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Written by Paul Cousineau

Paul Cousineau


As the North Coast is coated in another couple of inches (feet) of snow – although we’re actually suited for this stuff and a couple of inches (feet) doesn't generally cause “Lockdown Mode” – and with the Cavaliers coming off of their worst loss in franchise history, the tenor in Northeast Ohio regarding sports (and the city/county/region) is at the lowest point in recent memory. With that being the case, now would be a perfect time for the national sports media to join the local sports media in telling us how terrible things least as they perceive them to be.

That being said (and I won't let that glass go anywhere below half-full), let's get some Tomahawks in the air, if only so I can straighten up to see them instead of being bent over a snow shovel...

By now, you’ve likely seen the piece on ESPN by Jerry Crasnick that is called “Indians follow the Cleveland Way”, with it appearing on the sidebar later among “Most Sent Stories on” in the day as “Crasnick: Indians keeping Cleveland Down”, seriously.

The Indians are keeping Cleveland down? The “Cleveland Way”?
Oof...well, you know where this is going…

Obviously, the opening paragraph contain the unbelievably pervasive “Woe is Cleveland” stuff that we can’t escape from the national (and local) media and continues with the trite drivel that’s going to come in one of these pieces as he actually writes “the Indians have also done their share to stoke the city’s reputation as Depression Central” and that “Antonetti must feel like the teenager who got his driver’s license, snagged the keys to the family car and then found out that dad (in this case, the Dolan family) wasn’t willing to spring for the cost of gas and insurance.”

At that point, the body bags are filled with toe tags attached…and he’s not even started any kind of analysis on the Indians.

Ultimately, it’s a cursory look at the lack of off-season activity on the North Coast and an attempt to encapsulate everything going on with the organization in one neat, little package. That may speak to the average fan or the “DOLANZ R CHEEP” crowd, but when Crasnick says that the Royals had a more interesting off-season because they “hastened their long-term rebuild” by trading Greinke, that’s just getting lazy, given that the Indians attempted to do the same in 2008 and 2009 when they moved THEIR Cy Young Award winners and that they’re actually attempting to avoid the “long-term rebuild” that’s been underway in KC for 20 years, with the Tribe now three seasons removed from an ALCS appearance.

As boring and dull as the off-season has been, the past two Julys have been more active than I would ever want to see in my life again, as the Indians almost completely turned over their roster in 30 months, to the point that they fielded the youngest team in MLB and figure to answer more questions about those young players in 2011. In that vein, perhaps the most interesting paragraph in the Crasnick comes when he actually seems to agree with the do-nothing off-season:
While those minor league deals for Adam Everett, Jack Hannahan, Paul Phillips,Travis Buck and Doug Mathis haven’t moved the enthusiasm meter in Cleveland, the Indians are probably wise not to overspend on veterans who would simply replicate what they already have. The team’s two big positional question marks are second base and third base. If the alternative is overpaying for a “bridge” guy like Pedro Feliz or Jorge Cantu, the Indians would rather open the season with Jayson Nix or Jason Donald until Chisenhall is ready to make the jump from Triple-A Columbus.

That sentence is admittedly bolded by me, but let me get this straight...the whole piece is predicated on the Indians doing nothing this off-season in FA while the rest of MLB presumably passes them by, furthering the gnashing of teeth and pulling of hair crowd, when “the Indians are probably wise not to overspend on veterans who would simply replicate what they already have”?
Am I following this?

Crasnick attempts to put a bit of a positive spin in the piece saying that “if you look carefully, there are glimmers of hope” and a look at some of the individual players, but he goes back to the well to close it out, using the “beleaguered” and “financially hamstrung” and “frigid winter” lines that we’ve all come to know and love from the WWL, among other sources.

That all being said, the piece is without insight as Crasnick has a couple of quotes that provide insight on particular players and what people around the league are saying about them. To wit, there’s this on Hafner:
“He’s come back a little more than I thought he might, to be honest,” said an American League personnel man. “A lot of people view him as a lesser player because he’s making more than he’s worth. But he’s still a threat. It makes the opposing manager think when the guy comes to the plate.”

Hafner is still a topic that needs more examination, but Crasnick has some interesting tidbits relating to another supposed slugger, reporting that LaPorta is working with a nutritionist (which Ozzie Guillen will be sad to hear about as he may not be able to call him “Fat Matt MaTola” for too much longer) and MaTola having a “slider speed bat” according to an AL scout, which is more than a little terrifying, given the fact that it is possible that he is what he is at this point in his development.

Perhaps most interestingly is the tone taken by the Indians’ execs quoted in the piece as it departs from the small-market doldrums and actually sounds confident...a change in the public stance from the team, or at least the one that makes it to print. This is from a few months ago, but do you remember the whole “Flipping the Script” idea presented in this space in terms of how the Indians’ Public Relations are a complete disaster, made worse every time the team (poorly) attempts to explain themselves?

Here’s what I wrote as to what they should be least as a start:
They should be pointing out that they pulled this off once before and while the end result didn’t flesh out the way they thought it would, they’ll be damned if they’re not going to do it again. They should say that the economics of baseball aren’t going to dictate terms to them because they’ve learned from their mistakes and are creating that model franchise with a full pipeline of young players that was promised back in 2002.
Use the bully pulpit from the corner of Carnegie and Ontario again to move away from the talk that “this is a rebuilding year again” and say that young in-house talent are unequivocally the players that are going to lead the Indians to their next appearance in the playoffs. If the Front Office TRULY believes it, come out and declare that the assembled young talent at all levels will prevent the team from going into this valley again.

Of course, my prescription called for them to be much bolder than that, but interestingly, here’s what Chris Antonetti said to Crasnick:
“We’ve been in a similar situation before, and we’ve demonstrated the ability to overcome those challenges and put together a championship-caliber team,” Antonetti said. “We feel equally strong about our talent base now and throughout our farm system. The challenge is to have patience and let those guys play.”

altThat’s the first quote attributed to Antonetti that takes that slant and, while he could certainly play that angle up a little more so it sounds a little more compelling and urgent than that quote, I suppose it represents a start. There are more from Antonetti in this even-handed piece by Jordan Bastian which, while operating under the same premise as the Crasnick piece (once you get past the “Antonetti resourcefulness” story that we’ve heard before) that project more of the “we’ve done this before” and “patience is the best path” rhetoric that the Indians should have been spouting since October.

As for final thoughts on the Crasnick piece, if you were expecting something that went more in-depth or attempted to take more than just a snapshot of the Indians as they stand now…well, then you haven’t learned your lesson about getting your sports information from the 4-letter word, the one that ceased being a valuable resource for intelligent sports fan long ago, and is content to appeal to the masses and generate page views and revenue by any means necessary. This is no different and, frankly, probably the reason that you come here…

One of the other interesting nuggets from the piece (remember, I didn’t say it was useless) was that Antonetti still didn’t rule out adding a starting pitcher, with the obligatory caveats thrown in. Since I’ve never been all that inclined to even take a flyer on Bart Colon (and this may completely rule him out if…you know, performance matters), let me throw another name out there that may be available and could represent a decent value-option for the rotation – Manny Parra.

Yes, I know that he’s been unable to stick in the Brewers’ rotation and his struggles led very clearly to the additions of Greinke and Marcum as Milwaukee has decided that Parra is not destined to be part of a potential playoff team’s rotation, meaning that Parra’s going to get relegated to the role of long man or to the bullpen, but what would it take to pry him out of the Cream City – maybe Crowe (as a 4th OF or to “complement” Carlos Gomez in CF...though neither can hit LHP) and some other ancillary pieces to Milwaukee?

Certainly some of Manny Parra’s numbers are downright frightening – a 5.02 ERA, 1.62 WHIP line in 2010 and a 6.36 ERA, 1.83 WHIP line in 2009 – so why would the Indians even be interested in a guy like Parra?

Well, he’s LHP and while that may not mean much, let’s look past ERA and WHIP to some advanced metrics and how Parra stacks up with pitchers that threw more than 120 innings last year:
xFIP – 3.95 (45th in MLB)
If you’re not sure what FIP is, it is Fielding Independent Pitching and since it now exists, here’s a great explanation of FIP that is actually easy to understand and actually fairly amusing. Taking it a step further than FIP, a variation of it is xFIP, which “attempts to adjust FIP and ‘normalize’ the home run component as research has shown that home runs allowed are pretty much a function of flyballs allowed and home park, so xFIP is based on the average number of home runs allowed per outfield fly”. As it says here in the link to The Hardball Times, xFIP, “theoretically...should be a better predictor of a pitcher’s future ERA.”

Back to Parra, you know where his xFIP of 3.95 ranks?
Better than any Indians’ pitcher, better than...are you ready for this...David Price, Carl Pavano, Josh Beckett, and I could go on for a while. Just check it out for yourself.

Parra is high on this list because if xFIP attempts to “normalize the HR component” and he does give up a bunch of HR (19th highest HR/9 in 2010, 26th highest HR/9 in 2009 among starters with more than 120 IP), it brings that HR/9 back to the normal numbers and adjusts his FIP (4.50 in 2010, better than Tomlin, Gomez, and certainly Huff) to that lower xFIP.

If that doesn’t strike you, how about SIERA:
SIERA – 3.82 (32nd in MLB)
If you’re wondering what in the world “SIERA” is, it is a stat from Baseball Prospectus that stands for “Skill-Interactive Earned Run Average” and it “estimates ERA through walk rate, strikeout rate and ground ball rate, eliminating the effects of park, defense and luck.” Essentially, it attempts to take things that pitchers cannot control out of the equation and tries to account “for how run prevention improves as ground ball rate increases and declines as more whiffs are accrued, while grounders are of more materiality for those who allow a surplus of runners”. It is not all that different than FIP or xFIP, but it takes into account the fact that ground balls are generally preferable to line drives or fly balls and adjusts the number accordingly.

Back to Parra again, if you’re wondering where he sits in the SIERA rankings for 2010, that number bests David Price, Gavin Floyd, Matt Cain, among many others.

In case you’re wondering, the best numbers put forth by a Tribe pitcher last year was, for both metrics, Justin Masterson with his 3.98 xFIP and his 3.83 SIERA...both of which Parra bested in 2010.

So, if both of these metrics attempts to measure what a pitcher can control, why is Parra going to be relegated to the bullpen in Milwaukee and why have his ERA and WHIP simply not translated through if his pitching – taking out luck and fielding, among other things – put him in some rarified air among MLB pitchers?

altOne answer comes when you see that his BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) is absurdly high, meaning that when a fair ball comes off of a hitter’s bat against Parra, the likelihood that it’s going to end up as a hit is somehow exponentially higher than nearly every other MLB pitcher. In case you think that’s hyperbole, here is where Parra has ranked in BABIP among starters for the past three years:
BABIP - .352 (2nd highest in MLB)

BABIP - .365 (highest in MLB)

BABIP - .337 (8th highest in MLB)

Either Manny Parra is the unluckiest SOB out there who gives up a disproportionate amount of HR and who is the victim or more “unlucky” placement when hitters make contact against him or there’s a definitive reason that more balls that get put into play against him become hits and why more fly balls hit against end up in the stands...and that reason is that he gets hit hard, meaning the Indians should steer clear.

However, there is another interesting aspect about Parra and why he might appeal to the Indians as they search for “value” around the league to augment their pitching staff. Remember the whole piece about how the Indians may be targeting pitchers with groundball tendencies in an effort to find arms that are undervalued because of lower K rates?

Check Parra’s groundball rates for the last few years and how it compares to pitchers with more than 120 IP around MLB:
47.2 GB % - 48th in MLB

48.1 GB% - 28th in MLB

51.6 GB% - 13th in MLB

This is well-worn territory, particularly with all of the GB pitchers on the staff and with more coming, but the improvement of infield defense is tantamount here in 2010 (and count me as irrationally optimistic with Donald more comfortable at 2B and with Cabrera hopefully re-committed to his conditioning), but if the Indians are looking for undervalued options that could upgrade their pitching staff and allow Huff, Tomlin, and Gomez to start the year in AAA, wouldn’t a player like Parra make sense?

Yes, he’s arbitration-eligible for the first time this year, which means that his price tag is going to go up, but after his 2010 in which he actually struck out 129 in 122 last year, posting the highest K/9 rate of his career (9.52…nearly double that of Mitch Talbot and 6th among pitchers with more than 120 IP last year), Bill James’ projection for him in 2011 is a 4.82 ERA and a 4.07 FIP.

If you’ve not seen the Bill James projections for the Tribe starters, here they are for comparison’s sake with Parra:
Masterson – 4.11 ERA, 3.90 FIP
Carmona – 4.26 ERA, 4.33 FIP
Carrasco – 4.45 ERA, 4.34 FIP
Talbot – 4.73 ERA, 4.07 FIP
Tomlin – 4.08 ERA, 4.46 FIP
Huff – 4.67 ERA, 4.45 FIP
Gomez – 4.89 ERA, 4.48 FIP

Maybe Parra is just another arm that would be unnecessary to acquire and more money than he’d be worth (though he wouldn’t cost much in terms of salary and the team would retain control over him for three years), but if you’re looking for the type of move that I’d like to see the Indians exploring to augment the starting rotation, it doesn’t involve lottery tickets on Bartolo Colon or Bruce Chen (yes, I know I’ve championed him before) or the dregs of the remaining FA.

Rather, I’d like to see them adding a pitcher that they feel is undervalued by his current organization and could be acquired for a package of middling prospects (and we have a bunch) that amount to organizational filler. If a guy like Parra fits that description, let’s see that type of creative move that would bear more fruit than a bargain-bin FA signing and could have more of an impact on 2011 and, more importantly, beyond.

Back to that idea about infield defense going forward and groundball-inducing pitchers, has anyone else noticed that there seems to be a bit of a logjam at the upper levels of the Minors as it pertains to the two biggest areas of need around the infield?

By that I mean, last year in Akron, the 3B was Lonnie Chisenhall and the 2B was Jason Kipnis…no big mystery there as each is a top prospect and the assumed eventual starter in Cleveland at those postions, perhaps even this year. Since both will now be moving up to Columbus, one would have to assume that (given the infield defense…um, issues with the parent club) the Indians would want to maximize the exposure of those two players at those two positions as much as possible in 2011.

altWhat’s the problem, right?
Well, the 2B last year at the end of the season was Cord Phelps, who then went out to the Arizona Fall League to “learn” how to become a 3B, to presumably put himself into the 3B mix at some point while Chisenhall ripens in Columbus. Well, if The Chiz is playing 3B everyday in Columbus and Kipnis is playing 2B, what about Robert Cord Phelps?

If “Robert” is making a defensive transition to 3B, where is he going to play 3B with The Chiz presumably ensconced at the Hot Corner at Huntington Park?

Yes, this is a largely insignificant “logjam” that probably has an easy solution (maybe Kipnis starts 2011 in Akron, though that wouldn’t get Phelps more time at 3B) and where Phelps plays should perhaps be secondary to the development of Chisenhall and Kipnis, but consider what Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projections for 2011 look like for Phelps and the presumed 3B for the parent club (at the moment), Jayson Nix:
Phelps - .262 BA / .331 OBP / .369 SLG / .700 OPS (92 OPS+)
Nix - .225 BA / .293 OBP / .384 SLG / .677 OPS (84 OPS+)

These are all projected numbers obviously, but if the Indians have major concerns about Nix’s GLOVE at 3B (and they should), what keeps Phelps from legitimately starting the season as the Indians’ 3B, relegating Nix to a Utility role or to the waiver wire?

Going a little further on this, Phelps posted an .892 OPS in AAA last year over 273 PA in his first year at the highest Minor League levelas a 23-year old. For comparison, as a 23-year-old in his first year (2006) in AAA, Nix posted a .630 OPS while a member of the Rockies’ organization in 397 PA and followed that up with a .793 OPS in AAA in 2007 as a 24-year-old.

Is that to say that Cord Phelps is the “answer” at 3B out of Spring Training?
Of course not, as he struggled in the Arizona Fall League as a 3B and given that his 2010 represented a sharp uptick from his previous MiLB numbers, but realizing that Phelps is making a defensive transition (just like Nix is), would anyone else be surprised or disappointed if Phelps comes out of ST as the starting 3B with Nix as the de facto utility man?

Perhaps I’m down on Nix because I think that his power in Cleveland was largely a fluke and because he posted a .281 OBP in 2010 (6th worst among AL players with more than 350 PA) while he looked like he was completely lost at 3B. Additionally, maybe Phelps is the “Devil I Don’t Know”, preferable to the one I do know in Nix, but all things being equal, I wouldn’t be all that broken up if Cord Phelps pushes his way onto the team in Goodyear (assuming defensive efficiency, of course) with Nix moving to a Utility role, setting the stage for Phelps to become the Utility IF if or when The Chiz arrives from Columbus.

Regardless, I have a lot easier time seeing Cord Phelps as a part of this team going forward as a Utility player than I do Nix and if each is transitioning from 2B to 3B as the Indians look for that stop-gap until The Chiz is ready, it would be foolish to think that Phelps couldn’t break camp with the Indians this Spring as the starting 3B...assuming he can play 3B

In that 3B discussion, you’ll notice that one name is missing that is often bandied about as an “internal option” in that I can’t say that I consider Jared Goedert as a feasible option for 3B to start the season, considering what we’ve heard about Goedert’s defense and the hopes for improved infield defense at the Big League level for 2011.

Maybe it’s folly to dismiss "Go Dirt" (and yes, I know that pronunciation is incorrect) as a stop-gap 3B option while extolling Cord Phelps (who didn’t play 3B until the Arizona Fall League) as a legitimate option coming out of Goodyear, but Goedert’s value to me would be to provide depth as a RH bat at 1B beneath Matt LaPorta or to perhaps eventually take the role now filled by Shelley Duncan on the team, as a RH 1B/DH that can spell Hafner or be a RH bat off of the bench with some pop. It’s been discussed before about how the Indians are devoid of 1B depth beneath MaTola and, with Chisenhall figuring in as the long-term answer at 3B, a move across the diamond for Goedert may be in order...just as it was for Wes Hodges a few years back.

altHopefully, Goedert's “star” doesn’t dim the way that Hodges quickly did and realizing that Goedert has never played 1B in the Minors, if Jordan Brown and Beau Mills represent the “depth” in AAA and AA (assuming Brown clears waivers) for the Indians...well, that “depth” is pretty shallow. LaPorta is going to get an awfully long leash in Cleveland this year (and rightfully so), but Goedert, whose ticket to the Bigs is likely his bat after his 2010 season in which he hit 27 HR and 37 2B, could find himself awfully useful to the Tribe if he dons a 1B glove and starts the year in Columbus as the Clippers’ 1B.

Reason being that if LaPorta were to find himself on the DL or if Travis Hafner is in need of some RH protection from someone not named David S. Duncan, Goedert would represent a solid internal option. While I can’t seem to find Goedert’s splits from last year (as has unfortunately closed up shop), I seem to remember that Goedert thrived in particular against LHP in 2010, meaning that he would be a nice bench option/quasi-platoon player with Hafner going forward, even for a limited time.

If you’ll remember that Austin Kearns’ splits show that he has no greater success against LHP than RHP (.749 OPS vs. RHP in 2010, .740 OPS vs. LHP in 2010), meaning that the Indians are likely to still be looking for some RH protection for Hafner in the lineup. Certainly, it could come from playing Marson at C against particular LHP, moving Santana to DH to remove Hafner from the lineup and to give Santana’s body a break from the “tools of ignorance” every so often.

However, another option going forward could be Goedert and while some are still inclined to list Goedert as a 3B, after hearing about his, adventures, I’m more inclined to let Goedert slide over across the diamond to 1B and attempt to push his way into the Indians’ plans with success against LHP, while providing some necessary insurance against that guy with “slider bat speed”.

Maybe Goedert (who is 4 months younger than LaPorta and will be 26 this May...with all of 362 PA above AA) doesn’t amount to much more than a piece or a fungible part. But, as is the case with Phelps, wouldn’t it be nice if these types of guys start to surprise us in terms of being legitimate, if imperfect, contributors. After seeing all of these homegrown “prospects” (ahem...Sowers, Crowe, Brown, Huff, etc.) have the curtain pulled back on them to reveal them to be inadequate even to simply serve as placeholders, seeing a nice, cheap RH bat off of the bench that can man 1B or DH or a stop-gap 3B who fills the Utility role for 6 years have to be considered player development victories at this point.

That may not quicken the pulse and it certainly gets to a factor determining where the Indians find themselves, but it would also represent a step forward for an organization that has not been able to develop “a nice, cheap RH bat off of the bench that can man 1B or DH or a stop-gap 3B who fills the Utility role for 6 years” for far too long.

Finally, in light of the events in LaLa Land on Tuesday night and where the Cavaliers currently stand as a franchise (, I would read this if you care about the Cavs), wouldn’t a best-case scenario for the Indians come with some sort of fast start for their 2011 season?

Certainly, I’m not suggesting that the Indians are going to necessarily burst out of the gate and, even if they did, that they would suddenly and miraculously recapture the rapt attention of the North Coast. However, if the Indians were to even stick around .500 for the first couple of months of the season with some of the young guys (like Carrasco and Santana, just to name two) generating some new sources of excitement to go with solid contributions from Carmona, C. Perez, and Choo, there may be some seeds of interest sewn around a building team that (quite suddenly) doesn’t look as far away or seems to be on par with the other major sports franchises of the town.

While that bar may not be all that high right now – and remember “The Cleveland Way” that started this whole run or words – it would certainly seem that the city's attention would be there for the taking...

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