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Tribe Happenings: Fans won't believe it until they see it

Tribe Happenings: Fans won't believe it until they see it
December 16, 2012
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Some news, notes, and thoughts from my Indians notebook…

Just go get a free agent

Indians fans are having a lot of fun for once this offseason.

The Indians – the Indians (!!) – have been heavily involved in a lot of news this offseason as they have been tied to many significant free agents and been extremely active on the trade front.  This is something Indians fans are not used to as for about the last half decade they have been very passive in their offseason activities which often led to a snore-fest for fans in November and December followed by an active January and February as they picked through all the table scraps left in free agency.

That’s not the case anymore.

This offseason the Indians have tried to sign free agents such as Shane Victorino, Jason Bay, Melky Cabrera, Kevin Youkilis and others, and they are currently heavily in the mix for still unsigned free agents like Nick Swisher and Edwin Jackson, and have interest in a lot of other free agents on the market. To date they only have Mark Reynolds to show for their efforts, but they are clearly being much more aggressive in their approach this offseason.

I mean, when is the last time the Indians offered a free agent a four year deal? The only player in the Progressive Field Era to ever sign for four years or more was Roberto Alomar (four years $30 million). My memory may be off, but I do not recall them offering a four year deal to anyone else since 1994 as they have always been deals for three years or less. Yet, this offseason we have already seen them reportedly offer at least four years to players like Shane Victorino, Swisher, and possibly Jackson. They have also offered multi-year deals to several other players.  This is a meaningful change to past practices where they looked for one year deals with limited risk.

Last week I talked about how the Indians needed to seal the deal to get people to truly buy into them again. I still believe that. While a good portion of fans are excited by all the activity on the free agent and trade front this offseason, there is still a very large cynical section of the fan base that won’t believe anything has changed until they get someone notable to sign on the dotted line. For as much as I disagree with those that feel that way, I do understand where they are coming from as the Indians have disappointed time and time again in the offseason over the past several years failing to do much of anything to improve the roster.

But things are clearly different now. If some people chose to be non-believers until something tangible happens that is their choice.

It is important to note that in the day and age of social media and numerous rumors websites that a great many trade discussions that teams have or conversations with free agents never go public. I was once told by someone that probably 90% of what happens behind the scenes never reaches the public, maybe more.

That is something to keep in mind when one team signs a player that you think the Indians should have signed. How do you know they did not talk to such a player? How do you know they did not aggressively pursue that player? How do you know if the team backed out, or if the player simply told the team he was not interested in signing with them?  Those are the kind of things to keep in mind as this free agency process continues to unfold and players come off the board. The team is not going to comment one way or the other about players they try to sign or acquire in a trade, so you never really know.

In any case, I have always been one to promote wise spending and to not get caught up in the free agent frenzy where players get way overpaid for the production they ultimately bring in return. The Angels and Marlins spent a killing last offseason and were the talk of the offseason, yet both missed the playoffs, and the Marlins have since dumped almost their entire roster. This offseason the Blue Jays, Dodgers and Angels are getting all the headlines for their big money moves and trades, but time will tell if the moves they have made work out or not.

But here is the thing. I actually believe the Indians do need to go out and overspend for a significant free agent. When I say significant, I am talking about the likes of Swisher and Jackson who will both probably command at least four years and over $50 million. I’m a budget-minded person because – and not to sound like Mark Shapiro - I know the realities of the Indians market and how much a poor contract can limit the flexibility to make moves in the future.

Yes, it would be nice for any significant free agent pick up to help guide the Indians to the playoffs. That would be great. But the playoffs are a different animal and whether or not a team makes it depends on many more variables than just a few free agent pickups, even good ones at that.

I think a significant free agent signing mostly helps the Indians off the field. It would help change the perception that they won’t spend money. It will change the perception among players and agents that this front office won’t do whatever they can to win. Once again, it all comes down to perception.  Until the Indians make a big time signing, no one is going to believe they can or will be able to do so, and no agent or player will seriously consider signing here in the future.

I can’t believe I am even writing such a thing, that the Indians need to overspend and go the extra few miles to get their guy simply to make a splash with the fans. While such a signing may not work out, I believe the most important part of the acquisition would be to help instill faith back into the fan base that ownership and the front office are doing everything they can to improve this team and win now.

Shields, Ubaldo deals are similar

The Rays and Royals completed a big trade last Sunday night where right-handers James Shields and Wade Davis were sent to the Royals in exchange for one of the minor leagues’ best hitting prospects outfielder Wil Myers, one of the minor leagues’ best pitching prospects right-hander Jake Odorizzi, and two other players.

The Royals are hopeful that what they got back in Shields is an ace that can anchor their revamped rotation and put them over the top. He has two years left on his contract before he is a free agent following the 2014 season, and if he continues to stay healthy and pitches well is in for a huge payday in two years. Davis will surely help them out as well, but Shields was the prized acquisition and the shot in the arm they hope puts them over the top to contend in the division the next two seasons.

Of course, that is kind of the same thinking the Indians had back in July of 2011 when they traded two of the best pitching prospects in all of baseball in left-hander Drew Pomeranz and right-hander Alex White along with two others for right-hander Ubaldo Jimenez. Like the Royals with Shields, the Indians paid a steep price in prospects but were hopeful that Jimenez would come in and help anchor their rotation for the next two-plus seasons.

The deals are similar because of the high price in prospects both teams paid, the desperation involved in both moves, and because both pitchers acquired had two full seasons of control left on their deals before they could become free agents. But they are also similar and worthy of comparison because of the recent success both pitchers had before being traded.

When the Indians acquired Jimenez two thirds of the way through the 2011 season, here were his numbers the previous three seasons – his only three full seasons in the big leagues:

2008: 12-12, 3.99 ERA, 34 GS, 198.2 IP, 118 ERA+, 1.44 WHIP, 4.7 BB/9, 7.8 K/9
2009: 15-12, 3.47 ERA, 33 GS, 218.0 IP, 136 ERA+, 1.23 WHIP, 3.5 BB/9, 8.2 K/9
2010: 19-8, 2.88 ERA, 33 GS, 221.2 IP, 161 ERA+, 1.16 WHIP, 3.7 BB/9, 8.7 K/9

By contrast, here is what Shields has done his prior three seasons before the trade:

2010: 13-15, 5.18 ERA, 34 GS, 203.1 IP, 75 ERA+, 1.46 WHIP, 2.3 BB/9, 8.3 K/9
2011: 16-12, 2.82 ERA, 33 GS, 249.1 IP, 134 ERA+, 1.04 WHIP, 2.3 BB/9, 8.1 K/9
2012: 15-10, 3.52 ERA, 33 GS, 227.2 IP, 108 ERA+, 1.17 WHIP, 2.3 BB/9, 8.8 K/9

While some numbers favor each pitcher a little more than the other, for the most part, their three full seasons prior to their trade are quite comparable. Now, obviously, the three solid to good years Shields had from 2007-2009 are not included here, but Jimenez only had three full seasons in the books at the time of the trade, so I left the comparison to the immediate three seasons.

Jimenez struggled before the trade in 2011 going 6-9 with a 4.46 ERA (102 ERA+, 3.7 BB/9, 8.6 K/9), but since arriving in Cleveland has really struggled. He went 4-4 with a 5.10 ERA (77 ERA+, 3.7 BB/9, 8.5K/9) the rest of the way in 2011 and last season went 9-17 with a 5.40 ERA (72 ERA+, 4.8 BB/9, 7.3 K/9).  However, it may still take another season to truly grade out whether the trade was a success or failure.

The Royals are going to get their first crack this coming season in evaluating whether they made the right move to bring in Shields. Fortunately for the Royals, Shields comes with more success over a longer period of time, though with any pitching acquisition, you just never know how it will work out until they tow the rubber for their new organization for a lengthy period of time.

Both the Royals and Indians overpaid for what they believe are front of the rotation arms. Things have not gone well so far with the Indians, and the Royals now get to see what they got and they hope he does a lot better for them than Jimenez has done for the Indians so far.

No DH, please

A lot of people have been asking what the Indians will do to fill the vacancy at the designated hitter position now that Travis Hafner is gone. Well, how about they do nothing?

General Manager Chris Antonetti is on record as saying he would like to fill the designated hitter position, but I do not believe it is a position he feels he has to fill. If the Indians are able to sign a good free agent bat and veteran starting pitcher, then most of their offseason budget will have been used up and they may be more apt to fill the need from within. Of course, if they miss out on a Swisher or Cody Ross, and are unable to trade for someone like Alfonso Soriano, then perhaps they look to spread some of the available money around to two lower profile bats in free agency to fill the right field and designated hitter roles.

If the Indians are able to find a suitable option to play right field on a regular basis, I think they should simply ignore signing a designated hitter and instead use those extra funds to get another arm or reinvest it into their player development and scouting department. By doing this, they can use the designated hitter spot to play some of their possible bench pieces like Russ Canzler, Chris McGuiness, Mike McDade, Mike Aviles, Yan Gomes, and others.

What I really like about not having a regular designated hitter is the flexibility it provides. Not only does it allow manager Terry Francona a way to keep his bats on the bench fresh and get more playing time, but it also would allow him to sit key players in the lineup every seven to ten days without taking their bat out of the lineup. For example, instead of sitting shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera after ten straight days in the field and inserting Aviles at shortstop and completely taking Cabrera’s bat out of the lineup, he would now have the option to rest Cabrera but keep his bat in the game as the designated hitter. Aviles still gets to relieve him in the field – which arguably makes them a better defensive team anyway -  but most importantly, Cabrera’s bat still remains in the lineup.

This approach is something that Francona can use for a lot of other key pieces to the lineup such as second baseman Jason Kipnis, catcher Carlos Santana, outfielder Michael Brantley, and others. He can pick and choose when to rest guys but leave their bat in the lineup. Yes, there will be times when a player is completely out of the lineup in order to give them a “mental health” day, but having the flexibility with the designated hitter spot could allow the Indians to get their regulars into five to seven more games (20-30 more at bats) over the course of the season than they otherwise may not have been able to when Hafner was the full time designated hitter.

I think it goes without saying that Cabrera has really struggled down the stretch the past two seasons and looked tired, and this past season Kipnis looked worn out in the second half as well. With no full time designated hitter the Indians could keep their key players fresh through the second half of the season, get their bench players some more playing time, and probably most importantly ensure more lineup stability. It would allow them to send out their best lineup on a nightly basis because they are able to keep key players in the lineup yet rest them by playing them as the designated hitter.

My ESPN soapbox

Pardon me while I go on a small rant.

Like many of you, I have grown increasingly less and less interested in ESPN programming over the years. With the advent of the NFL Network and MLB Network, I rarely watch ESPN for anything anymore than maybe the occasional college football or college basketball game and Monday Night Football, and Sports Center from time to time.

I don’t much care for the NBA, NHL or most of the other sports, so when I need to see sports news I often turn to the networks for the NFL and MLB. I have to say both of those networks are absolutely fantastic with what they do, and I hope ESPN has taken notice because they both completely blow ESPN away with their coverage – coverage that is not so biased to the big markets.

So why the rant?

Well, on Tuesday night I wanted to hear some of the national pundits weigh in on the big three-team nine player deal that shipped Shin-Shoo Choo to the Reds and sent right-handed pitcher Trevor Bauer to the Indians. The MLB Network does not have live programming after 9:00pm or 10:00pm during the offseason, so I was unfortunately forced to go to ESPN to get their views on the trade.

So I caught the 1:00am SportsCenter thinking that it would be one the lead stories on the night, but their lead story ended up being the Lakers embarrassing loss to the Cavaliers. Then they went into stuff on Bounty Gate, then they talked about the Clippers-Bulls game, then Kevin Youkilis signing with the Yankees, then an update on R.A. Dickey’s contract extension talks, and other stuff. Finally, 35 minutes into the program, they talked about the trade….for all of two minutes and with no insight or comments from any of their baseball people.

Look, I get the fact that the deal involved three teams in smaller markets and I get that there was not a huge name going in the deal. But this was a complex three team deal and it should have been one of their top stories of the night and been above such things as the Youkilis and Dickey news. It reeked of laziness by a network who probably tried to bury it since they were not prepared to report on it.

In any case, I have not watched ESPN since, and probably won’t going forward except to catch the last few Monday Night Football games of the season.

Sorry for the rant…..(and thank goodness for MLB Network).

Rondon impressing

Former Indians right-handed pitching prospect Hector Rondon – who was picked up by the Chicago Cubs in the Rule 5 Draft on December 6th – has cooled off of late in the Venezuela Winter League. After a string of 14 consecutive shutout appearances that ended two days before the draft, he has since allowed a run in each of his last four outings. In 22 appearances this offseason he is now 2-1 with a 4.50 ERA, and in 20.0 innings has allowed 15 hits, 6 walks, and has 11 strikeouts.

According to some scouts I have talked to this offseason that have seen Rondon in action in Venezuela they say that he is consistently pitching in the 93-97 MPH range with his fastball, his cutter is sitting at 91-93 MPH, and is showing what they feel is a solid average slider.  The slider has always been what held him back as the Indians wanted him to finish that pitch off prior to him blowing out his elbow in May of 2010, and it supposedly looks as good as it ever has, which is why he generated so much interest going into the Rule 5 Draft.

For Rondon to stick with the Cubs he is first going to have to show he is durable and that no further arm issues crop up, and then he needs to show consistent velocity and that he can cut the ball on either side of the plate. He has potential as a solid 7th inning arm, and maybe even more if he shows plus command, though he still has a long way to go at proving he can be any of that.  What is probably most interesting and is something that has really interested the Cubs and other teams in him this offseason is how well he has pitched to left-handers. To date he has allowed just one hit to lefties (1-for-28).

Rondon has to spend the entire season next year on the Cubs big league roster, so it will be interesting to see what happens and if he stays healthy and can perform. If he doesn’t then he will be offered back to the Indians unless a trade is worked out to give the Cubs full rights to send him to the minors.

Parting shots

With the Angels signing of outfielder Josh Hamilton, they reportedly are taking offers for Vernon Wells and Kendry Morales. The Indians are reportedly one of three teams that have checked in on Morales. … Former Indians third baseman Jack Hannahan signed a two-year $4 million deal with the Reds this past week. He was a fan favorite because of his stellar defense, and was a favorite of the organization because of his makeup and how great a teammate he was, but the Indians had no room to retain him since Lonnie Chisenhall will be the starter at third base next season. … The Indians will host Tribe Fest 2013 on Saturday, January 19 and Sunday, January 20 at Progressive Field from 12pm-6pm on both days. The event will feature a wide range of activities, and give fans the opportunity to meet some of their favorite Indians players and personalities. Tribe Fest is a new event for 2013 and replaces the Tribe on Tour shopping mall events from the previous few years.

Follow Tony and the Indians Baseball Insider on Twitter @TonyIBI. Also, his new book the 2014 Cleveland Indians Baseball Insider which profiles the Indians' Top 100 Prospects and more is available for sale.

User Comments

Tony
December 18, 2012 - 9:19 PM EST
Ha, I got it Joe. no problem. Thanks for the kind words.

I agree that the Indians shouldn't spend such money on Swisher....but I think this is a case where the money spent is worth it just with the way they are perceived in the industry. The money itself may help resstablish their reputation in industry and with fans.
Joe Chengery
December 17, 2012 - 10:32 PM EST
Hello Tony,

For record, when I said "at just your basic website," I didn't mean yours- it almost sounded that way; my apologies.

I meant you could go to any old website, one that even doesn't really focus on sports, to get the same information ESPN provides- sorry about any confusion.

Certainly, I think IPI (soon-to-be IBI) is one of the best baseball sites on the Internet and why I've have been reading it for the last 4-5 years (not even sure how long- I've lost count! :-)

Take care and keep up the great work!
Joe Chengery
December 17, 2012 - 10:30 PM EST
ESPN's coverage has declined so much in recent years regarding small- and mid-size MLB teams that I turn to your blog and a few others throughout the Internet for most of my information.

Being on Dish Network, I didn't get MLB at first; fortunately, just over a year ago, we finally got it, and like you, I think the information on there is much better than what ESPN gives. I, too, noticed how long it took ESPN to mention the trade, then said virtually nothing of substance that wasn't known by looking at just your basic website. The coverage you and a few select others provided online was 100 times better without question. Keep up the great work!

As for the Indians, I'm not fond of overpaying for a FA or two just to appease the fans, though I can understand the reasoning. I just hope that such a signing doesn't handcuff the Indians as such signings have done in the past (Hafner, Westbrook, etc.) and that the signing(s) live up at or near expectations.

I too like the flexibility at DH- while I wouldn't be opposed to having Hafner's bat back at DH for a reasonable sum, I do agree that it's hard to count on him for a whole season, and it might be a struggle for him to reach even 20 HRs. The "old Pronk" has been long gone, and even with another team such as the Rays or Yankees, that Pronk will likely never ever be seen again, even if Hafner could stay healthy for a whole season (also a considerable IF). Still, Hafner did many good things while he was here, and I wish him well (except against the Indians, of course).

Keep up the great work!
Tony
December 17, 2012 - 12:45 PM EST
Joey, that's a very good question, and one I'd like to steal and use for the next inbox.

I think it is a combination of two things. One, the crash and burn they had this season from late July though August along with the fade last season in the second half. And secondly, the presence of Terry Francona. I think the crumble this past season finally opened some eyes to considering a new approach, and quite possibly ownership maybe pushed them into rethinking things. Once Francona came on board, things really started to change as he opened them up to a lot of idea, and they have been very receptive to them. I still think he will end up the biggest acquisition of the offseason for the Indians, no matter what they do going forward.
Joey
December 17, 2012 - 12:15 PM EST
I'm glad they've changed, but why has it taken this long for them to realize that something needed to be done?
Tony
December 17, 2012 - 8:51 AM EST
Seth, the problem with resigning Hafner is he clogs up the roster again. He is an injury prone DH that can't play more than 5 times a week. He's been solid the last few years when he plays, but the Indians really want more versatility with their DH, so I don't see him coming back. He will probably end up with the Rays or maybe even the Yankees.
Tony
December 17, 2012 - 8:44 AM EST
Carl, I agree. I understand where some are coming from where they just don't believe they are talking or serious about these free agents, but they are dead wrong. These are not leaked simply for PR value. It's one of the most overused excuses. When teams are talking to FAs they simply don't get in discussions, especially serious discussions, unless they are very interested in signing them. There is always a breaking point and a place where teams won't take negotiations, and in the past the Indians tolerance was pretty low as they were so risk averse. But now with their new philosophy, they are staying much longer in the negotiations game because they are willing to be much more aggressive and take on risk. Sadly, it may still not be enough. In the end it always comes down to where the player wants to sign.
Tribefan1968
December 16, 2012 - 9:32 PM EST
I haven't watched ESPN for baseball coverage since Peter Gammons left. I agree that the Indians should "just say no" to a full-time DH. Besides the roster flexibility, I would like them to carry an extra bullpen arm in place of the DH. With their seemingly shaky rotation, I think they could use the extra arm so as to not wear out their bullpen.
Rocky55
December 16, 2012 - 7:06 PM EST
I like MLB Network a lot too. Millar is hilarious. I love Plesac, even though I hated him as a player because he dominated the Tribe. Hart & Chris Rose can be counted on to stick up for the Indians. Really have a great bunch of informed guys on there. I really don't dislike anybody on there other than that pompous idiot Costas. He belongs on ESPN with his NY bias.
Daingean
December 16, 2012 - 5:03 PM EST
Espn is a waste except for the games themselves. They've totally abandoned middle America with their coverage.

Yes, I'm more wait and see before I'll believe. I know this year the FO has a different approach but I question that they can get it done. Players want to know their FO will back them up and this FO didn't do that last year. I hope I'm wrong but I think this team will have to vastly overpay for 3rd tier guys to get things done.
Joey
December 16, 2012 - 1:40 PM EST
Being a huge fan of the NHL ESPN hardly mentions anything, and the most laughable part is when ESPN tries to talk about NHL prospects, their writes are completely uniformed and make the most outlandish predictions that never come true. I haven't watched ESPN in probably a couple of years, just like you said, MLB/NFL network for coverage. I mean ESPN has the "Heat Index" tab in the NBA section, come on.
Seth
December 16, 2012 - 12:55 PM EST
Regarding the DH, I wonder about this, because what are the chances Canzler, McGuiness, McDade, or Gomes equal the production they got from Hafner when he was "healthy". I don't see any of those guys approaching a .342 wOBA, and that's Hafner's worst, and was dragged down by him being horrible after coming off the second DL stint. (Canzler, after what a lot of fans think was a fairly successful debut last year, put up a .300 wOBA) Which makes me think, why NOT sign Hafner to a deal for a couple million?

Say they do add Swisher and Jackson. That would put them firmly in a contend-now mode. A rotation of Masterson, Jackson, Carrasco, McAllister, Bauer/Jimenez at least has a lot of potential and COULD be quite good. Granted Hafner is only good for about 80 games, but for the price you could get him, you might pick up a win or two versus having a Canzler at DH over that period. Brantley, Cabrera, Santana, Swisher, Kipnis, Hafner, Reynolds, Chisenhall, Stubbs. Better than any current alternative, and if Hafner ends up on the DL 20 games into the season, then who cares, you are where you are right now, and the cost was minimal. If he's in the lineup for 100 games, putting up his 340-350 wOBA, then he got you a lot for the money.

If they don't acquire something along the level of Swisher and Jackson, then yes, it's best not to both with someone like Hafner, and would be better to give someone like McGuiness a shot, since they are not contending regardless. But Hafner would actually be a cheap way for a potentially significant lineup upgrade.
Carl
December 16, 2012 - 11:07 AM EST
You are so right about Tribe needing to have a big free agent signing. I am encouraged by the moves the Tribe has made, however many of my Tribe friends don't believe Indians really offered 4 year deal to Victorino and are involved in players like Swisher and Jackson. They feel it is just leaked talk to look good. Overpaying is necessary to get player here and to show fans Tribe is serious. I would love to have Swisher and Jackson. However if only one I want Jackson. Our rotation is still scary(bad). If you love baseball you have to have MLB network. I enjoy HotStove and I like listening to John Hart.
Matt
December 16, 2012 - 10:54 AM EST
No full time DH also gives you defensive flexibility in late game situations. I remember a few instances where Acta could have pinch hit for Kotchman late in games if Hafner could have played an inning or 2 at 1B
Rocky55
December 16, 2012 - 10:09 AM EST
Agree with the opinon that we should sign a FA or two, for the reason you suggest. Kinda prime the pump as it were. Cleve may not be an ideal destination as a city but comped to detroit it's Shangri La.

I watch ESPN for Mike & Mike. Love that show. Funny dynamic & great guests. The other 99% annoys the crap out of me.

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