Tribe Happenings: A realistic assessment of the Indians needs
Some news, notes and thoughts from my Indians notebook…
Assessing the Indians needs
With the offseason officially here, the Indians can now start their offseason journey to find ways to improve the roster for next season. They will surely sign several non-roster players to minor league deals with an invite to Major League spring training in order to give them some depth, but who they pick up as on a guaranteed deal to help out the Major League roster is still somewhat of a mystery.
When looking at the Indians roster and trying to assess where their needs are, here is how the four areas of the team stacks up:
1. Starting pitching: The starting pitching was a big problem in the first half of the season, but the five-man rotation of Corey Kluber, Carlos Carrasco, Danny Salazar, Trevor Bauer and T.J. House that settled in over the second half of the season ranking 2nd in all of baseball in ERA (2.95), 1st in xFIP (3.02) and 1st in WAR (11.0).
2. Relief pitching: The Indians bullpen was a solid unit all season ranking 7th in all of baseball in ERA (3.12), 5th in xFIP (3.48) and 15th in WAR (3.1). They also ranked 5th in innings pitched (513.1) and 4th in blown saves (22).
3. Offense: I have already written in depth a few weeks ago how the Indians offense was not as bad as so many think it was. Offense is down league-wide, and in comparison to the rest of the league they were a top 10-13 offense in baseball last season.
4. Defense: By contrast, the Indians were dead last in baseball ranking 30th in fielding percentage (.981), 30th in defensive runs saved (-75) and 29th in UZR/150 (-12.3).
Now that we have established where the Indians strengths and weaknesses are, let’s take a look at each unit in more detail and what the Indians may do to help that unit.
The Starting Pitching
When you look at those four areas of the team, it is clear that the strength of the team going into next season is their starting pitching. That is a great strength to have as it is often the force which guides a team through the mine field of a 162-game season and into the playoffs, though of course injuries and unexpected poor performances along the way can change things. This is why even though their starting pitching is a strength they will probably look to add some starting pitching depth this offseason.
The Indians still consider Zach McAllister as a starter and will go into spring training with him as the sixth man in the rotation to build him up and prepare him to start the season in the rotation in the event one of their main five starters gets hurt in the spring. If they are fortunate to remain healthy, then he should get the Carrasco treatment of this past season and open the season in the bullpen as a long man and extra starter because he is out of options and cannot be sent to the minors unless he is put on and clears waivers (he wouldn’t clear).
The Indians also have Josh Tomlin on hand. Provided everyone is healthy, he is set to be the Indians seventh starting pitching option and open the season at Triple-A Columbus as a Major League starting arm that can contribute if a need arises. As I have noted in previous pieces, he has options remaining and shouldn’t cost too much in salary arbitration, so he offers the Indians a decent depth option from which to pull from in the minors.
Most teams don’t have the kind of pitching depth the Indians have one through seven, but the Indians know as well as anyone that they are an injury or poor performance or two away from a very thin rotation. This is why we will probably see them make two or three minor league signings along the lines of what they did with Scott Kazmir and Aaron Harang the past few offseasons to bring in some potential depth to the rotation and give them eight or nine legit options for the starting rotation in spring training.
The bullpen was also a pretty solid unit last season; though it is clear that they could use another late inning pen arm. Some of the late season failings of the bullpen with all of the blown saves could be related to the overuse in the first half when the rotation really struggled, so the hope is that with a more consistent rotation next season that manager Terry Francona won’t have to overuse his top arms Cody Allen, Bryan Shaw and Marc Rzepczynski like he did last season.
But even if that trio manages to stay strong all season, it is clear the Indians need another arm to throw into the regular late inning rotation. Think back to their playoff season in 2013 when they had all three of Allen, Shaw and Joe Smith available to pitch any time before the ninth inning, but this season the only truly reliable available right-handed arm was Shaw because Allen was in the closer’s role, Smith left as a free agent and no other right-hander stepped up as a long term solution. Yes, Scott Atchison surprised and did well, but he’s not an arm you want to rely on next season pitching regularly in the seventh and eighth inning. His value is as a utility guy who can pitch in all roles and do a solid job.
This is where I think the Indians will look to add a piece this offseason. It won’t be a headline making move, and as one of their top pickups it will probably be shunned and ridiculed, but adding a right-handed pen arm to the late inning mix would be a smart move which would help shorten games. We already saw this past season how important the trio of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland was for the Royals as lock down late inning guys. Imagine the Indians rotation with a trio of such arms at the backend of the bullpen along with their trio of nice lefty options in Rzepczynski, Nick Hagadone and Kyle Crockett. That’s a pretty formidable pitching staff, and a deep bullpen that would give Francona a lot of options late in games.
The Indians went the free agent route to try and fill their late inning bullpen role last offseason, picking up John Axford. Proven and reliable setup men are hard to acquire via free agency as they generally cost a three year deal to sign and a good chunk of change, something that is outside of the Indians comfort zone – and rightfully so. One thing they could do is sign a reliever on a one year deal similar to Axford last year to fill the closer role and push Allen back into the more important late inning setup role; however, I think they will first look to find a controllable, proven right-handed setup man in a trade. It may be a stand alone trade, or, like with the Bauer trade that also netted Shaw, it may be as a secondary piece in a deal where they acquire a starting pitcher or bat for the lineup.
The entire Indians lineup from last season is under the Indians control for next season. Michael Bourn, Nick Swisher, Carlos Santana, Michael Brantley, Jason Kipnis, Yan Gomes and David Murphy all have guaranteed contracts for next season and/or are in the midst of long term deals. The other two regulars are Lonnie Chisenhall and Jose Ramirez, though Chisenhall is up for salary arbitration for the first time this offseason so his cost will go up.
With that in mind, there is not any room to add an everyday player unless the Indians move one of the players listed above. For different reasons, all of those players are unlikely to be dealt, be it as they are bona fide core members of the team or have contracts that are too difficult to move. But Chisenhall and Murphy are two players they could trade or manage their usage on the roster which may provide them the opportunity to pick up a bat that could be inserted into the lineup pretty regularly.
One thing to note is that the Indians like their internal options to fill third base and right field in the foreseeable future. At third base they have Giovanny Urshela ready to help them at some point next season, and Chisenhall still may end up the solution there. In right field the Indians believe that any of Carlos Moncrief, Tyler Naquin and James Ramsey could be everyday solutions for them by the end of next season, plus they have Bradley Zimmer moving fast and he could make it to the big leagues by sometime in 2016.
Knowing that, the Indians have the option of just going with Chisenhall and Murphy at their respective positions for one more season. They are solid stop gap options at each position and would allow the Indians the flexibility with the roster in order to allow themselves time to let things shake out with Urshela, Moncrief, Naquin and Ramsey next season. This is the same thing with Ramirez at shortstop where he affords them flexibility with managing when Francisco Lindor debuts in the big leagues and takes over the shortstop duties full time.
But the Indians could use a jolt to the lineup. Even with their surprising success offensively last season, anyone who watched them play on a daily basis knows they really struggled against left-handed pitching and could use a little more power and production from the right side of the batter’s box. Ryan Raburn is still on hand and expected to be on the bench, and Mike Aviles and Roberto Perez are right-handed hitters that are also expected to be a part of the bench, but the Indians could use another right-handed bat with some power to throw into the mix.
Francona has sided with an eight-man bullpen for most of his two-year tenure with the Indians, which means that only three players are on the bench. As you can see, fitting in a player on the bench is almost as hard as fitting one into the starting lineup. This is why if the Indians are able to change the dynamic of their offense some by adding a productive right-handed bat, we could see one of Chisenhall or Murphy traded, or even see Raburn released.
Who that bat may be remains to be seen, but I can tell you it won’t be Nelson Cruz, Victor Martinez or anyone else of that ilk. It will be more of the complementary variety and someone who may accept a more reduced role or someone looking to re-establish their market value.
Alex Rios is someone who interests me as such a player as he is a right-handed bat that would complement the lineup as a guy they are not relying on, but someone who may have a productive year left in his bat and also someone who can add some athleticism and a little speed to the lineup and outfield. He will be 34-years old next season and his performance has been in decline, but he is someone who probably can be signed to a one year deal for under $10 million, which would be right up the Indians alley.
Mike Morse is another guy who interests me. He’s more of a DH and someone who you really don’t want playing in the field, but the bat is interesting and productive. He will be 33-years old next season and is probably looking for a full-time playing opportunity and multi-year deal, which may make him a tougher fit for the Indians. Ryan Ludwick will also surely be on the Indians radar, but he is someone I really can’t get behind unless they are bringing him in on a minor league deal only. Also, on the trade front, someone like Scott Van Slyke could be an interesting pickup, but may not come cheap.
Moves to improve the defense don’t make headlines. Defense is just not as sexy as offense. It is kind of like teams passing on the quarterback, running back or wide receiver with a first round pick to draft an offensive lineman. We all know it is important, but we like the big splashes.
It will be interesting to see how the Indians improve their defense this offseason. Perhaps they bring back the entire lineup as-is, which would surely be better than the defensive atrocity they were the first half of last season. The in-season moves to replace Swisher at first base with Santana and Asdrubal Cabrera at shortstop with Ramirez bumped up their play signficantly defensively. I have no data to support it as Fangraphs does not offer up splits for their defensive metrics, but the eye test showed a better team defensively over the final two to three months of the season. They may have only gone from awful to slightly below average to average, but that's a big improvement nonetheless.
With Ramirez and Lindor at shortstop next season, that is a huge improvement defensively right there over the departed Cabrera. The hope is also that Kipnis will be in better shape and 100% healthy, which could bump his defensive play back to somewhere between his 2012 and 2013 levels - which would be a notable improvement. Santana really settled in at first base and proved to be at worst an adequate fielder there and even flashed above average ability, which would be an improvement. And for as shaky as Chisenhall was all season at the hot corner, he played a little better there in the second half. When looking at it, it can be argued that the Indians already made their offseason defensive improvements by making them at the midpoint of last season.
But I expect the Indians will continue to look for a way to improve the defense in a way that does not affect the timetable for Urshela, Lindor, Naquin, Ramsey and Moncrief. All of those players are plus to elite defenders at their positions, so the Indians have internal solutions to aide their defensive woes. But considering none of them are ready to contribute with their bats at the outset of next season, we could see them make a move to find a stop gap solution to shore up their defense at third base or right field.
Finding a solution at third base is tough. Free agents like Chase Headley who would be an improvement over Chisenhall will be costly as they want multi-year deals, so they really don’t fit. The trade market could be an option as David Freese may be on the market and the Angels are looking to trade him and his right-handed bat and defense at third base would be a welcomed addition. Most importantly, he is in the final year of arbitration and would be a free agent after the 2015 season, so he would fit that need as a one-year stop gap option at third base.
The outfield may be a little easier to find potential solutions. As mentioned above, Rios would not only be a good fit offensively but provided he does sign a one year deal as expected he would be a fit with the contract as well. His defense has eroded over the years, but he would be better or at worst on par with Murphy as a defender. Morse and Ludwick would hurt the Indians defensively.
A dark horse to me might be Emilio Bonifacio. He is a switch-hitter, plays good defense and is very versatile, so I could see him as a solution. In fact, that versatility where he can play third base, right field and almost anywhere on the diamond and play them well makes him a good fit on the roster; however, they already have Aviles in a similar role and he may command a multi-year deal in free agency.
Unless something falls into the Indians laps or something surprising comes up this offseason, I expect Chisenhall to open the season as the Indians third baseman. With Urshela waiting in the wings, the Indians have a potential very worthy option to replace Chisenhall at third base if he gets hurt or his defensive struggles continue.
The only possibility I see is the Indians making a trade with the Angles for Freese, which would free up Chisenhall to play more of a corner utility role as a regular player in the lineup but rotating at third base, third base, designated hitter and even right field. To acquire someone like Freese the Indians likely would have to trade Murphy in order to fit Chisenhall into the lineup.
I think adding a bat in the outfield is a more likely course of action as the pickup of Rios could move Murphy to more of a platoon or fourth outfielder role. And with the minor league options at their disposal at some point next season, they would have some good depth there.
The big move, or the move I see most likely to occur, is in the backend of the bullpen. They should go out and acquire an as-yet identified right-handed setup man in a trade, or they could go out and sign a closer to a one year deal to move Allen back into the setup role. Either way, they should add a late inning pen arm.
In the end, I predict a rather quiet offseason for the Indians. Sure, they may be tied to a few big names in the free agent and trade market, but that will be more them doing their due diligence to check into the players and how they fit with their contract demands or what their current teams wants in exchange in a trade. Outside of a few intriguing minor league starting pitching signings for depth, a late inning bullpen arm and maybe a bat like Rios, Van Slyke or Freese, that should be about it for offseason moves.
The improvement will need to come from within. We already saw that in the second half of last season as the changes to the makeup of the rotation and infield defense made them a more consistent and better team in the second half. Perhaps with a few minor moves along with some improved play by some of their core players who had down seasons this past season it is what gets them over the hump. Those internal improvements probably carry more weight than any one free agent signing they could make.
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Also, again, the offense was not the Indians biggest problem last year. In comparison to what other teams around the game scored last year, the Indians were up there. Offense is down in baseball. So we get a lot of those 2-3 run games from teams. The Indians biggest problem, by far, was their defense. I believe they have solutions in house to fix most of their defensive and offensive woes.....but they don't have an in house solution to fix their backend pen issue and also a right-handed bat to help in the outfield. That's why I expect them to go out and get a good right-handed bullpen arm and a solid right-handed bat along the lines of Rios, Morse, Van Slyke, Byrd, etc to add to right field.
I would love for CA to do something daring and take a chance w upside potential (and no, I am not talking Tyler Holt!), but there's probably two chances of that happening...I am preparing for a rather low-key Tribe winter...
Walters is someone I think could be more in the mix later in the year. He has all sorts of issues though with the bat where they are pretty well resigned to the fact that he needs to go to AAA to work on them. SO unless Aviles or Ramirez gets hurt this spring, he's going to Columbus. He has a lot of power, but is easy to pitch to right now and is going to do more harm than good until he gets that swing/approach ironed out a little more. I could see him coming up later in the year and definitely helping. The reason he was not included in the writeup is because he does not profile as an everyday player at a position. He's more of a super utility guy in the making, which is just fine considering his versatility and all that easy power.....he just needs to be a little more consistent with that approach so he is not so easy to get out.
Even given Francona's history of keeping an 8 man 'pen I think the final roster spot as it stands today comes down to having CC Lee as the 8th man out of the 'pen(the other 7 being Allen, Shaw, Crockett, Atchison, Rzepczynski, Hagadone, & McAllister) or having Walters be the 4th man on the bench.
I've never really been a Chisenhall fan, but he is far undervalued by Indians fans.
While I think the FA's mentioned in the article and even in the comments make sense as far as filling needs and fitting within the payroll and future plan, I still expect most of our improvements to come via trade this year. While I don't expect blockbuster type deals, I don't think it is out of the realm of possibility to see us involved in trade talks for some of the more coveted players this winter. We have a window of contention that exists right now and it could disappear by the time we are able to rid ourselves of the Bourn and Swisher contracts. We have more depth in our minor league system than we have had in quite a few years (by the way,ESPN had us ranked the 15th best farm system in baseball in a recent insider article). Regardless of whether or not it is a major trade we're looking at, we are going to need to move some of that depth at some point either this season or next, and there are definitely a number of guys rumored to be available right now that could push us over the edge. I try my best to be realistic about what to expect in the offseason, but I have a feeling we will at least be entertained with more excitement this winter than most people think. Whether it be actual deals or just rumors, I expect us to be busy.
On a different note, who are some of the FA options for us as far as starting pitching is concerned? That is the one area that I know will be covered via FA, and now that Callaway has proven himself to be a master of his craft, it is actually one of the more exciting parts of the offseason for me. Who is the next reclamation project for Callaway to tune up? There are always some guys with high upside who end up signing for league minimum or accepting a minor league deal. Brandon Morrow was mentioned by someone, but despite how much I would love to sign him, he will end up being too costly and his injury history presents quite a risk for a team with limited resources like us. Who is out there though?
This is a good team. Not much, if anything, really different about this team than the Giants and Royals. Those two teams just played better defense and had a stronger backend of the pen. The Indians rotation is better than theirs though. Should be interesting to see if they have health how this team pitches next year. They are the envy of a lot of teams right now.
And I don't subscribe to the belief of the "if they don't get a bat they will suck" crowd. As I have said several times, sure, they can use another bat to boost the offense. What team wouldn't. But when you look at their team from this past season they did enough offensively to win.....it was the defense and late inning relief that ultimately let them down. Get me a late inning pen arm to shore up the bullpen and a RHed bat with good platoon splits against lefties....and I am satisfied. Satisfied only because I understand that the guys we would all want to be gone just can't be traded right now.
How about Cory Hart he had a rough year but could have a bounce back year and could be cheap.
McAllister may very well end up as a pen arm later in the year, but going into next season he is still a starter. Tons more value there, and even if he were a full time reliever now he could not be relied upon going into the season to fill a backend pen need. They need to go outside the organization for that guy.
I agree that the starters look good, the bullpen needs another late-inning arm (RH), and the lineup need a right-handed hitter. The Tribe was 14th out of 15 teams in OPS against LH pitching last year (the Tigers were first btw). That's not good enough. *Maybe* Swisher and Raburn can bounce back and provide some punch from the right side, but I'm not very optimistic about that. Notably missing from this article is Mr. Jesus Aguilar. I'm not sure how or where, but I for one think its possible that we could see him come on as an impact bat next year.
Re other RH hitters, I'm not a fan of Alex Rios, Morse or Bonifacio, but do kinda like the idea of Freese.
Mainly, while I do think that there are some talented players coming up in the next few years and that we should give them every possible chance to succeed, I hope that Antonetti is more aggressive then you are expecting...
JB Shuck was claimed by the WSox off waivers
Chris Gimenez out righted off 40 man roster
Tyler Cloyd resigned to minor league deal with ST invite
A few moves Id like to see...
Trade David Murphy for a minor league prospect
Trade Mike Aviles for a minor league prospect.
Sign Alex Rios 2yrs/ $18M (w/option)
Sign KRod for 2yrs/ $15M (w/option)
Sign Emilio Bonificio 2yrs/ $6M (w/option)
Moves I think we could see...
Trading for David Freese
Trading for Scott Van Slyke