Just figure it out, players and owners

(For transparency: where my interests lie.)

Seven weeks after what should have been the beginning of the 2020 MLB season, there is now a reasonably detailed road map for to play a shortened version of it.

The plan right now is to have shortened spring training starting in June, leading up to the season starting in early July. The games would be played without fans (at least to begin with), and could be played either in the home stadiums, or if that can’t work because of local restrictions, then in neutral locations. The season is tentatively set at 82 games, though that too could change. Teams would only be playing teams in their division and the teams in the other league that correspond geographically. For instance, the Indians would play their AL Central rivals and the teams in the NL Central. At the end of the season would be an expanded playoffs, with the goal of ending at the normal time (late October/early November).

All of this is dependent on a couple things. First, that effective precautions can be put in place to minimize risk to the players, coaches, and other people who are necessary to put on the games. And second, that an agreement be reached between the players and the owners to split a smaller revenue pie that will be made even smaller if teams can’t sell tickets.

The first stipulation should not be contentious. Neither the owners nor the players want an outbreak to happen within a clubhouse, and judging by the details (The Athletic, $) that have reached the public, these concerns seem to have been taken seriously. Testing would be done often, using “the least invasive and fastest methods commercially available without adversely impacting public health needs,” temperatures would be taken twice daily, and family members would also have access to testing, etc. An almost comical set of guidelines would also preclude close contact off the field, including no fist-bumping, no showers, and no spitting (just to name a few). Thankfully, there are very few instances during play in which two or more people are close to each other (catcher/hitter/umpire, first baseman/runner) so little if anything will change to how the game itself is played. The only outstanding issue regarding player safety I see coming up is how at-risk players would be handled financially if they didn’t want to play, and who could be considered at-risk. But I don’t think that would sink an agreement.

The second stipulation is more intractable. The owners and players came to an agreement in late March, shortly after Spring Training was cut short, in which the players would be paid based on the number of games played in 2020, and if there were no games played at all, they would be paid a total of $170M. In return, all players on the major-league roster would receive a full year of service time regardless of what would happen. In other words, if the season is 82 games, all players would be paid roughly half of their original salary, but if they were a year away from free agency, they would be eligible for it at the end of the season.

However, because in most of the country bans on mass gatherings remain and are likely to continue for a while, that means teams will be without a significant portion of their revenue if games are played without fans. And so the owners have made another proposal to the players to pay them 50% of the total revenue made during the shortened season rather than 50% of their original contracts. This is a non-starter to the players, who view any attempt to base salaries on revenue as tantamount to a salary cap. MLBPA president Tony Clark said this back in April, when the issue was first brought up:

“Players recently reached an agreement with Major League Baseball that outlines economic terms for resumption of play, which included significant salary adjustments and a number of other compromises. That negotiation is over,” union head Tony Clark said in a statement Monday.

As Jeff Passan reports, there is a clause in the March 2020 agreement that can be interpreted as requiring a separate negotiation in case the games could not be played in front of fans or had to be played in neutral locations:

That said, on Page 1 of the agreement, the first point of the Resumption of Play section includes the words: "(T)he 2020 championship season shall not be commenced unless and until each of the following conditions is satisfied." One of those conditions ends with: "(T)he Office of the Commissioner and Players Association will discuss in good faith the economic feasibility of playing games in the absence of spectators or at appropriate substitute neutral sites."

However that interpretation is not shared by the MLBPA, who feels that financial negotiations were completed in March, and so you have this standoff. That we’re even getting the details of these arguments (including a detailed accounting of how much each club is projected to lose if games are played in empty stadiums) is an indication of how far apart the owners and players are on this point. Now the negotiations will be held both in conference rooms and in the public, and both sides are hoping to garner enough public support to improve their negotiating position.


Given all this, I think it is crucial to understand the current sports media environment. Various media outlets and commentators are going to ramp up the rhetoric even more than usual in this now public financial negotiation, because unlike in previous negotiations, in which the two sides were divvying up a consistently growing pie of revenue, this time they will be fighting over a smaller pie. Most outlets have picked a side in this ongoing conflict, and because of that their coverage is slanted in one way or another. This is not a new phenomenon, but it has of recent years become more transparent as the economics of the industry has changed. No longer do most media outlets even try to attract a broad readership because the paradigm demands they sell their product (via Internet advertising) to a core base who will only countenance reading articles that reinforces their worldviews AND to readers of the opposing base who read the articles only to rail against them (aka hate clicks). There has always been media organizations with ideological agendas, but now the current paradigm states is that it is more profitable to operate a site with one. I disagree with that, especially in the long term, but that is what the media corporations, who don’t tend to prioritize things like public trust and long-term viability when next month’s traffic report is just a week away, think will keep them afloat in an era where a single person with an Internet connection can theoretically have the same amount of influence as the largest organizations on the planet.

So expect lots of over-the-top rhetoric. Expect documents and quotes that normally wouldn’t see the light of day in a good faith negotiation to be freely distributed to friendly media sources (as already has been done). Expect copious emotional arguments that reference the ongoing pandemic to try to sway you to one side or the other. Expect more Twitter outrage than usual, if that’s even possible. My advice is to ignore all of it, go do something else, and only re-engage when there’s an agreement to re-start the season. That’s what I plan to do here, so expect nothing but non-baseball posts until an agreement happens, whether it’s tomorrow or next year.


Ultimately this is a conflict that should be solved in (virtual) meeting rooms and not in the public sphere, because the players and owners have the most to lose. If no season is played, they will have thrown away a massive opportunity with all the other team sports sidelined until at least the fall to dominate live sports, and more importantly regain mental real estate in the minds of current and potential customers (fans). Fans just lose something to do in their spare time, while the owners and players lose their livelihoods.

If you break the habits of fans that for generations have gotten used to turning the game on every night during the summer months, you’ll lose a significant portion of them when you do return. Baseball is just one of many entertainment options now, and something will fill that gap if it’s not available. Think of the lingering financial effects of the 1994 work stoppage, and consider that was well before most people had access to the Internet, never mind video streaming or other related entertainment industries that didn’t exist back then.

So my response to this PR offensive by the players and owners is this: stop leaking your arguments to the public, stop wasting time engineering your narratives, and start figuring out how to make a season happen safely.

Indians Announce Hernandez signing, Designates Haase for Assignment

It’s official now: the Indians have signed free agent second baseman Cesar Hernandez to a one-year contract worth $6.25M:

 The Tribe officially announced on Sunday that it has signed César Hernández to a one-year deal. A source told MLB.com's Jon Paul Morosi earlier this week that Hernández's contract is worth $6.25 million, though the club has not confirmed the value. To make room on their 40-man roster, the Indians designated catcher Eric Haase for assignment. 

Hernandez was one of the better second base options available this winter; Fangraphs (Steamer) projects him to be worth 2.1 fWAR next year, though not significantly ahead of a number of other second sackers that were out there (Jonathan Villar, Brian Dozier, Jonathan Schoop, the list goes on). One of the reasons why I think the Indians got away with a one-year deal is that there were so many decent players available, and still are.

Hernandez has over five years of service time (the Phillies non-tendered him rather than pay him a projected $11M in his last year of arbitration), so he’s going to be a free agent after the 2020 season. That should suit the Indians just fine, as long as either Christian Arroyo or Yu Chang make some strides this season. At worst Hernandez gives the Indians a stable placeholder while they figure their future at the position; he’s appeared in at least 155 games in three of the last four seasons, and has been at least adequate offensively (for the position). 2019 was his worst season at the plate since becoming a full-time player, but repeating that campaign (91 OPS+) would be fine, assuming his glove remains in form.

I was somewhat surprised that the Indians designated Eric Haase this early in the offseason. Haase still has an option left, and after Kevin Plawecki was let go, was set to be the first catcher up in case of injury to either Roberto Perez or Sandy Leon. Maybe the Indians really liked Beau Taylor, the first minor-league signing of the winter, as their primary AAA catcher, and had soured on Haase’s future at the position, but I didn’t see the rush to make the call now. I had figured a more likely candidate for DFA would have been infielder Andrew Velazquez, who was lower on the depth chart (behind Arroyo, Chang, and even the re-signed Mike Freeman).

Now to address the elephant in the room: does this signing indicate that the Indians aren’t trading Francisco Lindor this winter? I would love to say yes, given that Ken Rosenthal was reporting the weekend before Christmas that the Indians were taking everyone’s last and best offers, but until I hear something definitive from the Cleveland front office, I’m still somewhat concerned. Not as concerned as before the Hernandez signing, though.

The other nagging question of the offseason remains as well: what exactly do the Indians have left to spend? Second base was the only spot the team was guaranteed to fill, but I see at least two more roles that the team can upgrade. Another outfielder would do wonders for the lineup, particularly with Tyler Naquin out until at least May. The Indians have been musing about using Franmil Reyes in the outfield regularly, but then that would leave the DH spot unmanned, and would weaken the overall defense. Better to grab a Marcel Ozuna, Starling Marte, or even bring back Yasiel Puig than placing your trust in Jake Bauers, Bradley Zimmer, or Daniel Johnson as everyday players. If any one of that trio breaks out, then that’s a great problem to have, but as we learned last year, banking on a breakout can also blow up in your face.

Link to live file (OneDrive)

An end is near

I guess my wish for clarity was granted:

According to Ken Rosenthal, the Indians have asked teams for their “best and final offers” for Francisco Lindor, and will presumably make a decision on whether to trade him this weekend.

The Indians have yet to make a significant addition this winter (beyond Sandy Leon), and free agents are being taken off the board rapidly. In my opinion that’s because of the Lindor trade discussions, as the roster needs after a Lindor trade may be completely different from the roster needs now. If, for instance, they receive a major-league infielder and outfielder for Lindor, then obviously that changes their free agent or trade targets over the rest of the winter.

This artificial deadline also helps on the public relations front. If the right offer doesn’t materialize, the Indians can then declare that Lindor will not be traded this winter, ending the speculation and uncertainty. In the Rosenthal video above, he mentions that one executive didn’t understand why the Indians wouldn’t just wait until later in the offseason to trade him. That may be true if the Indians were trying to just maximize the return on Lindor, but there are downsides to doing that. If the Indians did absolutely nothing except talk to teams about trading their franchise player until January, what do you think that would do to the season-ticket base, or more broadly, the fanbase’s opinion of the team?

I think the Indians should hold on to Lindor for another season, even if it means they don’t maximize their return on him. As I mentioned yesterday, the farm system is set up well for the post-Lindor era; this is not the same situation as in 2008 and 2009, in which the core was approaching free agency and there was nothing in the farm system to replace them. I actually wouldn’t have a problem with the Indians holding on to Lindor through the 2021 and just getting the compensatory draft pick after he leaves via free agency if it came to that.

That being said, I still have no idea what will happen. The Indians seem to be sticking to their high trade demands (the Mets apparently balked when the Indians demanded Jeff McNeil), but maybe someone will blink and give the Indians at least two core players for Lindor. Or maybe everyone stands their ground. Either way, we might know by the time the Browns take the field this Sunday.

Uncertain Times

An uncertain situation seems to bring out the worst in us. In a lot of cases it’s better to be dealing with a bad known than an unknown, because when you don’t know what’s going to happen, you can’t do anything except worry and fret.

In the aftermath of the Kluber trade, and with a different Lindor trade rumor seemingly popping up daily, it is easy to get caught up in the whirlwind of possibilities, especially the bad ones. The rumor ecosystem thrives on our need to have any kind of news, even if it’s garbled or obscure.

In these situations, the best you can hope for is to cling to the few pieces of hard evidence that we have. It’s obvious that the Indians have and are continuing to talk to teams about Lindor, both from reputable sources, and from Antonetti/Chernoff interviews. For example, in this post-Kluber trade interview, Chernoff reiterates that he expects Lindor to be in the Tribe lineup on Opening Day, but mentioned that teams were interested in him (2:05 on the video).

Lindor’s status puts the Indians in a quandry. On the one hand, keeping him is going to give the team the best chance to play for a championship this season, because a 6-win player at any position, never mind a shortstop, is a weapon that few teams have. On the other, this winter might be the last best chance to maximize the return on him. Lindor has made it crystal clear that he is going to become a free agent after the 2021 season, and if you have any sense of recent Indians history, you know what’s going to be the result of that. If the Indians wait until after the 2020 season, they’ll be in a similar situation that the Red Sox are in with Mookie Betts, as Ken Rosenthal notes:

Thus all the rumors of trade talks from several teams now, indicative of the Indians exploring their options. The more I think about the situation, the more I tend to believe that the Indians are going to see exactly what the trade market is for Lindor first before making any other moves, therefore the trade explorations have to have a finite ending soon. Based on what the Indians were demanding from the Dodgers (Gavin Lux, who made his MLB debut late last season), the Indians still fashion themselves a contender (the return for Corey Kluber was two major-league players rather than prospects seems to back this up), so if they wait too much longer, many of the targets in free agent will be off the board. But their needs may be different if they manage a blockbuster Lindor deal than if they just hang onto him.

This brings me to the other uncertainty: what exactly will the Indians be spending this winter? If the budget is last year’s ending payroll ($124M), they will have about $30M to spend, and could be a contender to sign an outfielder like Marcell Ozuna, along with a second baseman and a reliever. If it’s closer to $15M of room ($110M), they’ll just stick to the second baseman, maybe a reliever, and that’s it. What exactly is the payroll level that ownership is comfortable staying at? None of us knows.

The organization has done an admirable job in preparing for the next iteration of the Indians, the post-Lindor Era, if you will, as the strength of the farm system are players who will be ready in 2021-22. The Indians should not have to undergo the painful rebuilds that teams like the Tigers, Orioles, and Royals are enduring right now. They also do not have many long-term contracts that will hamper them. So there are ways they can add talent without jeopardizing either the farm system or future payrolls. The ghosts of the Swisher and Bourne contracts may haunt the dreams of Antonetti and Chernoff, but there are players out there who will not demand those type of deals (Ozuna, Puig), or even trade targets with higher but short-term contracts (Starling Marte).

But for now, we wait. I for one will try to busy myself doing other things* until there’s more clarity, because spending more time in this stew of uncertainty is going to drive me batty.

*Maybe not watching the Star Wars movie, if the initial reviews are anything to go by.

Transaction Analysis: Indians trade Corey Kluber

Traded RHP Corey Kluber to the Texas Rangers for RHP Emmanuel Clase and OF Delino DeShields

Designated IF Mike Freeman for Assignment

It is difficult to be objective about a trade involving Corey Kluber, regardless of the return. He’s one of the 10 best pitchers in franchise history, certainly the best since Sam McDowell (who last pitched for the Indians in 1971). He won 2 AL Cy Young Awards, and nearly pitched the Indians to a championship in 2016. His rise from obscurity in 2013 heralded the beginning of a seven-year run of competitiveness, including four playoff appearances.

2019 was a lost season for Kluber. He had started out poorly, which has happened in the past, but unlike previous years, he didn’t have a chance to warm up with the weather. On May 1st, a line drive caught him on his pitching arm, fracturing his ulna. He would make some rehab starts in late August, but an oblique strain ended any hope of him pitching the rest of the season.

The Indians would pick up his $17.5M option after the season, and it appeared that they would either try to trade him this winter or bank on him returning to form in 2020. The Indians had depth in the rotation, so it made sense to try to use that depth to improve other areas of the club.

When Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg signed record-breaking contracts, both in terms of AAV (Average Annual Value) and length, I assumed that if anything the Indians would be in a position of strength. Kluber’s $18.5M salary (with a projected 3.4 fWAR) seemed downright reasonable compared to any of the starters left on the market, even considering his injury-marred 2019 campaign.

So when the news hit that Kluber was being traded to the Texas Rangers, my first thought was that the Indians had in fact extracted a great return. After all, Kluber had been mentioned in connection with several other teams in recent days (Dodgers and Angels, just to name the two most prominent), and I figured that the Indians had played all the contenders against each other. If the deal was anything like the Trevor Bauer trade last July, the Indians would be getting at least a couple “win-now” players plus several good prospects.

Then Ken Rosenthal tweeted this:

I thought: “huh, I guess the return is going to be mostly prospects.” Especially considering this next tweet:

But then even those hopes were dashed:

The trade ended up being RHP Emmanuel Clase and OF Delino DeShields for RHP Corey Kluber and $500,000. And of course the roughly $15M the Indians saved. Underwhelming, to say the least.

Now don’t get me wrong: both players the Indians received will help the team in 2020. Clase, who made his MLB debut this past season, is a much-needed power bullpen arm, and has the stuff to close games. Delino DeShields is a better fourth outfielder/pinch-runner than the Indians had on the roster. But neither of these players are what I’d term core players. Perhaps Clase could be the next Cody Allen if everything works out, but he’s way too young and inexperienced to know what he is right now. If you want to look at it from a purely WAR perspective, the Indians gave up 3.4 fWAR and got 1.1 fWAR back in return, plus $15M, and that’s assuming that the money will be spent.

With teams promising the moon and the stars to any half-way decent starting pitcher on the free agent market (as I write this, Madison Bumgarner just got 5/$85M from Arizona), to get this anemic a return is a major disappointment. Knowing what we know now, it’s obvious that the Indians picked up Kluber’s option merely in order to trade him this winter, and other teams called their bluff.

And this is not taking into account how the overall fanbase is going to take this trade. Corey Kluber was one of the faces of the franchise, and trading him for a fourth outfielder and an interesting but unproven bullpen arm is not going to sit well, especially after the events of last winter. So I certainly hope that the Indians already have a major move, or series of moves teed up to go. I don’t think anyone is expecting them to trade for Mookie Betts, but signing Marcell Ozuna or trading for Starling Marte would make this trade defensible. Oh yeah, it would also help to announce that Francisco Lindor is no longer available on the trade market.

Because the Indians acquired two players on the 40-man roster, they needed to clear a spot, so they designated Mike Freeman for assignment. I think the Indians will be signing a free agent second baseman, which meant that Freeman’s days on the 40-man were numbered, though I thought he might stick around through Spring Training.

Here’s what the roster looks like after the moves today:

Link to live file (OneDrive)

I penciled Adam Plutko in as the fifth starter because he’s out of options, but realistically you could have a number of other pitchers beat him out this spring (Plesac, Rodriguez, even Moss or Allen). The Indians still need at least one corner outfielder and either a second or third baseman, and theoretically now have anywhere from $25-30M to play with. Let’s hope they actually use it.

On the reported Lindor trade talks

This was originally a comment on Let’s Go Tribe a week or so ago, but I think it’s worth re-purposing today given this tweet/article:

My rule of thumb: if a rumor is not sourced to a specific quote or piece of reporting, it’s just made up garbage and should be treated with contempt and ignored. It also depends on the “hit rate” of the reporter, too. For example, if Ken Rosenthal reports that the Indians are looking to trade X player, you generally take it more seriously than if Jon Paul Morosi or Bob Nightengale reports it. You also need to understand who the source is so that you can understand the motivation for leaking the information. If the source is “front office of a rival team” or something like that, it’s probably chaff thrown out into the media to help negotiations with either the Indians or another team. Also remember that teams talk to each other all the time, and probably every single player on the roster will get mentioned, even if the team would never trade that player.

With that in mind, let’s turn to Nightengale’s article. This is the important bit:

Hoping to make a big splash as their World Series drought continues, the Los Angeles Dodgers are discussing a trade for shortstop Francisco Lindor with the Cleveland Indians, according to a person with direct knowledge of the talks.

The person spoke to USA TODAY Sports on the condition of anonymity because talks are ongoing.

Let’s think about what’s being said, or what’s not being said. That the Indians were going to explore a trade for Lindor is not exactly news, even if you hadn’t been plugged into your Twitter feed for the past couple of days. It’s an open secret that the Indians aren’t going to keep Lindor past the 2021 season, with acknowledgment from both Lindor and the Indians. The talented shortstop is going to command a contract along the lines of what Manny Machado (10/$300M) and Bryce Harper (13/$330M) received last winter, and the Indians aren’t going to match the length of contract that Lindor will command (at least 8 years), especially at the AAV (average annual value) of at least $35M.

But, for now, all Nightengale is reporting is that the teams are discussing a trade. Not “close to consummating” or anything along those lines. Chris Antonetti, Cleveland’s president of baseball operations, alluded to these “trade talks” yesterday:

“There’s nothing we need to do with any player,” Antonetti said. “Frankie has established himself as one of the best players in baseball and we’re fortunate to have him. Because he’s such a good player, a lot of teams call with interest.”

With the Dodgers losing out on Gerritt Cole yesterday, they are logically moving on to trade targets, with Lindor obviously at the top of the list. And from the Indians’ standpoint, the Dodgers have a lot of players that would be great fits, starting with top prospect Gavin Lux, who just so happens to be a middle infielder. If there’s any team that could entice the Indians to deal Lindor this winter, it’s the Dodgers.

As for who the source is, I lean towards it being a member of the Dodgers front office to let somebody else (another team? an agent?) know that they have another option. I don’t think there’s anything to gain from the Indians’ standpoint for this information to get out to the public. If the Cleveland front office wanted to use a leak to their negotiating advantage, they would have mentioned that the Indians were talking with several teams, not just the Dodgers.

In summary, I don’t think it’s quite time to panic or get excited yet, depending on your view. Now if Ken Rosenthal or Buster Olney starts tweeting about a deal being imminent, then it’s time to go nuts.

Offseason Journal: Prelude to the Winter Meetings

Teams have already made some major moves, but as yet the Indians haven’t been one of them. The only move made in the run-up to the Winter Meetings that will affect the Opening Day roster was the Non-Tender Day swap of backup catchers.

Link to live file (OneDrive)

Let’s back up a bit and take the various sets of roster moves one by one.

Rule 5 Roster Day (November 20th)

This was the final day that clubs could protect minor-league players from the Rule 5 Draft by adding them to the 40-man roster. The Indians came into the day with two open spots (38) and wanted to protect three players, so they needed to drop one.

Designated RHP Nick Goody for Assignment

Goody was fantastic in 2017, but missed a large portion of 2018 and wasn’t quite the same this past season. He did land on his feet, though, as the Texas Rangers claimed him off waivers 6 days later.

Purchased the contracts of LHP Scott Moss and OF Daniel Johnson from Columbus (AAA)

Purchased the contract of Triston McKenzie from Lynchburg (A+)

Johnson was acquired from Washington last winter (Yan Gomes), while Moss was one of the players received in the three-team Trevor Bauer trade last July. Both players will at some point contribute to the club next year, and Johnson has a decent shot at making the Opening Day roster, depending on what the Indians do this winter.

McKenzie, who at one time was among the best prospects in the system, has slipped in recent years due to injury and struggles on the field, but still has the upside to be in a major-league rotation. And given how starting pitching is valued, there’s no way the Indians could have gotten away with leaving him unprotected. If everything breaks right he would be in the mix for a late-season call up, but it’s more likely that he contributes in 2021 (or would be traded).

Traded 2B Mark Mathias (AAA) to the Milwaukee Brewers for C Andres Melendez

Mathias was eligible, and the Indians were not going to protect him, so the Brewers, rather than wait to select him in the Rule 5 Draft and deal with the restrictions that comes with it, traded for him and added him to their 40-man roster. That means the Brewers can option him to the minors. If they had selected him in the Rule 5 Draft, they would have had to keep him on their active roster (or Injured List) all season.

Non-Tender Day (December 2)

This is the day by which clubs must offer any player on their 40-man roster not already signed to a contract a contract tender. If they don’t tender a contract, the player immediately becomes a free agent and can sign with any team. Usually players that are non-tendered are in the last few years of arbitration (service times of 4-5 years), with their projected salaries not matching their projected production. The Indians had already released most of the players they were going to non-tender (Danny Salazar, for example), so expectations going into this day was that they would be quiet.

However, that didn’t happen.

Traded RHP Adenys Bautista (R-) to the Boston Red Sox for C Sandy Leon

Designated RHP James Hoyt for Assignment

Leon is a catcher that has a good reputations on defense and with pitching staffs, but has done almost nothing on offense since 2016. He has 5+ years of service time, and was projected to make $2.8M in arbitration (according to MLB Trade Rumors). Meanwhile the Indians’ backup catcher, Kevin Plawecki, was projected to make around $1.4M. The Indians obviously liked Leon’s skill set better than Plawecki’s but not $1.4M better, as we’ll see shortly. Bautista is not much of a prospect, a

Hoyt was not arbitration-eligible, but was designated just because he was #40 on the Tribe’s value board. He would be re-signed a couple days later, though.

Signed 2020 contract with C Sandy Leon ($2M), avoiding arbitration

That made the difference between Leon and Plawecki $500-600k.

Non-tendered RHP James Hoyt and C Kevin Plawecki

Hoyt had been designated for assignment earlier in the day, and this made him a free agent before he passed through waivers. It’s obvious in retrospect that the Indians and Hoyt had already talked, as he’d be re-signed to a major-league contract. As for Plawecki, the writing for him was on the wall when the Indians acquired Leon. He was out options, and the Indians weren’t going to be carrying three catchers on the active roster, even with a 26th spot available this year.

Signed free agent RHP James Hoyt to a major-league contract

Thus bringing the 40-man roster back up to 40. If the Indians want to make a selection in Thursday’s Rule 5 Draft, they’ll need to clear a spot, but I don’t see that happening, especially they will eventually need to clear at least a couple spots for acquisitions (2B/3B and OF).

A summary of the Houston Astros sign-stealing scandal

On November 12th, The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal and Evan Drellich released a bombshell piece of reporting (paywall): proof that Houston Astros, during 2017 home games, were stealing signs in real time and relaying them to the batter. Members of the team set up a monitor in the dugout tunnel that displayed a feed from center field in real time, and once they had deciphered the catcher’s signals, banged on a trash can to indicate an off-speed pitch; if a fastball was called, there was no banging. Because the banging was audible on TV broadcasts, and the article mentioned a particular incident, the allegation was easy to confirm by anyone with access to Youtube. In fact, just a couple of hours after the article appeared, Jomboy, a Internet baseball commentator, posted this fantastic breakdown on Twitter:

Before long numerous other examples were found throughout the season, and the pattern (bang for an off-speed pitch, no bang for a fastball) remained consistent throughout all the other incidents. Keep in mind also that the Astros won the 2017 World Series.

Before exploring the immediate fallout from this revelation, let’s take a step back in order to understand why these allegations are so damaging to the Astros in particular and MLB in general.

Sign Stealing: legal versus illegal

From the time signals began to be used in baseball, the other team has tried to decipher them, whether they were from the third base coach (for the batter) or the catcher (for the pitcher). The benefit of knowing for certain the type of pitch that is coming is immense for a major-league hitter. There are very few pitchers with the type of stuff that will miss bats if the batter knows the pitch ahead of time.

With that being said, it is not illegal in MLB for teams to use on-field personnel to decipher signs; for example, if a runner on second who has deciphered the pitch signs signals them to the batter and is discovered, he will not be thrown out by the umpire or even fined by the league. However, if the signals were deciphered by non-human methods or were relayed from someone who isn’t on-field personnel (a player or coach), that is illegal sign stealing. The use of a mechanical device to steal signs has been banned since 1961, and “electronic methods” were specifically banned in 2001.

The Arms Race

As video technology (particularly resolution) has gotten better, it has become much easier to see the catcher’s signs from the traditional center field feed. And so, in recent years teams have become more paranoid about having their signs being stolen, even when there’s no runners on base, or other analysis being done in real-time (such as looking at tiny differences in a pitcher’s glove between pitches to see if there’s any “tells”).

In 2014, MLB instituted the current form of instant replay, in which a manager has the ability to challenge certain calls on the field and have them reviewed by the MLB office. As part of the new process, teams now employ replay assistants whose job it is to phone the manager if he or she thinks the play is worth reviewing. The assistant is provided with real-time video feeds to make the determination to review.

“Ok,” you may be saying, “how the heck does instant replay relate to stealing signs?” The reason is that the first proven instance of electronic sign stealing came because of that replay assistant. In 2017, the New York Yankees filed a complaint against the Boston Red Sox alleging that their replay assistant was texting the pitch calls to an athletic trainer in the dugout, who would relay the calls to the batter. After reviewing the complaint, which was later publicized by the New York Times, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred issued his findings and punishment:

  September 15, 2017 (edit: remember this date!)

Baseball Commissioner Robert D. Manfred, Jr. issued the following statement today: 

"Several weeks ago, the New York Yankees filed a complaint with the Commissioner's Office alleging that the Boston Red Sox violated certain Major League Baseball Regulations by using electronic equipment to aid in the deciphering of signs being given by the Yankees' catcher. The Commissioner's Office has conducted a thorough investigation of the allegation. Today, I am prepared to disclose the results of that investigation.

"At the outset, it is important to understand that the attempt to decode signs being used by an opposing catcher is not a violation of any Major League Baseball Rule or Regulation. Major League Baseball Regulations do, however, prohibit the use of electronic equipment during games and state that no such equipment 'may be used for the purpose of stealing signs or conveying information designed to give a Club an advantage.' Despite this clear Regulation, the prevalence of technology, especially the technology used in the replay process, has made it increasingly difficult to monitor appropriate and inappropriate uses of electronic equipment. Based on the investigation by my office, I have nonetheless concluded that during the 2017 season the Boston Red Sox violated the Regulation quoted above by sending electronic communications from their video replay room to an athletic trainer in the dugout. 

[snip]

"Taking all of these factors as well as past precedent into account, I have decided to fine the Red Sox an undisclosed amount which in turn will be donated by my office to hurricane relief efforts in Florida. Moreover, all 30 Clubs have been notified that future violations of this type will be subject to more serious sanctions, including the possible loss of draft picks.

 

The punishment meted out to the Red Sox, an undisclosed fine, was in my opinion much too lenient for the severity of the violation. Knowing what pitch is coming is a massive advantage, particularly in a close game. Manfred, did, however, issue a warning that further violations would be met with more severe penalties.

Please note that Manfred’s statement was issued on September 15, 2017. The incident covered by Jomboy above happened a week later on September 22. So the Astros were violating the rule even after Manfred issued his warning.

Fast forward to the 2018 postseason. The Cleveland Indians were swept by the Astros in the ALDS, but after the series, Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports broke this story:

 HOUSTON – The Boston Red Sox were warned that a man credentialed by the Houston Astros might try to steal signs or information from their dugout after the Cleveland Indians caught him taking pictures of their dugout with a cellphone camera during Game 3 of the American League Division Series, sources with knowledge of the situation told Yahoo Sports.

A photograph obtained by Yahoo Sports showed a man named Kyle McLaughlin aiming a cell phone into Cleveland’s dugout during the Indians’ 11-3 loss that ended their season. McLaughlin was the same man caught taking pictures near the Red Sox’s dugout during Game 1 of the AL Championship Series, which was first reported by the Metro Times. McLaughlin was removed by security in Cleveland and Boston, sources said. 

Click through to the article to view the photograph. This incident again prompted an investigation by MLB, and once again there were no real consequences:

  "Before the postseason began, a number of Clubs called the Commissioner's Office about sign stealing and the inappropriate use of video equipment. The concerns expressed related to a number of Clubs, not any one specific Club. In response to these calls, the Commissioner's Office reinforced the existing rules with all playoff Clubs and undertook proactive measures, including instituting a new prohibition on the use of certain in-stadium cameras, increasing the presence of operations and security personnel from Major League Baseball at all Postseason games and instituting a program of monitoring Club video rooms.

"With respect to both incidents regarding a Houston Astros employee, security identified an issue, addressed it and turned the matter over to the Department of Investigations. A thorough investigation concluded that an Astros employee was monitoring the field to ensure that the opposing Club was not violating any rules. All Clubs remaining in the playoffs have been notified to refrain from these types of efforts and to direct complaints about any in-stadium rules violations to MLB staff for investigation and resolution. We consider the matter closed." 

The justification of “we were just seeing of the other guy was cheating” seems laughable on its face, but the commissioner somehow bought it. At least in the immediate aftermath, while the postseason was still ongoing.

After the season, MLB instituted several new rules regarding electronic devices. They included:

  • Banning all non-broadcast cameras from foul pole to foul pole
  • The only live game feed will be provided to the team’s replay booth, and a trained MLB employee will ensure there is no illegal communication between the replay booth and the dugout or field of play. All other game feeds will occur on an eight-second delay
  • No television monitors will be allowed between the clubhouse and the dugout.

In retrospect, these rules were designed to stop exactly the type of scheme the Astros were using in 2017. Houston installed a camera in center field (bullet point one), had installed a TV monitor between the clubhouse and the field (point three) and were giving the batter the signs in real time (point two). So I think MLB had some inkling that this type of cheating was going on: they perhaps just didn’t have any evidence.

Until last week.

Crime and Punishment

That brings us up to the Athletic report. After the article dropped, the Houston Astros announced that were cooperating with MLB on an investigation into the allegations, and would make no other comment (which is an improvement on how they handled the Brandon Taubman incident):

 Regarding the story posted by The Athletic earlier today, the Houston Astros organization has begun an investigation in cooperation with Major League Baseball. It would not be appropriate to comment further on this matter at this time. 

This placed the ball back in Manfred’s court. He had let the Red Sox off with a fine in 2017, then did nothing regarding the Astros employee in the 2018 postseason. This time his rhetoric was different:

 "Any allegations that relate to a rule violation that could affect the outcome of a game or games is the most serious matter," Manfred said. "It relates to the integrity of the sport. In terms of where we are, we have a very active -- what is going to be a really, really thorough investigation ongoing. But beyond that, I can't tell you how close we are to done." 

He also said that the Astros were the only team MLB was currently looking at, but later said:

 “We are going to investigate the Astros situation as thoroughly as humanly possible,” Manfred said after the conclusion of the owners’ meetings. “That investigation is going to encompass not only what we know about ’17, but also ’18 and ’19. We are talking to people all over the industry. Former employees, competitors, whatever. To the extent that we find other leads, we’re going to follow these leads. We will get to the bottom of what we have out there in terms of what went on to the extent that it’s humanly possible. I just can’t speculate beyond that.” 

So although this investigation may start with the Astros, it may not end there, which is as it should be. Even if it turns out that the Astros had the most sophisticated method, any team that utilized electronics should be punished. It is critical that fans have faith that the game they are watching is being played within the rules, and that one team does not have an unfair advantage over the other.

That takes us to the topic of punishment. Twice now (in the 2017 Red Sox statement and the pre-season rules in 2019) teams have warned that violation of the sign stealing rules could result in the loss of draft picks or similar punishment. Craig Edwards of Fangraphs looked at Manfred’s history of punishments for organizational violations and came away with these broad criteria:

  • Is this the first time a team has been penalized for breaking the rules?
  • Was the organization cooperative with MLB’s investigation?
  • How high up the organizational chain does the knowledge and activity go?

As an example, he examines MLB’s investigations into international signing violations. In 2016, the Red Sox were punished for violating the signing rules by not being able to sign any international free agents for a year and by having those players that were signed illegally declared free agents. A year later, the Atlanta Braves broke those same rules, and not only were they punished with a greater loss of international signing caps, but Braves general manager John Coppollela was banned for life and another member of the front office was suspended for a year.

So if it is found that the Astros front office participated in, or at least knew about the illegal sign stealing, I would expect a similar type of punishment that the Braves received, with the team losing multiple draft picks, and suspensions of front office personnel, coaches, and players involved in the scheme. If there is evidence that the Astros used this scheme (or something similar to it) in the 2017/2018/2019 playoffs, the punishments would escalate even further.

One of Manfred’s roles as commissioner is to protect the institution, and that means he should come down hard on any individual or organization that places the existence of the sport in any kind of danger. This sign stealing scandal does in my opinion rise to that level.

Offseason Journal: The Arithmetic

As this off-season gets going in earnest, the Indians would seem to be in a better position than they were at this time last year. I used the word “seem” because I am assuming that the Indians will start the season with a payroll around $120-124M, the same range as last year.

Link to live file (OneDrive)

In addition to the cost-cutting moves (or non-moves in the case of Michael Brantley) made last winter, the Indians saved about $18M for the 2020 season by trading Trevor Bauer last July. They also saved another $19M net by declining the options of or releasing Jason Kipnis, Dan Otero, and Danny Salazar. By my calculations, the Indians should have $18M to spend between now and the end of July if their budget remains the same, and that’s with them picking up Corey Kluber’s $17.5M option.

In other words, the Indians aren’t going to be dangling Kluber or Francisco Lindor on the trade market because they need to cut payroll. I don’t think the Indians will end up trading either player for any reason, though: Lindor, because it’s going to be downright impossible to get a team to give them the type of value a player of Lindor’s caliber/contract demands, and Kluber because I don’t think teams will give up that much for a pitcher coming off an injury-marred season, even with his pedigree.

But the Indians do need to fill some holes, as the projected 2020 lineup indicates. With Naquin’s injury, I think they have to acquire at least one corner outfielder, perhaps even bringing back Yasiel Puig if the market doesn’t take an interest (MLB Trade Rumors projects him getting 1/$8M, which I think would be a bargain). As for the infield, I see the Indians grabbing a short-term solution at second or third (most likely second), with the idea that one of their crop of youngish infielders (Arroyo, Chang, Clement) would be ready to take over in 2021. They will also poke around for a reliever or two, though it would be out of character for them to pay market value.

The Indians could also fill one of the holes mentioned above by trading a starting pitcher. Adam Plutko is out of options and not likely to make the Opening Day starting rotation, so now might be the best time to see what you can get for him on a market that seems devoid of much starting pitching help. And maybe a team loses out on the big free agent prizes (Cole, Strasburg, Wheeler) and gets desperate enough to bowl the Indians with their offer for Corey Kluber.

Transactions

The period following the end of the World Series is scripted such that all contract options and 40-man rosters are settled before the offseason moves can begin in earnest. This is done so that all teams are an equal footing as far as 40-man roster spots are concerned. For instance, when the season ended the Indians had 7 players on the 60-day Injured/Disabled List, therefore they had 47 players on the between the 40-man roster and the Injured Lists.

October 31, 2019 (day after the World Series)

Exercised the 2020 option of RHP Corey Kluber ($17.5M)

Declined the 2020 options of 2B Jason Kipnis ($16.5M/$2.5M) and RHP Dan Otero ($1.5M/$.1M)

(indians.com story)

3B Ryan Flaherty, RF Yasiel Puig, RHP Tyler Clippard, 2B Jason Kipnis, and RHP Dan Otero declared free agency

November 4, 2019

RHP Corey Kluber, OF Tyler Naquin, IF Christian Arroyo, RHP Danny Salazar, RHP Cody Anderson, LHP Tyler Olson, and RHP AJ Cole activated from the 60-day Injured List

RHP Danny Salazar, RHP Cody Anderson, LHP Tyler Olson, and RHP AJ Cole outrighted to AAA Columbus – all declared free agency

(indians.com story)