It’s truly a good time to be a sports’ fan here at the Corner of Carnegie and Ontario. Sure, I could wax poetic about Spring Training once again, but it goes far beyond that. NFL free agency is upon us (with the Browns major players), and by this time next week, we’ll be on the eve of the 2014 NCAA basketball tournament. The tournament, for me, has always been the bridge to the opening day of baseball, a sure sign that spring is here, and meaningful baseball is on its way.
It’s truly funny how the tournament has changed since I was a kid. Initially, the tournament seedings were a fairly hidden process, without much fanfare. As a kid, I didn’t pay attention to the brackets until they came out in the middle of a Sports’ Illustrated magazine, with the teams already printed. That segued into the blank newspaper brackets, and selection Sunday, which I would spend writing down every team as fast as I could, always missing one, but going back to the tapes for the random unknown teams such as Middle Tennessee State or LaSalle. That turned into the college poster board brackets, which I would meticulously measure out every bracket just so, and color code all of the teams with their respective ranking, seed and side of the bracket. Of course, these were the centerpiece to some “friendly wagers,” as the quest for yearly bragging rights began every mid-March.
Today, I still create the poster board brackets, and they are still the centerpiece of many “friendly wagers,” but the next week will be swarmed with paid professionals who deem themselves as “bracketologists.” Imagine that, paid professionals who do nothing but build brackets for a living. I distinctly recall my mother saying, “If you put that much effort in school, you’d get a good job.” I remember thinking, “If only they had big money job that involved brackets.”
Little did I know.
While much of our next few weeks will be swallowed up from the opening tips of the conference tournaments to the now clichéd “One Shining Moment” on Monday, April 7th, the Indians will be putting together their final pieces in what hopes to be the next step to a World Series run. In 19 days, the Tribe will kick off their 2014 season in Oakland, and there are many interesting questions heading into the season.
With all of that said, let’s grab our Shamrock Shakes and our posterboard brackets and take a look at some of those questions and expectations that are flying in from the Arizona desert.
Alright, let’s start things off talking about this third base situation. I suppose in a perfect world, Lonnie Chisenhall would figure everything out and become the #1 prospect that we thought that he would be. Think about this: Lonnie Chisenhall was a hot topic for discussion coming out of the 2011 camp. In a podcast that year, I remember debating the better prospect, Lonnie or Jason Kipnis.
Most thought Chisenhall was the lock that year.
Chisenhall raked in the big league camp that season, hitting .500 in a 12-game sample size. He eventually made the big league club, and he struggled with injury and consistency, and never has found his way since.
That’s certainly oversimplifying the issue in a grand sense, but as time has wore on, the realization has set in that he can’t hit lefties at all at the big league level, and while his club isn’t bad, he’s show struggle in clutch situations. His glove alone cost the Indians two games in the closing months last year.
Back in 2011, Chisenhall was unquestionably a top prospect in the system. He hadn’t played a lick of major league baseball back then, and had the type of short swing that managers really crave. His swing is still pretty. He is still a hard worker, but he has major flaws that come into question.
I don’t think he can be a regular third baseman.
I also don’t think he should be overlooked in the sense that he could provide the Indians with some value throughout the season.
The Carlos Santana project provides the Indians with an interesting situation that should develop as the year progresses. While it’s easy to stick Santana there full-time in our minds, the reality of being the full-time starting third baseman on a major league level should go far beyond his perceived athletic ability, range and instinct.
It really is all about reps. What’s fairly clear now is that he as the aptitude to play the position. He’ll need to play, and longer than the Spring Training allotment of ballgames to find out if that aptitude is anything more than athleticism, or something that can become habitual.
He may be the regular third baseman when it’s all said and done at the end of spring training, but I really believe that we could be seeing some sort of hybrid platoon situation. That’s where Lonnie Chisenhall comes into focus.
Look, I don’t think Chisenhall is a giant waste of a baseball player. With that said, I also don’t think that he’s a guy that you can look at as a full-time third baseman either.
So what would a platoon look like? Well, if you just gaze at their career numbers, it looks like a match made in heaven. Chisenhall hits righties well, and Santana hits lefties well. Of course, I just can’t believe that the Indians are only planning on putting Santana in against lefties when he’s playing third.
Is it safe to say that Santana will get at least 2/3 of the at bats at third base? That’s my guess, but we’ll likely not know the answer to that until we get into the regular season and see how quickly he really has taken to the position. If he’s playing reasonably well, we could see a slight platoon. If he’s playing really well, we could see Chisenhall sent down. If he’s struggling, we could see him shift more to the DH role. Regardless, I believe that Chisenhall has a year to prove himself as a serviceable player at third, while Santana earns his stripes.
What he does with that time should be interesting, but I do believe he’s lodged into that transitional role, as we speak.
What’s going to happen with Michel Bourn this year? I was on the phone talking to a friend of mine while doing some prep work on a potential book on the Indians that I’ve been asked to take part in, and he was talking to me about how poorly Bourn has been playing in the preseason.
What’s really been interesting to me is how little people are really paying attention to Bourn. Other than my buddy, I don’t think one person has said much of anything about Bourn of late.
People have either written him off, or are just so focused on the #5 spot in the rotation and the bench spots, that the Bourn situation will take care of itself.
It’s really hard to speculate on a guy like Bourn. He’s bred on speed, and it really does appear that it’s going away. His age would suggest that he’s on the downswing, and the numbers certainly suggest that this pattern is taking shape. The numbers are against him, even though he’s only 31.
Is there a chance that Bourn will rebound after a poor season last year?
Sure there is. I just don’t know how MUCH of an improvement that we can expect.
Here’s what I do know. Michael Bourn bears a lot of responsibility for how he played last year, and takes responsibility for not living up to the large contract that he signed with the Indians prior to last season. He had surgery on his ruptured left hamstring immediately after the season, and is completely healed up.
There was also an unfamiliarity with the American League, which he’s talked about several times heading into last season. I do buy into that, and think we could see an increase in stolen bases this year, as well as just an overall better line.
In a recent piece by Tribe Scribe Jordan Bastian, Terry Francona pointed to an increase in stolen bases as a possibility, and Bourn himself is looking at bunting more to take advantage of the infield grass.
I don’t think there’s a ton of Bourn upside, but I do think he’ll have a better season overall.
I think the Justin Masterson deal is a foregone conclusion, but my eyes are really on what they do with Jason Kipnis going forward. The Indians wrapped up their other star, Carlos Santana to a long-term contract, and rumors are about that they are in discussions with Kipnis as well.
I’ve talked about this before, but it’s worth talking about again. There are two interesting contracts to take a look at that were signed recently, and both could have more impact on Kipnis than the Homer Bailey deal is having on Justin Masterson.
The two deals in which I speak of are a 7-year, $58 million deal for the 23-year old gold glove Atlanta Braves shortstop, Andrelton Simmons, as well as the 6-year, $52 million deal for the 27-year old St. Louis Cardinals 3rd baseman, Matt Carpenter.
While we can certainly point to service time/numbers/upside differences between Simmons, Carpenter and Kipnis, I think it would be a fair assumption to think that Kipnis would be looking at a deal that would be in a similar framework to each player. While both deals are scaled a bit different, their average price per year seems to be about right: Kipnis should be looking at something in the realm of $8-$9 million a year.
You can say a lot about Kipnis with regards to his play, but if the Indians were able to wrap him up to a six-year deal, as the Cardinals did with a similar aged and similar skilled Carpenter, they would gain control of Kipnis through the first two seasons of his free agency.
It would be a brilliant move, and while I hesitate to offer long-term deals to any pitcher, I would never hesitate to throw that kind of money to a position player with the potential upside of Kipnis.
Both Simmons and Carpenter’s deals are built with escalating seasons. Simmons will make $1 million this season, and will see jumps in pay until 2020, when he turns 30. He’ll make $15 million that year.
It’s important to note that Simmons not only has some decent power (27 doubles and 17 homers at only 23), but he very well could be the best defensive shortstop in baseball. That’s no small label to give to a kid that young, but clearly the Braves get it, and gave him the money.
Carpenter’s contract is similar in that he’ll make $1 million this year, and see escalating numbers every year until his final year in 2019, when he turns 33. He’ll make $14.5 million that season, with an $18.5 team option in 2020.
Carpenter was primarily a second baseman last season, but will be moving to third base this year. He scored 126 runs, had 199 hits, and roped 55 doubles.
While some have noted that the Indians couldn’t afford Kipnis and Masterson this offseaon, that’s simply not true. If they can sign him to an escalating deal, similar to the other two starters, there’s no reason to think the Indians couldn’t do it.
He wouldn’t make in the $8 million range until 2017, which is the season after Michael Bourn and Nick Swisher come off the books. It would also give the Indians an incredible core, and perhaps help showcase to a growing fanbase that they are committed to winning over the long term.
Of course, it remains to be seen if the Indians will offer him those types of years or numbers, or whether or not Kipnis would accept those years or numbers.
It’s possible the Indians could offer him a five-year deal, through his first year of free agency, which seem to be the M.O. these days (see Asdrubal Cabrera and Carlos Santana). I would be fine with that, but it would seem to be shortsighted, especially considering his potential value in his prime years. It could be a massive plus in many, many ways for the Tribe.
While any long-term deal for any player is a risk, these are just the types of risks the Indians have to take to stay relevant and to stay in the race.
What question have I gotten asked the most over the past four or five days? Will the Indians use Asdrubal Cabrera as a lead-off hitter? Are you kidding me?
I realize I open myself up here, because I’m pretty sure that someone is going to make a case that he SHOULD be a lead-off hitter. Please, please don’t.
I like listening to all ideas. I like believing in all players.
I want to have a good solid lead-off hitter. I want Asdrubal to succeed.
But if you asked me to name ten guys to lead off for the Tribe, he wouldn’t be one of them. I think I’d pick a couple of pitchers before him. You should to.
Now, will Francona utilze a position in the lineup in spring training to help motivate a guy to start hitting?
Will Francona then move that guy to a position that he fits better?
How do I know? Well, he did it with a bunch of guys last season. Most notably, to Carlos Santana, who started off in the six hole, before ending up as the lead-off guy, a spot most people had written off for him prior to last season.
Nick Swisher found himself in the #2 hole, where he succeeded.
Michael Brantley found himself, well, everywhere, where he succeeded.
My point here is simply that Cabrera is getting hits, and that’s a good thing. If that carried over to the regular season, that’s a great thing.
It just won’t be as a lead-off hitter.
But Jim, what if Bourn gets hurt.
Seriously…are you kidding me?
Before I roll out of here, make sure you check out Cleveland Sports Insiders, a website in which a bunch of us IBI writers use to throw up some other random Cleveland Sports articles that we write about. You can locate all the CSI podcasts as well as original NFL and NBA content from Jeff Ellis, John Grimm, Steve Orbanek and Michael Hattery. It’s open to anyone who has a general interest in writing, so shoot me an email at email@example.com if you’d like to throw up something. That’s what Grimm did a few months ago, and it’s gotten him some really nice press so far in the metrics world.
And it’s damn uneven….
…just the way I like it.