Something is afoot here at the Corner of Carnegie and Ontario, and for once I’m not talking about March Madness, fired coaches, former players returning for retirement parties, or anything that’s remotely close to happening at the Circle K.
The 2014 season is officially underway, and I’m as giddy as a school-girl.
The Indians started off the season with a 2-0 victory against the Oakland A’s, and while it’s only one game in the grand scheme of 162, it’s always good to set things off on the right foot.
What does that one game tell us? If we’re to use it as a blue-print, not a whole lot, to be honest.
Justin Masterson looked fantastic in his first start, and it does leave us to ponder whether or not our staff “ace” is about fully entering his prime with a chip on his shoulder. No, I don’t think he has a ceiling that Cliff Lee had, but I do believe there is more than just a “two-pitch” pitcher with no plus offerings. He understands the game, and when he is slotting that arm in a repetitive manner, he can be pretty special because of the way he can move the ball in the strike zone. If he had a solid fielding infield, he could be that much more special.
Michael Brantley went 2-for-4, continuing his hot spring streak in which he hit .500, with two triples and eight doubles, and 14 RBI in 18 games. He also walked five times, while striking out only twice. There have been a lot of comps made about Brantley over his career, but when the Indians hired Terry Francona, one guy popped into my head. I’ll get into who that was later on in this piece. Do I think Brantley is going to hit .350? No. Do I think Brantley is going to have a pretty special season? I do, and if he does what I expect him to, he could get MVP consideration. I’ll get into that in a minute.
While Brantley had two hits, his biggest play was when he was called out trying to slide home, and the catcher interfered without the ball in his glove. Brantley was called out, and it was quickly confirmed using visual replay. I could get into the intricacies of it all, but suffice it to say that there’s enough “gray area,” that this could turn into one of those subjective, BS calls that really hamper outcomes of baseball games. That one run could have been a big deal. Any time you have “gray area” in baseball, especially with Bud Selig as commissioner, it means trouble.
John Axford walked two batters in the ninth inning with the Indians up 2-0. I want to preface all of this by saying thatJohn Axford isn’t anywhere near the pitcher that Chris Perez was when he left this past October. What I will say is that the feeling I had was exactly the same. What about that curveball. He threw it a couple of times, and I actually swung at it here at my house, that’s how deceptive it was. His velocity is good, and if he’s throwing strikes, there are some American League hitters that are going to look really, really bad this season. Just know that his brilliance comes with heart medication.
Nick Swisher drove in a run from his permanent perch as the #Indians #2 hitter. My expectations are that Jason Kipnis and Carlos Santana are going to do big things this year, but with Brantley, I think Nick Swisher could be the most important hitter on this team. His numbers weren’t far off from years past, but to say that he was even close to what he used to be would be a travesty to his former self. He was hurt, trying to play through it, and as the de facto team captain, never complained once. He came up with a big hit in game one, and I am telling you, this is a guy that can change games. He’s tenacious. He’s scrappy. He loves playing for the Indians. He’s going to do some serious damage in that two-hole. If he has his OBP in that .370-.380 realm, Kip and Santana are going to rake.
The bullpen struggled, as they did last year out of the gate, and the realistically nearly lost the game for the Indians. Allen struggled, and was about 1 ½ inches away from giving up a three-game blast. Rzepczynski struggled as well. I already mentioned Axford. It’s one of those things….where you just have to say that bullpens are bullpens, and leave it at that.
At the end of the day, the Cleveland Indians played one game, and they won it. That’s the part of the blueprint that I’ll be paying attention to. This is a scrappy team, and they scraped out a win. Expect a lot more of that this season.
The Indians are facing off against an old friend, and to fellow CSI columnist Michael Hattery, a vaunted hero, when Scott Kazmir toes the rubber for the A’s in game one of today’s day/night doubleheader. Under the braintrust of Terry Francona and pitching coach Mickey Callaway, Kazmir achieved a renaissance of sorts in 2013 after signing a minor league contract with the Tribe after a two-year absence from Major League baseball.
Kazmir wasted no time signing with the A’s at the end of the season, but there’s no doubt that the coaching staff and Kazmir think very highly of each other. Francona being Francona was pretty plain in his intentions earlier this week when he said, “I hope we beat his brains out, but I’m happy for him.”
Kazmir has been lights out in Spring Training, going 1-0 in 16 2/3 innings, with 14 K’s and a 1.62 ERA. In other words, it’s going to be a tough game for a team in which Kazmir will likely have some decent insight into how to go after his former team.
Of course, that goes both ways.
Francona’s lineup against Kazmir is an interesting one, but the methodology behind it isn’t very complicated:
- Cabrera DH
- Swisher 1B
- Kipnis 2B
- Santana 3B
- Raburn LF
- Brantley CF
- Aviles SS
- Gomes C
- Johnson RF
So, Asdrubal Cabrera is hitting lead-off? Why exactly?
Francona explained the move simply by saying that he wanted to keep everyone in their normal spots in the batting order while the normal lead-off hitter Michael Bourn continues to recover from his strained left hamstring. Everyone in the lineup is either a switch-hitter or a right-handed hitter except for Jason Kipnis and Michael Brantley. Raburn moves up to fifth and is in left, while Elliot Johnson is playing right field. Brantley will bat sixth, and Cabrera is DHing, and leading off.
I like the DH part, but not the lead-off part. At least I don’t have to worry about his glove.
I know this line-up is put together this way because Kazmir is a lefty, but how about the multi-dimensional ways Francona can move and shift this 25-man roster. The DH position is pretty key, with Carlos Santana no freed up to play third base, and now we can see Cabrera there, and Ryan Raburn there, and really anyone that needs either a day off from the field. A guy like Elliot Johnson, should he hit the ball well, could find himself just about everywhere in the line-up.
Of course, if they don’t hit, this doesn’t look good at all, so we’ll have to wait and see. I do like the versatility.
The big news of the week had to be the signing of Yan Gomes to a six-year, $23 million extension after only an 88-game sample size with the Indians, and 132 total games in the big leagues. The contract guarantees him $23 million through 2019, and has a $1 million buyout or club options for $9 million in 2020, and $11 million for ’21. The deal is the largest in the history of baseball for a catcher who hasn’t reached arbitration, but it’s a move that should keep the Indians competitive, and allow them to hang onto players for a year or two into their free agent year. It’s a plan created and cultivated by John Hart back in the early 1990s.
It’s a plan that they put in place two seasons ago when they signed Carlos Santana to a five-year, $21 million extension, with a team option in place for 2017. That was a deal they announcend after the first week of the season, and also includes numerous incentives.
They also signed Asdrubal Cabrera to a contract that extended into his free agent years.
Last season, the Indians were focused on big free agents, and held off signing their youngsters to long-term deals, but they re-visited that again this season when they signed both Michael Brantley to a four-year, $25 million deal, with a fifth year club options for $11 million. They then followed with the deal for Gomes.
They currently have their third baseman, catcher and left fielder locked up long-term, and have their foundation to the future.
Many couldn’t figure out why the Indians would sign a guy like Gomes to a deal of this magnitude so early in his career. It’s simple. It’s a gamble a cost-efficient team like the Indians can make. What do you buy out? You buy out the arbitration process with a player who would make that exact same money through the arbitration process. You also have options at the end of the deal (two) that carry him into his free agent period.
Yes, it’s a gamble.
Yes, it’s how a team like the Indians have to operate.
Remember when I mentioned that the Indians signed Santana long-term on April 10, 2012? They announced that big deal while they were still at home during that series, and they announced it after a rain out so as to not become the news of the day on a game day.
The Indians head home tomorrow to face off against the Minnesota Twins over the weekend, and they have a day off on Thursday. With the Indians PR-machine taking a hit after the Justin Masterson deal fell through, they could be holding on to a trump card for this home series, to try and jump start the attendance.
Look for Jason Kipnis to sign a deal, with the potential for either Danny Salazar to sign on instead (or with), or even a guy like Corey Kluber. It would be fantastic PR for the Indians to continue to sign their future to deals that are team-ish friendly.
As I mentioned previously, this is a strategy created by former Cleveland Indians General Manager John Hart, who locked up nearly every young player to long term deals in the early 1990’s. Many missed, but within the misses, you had your Kenny Lofton and your Sandy Alomar and your Albert Belle, amongst others, that were major hits.
It’s the best way for a small market team to succeed.
The Indians are clearly focusing their attention on their position players, and I’m okay with that, but it has to move towards their starting rotation.
I often talk culture, and I often talk about the Tampa Bay Rays. There was an amazing piece in Sports Illustrated last April Fool’s Day written by Tom Verducci entitled “The Rays Way,” and it discussed the culture that helped build such starters as Jeremy Hellickson, Alex Cobb, Matt Moore, David Price and James Shields. More importantly, it talked about the culture that the Rays have built.
The culture in Tampa is to take care of their pitchers…period. While the Indians have focused on teaching the slider, as have many other organizations, the Rays have focused on the changeup. The goal is to get at least four starters 30 starts each, and it’s a metric they live by. They don’t always reach it, but it has kept their homegrown pitching talent healthy, and dominating.
Read the article, as it really sets the stage for how the Rays select the pitchers they ultimately take, how they foster them through the system, and ultimately, how they keep them in the organization. No, all of their starters don’t hit, that’s just not the realities of baseball, but the ones that do are generally above average, and stick around. But as Verducci pointed out, “as pitchers age and get expensive, they are traded off: Shields this off-season, Matt Garza in 2011, Edwin Jackson in 2008, and the list goes on.
While they are sent away, youngsters are built up and ready to fill in. They signed Matt Moore to a long-term deal last year, and just today signed their recent solid youngster Chris Archer to a deal through his arbitration years, and I believe, two years into his free agent years. He’s played one full season, as had Moore when he signed his deal. They trust their starters because they develop them right, and know what to expect.
I was asked today why Chris Archer would limit his value with a contract like this. I could get complicated and talk about the risk-rewards of being a starting pitcher, but I truly don’t buy any of that. Sure, the allure of long-term solvency is a big deal for anyone, but there’s a lot to be said for maximizing value as a player. One more big year could up the ante for arbitration years, as well as free agency.
Of course, there’s more to the picture.
The Rays know how to build their starters. The Rays know how to cultivate starters. The starters know that.
I mention this simply because you can see the Indians, in particular, with the way they handled Danny Salazar after his Tommy John surgery, perhaps taking some of this to heart. They were both excessively patient with him (still not as patient as the Rays), and they limited his innings.
You can see the patience they are showing with their next solid starter, Cody Anderson, who was coincidentally drafted by the Tampa Bay Rays in the 2010, before the Indians snatched him up three rounds earlier the following year. Now it’s time for the Indians to take the next step, and sign Salazar to a long-term extension, with the caveat that there are club options at the tail end of the deal.
Perhaps they are waiting until Salazar pitches a full season and proves his arm health. I get that. But if he does, it’ll be time for the Indians to continue their cost effective strategy, and move it over to their rotation. You don’t get the potential that Salazar has very often, and while the fanbase tends to cast a wary eye in his direction, you take a chance ten times over to wrap up a potential ace to a small-market contract.
What will Kipnis get, if he signs? I have to believe it’s a deal identical to both Matt Carpenter of the Cardinals andAndrelton Simmons of the Braves. While you can argue how similar or dissimilar they are because they are a different style of player, or because they play short or third or second, they play or have played a middle infield slot, have the similar tenures (Kipnis has played longer), and are currently comped by GMs because of it.
Kipnis will sign a five-year deal, to the tune of $40-44 million, and it will average out right around $8 million. Simmons signed a seven-year, $58 million deal. He’s younger and is playing a more difficult position, and is an elite defender. There’s some interesting upside there offensively as well. The deal buys out two free agency years.
Matt Carpenter signed a six-year, $52 million deal, with the 28-year old only four years away from free agency. He’s a third baseman by trade, but was playing second base last year to fill a need. He’s back at third base this season. Again, you can see that his deal, which also includes a team option (nearly $20 million) for a seventh year. His deal also buys out his arbitration years, as well as two free agency years.
Both deals escalate, as will Kipnis’s deal, which should look something like this:
2014: $3 million (they’ll frontload the deal)
2015: $6 million
2016: $9 million
2017: $11 million
2018: $13 million
Now, my guess is there will be some .5’s on the real deal, but what’s listed there is $42 million. I think the Indians could likely include a sixth year onto the deal, with a club option, which would be an amazing signing should he continue on his trajectory.
He would be 31 at the end of the five year deal.
I had mentioned Michael Brantley earlier, and have been interested by his comps. I’ve seen him compared toWade Boggs and Rod Carew over the last couple of weeks, and none of them have seemed quite right. In Boggs and Carew, you had two players that were freakishly good hitters, who dominated pitchers nearly from the start. They both finished their careers with a .328 lifetime average, an OBP at or over .400 (Boggs was .415), and were just on a different plain.
There ARE similarities in make-up, but that’s really where I draw the line.
The guy that I’d comp him to for reasons other than the position they played is Kevin Youkilis.
I know, I know, they are nothing alike from the standpoint that Brantley is a fleet-footed outfielder, while Kevin Youkilis is a cement-footed infielder.
I’m not talking defense.
I’m talking offense, and how Terry Francona will likely utilize the highest offense IQ player on the team. Over his career, Youkilis has hit at every position from lead-off through sixth in the order with at least 88 games or more at each position. His most, by far, is as a clean-up hitter, but he’s never been a dominating home-run hitter. He gets on base, hits in the clutch, and drives runs in. Sound familiar?
Now Youkilis was really in his class all his own, but Brantley took a massive step last season, and there’s no reason to believe he can’t continue.
Here are the numbers:
|on 1st, lt 2 out||274||26||33||0.319||0.358||0.413||0.771||0.328||116|
|on 3rd, lt 2 out||93||14||10||0.382||0.402||0.456||0.858||0.338||141|
|on 3rd, 2 out||96||14||10||0.241||0.353||0.414||0.767||0.243||115|
|0 out, —||416||37||107||0.231||0.277||0.329||0.606||0.27||70|
|0 out, 1–||109||4||8||0.356||0.385||0.49||0.876||0.366||145|
|0 out, -2-||31||2||1||0.385||0.429||0.385||0.813||0.4||130|
|0 out, –3||3||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||-100|
|0 out, 12-||24||1||2||0.3||0.333||0.45||0.783||0.294||118|
|0 out, 1-3||6||0||1||0.2||0.2||0.2||0.4||0.25||13|
|0 out, -23||5||1||0||0.25||0.4||0.25||0.65||0.25||86|
|0 out, 123||7||0||1||0.5||0.429||0.5||0.929||0.5||160|
|1 out, —||258||22||34||0.289||0.337||0.402||0.739||0.313||107|
|1 out, 1–||126||11||9||0.277||0.338||0.361||0.7||0.294||97|
|1 out, -2-||46||7||8||0.205||0.314||0.295||0.609||0.229||72|
|1 out, –3||13||2||1||0.375||0.455||0.375||0.83||0.375||136|
|1 out, 12-||54||4||7||0.292||0.346||0.333||0.679||0.341||92|
|1 out, 1-3||29||4||3||0.474||0.483||0.474||0.956||0.429||170|
|1 out, -23||21||5||2||0.462||0.524||0.692||1.216||0.429||240|
|1 out, 123||22||2||2||0.273||0.238||0.455||0.693||0.176||91|
|2 out, —||226||18||33||0.273||0.321||0.355||0.677||0.311||90|
|2 out, 1–||153||7||15||0.303||0.34||0.451||0.791||0.323||121|
|2 out, -2-||71||8||9||0.358||0.427||0.418||0.845||0.414||138|
|2 out, –3||25||2||2||0.15||0.261||0.15||0.411||0.167||18|
|2 out, 12-||63||8||4||0.362||0.439||0.586||1.026||0.365||186|
|2 out, 1-3||38||2||4||0.313||0.353||0.594||0.947||0.28||162|
|2 out, -23||25||9||2||0.176||0.462||0.294||0.756||0.2||117|
|2 out, 123||17||1||2||0.278||0.316||0.5||0.816||0.313||126|
|on 1st, lt 2 out||629||96||161||0.322||0.399||0.561||0.96||0.348||122|
|on 3rd, lt 2 out||229||42||40||0.415||0.457||0.695||1.152||0.371||165|
|on 3rd, 2 out||197||42||40||0.301||0.45||0.52||0.97||0.357||127|
|0 out, —||702||98||188||0.246||0.33||0.403||0.734||0.278||71|
|0 out, 1–||257||28||49||0.313||0.402||0.57||0.971||0.351||125|
|0 out, -2-||77||13||16||0.295||0.442||0.574||1.015||0.341||136|
|0 out, –3||8||3||1||0.5||0.625||0.75||1.375||0.5||220|
|0 out, 12-||78||6||14||0.286||0.351||0.529||0.879||0.321||103|
|0 out, 1-3||17||1||1||0.2||0.2||0.5||0.7||0.083||57|
|0 out, -23||22||4||4||0.357||0.455||0.5||0.955||0.385||124|
|0 out, 123||21||1||3||0.5||0.364||0.714||1.078||0.389||145|
|1 out, —||530||86||133||0.263||0.369||0.428||0.797||0.304||86|
|1 out, 1–||290||34||50||0.333||0.433||0.565||0.998||0.378||132|
|1 out, -2-||130||22||27||0.306||0.44||0.491||0.931||0.377||118|
|1 out, –3||52||12||6||0.545||0.596||0.848||1.445||0.516||233|
|1 out, 12-||143||16||25||0.287||0.366||0.441||0.807||0.321||88|
|1 out, 1-3||61||5||12||0.341||0.361||0.634||0.995||0.289||127|
|1 out, -23||43||11||6||0.333||0.5||0.429||0.929||0.333||121|
|1 out, 123||37||5||7||0.481||0.5||0.963||1.463||0.455||232|
|2 out, —||461||62||130||0.234||0.339||0.392||0.731||0.3||71|
|2 out, 1–||299||42||46||0.323||0.427||0.622||1.049||0.34||142|
|2 out, -2-||187||36||37||0.282||0.44||0.53||0.97||0.314||126|
|2 out, –3||73||23||10||0.388||0.6||0.653||1.253||0.444||194|
|2 out, 12-||134||12||33||0.317||0.396||0.528||0.924||0.414||114|
|2 out, 1-3||54||4||8||0.362||0.412||0.468||0.88||0.436||106|
|2 out, -23||34||11||5||0.36||0.556||0.96||1.516||0.313||246|
|2 out, 123||55||4||17||0.135||0.224||0.231||0.455||0.2||7|
Obviously, the one thing that Youkilis did that Brantley really doesn’t is hit home runs, but in every other facet, there is enough similarity to give Francona the same type of versatility in the line-up as he had with the Greek God of Walks. No, it’s not a perfect comp, but I’ll be curious to see how much more similar the numbers get as Brantley continues to play and improve his overall game.
How good can Brantley be? That’s really a hard question to answer. If you talk to scouts, they doubt his power, and downgrade him pretty far. If you talk to fans, they are often frustrated that he’s not flashy or flamboyant. What’s impressive is the simple fact that he is ice at the plate, enjoys 15-pitch at bats, and really wears down pitchers. If there’s a runner on, he will likely get a hit. If he doesn’t, he will the next time.
The key with Brantley is to understand that his player-type isn’t to carry a ballclub. Brantley isn’t that player. He’s the guy you don’t see coming, and by the time you realize his the hitter you should avoid, you’re already 18 pitches into an at-bat with the bases loaded, about to give up something big.