Three years ago, it was the Cleveland Indians who found themselves up 3-1 in an American League Championship Series against one of the titans of the AL East. Not only that, they had both Cliff Lee and CC Sabathia, not to mention a working Fausto Carmona model. Never mind that St. Cliff hadn’t yet been converted on the road to Damascus; the 2007 Indians were a good team that outscored their opponents by more than 100 runs. The next year, the balance of the Tribe’s run differential account had dwindled to less than 50; in 2009 it had dropped below -90. Despite finishing four wins better than they did last year, the 2010 Indians were outscored by their opponents by more than in any season since 1991.
How did things become so desperate in Cuyahoga County? The last time the Indians had a new GM—in 2001—Mark Shapiro was stepping into the vacant shoes of his departed mentor, John Hart. It was a nearly seamless transition and the Indians had plenty of young talent to stock the big-league club for years. The Hart/Shapiro axis has seen the team from abject failure to seven playoff appearances, four League Championship Series appearances, and two World Series appearances. That’s all come to an end now that Shapiro has stepped upstairs to become team president, leaving the reins to Chris Antonetti. But just as the handoff was about to occur, I snuck in and stole the keys to The Cleve.
It’s absolutely critical that general managers look unromantically at their rosters. Luckily, that isn’t too tough with the Indians' 25-man. There are some bright spots here, but not many superstars. So the relevant question is this: What do you do with a team that has some talent but even more uncertainty? The traditional answer, I think, is to stay the rebuilding course until you can accumulate enough impact players to make a real run at the playoffs. In the meantime, it’s best to stay away from free agents. But is that necessarily always the best strategy?
What if you had talent that was highly uncertain—came with big risks—but the correlation between the outcomes was positive? That is to say, you have a bunch of lottery tickets, and the likelihood of one paying off is linked with the probabilities of the others paying off? And further assume that if enough of them paid off, you’d get even more payout than the simple sum. Wouldn’t you want to buy more of those lottery tickets—essentially doubling down on your strategy? I think there’s at least a possibility you would. Since I’m only going to be GM for one day, I might as well bet the house playing with someone else’s money anyway.
Big sums of money are owed to three players whose value going forward is besieged by error bars. Travis Hafner, who has averaged just barely one WARP over the last three years, is guaranteed $28.75 million through the 2012 season. Carmona, whose inevitable comeback buzz has become a spring training tradition, cannot seem to get his SIERA anywhere close to the 3.52 mark he set in 2007. And yet the Domincan ground-baller is owed a cool $6.1 million in 2011. Despite reasons to be optimistic about both of these players going forward—beginning with the fact that 2010 was each player’s best season in a while—it’s essential to recognize that while the money is guaranteed, the performance is not.
Not to stir up a tempest in a teacup, but there are also serious doubts about Grady Sizemore’s ability to perform. Repeat after me: health is a skill. Sizemore has only played 139 games between the last two seasons. The microfracture knee procedure, which Sizemore underwent on June 4, was scheduled to facilitate his return in spring training. However, there is a dearth of positive comps for microfracture, and a spring training return ought probably to be viewed as an optimistic estimate. Despite these gloomy circumstances, the Indians are contractually obliged to pay Sizemore at least another $8 million in 2011.
Add up those three, and you’ll find nearly $27 million owed to players who could be reasonably expected to contribute anywhere between three and 10 wins. Now, if the risks were completely independent, we could probably tally them up and get something resembling a normal curve. We could thus probably assume those players will contribute about six wins or so combined next year. But are the risks really independent? More on that later.
The good news is that the rest of the roster comes pretty cheap, leaving room to build. Shin-Soo Choo, who will be arbitration-eligible for the first time in 2011, paced the team in WARP this year (5.4). Choo has grown into a superstar-caliber player, if not an actual superstar, and is as close to a sure thing as you’ll find on the roster as it currently stands. The rest is filled with question marks.
One gamble I’d take—given the price—would be to fill out the outfield with Michael Brantley in center, and then I’d move him to left when and if Sizemore returns. Brantley is another guy, like Carlos Santana and the big-money guys, around whom there’s a lot of uncertainty. He performed decently in the minors, sporting strong walk rates and speed numbers, but his defense has never quite been strong enough to win positive reviews in center. His major-league debut was certainly underwhelming, but if he can knock a few more doubles into the gap he might find his walk rate would rise as well. What do we note here if not more uncertainty?
What about the infield? Can any more certainty be expected there? Asdrubal Cabrera has become a reliable option at shortstop, and it appears reasonable to expect at least modest improvement at the plate over his disappointing .276/.326/.346 2010 campaign—but, again, no guarantees. Santana, the rookie catcher who posted a smooth .260/.401/.467 line in nearly 200 plate appearances before succumbing to knee surgery himself, will get the league minimum and should return in April. Jason Donald performed well enough at second base in his big-league debut, and wouldn’t kill the Indians playing there over a whole season. Even with a .253/.312/.378 line, Donald scratched together a nearly league-average season offensively after adjusting for park, as his .257 TAv attests. Moreover, his 10.3 percent career minor-league walk rate suggests further improvement isn’t entirely out of the question. Donald will have to be careful, though, as Jason Kipnis put together a .307/.386/.492 season between Single- and Double-A this year. Matt LaPorta has been a highly regarded young player long enough that he isn’t really all that young any more. But he’s an interesting case nonetheless: he put up a meek .250 TAv in his 425 PAs in the majors (bad), but a juicy .305 translated TAv in his 81 Triple-A PAs (good). Is 2011 the year he puts it all together at the plate? Uncertainty!
Can you guess what I think about the rotation behind Carmona? Justin Masterson is a vexing case. For a long time, I was a big skeptic of individual player splits (I still am to some degree), believing instead that it was nearly impossible to accumulate the volume of split data needed to make definitive conclusions. Then Masterson came along, and now I’m deeply, well, uncertain about all that. He’s got a 3.0 K/BB against righties and a 1.3 mark against lefties. He’s also much better at Progressive Field, where he had a 2.4 K/BB (against a 1.6 on the road). All of these tendencies get magnified by his strong ground-ball rate (nearly 60 percent), which means that when he gets hit-unlucky, he’s liable to struggle and quickly. There’s something to wish on here, to be sure, but wouldn’t it be better if Masterson weren’t the second starter?
After that, the rotation starts to become a morass. Mitch Talbot strikes out fewer than five batters per nine innings and doesn’t induce enough ground balls to make up for it. Josh Tomlin is from the same mold and a smidge better. Carlos Carrasco has always had promise, but has been prone to disaster innings—and thus infuriated his fans—for years. If he can put that behind him, as he showed hints but not convincing evidence of in his time in the majors this year, he might be the best starter on the team.
None of those starters inspire a lot of confidence, so the Indians should turn their eyes squarely to Jason Knapp, who came back from a shoulder injury to blow away his competition in the low minors. Now, Knapp enters his age-20 season with the benefit of a full offseason of rehab and limited innings on his electric arm. He’s got the kind of shutdown stuff that, if he remains healthy, could catapult him through the minor leagues.
So what can the Indians do with all this? They’re really working with two types of uncertainty. First, there’s uncertainty around injuries—especially knee injuries. If it turns out the Indians are good at rehabbing knee injuries, then Sizemore and Santana should both put up productive seasons. If not, they probably won’t. So those parts move together, and that could potentially be an eight or so win swing. Second, there is uncertainty around young hitters struggling to manifest continued success. Guys in this category include Brantley, LaPorta, Cabrera, and Donald. Can Manny Acta and hitting coach Jon Nunnally bring these guys along? It seems likely that what works for one is more likely than not to work for some of the other guys.
Given these two types of uncertainty, I’d take the following course. I’d make darn sure I had faith in my organization’s ability to manage knee injuries, and I’d make sure that my young hitters were forming a good teaching relationship with their coaches. But I’d also want to double down on the uncertainty, in case my lottery tickets started paying off a little early. I’d target a bunch of pitchers coming back from injury (guys in the Joaquin Benoit c. 2009 category) and I’d offer them incentive-laden deals. I’d leverage my team’s good performance with pitcher disabled list trips to try to keep them healthy. Someone like Brandon Webb would be a good fit for the ballpark and, if he could stay healthy, would provide a boost to a rotation with plenty of question marks. Webb’s price tag might run a little high, but if the price were right, Cleveland would make a good fit.
There probably isn’t much of a chance the Indians can make the playoffs next year, but because the risks stack up on top of each other, I think it’s a better chance than you might think. Just in case things start to click, I’d want to be ready. In the meantime, most of the focus should be on player development, and in that department the Indians are well set to field a competitive—and inexpensive—team.