that the Indians had always graded Porcello as a weakness. The Indians felt that Detroit (who promoted him to the majors at 20), had made a huge mistake.

The reality is that Procello went 76-63, had an ERA just about the league average, and helped get them to three AL Championship and a World Series. Now that he appears ready, they cashed him in for an outfielder with growth potential.

I’m guessing the Indians see Kyle Lobstein as a weakness. He’s 25 and made only six starts in 2014. That he has a winning record in six seasons in the minors, has never had an ERA above 4.14 and had 700 strikeouts in 800 innings– they’re just statistics.

Shane Greene is probably another guy the Indians see as deficient, He had a winning record and an ERA below league in 14 starts with the Yankees. He’s as proven as Carrasco, House, Salaazr, Tomlin or Floyd.

But that’s the difference in perception. J.D. Martinez is some kid who had only one good season. Nick Swisher is “Nick Swisher”. That Nick Swisher wasn’t “Nick Swisher” in 2014– that he was a cut below “Nick Swisher” in 2013– that he will be 34 this year and might never be “Nick Swisher” again…

None of that matters to Mark Shapiro and Chris Antonetti.

The Tigers do have one advantage over the Indians– a billionaire owner who doesn’t plan to leave the money to anyone. if something goes wrong, Mike Ilitch will tell them to do whatever it takes to fix it. Trade anyone you need to– he’ll sign a free agent to fill the holes you open.

But much of the reason the Tigers outperform the Indians year in and year out is that they take what the Indians consider unacceptable gambles. They play prospects who aren’t proven, get rid of the ones who fail and make it big on the ones who succeed.

The Indians, by always trying to avoid risk, never get any benefit. Unless their ‘proven’ solutions get forced out of the lineup and the replacement turns out to be better than they hoped.


Outlook: More of the Same


In any given season, I assume Mark Shapiro’s Indians will be somewhere between 72 wins and 82. Sometimes luck takes them above or below that range, but they’re usually a second-tier club, with a few good players and as many bad ones.

  1. The Tigers should win the AL Central- they always have a lot of good players. One of the nice things about the team is that Brad Ausmus probably will not destroy the rotation with overuse– at least he is less likely to do it than Jim Leyland was.

    I doubt Justin Verlander has anything left in his tank, but he might return and give them a huge boost. They’re not going to rush him the way the Indians would.

  2. The Royals have six young players in the lineup and two prospects who might break through and 4-5 prospects rated in the top 100 prospects the scouting periodicals. The rotation is decent and they have a fabulous bullpen.

    But the Royals always struggle to get a prospect broken in– and they don’t have an owner willing to pay anything to get them out of trouble. At best they’re the #2 team and maybe lower.

  3. The White Sox struggled to avoid 90 losses and will probably do that again. Other than Jose Abreu and Chris Sale, they don’t have a single player or pitcher I’d really want. (We’re in season three of “Waiting for Conor Gillaspie” and I’m bored by the show.)

    A team that sees itself improving by adding Jeff Samardizja and Melky Cabrera isn’t a club you need to fear. Carlos Rodon will take a long time to develop, assuming his arm doesn’t blow out first.

  4. The Twins are the mystery meat. The team is horrible– and the thing dragging it down most is nostalgia. I grew up in Minnesota and cringed when they re-signed Torii Hiunter– absolutely the wrong idea, unless he was planning to retire as a Twin.

    New manager Paul Molitor has never managed, and he seems to have the usual former star tics. Kennys Vargas is 24 and deserves the first base job… but they’re going to show Joe Mauer the respect he deserves by playing him there (so he can get hurt more easily) and make the kid be the DH and stew between at-bats.

    The business with Danny Santana is mystifying, He played short in the minors and was just awful. Ron Gardenhire stuck him in centerfield; he had a great year. Molitor (who ought to know from firsthand experience not to jerk kids around) has him back at short. That will end badly.But the Twins have one asset: 5-9 prospects on the “Top 100” lists. Prospects can get really good, really fast and take a team with it.

    I would, for example, prefer to discuss Proust with Bruce Drennan than watch the current Minnesota rotation pitch… but if Jose Berrios. Alex Meyer and Kohl Stewart were to show up all of a sudden, who knows. Stewart is 20 and in a high-A league. But he strikes out a batter an inning and his ERA is under 2.50. Fourth pick in the draft, Texas fireballer… two months from now, he might be in the majors.

    I don’t expect it, but it could.

The Indians went 85-77 a year ago and the luck to date suggests they’ll reverse it to 77-85 this year, which ought to be good enough or third and not a lot more.

They could be a lot better– they have the talent to win 90. But, based on the way they deploy it, they won’t

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