Tribe front office continues to dominate: Between Innings

The Cleveland Indians biggest advantage might be the brains confined within their front office. The entire organization has been a model for the rest of MLB whose constructs have been attempted to be copied directly or indirectly for over 20 years. There have been many mistakes made along the way, but the ability to adjust and adapt has been a direct result of those men who have dedicated their lives to evaluating baseball from all angles. Fans might now be reaping those years of dedication as Chris Antonetti and Mike Chernoff have had the Midas touch the past two years.

Emotions are a big part of sports and it would be folly to conclude that those in the front offices of baseball clubs do not become attached to the players on their teams. Not allowing those feelings to cloud their evaluations is imperative for any baseball front office. It is also important for any good club to be able to portray them in a humane way both due to possible future negotiations and for the sake of treating people like people rather than numbers.

For some examples, let’s take a look at the four biggest moves the front office made to improve the 2017 Indians compared to the 2016 version.

Mike Napoli replaced by Edwin Encarnacion

WFNY’s Mike Hattery summed up the signing of Edwin Encarnacion best- and on deadline, mind you- when he wrote:

Encarnacion is coming off five consecutive years with at least 34 home runs, and posted 42 home runs in 2016, finishing 14th in MVP voting. Encarnacion is projected by Fangraphs Steamer 600 for the 17th highest wRC+ in 2017.

Whether measured by past performance, projection or status, the Indians have signed the best bat available this offseason and one of the 15 best hitters in baseball. Over the past half decade, Encarnacion has been one of the 10 best offensive players in baseball without a question.

Encarnacion has held up his end of the contract thus far as he is batting .253/.370/.491 (128 wRC+) in 2017 with 27 home runs as he has been a feared hitter out of the team’s cleanup spot.

What an easy decision, right? The cost was much higher as a three-year, $60 million deal with a team-option for a fourth year at another $20 million or $5 million buyout could be disastrous on a small market payroll if it did not pan out. The track record and projections showed that risk was somewhat mitigated by his consistency and the offensive infusion was well worth it.

Any other player and there would not have been pause in the fanbase about a decision to replace him with a possible AL-MVP candidate. Napoli though was special as he even spurred WFNY to dig into the Top 5 one-year players in the Gateway era once it was set that he would not be returning.1

2016 Mike Napoli: Once you remove recency bias and social media fanfare, everything about Napoli’s on-the-field game screamed average. A .239/.335/.465 (104 OPS+) slash paired with a 1.0 bWAR. His defense slipped a bit, but he was still mostly average there too. But, there is still something special about watching a player take target at John Adams and his drum with a chance to actually get a baseball there. Napoli, after all, literally hit a baseball out of the ballpark (even if it was foul). When that player is a renowned clubhouse leader and helps get six figures donated towards local children in need, all the average on the field seems magnified into something far greater.

As’s Zack Meisel reported, it was a tough decision despite the numbers for all involved. “It was kind of bittersweet,” Francona said. “I mean, we’re talking about this guy that we’re excited [about], but it also meant that Nap wasn’t coming back. That was meaningful to a lot of people, including [president] Chris [Antonetti] and [general manager Mike Chernoff].

“We care, but we always have to do what’s best for our team. You can’t ever not do that. Sometimes you have to make decisions that tug at your heart a little bit.”

Rajai Davis replaced by Austin Jackson

The emotion involved in letting Rajai Davis walk would have been even higher had his extra innings RBI been the game-winning hit rather than pulling the Indians to within a run. However, Davis’ home run to tie the game and send Game 7 of the World Series to extra innings will forever be remembered by all fans of the Tribe. WFNY’s Scott Sargent captured the euphoria perfectly:

What happened next was a bit of a blur—a sort of euphoric blackout unlike any I’ve experienced before—but what I remember is watching Davis flick his heavily choked bat at a pitch around the shins, and watching it soar… and soar… Progressive Field was insanely loud, but during those few seconds, I didn’t hear anything—it was movie-like silence, at least until the ball caromed back into the field after hitting that left field camera. I’ve never jumped higher into the air at a sporting event than I did that night. Hugs and high-fives and crescendo screams. It was a moment that, given the timing and magnitude and characters involved, will never be topped. That the Indians didn’t win the entire thing was a shame, but it was a moment so big that even the eventual loss could do little in the way of diminishing it. Rajai Davis will forever be welcomed back to Cleveland.

The overall shakiness his 2016 offensive profile (.249/.306/.388, 85 wRC+) and defense in center field with the hopeful return of Michael Brantley to left field meant that it was time for the organization to move on to find another cheap option to fill in the outfield that could outperform on a short contract.

Unlike Encarnacion, Austin Jackson was not a slam dunk signing. He was not an AL-MVP candidate in waiting signing a humongous contract. He was coming off a disastrous season that ended with knee surgery he was not quite fully recovered from when he signed with the Tribe. A-Jax ended up signing just a $1.5 million minor league deal just before the opening of Spring Training- though with another $4 million in incentives.

WFNY’s Josh Poloha outlined why the Indians decided to take on the risk.

The Tribe might also see him as one side of a platoon. In his seven-year career, he has a .278/.332/.401 split with 130 doubles, 40 triples, 34 home runs, and 220 RBIs in 2,526 at-bats against right-handed pitchers. Tyler Naquin and Abe Almonte were expected to platoon in center field for 2017, but Jackson could provide depth and alternative options before needing to rely on youngsters Greg Allen or Bradley Zimmer in a potential World Series contending season.

The Indians front office once again found a player for under market value. Jackson was a 2.3 fWAR player in 2015, which would bring plenty of help to the outfield in 2016. In fact, the previous moniker of Even-Year Raburn might be replaced with Odd-Year A-Jax should he do so as Jackson has fWar of 2.3, 3.0, and 2.4 in the past three odd numbered years.

Jackson has rewarded the front office’s confidence in him with an incredible season. He has demonstrated good ability as a corner outfielder2 and is batting .323/.391/.516 with a wRC+ of 140 that only trails the great Lonnie Chisenhall amongst 2017 Tribesmen. That is until the front office made one more big move as covered below.

Not trading for a starter at the 2017 trade deadline

Despite peripheral numbers showing a Top 5 rotation, there were calls for the Indians to make a move for a starter at the 2017 MLB trade deadline whether it be for Sonny Gray or Chris Archer or Yu Darvish. WFNY’s Mike Hattery explained why:

The Indians starting rotation has tripped and stumbled its way to a 4.36 ERA. An entirely disappointing opening act while still sporting the sixth best FIP in baseball at 3.81. A FIP-ERA gap of nearly a half a run is about as sustainable as a fish on land. Yet, despite the various pockets of data which would anchor optimism, there is a compelling argument that starting pitching is a high priority need for the Indians at this year’s deadline.

Danny Salazar is lost in the wilderness, Trevor Bauer is struggling to strand runners, Mike Clevinger is wielding the command that would disappoint Danny Salazar, and Josh Tomlin is the serviceable five but no better. No doubt the Indians are thin after the Kluber-Carrasco duo.1 Now, Bauer and Clevinger are perfectly competent 4-5 starters with Bauer’s outcomes likely to improve but having a legitimate third starting pitcher remains a hole on this Indians roster. With an elite pen and production at every position, outside a bench tweak the Indians only need is for that third starter in a seven-game series.

The fan reaction was disappointment when Sonny Gray went to the New York Yankees and Yu Darvish to the Los Angeles Dodgers- two teams the Indians might well face in the postseason. Sometimes the correct move is the non-move though. WFNY’s Jim Pete and Mike Hattery explained on a podcast and Joe Gerberry gave an optimistic outlook after interviewing Salazar on how his arm felt.

Salazar offered hope for fans concerned about him regaining his full potential. “This is the best I’ve been feeling since I went to All-Star last year,” he said. “I’m happy the way I’m feeling right now.”

Location was an issue early on, as he seemed to miss some spots, but facing Single-A hitters allowed for him to work his way through those issues without feeling the burden of those mistakes. Salazar’s velocity was also back as he unofficially sat between 93 and 94 miles per hour and touched 95.

Since returning to MLB on July 22, Salazar has a 1.39 ERA in 32.1 innings pitched with a .161/.223/.223 slash line against him and 46 strikeouts to only nine walks. He not only has been better than any other pitcher acquired at the deadline, but he has been arguably the best pitcher in MLB over the past four weeks.

The rest of the rotation has also met the challenge as they have been the best in MLB in August without any counter argument to present. In fact, they are well out in front of any second-place rotation in all major categories. The front office was wise to not give up precious assets to fortify what might end up being their strongest postseason unit.

Coco Crisp replaced by Jay Bruce

Coco Crisp was a top name in Cleveland sports history alongside some good memories of production from a decade earlier as WFNY’s Andrew Clayman penned here.

#2 – Coco Crisp
Outfielder, Cleveland Indians, 2002-2005

On August 7, 2002, Indians fans did a collective double take as the “player to be named later” in the Chuck Finley trade to St. Louis was finally revealed. His name, apparently, was Coco Crisp, and he immediately became the most talked about member of the Akron Aeros. Born Covelli Loyce Crisp, the speedy outfielder had acquired his nickname from his grandma, who called him “Co” for short. This eventually evolved into “Coco,” as Crisp’s transformation from young man to Kellogg’s breakfast cereal was complete. Unlike a lot of humorously named ballplayers, Coco actually entertained the fans with his skills, as well, tallying 31 homers, 140 RBI, 35 SB, a .299 AVG, and .804 OPS between 2004 and 2005. His trade to Boston the next season wasn’t one of Mark Shapiro’s better ones (Andy Marte, anyone?), but all will be forgotten if the prodigal Coco—now back with the Tribe a decade later—can play a role in a Cleveland postseason run.

Crisp was not a huge value when he was acquired during the waiver trade period last August. He was a platoon bat against right-handed pitchers and still managed to finish below league average with a .231/.302/.397 (90 wRC+). His speed on the basepaths and defense in the field had both diminished with age and there was never a question that the Indians would choose his $750K buyout over the $13 million option for 2017. Still, his two-run home run against the Boston Red Sox helped the Tribe sweep David Ortiz into retirement.

The front office did themselves much better this August. Jay Bruce does not need to be a platoon bat, nor has he been a detriment in the field. His .264/.331/.525 (125 wRC+) for the 2017 season is in line with previous success, so he is not hitting above his ability though the .421/.522/.632 (211 wRC+) since joining the Indians is unsustainable. Bruce slots right in as another middle of the order hitter though and gives the lineup tons of depth and options. The front office did well to obtain him for a 30th round draft pick, Ryder Ryan even if Bruce’s contract expires at the end of the season.

Last Word

Fans have no such constructs that are required of the executive team for a MLB club. There are fans who live through every moment on raw emotion and respond accordingly. There are fans who see the good deeds off the field or friendly interactions on it and attach themselves emotionally to those players. Other fans spend hours digging into the numbers and see the players on the field as more of a statistical algorithm in an academic exercise than a person. None of these are bad as the game of baseball is meant for enjoyment, and fans all enjoy the game in different ways.3

Still, fans of the Cleveland Indians would be wise to put their trust into the baseball operations group. The track record is not spotless,4 but it is impressive. And more positive results seem to accumulate through each move they make.

Streamables courtesy of Cleveland Indians baseball, MLB, and Josh Poloha’s efforts.

  1. Napoli earned an honorable mention. []
  2. Center field defense is another story. []
  3. Note: each of these can become bad if a fan goes too far. []
  4. Remember, they wanted to trade for Jonathan Lucroy, but good fortune sometimes does favor the bold. Thank you Mr. Lucroy for us retaining Francisco Mejia. []