Off-Season Update

For anyone who hasn’t heard, in November I began writing for Wahoo’s On First, a Tribe blog that’s a part of the FanSided network. The other writers there are all extremely talented and knowledgeable, and it’s been a really great experience so far. I’m lucky to have the opportunity to work with them, and have learned so much even in this short amount of time.

Unfortunately, during the off-season there just isn’t enough going on with the Indians for me to contribute to WoF on a regular basis and keep up with this blog. So until April, I’ll only be posting there.

If you’d like to read my work throughout the winter — plus lots of great articles by the rest of the staff — check out the site here: Wahoo’s On First.

Next season should be incredibly exciting, especially with all the new faces joining the team. There’s a lot to be hopeful about, and like always — realistically or not — I’m pretty certain 2013 could be the year!  At any rate, the season can’t start soon enough.

Until then…go Tribe!


Four Free Agents the Tribe Should Avoid

There are quite a few Tribe fans who believe that the Indians can turn their luck around if the team signs several big-name contracts this off-season.

However, the free agents who will be available this winter do not offer many viable options. Although there are some talented players, most of them are not a good fit for Cleveland’s needs, or come at too high of a price. What this team needs more than anything is the second-coming of Justin Verlander – or at least an above-average pitcher who can be counted on for a quality start (and usually a win) every five games. With that in mind, the front office needs to be careful to save their money for an ace instead of spending it on other less-important players.

Throughout the last few months, several names have come up repeatedly. While many of them would be a poor use of the Indians’ limited resources, the four listed here would be the biggest mistakes of all.

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4) Josh Hamilton (Outfielder, Texas Rangers):

Josh Hamilton could be considered one of the icons of modern baseball. In 2012, the Texas Rangers paid the left-handed outfielder just over $13 million to drive in 128 RBIs and hit a career-high 43 home runs. He certainly isn’t the best defender in the game, but he makes up for it with his bat. Although he strikes out frequently, with 162 K’s this season, he also had a .354 OBP.

So, what would be so terrible about signing him?

There’s no question that Hamilton is a great player with extremely good offensive production. However, his price is too great, especially for a team that is already overstocked with left-handed bats – albeit, much less-powerful ones. With a salary budget as tight as the Indians’, they can’t afford to put so much money into one player.

Additionally, he is already 31 and has had several serious injuries, plus a long list of personal issues that could potentially affect his durability as a player. Regardless of his incredible talent, it would be foolish to give him the expensive, long-term contract he will most likely be seeking this winter.

3) David Ortiz (Designated Hitter, Boston Red Sox):

There are few hitters as powerful as David Ortiz. In just the first half of this season, he batted .309, hit 23 home runs and had an amazing .415 OBP.

Despite his talent, however, he would not be a good player for the Tribe next year. Ortiz missed all but five games in the second half of the 2012 season due to a heel injury. A player of his size is especially susceptible to getting hurt on the field after playing for so many years, and it could be a concern for the 37-year-old in the future. He plays a limited amount of first base, similar to Travis Hafner’s role with the Indians, but even as a designated hitter there is a huge possibility of injury.

Boston sources expect Ortiz to ask for a contract in the neighborhood of two years and $25 -$30 million. This is so far out of Cleveland’s price range that it’s absurd for anyone to even consider Ortiz as an option. More than likely, the Red Sox will re-sign him. Even if they don’t, the Indians don’t need an aging designated hitter who makes more than the majority of the roster combined — Hafner is always available to fill that role for less money than what Ortiz would want.

2) Anibal Sanchez (Starting Pitcher, Detroit Tigers):

One of the bigger free agent names this year is right-handed pitcher Anibal Sanchez. Sanchez, who has a career ERA of 3.75, is a valuable member of any rotation. He played for the Miami Marlins from 2006 until earlier this year, when he was traded to Detroit. This season, he had a 3.86 ERA and went 9-13 in 31 games between the two teams. With a 1.267 WHIP, he was decidedly better than anyone on the Indians’ rotation. He has a low walk rate, a fairly high strikeout rate and he has pitched 5 shutouts in his career. At first glance, it seems like the best possible signing for a team in desperate need of pitching.

However, signing the 28-year-old Sanchez would involve serious risks. In 2007, he had surgery on his right shoulder to repair a torn labrum. That procedure does not have the high success rate of Tommy John surgery; in fact, many pitchers who have it are never the same again. Although Sanchez did recover better than most others have, he also continues to be affected by the injury. He missed a good portion of the 2009 season after being placed on the 60-day disabled list with a shoulder strain. This year, he started spring training late after experiencing pain and tightness in it yet again. Although he has still pitched well in recent years, such a serious injury to his throwing arm that crops back up repeatedly is something to be concerned about.

Sanchez is a very good pitcher, but the Indians already have Justin Masterson, Zach McAllister and Corey Kluber, and most likely Carlos Carrasco will be back next spring after spending this year recovering from Tommy John surgery. The Tribe needs to focus on finding an ace, not another second- or third-best pitcher – especially one who may or may not spend part of the season on the disabled list anyway.

1) Delmon Young (Outfielder, Detroit Tigers):

For some reason, many people would like to see Delmon Young as a Cleveland Indian next year. He hasn’t been impressive at all this year, with a .267 average and 74 RBIs. He’s been below average in just about everything, including having only 20 walks. Excluding Vinnie Rotino, Cord Phelps and Matt LaPorta, every single position player who batted for the Indians this year has a higher walk percentage. That’s not a good sign, especially considering that Young also has 112 strike outs – the second highest total on the Tigers’ roster.

If it were just a one-year slump, Young might be a good gamble, but last season’s numbers were nearly identical. He also has had personal issues both on and off the field, including multiple suspensions. Plus, his next court date for an arrest that occurred during a Tigers’ road trip to New York in April isn’t set to take place until next month, and the outcome of that could have negative implications for whichever team he signs with next year.

Most likely, the biggest reason anyone wants to sign Young this off-season would be the fact that he is a right-handed hitter with 18 home runs. However, those home runs just aren’t enough to justify signing him. He has an overall WAR of -1.2 this year, yet the Tigers are paying him nearly 7 million dollars. His defensive WAR is even lower, at -1.6. Other than Shin-Soo Choo, not one player on the 2012 Indians team was beneath -1.0, so adding Young to the roster would actually make the team statistically worse.

Is that the kind of free agent the Tribe really needs?

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Some of the other names that have been tossed around include starting pitcher Brandon McCarthy and outfielder Ryan Ludwick. McCarthy posted impressive numbers before his season ended abruptly in early September, when he was seriously injured during a game. Although he would be the perfect candidate for the open rotation spot, the Oakland A’s will most likely re-sign him next year since he is still very affordable, considering his worth. Ludwick has provided valuable offensive production for the Cincinnati Reds this season, so the team is expected to pick up his option for next year. Realistically, neither player is likely to be available to play for the Tribe in 2013.

The Indians’ front office has already stated that because of the lack of choices available this year, they will probably focus most of their off-season efforts on trades, not free agent signings. Whether or not fans want to believe it, the team is making the right decision.

Choosing the Catcher for 2013

As the Indians begin to consider their choices for next year’s starting roster, they will need to make a decision about catcher Carlos Santana’s role with the Tribe.

Santana is one of the cornerstones that Cleveland plans to build on as they look towards the future of the team. The 26-year-old is highly regarded for his offensive potential, especially his power and on-base percentage. He was the Tribe’s everyday catcher in 2012, but he also plays first base and works as the designated hitter.

In 2004, Santana was signed as a minor league free agent by the Dodgers. He spent time in the outfield and at third base before 2007, when he began to transition to catching. By the time he began playing in the Indians’ organization in 2008, he was behind the plate full-time.

This season, the switch-hitter batted .252, with a .365 OBP and 18 home runs. He had 76 RBIs, tied for the team-high with Jason Kipnis, and an impressive 91 walks.

After a slow start, Santana’s hitting improved dramatically after the All-Star break. In that same time, the Tribe dropped 31 out of the 41 games that he started as a catcher. In fact, all five of the team’s August wins came on days where backup catcher Lou Marson was behind the plate and Santana was the designated hitter.

At least in part, this is because Santana’s offense varies widely depending on which position he starts at. In 99 games as catcher this season, he is batting just .241 – compared to his 20 games at first base, where he has a .344 average and .475 OPB. Additionally, eight of his home runs came while playing at first base or as the DH. If he can improve his batting average by .103 and increase his home runs just by switching positions, the team should definitely consider that option.

In terms of defense, Santana’s fielding percentage is .990 as a catcher and .989 as a first baseman. He’s not able to make the types of defensive plays that the Indians enjoyed from Casey Kotchman this season, but he’s not the best behind the plate, either. Since joining the Indians, he has worked with former catcher Sandy Alomar, Jr. to get better. In an interview with reporter Jordan Bastian, Alomar said that Santana has made some small strides in his game1.

“He just needs to stay more focused on his catching area. Other than that, he’s making progress. Not super progress, but he’s progressing. He has years of experience now — four years of experience behind the plate.”

That’s not exactly a glowing review from the six-time All-Star, but at least there has been some improvement. When asked if he saw Santana as the full-time catcher next year, Alomar simply said that it wasn’t his decision to make.

The Tribe also has another young player that will be considered for the job if Santana switches positions. Lou Marson, the 26-year-old backup catcher, was drafted straight out of high school by the Phillies in the fourth round of the 2004 draft. While in their farm system, he posted league-leading offensive numbers and was listed as a top prospect by Baseball America. He also caught in the All-Star Futures game and played for the U.S. baseball team in the 2008 Summer Olympics.

Of course, an impressive minor league career doesn’t always mean a player is cut out for an everyday role in the majors. This season, he hit just .226, making some fans question whether it was wise to include him in the lineup at all. He did have a .348 OBP — tied with Michael Brantley for the team’s third highest among players with at least 200 plate appearances. Like Santana, he has good strike zone discipline. He walked 36 times in just 235 appearances. While he has average speed — four stolen bases in six attempts — he lacks power, with no home runs and only 13 RBIs.

In an unusually bad defensive season, Marson had only a 14% success rate in throwing out runners, and both he and Santana made the AL top five in the number of stolen bases allowed. However, Marson was ranked 3rd and 2nd in the AL in 2010 and 2011, respectively, when he posted a 38% Caught Stealing rate both years. Currently, he is 14th among active catchers in the major leagues in career Caught Stealing percentage, while Santana is 31st.

Another possibility the Indians could consider, if they aren’t interested in switching Santana’s position, is to let each of the catchers work with 2-3 members of the rotation consistently, rather than setting the lineup based on the whether the opposing pitcher throws left or right.

Cleveland is eagerly anticipating the arrival of right-handed starting pitcher Carlos Carrasco next season as he returns from Tommy John surgery. Carrasco and Marson, who were both traded to Cleveland in the Cliff Lee deal, have played together since they were 17. As they came up through Phillies’ organization, Carrasco pitched primarily to Marson. When a pitcher and catcher work together frequently, it should improve their knowledge of each others’ timing and signals, making it easier to control the base runners.

Ideally, pitchers and catchers should be able to work interchangeably with each other in case of an injury or other unusual circumstances, but it might be better to simplify things for the rotation as they look to get back on track next year. It would provide Santana with more time to focus on improving his offense instead of his catching ability, too.

Pairing up could also cut back on the number of catching mistakes caused by mixed signals and being unprepared for certain pitches. Santana had a league-high 10 passed balls, while Marson had two. The team gave up a lot of extra runs because of it. It is extremely important that they get those mistakes under control before next season.

Regardless of which way they decide to use these two players, both of them have a lot of potential and can be an important part of the 2013 team.

A New Era for Tribe Baseball

If there was ever a person who was the epitome of the phrase “nice guys finish last”, it’s Manny Acta. While it’s a shame that such a genuinely good person was fired, it was the best option for both him and the organization.

As manager, Acta tried to instill in his players the importance of being the better person, sometimes even at the expense of a win. Instead of arguing with umpires and causing a scene during every game, he chose to quietly let the season run its course, accepting whatever fate was handed to him.

Some fans, and reportedly even a few players, took offense to the fact that Acta had no visible chip on his shoulder. Cleveland is a tough city, and one that knows how to hold a grudge. The fans expect their teams to reflect that, whether it’s the Browns’ hatred for Baltimore or the Cavs’ resentment of LeBron James. Acta didn’t have the bitterness that the rest of Cleveland’s sports world does, and he openly admitted that he would never be that type of manager. He didn’t want to change who he was as a person just to make people like him more. For him, baseball was supposed to be fun — it was his life’s work and his passion, but it was also just a game.

It’s hard to tell how much of an effect that attitude had on the players or on the outcome of the games, but many fans blamed him anyway. In the end, it ended up costing him his job.

The only way for the Indians organization to gain back credibility and prove to fans that they were still passionate about baseball was either to win or to make major changes…and they didn’t win. Whether Manny Acta was right or wrong in his approach to leading the team, the front office had to do something, so they dismissed him with six games left in the season.

Less than two weeks later, fans saw the beginning of a new era in Cleveland sports as the Indians officially announced the hiring of veteran manager Terry Francona.

Francona brings with him what most people want to see – two World Series championships, years of experience and the respect of nearly everyone in baseball. After leaving Boston at the end of 2011, he spent a year at ESPN. Now he says he’s ready to get back to leading a team – especially a young, exciting team like the one that Cleveland has.

He’s absolutely right — Cleveland really does have an exciting team. For the past two years, fans have seen flashes of potential – Jason Kipnis, Lonnie Chisenhall, Vinnie Pestano, and plenty of others. Despite what the season record looks like, the Tribe has more valuable players than many people realize.

The bullpen is solid – Pestano, Cody Allen, Joe Smith, and Chris Perez pitched well all season, and Chris Seddon and Scott Barnes were impressive in the last several weeks. Rookie starting pitchers like Corey Kluber and Zach McAllister continued to improve throughout the year, and Francona has already promised that Justin Masterson will stay with the team in 2013.

The position players are just as talented, with Kipnis, Chisenhall and Asdrubal Cabrera providing a lot of promise on the infield, and Michael Brantley and Shin-Soo Choo doing the same in the outfield. The Tribe has a lot of potential in catchers Carlos Santana and Lou Marson, and Santana’s power at the plate makes him a possible candidate for designated hitter as well. The team even has two solid utility players in Jason Donald and Brent Lillibridge, who filled in off the bench very nicely during the final months of the season.

With so much hope for the future, there’s no reason for fans to count the Tribe out for next year. The majority of the pieces needed for a winning team are already here.

The Indians will never be a big-spending team with the payroll of the Red Sox or the Yankees. However, young talent, if developed properly, can be just as valuable as expensive free agents. Mike Trout is the arguably the best player in baseball, and he makes a fraction of what every other player on his team makes because he’s a rookie. Big names and huge salaries don’t always win the most games or count for anything in the playoffs — the Texas Rangers are proof of that.

Francona brings not only experience and knowledge, but a new approach to the game. He is very passionate about working together with Chris Antonetti and Mark Shapiro to shape a winning team. He’s been a manager long enough to be able to recognize talent and to know how to bring it out in underachieving players.

The momentum in the Indians’ organization is shifting, and it’s not even a week into the off-season. There’s already so much energy and excitement from the leadership about next year.

It’s an exciting time to be a Tribe fan…2013 can’t get here fast enough.

Making the Case for Casey Kotchman

As the Indians’ disastrous 2012 season comes to an end, the team will be forced to examine their roster and make some changes over the winter. One of the positions that Chris Antonetti will need to find a solution for is first base.

Casey Kotchman has gotten the majority of the playing time at first this year. He signed a one-year contract with the Tribe that will make him a free agent at the end of this season, and the front office has yet to announce if they will try to re-sign him.

Kotchman has not put up impressive numbers offensively this year, and he’s well aware of that. In an interview after his walk-off single against the Twins on Thursday, Casey acknowledged to reporters that Cleveland will probably not welcome him back next season.

“I’d like to come back. Unfortunately, I didn’t keep up my end of the bargain.”

Hitting has been a struggle this year for Kotchman, who has a .231 average. Last year, he hit a career-high .306 for Tampa Bay, but fell drastically short of that this season.

Defensively, Casey has been outstanding. He routinely robs opposing teams of runs and spares the rest of the Tribe infield a significant amount of errors. His teammates frequently make poor throws to first, and Kotchman always seems to come up with the ball and make the out. The Indians’ other first basemen (Matt LaPorta and Carlos Santana) aren’t capable of that type of defense.

With only 5 errors through 128 games this year, he has a .996 fielding percentage and has helped turn 110 double plays.

This isn’t the first year that Kotchman has excelled on the field. He’s been a huge defensive asset to every team he’s been on. In nine years and 821 games at first, he has only 16 errors. That’s two less than Tribe shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera has had this season alone. In fact, Casey holds the record for the longest error-less streak by any MLB first baseman – 2,379 fielding chances.

According to Baseball Reference, Kotchman also has the all-time highest career fielding percentage as a first baseman, at. 9978. To put this in perspective, All-Star Albert Pujols is ranked 44th, and Cleveland fan-favorite Jim Thome comes in at 57th on the list — which dates all the way back to 18761.

It’s impossible for the Indians to upgrade defensively at first base. But is it worth sacrificing a roster spot that could be filled by someone offense-minded in order to keep Kotchman?

What should be taken in to consideration is that Kotchman’s career batting average is .262. That’s not phenomenal, but it is at least a respectable number. Star second baseman Jason Kipnis is only batting .255 this season, and no one is running him out of town. If Casey had hit at or above that mark, no one would be questioning his return next year.

So far this year, Kotchman has 12 home runs, 100 hits, 45 runs and 53 RBIs. That’s actually more homers, runs and RBIs than he had with Tampa Bay last year. Despite the fact that he hit for a higher average in 2011, he’s arguably been more productive this year, especially considering he has played in less games.

Kotchman’s batting average seems to fluctuate from year to year, so it’s very possible that it will go back up next year. Out of his nine seasons, only 3 others have had averages below .265, including his rookie year and 2006, when he attempted to play through mononucleosis before finally missing most of the season. Basically, he’s had two legitimately bad seasons: 2010 and 2012. More than likely, he’ll bounce back from this next year.

The Tribe has three other potential first basemen: LaPorta, Santana, and Russ Canzler.

Although LaPorta’s numbers in Triple A look great, he hasn’t been able to make the transition to the majors successfully. Santana is not a good infielder, although he can certainly hit well. In his 20 games at first, he already has two errors. The Tribe would be better off keeping him as the designated hitter or even as the catcher, where he would do less damage.

While Canzler’s bat would be more useful than Kotchman’s, he already has one error in three games as first baseman. He hasn’t had much playing time at first, but so far he seems unlikely to be the answer.

There are no solutions in the minor league system just yet, although the Akron Aeros’ Jesus Aguilar is definitely a prospect to watch, potentially as early as 2014. With no other real candidates for first, it’s worth taking a risk on Kotchman for next season.

If the Tribe hopes to remain competitive, they need to focus on drawing in at least one starting pitcher and one power-hitting outfielder, rather than wasting time and money on a search for the perfect first baseman.

Casey Kotchman may not be the .300+ average hitter that many fans would love to see, but the productivity of the hits that he does get should make up for that, especially combined with his defense and the very likely possibility that his average will go back to normal next year.

When the Indians take the field for the 2013 season, Kotchman deserves to be the man at first base, and the front office would be smart to give him that opportunity.

Tribe Can’t Contend, But They Haven’t Quit

During Wednesday night’s game against the Detroit Tigers, third baseman Jason Donald gave Cleveland fans a reminder of why — win or lose — they still love Tribe baseball.

In the bottom of the fourth, Detroit’s Brennan Boesch hit a high pop-up into the stands near third base. Donald tracked the hit down and dove over the railing into the first row, crushing several fans but managing to hang on to the ball for the out. Worthy of any ESPN highlight reel, the catch itself was as impressive as any that Mike Trout has made this year. However, the story behind it makes it even more amazing.

Donald was called up from the Triple-A Columbus Clippers a few weeks ago, just in time experience the Indians’ struggles throughout August. When a team drops from second place to being seventeen games back, it’s painful to watch. When it happens almost entirely within one month, it’s excruciating for both the players and the fans.

Despite the fact that the Tribe is entirely out of contention and could easily just give up, they haven’t. Many Cleveland fans have recently questioned the dedication of the players and coaches, accusing them of not trying their hardest and simply waiting out the season.

After seeing Donald’s great catch, it’s hard to believe that could be true. What kind of player risks an injury to make an out in foul territory, especially when their team has no chance at the playoffs?

It takes a lot of heart to do something like that. He could easily have ended his season as he crashed into the stands, but he wasn’t thinking about that. He was focused on getting the next out. Whether or not it would affect the outcome of the season — that wasn’t important. He knew he could make the play, and so he did.

That type of mentality is exactly what makes fans keep following this team. The majority of the players throw themselves into every game, regardless of the standings. No one will ever see Jason Kipnis half-heartedly jog to first after hitting into a routine play, or watch Vinnie Pestano wander out from the bullpen and make weak pitches. They play hard and don’t give in to the circumstances, no matter how bleak the game is.

Last week, Carlos Santana was benched after not hustling to beat out a play at first base during a game against Seattle. He later apologized and acknowledged that August was frustrating and his poor at-bats were frustrating, so he just hadn’t run as hard as he could have. Since then, Santana has picked up his game, even though the Indians’ situation hasn’t changed. His improved effort proves that he can be a key part of this team next year.

The Tribe may not have many truly great players, but one area that they excel in is finding guys with dedication and drive, who will go the extra mile even when they don’t need to. On a team that doesn’t have a huge offense or great starting pitchers, that effort makes a difference. Players like Kipnis, Pestano, Santana and even Donald offer a great foundation for Cleveland in the 2013 season.

Seeing the Indians win two games in a row against Detroit was great for the fans, but watching them lose one while continuing to put up a fight was even more inspiring.