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Optimistic offense at the Corner of Carnegie and Ontario

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Santana Slam (by Jason Miller US Presswire)

Santana Slam (by Jason Miller US Presswire)

The winds of change are blowing here at the Corner of Carnegie and Ontario, as Drew Stubbs was sent packing to the Colorado Rockies for left-handed reliever, Josh Outman.

The deal in and of itself wasn’t something that should shake the ground that Cleveland Indians fans walk on, but it certainly showcases Chris Antonetti’s drive to reshape this team.

Stubbs became expendable back in November when they signed outfielder David Murphy to a two-year deal, and while there was speculation that Michael Bourn may be the better candidate to deal, it turned out that the initial belief that Stubbs would be dealt turned out to be true.

Who is Josh Outman?

He’s most certainly going to be the second left-hander in the bullpen, after the Indians acquired Marc Rzepczynski last year. He’s the pure definition of a LOOGY, as he absolutely decimated left-handers last year to the tune of .186/.251/.272 over the course of his major league career as both a starter and a reliever.

Outman should also provide a bit of a value gain from Drew Stubbs, as he should make $2 to $3 million less than the former fleet-footed outfielder would have made with the Indians this season.

I know that many people wanted more for Stubbs based on a market that seemingly is overpaying for everything, but he’s likely exactly the right value.

Will this preclude the Indians from making more moves as the offseason continues?

That’s the real question.

Question loom about former Indians’ righty Ubaldo Jimenez, since the market for him at the value he’s asking for is questionable. Of course, do the Indians have the type of money to give to him even if he comes down in value?

Nobody really knows the answer to that, although there’s a lot of speculation that their pay ceiling is similar to what it was last year. There’s no real reason to think that it’s not, but there’s truthfully no reason to think that it is.

What it comes down to at this point is who the Indians value more, Justin Masterson or Jimenez?

Many will immediately point to Masterson as their target, but the realities may truly be that they are already priced out of that market. I talked about this extensively in last week’s Corner of Carnegie and Ontario. What is Masterson’s value next season?

That’s a number that’s hard to quantify right now. Some think that it will be lower than this year, but I disagree 100%. Who are the potential free agents next year? Max Sherzer, James Shields, Jon Lester and Jake Peavy will all be on the market, as will be Brandon McCarthy, Homer Bailey and Josh Beckett.

In other words, you could argue that contracts could be just as crazy.

I’m not saying the Indians should open up the wallet for Jimenez instead of Masterson, but I am under the belief that the Indians may WANT to sign one or the other.

Of course, there could be a trade out there somewhere that Chris Antonetti will be exploring.

This week’s Corner is going to head into an optimistic frame of mind, as I focus on the offense and the upside that it could provide. The Indians front office haven’t made many adjustments to this part of their club, and there’s a good reason why.

It should get better.

Here’s how:

The upside:

There’s been a lot of talk of regression for Yan Gomes, and I completely understand it…or do I? Yan Gomes truly came out of nowhere. Sure, there are a few Monday morning quarterbacks who said they predicted Yan Gomes relative start turn, but I can truly only think of one person, a poster at Indians Baseball Insider (jwahoo), who even gave in to the possibility that Gomes could be a factor on the Major League club.

Now Gomes finds himself as the starter for the Indians, which is a whole other ballgame.

With it brings a different weight, and because of the surprise bounce in statistics from Gomes in all areas, including defense, many people only see a downturn in his season.

I don’t necessarily disagree, as there are some legitimate concerns about the sophomore slump phenomenon that hits certain players. Gomes would certainly be a candidate in his first full season as a starter.

I’m not going to delve too far into this with regards to sabermetrics, but you do have to wonder if he can sustain his .342 BABIP in a full season after teams have actually had a chance to attack his weaknesses. Remember, his BABIP in an even smaller sample size in 2012 was just .246.

Of course, everything I’ve read and heard about BABIP is that it’s relatively volatile to begin with, and in isolation is a tough indicator in gauging future performance.

I’m also slightly concerned about his walk rate, which at 5.6%, leaves a little to be desired. That has to improve, and it’s hard to say if it will based on his past MLB experience in which is walk rate was only slightly better. You do have to figure that he’ll see less strikes in 2014, which in turn, could give him more opportunity to take pitches.

It’s not like Gomes is an overt free swinger.

What do I like about Gomes?

I love his power.

He doubled his games from 2012 to 2013, and he saw an uptick in power in all areas. He nearly tripled his home run production, from four to 11, and he upped his doubles production four times, to 18. He also had two triples.

I think that’s sustainable power, and if he can improve that walk rate a bit and continue to make contact, I think it would be reasonable to say that the Indians can expect a solid season from their catcher. The fact that it would be representative of an entire season will say a lot.

I’m not even going to begin to talk about his defense as it will surely only get better.

Something to think about.

The Indians pitching staff took a dramatic turn for the better, especially in September. Mickey Callaway has been given a lot of credit in that regards, and I don’t agree. It’s actually funny to see the Callaway backlash at IBI over the past couple of days. With that said, I do think it’s fair to say that there’s more to the rotational puzzle than Callaway.

I give you Yan Gomes.

Ubaldo Jimenez and Scott Kazmir saw a massive September uptick in production in September, a month in which Gomes started 22 games. He had become essentially the primary catcher in August, and you can’t argue that his presence behind the plate may have had something to do with regards to his rotation pitching well.

Perhaps it was confidence in him. Perhaps it was the relationships that he’s built over the years. Either way, defensively, the catching position will only get better.

My overall point here is that a full season of Gomes should equal good things for the Indians in 2014, and I would argue that there is an outside chance that Gomes may be an “above the numbers” sorta player. Is he Buster Posey? No, I wouldn’t go that far, but I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that Gomes could surprise again in 2014. There are many in Indians’ circles that believe that to be the case.

That’s why he’s starting.

Nick Swisher is a guy we also should see a bit of improvement from with regards to offensive production. People do worry about his age, and they also worry about his 2013 injuries becoming more prevalent over his final three years with the Tribe, but it’s also reasonable to think that Swisher will likely be protected a bit more this year in the DH role, and should see a massive drop in playing time in the outfield.

Regardless, Swisher should return to his previous standards, which he really wasn’t too far from last year when it was all said and done.

What does that mean? He’ll roll out a  more consistent 20-25 home runs, drive in 70-90 runs (dependent on his spot in the batting order), and just be a consistent force. His OPS was a solid .763 last year, but it was only the second time since 2006 that it was below .800. Look for a return to that production this year.

I’m going to talk about Carlos Santana in a moment…

There’s no doubt in my mind that Jason Kipnis will continue to grow into a superstar. The one thing that we can say about the Indians’ second baseman in his 2 ½ seasons with the Indians is that it’s been anything but steady. He’s show months of just scorchingly good play, followed by months of standard, hum-drum play.

Yes, Kipnis has had bad months, like this past April, when he rolled out a .200/.269/.286 slash, but he also has elite months, like June, in which he had a .419/.517/.699 slash, and was likely the best player in baseball over that stretch.

He wasn’t really ever that good again last year, but it’s not like he was horrible.

What’s my point in all of this with regards to Kipnis?

As he continues to gain experience, his floor will continue to rise, and as Kipnis begins to mix in more of those June months with better lower-end numbers, you’ll see some really special stuff from the Indians on-the-field leader.

Look for Kipnis to really perform at a high level in 2014. I think it’s possible that he’ll cement himself as an elite second baseman…finally, if he hasn’t already.

I’m fairly optimistic about the shortstop position, but until it clears itself up over the offseason, I’m going to hold off proclaiming this to be an upswing position. I know we’re going to be hearing a lot of discussion about keeping Asdrubal and having improved production because of his contract year.

I don’t buy it, but I also don’t proclaim to care if I’m right. Some will tell you Asdrubal is going to go off this year, and some will tell you he’s trending down. You can point to his yearly progressions and his contract, but to be honest, I think it’s up in the air. I am a firm believer in optimism, but even a good year with this post-2009 Asdrubal isn’t likely to be a year in which he’s really all that productive, at least in my eyes.

I’ve heard from several that his numbers nearly equaled his previous years in terms of pure statistics, except for his K-Rate. This is a case to me that showcases wholes in basic statistics. His numbers were mostly black hole numbers. Many of his positive stats were meaningless, in games that were already decided.

My point here is that with Asdrubal, I don’t see upside in him.

That’s my opinion. It’s up to him to prove me wrong.

My endgame with Asdrubal is that he will likely be gone when it’s all said and done. People keep talking about value, but the point here is that regardless of what he does this year, they can improve the position by not even arguably replacing him right now. His playing well is a chance occurrence. Someone else playing well is not.

There’s upside there, depending on which side of the coin everything falls on.

I like Lonnie Chisenhall, and if Carlos Santana can face off against left-handed hitters, Chisenhall can reach the max of being a phenomenal platoonish-third baseman. Let’s start with Lonnie. The year that Jason Kipnis broke through to the Indians, everyone (except me and a few others) said that Chisenhall was a lock for a mid-year call-up and sustained big league success, while Kipnis still needed to learn how to defend.

You know how that story ends.

Here we are, three years later, and Chis is still trying to figure things out. This will likely be his last chance, and if Santana can play the postion a bit of the time to take away those lefty at bats, I think Chisenhall will surprise some people.

How good could he play from the left side of the plate facing righties? In the minors, he hit .299, .266, .301, .275, .338 and .348 against righties. In the bigs, he hasn’t been as good, hitting .256 against righties in his three-years, and a near 200 game sample. The problem with the sample is that it’s sporadic at best, and his career .194 average vs. lefties surely weighed him down a bit mentally.

He has nowhere to go but up, and someone like Santana can only enhance his value.

Of course, there’s that 4.7% walk rate, which makes Yan Gomes look like Barry Bonds. Perhaps it will improve if he can focus on plate appearances in which he can be successful.

As to Santana, I love him at third, and I firmly believe that the Indians set up very well for him at that position going forward. Now, if he’s dead-dog bad, obviously that will hurt his value a bit, and decimate Chisenhall’s value. If he’s just adequate, and his offense improves the way it should, the 3rd base position could be a massive 2014 value.

We talked about that very think at Cleveland Sports Insiders in the Sunday Drive.

I’ve always liked Carlos Santana as an offensive player, but I often forget why.

We hear a lot about his non-traditional stats, and how he’s a Sabr-darling. That’s all true, but regardless, he’s just a really good ballplayer.

Now I strolled down the sabr-stats in that Sunday piece, but I’m just going to talk flat out numbers in this one.

First, Santana is durable, and has played in 143 games or more in all three years. That’s going to be enhanced by his move away from behind the plate full-time. He’ll still play some games there, but if it’s more than 40, I would be surprised.

Hitting in the four-hole last year, Santana hit nine homers, drove in 29 runs, hit 10 doubles and walked 39 times, while striking out 30 times in 48 games. His .910 OPS batting clean-up far exceeded any other place in the order that he hit last year. In other words, he was pretty good there last year, using basic statistics. I’ve seen others bash him, and while it’s a small sample size, I think I’m ready to say Santana can project to some pretty good basic metric stats from the clean-up role going forward. His home run production would project to around 30, with around 100 RBI.

Hmmmm…seems like numbers that people would expect from him in that role, right?

Now projections are just that. We don’t know if third base will hamper him, but I can tell you that playing first base was beneficial to his offense as well. His .875 OPS was far superior to any other position that he played.

As to his defense? He’s not a great defender, and that’s a fact, but it’s absolutely exhausting to listen to the griping of folks that compare every player to perfection. It’s a strange world that we live in with regards to how we judge baseball players. In 1986, 13 players hit 30+ homers, and one hit 40. The next season, 28 players hit 30+, and four hit 40. In 1988, only five hit over 30, and one hit over 40. IN 1989, ten hit over 30, and one hit over 40. If you jump to 1996 over 40 hit over 30. In 1997, it was 31. In 1998 it was 33.

I could go on and on, but the steroid era, bloated the offensive thinking.

I get that.

But it’s time to remember the game for what it was prior to the late 90’s line of power. 30 and 100 are special, special players at this point, and Santana could actually still get there if given the opportunity to actually play into his prime. I know there are saber-folks that are cringing right now, but it’s absolutely true. That’s his upside. He’s going to be 28 during the first month of the season, and I really believe that this team will develop around him and give him an opportunity to do some special things with traditional baseball stats.

The bonus?

The metrics should be otherworldly.

Now I know that there’s mystery to all of this, and that there’s history of struggle for Santana at the four that many will point to against his permanent station there, but this kid is talented, and entering his prime.

Watch out. I think his value to this team is vastly superior to what many who think of him highly even believe, and third base can just enhance that even further.

Now, I’m a Michael Brantley homer, so talking about upside with him is a slippery slope for me. I could delve deeper than I’m going to, but I want to really focus on him in some player profiles we’re going to be doing at C.S.I. and at IBI over the next several weeks.

Again, I’m personally going to stay basic here, but I’m going to pull in a bit of help for the metric side of this.

Michael Brantley is a superior IQ ballplayer. You can see how he adjusted to pitch count his year, which made him a terror in key points in the game. He utilized the fact that pitchers threw more fastballs in first pitch counts with runners in scoring position, and just went nuts, turning into the Indians most clutch player in 2013.

I think pitchers will adjust to that this year, which will work in his favor.

Brantley will see more first pitch balls this year because of more breaking stuff outside of the zone. We know Brantley has command of the strike zone…as well as anyone on the team. If Brantley is wreaking havoc on 0-0 counts with runners in scoring position, what do you think he’ll do next year with a 1-0 count, and pitchers then being forced to throw a fastball?

My point here is that Brantley is going to be forcing some very good managers and pitchers to do things outside the box. By definition, that’s a good player.

Now, that’s obviously somewhat speculative on my part, but I think there’s tangible pieces to Brantley which also showcase that offensive IQ, and that continued upswing.

Overall, Brantley seemed to plateau last year after a three-year upswing, but I think his rubber-band will snap around, and we’ll see him enhance his approach in other situations. I’m curious as to where they put him in the lineup, because he’s show the ability to hit well from the lead-off spot, the three-hole, the five-hole and the six-hole. You could make a case for ANY of those spots in the line-up, with the exception of the three-hole.

Where would I like Brantley at? Since I have a hankering to see Kipnis hitting lead-off, I’d say my preference for Brantley would remain as the #5 hitter on the team. Of course, I’m not sure that Kipnis is a guy that manager Terry Francona would put in that spot. If he doesn’t, and he keeps Kipnis in the three-hole, which does make some sense, then I’d make a case that Brantley would best be suited as the lead-off hitter. It certainly would take away a bit from his clutch hitting with runners in scoring position, which is the downside, but I do think his numbers last year showcased a hitter that was figuring out what to expect from that lead-off spot.

His slash at the end of the year, granted, in only a 25-game sample, was .327/.383/.418. The interesting piece is that he had 13 RBI in his 25 games, which is easily a better percentage than his 28 in 62 games in the five-hole. Now, I know that’s chance, but that’s really exactly my point.

No, I’m not trying to lock in Brantley as a lead-off guy, and I’m sure there are plenty that will be against it, and I get it. I think there are multiple options to look at, but I do think Brantley would be a guy that could excel there if given a full-time chance. There are other places for him though.

Either way, Brantley is either a wash, or an improvement, dependent on how Francona utilizes him. I wouldn’t bet against the manager.

In right, I’m really high on the Murphy and Raburn platoon, but mostly on the Murphy side of things. I was admittedly underwhelmed on the initial Murphy deal, but have grown into a big fan over the past three weeks, having talked to several really solid baseball minds about him.

Everything about Murphy projects him to rebound this year.

I could get into the science of it all, but I’ll leave that to a couple of pieces that I’ve read over the past month.

One is from a good friend who you really should read, if you haven’t. Michael Hattery points to the ballpark factor influencing Murphy’s struggles, and how Progressive Field should be a bit of a cushion for him. He has tempered expectations, but expectations that suggest that the Indians may have gotten a player valued at twice the pay.

I’m okay with that.

Here’s another piece from Mark Simon, at ESPN, that suggest he’s going to have similar numbers as the ones that Hattery suggested, but for different reasons.

What does this mean?

Murphy should be a nice addition, and could even be the Ryan Raburn of 2014.

As to Ryan Raburn, his likely platoon-mate?

Perfect.

I think that Terry Francona and the Cleveland Indians understand Raburn’s engine.

What will he do in 2014?

He’ll hit .270 or better. He’ll hit 15 homers or better. He’ll drive in 50 runs or better. He’ll do all the things he did last year, and maybe more. When he’s used right, that’s the player he can be.

Now put Murphy and Raburn together, and I think you’ll be looking at a platoon-ish player of about 30 homers and 100 RBI, with plus defense, good baserunning, and good clubhouse mentality.

Centerfield should be Michael Bourn’s area to run, and the trend is certainly a downward cycle. Hattery’s most recent Trend Spotting was perhaps his best piece yet, focusing on Michael Bourn’s true value in today’s market, and it’s fairly astute. If you compare Bourn to some of the larger contracts for players with similar ability, he’s a deal, and the Indians showcased some of that value with their trade of Drew Stubbs. They clearly don’t want to move him, and think he could have a bounce-back year.

I think it’s about 50-50 though. Will Bourn continue to decline by losing more ground in center defensively, combined with another drop-off offensively.

The key for Bourn will be his ability to get on base, and with a falling walk rate, combined with a rising K-Rate, equals a struggle in production. I still think we could see a .330-.350 OBP next season though, if he’s healthy from the start, and truly needed a year to learn the pitching that he faced last season. Of course, if the trend is the drop in nearly every important category, and not the new league, then the Indians are overpaying.

We shall see, but I think the Indians can see a value in Bourn this year.That’s definitely a gut call.

At the end of the day, the Indians are counting on internal improvements as opposed to major trades offensively, and there is certainly room to grow.

No, I don’t think the Indians are going to see each of these positions so more upside. That’s rarely realistic.

But could it happen?

Absolutely.

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