Keys to 2013: Cleveland Indians

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Starting Pitching Key: Ubaldo Jimenez

Usually when there’s a big trade of youth for an established veteran the trade can be judged within a year-and-a-half. Sometimes that judgment is floating and interchangeable. The problem with most deals is that there’s an immediate reaction of a “winner” and a “loser” before any of the players even get their uniforms on.

For the Rockies and Indians, who completed a big trade in the summer of 2011 with Jimenez going to the Indians for a package of youngsters including Drew Pomeranz, Alex White, Matt McBride and Joe Gardner, there has yet to be a payoff for either side.

For the Rockies, if Pomeranz doesn’t develop, the trade will be a disaster. I think he will, but he hasn’t yet. White was traded to the Astros; McBride is about to turn 28 and has the looks of a 4-A player. Gardner’s mechanics make him an arm injury waiting to happen; if he doesn’t get hurt, he’s a reliever.

It can be seen as the Indians didn’t give up much of anything for a former All-Star and third place finisher in the Cy Young Award voting, but now that they’re looking to contend, they need the Jimenez from 2010 or, at worst, 2009. He’s been awful from 2011 onward with an attitude to match and his ERA has risen by over 3 ½  runs since the end of June 2010 while his velocity has declined by 4-5 mph. Nobody’s expecting him to keep up an ERA under two, but over five? 92-94 is plenty enough fastball to be effective. He has a club option for 2014 at $8 million that he can void himself since he was traded mid-contract. If he’s as bad as he was over the past two seasons, the Indians will trade him at mid-season or sever ties after the season.

Relief Pitching Key: Chris Perez

Perez’s complaints about the Indians fans not caring and the front office not spending any money were assuaged this past winter, but he has to hold his end of the bargain up by getting the job done in the ninth inning. The Indians are better than they were, but they’re not good enough to afford blowing games in the late innings. To make matters more precarious, Perez’s status for opening day is in question because of a shoulder strain. He could also be traded if the Indians are underperforming and Vinnie Pestano indicates he can handle the job.

Offensive Key: Carlos Santana

For all the talk of Santana being an offensive force and the Dodgers making a huge mistake by trading him to get Casey Blake, he’s been something of a disappointment. Santana’s productive, but not the unstoppable masher he was supposed to be. If he’s able to be a competent defensive catcher then his current offensive numbers are fine; if he has to be shifted to first base, he’s a guy you can find on the market.

Defensive Key: Santana

Whether or not the Indians have the depth to contend is not known yet. I don’t think they do. Regardless with the new manager and the money they’ve spent, they have to be competent and that hinges on the pitching. The starting rotation behind Justin Masterson and Brett Myers are temperamental (Jimenez); young, difficult and have already yapped their way out of one venue (Trevor Bauer); and are scrapheap reclamation projects (Daisuke Matsuzaka and Scott Kazmir). Manager Terry Francona might look at Santana’s defense and realize he can’t win with him behind the plate. Santana at first base would make everyone else move to a different position and force a far weaker offensive catcher into the lineup in Santana’s place.

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Meet The Mess Or A Mess To An End?

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There’s no spinning an eight run first inning, a 16-1 loss, and rampant humiliation the type the Phillies have inflicted on the Mets over the last three games. Only the Mets could let a Phillies team that’s dealing with an embarrassing season of their own do this. The Phillies, with a too little-too late comeback, have made their disappointing season a bit more bearable. But it’s still disappointing. That aside, they walked into Citi Field and backhanded the Mets and the Mets took it. Again. No doubt the Phillies were laughing on the bus back to Philly and they had reason to. It can be glossed over through the prism of payroll and preseason expectations or lack thereof, but the Mets participating in the Phillies downfall earlier this season by beating up on them is rendered meaningless by the past three games.

Suggestions that the Mets have quit are inarguable. It’s not about talent anymore, it’s about incompetence. A big league team cannot allow another big league team—regardless of disparity in talent and money—to treat them like a punching bag and leave them lying in the dirt shrugging as if it’s accepted that this is the way things are and will remain. The Mets could’ve hit the Phillies back for once and ended their playoff hopes. Instead, they gave them a lifeline. Behind the Cardinals by 4 with 12 to play and having to leapfrog both the Dodgers and Brewers make a Phillies playoff appearance all but impossible, but it could’ve ended this week and the Mets could’ve been the ones to do the deed. Instead, they chose to lay down.

Are the Mets this bad? No. Were they as good as they looked in the first half of the season when they were one of baseball’s most pleasant surprises and talked of buying at the deadline rather than selling (and did neither)? No. But there’s no escaping the 9 straight home losses and 14 of 16 since August 19th. Comparisons to the 1962 version of the Mets are based on nothing other than attempts at ridicule and pure numbers—there’s no comparison between the situations, but that it’s mentioned in this context is bad enough.

No one wants to hear the likes of Michael Kay saying, “I told you so,” when he had the team winning 50 games before the season. He didn’t tell anyone anything. The end result doesn’t prove the prediction accurate. Nor does anyone want to hear Mike Francesa, who earlier in the season repeatedly stated that Mets’ manager Terry Collins deserved a contract extension and is now speculating on the same manager’s job security. The beat writers have taken to Twitter and other outlets with their passive aggression and self-indulgent agendas.

It’s all meaningless.

But this has to be examined logically. Does it make a difference whether the Mets won 81 games? 77 games? Or 70 games? No. The front office is presumably angry about the perception of disinterest on the roster; that the stands are completely and deservedly empty; but in the big picture, they’ll take the higher draft pick and get a better player.

What can they do to fix this to avoid the same fate a year from now and have the Mets a more welcoming and inviting destination for prospective free agents as they have money to spend with the expiring contracts of Johan Santana and Jason Bay at the conclusion of 2013?

Collins isn’t going to be fired. There are increasing pushes for Wally Backman to take over as manager because he’s a feisty and aggressive, in-your-face type that won’t tolerate the mistakes that are being tolerated now. Backman will be on the coaching staff in 2013 as the bench coach in part to be feisty; in part to provide a link to the 1980s; in part to prepare as a possible heir apparent to Collins. The only coaches on this current staff that will return are Tim Teufel (he’s popular with the Wilpons); and Dave Hudgens (GM Sandy Alderson likes the way he teaches hitting). Apart from that, they’re all gone.

As for the players, the Mets have to get some fighter types who aren’t going to meekly accept the bullying of other clubs. This current group is too cerebral and passive. No one hits back. How about some mindless tough guys who don’t take garbage from other teams?

Jonny Gomes and Kyle Farnsworth are two of the types of players the Mets should consider adding. It’s not because they’re supremely talented or are drastic improvements over what they currently have. We don’t know what Farnsworth will do on the field one year to the next—he’s no worse than what they currently have—but he’s known throughout baseball as someone not to mess with. Gomes has pop off the bench and walks, but more importantly is always ready to drop the gloves and it was him who sent the message to the Yankees and the rest of baseball in 2008 with a spring training brawl that they weren’t going to shove the Rays’ collective heads into the toilet anymore.

Even if it’s a lateral move talent-wise, the Mets have to get some of the faces that have epitomized their fall over the past 5 years. By that I mean trading Bay for something, anything and eating money if they have to. Chone Figgins and Franklin Gutierrez for Bay and $5 million would match up financially and the change-of-scenery might benefit the players, the Mariners, and the Mets. Shin-Soo Choo is going to be available and so will Chris Perez from the Indians. Maybe two bad teams could come to an agreement for a Bobby Parnell, Lucas Duda deal.

The notion of trading Ike Davis was floated recently. The source was in question and the Mets, as usual, were blamed for spreading the rumor that Davis doesn’t listen and parties too much. The truth is that the source in Adam Rubin’s piece was referred to as a “baseball source.” No one from the Mets was said to be that source other than via uninformed speculation. That doesn’t diminish the logic behind the idea. If the Mets can bring in an impact bat at a key position like Justin Upton as part of that deal or in a three-way trade, they have to explore it. I’d try to get Upton or see if the Rangers would want to be creative with Ian Kinsler. That would free the Mets to revisit the proposed trade by the Padres in which Daniel Murphy would’ve gone to San Diego for Luke Gregerson and perhaps ask for the speedy and versatile Everth Cabrera.

Many good things have happened to the Mets in 2012 in spite of the ludicrous conclusion to the season, but they can’t move forward with the roster and coaching staff in its current state. It comes back to the original question of whether this is a mess with an end or a simple mess.

Right now, it’s a combination of both. Behind the scenes and without fanfare, the farm system is being rebuilt well with plenty of young talent infusing the organization. Some, like Matt Harvey, are beginning their big league careers, and Zack Wheeler is on the way; but changes—cosmetic and practical—have to be made if only to put forth the perception of doing something. Anyone would’ve accepted the Mets being outgunned. It was expected. But players who should be happy to have a job can’t been seen as giving up. And that’s what’s happened. Keeping those players who’ve either quit or can’t play—Andres Torres, Josh Thole, Bay—won’t help, but dumping them certainly will if only for the sake of appearance.

Appearance is currently all they have left and, right now, it’s not particularly attractive. In fact, it’s downright ugly.

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American League Central—2012 Present and 2013 Future

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I recently looked at the AL East, how they’re faring now and their prospects for the future. Now let’s look at the AL Central.

Chicago White Sox

There are few baseball executives for whom their statements should be taken at face value, but White Sox GM Ken Williams is one. Because of that, when he says he misspoke about blowing the whole thing up at the conclusion of the 2011 season, then didn’t blow the whole thing up and instead made moves to try and win while getting younger and more flexible, I believe him.

The White Sox success can be chalked up to: manager Robin Ventura’s calm demeanor in stark contrast to the raving lunacy of Ozzie Guillen; Jake Peavy coming back from injury and pitching like a top tier starter; Chris Sale’s development as a starting pitcher; Adam Dunn’s and Alex Rios’s comebacks; and the parity around the American League.

Ventura and Mike Matheny have become a regular “example” that managers don’t need to have managerial experience to be successful. Of course it’s nonsense and taken greatly out of context. Ventura’s done a good job and his cachet as a former All Star player and popular person in Chicago has helped him greatly, but anyone other than Guillen would’ve been taken as a welcome respite from the daily haranguing and controversy that surrounded the former manager’s big mouth and followed him—with disastrous results—to Miami.

As long as Williams is the GM, the White Sox have a chance to be competitive because he has no patience for long rebuilds and makes aggressive maneuvers accordingly.

Detroit Tigers

The Tigers have been inconsistent in every facet. Their defense, while not being as bad as predicted, still isn’t good; the offense is 7th in the AL in runs scored despite having two MVP candidates Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera, plus Austin Jackson having a fantastic year; the bullpen has been shaky; and Justin Verlander has been excellent and is still a Cy Young Award candidate, but has taken enough of a step back from his CYA/MVP of 2011 back to humanity to account for the Tigers fighting for a playoff spot.

There’s been talk that manager Jim Leyland, in the final year of his contract, could be in trouble if the Tigers don’t make the playoffs. It’s silly. Leyland can still handle the egos in that clubhouse and the very last thing the Tigers need to do and, tying in with the concept of a manager with zero experience, is to hire someone young just to make a change.

The Tigers dealt away several prospects including Jacob Turner to get Omar Infante and Anibal Sanchez, but they’ve held onto Avisail Garcia and Nick Castellanos. The farm system is not barren and as long as they have Fielder, Cabrera, and Verlander, they’ll be competitive. Changing managers for the sake of it makes zero sense.

Kansas City Royals

It’s ludicrous how those who felt the Royals were going to parlay their loaded farm system into a leap to legitimate contention jump off the train as soon as a rebuild doesn’t adhere to the “plan”. Young players sometimes hit speedbumps on the way up. Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas are still two players around whom to build; Alex Gordon is a solid presence at the plate and in the field; Billy Butler is emerging as an unknown star; and Salvador Perez and several young pitchers got hurt.

The talent is still there. As long as they don’t panic, there’s no reason they can’t contend in 2013.

They do need to show improvement for manager Ned Yost to keep his job past next May/June; and GM Dayton Moore will probably get one more managerial hire if Yost has to be replaced, then the onus will be on him.

Cleveland Indians

2012 went completely wrong with 2013 not looking much better. They got off to a good start and were hovering around contention through mid-season until they collapsed completely and, since being 50-50 on July 27th, have gone 10-36. Manny Acta has a contract for next season, but since the Indians don’t have much money to spend and are openly ready to listen to offers for one of their few marketable players Shin-Soo Choo, there’s no point in sending Acta back out there as a lame duck when they have a managerial prospect in the popular former Indians’ hero Sandy Alomar Jr. on the coaching staff.

Closer Chris Perez ripped the organization from top to bottom recently and will presumably be shipped out of town for his candor. Considering that Perez is a slightly better-than-average closer, it’s not his place to be opening his mouth. The Indians are short on foundational talent. Asdrubal Cabrera is a very good player; Carlos Santana doesn’t appear to be an everyday catcher and his skills are less impressive as a first baseman; and their supposed top two starters, Ubaldo Jimenez and Justin Masterson, haven’t pitched well.

The Indians have a long road ahead of them and may have to restart their rebuild.

Minnesota Twins

The Twins were competitive for a decade after a decade of being so terrible that they were a target of contraction. Now instead of being a target, they built Target Field and spent money to try and win in 2010. To that end, they traded away a top prospect Wilson Ramos for a mediocre reliever Matt Capps; they signed Tsuyoshi Nishioka and repeated the Mets’ mistake with Kazuo Matsui, except Nishioka isn’t as talented as Matsui was; and they brought back their old GM Terry Ryan who still hasn’t had the interim label taken from his title.

Ownership has said that they want Ryan to take the job on a permanent basis. We’ll see. If Ryan isn’t fully committed or ownership wants to go in a new direction with an outsider, manager Ron Gardenhire could be in trouble as well.

Offensively, they’ve rebounded from an injury-plagued 2011 with Joe Mauer back to being Joe Mauer; a tremendous year from Josh Willingham; and Justin Morneau finally returning to form after his concussion problems.

They’re still severely short in the pitching department and are running into identical issues as the Mets did when they moved into their new park after contending for several years and building a canyon instead of a ballpark. The Mets moved the fences in and started a full-blown rebuild. The Twins have yet to do that, but they’re going to have to infuse the organization with more talent to get back to competitiveness.

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The Objective Truth About Luhnow

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Simultaneously searching for a greater understanding through objective analysis, the stat people have taken to using subjectivity to bolster the resumes of the like-minded whether it’s accurate or not.

In this NY Times article by Tyler Kepner, the new Astros GM Jeff Luhnow has his work glossed over in such a way to bypass how he got into the game; the issues that surrounded him with the Cardinals; and that he’s doled credit without full details nor the assignation of blame.

Luhnow was hired by the Cardinals in the heady days following the publication of Moneyball—before the story was proven to be a skillfully written fabrication. The specific purpose of the book was to prop up the supposed “genius” of Billy Beane and designed to document the antiquated nature of those who hadn’t been educated at an Ivy League school, didn’t use numbers as the end-all of existence and trusted their in-the-trenches experience and their eyes to assess players.

Immediately Luhnow became seen as a threat to veteran GM Walt Jocketty and manager Tony LaRussa. He had the ear of owner Bill DeWitt and the organization set about altering the draft strategy. In addition to that, the organizational pitching philosophy, which had been designed by pitching coach Dave Duncan, was scrapped much to the chagrin of Duncan, LaRussa and Jocketty.

The front office had broken into factions with the old-schoolers battling the new age thinkers who, like Luhnow, were imported from other industries and whose presence was viewed as interloping on what they’d always done; what had been successful.

Kepner is sort of accurate (albeit with the count slightly off) when, in describing Luhnow’s first three drafts, he writes:

In those same years, St. Louis drafted 24 future major leaguers, the most of any team.

But is it spiritually accurate?

The list of big league players that Luhnow drafted from 2005-2007 are as follows:

2005: Colby Rasmus; Tyler Greene; Bryan Anderson; Mitchell Boggs; Nick Stavinoha; Daniel McCutchen; Ryan Rohlinger (did not sign); and Jaime Garcia.

2006: Adam Ottavino; Chris Perez; Jon Jay; Mark Hamilton; Shane Robinson; Allen Craig; P.J. Walters; David Carpenter; and Luke Gregerson.

2007: Pete Kozma; Clayton Mortensen; Jess Todd; Daniel Descalso; Michael Stutes (didn’t sign); Steven Hill; Andrew Brown; Brian Broderick; Tony Cruz; and Adron Chambers.

Apart from Garcia, is there one player that jumps out so you can say, “Wow, what a great pick that was!”?

The drafts were pedestrian. Because 24 of the players drafted in those three years made it to the majors, it doesn’t imply “success”.

A player simply making it to the big leagues is contingent on a myriad of factors—some of those for Luhnow are that the players were traded away for veteran help; such veteran help generally only comes from a team that is in need of young talent because they don’t have the money to keep the veteran players they’re dealing away, so they’ll be more open to giving prospects a chance in the big leagues.

Just as wins and losses have become a borderline irrelevant barometer in determining how well or poorly a pitcher has pitched in a given season, the number of big leaguers produced in a draft is rendered meaningless as well.

There’s little-to-no correlation between a draft being judged as “good” and the players making it to the majors for a token appearance.

Succeeding Jocketty, Mozeliak was placed in a position where he had to assuage his cantankerous veteran manager LaRussa (sometimes “yes-ing” him to death to keep him quiet) while fulfilling the mandate of ownership that became clear when they hired Luhnow in the first place.

This was a subtle and underappreciated accomplishment by Mozeliak.

Were the late round players who made it to the big leagues—some of which became star-caliber like Garcia—the result of change in philosophy spurred by Luhnow’s presence? Or was it typical luck that has to be present as it was when Jocketty’s operation picked Albert Pujols in the 13th round of the 1999 draft?

The trades that Kepner brings up came as a result of LaRussa’s sharp-elbowed infighting to get what he wanted due to his stature and accumulated credibility from years of winning his way. They had nothing to do with Luhnow in a concrete sense.

The perception of a star player like Matt Holliday being available via trade is connected to his contract status; he was not re-signing with the Athletics and the 2009 A’s were playing poorly, so they traded him for some players that had been drafted under Luhnow.

One thing doesn’t justify the other.

Luhnow is in a less contentious position with the Astros than he was when he entered baseball as an outsider in 2003. With a new owner; a barren farm system; and essentially an expansion roster, he’s free to do whatever he wants from top-to-bottom and hire people who are of similar mind and will implement what he believes.

But it’s got nothing to do with what he did as a Cardinals executive because his contribution was secondary to having a Hall of Fame manager and a GM who was adept at placating those with differing philosophies that were trying to push him in one direction or another.

If anyone deserves the credit for the Cardinals ability to navigate these issues and still win, it’s Mozeliak.

Will Luhnow be a Paul DePodesta? Someone with the knowledge of numbers and solid resume but was unable to deal with the ancillary aspects of the big job? Or will he be a Jon Daniels? One who overcame a rocky start and muddled ownership/managerial situation, but has become one of the best, if not the best GM in baseball?

We won’t know until we know.

Luhnow’s getting his chance now. He’s the boss of the Astros. For better. Or worse.

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