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.

Offseason Journal: 3 Trades

Over the past several days, the Indians have made further moves to restructure their roster. Before diving into things any deeper, the actual moves, along with the financial aspects of those deals if relevant: 

Trade 1a: Traded 1B/DH Edwin Encarnacion ($25M 2019) and 2019 #77 Draft Pick to the Seattle Mariners for 1B/DH Carlos Santana ($17.5M 2019, $18M 2020) and $6M ($2M in 2019, $4M in 2020)

Trade 1b: Traded 3B/1B Yandy Diaz and RHP Cole Sulser (AAA) to the Tampa Bay Rays for 1B/OF Jake Bauers

Trade 2: Traded 1B Yonder Alonso ($9M 2019) to the Chicago White Sox for OF Alex Call (A+)

(All salary/financial information is from Cot’s Contracts)

I’ve separated the 3-way trade between the Indians, Mariners and Rays into two separate deals because in essence that’s what they are. The only thing changing hands between the Mariners and Rays is $5M, apparently to bridge the gap between their valuations of Bauers and Diaz.

Trade 1a is a trade of large salaries, with the Mariners taking on more this year in exchange for almost nothing to pay out next year (save the $4M to Cleveland), while the Indians commit to $14M for Santana next year in order to take $9.5M off their payroll this year. In addition, Santana can play first base everyday, freeing up the DH spot for some other player or players as the offseason progresses. And of course there’s the side benefit of bringing back a player that liked being in Cleveland, and who was liked by his teammates. Steamer projects that the Indians will have the better 1B/DH next year, and moving back to the American League won’t hurt Santana’s production either.

Trade 1b has a less obvious justification. In trading Yandy Diaz, the Indians seem to be dealing a player on the cusp of breaking into a full-time role, a player that has a unique set of skills in today’s game: a ground-ball stroke combined with an incredible bat speed. Even if Yandy never hits for home run power could easily make a career for himself as a top-of-the-order hitter. His profile fits better in the 1910s than in 2010s, but even today I think he can make a career for himself. He’s going into his Age 28 season, but I think that makes him quite a bit for valuable to the Rays given that if he does break out, he’ll be under team control throughout his prime years. Bauers is 5 years younger than Diaz, but is likewise on the cusp of playing every day in the majors. Given the Indians’ desperate need in the outfield, Bauers could play in left and right field, but ultimately I think he’s the first baseman of the future. 

As for the Alonso deal, it’s almost a carbon copy of the Yan Gomes trade. The goal was to have someone take on Alonso’s 2019 salary (and perhaps even his 2020 salary if his option vests), and with the White Sox are very interested in landing Manny Machado, the opportunity to acquire his brother-in-law was apparently appealing even with the price tag. The prospect the Indians received in return will not help the team this year, or probably next year. But again, the major return in the deal is the $9M that the Indians won’t be paying Alonso.

Here’s a couple key quotes from Chris Antonetti about the trades this week. 


“First off, I think we’re acquiring two players that we feel will help us next year,” Antonetti said. “Both Carlos and Jake are productive Major League players that not only contribute but enhance the versatility of our roster. Beyond that, it adds some payroll flexibility for us in 2019.”

Chris Antonetti, on Carlos Santana and Jake Bauers (indians.com)


“So we could configure the roster in a variety of different ways. But there’s still a lot of offseason left. I’m not sure this will be the final roster that we have going into Spring Training.”

Antonetti on the makeup of the current roster (this was before the Alonso trade)


“It’s still relatively early in the offseason,” Antonetti said. “So I think what we will continue to do is be aggressive — taking opportunities to improve our position moving forward. Whether that’s a 2019 impact or it’s gonna help us sustain success beyond 2019, we’ll have to see what opportunities present themselves.”

Antonetti, after the Alonso trade (indians.com)

To summarize the financial aspects of the deals: 

Given that the market value of 1.0 WAR (wins above replacement) is between $8-9M, the Indians did well here if you look strictly at payroll and projected production. They did lose 1.4 wins as a result of the two trades, but dropped $18.5M in the process. They could easily buy those 1.4 wins back on the free agent and still have some of the savings left over.

But it isn’t just about total payroll and total production. There’s also the roster configuration to think about. By trading several starters from last year, along with a projected starter for this year (Yandy Diaz), a roster that began the offseason with glaring holes picked up another one. Here’s what the roster looks like right now:

Click to embiggenLive roster link

There’s still several major holes to fill (Luplow and Naquin as the starting outfielders should give everyone pause), but the Indians now have a decent amount of payroll room to add some significant help. If you assume that last year’s ending payroll is the limit for next year as well, the team now has about $23M to work with, and that’s without having to trade one of their top starting pitchers. I think now you’ll start to hear rumors based on free agent targets and not just trade talk.

Offseason Journal: Carlos Carrasco extended through 2022

First, the basic facts of the contract, along with the relevant quote from Chris Antonetti:


“What this does,” team president Chris Antonetti said, “is provide us additional continuity in the rotation beyond 2020. We effectively left this year [2019] alone, exercised the option for 2020 and added two new years beyond that. It’s a continued investment by ownership in our team and the desire to remain a very competitive team moving forward.”

Source: Carlos Carrasco, Indians agree to extension through ’22 (indians.com)

As noted by Chris Antonetti, this deal does not affect the 2019 or 2020 payroll, other than by making the 2020 salary guaranteed (before the extension, that year was a team option). What it does do is to make some of the trade options the team was contemplating more palatable. To be specific, if the Indians had traded Corey Kluber before the Carrasco extension, their 2021 rotation looked rather pedestrian, as both Carrasco and Trevor Bauer would have been free agents following the 2020 season. Now, with Carrasco locked up through at least 2022, that means they can keep everyone in the past year’s rotation except for Bauer through 2021. Given that the Indians boast one of the top 2-3 rotations in baseball, with starting pitching fetching such a premium on the free agent market, that’s a very big deal for a mid-market team.

And speaking of the free agent market, the AAVs (Average Annual Value) of the Carrasco extension ($11.6M if you include the option year), is less than half of what Patrick Corbin just got from the Washington Nationals(6/$140M, $23.3M AAV). And lest you think that Corbin is a better pitcher than Carrasco, a quick gander at both historical statistics as well as 2019 projections will quickly disabuse you of that notion.

The only thing Corbin has on Carrasco is age (29 vs. 32), but even that comes with a caveat, as Carrasco has only thrown 149 more innings than Corbin over the course of their careers, which is essentially three-quarters of a normal season for a starter. So if you subscribe to the notion that it’s the miles, not the years that determines the life left in an arm, Carrasco is only a year older than Corbin. 

So how were the Indians able to retain Carrasco at such below-market rates? All the years of this extension will be at post-6-years service time (a player can become a free agent after 6 years of service time assuming he’s not already under contract). One clue can be found in the indians.com article referenced above: 

Carrasco, who signed his original extension after a health scare that involved non-invasive heart surgery in 2014, is the longest-tenured member of the Indians.

The Indians extended Carrasco after his breakout 2014 season, taking a chance that he’d build on those 14 fantastic starts, but also taking a chance on him remaining healthy. Beyond the heart surgery, Carrasco was just a couple of years clear of Tommy John surgery. And all this came after several years of the team remaining patient with him while he bounced back and forth from the majors to the minors. Carrasco made his major-league debut back in 2009, and between Tommy John surgery and his struggles on the mount, he didn’t blossom into the pitcher we know him as until the second half of 2014. So I think Carrasco’s decision to take a hometown discount stems from a long and trusting relationship with the team. It’s not something you often see in the cutthroat world of professional sports, where players and teams often default to making decisions on financial impact alone, but sometimes the stars align with the result being this contract extension. Carrasco is obviously content with living in Cleveland, he’s content with trading a much-lower earning potential for stability, and the team is content with trading the risk of a long-term deal to a 32-year-old pitcher for a well-below market AAV. 


“I feel great to be part of the Cleveland Indians,” Carrasco said. “I just want to finish my career with them. This is something special for me and my family.”


Carrasco, Tribe agree to extension through ’22

This contract paves the way for the Indians to trade either Corey Kluber or Trevor Bauer this week at the Winter Meetings. Because one of the objectives of this type of trade will be to clear payroll for free agent signings, I think they’ll want to pull the trigger sooner rather than later, and with several of the top free agent starters (Corbin, Eovaldi) already signing, the clubs that lost out on those free agents may be starting to view a trade more favorably now that the free agent market isn’t as enticing any more. The Indians would use any payroll savings on presumably outfield help, and with Michael Brantley still available and willing to playing some first base, I think there’s a decent possibility that team would be able to re-sign him if the right type of trade happens.

With that in mind, ponder this bit of news from SNY  

“You can get Bauer cheap,” the exec said. “The catch is that you have to take (Jason) Kipnis’ money too. The Yankees might be the only team who would do that — if they’re not really in on (Manny) Machado or (Bryce) Harper.”

Bauer has the highest upside for 2019 of anyone in the rotation, but he’s also the only pitcher in that rotation who isn’t cost-controlled for 2019, as he and the team are in the arbitration process right now. And barring something completely unexpected, he and team will be in the same position next year, with the potential him making close to $20M in his final year of arbitration. Given that the value of starting pitchers is going up compared to many other positions, I think it’s understandable that the Indians would prefer to trade Bauer over Kluber just on that factor alone. And now that Carrasco is locked up, Bauer is the closest starter to free agency. Should the Indians include Jason Kipnis along with Bauer in a trade, that aren’t going to get nearly the type of return in terms of a talent that they’d get would they trade Bauer alone. But that would give them much more payroll flexibility to make deals for free agents or even other trades, assuming of course that the 2019 payroll will be at the same level as it was in 2018. 

This type of trade, not to mention the type of team involved, in which the team includes a valuable player in order to dump the salary of a less productive player (Kipnis is still a player you’d take in your lineup, but if he’s playing left field, is he really going to be that valuable?) carries with it the risk of alienating the fanbase, both from those who views spending and those who view accumulated talent as measures of a team’s willingness to compete. The failure to follow up a Bauer/Kipnis trade with a meaningful acquisition, be it in free agent or in a trade for an established star, would in my mind negate whatever strategic payroll gains the team makes from the original trade. But if, for example, the Indians announce the re-signing of Michael Brantley soon afterwards, then pull off a deal for 3-win RF later that week, then later on sign a couple relievers, I think most fans would appreciate the entirety of the offseason over what in isolation would seem to be another step back (in addition to the Yan Gomes trade). 

The Indians will have a very fine and crooked line to walk this week, but the Carrasco extension widens that path, perhaps even straightens it as well. Here’s hoping for big, and more importantly, good news to follow soon.

Offseason Journal: Tribe trades Yan Gomes to Nationals

On Friday night, after several weeks of rumors, the Indians traded long-time starting catcher Yan Gomes. Before I start rambling about what I think about the trade, both in isolation and in the broader context of the off-season, it would be wise to lay out the details:

The Indians traded Yan Gomes to the Washington Nationals for RHP Jefry Rodriguez, OF Daniel Johnson, and a PTBNL (by April 15, 2019).

  • Yan Gomes will be entering his Age 31 season, and is set to make just over $7M in 2019. There are two team options in 2020 and 2021 worth $9M and $11M respectively. He’s coming off his best season (by far) since 2014, and is projected by Steamer to be worth 1.2 fWAR, though that is based a partial season (281 PA). If you project Gomes to have what for a catcher would be a full season (450 PA), that gets bumped up to 1.9 fWAR.
  • Jefry Rodriguez made his MLB debut in 2018, starting in 8 of his 14 appearances. He has a mid-to-upper 90s fastball along with a curve and changeup, but has struggled with mechanics, and because of that has trouble staying in the strike zone. He profiles as a reliever. He has two option years remaining.
  • Daniel Johnson spent almost the entire 2018 season in AA. His tools are very highly rated, especially his arm (there was some thought from MLB scouts that he could be drafted as a pitcher), but also some serious flaws, namely his ability to make contact. Also, if he does crack the big leagues, he’ll likely need to be platooned, as he’s struggled against left-handed pitching. He is not eligible for this month’s Rule 5 Draft, so he did not need protected on the 40-man roster
  • The Indians did not include any cash in the deal.

I think it very unlikely that Johnson will help the Indians this year, and Rodriguez if anything would serve as a taxi squad reliever along with many of the other newcomers added over the past 6 weeks. Johnson is by a considerable measure has the highest upside of the two, but as you can guess from the mini-scouting reports, I don’t have much confidence that either is going to stick in the majors. There is the PTBNL, but it’s kind of pointless to speculate about that right now.

The Indians also seemed to have a favorite market to trade Gomes, with the Indians being publicly linked to both the Dodgers and the Mets. Gomes had one of the better offensive seasons as a catcher (though the position as a whole had a down year), and as his defensive skill set has remained strong, it’s no wonder that several teams were interested. Chris Antonetti said as much afterwards:

“The catching position was an interesting one,” Antonetti said. “There were a number of teams that were seeking to upgrade their alternatives at catcher, and there were also a number of alternatives on the market in both free agency and trades. That was the dynamic we were navigating at the start of the offseason. It got to a point on a deal that we thought made sense for us.”

I note a tone of slight disappointment in this quote, and for good reason. The Indians didn’t get a great return for Gomes, whether you want to measure that in 2019 production or future production. Johnson has a high upside, but a huge amount of risk, certainly not the type of prospect you’d expect for a veteran catcher who was probably the best value at his position in either free agency or trade. The Indians do save $7.08M, but they aren’t going to be able to make up the lost production in free agency, not the way production is valued now ($7-8M per win). Perhaps the Indians are not optimistic about Gomes’ future at the plate, as his fine season at the plate was driven largely by power at the expense of contact, as well as 2018 being balanced out by bad to awful campaigns in 2015, 2016, and 2017. Roberto Perez, who now presumably will be the everyday catcher, isn’t that far off in terms of projected value (1.6 fWAR), but he’s coming off a brutal season at the plate.

Given all of the above, I don’t think you can come to any conclusion other than the Gomes deal being largely a salary dump. The Indians are trying to navigate a very tricky offseason in which they need to pare payroll in some areas in order to improve in others. The catching position is apparently one of the areas that they feel they can subtract from without it hurting the team that much. Based on this trade, the Indians now have a bit more payroll room to maneuver, having a projected payroll roughly $13M below their 2018 payroll (assuming of course that the 2019 budget remains neutral). That’s not going to be enough to improve the roster via free agency given that they in a perfect world would like to add a corner outfielder as well as at least one 7th/8th inning reliever.

For a fan that pays superficial attention to the comings and goings of the team, this trade would seem to portend an unwillingness to contend next season, and I can’t really blame that attitude right now. The team is worse off now (for 2019 contention) than they were a couple days ago. But there are still many key moves yet to be made, so please, hold your lamentations for now. If next year’s Opening Day payroll is considerably lower than this year’s, and if the overall talent level is lower, then you’ll have every right to complain. But I think the moves are just beginning.

Here’s the latest 25-man/40-man roster, with 2019 projections:

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The projected payroll as of this moment is $124M (down from $137M, the 2018 ending payroll), and the projected fWAR is 44.5, down from last year’s 50.4.

Somewhat lost in the Yan Gomes trade news was the announcement that the team had signed Danny Salazar to $4.5M contract, avoiding arbitration. There was a possibility that they’d non-tender Salazar by Friday’s deadline, but they are sticking with the oft-injured but supremely talented pitcher. For now I have him pitching out of the bullpen, but should the Indians trade one of their top starting pitchers, he’d be the obvious choice to move back into the rotation.

Speaking of top pitchers, the Indians are in discussions with Carlos Carrasco on a contract extension, according to MLB.com. That seems to indicate to me that Bauer or Kluber would be the one traded, not Carrasco.

The only player non-tendered was James Hoyt (who wasn’t even eligible for arbitration), and even that was essentially a quick way to get him off the 40-man roster, as they quickly re-signed him to a minor-league deal, inviting him to spring training.

 

 

Offseason Journal: Filling the 40

This time of year, one of the more precious resources for baseball clubs is the 40-man roster. Teams need to add players from outside the organization to improve their chances next year, but at the same time, they need to protect home-grown prospects from selection in the Rule 5 Draft. The Indians have taken advantage of this over the past couple weeks, as they’ve acquired some players they wouldn’t otherwise have had the chance to because of all the free agents that they’ve lost (thus creating more openings on the 40-man roster). If you include the trade with the Pirates (in which the Indians acquired two players on a 40-man roster while giving up one), they have added three players precisely because their former clubs needed the roster space.

  • I wrote about the Gonzales-Moroff-Luplow trade earlier, so I’ll not dwell on it much, other than to note that each of the players they acquired has an option year remaining (while Gonzalez did not).
  • On Monday the Indians acquired RHP Chih-Wei Hu from the Tampa Bay Rays for IF Gionti Turner. Hu made his major-league debut in 2017, making 11 appearances over the past couple seasons. Turner was a 2018 draft pick and played in the Arizona League this past season. Hu could start (he has a five pitch repertoire), but more likely he’ll be used as either a long man, or a taxi reliever (going back and forth from Columbus to Cleveland). The Indians need to rebuild their bullpen, and although Hu isn’t exactly an established veteran, he does give the team another potential solution to work with. Turner is yet another teenaged prospect that they’ve dealt over the past 3-4 months. In this case, the Rays were looking for a prospect that had promise and didn’t have to be protected for Rule 5. The Indians traded Turner likely because he’s 3-4 years from helping the big-league club, which seems to be a trend of late; they have traded quite a few raw but talented prospects from that Arizona roster since July. And Turner wasn’t even the most recent ex-Indian, as on Tuesday…
  • They acquired RHP Walker Lockett from the San Diego Padres for RHP Ignacio Feliz. Like Hu, Lockett has been primarily a starter in the minors, but has the potential to help out of the bullpen. And like Hu, Lockett has an option year remaining, so the Indians has the flexibility to send him to the minors if he doesn’t make the Opening Day roster. Feliz was another standout on the teams’ two Arizona Leagues team this past summer, the fourth player from those two teams to have been dealt in the past week.

The Indians then protected three players from their own organization:

  • 1B Bobby Bradley, the highest-rated prospect of the bunch. Usually first basemen aren’t targeted in the Rule 5 draft, but given Bradley’s talent, to take that chance would be unduly reckless.
  • LHP San Hentges, who in his return from Tommy John surgery showed the type of stuff that he showed when the Indians took him in the fourth round of the 2014 draft.
  • RHP Jean Carlos Mejia, who was the lowest-level prospect protected. He pitched mostly with Lake County this past season, showing very good command for a prospect with so little full-season experience.

Those six additions filled up the 40-man roster, and here’s what it looks like now: 

 

 

 

 

 

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I’ve added a section of players who are eligible for next month’s Rule 5 Draft in the bottom right-hand corner. The highest-rated prospect available would be OF Oscar Gonzalez, who played mostly in Lake County. The Indians are probably relying on his lack of upper-level experience to scare away teams. I think LHP Rob Kaminsky has a good chance of being selected. He’s a former high draft pick who has transition to the bullpen and has shown some promising signs, as not only has his velocity increase, but he’s more than held his own in the Arizona Fall League against some of the best hitters in the minors. And given a left-handed reliever is one of the easiest roles to hide a Rule 5 pick in, he’d be a very tempting selection.

 

Offseason Journal: Gonzalez and prospects dealt for Luplow, Moroff

When I mentioned that the Indians were going to be active this winter, I didn’t mean this type of move:

The Indians acquired infielder Max Moroff and outfielder Jordan Luplow from Pittsburgh in exchange for utility man Erik Gonzalez and a pair of 19-year-old pitching prospects. Right-handers Tahnaj Thomas (No. 30 on the Indians’ Top 30 prospects list per MLB Pipeline) and Dante Mendoza will head to the Pirates’ farm system as part of the deal.

Parsing the comments by Chris Antonetti at the above link, it’s clear that the object of the trade was Luplow. With the Indians losing five major-league outfielders to free agency, they desperately need help there. And preferably affordable help. Luplow has less than a year of major-league service time (affordability), bats right-handed (potential platoon partner for Tyler Naquin if nothing better comes along), and can play all three outfield positions.

The issue of course is that neither Luplow nor Moroff has shown much offense at the major-league level. But then again, neither has Erik Gonzalez, the major-league player the Indians dealt. All three players have either good defensive scouting reports or good defensive results at the major-league level. As for what these three could do with regular playing time, we don’t know. Fangraph’s Steamer projects Luplow at 0.3 WAR with 237 PA, Moroff at 0.2 WAR with 85 PA, and Gonzalez at -0.3 with 196 PA.

Based on that, and given that Gonzalez is out of option years while Luplow and Moroff both one remaining, you can see why the Indians needed to include two very young prospects to make the deal work.  Both Thomas and Mendoza are teenage pitchers who threw in Arizona last summer. Thomas is the more highly regarded of the two, ranking #26 in Fangraphs’ post-2018 organization rankings (with a Future Value of 40). Given how young he is, and how risky pitching prospects are, that FV of 40 isn’t that bad at all. But any contribution he’ll make at the major-league level won’t be happening for at least another 3-4 seasons, while the two players the Indians get back will help in 2019…at least marginally.

For I don’t see either Moroff or Luplow being everyday players next year, unless something goes catastrophically wrong with the rest of the roster. Moroff is a middle infielder by trade, so even if he does replace Erik Gonzalez as the backup infielder, he’s not going to play much, not with Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez around. Even if Jason Kipnis is still here and playing second place, Terry Francona isn’t going to make a concerted effort to get him into the lineup. Likewise, Luplow, who as I mentioned above is the reason the Indians made this trade, at best looks to be a fourth outfielder, complementing the two starting corner outfielders, whoever they may be. And even if the Indians see some hidden upside in him, they just aren’t going to pencil him in as a starting outfielder given his major-league numbers (.640 OPS in 209 PA). It bears repeating that both players do have an option year remaining, so they could be beaten out at those reserve spots by others on the roster and the Indians would be able to keep them in the organization. So the team does get a bit more 25-man roster flexibility by deal the out-of options Gonzalez for two players who do have option years.

Here’s my latest 25-man/40-man roster, with both Moroff and Luplow projected on the major-league roster. The Indians still need to add 5.0 wins in order to get back to their 2018 totals, and have about $7M in payroll space to do it (see below for why this changed).

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Other roster notes:

Jordan Bastian confirms that Corey Kluber’s 2019 salary will be $17M, and also that his 2020 and 2021 team options will be more expensive as a result of his Cy Young Award finishes over the past couple years. This is reflected in the roster above, and shrinks the amount of “free money” to roughly $7M, assuming that the 2018 payroll is also the 2019 payroll.

I’ve also added to the roster the number of option years left on each player, using Roster Resource’s data. The number in parenthesis to the right of the player indicates the number of option years remaining. Past 5 years of service time, a team cannot option a player, so that’s why you don’t see any by veterans like Leonys Martin or Dan Otero. But teams can run out of option years well before a player accumulates 5 years of service time, so players like Danny Salazar, Neil Ramirez, and Tyler Olson also cannot be optioned. I don’t see Ramirez lasting the winter on the 40-man roster, but Olson might, so his status will be important next spring as the bullpen spot battles heat up.

 

 

Offseason Journal: Tradespace preparation

On Friday, the Indians declined to make Qualifying Offers to any of their pending free agents (Josh Donaldson was ineligible, as he’d been traded in 2018), including Michael Brantley, but even that wasn’t the most interesting news of the day.

This was:

Olney was also the first to report that the Indians weren’t going to tender a Qualifying Offer to Michael Brantley. The tweet above was followed up the following article at ESPN.com, which I recommend reading in place of the initial tweet. It gives a much better picture of what the Indians are signaling to the public. Assuming of course, that these leaks were intentional (which I believe they are). The Indians generally have been a tight-lipped organization, so something this frank is quite a surprise. But after thinking about, I understand why this leak happened.

This reporting is not designed to let other teams know what the Indians are planning, as Olney mentions that they had already told other teams about their general situation, but to prepare the fans for what otherwise may have been a shocking set of moves. I’m not sure that the Indians mentioned any of the named players specifically in the article, but you don’t have to be an insider to figure out what players are meant by “veterans”. Kluber and Carrasco are as valuable for their contracts as for their outstanding performance (not to mention the paucity of top-tier starting pitchers on the market), and Gomes and Perez are both admired for their defensive skills. Encarnacion and Kipnis are less valuable because of their contracts, but they are still good players. Kipnis in particular may be attractive for a team looking for a short-term fix at second base.

It has been my goal in this series of offseason posts to lay out the details of what the team faces this winter, and it’s nice to get as concrete a confirmation as you can have that my previous guesses are on the right track. I would have loved to have to heard the opposite from the team, that they were going to increase payroll another $20M or so in order to keep Michael Brantley and add at least one back-end reliever, but that doesn’t seem to be in the cards.

The Indians’ 2018 payroll was right in the middle of the pack of MLB teams ($136-137M, depending on which place you look), and it looks like that’s going to be a hard cap, at least for 2019. These aren’t the 00s clubs that routinely finished among the bottom ten teams in the league in payroll, but they aren’t the Yankees, Red Sox, or Dodgers, either. The Indians will be hosting the 2019 All-Star Game, so that should theoretically mean a bump in season tickets (as ASG ticket priority will undoubtedly be tied to them), not to mention revenue from the festivities themselves, but that’s probably only going to be a one-year bump. 2018 attendance actually fell a tiny bit from 2017 (thanks to a lot of early-season homestands), and that probably weighed more heavily in budgeting meetings.

But if the Indians were to shed payroll by trading a core player, they would risk entering into a payroll death spiral, with attendance falling precipitously as fans would see the loss of a familiar star rather than logic behind the move. That is why I think you saw the Olney story yesterday. The timing was such to explain not only the Brantley non-move, but also to prepare the fanbase for the types of moves that the Indians haven’t made since 2013. Over the last several years, the Indians’ roster has been remarkably stable, at least in terms of keeping the core together. They have let free agents go (Carlos Santana, for instance), but otherwise have not had any inclination towards trading a key player. If anything, they have acted more like a big market club in the past couple of years, readily trading top prospects for short and medium-term help(Andrew Miller, Brad Hand, among others), and even signing one of the more high-profile free agents of the 2016-2017 offseason (Edwin Encarnacion).

But eventually, as young players start to get raises, and as you buy more and more players at market rates, and as the revenue doesn’t rise as fast as the payroll does, a team like the Indians were going to have to make some difficult decisions. The reckoning comes quicker for a mid-market team than for a big-market club (coincidentally, the Cubs are in the same situation this winter), but lamenting about this disparity does not give you more money to spend.


A Sidebar: The (new) Qualifying Offer and why I think the Indians passed on Brantley

The 2017-2021 Collective Bargaining Agreement changed the Qualifying Offer process significantly, as its previous incarnation proved a millstone around the necks of many mid-level free agents. No longer do clubs signing a player who rejected a QO have to give up their first draft pick, among other changes that help free agents find new teams. To go into every single detail would bore practically every baseball fan, so I’ll just leave a link to this LGT article for those who live for roster and transactions minutiae. But there is one thing that is worth knowing in order to understand more about the Brantley decision.

  • A team receives a pick after the first round (#31-35) if the they receive revenue sharing (which the Indians do) AND the player receives a contract for at least $50M from another team. If the player receives a contract for less than that from another team, they receive in compensation a pick after the 2nd Competitive Balance Round, which has historically been in the #75-85 range.

So if the Indians thought that Brantley wouldn’t get more than a 3-year, $45M contract, their upside was getting in essence a third-round pick (along with its bonus money allotment). The downside would be Brantley accepting the offer, and painting the team into a corner. The 2018-19 Qualifying Offer is $17.9M, meaning that the 2019 Tribe payroll would already be $5M ahead of what it was in 2018 ($142M vs $137M). Now they do have the ability to cut salary via non-tendering arbitration-eligible players (such as Danny Salazar, who is set to make $5M), but they’d rather not have to do that, as just about everyone left on the roster are players that could help the team. It would also make it that much more difficult to get salary relief in trades (such as Jason Kipnis), as clubs would know the Indians have no room to negotiate.


With all that being said, here’s what the 2019 roster looks like if the Indians stand completely pat:

 

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I’ve replaced the 2018 bWAR actuals with the 2019 Steamer (Fangraphs) projections (fWAR), which is going to be more useful for players who didn’t get much playing time in 2018. For instance, Steamer projects Yandy Diaz to be worth 2.3 wins above replacement. Based on the Steamer projections, the Indians need to add 5.6 wins just to get back to their 2018 totals. And given the state of the AL Central last year, I don’t foresee it being as easy to earn those wins next year. On the salary side, the Indians can add $10-12M in payroll to reach last year’s totals. Given that WAR on the open market was worth $8-9M last year, the Indians aren’t going to be able to improve themselves much in free agency. That is why you are hearing these stories about trading a couple veterans to not only shed payroll, but improve the roster.