The Unfinished Compendium

Offseason Journal: Carlos Carrasco extended through 2022

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Carrasco, Tribe agree to extension through ’22

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

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

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

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

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

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

Offseason Journal: Tribe trades Yan Gomes to Nationals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Offseason Journal: Filling the 40

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

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

The Indians then protected three players from their own organization:

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

Offseason Journal: Gonzalez and prospects dealt for Luplow, Moroff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Other roster notes:

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

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

 

 

Book Review: Empire of Silence

Empire of Silence (2018) – by Christopher Ruocchio
Genre: Science Fiction/Fantasy – Space Opera
612 Pages (including appendices)

Publisher page (with links to various sellers)

 

 

Back in my high school days, which was more decades ago than I’d care to admit, I was a regular at  the tiny Waldenbooks at my hometown mall. I worked a couple doors down at a soon-to-be defunct department store, and so spent a portion of my new-found riches on books, particularly in the science fiction section (which consisted of one shelf). It was there I discovered Dune, Hyperion, Robinson’s Mars Trilogy, Asimov’s space and robot stories, among others. But that was the last time I spent a considerable amount of my reading attention on that genre, so take what follows with that in mind.


Spoiler-Free Review (may add a spoilertastic addendum in the future)

Empire of Silence (the first in a multi-volume series) takes place in a far future in which humanity has expanded into a considerable portion of the Milky Way. There are several polities in inhabited space, the largest of which is the Sollan Empire. This Empire and its war with an alien species is the backdrop for the events of the book.

The narrator begins his tale with a rather unendearing statement: it was he that destroyed a star, and with it billions of lives. In his advanced age, he is known as both a hero and a villain, and as he assumes the reader knows the basic history of the major events he was involved in, he is content to tell us the story of his life instead, beginning with his formative years. So while this book fits very comfortably into the space opera subgenre, it does not flit between characters and places willy-nilly. The only places you visit in Empire of Silence are the places that the narrator visits, which may seem like it narrows the scope too much, but I appreciated that by the end of the volume.

The narrator, Hadrian Marlowe, is born a noble (or palatine, to use the book’s parlance), a potential heir to a prefecture within a planetary duchy (there are a quarter-billion inhabited planets in the Empire). But while on the surface this minor fiefdom wouldn’t seem to be that important in terms of the Empire itself, this prefecture controls a rich source of uranium, the fuel that drives interplanetary vessels, and as the Empire is in the midst of a bloody war with the Cielcin, the only other advanced species in the galaxy, the control over the prefecture and therefore the uranium is an important goal for the various palatine houses of the Empire.

Empire of Silence delves into this complex political environment in its first section (almost a prologue), and during it you’ll be tempted to thumb your way to the appendices often, trying to wrap your mind around the all the players, the positions, and the relationships among the palatine of House Marlowe. There is a lot of world building throughout the book, especially in the first section, but it never ceased to be boring, as it was embedded in the story and characters, almost never force-fed to the reader via long info-dumps of dialogue within the story. For those who want to fully and quickly grasp the world the book takes place in, the appendices will serve that purpose, but you can also get that sense of the world gradually by ignoring the appendices and just reading the book itself. After finishing the book I read through the appendices in detail, and found that very little of what I gleaned through context differed from canon.

But at its heart Empire of Silence is a character-driven story, dealing with Hadrian’s conflicts with the world around him and, more importantly, within himself. Although this tale is set in the far future, with all the biological and technological changes that come with it, the dilemmas Hadrian faces are very familiar ones. The yearning for freedom in a strict hierarchical society, the question of whether duty should override ones personal moral code, and if one’s honor should override the optimal political strategy are questions that people have asked throughout history. Even the world itself, while on the surface completely alien, contains many echoes from past and present civilizations, be they names, concepts, or even government types.

This being book one in a series, many plot-related things are not explained. That goes with the territory, though I would have liked to have had one “section transition” (euphemism to avoid spoilers) be a bit less jarring. Thankfully, the second book in the series, along with a stand-alone novella, will be released soon, so perhaps some details will be forthcoming there. As for the other unknowns, be they related to the mystery hinted at towards the end of the book, or the other details of the world of the series, I’m more than happy to let those be slowly revealed as the series progresses.

If you couldn’t tell by now, I enjoyed this book. There were some spots that dragged a bit, and as mentioned above, some of the transitions were more abrupt than they needed to be. But I adored the world-building, and can’t wait to dive into future stories.

 

 

 

 

 

Offseason Journal: Tradespace preparation

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

This was:

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

 

live link

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

 

Offseason Journal: Carrasco’s option exercised, Guyer’s option declined

 

(live link to spreadsheet, with transactions list)

Today the Indians made decisions on two contract options. They exercised the 2019 option on Carlos Carrasco, which was as easy a decision as will be made this winter, but declined the 2019 option on Brandon Guyer, which was a bit a surprise to me, even taking into account the budgetary difficulties that the Indians will be facing this offseason.

The guaranteed portion of Carrasco’s contract ended in 2018, but the Indians have two team options that can keep him on team control through the 2020 season. The base value of the 2019 team option was $9.0M, but due to his fourth-place finish in the 2017 Cy Young voting, that option grew to $9.75M, but that’s still a tremendous bargain for an elite starting pitcher. As always, Cot’s Contracts (a great resource for transaction aficionados) has the details if you’d like to look more deeply into them.

Brandon Guyer’s situation is a bit simpler. The Indians had a single 2019 team option worth $3.0M, but instead they declined it, saving $2.75M in the process (Guyer will receive a $250K buyout). As Guyer now has over 6 years of service time, he’ll become a free agent in a couple days. I was surprised that the Indians declined the option because the $3.0M price tag, even for a role player, wasn’t high at all. The Indians certainly wouldn’t be able to sign a better fourth outfielder at that price, so that they elected to take the savings should tell you quite a bit about the budget uncertainties this winter.

From indians.com reporter Jordan Bastian:

The Indians front office is not going to let the public know what the actual salary limit will be, as that would hamstring in various negotiations throughout the winter, but declining Guyer’s option, as small as it was, does seem to be a sign that the team will be prioritizing savings in all forms in order to patch more important holes. The Indians don’t exactly have a stable of young corner outfielders ready to fill the role that Guyer played. Granted, Guyer’s role might not be needed by the time the Indians are done making moves this winter. Lonnie Chisenhall, who was Guyer’s main platoon partner, is also a free agent, and there’s no guarantee that Jason Kipnis will remain in the outfield next year (nevermind the roster). That makes this tweet make a bit more sense:

The outfield right now is basically a blank canvas. Center Fielder Leonys Martin is the closest outfielder you could term as a lock to be on the Opening Day roster, and he missed the last two months of the season to a life-threatening bacterial infection. So if the Indians do acquire two corner outfielders who happen to bat from the right side, there’d be no need for a Brandon Guyer. But even if that were so, they could have easily picked up Guyer’s option and traded him later should the outfield configuration have made him superfluous.

As opposed to the chaotic outfield, the rotation remains the bedrock of this roster, with Carrasco’s contract allowing the Indians to maintain one of the strongest starting staffs in baseball. A starting pitcher of Carrasco’s caliber would be worth at least double the $9.75M the Indians will be paying him in 2019, and the 2020 option isn’t that much different ($9.5M base rate, at $10.25M now and could jump higher based on where he finishes in the 2018 Cy Young voting). And the Indians don’t even have to make a decision on that option until after the 2019 season.

Offseason Journal: Setting the Parameters

 

The offseason begins today, and with it an avalanche of free agent speculation, trade rumors, and general strategic talk. I think the Indians will be much more active this winter than they have the last two offseasons, my basis for this being their 2018 performance (in both the regular and postseason) as well as the payroll itself.

I hope these two charts will clearly illustrate why I think this will be a wild hot stove season.

(Disclaimer: Past performance doesn’t correlate perfectly with future performance, both on an individual or a team level, this is just to illustrate the constraints the Indians find themselves in at this point in time.)

First, let’s look at the team’s performance in 2018.

(live version can be found here)

The above is one of my typical Excel charts listing the Indians’ 25-man/40-man rosters. There are a couple new things added that may be useful in providing some context that has been missing from these rosters: a comparison of total team Wins Above Replacement to the team’s competition in the American League. After all, what good is a statistic unless you have something to measure it against? I averaged the two flavors of WAR for each AL team, and ranked them at the bottom-right of the chart.

The Indians finished fourth in the AL by this measure, showing that if anything they should have had a better record (thanks, bullpen). The number used in comparison with the rest of the league is the total output of all players on the 2018 team, even those who had long-since been released by the team (the Oliver Drakes, the Alexi Ogandos, etc.)

I bring up these 2018 team numbers in order to focus the scope of offseason prognostication somewhat. I submit that if the Indians accumulate 50.6 WAR in 2019, they’ll make the playoffs again. Heck, they may make the playoffs if they hit 45.0 WAR if the rest of the AL Central continues to languish, but I don’t want to assume that, and neither should the Cleveland front office. Heck, if the competition in the AL Central gets better, it will be harder for the Indians to replicate that performance. So for the sake of this exercise, assume that the Indians will need to at least get to 50 wins above replacement.

This second chart concentrates more on the financial end of the equation.

 

The Indians ended 2018 with a roughly $137,400,000 payroll. The chart isn’t capturing the exact number, because the salaries of released players aren’t included, and many of the players on the list only made a partial salary (as they spent portions of the season making a minor-league salary), but it’s close enough for my purposes. Of that $137.4M salary, about $45M is going away via free agency, but a large portion of that savings is going to be eaten up by organic (arbitration and contract salary increases) growth.

To approximate the 2019 payroll if the Indians stand completely pat (letting all free agents walk, keeping everyone else), I’ve added back salaries for internal replacements for the free agents; for example, Tyler Olson/Neil Ramirez/Cody Anderson/Danny Salazar replacing the three free agent relievers plus Josh Tomlin. I calculate that the Indians, if they keep everyone on the roster that isn’t a free agent, will have an Opening Day payroll of $128,500,000, leaving the team about $9-10M to spend on bringing in new players if the salary budget remains the same in 2019.

Given that the free agents were worth 5.5 bWAR (and that includes the -0.9 bWAR that Josh Tomlin “contributed”), they aren’t going to be able to pay market value by signing free agents to make up for that lost production and be able to maintain their 2018 payroll (the market rate was between $8-9M/WAR last year). They should be able to replace some of that production with lower salary players (Yandy Diaz, for example, could help on that front as an everyday player), but there aren’t a lot of young players on the cusp of stepping into full-time roles. Maybe Tyler Naquin finally has a breakout season in right field, maybe Cody Anderson becomes the next Bryan Shaw, and maybe Danny Salazar becomes an elite closer, but I wouldn’t bet on all of these things happening.

So the Indians will need to both cut payroll and add talent. Cutting payroll could be as simple as non-tendering players like Danny Salazar, who is probably going to make $5M in arbitration, trading players like Jason Kipnis or Yonder Alonso in partial salary dumps, or even dealing core players like Trevor Bauer or Corey Kluber for total salary relief and young/talented players. Note that I’m not endorsing trading Bauer or Kluber unless the absolutely perfect deal comes around, but with the Indians’ circumstances, it’s a possibility. The Indians could also strip mine their farm system (where the talent is heavily concentrated in the lower rungs of the system) in order to patch the holes, putting all their eggs in the 2019-2020 baskets, all but ensuring the years after that will see a total rebuild.

One other thing to keep in mind is that several of the big market teams, after a couple years of restraint, are going to be extremely aggressive in free agency. The Yankees in particular are poised to spend wildly after having gotten under the luxury tax threshold in 2018 (thus avoiding a 50% surtax). That will affect not only the big names in free agency, but will have a trickle down effect on the lower tier free agents. That will make things more difficult for a team like the Indians to spend in free agency, but it might also make players like Kipnis and Alonso more attractive to teams that don’t want to spend the big bucks on a free agent.

So buckle in, Tribe fans…it’s going to be an interesting hot stove.

Postseason Journal: After the ALDS

Game 3 boxscore

When I used to do recaps at Let’s Go Tribe, the general rule was to have them up on the site less than hour after the final out. That was great for maximizing the exposure of the recap, as well as capturing the emotion of the reviewer (having written the piece during or just after having watched it, heart rate still elevated), but it also limited the amount of sober analysis you could do. After all, when bringing up a late blown lead in your recap just moments after it happened, you aren’t likely to stop to think that maybe, perhaps that fatal pitch wasn’t that bad. The next morning you might start to think in more nuanced terms, but by then it was too late, the game window had passed, with another one just beginning. In baseball, there’s rarely time to ponder a single game because the next game is bearing down on you.

I bring up this inside baseball (no pun intended) anecdote to illustrate the effect that Game 3 had (and still has) on me. I was fully prepared to write about it on Tuesday, the day after the game, but I still felt angry about both the game and the series, so I figured it would be best to wait a day. But on Wednesday, I felt the same way, still mad as heck about it. Thursday came, and yep, still fuming about how the team played. So here I am, on Friday night, five full days after Game 3, writing about it not because the anger has subsided but because it needs to be done, else it’ll fester in the back of my mind.


When Terry Francona made the call to go to Trevor Bauer in the sixth inning, it was with the express wish that he would bridge the gap to Brad Hand. Preferably that meant Bauer would go three innings, meaning that Hand would only have to make a three-out save. How do I know this? Even if Francona didn’t explicitly state that after the game, the fact that no reliever got up until well into Bauer’s meltdown in the seventh inning would have done it just as clearly. Yes, Tito distrusted his bullpen to that extent that he was pinning his entire hopes on a starting pitcher going three innings have pitched in relief in both Games 1 and 2. And I should remind you that this in a game in which the Indians led 2-1. Despite the awful offensive production, the Indians had a chance to win Game 3 thanks to Mike Clevinger’s outstanding performance against the Astros. The bad thing about Clevinger’s outing in Game 3 is that it took him 99 pitches to get through five innings. With a functional bullpen, that kind of outing is perfectly fine for playoff game, but with the raging dumpster fire that is the Tribe pen, it wasn’t going to be good enough.

It should also be noted that the offense, which had been among the best in the league as far as run prevention in the regular season, was just as culpable for the Game 2 and 3 losses as any Andrew Miller or Trevor Bauer or Cody Allen was. A reliever with a three-run lead is going to handle a situation much differently than one with a one-run lead, and perhaps have to pitch less cautiously may have helped with Miller in Game 2 or Bauer in Game 3. As much as I’ve been ragging on the bullpen, this embarrassment of an ALDS loss was a total team effort. I admit that the Astros have an outstanding collection of pitchers, but the Indians also had both an experienced and talented group of hitters to combat them.

So when Francona called upon Bauer to pitch, he was placing the starter in as difficult a situation as you could think of. Bauer, who hadn’t pitched out of the bullpen at any time in 2017 or 2018, was throwing for the third time in four days, and he was going to have to go multiple innings against a lineup that by now was very familiar with him with a one-run lead. And the funny thing is that if Bauer can simply make a throw to second, he would have gotten through at least two innings having given the Indians a chance to win. If he doesn’t make either throwing error, he might have gotten out of the seventh with the lead.

The events after Francona pulled Bauer actually validated Tito’s decision to insert Bauer into the game in the first place. Andrew Miller, Cody Allen, and Brad Hand, who on paper should have been the stalwarts of this series, allowed 6 runs and 1 inherited run to score in 1.2 innings pitched. When your best relievers are that bad, it’s just going to be impossible to win. Add to that a horrendous performance by the offense and some absolutely crucial errors (Melky Cabrera in Game 2, Trevor Bauer in Game 3) and you have the worst playoff performance in franchise history,* and although they had a legitimate chance to win two of the three games, statistically the series was one of the most lopsided in MLB history.

Was this historic beat down attributable to the Astros just being that much better than the Indians? I don’t think it’s that simple an explanation. The Astros were a better team than the Indians just looking a superficial things like record and the caliber of their division. The Indians were fortunate enough to play in one of the weakest divisions in modern history, while the Astros had to contend with the 97-win Oakland Athletics, who pushed them in the division race up until the final weeks of the regular season. But the Indians’  preparation/scouting (at compared to Houston’s) was lacking, not to mention the horrible execution of that game plan. Given the talent the Indians took to battle, to lose in the fashion they lost is just unacceptable.


So what now for the Indians? As mad as I still am with the way they played, they still have the makings of a great team. Their starting rotation, even accounting for some attrition (whether it be via injury or just diminishing abilities) is still among the best in baseball, and even if Michael Brantley leaves, there’s still a nice offensive core in place. The Indians have drafted well over the last several years, and that should help them be competitive on the trade market if that’s the way to want approach the offseason. A bullpen can be fixed without spending a lot of money or prospects, as opposed to the other areas on a team, though we didn’t see that play out in 2018. The AL Central still looks to be the Indians to lose even with expected improvements to every other team in the division. So this series loss, even as horrendous as it was, should not trigger any notion that the contention window is closed. But the Tribe front office has their work cut out for them, for reasons I’ll expand on in a future post.

*The Indians were swept in the 1954 World Series, outscored by 11 runs over four games. In the 2018 ALDS, the Indians were outscored by 15 runs over three game.

 

Postseason Journal: After ALDS Game 2

Game 2 boxscore

At the rate this is going, this series of posts is going to be rather limited.

Game 2 transpired in a way I imagined the losses to be at the beginning of the series, with the starter leaving with a small lead, only to see the bullpen give it up at the end of the game. What I did not expect is that the 6th inning of Game 2 to be such a essential distillation of that imagined outcome. Carlos Carrasco was pulled in the sixth inning after allowing an infield hit (which was actually more of an unforced decision by Josh Donaldson, who picked up a squibber off the bat of Jose Altuve, even though it was going foul, because Altuve had stumbled out of the box) and a walk. Prior to that, Carrasco had had some difficulties, but seemed in control of the game. Andrew Miller came into the game, allowed a double (that should have been scored a single and an error), then lost total command and was summarily pulled in favor of Trevor Bauer.

That inning encapsulated the team’s fatal flaw, something you could see playing out in the span of 10 minutes or so, which made it so visceral even to fans who didn’t follow the team that closely. That flaw is the bullpen, and particularly the relievers that two years ago were the bedrock on which an AL championship was built. By going to Miller in the sixth, Francona believed he was going to the Andrew Miller of 2016, but that Andrew Miller doesn’t exist right now. Perhaps in the future he’ll become a great relief ace again; I’m not declaring him finished as an effective pitcher. But I am saying that in 2018, he’s not somebody that is going to dominate a lineup, never mind get out of a jam like he was brought into in the sixth inning on Saturday. Had the Indians been able to discover/develop even a modest version of the 2016 Andrew Miller, I don’t think Francona would have brought in the 2018 Miller. Instead, with no real relief alternatives, he was banking on some residue of magic from someone who had at least done it in the past.

Which is why I would have stuck with Carrasco in that situation, even though playoff doctrine dictates that you pull a starter at the first sign of real trouble. Rely on your strengths, even if that comes with risk, rather than casting your lot with your weakness. Carrasco was facing the top of the Houston order for the third time, but given what we know about the Tribe bullpen right now, I thought it was a more acceptable risk to allow Carrasco to face the middle of the Astros lineup for the third time than to bring in Andrew Miller to face them once. If you are going to lose the series, lose it by forcing your opponent to beat your strongest part.

It also must be mentioned that the Tribe offense set the stage for that fatal flaw to be attacked. Scoring just one run in seven innings, no matter how great the pitcher, is not an acceptable outcome for an offense very capable of at the very least making a dominant pitcher work hard for his outs. This lineup is full of talented young players as well as experienced ones, and some of the at-bats against Gerrit Cole were just not up the standards that I’ve seen those players establish.

And so we’re in the lamentable prospect of being swept in the first round of the playoffs. The good news is that teams have regularly come back from 0-2 deficits to win series, something that should be seared into Tribe fans’ minds after the events of last year. The bad news is that I don’t see how this team can do it in the absence of stellar starting pitching, with two of the starts being made by a rookie pitcher who is still growing into the majors (Bieber) and a veteran pitcher who was by his standards awful in Game 1 (Kluber). And even if the Indians get great starting pitching, I’m not confident at all that they’d be able to scrape together even two shutout innings in relief.

I know a deficit brings out the pessimist in every baseball fan, even those who were pessimistic to begin with, but it’s really hard to see, after the lost opportunity in Game 2, to pull this series out. By nature, I’m an optimist when it comes to the Indians, especially over the last 5 seasons. I still think this team has at least one more run in them. But this year’s run? I think it’s over. Prove me wrong, Tribe. Please.