Unsolicited Observations: Help was there to be had for these Cleveland Indians

Jesus Aguilar
Jesus Aguilar

Jesus Aguilar is decidedly not Nelson Cruz

The Indians are setting the tone for a lousy summer. Just when it appears the team is getting hot, the bottom falls out. Get swept at home by Oakland? No worries, this year’s club answers by sweeping Detroit and beating Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer (no decision) in the process. Now a series sweep at the hands of the White Sox has many wondering—again—if the current campaign can be saved.

One-third of the season is in the books and the Tribe (24-30) is struggling. Offense, defense, hitting, throwing, catching. There’s problems everywhere. It’s easy to look back in the rear-view mirror, but I can’t help but wonder if there was a way this team could’ve improved during the offseason.

• The Indians uncharacteristically spent big money two winter’s ago by signing free agents Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn. That expenditure led me to be believe the front office would be a little more conservative this past winter—and they were. But how good would Nelson Cruz look wearing the “Block C” hat? Cruz leads baseball with 19 homers (a 1.038 OPS) while playing for Baltimore.

Cruz became an Oriole when signed his 1-year, $8 million deal at the end of February. While it looks like a steal now, Cruz did have some red flags. He was coming off a 50-game PED suspension, he would’ve cost a high draft pick, and he’s 33. But a one-year deal at $8 million? That’s the type of bargain shopping this franchise lives for. Wasn’t Brett Myers given $7 million a season ago?

Maybe Chris Antonetti looked at Cruz earlier in the offseason, and made an offer. Maybe Cruz was looking for Johnny Peralta money, which was out of the Indians’ league. Maybe the Tribe just moved on by signing David Murphy to solidify the outfield. Yet with spring training around the corner, Cruz got desperate. After turning down the Rangers qualifying offer of $14.1 million in November, he signed with Baltimore for less.

The offense can be just so darn hard to watch. You’ve heard it by now. Cleveland went 30 innings without an extra-base hit until Jason Giambi unloaded a bomb in the series finale against the White Sox May 28. There was no reported link between between Cruz and Indians last winter, but here’s hoping the front office at least kicked the tires on a player who would be a difference maker this season.

• Thank goodness for Jason Giambi. Is their anyone else on Cleveland’s roster who has you thinking long ball every time he steps to the plate? Giambi is 3-for-22 on the year, but two of those hits have been homers. He’s clubbing a home run in every at 11 at-bats. For a team that’s scored seven runs over their last four games, I’ll take it.

• Back to some other non-moves. Hindsight tells me that resigning Scott Kazmir and hanging out to Aaron Harang would’ve been good ideas. As was the case with Cruz, there was some risk with Kazmir. Would he regress and be back pitching for the Sugar Land Skeeters next year, or would he continue to build on what he accomplished in Cleveland last summer?

Oakland wanted to find out and will pay $22 million over two years for the answer. So far, that money’s been well spent, with Kazmir going 6-2 with a 2.36 ERA.

You could argue Kazmir wasn’t worth the risk, but that line of thinking doesn’t hold up for Harang. The Indians always seem to have one of these older vets who come in and help out, and it looked like Harang was next in line. Carlos Carraso ended up beating out Harang for the fifth spot in the rotation. Now Harang now pitches for the Braves, while Carrasco pitches in the bullpen because as he showed last season, he can’t start.

And in case you’re wondering, Harang is making $1 million in 2014 and saved Atlanta’s staff. The veteran is 4-4 with a 3.32 ERA and has a career-high strikeout rate of 25.9 percent.

• Michael Brantley doesn’t get the credit he deserves nationally. It doesn’t take advanced scouting to see that the former Brewers’ farmhand is really coming into his own. He’s not among the top five players in the All-Star voting at his position, which is a bummer, but hardly a surprise.

He’s hit safely in 14 consecutive games where he’s batting .393 (1.058 OPS), the longest active streak in the majors. He comes up huge in big moments, recording his seventh (seventh!) career four-hit game earlier this month in addition to the first walk-off hit—a home run—of his career.

With the glove, he has a fielding percentage of .990 and leads all of baseball with six assists. His lone miscue came during the second game of the season when he ran into Ryan Raburn just minutes after moving from left to center field.

Brantley’s not flashy, he just goes about his business as Dr. Smooth. He’s slashing .284/.342/.416 with nine homers, 52 RBIs and an .887 OPS (1.8 WAR). He’s one homer shy of tying his career-high. Some players do develop power after being in the league a few years. Hopefully that’s the case with Brantley, because his ceiling only seems to get higher.

• Put me in the faction that would promote Francisco Lindor from Class AA Akron right now. Forget Columbus, we need his glove in Cleveland. The shortstop position is usually played by a great athlete, and unfortunately that isn’t Asdrubal Cabrera. Even Francona is on record saying he believes Lindor’s glove is ready for The Show.

Cabrera is two season’s removed from his last All-Star game, and he won’t be going back in 2014. With mega-money just months away, Cabby is floundering in his free-agent season, slashing .246/.324/.369 (.693 OPS). He also plays the most important defensive position on the field and already has eight errors, after committing nine all of last year.

Fangraphs rated Cabby as the worst defensive shortstop in 2013 (-16.8 UZR). For the current campaign, Cabrera currently sits 17th (-0.9).

Picking on Cabby here is easy because Swisher, Carlos Santana, Lonnie Chisenhall and Yan Gomes have all had problems. Combined, Tribe mishaps have resulted in 39 unearned runs, compared to 51 last year. That total could be shattered byJuly 1.

The Indians defense is rated as the second worst in the AL (-24.7 UZR), according to Fangraphs. Only the Houston Astros are worse (-31.9 UZR).

(AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Nathan Denette)

  • boomhauertjs

    Don’t forget that signing Cruz would have cost the Indians their 1st round pick since he was extended a qualifying offer. That’s a pretty steep price to pay for an injury-prone guy that would be signed to a 1-year deal.
    Harang’s been helped by some pretty good luck on BABIP and a very good defensive team in Atlanta. He probably wouldn’t look very good against AL lineups with stone gloves like Cabrera, Swisher, etc. behind him.

  • TNB

    Great, this article again.

    Look, I dont mean to come off as negative, but we’ve had this song and dance every year for a decade. I seem to remember many people crying about how the Indians “blew it” not signing Josh Willingham, who had a good season and then fell off the map.

    With the state of the Indians farm system and their future as a club, I would make the exact same call when it comes to signing a mid 30s hitter for 8m and a high draft pick considering the farm is what we need and, quite frankly, not another potential Mark Reynolds wed have trouble unloading later.

    I understand this is only talking about a few points in the article, but it isn’t as if the Indians are making the wrong moves when it comes to spending. I also dont thnk calling up lindor helps anyone at all right now, because even if lindor can field better, his bat is probably far less developed than Acab, who’s currently struggling as it is. Rushing the man up because hes a big name would be a poor reactionary move to the early.struggles of the team.

    I forget the exact quote, but isn’t it something like “You win 60 and lose 60, its the other 40 that count.” This season is far from over and there is still quite a bit of time to change things around, who knows what can open up to the tribe down the road?

  • nj0

    So if we would have done everything right, we would have been in a better situation? Okay.

    As TNB alludes to – for every Kazmir, Cruz, etc. there’s a Jimenez, Willingham, etc. I think it’s an unfair line of criticism in many ways. If you’re going to tout that you said, “Sign Kazmir!”, you should also be on the spot for saying “Sign Willingham!” Great example – how many people were lambasting the Tribe just two months ago for not taking the sweetheart, hometown Masterson deal?

    I will say that there are plenty of more fair criticisms of this front office. Passing on Harang may be hindsight bias, but it also seems ridiculous that we had a guy clearly work his way into at worst the 6th best starting option yet couldn’t find a way to keep him (I know that I’m late to the dance on this one). There’s also entering the season with a glaring defensive hole at 3B. I think you can also criticize the Swisher and Bourn deals from last year.

    Guess I just don’t like the should of line of criticism. Cause you can do that to any team at any time. And you’re always going to focus on the should of hits rather than the should of misses.

  • nj0

    Yeah, I thought that about Harang as well. What does his ERA look like in the AL with this defense behind him? Still, he’s clearly a much better pitcher this year than last (Ks up, BBs down).

  • matt underwood

    i think the biggest problem with this team is not the misses on guys they should have signed or picked up, is not having the ability to replace or fill the holes with players from the minors.

    this team has had almost nothing of worth in the minors to plug the holes. they are continually one of the worst drafting teams as well as worst developmental teams in the majors.

    this had lead to having to over pay for over the hill bourn and swisher types as opposed to being able to plug in a 23 year old and have him hit .275 or better.

    how anyone in the front office and scouting/development department have been able to keep their jobs over the years is beyond me.

  • Steve_Not_Chad

    Last year’s Free Agent class was pretty crappy.

  • steve-o

    The one the Indians should have known better on is Kazmir, who could have at least been extended a qualifying offer. Take away our fifth pitching option and insert Kazmir and we probably have a winning record right now.

    There’s still time left but signs are pointing toward another lost season. If this keeps up, we’ll probably try to ship out some salary starting with Acab, if anyone wants him. My fear is someone we’d prefer to keep might have to be moved to persuade an organization to chew on some of our dead weight. Calls about Masterson should be coming any day now.

  • nj0

    I really don’t think this true any more.Cause we’ve been drafting and developing talent a whole lot better since Brad Grant took over. Chisenhall, Kipnis, Crockett, Salazar, Allen, Pomeranz,… All guys drafted/acquired by the current regime who are making it the majors. And we’ve got a lot more talent in the farm now than we ever have had in the last decade or (nearly) two. It takes a long time to rebuild a farm system and ours is finally turning the corner.

    On top of that, I don’t see how you can say we’re bad developmentally. Even when we didn’t draft well, the Indians have been amazing at acquiring minor league talent through trades and turning it into major league caliber players.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    The team is picking up where the front office left off. When the biggest offseason moves are Murphy, Axford and Outman you should have been nervous. Add in the deal with Raburn not to mention Gomes and they make things worse. But hey, you will always have the 2013 season to look back on fondly while another 5-6 year period passes.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Yea because the Indians do awesome with draft picks!

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Masterson in effect did the Indians a favor because he turned the deal down it’s not that the Indians were so forward thinking and smart to wait on him. Point in fact Masterson was always overrated by Indians fans and he’s never been close to #1 material. The worst part is all that said until this year he was probably still the Indians best SP. Now I’d say it’s Kluber but I’m not going to anoint him either until I see him do it for more then one year.

  • nj0

    Wait, did we ever extend him an offer? I thought he and his agent were the one pimping one?

  • nj0

    At least you’ve got the Bosox.

  • Jim

    “but it isn’t as if the Indians are making the wrong moves when it comes to spending.” I would argue spending over $25 million a year on Bourne and Swish is a wrong move when it comes to spending.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Don’t remember the exact happening not sure if there was ever an “official” offer or not by the Indians but it was clear they wanted to resign the guy. He just wanted more. Fortunately for the Indians he wanted more huh?

  • cmm13

    “Thank goodness for Jason Giambi.”

    STOP. RIGHT. THERE.

    http://37.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_lm8xntfhTT1ql141xo1_400.gif

  • vespo09
  • TNB

    Its easy to make the case that, with protected first round picks, tue bourn and swisher signings were the better moves at the time. Without anyone really ready to be plugged into a struggling outfield, signing one of the best defensive players (not to mention one of the best outfielders I’m the league) and one of the most consistent power hitters in the game WAS the right call. If they dont sign swisher and bourn who do we bring instead? Bring out LaPorta again? A LaPpeta/Reynolds platoon at first sounds like fun.

    As much as we want there to be more, and as much as they have (fairly) surprised with their lack of consistency, signing those two was the right move

  • cmm13

    Sham for the win.

    With the record of our drafting in the last decade+ a 33 year old injury prone roid head would be like gold compared to the likes of; Brad Snyder, Adam Miller, Trevor Crowe, and Beau Mills.

  • nj0

    You were correct. “I feel like we made an earnest attempt to get something done and offered Justin a contract that was fair relative to the market.”

    Rumor was we offered him two years (this year and 2015) at $14M with a club option for a third. In effect, it was a one year contract, 2015. That’s WAY different and much more club friendly than the 4/$60 that he wanted.

    And that was the deal that a lot of people here were saying to take. “Just pay the man!”

    My point being – if you’re the type who is going to complain that we didn’t say x,y, and z who would have worked out, be honest and admit that you also wanted a,b, and c who wouldn’t have worked out.

    One thing is for sure, I bet Masterson is wishing he would have taken whatever it is they offered.

  • matt underwood

    true, i give them credit for picking players off of others and turning them into mlb players – asdrocab, santana, gomes

    but there is no pipeline of talent coming up – outside of some relief prospects, not much fruit to bare. the draft has been horrible in terms of WAR of the last 10 years – like god awful. astros awful. ill see if i can find the article/stats – the tribe was 29th over the last 10 years in terms of value drafted

    i say the browns and cavs have drafted better over the last 10 years than the tribe – that aint saying much

  • nj0

    Grant took over in ’08. So that’s six years. I’d be interested to see how we stack up in that time period. Probably better, but still not great. Kipnis is an all-star caliber player when healthy. Chisenhall is a contributing MLB player with some warts. Then there’s a handful of relief pitchers too. So good, not great. Still it’s WAY better than pre-Grant.

    I just think there’s guys to be excited really excited about too – Lindor and Frazier being the obvious examples.

    You’re right that it’s still not good enough and I agree that we need to focus more attention on drafting and development.

    And hey, the Astros have drafted well since the new front office. George Springer is my new favorite player in MLB. I think in 2015 we’ll really start seeing Houston reap what they’ve sown.

  • nj0

    Or just go last five years and take Jason Kipnis, Lonnie Chisenhall, Cody Allen, and Franciso Lindor.

  • cmm13

    knock it off nj0, you’re ruining our mo.

  • Harv 21

    and maybe doing everything (almost) right explains last season: early season the team carried in April and May by Mark Reynolds, carried in late season by Ubaldo and Kazmir and Salazar, Masterson in the “good” year of his good/bad cycle, and Kluber emerging.

    If and when the farm system ever produces a stream of quality players at most positions we won’t be so dependent upon the genius or sheer luck of the front office in signing rehabbing or aging free agents.

  • mgbode

    but, he’s 3 for 22!!!! he gets a hit almost every 7 ABs!!!!

  • cmm13

    he’s 322…..

    there, I fixed your typo.

  • Tron

    Not resigning Kazmir was the mistake that cost us this season. We gave him a shot and he proved himself. Not resigning him shows that this ownership group is not serious about competing in this league. You can’t expect to keep getting lucky on guys you take flyers on and then not reward them when they prove themselves worthy. That is a stupid strategy.

    Of course we need to develop players. That is not an alternative to the problem. The problem is that we set ourselves down a course and then we stopped mid-way.

  • nj0

    Look, maybe we should have signed Kazmir, but we’re six games under .500 and eight games out on 5/30. His presence, or any one player’s presence really, is sort of irrelevant at this point. If things progress as they have, there won’t be one mistake that cost us this season. There will be dozens of them.

  • nj0
  • Tron

    Haha, getting to you aren’t I?

    One player can certainly make a difference in baseball when he’s a pitcher with 2.36 ERA. But you are correct that we have many other problems, namely runs and fielding.

    My main issue is that after the 2012 season we went out and made moves to improve our team. We can second guess them now but I think they were a good place to start. I don’t think that going into 2013 people expected the team to be of playoff caliber. I expected us to be competitive and then go into 2014 and add on with what we already started.

    The problem is that in 2013 we made the playoffs and did so mainly by beating up historically bad teams (and having god knows how many walkoffs) I’m not complaining. It was a great run and an awesome summer. But I think it was deceptive and I think the Dolans are now more than happy to settle with the results.

  • cmm13

    Winner.

    Not resigning Kazmir, not signing Cruz, not turning Santana into a head case by making him play his 3rd position in 3 years, not making Giambi bench coach, not firing the hitting coach soon enough, not trading for Yasiel Puig, not changing socks, etc.

  • nj0

    I just get tired of this belief that if only the Dolans spent on this guy or that, everything would be wonderful. You can say it shows a lack of dedication to winning and that would follow. But I don’t think you can say one pitcher is going to turn things around for a club that is playing horrible baseball and has some obvious, glaring deficiencies.

    As for Kazmir specifically, he’s got a 2.36 ERA in the most extreme pitcher’s park behind a pretty good defense. Put him on the mound with Swisher, Santana, and Asdrubal behind him and without seven thousand square yards of foul territory like he has in Oakland and lets see how he fairs.

    Yes, he’d be an upgrade. He has pitched well. I just don’t see how adding him makes us an six better win team over the last two months.

    If this year is a flop, it’ll be because of a systematic failure in how we created our team. If that’s the case, I’ll be happy to make a list of reasons why we suck. “Not having Kazmir on the squad” won’t be on the list.

  • nj0

    Not going to Vegas for Memorial Day

  • mgbode

    the spending in the 2013 offseason was largely deferred to the 2014 season in full allotment. both Swisher and Bourn’s got big pay bumps this year (along with our arbitration guys).

  • nj0

    I’m starting to worry this is just the beginning of the albatross that will be the 2013 Swisher/Bourn free agency bonanza.

  • mgbode

    yeah. for as bad as we did drafting (pre-grant at least), we have done an even worse job in free agency.

    thank goodness we have had some good trades (of course, the biggest trades have been some of our worst).

    really, how are we sometimes a good baseball team again?

  • Tron

    That’s what I’m saying. Not signing Kazmir is part of a systematic failure in how we are approaching this league. Of course he’s not the only problem. He’s just a really easy example.

    Either way, I’ll be watching tonight brotha

  • nj0

    And the inverse – how are we always a bad baseball team again?

    I skipped lunch and my head is actually starting to hurt thinking about this too much. The A’s are arguably the best team in baseball right now and they have all of one drafted regular player on their roster.

    What’s the magic formula? What are we doing wrong? How are we always doing it wrong? How do we turn straw into gold and gold back into straw?

  • nj0

    But we did side step Ubaldo. So we’re not completely stupid. Just partly.

  • cmm13
  • mgbode

    Cespedes, Kazmir, etc. They are more magic in FA (and trades about equal I think w/o doing research).

    But yeah, baseball is a silly game. We made the playoffs last year despite all of the listed above and we could do it again next year (or this year — wild card easily in reach).
    A hot pitching streak here, a couple hot batters there and voila. Baseball is a silly game, which is why it is so fascinating.

  • The Other Tim

    Harang’s 4-4 with a 3.32????
    Because he was 3-0 with an 1.something at one point.

  • The Other Tim

    Thanks for the link. I love watching how quickly that ball leaves the yard. Made me think of Manny Ramirez.

    (I am not comparing the two players.)

  • http://www.wahoosonfirst.com Ed Carroll

    Another article lamenting the Indians not signing Nelson Cruz that also fails to mention he was tied to draft-pick compensation and his terrible defense. Blerg.

    Yeah, it’d be great to go back in time and have the team sign all the guys having grêat years. But you can’t. And it isn’t like Murphy has been crap, either.

    The Indians offense is like 5th in the AL in runs, BTW. Offense isn’t the main concern.

  • http://www.wahoosonfirst.com Ed Carroll

    You haven’t been paying attention if you think there isn’t any talent in the pipeline. Also, citing WAR totals for draftees of the last 10 years is completely irrelevant when it comes to future production of draftees.