July 29, 2014

Sunday Indians Notes: Bullpen depth, backups and prospects

Chris PerezSpring Training is finally on its final leg and the MLB season begins for the Cleveland Indians in just nine short days. It certainly has been an exciting offseason, for once, in Cleveland, so Opening Day at Progressive Field another six days later should be a delight.

In typical Sunday fashion, I’ll break down a handful of items that have been on my mind recently when it comes to Tribe talk. In a fitting sense, none of the three items are that sexy, but could mean quite a lot to the 2013 Tribe. Let’s start with a much-hyped strength:

– The stout bullpen: Quick trivia question — Out of the 30 MLB teams from 2011-2012, where did the Indians bullpen rank in ERA? How about out of the 14 American League teams? One would normally think that with the impressive back-end of Chris Perez, Vinnie Pestano and Joe Smith, that the Indians would logically rank fairly high. Wrong.

In fact, over this two-year stretch, Cleveland’s 3.85 ERA from the bullpen ranks 21st overall and 10th in the American League. But how can that be? In case you don’t believe me again, the average ERA in both leagues over this time has been 3.68 — whereas the Indians bullpen posted a 3.71 ERA (15th) and a 3.99 ERA (23rd) in the last two seasons.

Looking more closely, it’s easy to see how three people does not a bullpen make. And that is what has kept the Indians back from being even an average bullpen — let alone an average entire pitching staff. Here is the exact breakdown between Perez-Pestano-Smith and the rest of the bullpen:

2011   2012   Total
Split ERA IP %/IP   ERA IP %/IP   ERA IP %/IP
The trio 2.53 188.2 38.3% 3.01 194.2 36.8% 2.77 383.1 37.6%
Others 4.45 303.1 61.7% 4.56 333.2 63.2% 4.51 637.0 62.4%
Total 3.71 492.0 x 3.99 528.1 x 3.85 1020.1 x

 

Clearly, while the final three guys in order have been well above average — as they should be — the entire rest of the bullpen has been awful over the past two seasons. This has happened right under our breath during blowouts and bad games. And since these three relievers are only accounting for about 3/8ths of all reliever innings1, then the awful stink of everyone else has brought the Indians down quite easily.

Some of the worst offenders over the past two years have been Tony Sipp, Jeremy Accardo, Nick Hagadone, Frank Herrmann, Josh Judy, Jairo Asencio and other similarly forgotten names. In other words, the Indians bullpen was extremely top-heavy, to the extent that despite three well above-average relievers getting significant work, the near-historically awful rest of the bullpen made the ‘pen well below-average overall.

That then promotes some hope for the 2013 squad. New additions Matt Albers (2.39 ERA in 60.1 IP last season), Rich Hill (1.83 ERA in 19.2 IP for Boston in ’12) and Bryan Shaw (3.49 ERA in 59.1 IP for Arizona in ’12) all project to provide more substantial relief than others over the past two years. Hagadone is the only player listed above who will play for the Indians in 2013, as he and fellow youngster Cody Allen hopefully continue to improve.

Sure, injuries will occur and other replacement level pitchers will still find some relief innings for the Tribe by the end of the season, but as of now, with the season just a week away, the bullpen appears to be reignited in Cleveland — in as non-flashy of a way possible. By shoring up the depth, it appears the Indians might have enough to have their best ‘pen in a few years.

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– Position player depth: In a similar mold to my bullpen statistics from above, I bring to you this statistic that had come up earlier this offseason in my edition of The Diff dedicated to strikeouts: On average in the 2012 AL Central, 2/3rds of all season plate appearances were taken by the top 7 position players on a team.

At first, there’s a lot to discuss from that one simple statistic. In a most simplistic sense, it means that on a 162-game basis, your top 7 guys are actually accounting for 6 spots in the lineup. That kind of makes sense, in a way, as most regulars will get a day off every week or so while suffering from the occasional boo-boo.

But for me, the striking finding was the opposite: That no matter how good a team’s top 7 players sorted by plate appearances might be, the rest of the team’s position players are still factoring for 3 spots in the lineup on average over the course of a 162-game schedule.

In essence, it’s relatively easy to find those supposed top 7 position players on the 2013 Indians: I’d go with all the expected starters minus the two offensive weaknesses in the lineup. Here’s my breakdown

Top Seven (in no order): Cabrera, Bourn, Swisher, Reynolds, Brantley, Kipnis, Santana

Others: Chisenhall, Stubbs, Aviles, Marson, Gomes, Carrera, etc.

Earlier this offseason, before the Bourn acquisition that gave the Indians one of the best defensive outfields in the game, many fans lamented how one of Mike Aviles or Lou Marson would need to start every day for the Indians to field a 9-man lineup. Currently, that’s not exactly the case for every day, but on average over the course of the season, it will be, based on my AL Central analysis from 2012.

There’s no doubt that the 5-9 of the Indians lineup is significantly improved this year. That much is quite obvious just from seeing those names above and realizing no current pressure is on a young player like Lonnie Chisenhall to immediately become a star. But the real question will be this back-end durability and success.

Similar to the bullpen, the success of the Indians offense has been dragged down by awful replacement level production over the past two years. In fact, Casey Kotchman, Jack Hannahan and Shelley Duncan ranked 6-7-8 in plate appearances for the Indians last season, with Johnny Damon and Jose Lopez also in the top 12 as well.

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– Prospect ranking update: Back on March 3rd, only three weeks ago, I shared an early look at a handful of Indians prospect rankings. Since then, there have been a number of updates and conclusions to other lists. Here are three that I’d like to share for some additional notes today:

Listing The DiaTribe Tony Lastoria MLB.com
1 Lindor Lindor Lindor
2 Bauer Bauer Bauer
3 Paulino Paulino Paulino
4 Brown Ramirez R Rodriguez
5 Wolters Salazar Brown
6 Salazar R Rodriguez Naquin
7 R Rodriguez Allen Wolters
8 Naquin Naquin Salazar
9 L Rodriguez Brown Ramirez
10 Allen Wolters Howard
11 Ramirez Barnes Monsalve
12 Washington Aguilar Aguilar
13 Howard L Rodriguez L Rodriguez
14 Barnes Haley McGuinness
15 Haley Hagadone Barnes

 

Pretty clearly, the Indians have a very top-heavy listing. All outlets I’ve seen have Francisco Lindor and Trevor Bauer either at No. 1 or No. 2, followed by Dorssys Paulino at No. 3, then a random collection of unorganized prospects after that. No consensus No. 4 has emerged, let alone the rest of a potential top 10 or more.

I’d argue again that Tyler Naquin has a very low ceiling and is only considered in the top 5 per de-facto reasons. In a normal system with actual depth, there’s no way the Indians’ most recent first-round pick would be considered that high. And that’s not necessarily a knock on the Tribe. When he was drafted, it was pretty clear that he fit a relatively narrow skill set and at a best-case scenario, might be a .290 hitter with decent power, decent speed and a good arm. He’s never been projected to be a star.

Two guys I’m excited about and that do indeed feature high upside: Danny Salazar and Jose Ramirez. The Tribe shocked many people by placing the now-23-year-old Salazar on the 40-man roster last winter. He responded with a 2.36 ERA in 22 combined starts for Carolina and Akron. He should stay in Akron for most of 2013, but it’d be fantastic to see how he performs in Columbus by the end of the year. Ramirez, on the other hand, burst onto the scene with his hitting for Lake County: .354/.403/.462 in 67 games. He’s only 20, so he’ll likely spend the year in Lake County again plus Carolina. But if he keeps hitting, despite being only 5-foot-9 and being at second base, he’ll make a name for himself eventually.

Lastly, John Sickels had his top 150 prospect list post since my last prospect update. He was just the latest major writer to have Paulino featured on such a list, as the 18-year-old placed No. 82 with this comment: “Paulino has Top 20 potential and that could look much too low a year from now.” It should be a treat watching Paulino closer to home this year after his phenomenal success out in Arizona in 2012. We’ll see if the momentum continues.

Photo: Chuck Crow, The Plain Dealer

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Footnotes:

  1. Again, going back to several points made by Jon in the last 2 years, this shows why relievers are over-paid and it doesn’t make sense for a mediocre team with cash issues to spend a significant amount of money on a reliever. Ever. Not to mention that of these three pitchers, Chris Perez has the worst ERA in both seasons. /End rant. []