The Unfinished Compendium

On Francisco Lindor, Success Cycles, and Rumor Laundering

Before diving in to the offseason, I want to re-expound on something that most people, especially on the national level, continue to not understand about how the Indians are making decisions.

The “success cycle” is the current paradigm for team building. At the start of the cycle, a team strips down their roster almost completely, trading off all their veteran players, and fielding a team that has no chance of winning for several years, with the side benefit of having an extremely low payroll. Then, assuming the front office made astute drafting and prospect evaluation decisions, the team begins to spend some money again, bringing in a couple key free agents. Then, when the young core is ready to compete for a championship, the wallet is opened wide and the minor-league system becomes only a vehicle for acquiring veteran players. Once the core gets old/expensive, the roster gets torn completely down and the cycle begins anew.

It is my belief that the Indians do not want to follow this cycle, having institutional memories about previous rebuilding eras. The 2002-2004 rebuild, short and necessary though it was, turned half the fanbase against the team, with attendance never recovering. The 2009-2012 rebuild wasn’t quite as devastating to attendance or fan perception, but nevertheless was not a fun period. In addition, the causes of those fallow periods haven’t been lost on the current front office, some of whom were there for them. Poor drafting, poor free agent decisions, and trading away prospects for short-term fixes were what sunk the team into the last two rebuilds, and many of the decisions since then have been made to avoid those previous mistakes.

With that in mind, consider the last year of decisions made by the Tribe front office. A typical team in the Indians’ place would have gorged itself in the free agent market, or at least traded some prospects to fill a hole. The Indians did neither, in fact they let go Michael Brantley via free agency, and suffered for it the following season. They traded Yan Gomes, their starting catcher, and shed payroll in several other moves. Yet they didn’t tear the roster apart, keeping the starting rotation together (at least to start the season) and the rest of the starting lineup. In other words, they didn’t commit to one path or the other that the success cycle demands of a team once the roster reached maturity. They did trade Trevor Bauer, but in return received a short-term rental (Yasiel Puig) and a medium-term solution (Franmil Reyes) in addition to some prospects.

So when the rumors about the Dodgers looking to trade for Francisco Lindor broke, I shook my head. The reporting by Jon Paul Morosi, as usual, is vague enough to be correct even if nothing happens:

Sources say the Dodgers are expected to pursue a trade for Indians shortstop Francisco Lindor as one possible addition to an offense that managed only a .303 on-base percentage during this month’s National League Division Series loss to the Nationals.


The Indians have made no apparent progress on a long-term extension for Lindor, and many in the industry believe there is a good chance he will be dealt before next Opening Day.

Note that this reporting is that the Dodgers will be pursuing Lindor, not that the Indians are either looking to trade him or even listening. Just that some people in the industry (read: other front offices) think the Indians would deal him because they haven’t been able to make progress on a long-term deal. This of course led to this headline from Beyond the Boxscore, an SBN site (sigh):

This is clickbait. Oh sure, the headline/sub-headline is hedging its bets by using “it sure looks like” and “Lindor might be on the move” but ultimately it is using a rather typical Hot Stove League piece of reporting (X team is interested in X player) to give an excuse to wag the finger at the Indians for not ponying up to sign Lindor to a long-term deal:

While the Dodgers trying to make a move happen doesn’t mean that Cleveland will Lindorit’s clear that Cleveland’s ownership has little interest in extending Lindor or retaining him when he reaches free agency after the 2021 season. If Cleveland were to trade Lindor, it would be hard to view it as anything other than a purely cost-cutting move. We saw what their miserly approach following the 2018 season did to an assured division title, so such a move would be an admission that profits are more important than winning. 

Was it disappointing that the Indians let Michael Brantley go last year? Absolutely. But this analysis is ridiculously simplistic. The Indians have been a competitive team for seven straight years now, and are to the point in a typical success cycle where other teams in mid-tier and low-tier markets have thrown in the towel and tore the team completely down. The Royals were competitive for five seasons (2013-2017), then tore their roster completely apart. The Pirates also lasted five seasons (same time frame) before firing practically everyone and presumably starting over. But for all the Indians’ “miserly” ways, they still managed to field a team that until the last series of the season was in contention for a playoff spot. In other words, they have maintained the payroll of a contending team for longer than their peers, and at least will try to be competitive for an eighth year.

The author of the article is applying to the Indians a template that is not applicable. The Indians may eventually trade Lindor because it’s obvious that they aren’t going to give out an 8-year deal at $30M+ average annual value, but I do not think that they will trade him this winter, as Morosi is suggesting, nor would a Lindor trade be driven by cost-cutting for 2020. Lindor even at a projected $16M-18M salary is still a bargain for any team, including the Indians. The Indians want to compete again in 2020, and Lindor is inextricably linked to that goal. He will very likely be playing for someone else by the end of the 2021 season, and almost certainly will be by the start of the 2022 season, but that’s just how mid-market teams fare when it comes to superstars.

If team owner Paul Dolan had wanted to maximize profit, he would have done what the Houston Astros or Chicago Cubs or many other teams since then did: completely tank, a strategy that this author would undoubtedly condemn. In 2013, the Astros had a payroll of $35M despite residing in one of baseball’s largest markets, a payroll that the Indians hadn’t had since 2004. Cleveland ownership’s spending obviously isn’t going be confused with the late Mike Illitch of the Detroit Tigers anytime soon, but the Dolans have now presided over as long a competitive window as the Jacobs Field Era Indians of the mid-to-late 1990s, and are attempting to extend that window into 2020 and beyond. As an Indians fan, it has been a fun seven seasons, and although I’d love for the team to spend more, I can’t complain much about the results on the field.

The author then remarks that (1) MLB revenues are up and (2) references a Ringer article about how top prospects who are traded tend to underperform. Let’s take each argument separately.

That MLB revenues are up but payrolls have not increased at the same rate may be an issue for the MLBPA to key on in the upcoming Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations (they expire after the 2021 season), but this is not relevant to the Indians re-signing Francisco Lindor. Free agency is a competition between MLB clubs, and the Indians are not going to fare well in this competition because they don’t have the revenue sources that other teams do, as alluded to in this sentence:

Forbes’ valuation of each baseball team put Cleveland as the sixth-least valuable team, but as a brand they’re still worth $1.1 billion.

Furthermore, a team’s valuation is not relevant to having more cash to throw around unless the team borrows against it. Or the owners sell the team, I guess, but that’s not helpful either for obvious reasons. Dolan did sell a piece of the club to John Sherman a couple of years ago, but Sherman is going to have to divest that by the time he officially takes over as owner of the Kansas City Royals.

The Indians may be able to deal with the short-term risk of allocating ~20% of their payroll ($30M AAV) to one player, but they simply can’t deal with the risk of allocating a significant portion of their payroll to one player 8-10 years from now, when Lindor would likely be on the downside of his career. Lindor will likely ask for that length of contract on the free agent market, and I don’t blame him for it, given that both Bryce Harper and Manny Machado got those types of deals last winter. Lindor bet on himself by not taking an earlier long-term extension (a la Jose Ramirez), and now he’s well within his rights to collect on that wager.

As for not trading Lindor because prospects don’t tend to work out, that’s not an argument that resonates with Indians fans. Of the high-profile players that the Indians have traded since Bartolo Colon in 2002, almost all those trades eventually worked out. And that’s not counting the many core players that the Indians got in what were considered minor trades (Shin-Soo Choo, Asdrubal Cabrera, Mike Clevinger, to name but a few). If the organization has been consistently good in one thing, it’s been getting good value when they do trade a core player.

In conclusion, I have no doubt that the Indians will eventually trade Francisco Lindor, but I don’t think it will be this winter, and that they will do so with a similar goal as they had in dealing Trevor Bauer: a return that balances the short-term (Puig) with the medium-term (Reyes) and a bit of the long-term (prospects).

Regular Season Journal: Looking back, looking forward

It’s been a while since I posted anything here. I’ve been content to post whatever opinions I had on the Indians at Let’s Go Tribe (what can I say? old habits die hard), but the events of the past couple of weeks have put me in a more reflective frame of mind, something that a series of comments on a LGT post can’t satisfy.

The losses both in terms of games and key players (Corey Kluber, Jose Ramirez, Tyler Naquin) have turned what was looking to be an exciting divisional race into a desperate attempt to salvage a Wild Card spot.

But this post is not going to be about pre-lamenting a September swoon that may not even happen. It’s going to reflect on this season as one of transition that has, by and large, been managed adroitly by the Tribe front office. Some of the roster issues that Chris Antonetti and Mike Chernoff faced were self-imposed because of previous moves, others were imposed by the market size and/or ownership’s decree. And if the Twins weren’t on pace to win 100 games, even with those limitations the Indians might still have muddled through to a division title, warts and all.

Last winter the Indians had a difficult path to tread. It seemed obvious from the early-offseason statements given by Chris Antonetti that the payroll was not going to go up (from $138M at the end of 2018), and likely to drop a bit, though not as much as I anticipated (as things stand today, team payroll is $122M). There were several high-salaried players leaving via free agency (Michael Brantley, Andrew Miller, Cody Allen), but large salary increases to arbitration-eligible players like Francisco Lindor and Trevor Bauer would eat up those savings. That would be fine had the roster that remained been solid enough as is, but there were many holes that needed to be filled, particularly in the outfield. In other words, the Indians could make do losing Andrew Miller and Cody Allen (the acquisition of Brad Hand was made to mitigate this loss, and in retrospect it was a more prescient trade now than even last winter), but they didn’t have a player (or even multiple players) in the organization to replace Brantley, at least in the near term.

It is difficult to stay competitive for long periods of time and maintain a payroll that maxes out in the #13-15 range. The way the CBA is structured, good players get close to market value starting with their 5th year of MLB service time, and will get their most lucrative contract in their 7th or 8th year of service time. That means a team like the Indians have a small window to compete with one particular core group of players, and to remain competitive have to be continually develop the next core, as signing core free agents is not really an option. In theory, a successful mid-market organization would have a new core player waiting in the wings to replace every core player who leaves via free agency.

But this past winter, the Indians didn’t have anyone to replace Michael Brantley or even Lonnie Chisenhall. They had spent several first-round picks on outfielders 4-6 years ago (Tyler Naquin, Clint Frazier, Bradley Zimmer), but for various reasons none of those players could be penciled in the Opening Day lineup. Recognizing this, the Indians made a series of minor trades for outfielders that would either be temporary fixes (Leonys Martin), complementary players (Jordan Luplow) or even potential long-term solutions (Oscar Mercado). These trades weren’t prohibitively expensive in terms of prospects (though Willi Castro, who the Indians traded for Martin, has already made the majors and has some promise), but they weren’t trades the Indians should have had to make if their minor-league system was churning out a core player a year. And it still didn’t fix their immediate problem, which was outfield production in 2019. (Naquin would eventually become a viable corner outfielder, but it took a while, and now he’s out with a serious knee injury.)

Given all this, one potential solution to both the payroll problem and the outfield problem was to trade one of their good but expensive starting pitchers for at least one core outfielder. That obviously was not a move a team bent on competing would want to make, but seemed the lesser of evils. Based on reports throughout the off season, the Indians were talking to teams about trading Corey Kluber or Trevor Bauer, but never seemed to get the return they were looking for. They did, however, make a series of trades to cut payroll elsewhere. They somehow got the White Sox to take on Yonder Alonso’s 2019 salary, and saved more money in the Edwin Encarancion-Yandy Diaz for Carlos Santana-Jake Bauers swap. And they dealt Yan Gomes to Washington. Those deals seemed to get them to the targeted payroll level, and so they kept both Kluber and Bauer for 2019.

Of those three cost-cutting moves, the one I was vehemently against was the trade of Yan Gomes to the Washington Nationals. I didn’t like the return, and thought it would severely weaken the major-league roster. As it turned out, Gomes would be outplayed by his understudy Roberto Perez, and the players the Indians received have not only helped this year (Jefry Rodriguez) but may also play key roles next year (Daniel Johnson). I think Perez has been wearing down at the plate of late because this is the first time he’s been a full-time catcher over an entire season, but he’s been much better than Gomes at the plate, not to mention his incalculable contributions to a young and inexperienced starting rotation that has at times carried this team.

Ultimately, though, it wasn’t necessarily the moves made during the winter that kept the Indians in contention until the end, but player development decisions made well before that. For although the Indians began the season with an established rotation that was rated as among the best in baseball, that rotation wouldn’t remain intact for long, and all those projected innings would have to be covered by untested youngsters. Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, and Mike Clevinger would miss considerable portions of the season due to injury or illness, and Trevor Bauer would have an inconsistent campaign. Of the five pitchers who started the season in the rotation, only Shane Bieber would make all his scheduled starts, and this was his first full big-league season.

Zach Plesac (12th round, 2016), Aaron Civale (3rd round, 2016), and Adam Plutko (11th round, 2013) have combined for more starts than Kluber, Carrasco, and Clevinger, and the Indians have the 3rd-best starting pitching ERA in the American League. That’s the reason why Antonetti/Chernoff felt they could trade Trevor Bauer at the deadline for offense, something they were thinking of doing way back before the season began, the only difference being that back then you would have assumed Kluber/Carrasco/Clevinger would be their normal selves.

The Bauer trade encapsulated the dual priorities that the Tribe front-office has been trying to simultaneously fulfill since the end of last season. There was a financial motivation for making the trade, as Bauer was headed towards another big salary increase via arbitration in 2020, with free agency afterwards. There was also a competitive motivation for the deal, as the Indians were (and still are) in the thick of the playoff race, and needed to improve their lineup. The two major-league players that they acquired also represented a balance between the short-term and medium-term: Yasiel Puig will be a free agent after the season and will undoubtedly sign elsewhere, while Franmil Reyes is under team control until at least 2024. Two of the three minor-league players the Indians received (pitchers Scott Moss and Logan Allen) could help the team next year.

When you manage a mid-market team, there are always going to be difficult decisions to make because the financial rules are stacked against you, but because of the moves made over the past 12 months, this winter’s dilemmas will be mild in comparison with those already dealt with. The Indians will decline Jason Kipnis’ 2020 option, making him a free agent, and he’ll be replaced by someone in the organization. They will release Danny Salazar. They will very likely pick up Corey Kluber’s 2020 option even after the injury-plagued season, given that they’ve already dealt Trevor Bauer. They may try to lock up Mike Clevinger, and will try (with no possibility of success) to lock up Francisco Lindor. Tyler Naquin’s major knee injury means that they may look at bringing in a veteran on a one-year major-league contract. They will be active in acquiring relievers, but not via free agency. In other words, expect the same modus operandi this offseason as the last one, but with a bit less drama.

If you’d like me to address anything Tribe-related in more detail, leave a comment or shoot me a message via the contact link on the sidebar.

Regular Season Journal: looking beyond the easy narrative

As we are fast approaching Memorial Day, a convenient point at which to evaluate a baseball season, I thought I would pick today to offer my off-the cuff thoughts on how the Indians and Twins have played, given that that was how I framed my outlook this past winter. No baseball team is its own island, as they are only deemed a success or failure by comparison to its competition, as such the Tribe’s 2019 season will be judged will be its record compared to that of the Twins.

Today’s standings see the Twins leading the Indians by 5.5 games, having the second-largest lead in baseball (the Astros have a 8.5-game lead over the second-place Angels in the AL West). The Indians are 24-20, while the Twins are 30-15, trailing only the Astros among all MLB teams. The Indians have a +3 win differential, which intimates that they’ve performed worse than their record would indicate. The Twins have a +77 win differential, and their record accurately reflects their performance (see the “X-W/L” column below).

How does this mesh with projections saying the Indians would waltz to another AL Central title? The Twins pitching has greatly over-performed projections (which were rather dismal) and their offense has also over-performed projections (which were already positive). The Indians are still allowing fewer R/G than the Twins (3.77 compared to 4.02), but that was supposed to be the method the Indians would use to power past the Twins this year. Instead, run-prevention is almost a push, while the Twins are blowing the Indians away in terms of run scoring (5.73 versus 3.84). Should these trends continue another six weeks, the Indians are going to need to start setting their sights on the Wild Card rather than the Division, as unless they get extremely lucky (or the Twins unlucky) they aren’t going to keep pace with that run gap.

As for causes for this turn of events, I would caution against assigning the team’s payroll reduction as the presiding one. I admit it is an easy narrative to grasp, but as with many easy narratives, it falls apart once you look more closely at it. The Indians are not one Michael Brantley (worth 2.1 bWAR so far for the Astros) from catching the Twins in the standings, and that is because several of their existing stars, whether it be Jose Ramirez or Francisco Lindor (the former due to not hitting, the latter due mostly to injury) are also under-performing. The trade of Yandy Diaz for Jake Bauers, which was more of a challenge trade than anything else, has also hurt the offense* based on how the two have played thus far. Jason Kipnis is on pace to have the worst season of his career. Tyler Naquin, who the Indians keep giving opportunities to, has not provided them with the type of production expected from a mid-first round pick. Bradley Zimmer, another past first-round selection, still hasn’t played a rehab game. All these offensive failures have little to do with spending and much more to do with either coaching or front office evaluations.**

On the other side of the ledger, the Indians have maintained their excellent run prevention despite losing both Corey Kluber and Mike Clevinger for extended periods of time. The Tribe front office’s moves look much better on this front, as surprising performances from Jefry Rodriguez (who came in the Yan Gomes trade, a deal I unequivocally panned this winter) and Nick Wittgren (who was acquired from the Marlins), not to mention addition by subtraction in the bullpen by letting both Cody Allen and Andrew Miller walk. Spending $5.5M on Danny Salazar (who has yet to appear in even a minor-league game) while cutting costs elsewhere is really the only blemish that I can see on the offseason pitching moves so far.

*I still maintain that the trade may work out for the Indians in the long term (I like Bauers’ future), but it has hurt the Indians this year.

My goal here is not to act as an apologist for Cleveland ownership, who I think misjudged by trying to save $10-15M and justifying it by thinking they would win the division anyway. Instead, by also bringing up failures not related to spending I hope to paint a picture much closer to the true causes of this team’s shortcomings than by just fixating on spending alone. At the end of a season, a fan isn’t going to (or shouldn’t) care about what the payroll was at any point of the year, but instead whether the team made the playoffs or not.

Book Review: Today I Am Carey

Today I Am Carey (2019) – by Martin L. Shoemaker

Genre: Science Fiction – Hard (with slice-of-life elements)

320 Pages

Publisher Store PageAmazonKobo

Over the winter, I’ve gotten back into reading for pleasure, and specifically into genres that I hadn’t delved into since I was a teenager. Empire of Silence (see review here) was the first sci-fi/fantasy novel I read in many years, and since then I’ve picked up many more in quick succession. I don’t plan to write a review of every book I read, as that seems at odds with the whole reading for pleasure goal, but reviewing books that I particularly enjoyed would seem to strike a decent balance. With that said, here is a review of a book I thoroughly enjoyed…

Today I Am Carey is a story set in the near future. It concerns an android named Carey that is designed to assist terminally-ill patients who are suffering with dementia. It is able to comfort these patients because it contains two different neural networks that can work together: one that can empathize with the patient, and another that can emulate (as in physically become) friends and family, whether living or dead. In the first chapters of the story, Carey becomes whoever Mildred, who is in the late stages of Alzheimer’s, asks for, whether it be her son, daughter-in-law, grandchildren, or even her departed husband.

Normally a medical care android’s memory will be wiped after their patient dies, but Mildred’s family asks for Carey to stay on with them, a request that is granted because something is unique with it, and Carey’s designer wants to try to understand why. The story takes off from there.

If you’ve read any of Isaac Asimov’s robot short stories, particularly Bicentennial Man (and the Robin Williams movie based off of it), you may recognize a similar theme at the beginning of Today I Am Carey: a robot/android that seems to be becoming almost human and the ethical and legal implications of that. But Today I Am Carey takes the story in a different direction, and in my opinion takes Asimov’s ideas into an entirely new realm of storytelling.

In Asimov’s robot stories, his Three Laws of Robotics prominently figure in just about every story. In the case of Bicentennial Man, the main issue is at what point a robot becomes physically human enough so that the Three Laws do not apply. In Today I Am Carey, there are some plot points that deal with Carey’s legal status, but the main thread of the story is more about its mental and emotional development towards becoming more human and how that affects the human characters in Carey’s life.

Although there are many ideas about artificial intelligence that Shoemaker explores throughout the book, Today I Am Carey also delves deeply into the human characters surrounding the protagonist. After all, what better narrator to use in a character-driven story than an android that has an empathy neural network? Carey, because of his unique construction, can infer things from its interactions that a human being would never be able to infer. I think that first-person narrative elevates the story from your standard exploration of ideas to something that every reader, not just those who enjoy science fiction, would enjoy and relate to.

Shoemaker’s prose is deceptively straight-forward. I still don’t know how he did it, but he was able to make a story narrated by an artificial intelligence in a matter-of-fact manner deliver powerful emotional impacts, even when you have an inkling that those impacts are coming. The ending ties the events of the story together in a way that was both perfectly appropriate and in a way I never saw coming.

Offseason Journal: A Postcript/Preview

Up to this point, I have solely focused attention on what the Indians have been doing, but that leaves unaddressed what the other teams in the AL Central have been doing, particularly the Minnesota Twins, the one team that I think could dethrone the Indians. There’s still an obvious gap between the two teams, but there’s enough potential on the Minnesota roster that you could see the possibilities on them making large improvements if a couple major things go right for them.

With that in mind, I’ve put together projected Opening Day rosters for the Twins and Indians to compare them.

The Indians’ roster looks as it stands this morning, as well as a zoomed-in version of just the 25-man roster.

Click to embiggen/live version

There has been a lot of uncertainty with this roster. The outfield and bullpen have essentially had open tryouts, and injuries to both Francisco Lindor and Jason Kipnis means that neither of them will be in the lineup this Thursday in Minnesota. This comes after a winter that saw the Indians prioritize cutting payroll over improving the roster for reasons gone into previously. But even after all of this, the Indians still seem by a significant margin the best team in the AL Central. The projections I used (Steamer for position players, ZiPS for pitchers) are 49.5 wins above replacement, which is just one win shy of their actual totals from last year.

Here is what the Twins are projected to do using the same ZiPS/Steamer combination. Some of the minor roles have changed since I did this exercise, but not enough to change the totals significantly.

Even after all the subtracting this past offseason, and even with question marks all over the roster, the Indians still project to win 10 more games than the Twins, their closest competition. If the starting rotation stays healthy, and the Indians can cobble together a functional (as in above replacement) bullpen and corner outfield, they’re still in good shape to win the AL Central again.

Which is one reason why I think the Indians prioritized the medium-term over the short-term this offseason. The gap between themselves and the rest of the AL Central wasn’t the only factor, as I don’t see this front office ever going completely for broke (too many institutional memories of 2002-03) or thinking for a short while like a large-market organization, but it did make those difficult decisions easier.

The caveats that need to be made: projections are not foolproof, as they are forecasting human beings that can get hurt or better or worse in ways completely independent of their age or previous results. I can easily imagine situations in which the Indians and Twins win totals are reversed. Breakout seasons for Kyle Gibson and Jose Berrios could quickly halve that 10-win gap, for instance.

With that being said, it’s time to enjoy some baseball. Happy New Year!

The Three Interests

Now that Manny Machado ($300M/10) and Bryce Harper ($330M/13) have signed, it’s time to go into a bit more detail about what’s seemed to be the running theme this winter among baseball writers: the inevitable conflict between the players and owners. A lot of the rhetoric has been hyperbolic, especially given the amount of money spent on Machado and Harper (as well as Nolan Arrenado ($260M/8), who signed a contract extension recently), but there is a grain of truth buried among all of that.

First, I want to share my premises and, more importantly, where my interests lie. I do this to help you, the reader, understand where these opinions come from, although I will never disregard a truth even should it be against an interest. I am not an ideologue when it comes to baseball issues, never mind a moralist, but tend to prioritize the interests of a mid-market fan above those of anyone else, because that’s my relationship in this industry. I have always been, and always will see myself as, a fan of the Cleveland Indians. When I earned a check writing about baseball, my interests were aligned with those who visited the site, as they were invariably also fans of Indians.

I specify that I am a fan of a mid-market team because the current financial rules that MLB teams and players abide by make it easier for big-market teams to succeed. Because a larger market means a larger local TV contract, and because local TV money has become a larger percentage of total revenue, big market teams have the means to sustain a larger payroll than teams in smaller markets. (Yes, there are exceptions to the rule – with big-market owners who spend very little and small-market owners who spend like the big boys, but those are exceptions.) The Cleveland Indians’ market size is roughly in the middle of the 30 MLB teams, and as such ranks similarly when it comes to TV revenue. So as a fan of the Indians, I am concerned about competitive balance, particularly among payrolls, because it affects how competitive the Indians will be. Now a large payroll is not a guarantee of success, but it makes things easier. For instance, the 2018 World Champion Red Sox lifted the trophy despite having paid a combined $52.52M in that season to three players (Hanley Ramirez, Rusney Castillo, and Pablo Sandoval) who they had already released. A team from a smaller market would have struggled for years trying to deal with that amount of dead money on a payroll, never mind being able to sign additional free agents to similar deals.

In other aspects, though, I share the same interests with all fans. We want our teams to win, or at least be regularly competitive. We want to be entertained by the game on the field and by our experience at the ballpark, and have access to that game (whether it be in the form of tickets/concessions or TV/video) be affordable and readily available.

There are two other main interests in the sport: the owners, and the players. These three interests (owners, players, fans) will align in some areas, sometimes two will align, and sometimes all three’s interests will diverge. And even individual interests will not be aligned on a subject. For instance, the owners of the Kansas City Royals and New York Yankees are going to completely disagree on where the luxury tax threshold should be placed, and any of the other rules related to it. A journeyman player who has no hopes of ever getting a multi-year deal is going to be at odds with a superstar over what the minimum salary should be. And a fan of the Pittsburgh Pirates is going to be at odds with a Los Angeles Dodgers fan over when a player can become a free agent.

The reason I bring all this up is to counter the standard “players vs. owners” narrative that you see practically everywhere. First of all, to treat this conflict as one between two imbalanced and monolithic entities (with the owners having a power advantage) may be great for clicks or views, but it does not reflect reality. The two sides are, in my estimation, equally powerful, as MLB has one of the most player-friendly CBAs in North America professional sports thanks to well-fought gains over the last four decades. Secondly, there are factions within these broad interests that are just as conflicted with each other as they may be with the other interests. And thirdly, this narrative completely disregards the third interest, that is, of the fan, who may be aligned with one of the other interests, but in total has his or her own unique goals. The fan may not be represented at the negotiating table, but even so has a veto in the form of a closed wallet. If whatever is decided makes the sport (in the fan’s eyes) less competitive, less entertaining, or more expensive, the fan will simply spend less time or money on baseball. That is something neither of the other two interests want, and so they ignore the fan at their peril.

It is important to emphasize that I do not bear the players any ill-will, nor the owners for that matter. I am pro-fan, not anti-owner or anti-player.

The proximate cause, in my estimation, of the current trend in free agent spending, is a change in how teams value players, particularly older ones. New ways to analyze players, first proposed by writers decades ago, have been largely accepted by most teams, who now have positions or even complete departments dedicated to this type of player valuation. Sites like Baseball Prospectus and Fangraphs have long served as farm teams for positions in MLB front offices. So is there any wonder that teams are now acting on these ideas when it comes to making signing decisions? Particularly when it comes to the age of the free agent in question?

This is why I think players that are past their theoretical prime (27-29) have seen fewer lucrative free agent deals over the past several years, and the few players who can become free agents before or during their theoretical prime continue to be handsomely compensated. Manny Machado and Bryce Harper broke into the majors as teenagers, and so were able to become free agents in their mid-20s, with their best years seemingly ahead of them. Both received contracts worth at least $300M. Nolan Arenado was one year away from free agency as a 27-year-old, and received an 8-year contract (buying out 7 years of free agency) in which he will receive an average of $32.5M a year.

But these players are the lucky few who were in a position to demand this kind of compensation. The remainder, who either broke into the majors at a more advanced age or who didn’t have quite the kinds of careers those three had, are seeing their contract offers get less lucrative. Those good but older players no longer get lengthy contracts that keep them locked up into their late 30s. Instead of relying on good but declining players, teams of all payroll sizes are looking to their farm systems to supply the bulk of their talent. It used to be that teams valued known quantities over payroll cost, but now these priorities have shifted to the point where teams are more likely to go with an inexperienced player than a more experienced one.

This trend has resulted in the hollowing out of baseball’s upper middle class. The young superstars are still getting paid at the same rates in free agency, and young up-and-coming players are also getting long-term contracts, but with few exceptions the older players are not getting similar treatment. For many years players accepted that they would be drastically underpaid during their first 4 seasons of major-league play, but it would be made up for by the last few years of arbitration and once they reach free agency. Arbitration is still working as intended, but not free agency for most players. That is why something has to give, as the system is not working for more and more players.

What would addressing this imbalance mean for someone who roots for a mid-market team? Lowering the service time needed to become a free agent would probably be the worst outcome, as it would mean smaller windows of opportunity to all but the best-run of organizations. Changing the luxury tax threshold or lowering the penalties for exceeding it would also be a bad thing, as would increasing the minimum salary. Now these things could be compensated for with increased revenue sharing or other ways to increase competitive balance, so it’s important to look at an entire agreement, not just one individual clause. I think a radical shift in the baseball economic landscape could actually benefit teams from the smaller markets as well as the underpaid players, but that would involve things like centralizing all TV revenue and distributing it equally or instituting a hard salary cap/floor. But I think the other two interests (as long as they are largely controlled by the superstars/agents and large-market teams) are too much entrenched for a sea-change like that to happen absent some catastrophic work stoppage.

Offseason Journal: Out like a lamb

I was planning on waiting until either Machado or Harper signed (preferably both) to finish up this series of posts, but as Spring Training has begun and the Tribe roster is more or less set, I can’t wait any longer. So the speculation about the state of free agency in general is going to be pushed off until another time.

With the Trevor Bauer’s arbitration hearing going in his favor ($13M, the Indians offered $11M), my estimate for Opening Day payroll is about $119M if you include the equivalent of 5 minor-leaguers to cover DL* stints over the course of the season. That would fall about $20M short of their ending 2018 payroll. Spending is not a perfect predictor of how good a team will be, given how the current salary system is set up, with good younger players being less compensated than good older players. With that said, I think they go into Spring Training a less talented team than the one from Game 3 of last year’s ALDS, particularly on offense, with projections showing the team 5 wins (fWAR) short of last year’s roster.

live (and embiggened version)

Gone is Michael Brantley, who signed a 2 year, $32M deal with the team that eliminated the Indians last year, and in his spot will be either Jordan Luplow or perhaps Jake Bauers. Gone is Lonnie Chisenhall, and his spot will probably be filled by Tyler Naquin. Gone is Edwin Encarnacion, and his spot is up in the air right now; it could be filled by Bauers, Carlos Santana, or shared among many players. Teams like the Indians need to take chances on young players to remain competitive over the long haul. However, as things stand, the Indians are going to be giving everyday spots in their starting lineup to at least 3 players who have yet to have a full productive season in the majors. And that doesn’t count the catching position, which will likely be shared by Roberto Perez and newly-acquired Kevin Plawecki, replacing Yan Gomes. Francisco Lindor’s calf injury makes the early-season lineup look even more suspect.

I have less of a problem with the way the Indians addressed the bullpen. Gone are Cody Allen and Andrew Miller, and in their places are several handfuls of relievers who have some potential but also can be sent to the minors. Because the Indians kept the rotation intact, they could use Danny Salazar (if the stars align) and Cody Anderson as relievers. Bullpens are fickle beasts, and I don’t mind opting for quantity over non-guaranteed quality here. They did bring back Oliver Perez, which should help stabilize the back end of the bullpen, but they desperately need a right-handed reliever to step into a key setup role.

There are two schools of thought about how a team like the Indians should operate. One is that you must maximize a short window of time for competitiveness by spending generously in terms of money and prospects, then completely rebuild. The other is that it is possible to keep the window open for a longer period of time by being good enough to compete for the playoffs but not be guaranteed of a long run into it. The Indians are attempting the latter way, perhaps mindful of how the 2005-2007 run collapsed so quickly. The minor-league organization has gotten praise for the number of prospects in the lower minors, so there is a chance that the team can remain competitive even after the current set of stalwarts inevitable leave or get too expensive. But by playing the long game, the team risks turning off fans who want to see them push all their chips into the middle every year, or at least some of them. And they have a point as well, because if Luplow, Naquin, and Bauers don’t take that next step, the offense could drag down a great rotation.

The AL Central once again appears very weak, particularly where the Indians are strong (starting pitching), but you can’t keep assuming your competition will continue to be inept. And strengths can quickly become weaknesses; one or two key injuries could quickly push the Indians backwards into the rest of the division. I’ll take a look at that competition next time.

*Yes I know MLB has changed the term to Injured List, but habits are hard to break and I just can’t make much of an effort to do so.

Offseason Journal: The Waiting Game

I last wrote about the offseason on December 28, describing the impasse the Indians were in because they were waiting on larger events to happen first, particularly the signings of Manny Machado and Bryce Harper. Both players were (and still are) expected to get massive contracts both in terms of length and monetary value, and when those signings happened, that would induce the teams who were in contention for those two to fix their gazes on their next-best options.

As it turned out, nothing has changed since December 28. There have been some free agent signings, and the Indians have even acquired another catcher (which I will look at presently), but the logjam is still there. Although MLB does not have a hard salary cap, each team does have a internal spending budget that they’d like to stick to, so if they still want to have any chance of landing Machado or Harper, they can’t commit to anything that would push them over their limit (whether that be a signing or a trade) if they also signed one of those two. And so plenty of other free agents, who would like to sign with a team as soon as they can, are stuck in limbo.

It also should be mentioned that more is riding on what Machado and Harper eventually gets. Many baseball opinion/analysis sites are in full “players vs. owners” mode as the trend of second tier free agents getting less lucrative deals has become more obvious. For example: in 2013, free agent Nick Swisher signed a four-year, $56M at the age of 32, after a accumulating a career bWAR of 20.9. Earlier this winter, at the age of 32, Michael Brantley, who has accumulated 22.7 bWAR, signed a two-year, $32M contract. I think the current paradigm of players sacrificing salary early in their careers (and this includes minor-league salaries) for a chance of hitting it big in free agency is not sustainable, given that fewer and fewer players are actually getting that big mega-deal. So if more and more of the percentage of team free agent spending is directed towards the elite free agents, then more pressure is going to come from both interests on the parties involved, and that could be one of the reasons why the Harper/Machado signings have been delayed for so long.

This trend in recent years of big moves happening later and later into the offseason makes following the hot stove season rather annoying. Unlike other sports (like the NBA), in which the vast majority of signings are condensed into the span of a couple weeks, major free agent signings can happen well after pitchers and catchers report for Spring Training. I would not be opposed a smaller “free agent window” being agreed to in the next CBA that stipulates the latest date a free agent can sign and be eligible to play in the upcoming season. At the very least the goal should be to get the highest-price free agents signed first, and after that everything would happen in due course.

For example, if the ending of the “elite signing period” coincided with the General Manager’s Meetings, that would be a great spectacle for anyone interested in the offseason events, a winter version of the July 31 trade deadline. Then after that, teams would immediately move on to the other free agents and trade targets, leading a flurry of active at the end of the year and a couple weeks into January, so that by this time of the year, the vast majority of rosters will have been set and the season prognostications can begin.

Click to embiggenlink to live version

As for what the Indians have been doing in recent weeks involving the major-league (40-man) roster:

January 9: Traded RHP Walker Lockett and 2B Sam Haggerty (AA) to the New York Mets for C Kevin Plawecki

This move gives the Indians either a second full-time catcher or a competent backup, depending on how the position shakes out this spring. I would expect Roberto Perez to have a leg up heading into Spring Training given his advantage of knowing the pitching staff, as well as his defensive prowess. Plawecki has struggled to throw out runners throughout his major-league career, hovering between 19-26%, but has been a better hitter than Perez over the last couple of seasons. The Indians give up a player they acquired from the Padres a couple months ago (Lockett) and a marginal minor-league prospect (Haggerty), so all in all, this deal partially fills the hole left by Yan Gomes. If Terry Francona uses both players like I think he can, I could the catching position being just as good as it would have been had Gomes not been traded, for about $5.9M less (the difference between Gomes’ and Plawecki’s 2019 salaries).

January 11: Claimed RHP A.J. Cole off waivers from the New York Yankees

The most important piece of information to know about this waiver claim is that Cole is out of options, and so has to make the 25-man roster to stay in the organization. Even if the Indians end up trading Corey Kluber or Trevor Bauer, the only way Cole makes the team is via the bullpen, which has plenty of spots up for grabs at this moment.

That’s it. The catching position is taken care of, but no real upgrades for the bullpen, and nothing for the outfield. I’m still hopeful that these needs will be addressed one way or another, but I can’t tell you when that be. Until then, we wait. And wait. And wait.

Book Review: Addie Joss on Baseball

Joss on Baseball: Collected Newspaper Columns and World Series Reports, 1907- 1909  – By Addie Joss

Compiled and Annotated by Rich Blevins (2012)

349 Pages (including biography and appendices)

Publisher pageAmazon page (kindle version)

Or in truth, an expansion of my previous review of the book. I originally reviewed this collection of Addie Joss’s newspaper writings at Let’s Go Tribe in 2013, and all of my comments back then still hold true, but I want to dive in a bit deeper now that I have the leisure to spend more time on it.

Addie Joss has been a fascinating player to me in part because there is so little information about him. He died suddenly in 1911 at age 31, while professional baseball was still growing into the national pastime it later became. Lawrence Ritter’s The Glory of Their Times, a ground-breaking collection of reminiscences by former players that sparked a rush to record the history of early baseball, was first published in 1966. By that time practically all of Joss’s immediate family were no longer alive. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1978, but by that time, as Blevins writes in his preface, it was “almost like an afterthought.” His contributions had been recognized despite his brief career, but almost nothing of his personality could be passed down.

Joss was hired in 1906, without any previous writing experience, to be the Sunday edition sports editor of the Toledo News-Bee. Joss had moved to Toledo in 1900 when he signed with the Mud Hens, and still made the Northwest Ohio city his offseason home. The hiring was designed to help win readers over from the established Toledo Blade, and it paid off in spades. Joss not only wrote articles about baseball, but edited and wrote articles about other sports. That he was able to quickly learn a business he had no prior knowledge about was quite a feat, and that would lead to him writing a weekly column as well as covering covering three World Series (1907-1909) for the Cleveland Press. By the end of his brief writing career, he was known nationwide as not only a great pitcher, but also as a baseball columnist.

 The collected columns are arranged thematically, not chronologically. There is a chapter about Joss’s personal friendships in baseball, one entirely about humorous incidents on and off the baseball diamond, and one on great feats and plays. There are sections devoted to dealing with fans, “inside baseball” (or would be called strategy today), the way baseball was played in the decades before his time, and his game reports from the 1907-1909 World Series. The collection ends with some columns about larger issues within the sport.

You get a sense of Joss’s generosity and good nature through some subtle touches in his columns. For example, the first column in this collection deals with his debut, made in 1902 against the St. Louis Browns. After a couple of innings, the Browns hurled a series of insults (“long legged toothpick,” “human sign post,” et. al) his way, then later gave him looks that “would have made a saint want to fight.” But it was all a test, and Joss passed with flying colors. Later, after the game, Emmet Heidrick of the Browns shook hands and congratulated him on the well-pitched game. Joss ends the column with “And from that day to this I have not had better friends than that same bunch of ball players, the St. Louis Browns.”

Some of that generosity is only learned once you learn the context, which is why Blevins’ annotations are so valuable. He wrote two columns about his friend Win Mercer, who committed suicide while on the 1902-03 barnstorming tour of the West: the first of which talks about Mercer’s career as a star pitcher and “matinee idol,” and the second of which is about the events that took place just before his death. There were allegations that Mercer attempted to steal the barnstormer’s pot to pay back gambling debts, but Joss, who was on the tour, recounts a more generous version of those events, in which the note to the hotel clerk to send the money was not written by Mercer but was a forgery.

Source:Wikipedia/ Western Reserve Historical Society

Joss was a tall (6’3″), skinny (185 lbs) man with long arms, hence nicknames like the Human Hairpin and the other less generous ones noted above. His sidearm pitching motion, a delivery that hid the ball from hitters, his stuff, and impeccable control was why he was so successful as a pitcher, and Joss goes into some of these concepts in his columns, though never in a boastful fashion. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to tell that he was one of the best pitchers in baseball by reading his columns. That even extends to the columns he wrote on his specific accomplishments, like his 1908 perfect game, in which he downplays as much as possible his role in it. Note the date from the article, which was one day after his masterpiece:

About the seventh inning I began to realize that not one of the [White] Sox had reached first base...I did not try for such a record. All I was doing was trying to beat Chicago, for the game meant much to us, and [Ed] Walsh was pitching the game of his life. (10-3-1908)

Although Joss was writing in a time that we now might think as the distant past, there are many columns that have just as much relevance today as they did back then. Witness this piece of introspection:

One constant worry to a ball player is the fear he has of losing the strength of his arm. A ball player's arm is a peculiar thing. There is never any way of telling when it is liable to go back on him. (12-9-1908)

The section on “inside baseball” also has many timeless baseball thoughts. For instance:

Numberless instances could be related by all players who have been playing the game for any length of time, but they would only tend to strengthen the opinion that luck is an essential factor in a team's pennant aspirations (1-27-1907).

One thing that has changed considerably since the first decade of the 20th century are the baseball terms used, and that did take some getting used to. Joss uses “twirler” often in place of “pitcher” and “sphere” as often as he uses “ball,” and though at first those terms seemed rather bizarre and forced, after a while they started to become familiar, and I could begin to understand why they were so popular. Heck, I’ll probably start referring to pitchers as twirlers here and there just to liven things up.

Joss loved to relate humorous anecdotes in his columns, including one about how Connie Mack once had to resort to tricking Rube Wadell (who was famous for being…um…eccentric) to stop throwing his “slow ball” back when they were both in Milwaukee:

Mack realizing the probable result became desperate and leaving the bench went over to a policeman on the bleachers and held a whispered conversation with him....

.....Just as the big fellow was winding up to pitch the next one, a fog horn voice shouted: "Get out of there you big stiff, you're all in! You've lost your arm."

You can well guess how Rube responded to this heckle, which played right into Mack’s hands.

Joss stopped writing for the News-Bee in early 1909, instead choosing to spend his winters running a pool hall and singing in a vaudeville quartet. He still would pop by his old workplace from time to time, and that he was still beloved by his former co-workers is evident by the way the paper covered his death.

Toledo people will feel a keener loss, for they knew Joss as a man and a citizen and knew nothing but good of him. His personal friends will long miss the ready smile, the kindly word, the cheerful optimism that were his constant companions and made his company a delight. He was a big man, mentally, morally, professionally. (4-14-1911, Toledo News-Bee, page 8)

Tributes also poured in from around baseball, one of which captures exactly the impression that I got from reading his columns:

"He was studious and ambitious and serious, but when I say serious I do not mean sober, for had that rare and divine gift, a sense of humor. He was always cheerful. He seemed always to have some good news for you. He never whimpered or complained; he could smile even over the injury to his right arm last season - the arm that meant so much to him."
- Brand Whitlock (4-14-1911, Toledo News-Bee, page 1)

His teammates threatened a strike if their game in Detroit was not postponed so that they could attend his funeral in Toledo. And there was the proto-All Star game held in Cleveland later that year to raise money for his widow, which is a fascinating topic in and of itself.

There are biographical profiles on Joss, such as the one in the Deadball Stars of the American League, and there is one full-length biography of Joss available (Addie Joss: King of the Pitchers). But this collection of columns is the closest we’re going to get to any sort of understanding about Joss the person, as it’s written in his own words. Blevins writes in his preface:

I like to think Addie's baseball writing as our own direct line to one of Cooperstown's most disappeared inductees. The extant articles are Addie's first-person observations of the game and its players, many of them baseball immortals and most of them his good friends, from the first decade of the American League.

Offseason Journal: The cone of uncertainty

There’s been no moves to speak of since the Indians finalized their three-way deal with the Mariners and Rays, and followed that by dealing Yonder Alonso to the White Sox. For some offseasons, a flurry of trades like that could have represented the end of major transactions, but a cursory look at the Tribe’s projected roster will tell you that this winter is not “some offseason.”

click to enlarge

Although the Indians have made several major moves, the only player they acquired that would be a good fit in a corner outfield slot is Jordan Luplow, who they received from the Pirates in the Erik Gonzalez deal. And if that happens, Luplow would be a major downgrade from Michael Brantley*, who signed last week with the Houston Astros. Jake Bauers theoretically could end up playing some outfield, but after trading both Edwin Encarnacion and Yonder Alonso, he projects to share 1B/DH with Carlos Santana. And that’s not even addressing the projection of Tyler Naquin as the team’s starting right fielder. As things stand now, the Indians would be getting a total of 1.0 win above replacement combined from their corner outfielders, which would certainly place them among the worst in baseball at those two spots. In other words, something has to happen.

Compounding the uncertainty on the current roster is all the rumors about Corey Kluber. Depending on which baseball reporter you follow on Twitter, Kluber is going to the Dodgers, the Reds, or even the Padres, and that’s not counting the teams that were reported to “have interest.” And there’s also the underlying questions about what the team’s payroll will end up being by the time the team takes the field in frigid Minneapolis in late March. My assumptions have been all along that the 2018 ending payroll would be a good approximation for the 2019 beginning payroll. For many reasons, the Indians front office isn’t going to give out specifics about what the actual budget is, foremost among them is to deny clarity to the team’s rivals. But for a casual fan’s perspective, that kind of uncertainty is going to make him hesitate before pulling the trigger on a ticket package, especially with the Kluber rumors swirling about.

In other professional sports (like the NBA), all the major moves could happen within the span of a week. But in baseball, those moves can be spaced out over three, even four months. The two biggest free agents of the winter, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, still haven’t decided where they will sign, and because of that, many other teams and free agents are stuck in limbo. Once the two marquee free agents sign, the teams that lose out will immediately put their Plan Bs and Cs into action, which could include other free agents or trade targets.

That’s why I think the Indians haven’t made their final set of moves, as the Dodgers are one of the front runners to sign Bryce Harper. There’s probably a trade package for Kluber they’d be willing to offer if Harper signs, and a different package if Harper signs elsewhere. And until the Dodgers make their final offer, the Indians can’t finalize a deal, if there is a deal to finalize. And given that it’s extremely likely that a starting corner outfielder is going to come from any Kluber deal, they haven’t acquired in a separate deal. And you can keep the transaction dominoes falling until your head hurts.

Over the course of the summer, while following Hurricane Florence as it barreled towards the Carolinas, the phrase “cone of uncertainty” popped up multiple times. Its origin came from the National Hurricane Center’s forecast maps; they release them several times a day when there’s a chance that a tropical storm will make landfall:

The cone represented all the potential paths that the center of the storm could take over the following days, with it getting ever wider with time. The MLB offseason has its (much less serious) cone of uncertainty while its biggest signings have yet to be made, and the Indians, because of what they need to accomplish, are more subject to it this year than in the recent past.

*Given what Brantley signed for (2/$32M), I think the Indians whiffed here. Had they re-signed Brantley at that amount, they still would have had room to sign a couple relief pitchers, and probably kept Kluber as well. Of course, that assumes that both Brantley and the Indians wanted to strike a deal, but from the outside it looks like a gigantic missed opportunity.