Indians, WWW

Indians offseason, death by a thousand cuts: While We’re Waiting

Jim Mone, AP

The worry is real. The issue for small-market teams attempting to compete with the financial Goliaths being built in New York and Los Angeles is that every small mistake is magnified due to the gargantuan task of keeping up with those clubs. For the Cleveland Indians, too many small issues will close the contention window after the 2018 season rather than allow it to stay propped open through 2020, which is through where most of the rotation has their current contracts. The Indians front office has done well over the past couple of years, but even well-run ballclubs make wrong turns. The particular ones the Tribe has made over the past month has left some worry about future ramifications.

This past postseason demonstrated how little things can add up to poor results. Seemingly innocuous moves such as not trusting Greg Allen or Yandy Diaz for the ALDS wound up costing the Tribe when Edwin Encarnacion’s injury left a hobbled Michael Brantley as the designated hitter. A man whom the Tribe knew would likely need offseason surgery on his ankle. Jason Kipnis sat second in the lineup even against left-handed pitching, which he has struggled with his entire career. Carlos Carrasco watched helplessly as he only pitched in one game despite being an AL Cy Young candidate. Corey Kluber’s arm slot was lowered bringing about whispers if he is injured or fatigued. Each of these, plus many more even smaller in-game moves, ended the Tribe’s season earlier than had been hoped.

The recent successes of the Tribe has brought about more teams attempting to mimic the small market success of the Tribe through copying the processes. What better way than to hire those from within? Past offseasons have seen many from the front office be hired away by other teams. This offseason, the coaching staff has been pillaged. Mickey Callaway, the pitching coach, received his managerial opportunity for the New York Mets. Matt Quatraro, the assistant hitting coach, will ply his trade without the assistant tag for the Kevin Cash led Tampa Bay Rays.1

Unfortunately, the Indians decided to not promote from within for Callaway’s position. Jason Bere, the bullpen coach, had been known to have helped Callaway in all of the preparations of the scouting reports a great deal. He is a well-respected coach who has been with the team for the 12 years- the last three in his current position. Given the amazing success of Tribe pitchers in that timeframe, he was due an opportunity of his own. He also has been with the team to see their transformation through adopting the advanced pitching techniques and usage of analytics. Paul Hoynes of cleveland.com has reported that Bere will be searching for his earned opportunity as a pitching coach for another team in 2018.

Carl Willis, the newly hired pitching coach, has seen success in his many years. However, despite coaching four AL Cy Young Award winners, he has never seen the success quite like the last few years of the Indians. There is a question of how much coaching matters as awards are often won by the elite players being elite. Coaches do a great amount of preparation and give guidance to the staff, but they cannot overcome a lack of talent. The hope is Willis can continue the rotation and bullpen along the path that has been forged. The worry is that those who did the forging will no longer be with the team.

There are other worries about decisions forthcoming. WFNY spends an inordinate amount of time attempting to provide the pertinent baseball information that demonstrates how the Cleveland area teams can best make use of their assets or give an indication of how the peripheral data shows either an expected rise or drop in future performance. But, what about decisions that can be rationalized or spun in ways that make some logical sense despite being foolhardy? Risks being minimized in conversation, while still being ever present.

We must ensure a proper understanding of what can go wrong might help us understand the paths to avoid. Think of it as a simple decision tree gone wrong. Each branch can have either an adverse or positive effect on future decisions too, so even though the decision might even seem OK in isolation, the overall effect on other decisions could be harmful.

A bad decision tree choice would be to opt-in on Michael Brantley’s contract for $12 million.2 The most common expected rationalizations would be: veteran leadership, high upside of the 2014 or 2015 seasons, and possibly even notes on the insurance protection on his current deal. Perhaps someone mentions the possibility of playing some first base. There is, of course, truth to each of these. Brantley does have a veteran presence in the clubhouse, he did have great value in 2014 and 2015 to the Tribe, and it is suspected his current contract is partially covered by insurance should he not be able to return to the field.

Those rationalizations though serve to attempt to minimize the risks during conversation that are just as real. There would be an $11 million subtraction from the 2018 roster budget, which could affect retaining first baseman Carlos Santana or obtaining a quality replacement for him or Jay Bruce. Brantley is also spending his third straight offseason rehabilitating from a major surgery. If Brantley does convert to first base, then it might take a season or two of hard work to learn the position- as it did Santana. There is a price point where it might make sense for the Indians to have Brantley on their roster, but opting in on the contract is not it.

Another option contract has an easier initial decision, but a worry-filled longer term one. Will the front office opt-in on Josh Tomlin’s paltry $3 million deal, but trade him before Spring Training? There will be teams clamoring for the innings-eating Tomlin at such an inexpensive rate, but the Indians have their own rotation injury concerns to first mitigate. Kluber’s aformentioned arm slot, Danny Salazar’s constant arm issues, and the normal rate of starting pitcher injuries state Tomlin is more valuable on the roster than off. If the team navigates Spring Training to find themselves with six healthy starting pitchers but only five available places on the 25-man roster, they should trust there will still be teams clamoring.

Yet another worry is what the Indians will do with Jason Kipnis for 2018. Is Jose Ramirez entrenched at second base? Is Yandy Diaz ready for an everyday spot in MLB? If so, where does Jason Kipnis play? Bradley Zimmer will be back at full strength and Greg Allen appeared ready to push for a MLB position, so center field should no longer be an option. Pushing him to first base has the same issues as it does for Brantley- and Francona’s over-reliance on him in the lineup adds to it. The most logical remaining moves would be to push him to left field3 or trade him. It is not the best look when J-Ram’s agent pushes for the latter.

The final big worry is what the team will do with their bullpen without Bryan Shaw- should he not return. Well, the biggest worry is what happens to the bullpen without Andrew Miller and Cody Allen after the 2018 season, but there is still another year before that becomes an issue. For now, the front office is tasked with replacing 75 innings of medium-to-high leverage innings a year in a way that will entice Francona to not just lean entirely on Miller and Allen in their walk years. The issue seems small, but having the elite arms healthy in the backend of the bullpen next October could determine the difference between advancing or having another contention year fall short.

The crazy thing about all the worries and issues and bad decisions that could be made over the upcoming offseason is the Indians will likely still be favored to win the AL Central Division and would still then enter the MLB postseason with a rotation of Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar, and Trevor Bauer with Andrew Miller and Cody Allen in the bullpen. Given the multitude of position player stars (Francisco Lindor, Jose Ramirez, Edwin Encarnacion, etc.), the team could even still wind up winning a World Series. The path to get there though would be much more fraught with peril than need be. And the window of contention could close after next season. It’d be nice to have some confidence built back up the team can avoid such things in the meantime.

  1. I cannot help but wonder if Cash being able to spend a week with this coaching staff at the All-Star Game helped lead to his hire. []
  2. Note: $1 million buy out, so would be an $11 million decision. []
  3. as a platoon outfielder against right-handed pitching would be best []

  • Chris
  • MartyDaVille

    Regarding the World Series, nothing makes for exciting games like bad relief pitching.

  • Chris

    And roulette strike zones!!

  • mgbode

    Crazy thing is that the Dodgers had the 4th best bullpen in ERA & FIP in the regular season and were dominant in the first two rounds.

    The Astros bullpen was less great in the regular season (though they had a 6th best FIP, a 17th best ERA), but the individuals blowing their leads are not the ones who struggled.

    I want to credit the hitting here as much as the pitching. Sometimes, hitters gonna hit.

  • MartyDaVille

    Yeah, that home plate ump last night was pretty bad. No wonder guys were getting frustrated.

  • MartyDaVille

    Yeah, the Dodgers pen was supposed to be their ace in the hole, the determining factor in the Series.

    Altuve is just amazing.

  • Bulldogs_3

    **I didn’t watch most of the game**

    Was he actually bad? Or did he call a few that didn’t line up perfectly with Fox’s strike zone?

    I don’t like that they put their version of the strike zone live on the pitch. I understand why they do it – it’s like the yellow line in football. But all it does is cause controversy. The average fan sees it as fact that anything in that zone is a strike, and anything outside is a ball. People complain about it – a lot. It’s really a bad look for the league in my opinion.

  • Bulldogs_3

    Last paragraph sums up this offseason pretty well… Yes, there will be some shifting. But the tribe should still win the Central and should still have a dominant pitching staff entering next year’s postseason (although after this year, it seems that may not mean a whole bunch). Should be another long, fun summer – like this past one was.

  • mgbode

    Yes, the worries are not as much about 2018 as they are about the future beyond.

  • Bulldogs_3

    Haven’t we learned out lesson? Indians planned the ALDS around a ‘what if’ scenario to make sure Kluber pitched game 5 if needed, while all season (especially during the win streak) the mentality was ‘win today, worry about tomorrow, tomorrow.’

    Enjoy the ride. Win today. Worry about tomorrow, tomorrow.

  • mgbode

    The biggest issue is that he was inconsistent. If he is going to call low & inside just off the plate a strike all night, then teams will adjust. If he only calls it some of the time, then everybody is guessing.

  • mgbode

    You are interweaving short-term processes with long-term ones. I agree the coaching staff needs to worry about the short-term and go to win the day. If the front office is only worried about the short-term, then we are hosed as a franchise. They have not shown a proclivity towards ignoring the future though, so we’ll see where they go from here.

  • Bulldogs_3

    inconsistency is the worst for any umpire/referee/official

  • Bulldogs_3

    You’re right, but the mentality is similar. Don’t forget, they do have a few arms ready to replace Shaw/Miller/Allen if needed… Otero was good this year, as was Goody and they didn’t even make the postseason roster. Looking forward to seeing their progress next year – and beyond

  • Chris

    It’s possible that they knew Kluber wasn’t 100% and wanted to give him another day of rest. Bauer pitched great in Game 1 and actually pitched OK in Game 4. No issues from me on that call.

  • mgbode

    I think you are underselling us replacing Shaw/Miller/Allen. We have plenty of good enough relief arms. Having two elite guys and a pretty good one who stays healthy is really valuable.

  • Bulldogs_3

    They are extremely valuable! Keeping 1 of them would be huge for the Tribe going forward, 2 would be incredible. But, if they lose all 3, the window of opportunity does not close. It may decrease in size, but I think the remaining pieces in the pen are more than capable to contend.

  • Chris

    Tim Donaghy disagrees.

  • Bulldogs_3

    The only problem with the plan – it worked out exactly how they intended it to. From the start, they game planned for game 5. Sure enough, they got what they planned for… Totally changed the mentality of games 3 and 4. All of a sudden, those aren’t must-win games because you have Kluber going game 5. Then, the tribe gets caught on the wrong side of momentum and the rest is history.

    There are a million ways to sulk about it. It just sucks. But! It’s October 30, the Browns are in season, the Cavs are in season (and my Predators in Nashville), but I still can’t stop thinking about this Indians season. It was a great season, but a disappointing series.

    Next year is looking to be the same, if not better.

  • tsm

    Given our financial situation, there is no place for sentimentality. Agree that Brantley should not be resigned, and something has to be done with Kipnis, as he is now a player without a position. I would prefer Jackson to him, but I understand that with his contract he is hard to trade. Ultimately, pitching is the name of the game, so we must devote our limited resources to our pen.
    On a side note, MLB is creating a problem for its young fans as well as geezers by starting all WS games at 8:20 or so. Even the Super Bowl starts at 6pm on a Sunday. At least one of the weekend games should start at 6pm so a 10 year old in the eastern time zone can watch the entire game.

  • Steve

    Because we don’t have much evidence that 10 year olds will watch if it’s earlier, or that starting the games earlier will turn those 10 year olds into paying customers in the future.

  • tsm

    With all due respect, 6pm gives the youngsters a chance to see the exciting conclusion to a game reather than just the beginning. I think it is self evident that a kid who already enjoys the game, and goes to games with his family, will appreciate the tension and excitement that comes at the end of a closely contested WS game.
    Other than learning to love the game by playing it and watching the best in the world play it at the highest level at the most tension filled and significant time, I don’t know where any paying customer would come from. By this I mean a repeat customer as opposed to someone who goes to a game just as a social outing with other friends. We can agree to disagree my friend.

  • Steve

    The problem here, as I pointed out, is the assumption that the 10 year olds are an important market to try to capture.

    Those 10 year olds who didn’t see game seven end after midnight in 1997 are now 30 year olds who are giving money hand over fist to MLB.

  • Bulldogs_3

    This is all true – and this year’s world series is a bad example because both teams play in later time zones than in Cleveland.

    But what about for the adults? I would much rather start celebrating a championship (or series) win at 9:30 – 10PM rather than around 12:30 – 1. Sure, more kids could watch, but I would watch more too.

    I never understood the 8PM prime time start anyways. Is the prime of the game at the beginning? For any sport? If 8PM is deemed as the time most people would tune in, that -to me- should be the middle of the game.

  • Steve

    “I never understood the 8PM prime time start anyways.”

    Because it lets us include all four times zones.

  • Bulldogs_3

    again, this year, that holds true. What about last year? Both teams had to stay up late to watch the conclusion of every game, not just game 7.

    I think the networks should adjust the schedules to fit the time zones of the teams.

    The Astros started games this post-season before noon in Houston.

  • mgbode

    The national TV rating beat Sunday Night Football by a good margin, which beat the day games.

    I would prefer Sunday games start at 6pm for the same reason you state, but MLB isn’t going to do it when they are doing so well in the ratings.

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  • WFNY_DP

    “Sometimes, hitters gonna hit.”

    Apparently, the ALDS was not “sometimes” for the Tribe.