July 22, 2014

Jon & Paul Plus Baseball: Filling out the Roster

Every year around this time, I tell myself that I’m not going to waste too much time and energy poring over the last few roster spots for the Indians.  I have a tendency to forget how little these spots end up mattering in the long run, and consequently manage to convince myself that the difference between winning the division and last place is sure to be the defensive acumen of our utility infielder or the baserunning skills of our swing-man out of the bullpen.

So I spend February and March telling myself to be rational: the periphery of the roster means very little compared to a team’s core players.  It’s silly to get worked up over a few minor details.  Right?

But then I read a piece like this by Tony Lastoria, suggesting that the front office is considering keeping Orlando Cabrera, Jayson Nix, Trevor Crowe, and Luis Valbuena on the MLB roster while sending Jason Donald, Cord Phelps, Lou Marson and the rest of the youngsters back to Columbus.  And I go nuts all over again, unable to follow the logic.

And that helpless feeling sends me inexorably to the old electronic mail machine to converse with Paul Cousineau, founder of the DiaTribe.  

JON: Paul, I’m at a loss.  Apparently the front office is making noise about keeping the kids in the minors for the better part of their 20s, and sticking with the likes of Nix, Valbuena, etc. for another year.  Is there some logic here that I’m missing, or is it just more of the same arbitration-clock management?

PAUL: Don’t lump me in with that “noise-making” crowd, as the logic of keeping a 26-year-old Jason Donald in Columbus to play SS to “increase his ability to be a utility guy” when all he’s ever done in MiLB is play SS (390 games on the farm, 356 at SS) is just the starting point of the baffling “plan” that seems to be in place going into Spring Training.  From what the “plan” sounds like, it would have The OC (Orlando Cabrera) at 2B and Nix or Valbuena at 3B (with the other as the Utility IF) for the parent club while Donald and Phelps head to Columbus to…well, wait to come to Cleveland to sit behind Kipnis and The Chiz eventually.

If we’re thinking arbitration-clock management with guys that look like the edges of the roster of a good team like Donald and Phelps (or Marson, who would go to Columbus to “get everyday AB”, leaving Luke Carlin or Paul Phillips to play when Santana goes to 1B), then the Indians are in worse shape than we all think or have become overly obsessed with managing service time in a delusional plan to get all of these guys together on the same roster…well, someday I guess.

JON: Exactly.  You manage arbitration clocks on players who are likely to become too expensive to retain someday.  But the Indians seem to be manipulating the clock on…Lou Marson?!

Last season’s decisions to keep Michael Brantley and Carlos Santana in AAA to wrangle an extra year of club control made good sense to me.  The organization was, I kept telling myself, acting in its best interest to keep their future core players for a bit longer.  Now though?  If we think that we’re in danger of losing Lou Marson or Cord Phelps in 6 years, I have to believe that our priorities are a bit out of whack.

I trust that the front office is full of smart people–smarter than I for sure.  But I honestly can’t believe that these smart people are seriously considering giving Trevor Crowe another 100 MLB at bats or handing a full-time job to Jayson Nix.  At this point, I’m starting to think it has less to do with the best interests of the club and more to do with hoping to save face on a poor first-round draft choice or a low risk FA signing.

What makes me saddest though?  I’m on the verge of losing my faith in Shapinetti.  And after all the trauma they’ve put us through, the fact that the crossroads involves the margins of the roster seems particularly off-putting to me.  After all, how much difference can a backup catcher or fifth outfielder really make anyway?

PAUL: That’s the frustrating thing about these plans (assuming they have some kernel of truth to them) in that most of the decisions that have been made in the past could be justified, with the desired result (e.g. one more year of Santana’s control) outweighing the impatience that dominates the Spring.  But the idea that the Indians will send Donald to AAA to play SS (and to manipulate his service clock a bit) means that they’re making these moves to ensure that a 32-year-old Jason Donald is on the roster 5 years from now as a utility IF?

The Marson thing is particularly baffling as the Indians have stated that Santana is going to play significant games at 1B, meaning that the back-up C could be playing 35 to 40 games this season.  Is the notion that Marson “needs everyday AB” in Columbus really worth enduring Paul Phillips for 20 games in the first half of the season?

Really, what’s the point in all of this?

Maybe we’re arguing over the periphery of the roster for the first two months (and maybe I’m sensitive to Donald and Marson being in AAA a year-and-a-half after being 1/2 of the return for Lee), with most of these guys simply starting the season in AAA, but it speaks to more of an organizational philosophy that never seems to be planning for “today” to put the best team on the field.  I get the development thing as well as the service clock thing for The Chiz and Kipnis and Santana last year, but didn’t we already play this game last year with Grudz and Redmond, with the Indians putting themselves in their obligatory 1st half hole as a result?

At the risk of sounding overly impatient, given the (as you say) “trauma” we’ve been through, what’s the target date?

JON: I wrote something earlier this off-season about the organization being more direct and honest with the fanbase.  Something along the lines of, “We’re going to struggle for X years here, but boy, wait ’til you see us in 201X!  That’s when we’re going to make our run.”

I know it can be difficult to be told to wait, and it can be dangerous to attach a date to the process if things get derailed, but Shapiro did it once before.  In 2002, he told the fanbase that the team had to rebuild and would be competitive again by 2005.  And they were.  And I thought, “Wow.  We have a guy who has a plan, who will tell the truth, and who can get it done.  That’s a pretty great thing.”
Now he lists that quote as one of his biggest regrets, and he says he’ll never be so specific again.  And we’re left reading tea leaves and discussing the periphery of an already poor roster as the organization makes what look to me to be inexplicable decisions.
I’m frustrated Paul.  Frustrated.  And it’s not even March yet.
PAUL: That frustration is manifesting particularly with some of these possible moves because, to borrow your phrase a couple of weeks ago, they left me feeling “snookered”.  As much as Marson and Donald had low ceilings, they had moderately high floors and were close to MLB.  Wasn’t the idea that they’d hold down the fort at their respective positions until better players arrived justifying their inclusion in the deal over the Indians demanding…let’s say Domonic Brown or even Michael Taylor, with them then settling into filling out the 25-man at reasonable costs that keep the need to delve into the FA market low.  Now they’re going to sit in AAA for the 1st half of the season (with those better players they were supposed to serve as a “bridge” to in Donald’s case) while we see Jayson Nix and Paul Phillips?

You’re absolutely right that some bold proclamation is necessary that “we have the guys that are going to lead us to contention and they’re in the system right now”, pointing to that specific date.  Maybe Shapiro did regret putting a timeframe on it, but if they came out and said that they’re pointing towards 2012 to legitimately contend and 2013 to make a serious push in the playoffs, what’s the harm?  If they’re no closer at that point, they should realistically be more concerned about still having jobs than not fulfilling a prediction on a “timeframe”.

  • Tommy

    Wow Jon, dangerous post for a site with more than a few members of the “Dolan is Cheap and Shapiro Sucks!” crowd. You’ve shown a weakness!

    I hear you, though its interesting that you lump the 25 yr old Valbuena in with Nix instead of the other 20-somethings. Its hard for me to see Nix’s value to us anymore. I see a guy with .288 career OBP and playing out of position, blocking us from properly developing and evaluating our young talent. Seems like the front office is trying to force him into the Casey Blake mold and its too much of a stretch for me.

    Marson was 3rd in all of baseball I believe last year in CS%. I’ll take that behind the plate for 40-50 games please. Help our GB machines keep the runners on 1st and the double plays in order. Please don’t force me to watch Phillips or Carlin.

  • Lyon

    this is very disheartening. For a team that struggles to gain interest, how does this help at all?

    I want the young guys to play, not some guys that we’ve already determined can’t.

    Definitely would want Marson backing up Santana. He can’t hit but more than makes up for it with his arm.

  • mgbode

    Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr

    that about sums it up.

  • Anthony

    Cross your fingers and hope that Nix and Valbuena look like…..well Nix and Valbuena in spring training and that Marson and Donald show up to maybe make the front office think twice.

    I can’t stand to see more of Nix or Luis at third. No more ‘ole defense ;)

  • Reggie Ruckus

    Great stuff Jon & Paul. You guys do a great job of covering the Tribe and you two are the guys usually talking the rest of us down from the ledge. But like Lyon said in his comment, how is this smart business for a team that struggled at the gate last year and looks to struggle even more this year? Who wants to pay to see Nix and Phillips in the lineup? I’d rather go to Columbus and see the guys down there or even Akron.

    These are bad business and bad baseball moves. You know who I feel really bad for? Manny Acta. Is he here to manage a team of prospects or a team of a couple prospects and AAAA players? If the kids are even close to ready, let ‘em play. If they flame out send ‘em to Columbus….they are always Nix type players that can be acquired later.

  • Matt S

    From what I understand, this isn’t the front office wanting to send down Donald, but it’s the coaching staff that wants him to spend more time in AAA (from Lastoria’s message board postings). Personally, I think if Donald is going to be a utility guy he needs to play 3B. I want to see him platoon with either Nix or Goedert for most of this year. I know he doesn’t have the bat for 3B (and there’s questions about his arm there too), but I think that’s what helps his value long-term.

    I don’t disagree with sending Marson down if he doesn’t rock in spring training. His defense is great, but if he can’t hit much over .200, he’s not really any better than the Mike Redmonds of the world. He’d be a light-hitting defensive-oriented backup catcher. If they think he needs to build up his confidence by hitting some AAA pitching, then… I hope it works and I see the logic.

    Also, no way Crowe starts on the team unless Grady starts on the DL. Kearns has the 4th OF spot, and the last bench option will likely be a “corner” guy who can play 1B, DH (to spell Hafner here and there), maybe LF/RF and/or 3B (Goedert or Shelley Duncan, though others are possible)