Rainy Sunday Tribe Musings

 

Live version here

As what’s left of Gordon has made a hash of this weekend’s outdoor plans, what better way to spend this unexpected fallow time than opining over the state of the Cleveland Indians as they prepare for the playoffs? It’s been a while since I wrote anything specific on the Indians in this place (or anything at all for that matter), and there’s lots of interesting sub-plots to cover.

In General

The drama had long been taken out of this season, what with the Twins regressing, and so all that is left to worry about is how the team will be structured for the ALDS. It’s been a weird season, in that the Indians have basically won the division in June despite having at one point only the sixth-best record in the American League. It’s also weird that the team played their best baseball after the division championship became a given. The closest season analogue is probably 1999, a team that ran away with the division (led by 10 games on June 15th). That club would score 1,099 runs, but lost in the ALDS to Boston largely because they didn’t have enough starting pitching for even a 5-game series (although if not for Mike Hargrove making a major strategic error, they might have won it anyway).

And so for the final three months of the season, both Terry Francona and the Tribe front office has had the luxury of not having to worry about the short-term, giving key players time off when they need it, sending players to the Disabled List for any type of physical ailment, and remaining patient with a slumping veteran. Most deadline trades are made with the idea of getting into the playoffs in the first place, but the Indians made their deals with the ALDS (and beyond) in mind. To that end, each of their July acquisitions (Brad Hand, Adam Cimber, Leonys Martin, and Oscar Mercado) are under team control through at least 2019. So while winning a championship in 2018 is still the top priority, a lot of the moves were made with this offseason in mind.

The Bullpen

The Indians are going to be the first team in baseball to clinch their division despite having the shakiest bullpen of any contender (though the Colorado Rockies might quibble with that). Like the Rockies, the Indians have succeeded in the standings because they’ve minimized the innings that their weak bullpen has had to pitch thanks to having one of the best starting staffs in baseball. The Tribe bullpen has thrown 387.2 innings, 35 fewer than their closest competitor (Houston, with 422.1 innings). Playoff games tend to see shorter hooks than a regular season game, and the Houston Astros (at this point it would be a shock if any other team is the ALDS opponent) are going to make it a point of emphasis to drive up the pitch count of the starting pitcher so that they can get to that shaky bullpen.

In the best of worlds, a bullpen with Brad Hand, Cody Allen, and Andrew Miller at the top of their games, along with support from Oliver Perez and Adam Cimber could get the job, assuming the starter can go six innings or more. But right now we’re not in that world, what with both Allen and Cimber struggling and Andrew Miller still trying to get healthy. There have been no signs that Dan Otero or Neil Ramirez will be of any help in October, and to that end Terry Francona has been trying out guys like Jon Edwards to see if he can find that final reliever for the playoff roster. But at this point I’d bank on the five mentioned in the first sentence of this paragraph plus at least one starting pitcher in the bullpen for the ALDS. In 2016 Francona leaned on his bullpen for lack of starting pitching; this playoff run, if there is to be a deep one, may depend on leaning on the rotation for most of the playoff innings.

Josh Donaldson and Jason Kipnis

On August 31, the Indians shocked practically everyone by acquiring Josh Donaldson from the Toronto Blue Jays. It’s not shocking that the Jays would try to trade the pending free agent (who supposedly wasn’t getting along with management), but that the Indians would be the team to trade for him. After all, the Indians had Jose Ramirez ensconced at third base, who was in the midst of having one of the best seasons by a third baseman in franchise history. The trade set in motion a series of positional changes, with Ramirez to move to second base, and Jason Kipnis to share time with Greg Allen in center field. In short, Josh Donaldson is going to make Kipnis a part-time player, which brings with clubhouse ramifications. After all, Kipnis has been a core player since the beginning of the playoff run in 2013, and is under contract ($13.67M) through next year. Assuming Donaldson leaves after the season, Jason Kipnis would be the front runner to return to second base, so Terry Francona is going to earn his salary in handling both Kipnis’ playing time as well as mental state through the rest of the season. Kipnis for his part has hit better in the second half, and especially of late (.947 OPS over the last two weeks), and if that continues through the end of the season, Francona would have more than enough justification to make him the starter in center field for the playoffs (with Allen, Guyer, or even Rajai Davis playing against a left-hander). All this juggling is necessary because of Leonys Martin’s life-threatening bacterial infection; thankfully Martin has recovered from it, but won’t be able to play again this season.

This all assumes that Josh Donaldson is both healthy and hitting by the time the playoffs roll around. After acquiring him, the Indians decided to place him back on the Disabled List (he was on Toronto’s DL when the trade happened) in order to get him more rehab at-bats. As a side benefit, the DL stint also helps him avoid this weekend’s series in Toronto.  And so Donaldson has played three games with the Akron RubberDucks in their Eastern League playoff series, and should be ready to go on Tuesday. He’ll then have about three weeks of major-league games to get in hitting shape for the playoffs. When healthy, Donaldson has been one of the best hitters in baseball, and would lengthen a lineup that for a good portion of this season has been very top-heavy.

The Melkman Cometh

Melky Cabrera, who I derided both here and in the Let’s Go Tribe comments, has been one of the most productive players on the club in the second half, hitting .312/.379/.500. He’s been especially good against left-handed pitching, which has led Terry Francona to try playing Brandon Guyer in center field when they face a southpaw. Cabrera is still an awful defender, but his re-emergence has plugged a massive hole in right field left by injuries to both Lonnie Chisenhall and Tyler Naquin. Martin was horrendous in his first stint with the Indians, but because he cleared waivers after the Indians designated him for assignment in June, was able to return for a second time, and this time has stuck. If you would have told me in May that Melky Cabrera would be the starting right fielder in the ALDS, I would have despaired for their lineup, but I am so glad to have been proven wrong.

The Yandy Conundrum

Yandy Diaz has started to hit at the major-league level, which has been welcome to see. He has a rather unconventional hitting profile, whacking singles and the occasional double, but rarely hitting the ball out of the park. He’s not a slap hitter at all (his average exit velocity of balls put in play is 92.5 mph, one of the best in baseball), but he doesn’t elevate the ball much at all. Since he got a week’s worth of regular playing time in August thanks to Edwin Encarnacion’s sore arm, he’s hit whenever he’s in the lineup. But he doesn’t really have a home position, which makes it difficult to find playing time for him on a club with an everyday DH. And that raises the question as to whether there will be a spot for him on the ALDS roster. For him to have a spot, he needs a role, and the only role that makes sense right now is of a pinch-hitter for Yonder Alonso, though he’ll also need to prove his defensive chops at first base. To this point he hasn’t started a game as a first baseman, but I’m hoping Terry Francona will get him some chances there as the season winds down. With Alonso struggling in the second half (.671 OPS), perhaps by the time the playoffs begin Diaz will even nab a start from Alonso (against Dallas Keuchel).

 

 

 

 

 

A Storybook Ending

Today Jim Thome takes his well-deserved place among baseball’s immortals, and most appropriately, his plaque that will hang in the Hall of Fame will feature him as a Cleveland Indian.

If you follow the Cleveland sports media, or sports media in general, you’ll by this time have read, heard, or seen just about every one of Thome’s career highlights and retrospectives, so I don’t want to duplicate those. Although I will recommend, if you missed it the first time, Jason Lukehart’s Top 100 Indians profile on Thome, as it captures his professional and personal greatness (the two are intertwined) in an understated way, the profile a reflection of the player and person.

Instead I’m going to indulge into some personal history regarding a rather painful time as an Indians fan. For there to be a storybook ending, there has to be a story, and a story without a conflict just isn’t a story.


Let’s go back to the winter of 2002. I was away at college, but baseball and particularly Jim Thome had as much of a hold on me as well as any of my courses, as this was the winter of his free agency. It was a rather protracted negotiation, which led to no small number of rumors, speculation, and an increasingly drawing out of emotions. After all, not only was Thome one of the best players in team history (he had just clinched the franchise home run record that season), but represented the last chance for the Indians to actually keep one of their homegrown stars for life.

By this time the rebuilding had begun, so I was under no allusion that keeping Thome would suddenly vault the team back into contention, but at least there would be some piece of those past teams that would carry forward, some continuity between the great teams of the 90s and the hopefully the next great team. I’d seen Albert Belle leave after 1996 and Manny Ramirez after 2000, and now hoped that this time, this player would decide to stay for good. Thome, unlike Belle or Ramirez, had signed a extension that kept him in Cleveland past his initial free agent year, but even so, hadn’t yet been a free agent. Now the large market teams were circling, ready to pick off the last of the homegrown stars.

I don’t remember exactly where I was when the news came down that Thome had signed with the Phillies. I had spent the last several days furiously refreshing the various sports news sites between classes, arguing on the ESPN Indians board at night with various characters about whether ownership would pony up the money to at least get close to what the Phillies had been offering. I distinctly remember that the Indians’ final offer included a statue, as though they hoped that immortality, that most tantalizing of intangibles, could somehow offset what we later learned to be a most tangible difference in salary. I also remember not believing the news at first, having read and heard many false stories masquerading as truth over the previous month. But as the confirmations came from other, more trustworthy sources, slowly, then quickly, stark reality hit. I closed the browser before the inevitable trolls would make the news hurt any worse.

Over 15 years later, it’s clear that nobody was the villain in this story. Thome clearly had wanted to stay, and the Indians tried to keep him. But the talk all during that long, dark winter was who was at fault more: Indians owner Larry Dolan, or Jim Thome. It got rather heated, to say the least. The ESPN board archives aren’t available any more, and I don’t remember every argument that I made back then, but I do know that I was more willing to believe that the offers were closer than they ultimately were, and therefore, blamed Thome more. I blamed Thome quite a bit, in many different ways. Rationality in this issue had been shoved way out of the picture, and wouldn’t return for quite a while. I think this was the case for a lot of Cleveland fans.

Meanwhile Thome handled the signing and its emotional baggage as well as he possibly could. Initially it helped that he was in the National League, and so wouldn’t face the Indians very often. But in a cruel twist of fate he would be traded back to the American League in 2006, and to a team in the AL Central. And not only that, it was to the Chicago White Sox, the year after they had won the World Series. The White Sox, whose manager (Ozzie Guillen) had given a choke signal at Jacobs Field at the end of the 2005 season. And Thome was still a great player, capable of making a difference in the division race. Needless to say, the cards were stacked against the fans of Cleveland giving Thome any sort of appreciation for all the years he’d spent captivating them as an Indian. I note all this to prepare you for the next paragraph.

By this time I was running Let’s Go Tribe, and so was spending even more time poring over the various reactions and commentary from the media on the Indians. The usual national media response to the chorus of boos Thome received while in Cleveland was indignation. “How could those fans boo a player who was so great for so long?” was a typical formulation you’d see in print, online, or on TV or radio. Indignation always makes for great audience engagement, so any time Thome appeared in Cleveland from then on (and because he was a member of the White Sox, it was quite often), that formulation became de rigueur and I became used to responding to it. But at the heart of that moral preening was a compelling argument: that Tribe fans were letting their emotions overwhelm them and holding a grudge that should have long faded away. As the years went by, and as the rawness of the events of 2002 faded, this became more and more apparent. I also understood where that emotion was coming from, because I had felt it as well (heck, still felt it somewhat), and you can’t just ignore that without being deeply dishonest with yourself.


I dredge up all these memories, the worst memories I could possibly have of Thome’s great career, for a reason. It makes today’s ceremony all the more poignant to me. Throughout the years of acrimony, of boos and other unpleasant banter, Thome handled it all with grace and magnanimity. And so, when the opportunity arose to bring him back in 2011, the ground had long been prepared for Indians fans to finally reciprocate that goodwill. Unpleasant history shouldn’t be forgotten, but neither should a Hall of Fame career be overshadowed by it. So in the twilight of his career, Jim Thome returned to Cleveland, and it was as if he had never left. The statue that had been promised back in 2002 as a condition was now given freely. The adulation withheld over the years was returned all at once. And it was not just because Thome was in an Indians uniform. The following year, Thome returned to Cleveland as a Baltimore Oriole, and was cheered just as loudly. There was no rebuilding that grudge now.

This story has its hero perform great feats, only to leave his home to jeers and curses by those who once adored him. But years later, the hero returns home, and the memories of those past glories softens the hearts of all, and once more they count him as one of their own.

And so he will be today in Cooperstown.

 

 

 

 

 

Are you not entertained?

The other day there was a discussion at Let’s Go Tribe about this column by USA Today’s Bob Nightengale. I responded there, and would like expand on my response here.

I’d recommend everyone who reads further to first read Nightengale’s column (not just the headline and introduction, which is designed to get the reader emotionally involved, whether for or against the premise. But I digress).

Nightengale seems to be mixing a bunch of issues into his conclusion that baseball is unwatchable when he just could have stuck with his main point: there is a lack of action in the game. He notes that MLB players are on track to accumulate more strikeouts than hits, which would mark the first time in history that that would be the case. His graph showing this trend starts in 2009, so I want to go back further to see if there was any trend beyond that. I went back to 1999, the year after the last batch of expansion. Here’s what the expanded graph looks like:

Hits have fallen over the years, but it’s been a rather gradual decline. Strikeouts, on the other hand, have seen a rapid ascent over the past 15 seasons. I want to go a bit further, because I don’t think Nightengale quite diagnosed the real issue. Let’s look at percentage of balls in play (anything but a strikeout, walk, home run, or hit by pitch) over the years:

The BIP percentage was fairly stable until this decade, then fell off considerably over the past 3 seasons. In the early to mid 00s, 70% of all plate appearances ended with a fielder making a play on a ball, but over the past couple of seasons, the percentage is now around 65%. For a game that’s been around for 150 years, that’s a sudden change.

You may be thinking: so what? The amount of runs per game have actually been trending up over the last couple of seasons:

Maximizing the amount of runs is the ultimate goal of an offense, so teams have been willing to trade contact for power (hence the recent emphasis on launch angles, etc). See the dip in runs per game in 2012-2013? That’s roughly the time when home runs % began to increase as well as strikeout %. That’s a rational adjustment by teams to a uptick in league pitching quality: you aren’t going to get as many chances to score runs, so go for the downs when you get a pitch to hit, even if you miss more.

But the on-field personnel aren’t the only ones who have input: there’s the fans as well, who ultimately keep the game profitable, and while a portion of fans only care about winning, I think there’s a considerable portion that also want to be entertained. And if there’s fewer things happening on the field, whether it be because of the amount of time between pitches or more strikeouts/walks, the game becomes less pleasurable to sit through. I can’t give you an exact percentage of fans who prioritize aesthetics over anything else, but I do think it’s enough to have an effect on the overall consumption of MLB, whether that be through the box office or the TV or the Internet. Other professional sports have over the years tried to reverse evolutionary changes to the game that fans haven’t liked; as one example, see the neutral zone trap in the mid-90s NHL. When the maximization of wins conflicts with the maximization of entertainment (and ultimately profitability), entertainment is going to win out eventually.

So what could MLB do if they do decide to incorporate rule changes to reverse this trend? If it were possible, the best way would be to both move the fences back across and increase the amount of real estate in the outfield across board; in other words, make every park play like Comerica Park in Detroit, with fewer home runs and more of every other kind of hit. But that would not be practicable given the way parks are constructed today, with valuable seats placed just beyond the fence. Lowering the mound or even moving it back is in my mind too broad a fix, as that would serve to increase offense across the board, perhaps accelerating the trend of fewer balls put in play. MLB could change the baseball itself so that it doesn’t travel as far off the bat; however given that their own recent study concluded that the baseball itself wasn’t a cause of the increase in home run rates, I wouldn’t be too confident that they even know what could “deaden” the ball.

My preferred solution to the BIP problem emanates from the same source that caused the BIP problem in the first place: adjustments by the teams and players themselves. As more and more pitchers are selected (in an evolutionary sense) to get high launch angle hitters out, hitters that are more line drive hitters will thrive, and clubs will try to develop more of those types of hitters. General Managers are constantly looking for undervalued talent, so someone is bound to go against the conventional wisdom and try to field a team of contact hitters at some point.

I do think MLB will move quickly on the pace of play issue (reducing the amount of time between pitches), implementing a pitch clock as soon as next year. After those changes are in place, if the BIP rate continues to fall, and if MLB determines that fans don’t like that trend, then rule changes will be implemented, and those would have a faster effect than evolutionary changes.


Nightengale’s other causes aren’t as compelling. Neither the have/have not issue is a new one, and the imbalance is not due to payroll/market size; the most recent CBA has put into effect a soft salary cap (the luxury tax threshold seems to be where teams stop spending). Yes, there aren’t that many mediocre teams (especially in the American League), but I don’t see that being any kind of structural problem. Many of the really bad teams are in large markets (Baltimore, White Sox, Mets), and either made really bad contract decisions or are consciously undergoing a rebuild.

The argument about advanced statistics being a cause of attendance being down made my head hurt. I seriously doubt any fan, no matter how casual, is going to stop going to games because there’s a couple new stats on the scoreboard or on the television screen. He uses Mike Trout, who is a player, to endorse this, which is absolutely backwards. A player’s goal is to drive in runs, because that’s how his team wins. I don’t have a problem with players thinking runs and RBIs are the ultimate goal, as long as they understand that in order to get better they should utilize other types of measures (such as the new types of stats made possible through the Statcast platform).

Even if you’re a casual fan, I think having other types of measures makes following a sport a lot more fun, as you can understand more deeply why and how things happened. Expected/projected wins/runs/etc shouldn’t be used as a guarantee for anything, but if anything they enhance your understand of the game, even if it’s enjoying a player or a team completely turn those projections upside down.

 

Churn

(you can see the live version of this here)

Note: since I put the above roster together, the Indians have added Melky Cabrera to the 25/40-man roster, optioned Evan Marshall, and designated Alexi Ogando for assignment. 

Right now the Indians are a roster of stars and scrubs, and the scrubs are winning.

The Tribe has two loci of instability on their roster, with one (the bullpen) being the most destabilizing by far. The outfield, which is other one, has its issues, but the Tribe offense has so far compensated for the holes in the lineup. And with several injured outfielders 1-2 weeks away from returning, those holes may be self-filling. But the bullpen looks to need radical external help; I don’t see any solutions coming from within.

The bullpen

The following is a list of transactions the Indians have made over the past 25 days just involving the bullpen. Keep in mind that the Indians didn’t make a bullpen-related move until April 26th, the day that Andrew Miller was placed on the Disabled List. That doesn’t mean the bullpen was pitching well, it just means that removing the stabilizing force of Miller led to a complete collapse of the bullpen into dysfunction, something that the Indians are still trying to get out of.

April 26

Placed LHP Andrew Miller on the 10-day Disabled List

Purchased the contract of LHP Jeff Believeau

May 1

Purchased the contract of RHP Ben Taylor

Designated RHP Matt Belisle for assignment

Placed RHP Nick Goody on the 10-day Disabled List

May 3

Purchased the contract of RHP Evan Marshall

Transferred RHP Danny Salazar to the 60-day Disabled List

May 4

Designated LHP Jeff Believeau for assignment

Purchased the contract of RHP Alexi Ogando

May 5

Acquired RHP Oliver Drake from the Milwaukee Brewers for cash

Optioned RHP Ben Taylor to Columbus (AAA)

May 8

Activated RHP Oliver Drake

Optioned RHP Alexi Ogando to Columbus (AAA)

May 11

Activated LHP Andrew Miller from the 10-day Disabled List

May 15

Purchased the contract of RHP Neil Ramirez

Transferred LHP Ryan Merritt to the 60-day Disabled List

May 20

Designated RHP Alexi Ogando for assignment

Optioned Evan Marshall to Columbus (AAA)

Since April 26th, the Indians have added 6 different relievers to the bullpen in an attempt to fill three open spots. Cody Allen, Zach McAllister, Dan Otero, and Tyler Olson have been mainstays on the roster (with the exception of Olson being away from the club for one day for the birth of his child). This amount of churn wouldn’t be an issue if those three spots were being used to funnel a procession of mop-up men onto the roster in order to save the rest of the staff. But that’s not what’s happening. Most of the pitchers added to the rosters were immediately thrust into high-leverage situations, meaning that the Indians weren’t looking for innings eaters but key relievers. For example, Neil Ramirez, who was added last Tuesday, has appeared in 3 games, all of which involved situations which called for a late-inning reliever.

Terry Francona has lost any kind of confidence in McAllister, Otero, or Olson to the point where he’s calling on pitchers he might have never seen pitch before to get outs with the game on the line. Andrew Miller, instead of pitching an inning or two in AAA on a rehab assignment, made his first pitches in a game in 15 days in a high-leverage situation. Now the Indians are going to move Josh Tomlin to the bullpen with Plutko moving into the rotation.

The scary thing about this whole situation is that it occurred in the midst of a fine run of starting pitching. The non-Tomlin starters have almost as a rule pitched at least into the sixth inning, and often into at least the seventh. Given that the Indians have long run out of accessible minor-league options, they are going to try to just minimize the bullpen exposure (with Plutko replacing Tomlin) until they can acquire some help. Most clubs don’t feel the need to trade off pieces until at least the end of June, and even then there aren’t going to be many clubs who feel they are completely out of the playoff race that early. So I think the Indians will continue to try anybody who has been remotely effective in AAA for the next month, and if McAllister/Olson/Otero/Goody still aren’t cutting it, they’ll be cut loose when the Indians made a trade for reliever.

I have never been an advocate of declaring a “go for broke” season, especially when it comes to ephemeral relievers, but the Indians would be justified in trading some prospects (but not emptying out the system) to re-assemble a competent bullpen. Because at the rate the Indians are blowing close and late games, they won’t even make the playoffs. And yes, that means finishing second in by far the worst division in baseball.

The outfield

I am less concerned about the outfield, even though things look bleak in the short term. The Indians added Melky Cabrera to the roster before Sunday night’s game, though that was something they needed to do before June 1st; the injury situation gave them an opportunity to give Melky an opportunity. If over the next couple weeks Melky can’t hit enough to compensate for his legion defensive inadequacies, then the Indians can cut bait without too much regret once a couple of the injured outfielders return from the DL.

The big loser in this whole situation is Tyler Naquin, who was playing well as Lonnie Chisenhall’s replacement. By the time he’s ready to return to action, Chisenhall will have been back, so even if Melky doesn’t work out, Naquin won’t have a spot to come back to. Perhaps the Indians think about playing him in center, but I don’t see that happening, especially when he didn’t play there even when Zimmer was down. And I don’t see the Indians utilizing him as a reserve outfielder, not when the normal three starters all bat left-handed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chain Reaction

 

I apologize for the lack of content over the past month. To make up for that lull, there should be several posts coming soon.

A roster post should be up in a couple days detailing all the moves the Indians had to make to deal with the bullpen implosion. I’ll also take a look at the decision to designate Giovanny Urshela for assignment rather than Erik Gonzalez; hopefully by then the DFA process will have played out, and I can take that into account. 

Also I hope to finish the next part of the 1948 Treasure Trove series in the next week or so, which will cover the Sketch Book. 

After a month of baseball, the Indians are in first place, but they are not running on all cylinders. Were the Indians in any other division, they’d be in at least second place, and in one instance (NL Central) last place.

The culprits are twofold. The team at first struggled to score runs, and of late have given up runs in the late innings. The latter happened, not coincidentally, after Andrew Miller went on the Disabled List. I don’t think Miller’s injury directly caused the rest of the bullpen to implode, but Miller’s presence allowed the Indians to get away with a lot of substandard relief pitching, and with that gone the rest of the bullpen was exposed. Zach McAllister, for example, had not exactly been a stalwart as Bryan Shaw’s replacement, but Terry Francona had Miller out in the bullpen as a security blanket. But without Miller, there was only Cody Allen to bring in if something went horribly wrong, and you can’t expect Allen to be able to throw multiple innings more than a couple times a month without it eventually affecting his performance.

A Game-by-Game look at the bullpen

Let’s go game by game since Miller’s injury, looking at both usages and performances by the bullpen. I’ll ignore instances of the Indians trailing when the starter left the game, though those instances didn’t exactly feature stellar relief performances either.

April 25th: Indians 4, Cubs 1

Starter: 6.2 innings (Trevor Bauer, 111 pitches) – lead 3-1

Andrew Miller: entered 6.2 (0.0 innings, 0 runs, left with injury)

Tyler Olson: entered 6.2 (1.0 inning, 0 runs)

Nick Goody: entered 7.2 (.1 inning, 0 runs)

Cody Allen: entered 8.0 (1 inning, 0 runs)

This is how games usually went the last couple of years; the starter gets the game to the 7th inning or later, the back end of the bullpen shuts the other down to finish the game. Goody and Olson were pitching in unaccustomed roles, but they rose to the occasion.

April 26th: Mariners 5, Indians 4

Starter: 6.0 innings (Mike Clevinger) – trail 4-0

Dan Otero: entered 6.0 (1.1 innings 0 runs)

Jeff Beliveau: entered 7.1 tied 4-4 (.1 innings, 0 runs)

Nick Goody: entered 7.2 tied 4-4 (.1 innings, 1 run)

Zach McAllister: entered 8.0 trailing 5-4 (1.0 inning, 0 runs)

Goody, who entered into a tie game, was the culprit this night. Had Miller been available, he probably would have finished off the 8th inning.

April 27th: Indians 6, Mariners 5

Starter: 8.2 innings (Corey Kluber) – lead 6-2

Cody Allen: entered 8.2 (.1 inning, 2 runs)

Allen allowed an inherited run to score along with two of his own.

April 30th: Indians 7, Rangers 5

Starter: 6.2 innings (Trevor Bauer) – tied 2-2

Tyler Olson: entered 6.2 (.2 inning, 2 runs)

Cody Allen: entered 7.1 trail 4-3 (1.1 innings, 1 run)

Jeff Believeau: entered 8.2 lead 7-4 (.1 inning, 0 run)

Allen entered in the 8th inning, a spot that Andrew Miller would certainly have filled. Allen would throw 41 pitches before being relieved in the 9th inning. You usually don’t see that kind of workload in a single game in the regular season.

May 2nd: Indians 12, Rangers 4

Starter: 7.0 innings (Corey Kluber) – leading 10-3

Dan Otero: entered 7.0 lead 10-3 (1.0 inning, 1 run)

Ben Taylor: entered 8.0 lead 12-4  (1.0 inning, 0 run)

No drama here. Otero and Taylor (making his Indians debut) did well in mopup duty.

May 3rd (Game 1): Blue Jays 13, Indians 11 (11 innings)

Starter: 5.1 innings (Carlos Carrasco) – tied 7-6

Nick Goody: entered 5.1 lead 7-6 (.2 inning, 2 runs)

Zach McAllister: entered 6.0 tied 7-7 (1.2 innings, 1 run)

Ben Taylor: entered 7.2 trail 9-7 (.1 inning, 0 run)

Cody Allen: entered 8.0 tied 9-9 (1 inning, 0 run)

Dan Otero: entered 9.0 tied 9-9 (1 inning, 0 run)

Tyler Olson: entered 10.0 tied 9-9 (1 inning, 4 runs)

This mess of a game was set in motion because of a short outing by Carlos Carrasco. In what has become a recurrent theme lately, the Tribe offense mounted a furious comeback, only to see it given away late by the bullpen. That this was the first game of a doubleheader affected some of the pitching moves by Terry Francona only somewhat; Francona is never shy about going for a game in front of him, leaving the next game until tomorrow (or in this case, an hour from now).

May 3rd (Game 2): Indians 13, Blue Jays 4

Starter: 7.1 innings (Adam Plutko) – lead 13-3

Evan Marshall: entered 7.1 lead 13-3 (.2 inning, 0 run)

Jeff Beliveau: entered 8.0 lead 13-3 (1.0 inning, 1 run)

Thank goodness for Adam Plutko, as his performance (along with the Tribe offense) allowed Francona to get through the game without having to use any reliever in both games. Not that that would help any in New York.

May 6th: Yankees 7, Indians 4

Starter: 7.1 innings (Mike Clevinger) – lead 4-0

Cody Allen: entered 7.1 lead 4-0 (.2 inning, 3 runs)

Dan Otero: entered 8.0 tied 4-4 (.1 inning, 2 runs)

The curious decision to go with Cody Allen in the eighth inning of a game that the Indians led by 4 runs seems to be a product of the previous week’s worth of games. Francona had seen just about every reliever on the staff implode at some point or another, and that includes several pitchers that had since been cycled back to the minors. With a off-day looming, he thought he could push Clevinger to 110 pitches or so, then rely on Allen to get the final 3 (or possibly 4) outs. As it turned out, the tiring Clevinger couldn’t stay in the strike zone, and so Allen had to be brought it to get 5 outs. Cody couldn’t spot his curve, and so became a one-pitch pitcher. By the time he ran out onto the field for the bottom of the ninth, it was a one-run game, and he’d thrown over 25 pitches.

Dishonorable mentions:

In the game on May 1st, which Mike Clevinger left trailing 2-0, the bullpen would give up 4 runs to push the deficit to 6-0, only to have the offense rally for 6 runs in their final two at-bats. The game went into extra innings, and the Rangers would score two runs off Nick Goody in the 12th inning.

In the game on May 4th against the Yankees, the Indians would score 6 runs in their final two at-bats to tie the game, only to see the Yankees win it with a run against Cody Allen in the bottom of the ninth.

It isn’t just Andrew Miller’s absence

Thankfully the starters have for the most part pitched deep into the game, even in games that they left losing. That means, aside from Cody Allen, who has been used way more than he should given how early in the year it is, nobody else in the bullpen should be tired. Granted, the Indians have accomplished this by making as many bullpen roster moves in the last week as they seemingly made in the last three months of 2017; the last couple years you knew exactly who was in the bullpen, but now you need to head to the online roster an hour before the game to see who will be pitching in the late innings tonight.

Which brings me to the point of this exercise. Having Andrew Miller back by week’s end (barring a setback) will undoubtedly be a good thing for this bullpen. But he isn’t going to fix the overall issues the Indians have there. Teams even with good starting pitchers need at least four reliable relievers during the regular season slog, and the Indians the past week didn’t have one thanks to Cody Allen’s struggles. Zach McAllister, who inherited Bryan Shaw’s role this season, has been awful from the get-go, Nick Goody is now on the Disabled List, and Tyler Olson has turned into a mortal. All these things are par for the course with relievers, whose effectiveness can turn on a dime.

The Indians have constructed their excellent bullpens largely with reclamation projects or waiver claims over the last 2-3 seasons, and this year (at least so far) the magic has wore off. Maybe that’s because Mickey Callaway is now managing the Mets, or past heavy usage is showing up, or the league has watched enough video on guys like Olson. I think it’s a combination of all these things.

The Indians have recognized that they’re going to have to rebuild their bullpen on the fly. Oliver Drake, acquired from Milwaukee, is the next pitcher the Indians will try out. Alexi Ogando will get a few more opportunities to show that he can still get big-league hitters out. Perhaps Nick Goody will be as good as new after his stay on the Disabled List. Maybe Zach McAllister will figure out how to throw his secondary pitches for strikes. If all that fails, the Indians will need to trade prospects for relievers, but trading season usually doesn’t happen until June at the earliest.

Injuries in the outfield

(you can see the live version of this here)

I’ve intentionally left the results of the first 10 days off the chart above. For starters, the baseball-reference WAR isn’t listed for the current season. But even if it had been there, I’d still leave it off because we’ve only had a small sample of games to use for it. Basically, the numbers wouldn’t be very meaningful.

If the numbers were listed there, they’d show a very poor offensive showing but a very promising pitching performance. Only one regular had an OPS (on-base percentage+slugging percentage) over .700 at the time of this writing, with a second (Tyler Naquin) having just been recalled from Columbus. I’m not going to delve that much deeper into this, other than to say that those with decent or fine histories should eventually turn it around, and those with suspect histories need to turn it around (or else they won’t be in Cleveland for much longer).

What I am worried about is the depth in the outfield.  Michael Brantley was back in the lineup for Friday’s home opener, but by the early innings of Saturday’s game Lonnie Chisenhall had re-injured the calf that had caused him to missed most of the second half of last season. The early prognosis is that he’ll miss 4-6 weeks, but that’s just an estimate. Tyler Naquin is going to be the everyday right fielder, and now has the opportunity in 2018 that he didn’t get last year (he was hurt when Lonnie Chisenhall last injured his quad). Behind Naquin the outfield depth isn’t very good, and a lot of Tribe fans would place Naquin himself in that “not very good” category. I don’t think either Brandon Guyer or Rajai Davis can credibly fill an everyday corner role for longer than a week or two, though that might be what the Indians have to do if Brantley has to miss any time.

Greg Allen is only other outfielder on the 40-man roster, and is not going to provide much offense, which is what a corner outfield spot requires. After that, the Indians would either have to move someone from another position (Yandy Diaz, Francisco Mejia, even Jason Kipnis) or players that aren’t on the 40-man roster (Richie Shaffer, for example). So yes, the only thing that’s standing in the way of a full AAAA outfield is Michael Brantley’s health, which hasn’t exactly been sterling the previous two seasons.

Speaking of outfield depth, current/former Tribe outfielder Anthony Santander hit his first major-league home run yesterday. Let me explain the “current/former” descriptor: Santander was selected by the Orioles in the Rule 5 draft after the 2016 season, and because he spent most of 2017 on the Disabled List, is still property of the Indians. But given that the Orioles just need to keep Santander on their 25-man roster another month, there’s almost no chance that he’ll be returned to the Cleveland organization. I’ve typed way too many words on the Santander situation at Let’s Go Tribe, but I think it’s worth reiterating here:

 


Sidebar: The Gray Area of Rule 5

The Orioles in recent years have utilized the Rule 5 draft more than any other team. They’ve selected at least one player in Rule 5 since 2006 (15 in total), and they usually try to keep them on the roster. They selected TJ McFarland from the Indians in 2012, and the move paid off; he remained on the Baltimore roster the entire 2013 season, and would remain with the Orioles for three seasons afterwards. McFarland is an example of a player who was blocked in his organization, and was able to get to the majors more quickly with another team. Situations like McFarland’s are the reason Rule 5 was implemented.

The Santander selection was different. He had undergone shoulder surgery in the fall, so the Indians faced a dilemma: place the talented but injured Santander on the 40-man roster, knowing that he wouldn’t be able to contribute to the major-league team or even a minor-league team in 2017 (taking up a valuable 40-man roster spot), or gamble that no one will take him in the Rule 5 draft. As it turned out, every major-league team passed on Santander one time, but the Orioles snapped him up with their second selection (clubs can take as many players as they have open 40-man roster spots).

Still recovering from the shoulder surgery, Santander played a bit with the team in Spring Training before coming down with elbow soreness. That led to him being placed on the major-league DL, and allowed the Orioles to keep him without having to use a 25-man roster spot. He would return to the active roster in the middle of August, meaning that the Orioles only had to keep him on their 25-man roster a grand total of 15 days (on September 1, teams can expand their active roster, meaning there was no real cost to keep Santander on the roster in September).

Normally a team has to keep a Rule 5 selection on their active roster for the entire season (or 180 days), but in cases where the player spent time on the Disabled List in the season after his selection, teams just have to keep him on their active roster for a total of 90 days. To me, that creates a perverse incentive for clubs to select players in Rule 5 that are likely to miss time due to injury (as it’s much easier to comply with Rule 5 with an injured player), and therefore making clubs have to protect talented but injured prospects on their 40-man roster. As a recent example, had the Indians known that Julian Merryweather would need Tommy John surgery in October, they might have gone ahead and protected him anyway, because a club could have selected him in the Rule 5 Draft and stowed him on their DL in 2018 without any penalty, then try him out in 2019 after he recovers.


To get back to Santander and the Indians’ present outfield situation, had Santander remained in the Indians’ organization, he probably would have been added to the 40-man roster this winter, and would have been a legitimate major-league option for the Indians in the outfield, especially considering the injuries (and Abe Almonte’s fall from grace). Santander does have a year of service time thanks to Rule 5, but he didn’t get a real opportunity any faster with the Orioles than he would have had with the Indians. That’s why I think the minimum amount of time spent on an active roster to satisfy Rule 5 requirements should be expanded to 150 days, which would equal the amount of time clubs have a roster limit of 25 players during a single season. That would take away the temptation to draft injured players, and also ensure that Rule 5 players, if injured after their selection, get a legitimate opportunity to play in the majors.

A Postscript from March 26

In my last Indians (current season edition) post, I guessed that the Indians would follow this order in clearing 40-man roster spots for Rajai Davis and Matt Belisle:

  1. Abe Almonte DFA
  2. Rob Refsnyder DFA
  3. Julian Merryweather to 60-day DL
  4. Giovanny Urshela DFA
  5. Ryan Merritt DFA
  6. Ben Taylor DFA

The Indians went with (2) on March 27, trading Refsynder to Tampa Bay, then used the open spot to claim left-handed reliever Jack Leathersich off waivers, who is now pitching in Columbus. They then went with (1) and (6) to clear spots for Davis/Belisle on March 29. Almonte would be claimed on waivers by the Kansas City Royals on April 2, while Taylor would clear waivers and remain in the organization (Columbus).

Merryweather remains on the Disabled List, but on a minor-league roster, which means he is not earning MLB service time.

Both Urshela and Merritt remain on the 10-day Disabled List, and the Indians will have to make difficult decisions on both once they are activated, as neither player has an option year remaining.

 

Dramatis Personae

An audience watching a play may know the characters who will be in the performance, but not what they will do, whether they live or die, succeed or fail. However, the author of the play and the performers on stages knows exactly what will happen from the time the curtain rises to the final exit. The entire thing, from the script to the set to the costumes, is meticulously rehearsed, and a successful performance is one that has almost no deviation from the plan. If you watch two performances, spaced two weeks apart, almost nothing will have changed, which is by design.

Baseball is not a play. Its players may rehearse repeatedly, just like their thespian counterparts, but neither they nor those who manage them know what the outcome will be even if all goes perfectly. And it almost never goes perfectly. The main difference separating baseball from the stage, of course, is that baseball is a sport, or more appropriately for this subject, a public competition. The object is not the perfect spectacle, though sometimes that can happen if the stars align, but to win the game.

At the beginning of a baseball season, neither the fans nor the performers nor the management of the club knows what will happen or even who will be standing on the field in the final scene, the final game of the season. Sometimes even individual games are like this, with players leaving the field unexpectedly, giving way to hitherto unknown understudies. The 25 players who step onto the field before Thursday night’s opener will almost certainly not be the same players who (hopefully) step onto the field before the Indians’ first playoff game in October. Some changes will be those everyone was sure would happen, but there will be at least a few that no one saw coming. It is this sense of mystery, of persistent unknowns despite all attempts to systematize it, that keeps me enthralled with baseball.

(you can see the live version of this here)

Here is what the roster looks like 4 days before the season begins. I’d first like to point out that some moves haven’t officially been made, hence the reason for there being 42 players listed on the 40-man roster. The Indians will be adding Rajai Davis and Matt Belisle to the roster before the season begins, but we don’t know who will be departing the 40-man roster to make room for them. One of those players could be Rob Refsnyder, though he could make the Opening Day roster himself if Brandon Guyer isn’t ready to go. Both Giovanny Urshela and Ryan Merritt will be placed on the Disabled List in the next couple days, so the Indians can keep both of them for the time being. The Indians could place Julian Merryweather on the 60-day Disabled List to free up a spot, though that’s not a move without drawbacks;  Merryweather would be earning service time for the entire season if the Indians place him on a major-league DL.

I think one player who will be DFAed is Abraham Almonte, who received public criticism from Terry Francona earlier in the spring and was optioned very early in the spring, especially for a veteran who has over 300 MLB games under his (tight) belt. With two injured outfielders (Brantley and Guyer) and an open reserve spot available heading into camp, that early demotion stood out to me.

If I had to rank the likelihood of roster moves to clear spots this week, it would be this (the Indians will need to make two moves):

  1. Abe Almonte DFA – early demotion, several players above him on depth chart even at a thin position.
  2. Rob Refsnyder DFA – out of options, no spot on 25-man if Guyer is cleared for Opening Day
  3. Julian Merryweather to 60-day DL – would allow the Indians to clear a spot without losing a player, but would accrue a year’s worth of service time.
  4. Giovanny Urshela DFA – out of options, no spot for him, and there are many other middle infield options in the organization.
  5. Ryan Merritt DFA – out of options, no spot in the bullpen or rotation unless there’s an injury or a flameout.
  6. Ben Taylor DFA – has options, but the Indians may think he’ll clear waivers.

All four players headed to the 10-day Disabled List shouldn’t stay there that long (I say, knowing full well the storied history of Tribe setbacks). Brantley was on the cusp of playing on Opening Day, but the Indians are trying to be absolutely sure that he’s ready. Danny Salazar threw off a mound a couple days ago, which is usually the last thing that happens before rehab starts begin. Merritt and Urshela don’t seem to have serious injuries, but their status (both out of options, with no obvious spot on the 25-man roster) will ensure that their rehab stints are as thorough as possible.

The Salazar return would create the biggest roster conundrum, as the Indians are still adamant that Danny is first and foremost a starter, not a reliever. That means either Josh Tomlin for Mike Clevinger would be shunted to the bullpen, while a reliever would be shunted off the 25-man roster or the Tribe goes with a three-man bench. File this concern under “good ones to have,” as usually these pitching surfeits only exist in the most optimistic of baseball fanatics’ minds.

Even with these initial injuries and roster concerns, the Indians still look to have the easiest path in the American League to make the playoffs. The Twins will be a serious threat, and the Royals will be competitive, but the AL Central looks to me the weakest division in the AL, and perhaps overall. But the part where the Indians waltz to a third-straight AL Central title has not been written; we’ll have to find out how this drama ends along with everyone else.

 

 

The case for Ryan Merritt

25-man/40-man Roster – 11 March 2018

(you can see the live version of this here)

As happens every spring, the Indians are going to have to make some difficult roster decisions as they break from camp. And by difficult decisions, I mean dropping a player from their organization because he’s out of options and there isn’t a spot for him on the 25-man roster. Yandy Diaz and Tyler Naquin won’t be making the Opening Day roster, but they’ll stay in the organization because they still has options left. But Ryan Merritt, Erik Gonzalez, and Giovanny Urshela don’t have options left, and will almost certainly be claimed on outright waivers if exposed. Rob Refsnyder also does not have any options left, but I don’t think he had much of a chance of making the team, which is why I’m mentally placing him in a separate category.

I think the Gonzalez/Urshela decision is fairly straightforward. One of the two players will be the backup infielder, and the other will be traded or lost on waivers. If it was my decision, I would keep Gonzalez, as not only does he fit the immediate team need (is a better fit as a utility infielder than Urshela) but also has a better upside as a hitter (and at a more premium defensive position). Urshela is a world-class defender at third base, but he’s shown no promise at all at the plate over two lengthy stints in the majors. The Indians also added three middle infielders to their 40-man roster this winter, so they aren’t lacking for depth on that front.

But when it comes to Ryan Merritt, I’m less certain. He is not one of the five best starting pitchers on the team, or even one of the five best healthy starters. So in order for him to make the team, he’ll have to make it as a reliever, and to make room for him in the bullpen, the Indians would have to make an equally difficult decision. On the chart above, I have provisionally placed Josh Tomlin in the bullpen, but he’s going to take the spot of Danny Salazar in the rotation. So it’s not Tomlin that Merritt would displace. It would be instead Matt Belisle, or even Nick Goody; Belisle would most likely leave the organization (as is his right because he’s has enough major-league service time), while Goody would stay in the organization, as the Indians do have an option year left on him. The Indians also could option Tyler Olson, or even go with eight relievers in the bullpen at the expense of a three-man bench. But in any of those cases, I think the Indians wouldn’t be fielding their best possible 25-man roster, trading a player useful in the role he’d play for a pitcher who would not be that useful in the role he’d play.

So why the hesitation in consigning Merritt to the waiver wire? If the Indians want the best possible 25-man roster, they’re going to have to get rid of him, right? My concern is not with the Opening Day roster, but the overall starting pitcher depth over the course of the season. With Danny Salazar already out, the next starter up if there’s another injury would probably be Shawn Morimando, and after him it would be Adam Plutko (or vice versa). Those are the only other two healthy starting pitchers on the 40-man roster (Julian Merryweather is out for the year, as he needs Tommy John surgery). Last year, 7 different pitchers started games for the Indians, and that was the lowest number in the American League. Most teams used 10 or more starters a season; the Seattle Mariners last year used 17(!) different starters. Some of that has to do with performance, but some of that is going to be because of injuries, which can affect both good and bad pitching staffs.

Last week Jeff Sullivan wrote about teams spending more money on relievers this winter. He thought the demand was going up on relievers because teams are using them more often, both in terms of innings by relievers and number of relievers used. The Indians have bucked this trend because they’ve had outstanding starting pitching (both in terms of quality innings and number of innings pitched) over the last several years, but it only takes a couple injuries or bad starting pitcher performances to wreak havoc on a pitching staff from front to back.

Merritt’s shown that he can be a durable and effective pitcher in the minors. I don’t know whether he can hold down a spot in the rotation because to this point he’s only been a spot starter, but he has shown in those starts that he can navigate through a lineup a couple times. Which is more than we’ve seen from Plutko or Morimando. By the end of the season the Indians will probably use all three, but I’d rather have Merritt make more of those starts.

The various projections generally give Merritt a slight advantage over Morimando and Plutko. But the issue is not Merritt vs. Morimando, or Merritt vs. Plutko, at least at this point of the season. The issue is how much starting depth the Indians want, and the cost they’ll have to pay, in terms in potential runs, to keep another starter around. If they go with an eight-man bullpen, you shift the formula from more runs prevented to fewer runs scored. Which actually might make sense for reasons other than Merritt’s status, as starters usually won’t throw more than 100 pitches in their first couple starts of the season. That would allow the Indians to postpone any final decision for a couple weeks, perhaps even a month. If Danny Salazar returns, and there’s no other health issues on the starting staff, then Ryan Merritt will be designated for assignment and then probably traded. But maybe things work out; maybe another starter has to miss 2-3 weeks with a nagging hamstring. Or maybe Mike Clevinger has several bad outings, and needs to head to the minors to figure a couple things out.

I think it’s worth it for the Indians to postpone a final decision on Ryan Merritt, because there’s a very good chance that they can use him this season.