Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Benitez Signs with San Francisco


I bring this up for two reasons. One, it cements my belief that bringing back Wickman was the right move. And two, it means the Indians lose out on the Giants' draft pick bonanza.

Point one. While I like Benitez, and he was the best closer by far on the market, spending $21M on him isn't what I'd call a good investment. He's probably a better bet than Troy Percival to be worth what he's getting, but after seeing what happened with past reliever contracts, I just don't think spending that much on a closer is a good outlay of money. Especially in a situation where you have a fixed amount of money to spend. I'd rather spend $21M on a starter than a closer if I had the choice.

Point two. The Indians won't have the Giants' first round pick; that will be going to Florida because of Benitez's higher Elias ranking. If the Giants sign another Type A free agent (Steve Finley is a possibility), the pick the Indians receive could be even lower. It's obvious the Giants really don't care about high draft picks, and judging by the amount of cash they're shelling out, are trying to win right now. One of my interests as far as baseball is concerned is a team's "big picture" strategy, and what Brian Sabean is doing is pretty fascinating. He knows he has at best 2-3 years left of Barry Bonds' career, and he is literally going for broke in order to win a championship before Bonds retires. And that means funneling virtually all the teams' money, including draft pick bonuses, into the free agent pool. While I think this strategy is going to land the Giants in a huge mess in 2007 or so, I don't think Sabean really cares about that. Not while Bonds is still playing. Maybe during the winter I'll look into the method to his madness a bit further, but for now, the Indians simply lose their first round draft pick.

A Couple Interesting Signings

Invited RHP Steve Watkins to Spring Training

Signed SS Erick Almonte and OF John Rodriguez to minor-league contracts; Invited them to Spring Training

You've probably heard of Almonte; when Derek Jeter went down in 2003, Almonte got some playing time in New York. But after Jeter returned, Almonte was shuttled back to Columbus. After the 2003 season, he signed with the Colorado Rockies and played the entire 2004 season in Colorado Springs, where he hit .318/.402/.507. Keep in mind, though, that those offensive numbers are inflated because of the altitude, but his K/BB ratio was 87/64, which is outstanding. Right now, Almonte is probably going to be that third shortstop in camp, along with Peralta and Phillips, and may be kept around as a utility infielder, depending on how Phillips performs. If not, then he'll go down to Buffalo as an insurance policy.

John Rodriguez is another former Yankee farmhand who also had his best profession season in 2004. With Columbus he hit .294/.382/.542, with 26 doubles and 16 home runs in 378 at-bats. There was no way he was going to see Yankee Stadium, so maybe he's doing the next best thing by playing somewhat closer to home in Buffalo. He can play center field, so that's likely where he'll play with the Bisons now that Jason Tyner has moved on.

Sunday, November 28, 2004

Player Reviews: The Renewables, Part 4

Moving on with my quasi-weekly player reviews:

OF Ryan Ludwick - Age 26
2004 Salary: ~$300,000
2004 EQA: .221 (50 AB)
Contract Status: Renewable (AE in 2006)

Injuries have put Ludwick's career on hold. After coming over from the Rangers for Ricardo Rodriguez, Ludwick injured his right knee towards the end of the 2003 season, and wasn't much of a factor in 2004. As things stand right now, he's the fourth outfielder, and barring a breakout season, looks to stay that way. I like his power a lot, but with Coco Crisp and Grady Sizemore ahead of him on the depth chart, he may not get much playing time, and I'm not even considering Jody Gerut. If the Indians can deal Matt Lawton, he may get more playing time, but if Lawton is dealt, Casey Blake would probably be heading to the outfield. So it looks like Ludwick is stuck in a numbers game, or at best, stuck as a platoon outfielder in 2005.

RHRP Matt Miller - Age 32
2004 Salary: ~$300,000
2004 VORP: 16.6
Contract Status: Renewable (AE in 2006)

Miller, like Betancourt before him, was plucked out of minor-league free agency and became an effective reliever in the Indians' bullpen. The sidearmer struck out an impressive 55 batters in 55.1 IP, and allowed only 42 hits. Like most gimmick pitchers, there's a real possibility teams will figure Matt out eventually, but until they do, Miller should serve nicely a right-handed matchup guy; right-handers hit a paltry .201 against him.

SS Jhonny Peralta - Age 22
2004 Salary: ~$300,000
Contract Status: Renewable (AE in 2006)

Most likely the next Indians shortstop. Yes, Mark Shapiro is saying publicly that Peralta and Phillips are going to compete for the job, but I think that's mainly to cover all his bases. Peralta had a far better year than Phillips at Buffalo, posting a major-league equivalent of .256 with the Bisons. Peralta also took home the International League MVP, which is a nice accomplishment considering the he was one of the younger players in AAA. Peralta's most exciting aspect is his power, although it may take a year or two to manifest itself completely. Peralta is certainly not Vizquel's equal defensively, but by the same token shouldn't embarrass himself. While he may eventually move to third, he should be a nice major-league shortsop for the next 3-4 years.

SS Brandon Phillips - Age 23
2004 Salary: ~$300,000
Contract Status: Renewable (AE in 2006)

He recovered somewhat after his [place adjective here] 2003 campaign, in which he hit .208/.242/.311. Just looking at those numbers give me goosebumps; never mind remembering him hit that season. Right now Phillips, assuming he doesn't beat out Peralta at shortstop, is headed back to Buffalo or will stick in Cleveland as a utility infielder. I'm hoping he doesn't turn into Enrique Wilson v. 2.0, but that's what it's looking like right now. With second base an unsettled issue, Phillips may get another chance in 2006, but not likely this upcoming season; If Belliard doesn't return, Casey Blake will play there. Coco Crisp opened a lot of eyes after an initial poor showing, and Brandon is definitely young enough to make a nice career for himself. But he has a lot to prove in order to get another chance.

Saturday, November 27, 2004

The Doldrums

After the first flurry of activity, this period of the offseason tends to be very quiet. Until the next round of GM meetings, when the true Hot Stove season gets started. When agents, GMs, players, and the media all get together, things tend to get done quickly. By then most of the preliminary talks have concluded, and free agents generally have their choices narrowed down to a small number of suitors. In recent years, the arbitration deadline has become an important milestone, because some clubs do not want to give up high picks if they can help it. The Indians don't really have to worry about offering arbitration to any of their pending free agents, because the only two that were ranked by Elias have been signed (Bob Wickman and Omar Vizquel). Since their record placed them in the bottom half of the league, they won't have to give up their first round pick if they do sign a Lieber or Clement, but they probably will give up a second round pick if they do sign a decent pitcher.

Besides writing about waiting, I'd like to get something off my chest while there's nothing else to talk about.

Yesterday the Indians placed Opening Day tickets on sale, and won't start selling the other single game tickets until after the New Year. Why are they doing this? I think the biggest reason is to encourage season ticket sales. Another reason is to help to sell out Opening Day. If next March Bob DiBiasio is appearing on Spring Training broadcasts pleading for fans to buy Opening Day tickets, there's something wrong with the fanbase. And I mean that seriously. I understood why people stayed away during the beginning of the season last year; the team was coming off a bad year, and they had just traded away their best player. But now there's no excuse. The team is coming off a season where they finished two games below .500, and for a brief period of time was a serious contender for the division. Aside from Omar Vizquel (and I've beaten that horse to death), the team should bring virtually everyone back.

So why is there so much perceived apathy towards this team? I can think of a couple reasons. One, the Browns and Cavaliers are bigger draws right now. LeBron attracts fans that aren't necessarily basketball fans, and the Browns, no matter how much ineptitude they show, will still sell out games because of how engrained Browns football is in people throughout this region. Truthfully, the Indians have been the most well-run franchise in Cleveland since they set up shop in Jacobs Field. But facts generally do not attract the non-core fans; perceptions do; this is my second reason. Perception: Since the Browns are in the NFL, they have a good chance of making the playoffs. Perception: LeBron is playing, therefore the Cavaliers are worth watching. Perception: the Indians don't spend any money, therefore they don't deserve mine. The Indians don't have a LeBron James on their roster. They don't have a history sprinkled with multiple championships. Therefore right now, even though the team posted a higher winning percentage then either the Cavaliers or the Browns last year, they seem to be pretty much forgotten.

I hope I'm wrong about the ticket sales, but even though they made the correct decision letting Vizquel go, they may sell less tickets because of it. Now if the Indians had gone out and loudly signed Armando Benitez to a multi-year contract instead of bringing back rickety old Bob Wickman, people might have said "Yeah, the Indians are spending more money, so I might go down and watch them play." Again, this is where I bring up the difference between money spent and money spent wisely. Because the attendance was poor last season, the payroll will increase, but not by much. This model hasn't changed one iota since the team moved to Jacobs Field; the payroll is based largely on attendance. What has changed is the opinion of the team in the eyes of the fans. In 1991, the payroll was extremely low, and nobody really cared, since the team hadn't made the playoffs since 1954. Now the payroll's low and everyone cares, mainly because the team has a recent history of success. "Because Dolan won't spend the money, I won't go" is a common phrase I hear. Unfortunately, this perpetuates the process into future low payrolls, future fan apathy, and on and on.

How do you turn this around? Change your criteria for supporting a team. Go if the team wins. Stay home if they don't. It's as simple as that. I don't care if the Indians field a team that has a $20M payroll; if they win, show up. If the Indians spend $100M and lose 100 games, then stay home and play golf. Because of the nature of the MLB salary structure, most rebuilding teams have a lot of young talent, which by definition means they won't cost much. The Indians were the most cost-efficient team in baseball because of this. They spent $833,417 per marginal win, the best in baseball. What does this mean? While the Indians were definitely "cheap," they also were good. Why reward teams who foolishly spend their money, and punish those who use what they have wisely? That in my opinion is why wins-based attendance is a more fair feedback mechanism than a spending-based model. While spending may lead to better a record, it may also lead to a worse one. Winning more games always leads to a better outcome. Winning more games leads to more attendance, and unless the owner is a crook, a higher payroll. It seems so simple, doesn't it? I mean, isn't this basic supply and demand?

Unfortunately, perception is a powerful tool. And because the current perception of the Indians is negative, becuase they aren't outspending everyone in the division, then attendance will probably be lower than it should be. Larry Dolan, unfortunately, isn't going to spend money he doesn't bring in; there isn't going to be any owner-provided catalyst to bring fans back. The kickstart will have to come from the team itself, and if it does, there's no excuse for not showing up.

Friday, November 26, 2004


Signed OF Andy Abad and OF Jeff Liefer to minor-league contracts and Invited them to Spring Training

Both are AAAA* players, and will probably spend most of the season with Buffalo.

Abad is an interesting player. He's only had 18 total at-bats in the majors, yet has posted numbers that should have garnered him more of a shot. He could easily be a fourth outfielder, or a platoon first baseman. I have no idea how good he is defensively, aside from what little time he spent in the majors. I don't see him getting a shot with the Indians unless there's a massive amount of injuries. Probably the quickest way to Cleveland is at first base, where Ryan Garko is the only major-league ready 1B in the high minors. Abad has shown real good plate discipline his entire career, and although he's not much of a home run threat, hit 35 doubles for Pawtucket in 2003.

Jeff Liefer is more of the same; a first baseman/outfielder. You might remember him with the White Sox in the past couple years; he was also part of the package that brought Bartolo Colon to the Sox. Liefer is still living off his 18 home runs in 2001, but at this point in his career he's properly cast as a AAA slugger. He's not a good defender at first or in the outfield.

*Refers to players who are good in AAA, but aren't good enough to play regularly in the majors

Thursday, November 25, 2004

Wickman Returns

Re-signed RHRP Bob Wickman to a one year, $2.75M contract (plus incentives)

Probably the smart thing to do. After Percival signed with Detroit, the Indians were down to realistically three options:

A. Pay Benitez over $20M to be your closer for 3-4 years
B. Bring back Wickman for another season
C. Take a gamble on Dustin Hermanson

I guess you could say that there's D (Trade for a closer) or E (None of the above), but neither was really an option. In the end, Shapiro chose the safer route, paying just under $3M for a one-year stopgap. Wicky is by no means a great closer, or even a good closer at this stage of his career. What he is is a guy who's done it before, and he at least gives the Indians a baseline to work off of. For a reasonable price. The Rockies made a pitch for Wickman, but presumably the Indians matched or exceeded the Rockies' offer. If the Indians' hadn't signed Wickman, it would have been Hermanson or guys like Rob Nen or Matt Mantei, who both have even bigger injury questions attached to them.

What this signing also does is make virtually every free agent starter within striking range. The Indians supposedly have about $7M left in their budget to land a starter, and other than Carl Pavano and Pedro Martinez, they can go after anyone that's out there. The big catch in the second tier of starters is Matt Clement, who the Indians are aggresively courting, but Jon Lieber has also been linked to the organization. I'd go up to 3/24 for Clement and up to 3/18 for Lieber. That's probably overpaying for both of them, but given what Kris Benson just received from the Mets, those salaries look like the going rate for a #3 starter.

Another interesting route the Indians can go is to maybe trade for some pitching help. Coco Crisp may be at his highest value right now, and there are several teams looking for a center fielder. I'm not suggesting trading Crisp just to trade him, but if you can get a quality starter for Crisp and a prospect, you should think about it. If Belliard is retained, then you move Blake to the outfield, creating a jam between Casey and Crisp, Sizemore, Lawton, and Ludwick. Maybe you can dump Lawton somewhere; there aren't a lot of outfielders out there, and Matt may start to look nice compared to the free agent options.

Designated IF John McDonald for Assignment

McDonald may actually be dealt before the 10-day period ends. With so many clubs looking for middle infield help, McDonald may, like I said yesterday, be more expensive on the open market, so teams may want to get him before he becomes a free agent. Whoever acquires him theoretically can keep him through 2007, so the Indians may pick up a minor prospect.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

McDonald's Lovin' It

The Minnesota Twins signed utility infielder Juan Castro to a two-year, $2M contract last night. Castro is your standard defensive specialist, but Castro is horrendous at the plate, even for a backup infielder. His lifetime batting statistics: .226/.269/.331. And this isn't due to any sample size error; Castro has impersonated a hitter almost 1600 times in his career.

This leads to John McDonald, who is also a defensive specialist who can't hit. If Castro is worth a two-year deal, McDonald might be worth at least something. Given that McDonald may well be worth more on the open market than in arbitration given Castro's deal, this may push teams to go ahead and trade for McDonald rather than to wait for him to become a free agent. Strange times, eh?


Baseball America released its list of the Indians' top ten prospects yesterday. I disagree with a couple placements, including slotting Ryan Garko that low. I understand he doesn't really have a position, but Garko is the closest of that group to the majors, is the best all-around hitter in the system, and he's still considered a catcher. There's no way he's a better prospect than Aubrey, Miller, or Gutierrez, but placing him behind Snyder and Sowers is a bit too much. I'm also a bit puzzled why Nick Pesco made the list and not Jake Dittler. Jeremy Sowers is probably going to be a nice pitcher, but I'd rather wait and see how he does as a professional before placing him that high. Again, I understand where BA is coming from; they've always been about projection and upside, but in my opinion results have to matter at some point. Here's my 'shadow' list:

1. RHP Adam Miller
2. 1B Michael Aubrey
3. OF Franklin Gutierrez
4. C/1B Ryan Garko
5. RHP Fausto Carmona
6. OF Brad Snyder
7. RHP Fernando Cabrera
8. RHP Andrew Brown
9. RHP Jake Dittler
10. LHP Jeremy Sowers

Not a whole lot different than BA's list, except for swapping out Pesco for Dittler, moving Sowers down, and Garko up. I'm buying into the Miller hype, but I was *this* close to placing Aubrey ahead of him; I really like Aubrey's total package of defense and offense at first base. The Todd Helton comparisons are probably overblown, but I really think Aubrey will be a very good major league player. If Miller stays healthy, his ceiling is extremely high, but so is the burnout rate for promising young arms. Gutierrez is a pretty solid #3: Alex Escobar's flameout is really tempering my enthusiasm for Franklin right now, but he's hitting well in Venezuela thus far.

Just for kicks, here's my second ten:

11. OF Ryan Goleski
12. RHP Francisco Cruceta
13. RHP Nick Pesco
14. 3B Pat Osborn
15. OF Jason Cooper
16. 3B Kevin Kouzmanoff
17. RHP Justin Hoyman
18. LHP Dan Cevette
19. OF Juan Valdes
20. RHP Tony Sipp

Mostly a lot of decent prospects, with a couple of high-ceiling guys sprinkled in. I still like Pat Osborn, despite his injury problems. Cruceta I probably rated higher than others would, but he's pretty close to the majors, so the margin of error isn't as high as with guys like Pesco and Cevette. Valdes is a projection pick, as is Sipp. Both put up real intriguing numbers in short-season ball, and I've added them as a kind of heads-up; they may shoot up the list in the next couple years.

While the Indians system may not have as many blue-chippers as in past years, there's a lot of depth there. I've left out guys like Matt Whitney and Mariano Gomez, both of whom were ranked highly before suffering injuries. And unlike in the past couple years, only two players came from other organizations; in fact, Miller, Aubrey, Garko, Snyder, Goleski, Kouzmanoff, and Valdes all came from the 2003 draft; that's impressive.

After I (finally) complete my major-league profiles, I'll be concentrating on the prospects; this should start in a couple of weeks.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Lazy Sunday

So do the Indians exist in the minds of the Cleveland sports media? Usually the most juicy articles appear on Sunday mornings, and I figured there'd be a couple rumors regarding free agent signings. I found exactly two articles; one was an editorial lamenting the loss of Omar Vizquel and how baseball has changed from the halcyon days of yesteryear when players played their entire career with one team. I wasn't alive during the 1950s and 1960s, but I believe there was this thing called the Reserve Clause which allowed clubs complete control over their players. The other was a piece on Corey Smith by Aeros beat writer Stephanie Storm, whose work I really enjoy reading.

But there was absolutely nothing on the Indians and who they are targeting for next season. And it's not like the Indians are in offseason shutdown mode. This article from Chicago stated that the Indians have been the "most aggresive" organization going after free agent Matt Clement. This is a good sign, especially he mentioned that Cleveland is close to home for him. But not a peep from the local writers was heard on Clement, excluding the usual litany of players the team might be going after. It's real frustrating that most of the news regarding the Indians' offseason moves has to be gathered from other cities' papers.

Going back to the Smith article. Of all the players that have been bandied about as being unworthy of a 40-man roster spot, Smith is the one player that I can't think of explanation for why he's still protected. He hasn't hit, he's been an error machine at third base all through the minors, and now he's a bit...shall we say, hesitant to move to the outfield. Smith is a guy I think Farrell really is fighting for, much like he "pounded the table" for Ivan Ochoa last winter. If I had my druthers, Jason Cooper would replace Smith on the roster, given that that now both are outfielders and played at the same level last season. It's one thing to protect players who have shown themselves worthy; it's quite another to protect a player solely because he was a first round pick.

After looking over the guys left unprotected, I've compiled my list of the most likely players to be picked. Note that this list doesn't rank them in order the best prospects who were left unprotected.

1. 2B Eider Torres - stole 48 bases in the Carolina League, he only committed 9 errors at second base.
2. 2B Joe Inglett - this year's Luis Gonzalez; good plate discipline, older prospect
3. LHP Shea Douglas - if he's healthy, then he'll be taken
4. 3B Pat Osborn - he played some shortstop in Kinston; if not for his injuries, he may have been protected
5. RHP JD Martin - may be better in a relief role
6. C David Wallace - athletic catcher; may be picked because of the lack of free agent options
7. OF Jason Cooper - one of the sabermetric organizations may take a chance
8. OF Nathan Panther - has the range to play center field
9. RHP Dan Denham - still has upside but no success in high minors
10. LHP Chris Cooper - left-handed

Others I considered: Ben Francisco, Victor Kleine, Lee Gronkiewicz, Keith Ramsey

Saturday, November 20, 2004

More Transactions

Exercised the 2005 Option of LHRP Scott Sauerbeck

No monetary amount was disclosed, but I'll assume it's below $1M. This looks akin to an NFL "roster bonus," essentially rewarding Sauerbeck for being healthy.

Re-signed OF Ernie Young to a minor-league contract

Young is a nice player to have around in AAA just in case. At the very least Young will be Buffalo's cleanup hitter, and help out the Bisons as a quasi-coach.

Signed SS Jose Morban and RHP Steve Watkins to minor-league contracts

Morban was Rule 5ed in 2003 by the Baltimore Orioles, and basically sat on the bench the entire year, accumulating only 71(!) at-bats. Last year Morban presumedly suffered from the lack of playing time upon his return to the minors, where he hit .235 in high-A Frederick and .210 in AA Bowie. With Miguel Tejada locked up for the near future, the Orioles obviously no longer had a need for a shortstop project, so let him walk via minor-league free agency. He's still 25, but the negatives are obvious; he really wasn't that good a prospect in the first place, he acquired a year's worth of rust, and now he's coming off an awful year in the minors. For every Johan Santana, there's about 10 Jose Morbans and Luis Uguetos floating around the minors. I'd assume Morban will be plugged in at Kinston or Akron, depending on where there's a need at shortstop.

As for Watkins, he's semi-interesting. He put up good numbers both in Mobile and Portland, and got a cup of coffee with the Padres. He's been used mainly as a starter throughout his professional career, and he could be useful as a swingman at the major-league level. He's not that old (26), so this move has some upside to it.

Friday, November 19, 2004

Finalizing the 40-man Roster

Reinstated 3B Aaron Boone, OF Jody Gerut, LHP Jason Stanford, and RHP Kazuhito Tadano from the 60-day Disabled List

Purchased the Contracts of RHSP Fausto Carmona, RHSP Jake Dittler, and OF Franklin Gutierrez

No big surprises here. Carmona, Dittler, and Gutierrez are all legimate top prospects; I'd rank Carmona and Guierrez in the Tribe's top 5 prospects, and Dittler would be solidly in my top 10. As we've seen in the past, the Indians are going to get some prospects plucked in the Rule 5 draft. Guys like Jason Cooper and Pat Osborn are certainly the more high-profile players unprotected, but you have to consider how many Rule 5 prospects are used as middle infielders or backup catchers or relief pitchers. I'd be very surprised if Jason Cooper gets selected; he struggled in AA this season, and isn't the athletic, toolsy player that tends to be picked. Shea Douglas would be the prototypical Rule 5 pick (left-handed, high strikeout rates), but he injured his shoulder late this year. Eider Torres might be a good bet to be picked; he's speedy and plays a middle infield position. Obviously Ivan Ochoa can easily be taken and stowed as a backup infielder as well. Pat Osborn may get some attention because he did play some shortstop while at Kinston. A sleeper pick would be Joe Inglett; he's fairly old for a prospect, but he's posted fantastic on-base numbers as a second baseman.

This begs the question....why don't the Indians protect more if they always get hammered in the Rule 5 draft? Because frankly, the club that drafts a player has to jump through a lot of hoops to hold onto him. Of the four players selected from the Indians last year, two were offered back, and two were kept. The year before, three of the four were eventually returned. Of this year's "class" of eligibles, I'd really only be upset about losing maybe two; Pat Osborn and Jason Cooper. As I said before, Cooper doesn't fit the profile of a Rule 5 pick; he's slow, he's not a good defensive player, and he hasn't had success at AA or AAA. Osborn hasn't even seen AA, and has spent a lot of his three years in professional baseball on the disabled list. Dittler, Gutierrez, and Carmona were by far the right choices to protect.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

What Market Correction?

Almost a week into the free agent signing period, there's signs that whatever fiscal sanity clubs had been exercising has been thrown to the curb.

"Middle class" free agents, who have in past years been reduced to accepting one-year deals or even NRIs, are getting multiple-year contracts reminiscent of 2000 and 2001. The fascinating thing is that these middle class free agents have signed so quickly, even before the top-tier targets at their position. Some of the signings can be explained. The San Francisco Giants have made it team policy to avoid as many high draft picks as possible; instead they siphon the draft pick bonus money to their free agent fund. With Barry Bonds, this strategy is certainly defensible, even though I don't think it too prudent. The Detroit Tigers have said that in order to turn around their franchise as quick as possible, they would overpay for free agents. Again, it's a defensible strategy, but not one I agree with. But I don't have any clue what Washington had in mind signing Vinny Castilla and Cristian Guzman to bad contracts...was it to boost their ticket sales? One of the arguments I hear often regarding disgruntled fans is that if the owner will spend money, they'll go to games. What they leave out is a small qualifier; the team must also spend that money wisely. Even the New York Yankees (theoretically) have a spending limit; if you've blown your budget on players who aren't worth the salaries they're receiving, that may be just as big a hurdle as not spending the money in the first place.

Unfortunately for the Indians, the signing of Troy Percival will probably increase the asking price of the remaining free agent closers, most notably Armando Benitez. Last season, the Boston Red Sox signed Keith Foulke, the best closer on the market, to a four year deal worth $24M. Benitez will probably be asking for at least that much, and probably more after seeing what Percival got. For a team with a projected payroll of around $45M, there comes a point where you can't justify spending that much of your payroll on one guy, especially for a closer, one of the most volatile positions on the roster. If Benitez is in fact priced out of the Indians' market, the best thing to do in my opinion is to bring back Bob Wickman for another year, and concentrate on getting a starting pitcher. Maybe there may be some opportunities on the trade market; perhaps Matt Lawton's $7M salary might not look so bad in a year where there aren't many good free agent outfielders. If the Indians can sucker persuade a club to take on Lawton's salary, they can move Blake to the outfield, where his defense scares me less, and bring back Ronnie Belliard for another season.

2B Belliard
LF Crisp
CA Martinez
DH Hafner
RF Blake
1B Broussard/Phelps
3B Boone
SS Peralta
CF Sizemore

Assuming no contract extensions, the above lineup will cost the Indians roughly $10M....that may be the lowest in baseball. Although the Indians may have enough young talent to get away with a cheap lineup, there is no young prospect ready to step into the rotation. Sure, the Indians have guys like Jason Davis, Kyle Denney, Kaz Tadano, Jeremy Guthrie, and Francisco Cruceta that are more or less ready for the majors, but haven't put up good enough numbers in recent seasons to show they are capable of pitching well at the major-league level yet, or at least well enough to give a rotation spot to. And although there are a number arms in the organization that could potentially close someday, a revolving door at closer is just not acceptable for the third year in a row. This is where the balance of need and prudence is so very difficult; do you go ahead and give Armando Benitez a 3 year, $24M contract knowing that there's a real good possibillity he won't be worth that much, or do you nickel-and-dime a bullpen and hope that it works out? Thanks to the opening salvos of the free agent market, this balancing act is becoming more and more difficult.

If you haven't noticed, I've placed the Elias free agent rankings under my 'Links' heading. By clicking each of the two links, you'll find the compensation categories players fall into. For example, Omar Vizquel is a Type A free agent, and if the Giants do not sign a free agent with a higher ranking, the Indians will receive both the Giants' first-round pick but also a "sandwich" pick between the first and second rounds. Likewise, a lot of the free agents the Indians are looking at also rate highly in the rankings. Pay attention closely to whether clubs offer their departing free agents arbitration on December 7; if they don't then the signing club doesn't have to give up a draft pick.

Player Reviews: The Renewables (A Pixar Film Presented by Disney), Part 3

1B/DH Pronk - Age 27
2004 Salary: $316, 300
2004 EQA: .337 (1st in AL)
Contract Status: Renewable (AE in 2005)

Hafner failed to finish in the top 10 in the MVP voting, but that wasn't much of a shock. Full-time DHs don't usually fare well in MVP voting...well, except for David Ortiz. But that's a topic for another time and place. Regardless, Hafner was the best hitter in the American League this season; he lead the league in OPS+ and EQA (scroll down a bit). So he didn't hit 40 home runs. So what? Hafner was third in the league in OBP and fourth in SLG. Folks, that's a damned good hitter. I may be jumping the gun a bit, but his career path looks eerily similar to Edgar Martinez, who also didn't accumulate 400 at-bats in a season until he was 27. I'm not saying that Hafner will be the left-handed Edgar Martinez, but that's who he reminds me of when looking at his overall game. Hafner's best weapon is his stellar eye; he didn't look like a quasi-rookie at the plate this season. Pronk is probably always going to be a liability in the field, but in the American League, that's not a problem.

The biggest question regarding Hafner is not whether he can maintain this kind of production from year to year; like Victor Martinez, his minor-league numbers back up the kind of year he just had. I think injuries, and more specifically, the elbow, is going to be the biggest question mark with Pronk; he missed time in 2003 with a wrist injury, and his 2004 campaign ended early with a sore elbow.

LHSP Cliff Lee - Age 26
2004 Salary: $303,200
2004 VORP: 10.9
Contract Status: Renewable (AE in 2005 or 2006)

Unlike Jason Davis, I'm still bullish on Lee despite the numbers. Lee is what some call a "three true outcomes" pitcher; which means lots of home runs, strikeouts, and walks. A lot of Lee's problems came after the All-Star Break, when he seemed to lose his control...and the home runs started to pile up. His record does mask how bad he pitched, but I think there's hope for Lee. His strikeout ratios haven't dropped, and his stuff is still there. Lee did pitch almost 200 innings last season as the #2 pitcher in the rotation, but now that he'll be slotted a little lower, he should have less of a workload, and with a full season under his belt, better stamina over the long summer. For the Indians to make the next step, run prevention has to get better, and Cliff Lee should have a lot to say about that.

C Victor Martinez - Age 25
2004 Salary: $304,500
2004 EQA: .285
Contract Status: Renewable (AE in 2005 or 2006)

Ignore the RBIs Martinez had. Instead look at his extra-base hits, his walks, and his strikeouts. All were exemplary for a catcher, and a great sign for years to come. I'll fully admit that Martinez is not a good defensive catcher; that may change over the course of his career, but still his defense is good enough to allow for him to stay behind the plate. Besides, when you have an offensive weapon at catcher, you don't move him to a less strategic position on the diamond. Martinez the catcher will be a multiple-time All-Star; Martinez the first baseman will be average. That's the difference between Martinez and Ben Broussard, and also the reason why the defensive spectrum matters.

What the Indians can do to maximize Martinez' value is to rest him more often. Josh Bard will help matters some next year, as will Ryan Garko eventually. Catchers, no matter how physically fit they are, tend to wear down in July and August, and Martinez was no exception in 2004.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

The Draft Pick Fairy Returns

The same team who gave the Royals a first-round pick as compensation for Michael Tucker may bestow one on the Indians. According to this, the San Francisco Giants are offering Omar Vizquel a three year deal worth $12M. Yes, three years to a shortstop who'll be 40 at the end of the contract. Vizquel would be crazy not to take the deal, unless Chicago matches it. Of course, if the Giants sign a higher "Type A" free agent, such as Armando Benitez, the Indians will receive a "sandwich" pick and the Giants' second round pick. The White Sox are probably not out of the running yet, but they'd have to give Vizquel three years guaranteed, and I don't believe they'd be that stupid.

In other news, Paul Hoynes pretty much cements the fact that the Indians will have $10M to get two pitchers. As I've said before, the thinnest market of the two are the closers. Dustin Hermanson keeps getting brought up, but I'd rather go after Benitez first, then go to Wickman; Hermanson would be Plan C.

[EDIT]: According to this, it looks like Vizquel to San Francisco is offical - 3 years, $12.25M. The title of the article is pretty humorous, if you ask me.

Friday, November 12, 2004

All Your Retreads Are Belong To Us

What's with the White Sox and former Indians? In the past 10 years, they've signed/traded for Herbert Perry, Albert Belle, Kenny Lofton, Mike Jackson, Sandy Alomar, Tony Pena, Roberto Alomar, Bartolo Colon...

And now it looks like they're going to add Omar Vizquel to the list. Either Kenny Williams is a mind-reader, or the two parties were discussing money before they were allowed to. The good news is that if they do in fact sign Vizquel within the next couple weeks, the Indians get a "sandwich" pick after the first round and Chicago's second round pick. If Chicago had picked a slot lower, the Indians would have received their first round pick instead of their second rounder.

For the Indians, it looks like their top two targets will be Armando Benitez and Matt Clement. It's nice to see they're at least starting with the best players available rather than waiting around for the leftovers, as in previous years. Benitez is probably more realistic than Clement at this time, but it might be interesting to see if Clement would prefer playing closer to home.

Revisiting Traber

I'd like to clarify a couple points I've made in the past couple days regarding the 40-man roster and Traber.

There's no possible way I or anyone who probably is reading this blog could trade places with any current General Manager and do a better job. You may think you can, but there is so much more to the position than just tactical moves. A good GM has to be an outstanding communicator, both with internal and external constituents. A good GM must accept the fact that he will be criticized by fans, the media, players, his relatives, his spiritual advisor, and his mail carrier. And stick to what he believes in spite of what they say.

Moreover, I've realized that in all positions with responsibility, decisions usually come down to risk management; defining what can go wrong, and how best to mitigate it. Every decision made by a manager involves risk, and no amount of due diligence is going to completely remove it from the equation. Field managers most often manage this way: for instance, they'll choose the pitcher they feel has the best chance of not allowing a run in a certain situation. And of course risk-based management applies to general managers as well, but instead of managing players on the field, they manage a roster, or an organization, depending on which way you look at things.

This is why I've placed the 40-man roster so prominently on this website; it is the essence of an organization; a (to steal a line from current management) blueprint for future success. To an organization with one of the lowest payrolls in baseball, it is especially important to manage this efficiently. Compounding these roster decisions are two other factors. First of all, the team has been set up to win this season, and to that end most add players via free agency. Secondly, the Indians have one of the better collections of young, major-league ready talent in baseball. The confluence of those two factors create sometimes conflicting priorities. If factor #1 would dictate you add a proven starter or a closer, factor #2 dictates you add a prospect that might help you in two years. That's the dilemma facing the Indians this particular winter; the rebuilding is technically over, yet for a middle-market organization, reloading with young talent should never cease. While teams like the Yankees, and in this case, the Red Sox, don't really need their 40-man rosters stocked with players that might help them in 2007, the Indians do. That's why losing a player like Traber is so painful.

But conversely, the ultimate goal of any team is to win that year's championship, and often this does not mesh with farm directors' vision, or a prospect maven. You sometimes can have a young team that wins, but very rarely can you win with only youth. To this end, tough decisions have to made, and risks have to be taken. Traber was a pitcher GM Mark Shapiro thought he could sneak through waivers, because it's been over a year since he's pitched in a professional game, because he probably won't be ready until at least the middle of the season, and because even if healthy he may not contribute much to a club with designs on making the playoffs, as past post-Tommy John timelines have shown. Because Boston had so many free agents, they were willing to take that risk, even as the Indians took theirs. For Shapiro, it blew up in his face, but that's part of the game. His body of work has shown him more than capable of rebuilding an ailing organization on a budget.

Let's crunch some numbers. Right now the 40-man roster stands at 33, and probably will reach 37 in a couple days. On November 20th, at least 3 prospects (Dittler, Carmona, Gutierrez) will be added to the roster, making it full at 40. However, the Indians may offer a closer like Armando Benitez a contract very quickly, not to mention one of the starters mentioned on my shopping list. John McDonald and Ronnie Belliard should be either gone or traded by the December tender deadline. That places the roster at 40 again, but if Shapiro had signed a free agent before then, he'd have to waive one or two other players. So if Traber were not waived, then it would have come down to in my mind to four other players: Brian Tallet, Cliff Bartosh, Corey Smith, and Jason Stanford. Stanford would probably have been the safest choice, as he probably will not pitch at all in 2005. Tallet should be healthy enough to pitch in the bullpen if needed, as well as Bartosh. Smith is expendable because he hasn't hit and the soonest he'd be useful as a major-leaguer would be 2006. But you may see most or all of these players sent through waivers at some point in the winter. Just because one player is waived before the other doesn't necessarily mean management thinks less highly of him; timing plays a large part in these decisions. Right now was probably the best time to sneak someone through waivers because teams, aside from their free agents, have full rosters; they haven't started trading or non-tendering any of their players. If the Indians had waited until teams started adding and subtracting players from their roster in preparation for the November 20th roster freeze, Traber might have been claimed sooner, because of the volatility of player movement. So in my estimation Traber was the 'best' player the Indians had to get through waivers, because this is one of the best times in the offseason to sneak a player through.

As with any move, it's difficult to critique it without the appropriate context. In this case, the context is player movement during the offseason. Right now, I don't like the move at all. What happens a month or two from now may change my mind, for the perspective may change. That's what's so difficult about evaluating moves from an outsiders' vantage point; you see the individual transaction without knowing the thinking behind it; a GM's strategy isn't going to appear in any press release, because you can't be competitive that way. You only really understand why a move was made several weeks or months or even years later, and then you're just using hindsight, when it's extremely easy to criticize or praise, because you're almost always right after the fact. Making the right decision is difficult, recognizing it from afar is next to impossible. But in this instance, I think the wrong player was exposed, and even though Shapiro almost got away with it, he got burned.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Player Reviews: Renewables, Part 2

RHP Jason Davis - Age 24
2004 Salary: $326,800
2004 VORP: -1.8 (114.1 IP)
Contract Status: Renewable (AE in 2005)

For all the ability he has, Davis has yet to put it to good use. He crashed and burned early in 2004, was tried out in the bullpen late in the year, and for the time being still considered a starter. He's still young enough where he can make a career for himself, but time is of the essence. His strikeout rates were abyssmal, and his mid-90s fastball didn't miss many bats; he gave up 11.7 hits per 9 innings. As with a lot of young, tall, pitchers, Davis' mechanics are his biggest issue. Fixing Jason Davis should be near the top of Carl Willis' to-do list when February rolls around. Don't write Davis off just yet, but by the same token, don't expect a quick rebound either; this is going to take some time.

OF Jody Gerut - Age 27
2004 Salary: $325,600
2004 VORP: .256 (481 AB)
Contract Status: Renewable (AE in 2005 or 2006)

Even before his knee injury in September, Gerut was one of the few Indian hitters having a disappointing season. His power had dropped considerably, and he was hitting .252 at the time. If you split the difference between his first two campaigns, you find an average major-league fourth outfielder. Gerut was probably the teams' best defensive player, and can play all three outfield positions well. He's projected to be game-worthy around June, so look for Gerut some time after the All-Star Break. When he does return, the state of the outfield will dictate where and how much he plays. Sizemore and Crisp are by no means sure things in center and left, and Matt Lawton is a lame duck. Ryan Ludwick and Gerut could form a nice platoon combination eventually, but the chances of both being healthy and affordable at the same time are remote.

LHP Mariano Gomez - Age 22
Contract Status: Renewable (AE in 2007)

I pegged Gomez as one of my sleeper picks in my Spring Training preview. Unfortunately, a bizzare injury to a ligament in one of his fingers nagged Gomez all through the 2004 campaign. He pitched a grand total of 22.1 innings, mostly with Akron, and got smacked around. If the ligament is all right, Gomez will go back to Akron in 2005 and work his way up the organizational ladder.

RHP Jeremy Guthrie - Age 25
2004 Salary: ~$300,000
2004 VORP: 2.1 (11.2 IP)
Contract Status: Signed Through 2005 (AE in 2007)

I didn't plan things this way, but it looks like I'm writing up all the disappointments at once. Guthrie, aside from Davis, was the biggest pitching disappointment in 2004 from a development perspective. Guthrie, who was given an organization-record bonus and a major-league contract in 2002, pitched awfully given his age and level; when a 25-year-old pitches worse in AA than he did at age 24, something is wrong. Given that the Indians are stuck with his contract, they brough Guthrie up to Cleveland in September and had him pitch in relief. I don't believe that Guthrie is now permanently in the bullpen, but it's looking more and more that way. Guthrie throws four pitches; one postulated reason for his regression was that he was trying to throw all of them, and in effect having success with none of them. That may be true, but I think it's more an issue of confidence with Jeremy. It's real easy to point to a bunch of statistics and say that he didn't locate his pitches, but the real unknown for us outside observers is what's going on inside a pitchers' mind. Francisco Cruceta pitched better in Buffalo than he did in Akron; how do you explain that statistically? The same with Guthrie; if he isn't injured, if his mechanics are still sound, if he hasn't lost any velocity off his pitches, what other explanation can you posit?

I'll cover Kyle Denney as part of my prospect rankings later in the winter.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Traber Claimed Off Waivers

The Boston Red Sox Claimed LHSP Billy Traber off Waivers

Here's the press release.

Horrible, horrible move by the Indians. Traber will probably pitch this year, and is a much more valuable player even hurt than guys like Brian Tallet, Jason Stanford, and Cliff Bartosh. Frankly I'm shocked he got all the way to Boston before he was claimed. Any way you slice it, this move is indefensible.

Benitez or Bust?

That's what it looks like. GM Mark Shapiro wants to take care of the closer vacancy first, given the variables involved. There are really four closers out there of note, and Armando Benitez is without a doubt the best of the bunch. Troy Percival looks to be on the downside of his career, Bob Wickman has serious health issues, and Dustin Hermanson barely qualifies as closer. In contrast, Benitez only allowed 36 hits in almost 70 innings pitched. He posted a VORP of 33.1, behind only Brad Lidge, Mariano Rivera, Francisco Rodriguez, B.J. Ryan, Joe Nathan, and Keith Foulke among late-inning relievers.

The good news is that the Indians are up against at most 3 other teams in serious bidding for Benitez. The Chicago Cubs, Florida Marlins, and San Francisco Giants are the only three teams I've seen that have been mentioned in conjunction with Benitez. The Cubs seem to be more enamored with Troy Percival, and the Marlins have a fallback in Guillermo Mota. The biggest competitor for Benitez may be the San Francisco Giants. According to Paul Hoynes, Shapiro may strike quickly, offering Benitez a contract while other clubs are taking care of other more pressing needs.

Benitez is, in my mind, the only closer in the market worth giving a multi-year deal to. If they don't get him, probably plan B is to re-sign Bob Wickman to a one-year deal, assuming Percival signs with the Cubs. Contrary to what Roger Brown is spouting, there aren't that many good closers out there, and Benitez is by far the best of this season's crop.


Re-signed RHRP Jake Robbins to a minor-league contract

Robbins will probably get an invite to Spring Training, but isn't likely to break camp with the major-league club. He's bullpen insurance.

Monday, November 08, 2004

Payroll Talk

According to Terry Pluto, the 2005 payroll is going to be around $45M. That sounds about right. This represents an increase in salaries of about $10M, all of which should go towards a starter and a closer. I think the best-case scenario involves the Indians signing Matt Clement and Armando Benitez with that $10M, and having enough left over to keep Ronnie Belliard around for another year. However, the realist (or maybe he's a cynic?) in me leans more towards Derek Lowe, Dustin Hermanson, and no Belliard.

Also in the article, Pluto talks about the Indians not spending enough. I think what he's missing is the fact that the younger players are going to get built-in raises in the next couple years. Travis Hafner and Victor Martinez will make around $700k combined next season. That's going to change fairly quickly. Right now I see the payroll maxing out at about $60M, which will probably happen in 2006 or 2007, when most of the young core will be entering their arbitration years. Although I'd love for an owner to spend money out of his own pocket to get a winner out on the field faster, it's not going to happen. Dick Jacobs never did it when he owned the team, and aside from one season (2001), Larry Dolan probably isn't going to do it either. The encouraging thing is that the attendance increased as the season went on, so most of the fanbase (aside from the fans that only went to watch Vizquel) is still there. The economy is obviously much different in 2005 than it was when Jacobs Field opened, but if the team can contend this season, a $60M should be realistic. One (among many) advantages to being in the AL Central is that you probably won't be outspent by that much. Oakland has to contend with the lowest payroll in its division year after year. The Indians, if they win, should be on a level economic playing field with everyone in the division.

Roster Issues

If Corey Smith was a 15th Round pick instead of a 1st Rounder, he'd be plying his wares in some other organization by now. But he was a 1st Round pick in 2000, and having done absolutely nothing to warrant prospect status, is making his 40-man roster spot even more tenuous by refusing to get reps in the outfield this winter. It's time to cut ties, and hopefully this will happen before November 20, when prospects have to be protected on the 40-man roster. As it stands now, the roster is at 33. When the 60-day guys get added back, it'll be 38. There's three "no-brainers" that will be added to the roster in a couple weeks: Franklin Gutierrez, Fausto Carmona, and Jake Dittler. That means at least one player has to go, and this isn't counting the 2-3 free agents that will be added to the fold in December or January. Three other candidates to be dropped are Cliff Bartosh, Brian Tallet, and Jason Stanford. Stanford isn't going to pitch until at least late in the 2005 season, and he wasn't much of a prospect to begin with. Tallet and Bartosh are marginal left-handers, and with Scott Sauerbeck signed for 2005, at least one will be expendable.

Sunday, November 07, 2004

The FA Starting Pitchers

I've tweaked the shopping list a bit. Eric Milton is now in Tier 2, along with newly-added Jon Lieber. I've bumped Odalis Perez down to Tier 3.

Feel free to add your two cents.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

No Gold, But a Silver

AL Gold Glove

Now I wasn't expecting Omar Vizquel to win his umpteenth Gold Glove this season, and he really didn't deserve it. However, the fact that Derek Jeter won it really makes me wonder if the Gold Glove is that relevent anymore. If you go by most of the "mainstream" defensive measure (fielding percentage, range factor, zone rating), Jeter doesn't finish first (or second, for that matter) in any of them. And Jeter doesn't have the incumbent effect (Bret Boone, for example). So why was Jeter the winner?

1) He plays in New York
2) He just had the best defensive season of his career (though that still meant he was pretty average)
3) The absence of Alex Rodriguez from contention this season
4) A certain play against the Red Sox

Unfortunately, I don't think those are in any particular order. One play does not in itself earn you a gold glove. Baseball more than other sport rewards players who are above all else consistent with their performances. I'm more a big believer in a body of work than making a certain sports show's top plays. Defense statistics are light-years behind offensive measures, and no one has really produced a statistic that truly separates great defensive players from merely good ones. But nonetheless, here's several mainstream and sabermetric statistics, and where AL shortstops placed.

Fielding Percentage
1. David Eckstein (.988)
2. Cristian Guzman (.983)
3. Omar Vizquel (.982)
4. Derek Jeter (.981)
5. Bobby Crosby (.975)

Range Factor (RF)
1. Miguel Tejada (5.00)
2. Carlos Guillen (4.97)
3. Bobby Crosby (4.96)
4. Jose Valentin (4.91)
5. Julio Lugo (4.78)

Zone Rating (ZR)
1. Jose Valentin (.878)
2. Bobby Crosby (.870)
3. Miguel Tejada (.861)
4. David Eckstein (.859)
5. Julio Lugo (.848)

Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAA)
Miguel Tejada (18)
Carlos Guillen (16)
Jose Valentin (9)
Bobby Crosby (5)
Derek Jeter (2)
David Eckstein (2)
Julio Lugo (-2)
Omar Vizquel (-1)

A quick note of these statistics. Fielding percentage is simply the percent of times a player didn't commit an error. Zone Rating is the percent of times a player fielded a ball hit into his "zone." Range factor is (Putouts+Assists)/(PO+A+Errors). And Fielding Runs Above Average is Baseball Prospectus' measure of how many runs a defensive player saved over the average player at his position. Like I said, these stats are far from being proven useful 100% of the time, but it sure beats arguing that "So-and-so is better than so-and-so because I said so!"

If I had to pick an AL Gold Glove, I'd probably go with Miguel Tejada. Although Tejada hasn't exactly had a stellar defensive career, he's still been better than Jeter, and he had by far a better season in the field. This leads me to wonder if Tejada might have had a better all-around season in this year than his 2002 MVP season.

AL Silver Slugger

The good news yesterday was that Victor Martinez shared the AL Silver Slugger Award for a catcher with Ivan Rodriguez. Martinez probably achieved a share of the award by all his RBIs; Rodriguez posted a better VORP (64.0 to 49.5) and EQA (.300 to .285) Travis Hafner, sadly, was beaten out at DH by Boston's David Ortiz. He bested Ortiz in VORP (74.1 to 73.1) and EQA (.325 to .309). Still, Ortiz over Hafner isn't that bad compared to 1995, when a Boston player stole the MVP from an Cleveland player because the media didn't like the latter.

Free Agent Fever

Finally, onto the upcoming Free Agent season. I've posted what I think the Indians' shopping list looks like to the left. Although the Indians would be more than happy signing Pedro Martinez or Carl Pavano, economics aren't in the team's favor. My top three (1st Tier) consists of Matt Clement, Brad Radke, and Jaret Wright, in that order. If the Indians sign any one of these three, I think they did well. The 2nd Tier guys have in my opinion a lot more question marks, but if the front office doesn't overpay for one of them, I'll be satisfied. The 3rd Tier (and everyone else) guys would be seen as a disappointment; I don't really see any of them being good enough to be a third starter on a good team.

I try to stay away from rumors, especially since teams can't talk to other teams' free agents as of yet, but I've seen this several places. The White Sox are really going to go hard after Omar Vizquel, and will apparently offer him a two year, $8M contract. Frankly I have no clue why the White Sox would throw that much money at Vizquel, especially given his age, but I certainly won't complain if GM Kenny Williams wants to do it.